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  • The Early Church: Origins to the Dawn of the Middle Ages
  • Mark Gustafson
E. Glenn Hinson. The Early Church: Origins to the Dawn of the Middle Ages. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996. Pp. 365. $18.95 (pb).

The need for a new basic textbook on the early church is clear. Two of the most widely used books, by Henry Chadwick and W. H. C. Frend, both eminent scholars of early Christianity, have served long and well in their ways, but suffer increasingly from the passage of time. Hinson (H.) seems to aim at such an opening. While he is not explicit about the overall purpose of the book, his intended audience, or the methodology employed, this is clearly a historical [End Page 327] introduction aimed at the “general reader.” It neither presumes much, nor does it burden the reader with footnotes or other (possibly intimidating) scholarly apparatus.

H.’s book is very detailed and covers a vast amount of material. The overarching structure is chronological, divided into five sections: “The Beginnings to 70 C.E.”; “Into All the World 70–180 C.E.”; “New Status 175–313 C.E.”; “Christianizing an Empire 313–400 C.E.”; and “Dividing Worlds 400–600 C.E.” Within this framework he uses a thematic approach (labelled “socioinstitutional” on the back cover) that means to focus on “ordinary” Christians, an objective that seems altogether sensible.

Of course, a book such as this must necessarily select and omit, simplify and generalize, and skim the surface of many important and complex matters. Even afforded these allowances, however, H. unfortunately fails to deliver the expected goods. The problems with this book are manifold, though they may be divided, for convenience’s sake, into problems of structure, presentation, and content.

Structure first. The result of H.’s attempt to present material both chronologically and thematically—although a virtual necessity in a book of this kind—is a glut of repetition. At various points a list of sorts is compiled, detailing the state of the church in its development, repeating all that has been said earlier and then adding what is new. The effect of such zeal is confusion rather than clarity, and elicits a cry for Occam’s razor.

As for presentation, the writing is marred by many infelicities, by awkwardness of expression, and by nagging inconsistencies. One example of the latter is the treatment of the barbarian “invasions.” Sometimes “invasion” is surrounded by quotation marks—to indicate that this is the traditional term, better understood as “migration”—while at other times the quotation marks are absent (as is also, apparently, the preferred understanding of the term). In addition, the author exhibits a penchant for cute, often alliterative section headings, e.g.: “Victorious Victims,” “Septimius Severus’s Severity,” “Decius’s Devastation,” “Valerian’s Vindictiveness,” “Evangelizing the Empire,” “Changing Churches,” “Buildings! Buildings!” The effect is both cloying and annoying (if not contagious).

Finally, the book’s shortcomings are most evident at the level of content. If H. intends a new introduction to early church history, where are the benefits of new knowledge? Of the paltry fourteen secondary works in the bibliography, the two most recent are twenty years old, and most of the rest significantly earlier. Is the hapless “general reader” to assume that not much has been learned recently in the study of the early Christianity and late antiquity? Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. (It should be noted that this portion of the bibliography includes “secondary works cited in the text only.” But if H. has made any good use of important recent scholarship without citation, the fruits of such labor are not apparent.) An extraordinary number of primary sources are also listed, whose words are usually taken at face value in the text, and whose abundance—viewed next to the scarcity of secondary sources—might be perceived as indicative of a wish somehow to rise above the need for modern [End Page 328] opinions. Furthermore, and largely attributable to this major fault, historical inaccuracies and hackneyed misconceptions are rampant. H. seems eager to view Christianity in its wider context of the Roman world, but his account of the latter is grossly distorted and...

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