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The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries Hardcover – 4 Jan 1994


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  • Hardcover: 286 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Printing edition (4 Jan 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300056400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300056402
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 2.7 x 16 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 460,108 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Kurt Messick HALL OF FAME on 7 Mar 2005
Format: Paperback
Wayne Meeks presented a brilliant work on the development of the earliest Christian communities during the apostolic and post-apostolic period, as Christianity took root in the ancient city setting of the Roman Empire, in his work `The First Urban Christians' (my review will be coming soon!). In this, the follow-up volume, `The Origins of Christian Morality' explores the deepening development of community and identity of these early Christians as they worked to remain a faithful remnant in a sometimes-hostile world. Meeks is the Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies at Yale University, with a great deal of scholarly experience that he brings to the questions of the origins of Christian morality.
In this book, Meeks has presented `an ecology of moral notions'. This is not a guidebook to state in unambiguous terms questions of present-day moral questions. For reasons explained early, Meeks avoids that kind of question because the question can usually be framed by parameters that pre-suppose the answer.
Also, Meeks avoids the term `New Testament ethics' for some particular reasons. Firstly, the early church did not have a New Testament -- the collection of writings we have come to accept as the New Testament had not been collected and recognised as a single body of writings during the first, second and third centuries after the time of Christ, the time during which Christian views of morality were being formed.
Morality is also discussed, rather than ethics, because ethics tends to be a second-order reflection on morality. This is not what was occurring generally or primarily at this time.
In a unique feature, Meeks gives a brief summary, an almost Cliff-notes-lite, of each of the chapters in his Introduction.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By E. Clarke on 23 Dec 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is amazing how the later Christians just took over Greek middle class morality and called it Christian. This book gives the detail, referring Classical moralists and Paul's letters largely, but also showing a close knowledge of all the Classical and early Christian sources. It is a bit disappointing how quickly the citizens of the new Christian Roman Empire defused the message of Christ in the sermon on the mount and made Christian morality a matter of either sexual abstinence (for the Church elite) or a well ordered patriarchal household, giving no cause for comment to the neighbours. Did Christ have to die for this?
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Amazon.com: 6 reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Why do we do what we do? 26 May 2003
By FrKurt Messick - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Wayne Meeks presented a brilliant work on the development of the earliest Christian communities during the apostolic and post-apostolic period, as Christianity took root in the ancient city setting of the Roman Empire, in his work `The First Urban Christians' (my review will be coming soon!). In this, the follow-up volume, `The Origins of Christian Morality' explores the deepening development of community and identity of these early Christians as they worked to remain a faithful remnant in a sometimes-hostile world. Meeks is the Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies at Yale University, with a great deal of scholarly experience that he brings to the questions of the origins of Christian morality.
In this book, Meeks has presented `an ecology of moral notions'. This is not a guidebook to state in unambiguous terms questions of present-day moral questions. For reasons explained early, Meeks avoids that kind of question because the question can usually be framed by parameters that pre-suppose the answer.
Also, Meeks avoids the term `New Testament ethics' for some particular reasons. Firstly, the early church did not have a New Testament -- the collection of writings we have come to accept as the New Testament had not been collected and recognised as a single body of writings during the first, second and third centuries after the time of Christ, the time during which Christian views of morality were being formed.
Morality is also discussed, rather than ethics, because ethics tends to be a second-order reflection on morality. This is not what was occurring generally or primarily at this time.
In a unique feature, Meeks gives a brief summary, an almost Cliff-notes-lite, of each of the chapters in his Introduction. He traces his development chapter by chapter, highlighting each main point and its connection to the overall theme of the origins of Christian morality as well as the progression through sociology, politics, philosophy, and theology. Meeks admits to being less than systematic in approach, yet this is reflective of the subject. Christian morality did not evolve in a coherent and orderly fashion. It continues to be polyphonic to this day, with varying degrees of acceptance and intolerance by individuals and communities in the name of a 'purer' morality.
`Obviously there can be no community and no tradition if everything is permitted ('All things are lawful, but not all things build up'), and therefore there can be no community without some degree of coercion. Yet unity coerced is unstable ('For why is my freedom judged by a conscience not mine?')'
Unlike today, early Christianity was primarily a religion of converts. Today, most Christians of most denominations are born into the community of people and of thought. This was untrue in the time of the apostles, and continued to be untrue for several hundred years, even after Christianity became the religion of the establishment. Conversion was usually a social act, something done in public, and something that would have public consequences.
How the public Christian world-view intersects and coincides with the outside (some might say, secular) world has always been a problem, from these earliest times to the present (Augustine works with the idea, but only briefly, in his massive description of the City of God centuries after the period Meeks, investigates; H. Richard Niebuhr was still wrestling with the problem in the twentieth century).
There is a tendency to continue ancient heresies today without realising they are such. In his chapter `Loving and Hating the World', Meeks investigates some of the gnostic divisions (the material world is evil inherently, once declared a heresy but which continues to pop up in practical theology of various Catholic and Protestant thinkers). In the following chapter, `The Language of Obligation', Meeks presents lists of vices and virtues, commands, actions, and the way in which these concepts are dealt with, in the attribution of authority (or lack thereof) and the desirability/requirement of deliberate practice. Meeks states that no list is present as exhaustive in the positive or the negative -- even the sum total leaves important things out on both listing of virtue and vice. There is no definitive list for all early Christians. This made formulating a way of discovering right belief and practice all the more important.
In the chapter `History, Pluralism and Morality', Meeks outlines particular theses toward understanding the original concepts of Christian morality:
Thesis 1 -- Making morals and making community are one, dialectical process.
Thesis 2 -- A Christian moral community must be grounded in the past
Thesis 3 -- The church's rootage in Israel is a privileged dimension of its past.
Thesis 4 -- Faithfulness ought not be confused with nostalgia.
Thesis 5 -- Christian ethics must be polyphonic.
Thesis 6 -- Moral confidence, not moral certainty, is what we require.
Thesis 7 -- God tends to surprise.
There is no definitive ending to this book -- just as Christian belief and practice has continued to evolve, so to is it impossible to come to a definitive statement about all-encompassing Christian normative standards at any given point even near the beginnings of the religion, and particularly before the canon of the scriptures have been determined.
Perhaps Meeks' Theses 6 and 7 are the most important for us today. The determination of moral confidence with the understanding that God continues to act in our lives and in our world can both reassure and comfort us in the knowledge of God's love and protection, as well as the recognition that in a world in which people have been given freedom of action, God's own freedom can occasionally (or perhaps even frequently) surprise us.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Christianity: Re-socialization as a modality of moral rebirth 22 July 2012
By Herbert L Calhoun - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Wayne Meeks weaves together here a stunningly beautiful analytic framework that makes use of the theoretical thrust of one of my intellectual heroes, Anthropologist Clifford Geertz: It is that morality is primarily a cultural affair that grows out of the "thick descriptions" of the ethos of particular communities. Therefore, to understand large heavily freighted concepts like morality requires understanding the framework of interpretative complexity of the ethno-cultural concerns of the groups that surrounds them. The group in question in this case is early Christians. This book thus sketches out what happened during the first two centuries of Christianity. In what can only be called an ethnography of Christianity, Meeks traces out the beginnings of an intricate fabric of perceptions, beliefs, rituals, practices and interpretations that, over two millennia have come to be what we now recognize as Christian morality.

While the author claims that his sketch is not in pursuit of a quest to discover "a system of principles" on which Christian ethics is based, it does indeed go a very long way towards that particular goal; and indeed what we have here certainly is a bit more than the author's modest self-description of just being "an exploration into moral notions."

For my own work, which is an analysis of why racism in America is so persistent, this analysis provides a robust set of training wheels, a "training template" as it were, since it too focuses on culture, ethnicity, and then morality - all key variables in any deep analysis of racism. A bonus in my case is that American racism occurs in an ostensible Christian culture.

Here we see a high-level professional theorist at work doing what he does best, analyzing how the language, symbols, rituals, political context and inner understandings of the early Christians came to become a moral system that has lasted for more than two millennia.

What I like most about this book is the care with which the author developed his analytic framework on the front end, and then allowed it to do all of the heavy lifting of his analysis, on the back end. By the time the reader has completed the very comprehensive and detailed introduction, he already knows that this book is going to be one seminal theoretical ride. And for me, that indeed was the case.

Even as an ex-Christian, I know the Christian story well: God's anointed son was shamefully crucified, but the shame was reversed by raising him from the dead and installing him as the "king of Kings" and Lord of the universe. This new movement spoke the language of myth and cultivated habits of good character that would eventually lead to habits of and a system of morality.

What was different about Christianity that made it a dominant force as the religious dust settled on the Roman Empire is this: Christians, for the first time with any religious sect, self-consciously saw themselves committed to a kind of behaviorial program that elevated themselves as well as humankind. It is often forgotten that the early Christians did not have a "book of ethics," or that "the ethics of the New Testament" came about much later. Their plan was based on "the best practices" extant in the cultures they were situated in at the time. It goes without saying that this cultural milieu was primarily Jewish, and even where it was not Jewish, it was heavily influenced by Jewish religious scholarship. Despite this the pro to-Christians were the first to render morality a self-conscious group enterprise connected to their behavior as a religious sect. For, as the author notes, biblical texts do not have ethics, only people do.

And therein lies the key: morality is not and has never been an individual enterprise, but a community enterprise acquired by the individual either through socialization or re-socialization. Christians were among the first religious sects to engage in re-socialization marked off by the single ritual of baptism. The purpose of baptism was the moral rebirth of a new convert.

The book closes with a summary of the seven theses covered in the penultimate chapter. Of these, Thesis 1 ("Making morals and making community are one dialectic process"); thesis 4 ("Faithfulness ought not to be confused with nostalgia"), and thesis 5, ("Christian Ethics must be polyphonous"), appear to me to be the most potent of the lot.

In the first instance, since no community is all good and can improve itself through dialogue, forging Christian morals is, per necessity, a dialectic process. Secondly, it is indeed a mistake to imagine that there was once a golden era of Christianity. Jesus did not arrive in Galilee with a fully formed Christian ethic, since there were only proto-Christians in existence at that time. But more importantly, it was also true because Christian morals (as did Christian unity), evolved through social coercion and by the process of trial and error over time. And finally, both Christian morals and Christian unity were the product of a kind of "common sense" that Geertz equates with constituting or with being coterminous with culture itself.

For Christians and non-Christians alike this treatise represents the best in scholarship of any kind, as well as the ring of truth. Five Stars
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Building a Grammar of Ancient Christian Moral Practice 20 Jun 2012
By A Certain Bibliophile - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Constructing the moralities and ethical sensibilities of people is always difficult, especially when you're at a remove of about twenty centuries, yet this is what Wayne Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies at Yale University, does in "The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries."

Some of the things Meeks looks at won't surprise people, but the depth and breadth of the readings that he can bring to the conversation is striking. He discusses conversion and how it always emphasizes both the personal and the communal, breaking away from a wider community and joining a more "select" one. He looks at some of the conversion stories, like Justin Martyr's "Dialogue with Trypho," as a way of trying to concretize this change of a primary reference group. By emphasizing the world from which they turned, new Christians (mostly Jews, but later Gentiles, too) also serve to provide exhortatory stories of the morality of the new group itself.

Another common topic in early Christian morality is whether we should come to love or hate the world. By looking at a variety of texts, including Gnostic, Pauline, and Johannine, he shows how they all give different advice about how connected we should be to the world. In John, for example, the goal was not what Meeks calls "philosophical high-mindedness," but the cultivation of "a passionate, sectarian, practical love that binds members to the group exclusively to one another and to the God they believe in" (p. 61). Gnostics, on the other hand, were often accused of being ascetics who hated the world because of the way they wanted to escape the creation of the Demiurge.

Meeks includes a fascinating section on the specific language of Christian obligation, and how those took certain literary forms. Christian moral practice took a number of shapes, some of which were quite simply lists of dos and don'ts, while others included gnomes (gnomia in Greek, sententiae in Latin) which were collected aphorisms or witty maxims. Still others were moral imperatives (precepts and commands), or discussions of certain topics and commonplaces (like "on friendship" or "on the family"). Meeks composes a grammar of moral obligation through these forms and how they are connected with some schools of Hellenistic philosophy. He goes on to discuss similar topics in the following chapters, including "The Body as Sign and Problem," "A Life Worthy of God," "Senses of an Ending," "The Moral Story," and "History, Pluralism, and Christian Morality."

I really took a lot away from this book, and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the first two centuries of Christian ethics, especially with an emphasis on the development of moral communities. It's a scholarly book, with no hint of an agenda that we usually associate with books on subjects like this. As you might be able to tell from my discussion above, Meeks arranges his discussion topically, making use of the appropriate texts as he goes along. He also writes in the best of ethnographic traditions, with a thorough, rigorous knowledge of the material and an objective, concerted effort to better understand his subjects.
7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Origins of Christian Morality 13 April 2009
By Gerard Reed - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
A professor of biblical studies at Yale University, Wayne A. Meeks, published The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, c. 1993). Disavowing the possibility of discerning answers to specific questions regarding issues such as abortion, war, or sexual behavior, Meeks seeks to discover what Peter Brown calls "the ecology of moral notions," a kind of collective climate which shaped the ethos and ethics of primitive Christians.
While many of us have thought the Early Church mainly focused on doctrine, as formulated by Councils in Creeds, Meeks says the thing that distinguished Christians in the ancient world was their morality. Many of us, naively reading documents such as St Clement of Rome's Letter to the Corinthians or the epistles of St Ignatius of Antioch, have thought the Early Church was uniquely attuned to the Risen Lord Jesus giving eternal life to His followers through Baptism and Eucharist. Many of us, taking at face value admonitions in second century documents such as the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and Tertullian's works, have imagined those ancient believers, as a consequence of coming to know Christ Jesus in His saving, sanctifying power, followed a moral code which was quite specific concerning such items as abortion and divorce. But if Meeks is right, apparently we've been wrong!
To understand his conclusions it's important to note his methodology. To do this, it's instructive to follow his reading of Aristides, an Athenian who was one of the earliest apologists. By way of defending the faith, Meeks says Aristides wrote "an apology in the form of comparative ethnography--capitalizing on the fad for comparing customs and religions that was prominent in the age of Hadrian--and he has made morality the centerpiece of his idealized description" (p. 9).
Consulting Aristides' Apology, however, I discover that only one-nineteenth of the treatise is devoted to morality! Much attention is given to refuting polytheism, pointing out the reasonableness of monotheism. Aristides strongly asserts his faith in Christ, giving a creedal-style affirmation concerning His divine nature. Certainly he does, in short slice of his treatise, point to the Christians' high moral standards as a validation for the faith. It is, however, less than self-evident that Aristides "made morality the centerpiece of his idealized description." Endeavoring to prove his case, Meeks also notes the "kinship language---calling one another 'brother,' 'sister,' 'parent,' 'child,' a practice to which Aristides alludes--pictures the displacement of the natural family by new relationships and obligations" (p. 12). (That conclusion would have astounded the Nazarenes I knew as a youth, for we all called one another "brother" and "sister" without in the least imagining that displaced our natural families! In fact, I cannot imagine anything more factually flawed than such a judgment!)
I stress Meeks' use of Aristides simply to show how he constructs a questionable case, both in his selective use of evidence and his understanding of religious communities. However, as long as one reads with reservations, aware of the thesis Meeks seeks to develop, much may be learned from this text. Suitably forewarned, let's consider his case. He focuses on the moral implications of conversion. Baptism symbolized the cleansing from moral filth and the emergence of a new creature attuned to a higher ethic. Believers were frequently reminded of their obligation to be true to their baptismal vows. This meant they lived in a world they both loved and hated, seeking to embrace it as God's creation while drawing apart from its evils. They talked much of virtues and vices, using the "language of obligation." Such virtues and vices sound much like those celebrated by non-Christian philosophers, yet the Christians seemed to think their way of life superior. This puzzles Meeks, so he declares "what made the difference must have been principally the context" (p. 84), their "context," their concern for God, Christ, and Scripture. To live a life worthy of God, to do His will, certainly dominated much Christian discourse. According to Plutarch, Plato insisted "that God . . . offers himself to all as a pattern of every excellence, thus rendering human virtue, which is in some sort an assimilation to himself, accessible to all who can 'follow God'" (p. 150). Wher¬eas not many pagans could testify to such "assimilation," Christians declared they could, through Christ, know God and do His will.
In his final chapter, Meeks makes proposals for modern Christians. He sets forth seven theses. First, "Making morals and making community are one, dialectical process" (p. 213). Moral convictions emerge from communal life, not inherited rules or rational reflection. This is, clearly, Meeks' view, but I do not find it validated in the greatest of the Church Fathers who took injunctions in the Ten Commandments and Sermon on the Mount as timeless truths to follow. Second, "A Christian community must be grounded in the past" (p. 214). Unlike Marcion, early Christians found Hebrew scriptures and tradition extremely helpful in casting moral codes. Third, "The church's rootage in Israel is a privileged dimension of its past" (p. 214). The limits of Judaism were expanded and transformed by early Christians.
Fourth, "Faithfulness ought not be confused with nostalgia" (p. 215). This explains Meeks' view that we cannot construct a New Testament ethic, that answers to questions such as abortion which sufficed in earlier eras cannot be repeated in ours. What seems problematic to me, however, is the notion that firm principles, convictions concerning right and wrong behavior, are nostalgic rather than normative. Fifth, "Christian ethics mast be polyphonic" (p. 216). Even in ethics, diversity must be respected and celebrated! To one who knows how intensely the Early Church contended for unity, demanding consensus concerning faith and morals, Meeks' celebration of "polyphony" smacks more of modernity's infatuation with "pluralism" than historical truth.
Sixth, "Moral confidence, not moral certainty, is what we require" (p. 217). Do what seems right, knowing it may be wrong! Seventh, "God tends to surprise" (p. 218). The "faithful hermeneutic of the Pauline kind," Meeks thinks, encourages us to cheerfully engage in "the process of inventing Christian--and human--morality" (p. 219). Again, Meeks manages to outfit a "Christian" attire in modern clothing, put together a "Christian" attire which looks quite modern, but I find little evidence that such relativism permeated the Early Church.
Meeks clearly shares some of the teleological views of Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the most influential contemporary ethicists, who argues (in works such as After Virtue) that moral convictions emerge in communities, enabling them to function smoothly, and slowly change with changing conditions. Those of us who advocate more of a natural law or divine law approach find MacIntyre (and thus Meeks) at times too relativistic and situational.
Five Stars 23 July 2014
By Emily Payne - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Fascinating reading for those interested in how Christian morality developed in the early centuries.
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