- The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity by Guy G. Strousma
The voice of Guy Stroumsa is a distinctive one in late antique studies. An historian of religions with a taste for comparatism, whose long and very distinguished career at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has taken in Harvard, Paris, and Oxford too, he has fashioned a scholarly idiom in which the parts of philosophy, philology, and social anthropology are nearly inextricable, and written a string of books—several, like this one, compiled from separately published essays—that set the "Christianity" of (late) antiquity at strange and challenging angles to modern observers. Expanding the chapter on "L'essor des religions du Livre" in his 2004 lectures at the Collège de France, La Fin du sacrifice: Les mutations religieuses de l'Antiquité tardive (2005), his new book offers a mise au point on issues of canon, scripture and ancient religious community that have occupied him for more than two decades and to which he brings a combined expertise in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions that few can match. The chapter-titles encapsulate some of the liveliest fields of current discussion (e.g., "Scripture and Culture," "The New Self and Reading Practices," "Communities of Knowledge," "Scriptural and Personal Authority"). The claim advanced overall is a diagrammatic blend of theses that his and others' work over the past thirty years or so has helped to accredit (and variously put in question). In the course of what he calls "a double paradigm shift," the mainstreaming of Christian beliefs and practices under the Roman Empire would have promoted a religious use of books that produced a transformation of culture in the widest sense. Stroumsa's "scriptural universe of ancient Christianity" is a late spin-off of MacLuhan's "Gutenberg Galaxy," the creation—and mover—of "a revolution in literate culture" (1) as dramatic as the one subsequently made possible by the invention of movable type. Because on his model "books were to literate culture what sacrifices were to religion," the "new official [i.e., Roman, imperially sanctioned] belief in a revealed scripture impacted upon the attitude to books in general." Hence, with some raising of explanatory stakes: "the conversion of the Roman world [understand: its conversion not only to Christianity but also, through Christianity, to a form of culture that would be essentially post-classical and continuous with that or those of later periods of civilization] may be traced to the codex" (3). [End Page 515]
This book is best taken, as its author recommends, "as a historiographical essay" or "second-order reflection" on the issues (9). The endnotes supply generous and critically evaluative reading-lists and frequent hints for further research. Although the chapters can be read seriatim at a sitting, each is most effective as a distinct provocation, testable against the reader's own choice of texts and in the light of a particular field-expertise. The work is not structured as an unfolding argument and any attempt to discern one is likely to be frustrated. Whereas the author's engagements with scholarship are usually instructive even when they stray from the point, he takes most of his source-material for granted. (Augustine gets separate billing at pp. 59–70 but cannot hold the focus.) The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity is not one of those books that gets comfortably tied up in details while leaving critical questions of perspective (or theory) unaddressed. If some of its own major inferences and conclusions prove fragile and short-lived, that will be partly because of the cosmic energy that it has brought to the debate.
A short review can offer only a taste of conversations to come. The foregoing summary has already highlighted two leading topics. Who are the agents of the large-scale "religious" and/or "cultural" change in question? And how does the codex format play into that change?
Stroumsa's is a "scriptural universe of ancient Christianity" without Big Bang theory or alternative creation story. Discursively, it comes into being as a substitute for the concept of a...