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The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology)
The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology)
by Susan Ashbrook Harvey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £120.00

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars By far the best general introduction, 16 Sep 2008
`Early Christian Studies' have flourished in recent years so this Handbook in the Oxford Series has been long awaited. I have been rather disappointed by the conservatism of some of the other Oxford Handbooks on Christianity but this is the first I have been able to read in depth. I don't know what methods the editors, Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David Hunter, used to get their distinguished authors in line but they did the job exceptionally well. Each essay reviews traditional approaches to its subject, explains present controversies, with good references to the contestants, and explores areas of future research. I was absorbed by the quality and depth of many of the articles. In particular, I felt that, in contrast to the other Handbooks, many students would be enthused with the possibilities of future research. Virtully every theme was shown to be in a state of flux with lots of opportunity for further development. The tone was well set by Karen King's `Which Early Christianity?' In comparison to introductory works on theology which still tend to present Nicene orthodoxy as the only defensible solution, this Handbook continually stresses that solutions to theological and liturgical were provisional, swayed by wider social and cultural contexts. For the breadth of approach, variety of subjects, and expert analysis this is a five star introduction.

It seems churlish to introduce some concerns. The editors define their subject as covering the years 100 -600 AD. This is conventional, and the Handbook of Biblical Studies covers the earlier period, but surely students an expect a volume of this title to start with the birth of Jesus, to deal with the earliest Christianity, Paul and the gospel writers.The break at 100 AD seems increasingly to be indefensible (especially at a hardback price of £85 a volume!).

I also missed an historical survey of the period. The thematic approach worked very well with most subjects but a student without a broader knowledge of the Greco-Roman empire would often have been lost. In some cases bibliographies were immense- the excellent article by Daniel Sheerin on `Eucharistic Liturgy' has fourteen pages of bibliography (remember that this is only one of 48 articles ) - if these had been cut to seven and these and pages from other extensive bibliographies released for a history the volume would have been given greater coherence. Even something as basic as a list of emperors, most of whom make guest appearances in several different articles but without their dates, would have been helpful. Although some articles, H.A. Drake on `Church and Empire', for instance, stress the dramatic break brought about by Constantine, this is often obscured in other articles.

Christian emperors and their role are not well dealt with. There are a few references to Theodosius I but it is impossible to make much of Theodosius II ( see Fergus Millar's excellent, A Greek Roman Empire, Power and Belief under Theodosius II, University of California Press, 2006, which shows how important his religious policy was) or Justinian from the scattered references. Again trying to find,through the index, popes, papacy (no references for either), Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, leads to very little solid. I missed something comprehensive on Augustine (Carol Harrison would have been an ideal choice of author). There are good discussions of De Doctrina Christiana and the Pelagian disputes but nothing comprehensive on Augustine's `achievement' and legacy. One searched in vain in the index for `predestination' and, more surprisingly, `faith'. There is the odd mention of `faith' in individual artcles but none detailed enough to be chosen for indexing. Again there was no reference to the emerging doctrine of hell/eternal punishment, surely one of the most enduring legacies in Christian thought. (Not a single index entry for 'heaven', 'hell' or even 'afterlife' when the way that Christians conceived these is surely an essential part of the story.) I expected a survey on the controversies over the resurrection of the body, but again there was no index reference. (In contrast there were no less than twenty-five SUBHEADINGS for `asceticism'.)

These concerns seem minor in view of what has been achieved by this book. I have spent two hours a day (siesta time in a very hot Rome!) for ten days, reading it and I hardly ever failed to be interested. A paperback edition as soon as possible, please, OUP! If somehow an historical overview- even a timeline- could be added, so much the better.

Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life
Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life
by Sari Nusseibeh
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An essential book., 20 Oct 2007
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I used to teach a course on the politics of the Middle East. If I was doing so again I would make two books compulsory reading, Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness and Sari Nusseibeh's Once Upon a Country. Both show individuals who are deeply rooted in their respective cultures caught up in the maelstrom which saw the birth of modern Israel. Nusseibeh's family have been connected to Jerusalem for some 1,300 years and much of this memoir is an account of how his heritage has been fragmented by Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. Yet whatever the pressures on him from Israelis and radical Palestinians he has tried to keep a dialogue open centred not just on his own humanity but on the assumption that both sides stand to benefit from a fair peace. Philosophical (in both the academic and emotional sense), quirky at times, a real one-off he shows how it was and is possible to survive with ideals intact, despite everything that the croneyism of Arafat and the aggressive settlement policy of Sharon did to undermine them.
Both Judaism and Islam have made immense contributions to cultural and intellectual life over the centuries and perhaps the low point of the book comes with Sharon's attempt to drive his notorious concrete wall through the middle of the Palestinian university of which Nusseibeh was President. To her credit Condoleezza Rice finally put pressure on her Israeli allies to build the wall elsewhere (it was a pity she did not go further and stop it altogether). I hope she and the fellow members of her government have time to read this book, not only to understand how an ancient culture has been crushed but to absorb its central message that both sides will gain from a fair peace. It needs the courage of a Nusseibeh to keep the flame alive.
Anyone reading this book will want to pay tribute to Nusseibeh's English-born wife Lucy who kept the family together at times of tension and danger and who has made her own contributions to the search for non-violent solutions of the conflict.

From Heaven to Arcadia: The Sacred and the Profane in the Renaissance (New York Review Collections)
From Heaven to Arcadia: The Sacred and the Profane in the Renaissance (New York Review Collections)
by Ingrid D. Rowland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.79

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarship at its best., 16 Oct 2007
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Ingrid Rowland deserves to be more widely read in the United Kingdom. She combines searching scholarship with an appreciation of the importance of maintaining a humane understanding of intellectual issues. This selection of essays, from the New York Review of Books, is a good starting place. (It is a pity that so many of her other works are so expensive!) Here she explores the complexity of the Renaissance and its interaction of 'sacred' and 'profane' as the finest minds and artists of the period grappled with the reappearance of the classical past. As someone who loves Rome, I am so pleased she is settled there at the American School to keep us up to date with the way the city's relationship with its past is evolving.

The God Delusion
The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

51 of 70 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Broaden your horizons!, 4 Sep 2007
This review is from: The God Delusion (Paperback)
For this reader/viewer, the Dawkins dream ( and I had much enjoyed much of his earlier work) came to an end with his disastrous television programme on religion. One simply hoped for something a bit more reflective and sophisticated. It perhaps was not Dawkins' fault that he became caught up in the general dumbing down in the way TV programmes are presented but it certainly did his reputation as an intellectual no favours. The God Delusion is better than that but it still becomes tedious in its relentless and often poorly organised assault on religion. (Come back Edward Gibbon with your marvellous prose and ordered narrative of events :everything is forgiven!) To give him credit, Dawkins is the first atheist I have read to tackle the 'logic' of the Christian rationalist Richard Swinburne but I had read much more sophisticated critiques of Swinburne from Christian sources.
When I finished The God Delusion, searching as I went along for something I had not read somewhere else before, I felt what now - what are we to do next? The only help Dawkins gives us is his New Ten Commandments (page 298). This is where he lost me- what is the point of criticising one lot of Commandments and encouraging people to think for themselves if you simply produce ten more Commandments. Why not `Guides for Living' instead of `Commandments'? Didn't Dawkins spot the problem of replacing one set of orders by another set of orders? And they are hardly distinctively atheist. Take number Four 'Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted. ' I can't think of many in the Catholic Church who would not sign up to that and they have the sacrament of confession to prove it. (The problem is, of course, whose definition of evil?) It is his lack of intellectual sophistication as soon as he moves beyond science that diminishes his work. Anyone with a background in political or moral philosophy would find his 'Commandments' impossibly naive.
The difficulty that anyone writing and preaching ( whether from an atheist or religious point of view, preaching seems the right word here for both)has in this field lies in pinning down what religious belief is. I think Dawkins has been unfairly criticised for picking out the easy targets. Although there IS too much of this in this work, he does penetrate more deeply into mainstream beliefs. The problem is that religion is as much an activity as a set of beliefs- many of these activities involve people congregating, offering important rituals to celebrate births, marriages and even the celebration of people's lives after they have gone. These do not have to be tied in with a particular religion - I have presided over a humanist funeral myself - but one does need to realise that for many people these activities give meanings which are independent of actual belief. One reason why Dawkins is often so unsatisfying is that most people are religious without having much knowledge of what they are supposed to believe- that is not what they are after. Inevitably they make fools of themselves when they are questioned specifically about belief. All those hundreds of people gathering together in the vast halls of the Christian evangelicals are not just there because they have been brainwashed into irrational beliefs but because they are looking for drama, human contact, being told ,in an otherwise cold society or family,perhaps, that they are loved. One cannot just say that they are silly- in a sense they may be making a rational choice to attend in that the alternatives of staying at home are worse! What exactly does atheism offer people such as these? The fact that every society seems to have religious rituals shows that just saying one should be atheist is naive. And whatever Dawkins does to defend 'atheist' societies, one does feel there might just be a link between the banning of religion in the Soviet Union and the unquestioning adulation of that Father of the Nation, Josef Stalin. (See Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers for a discussion in this topic in the 19th century . Attacks on religion by the atheist French revolutionaries ended up in a new religion, it even had its own altars, of the fatherland imposed by terror.) All these issues seem beyond Dawkins' horizon but they do need to be thought about.
I suddenly realised what I was missing. Julian Huxley's Essays of a Humanist came out in 1964 - Huxley was Director General of UNESCO and a convinced humanist. ( I prefer 'humanist' because that tells one what one is for, while 'atheist' tells one little more than what one is against-and all too often leaves it there.) I read the essays when I was 21 and the feelings they inspired are still with me, nearly forty years later (so much so that I recently tracked down a new copy) . Huxley showed how the religious impulses of mankind could be used for the good of humanity. There is a joyous and positive tone to his alternatives to conventional religious belief which makes Dawkins narrow and self-absorbed in comparison. Huxley recognised that people are naturally religious (however that it is defined) and that that had to be worked with in a positive way. He had a breadth of insight and an empathy for the range of human imaginative experience which Dawkins' lacks. And a lot , though certainly not all, religious people have a similar range. Life is diminished if one stops seeking them out as Dawkins with his taunts of `moral cowardice ` and `intellectual treason' seems to suggest we should. We may not be able to find scientific evidence for religious belief but it is part of the way we are human and simply condemning it does not get us far.
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Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
by Richard Bauckham
Edition: Hardcover

84 of 104 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but deserves to be treated with caution., 3 Sep 2007
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This is an important, scholarly and absorbing book. It should be read by anyone involved in New Testament studies. Yet its central thesis deserves to be treated with caution. The thesis might be summed up in Bauckham's own words.
The "period between the `historical' Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence [sic] and testimony of eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative [sic] sources of their traditions until their deaths" .
As a historian I have many reservations about the way in which Bauckham deals with evidence especially eyewitness evidence which is traditionally treated by historians with caution especially when it is first recorded many years after the event. It is a sad fact that eyewitnesses seldom remember what historians want them to have remembered! His concept of `testimony' is also difficult to deal with as it seems to imply than the evidence of anyone who heard Jesus is somehow more reliable than eyewitness accounts of other events. Yet the emotional drama surrounding many of Jesus' reported activities, large crowds, open disputes, apparent miracles and the trauma of the crucifixion are precisely the kinds of events which do not get reported accurately. Participants are hardly likely to maintain the level headed approach needed for accurate reporting. One sees this everyday in the press!
Bauckham talks of the `continuing presence' of eyewitnesses. Excavations of burials at the Qumran community suggest that few men lived beyond forty in this period. Someone who was the same age as Jesus was more than likely to have been dead by AD 40, someone ten years younger by AD 50. The likelihood of any eyewitness surviving into the 70s, let alone the 80s and 90s, is certainly remote. Those close to Jesus appear to have suffered a high rate of martyrdom and others alive must have perished in the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. Even if there had been a few survivors they would not necessarily have been the best eyewitnesses and their memories would have become distorted with time. Two useful books here: D. Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes the Past, 2006, David Patterson, Sun Turned to Darkness, Memory and Recovery in the Holocaust Memoir, Syracuse, 1998. (This last book is important in view of Bauckham's attempts to link Holocaust memories with those of the gospel eyewitnesses. Holocaust testimony is not as accurate as he would suggest.) There is a mass of evidence relating to the ways in which memory distorts with time. A lot of it comes from diaries which have not been read for many years. There is often an enormous discrepancy between how an event was recorded at the time and how it is remembered many years later. Rather too much of Bauckham's thesis appears to rest on the maintenance of accurate memories over long periods of time.
Other points 1) Bauckham assumes the gospel writers were more immersed in Greek culture, specifically that of history writing , than any evidence from their own writing suggests. Where can one find in Mark, Matthew and even Luke much evidence that they had read widely in Greek literature or know of any Greek historians? Read, for instance, Plutarch's Lives (early second century, a few years after the gospels) which show just how sophisticated a leading Greek scholar of the day was in dealing with his sources in comparison to the gospel writers. Readers should make their own comparison but if they do I think few would be convinced by the argument that the gospel writers compare favourably with the more highly educated Greek historians. Plutarch, and his predecessors, Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius (The Rise of Rome), all reflect on their sources, point out their strengths and weaknesses, and then explain their own conclusions. The only example I know of a gospel writer doing this is to be found at John 19:35 where the writer vouches for the testimony of an eyewitness.The evidence suggests that the gospel writers were writing within the traditions of Greek-speaking Jews, not highly educated upperclass Greek speaking pagans. The Greco-Roman empire was culturally very diverse, different schools, followers of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus , tended to develop their own traditions. I felt that Bauckham had rather too rigid a definition of Greek culture. It was also difficult for anyone without considerable resources to accumulate more than a few literary sources as each would have had to be copied out by hand. The vast majority of literate Greek speakers would have had no access to the long, and therefore very expensive classic texts,although they may have heard some of them recited at fesitvals if they attended them.
2) Papias' memories. Doesn't Bauckham assume too easily that the reminiscences that Papias attributes to a Mark recording the sayings of Peter are the same as the gospel that Irenaeus attributed to Mark (which is the gospel we know today as Mark) ? (Irenaeus' attribution is probably c. 185 and many scholars believe that the names he gave to the gospels were somewhat arbitrary.) Papias had heard from an elderly Christian informant that a Mark took down Peter's sayings but not in order: Peter `used to adapt his instructions to the needs of the moment but not with a view of making an orderly account of the Lord's sayings.' Papias goes on to suggest that his Mark's account is rather lengthy -'he made it his aim to omit nothing he had heard'. This is just what one might expect from Peter, a man of little education but brimming, of course, with powerful memories, contributing his reminiscences to a devoted scribe, which is why Papias might well be a reliable source. If he was, his Mark seems very different from Irenaeus' Mark's taut narrative. The 'Papias Mark is 'our' Mark' thesis also assumes that Peter spoke good Greek- Mark is not a translation from Aramaic. This view is sometimes sustained by the view that Bethsaida, Peter's home' was a Greek colony. Twenty years of excavation at the supposed site of Bethsaida by the University of Nebraska have found only fragmentary remains of building in this period, but much evidence of fishing activities. The real importance of the site was much earlier, in the Iron Age. In fact the archaeological evidence (as it exists so far) for this New Testament period seems to support the lonely place mentioned in Luke (9:13) as a fishing village (other gospel references) . So it is unlikely that Peter would have picked up Greek in Bethsaida or anywhere else. It stretches the imagination to believe that Peter spoke good enough Greek to provide eyewitness material which Mark could use in the relatively sophisticated way he does. On balance the identification of Papias' `Mark's gospel' with that of Irenaeus Mark's gospel ('our' St Mark's gospel) seems very unlikely- they appear to be two different documents. It is, however, a central thesis of Bauckham's book that they are the same. (The tragedy is ,of course, that we have lost Papias's document. Think how much our knowledge of the 'historical' Jesus would have been enriched if the reminiscences of Peter as Papias describes them had actually survived! We all (except, I assume, some fundamentalists) live in hope that early documents such as these will be found one day in a cave. ) The more I read the more I felt that Bauckham's thesis, although not impossible, rested on very shaky foundations . If Papias was an accurate recorder then 'his ' document does not seem to be what we call Mark's gospel, if he not an accurate reporter then why rely on him at all?

3) Bauckham's view that John the Elder was the eyewitness responsible for John's gospel is already subject to dispute in website discussion. There are too many other possible 'John" candidates even if it was a John who actually wrote the gospel ( was it simply another case of Irenaeus putting an authoritative name to an unnamed document?). Again the lateness of John's gospel, ?90 AD, perhaps ten years later, makes it very difficult to argue that a surviving eyewitness would have been able to contribute a direct oral record.

It always takes three or four years for a book of this importance to find its niche.There does seem a lot to argue about and the enthusiastic and perhaps rather uncritical reception this book has received in some quarters may prove premature when scholars have reflected on its claims. A historian testing the historical accuracy of the gospels would hope that as many eyewitness memories as possible were recorded as soon as possible after the events so that the recorder could have a hope of checking accuracy and resolving discrepancies while the eyewitesses were still alive. Then the results would need to be written down before they became distorted in the mind of the recorder. This is what the Greek historians hoped to do even if they did not always have access to the eyewitnesses they would have liked. If this is (contra to what Bauckham argues) had happened then one might be able to trust the historical accuracy of the gospels as Bauckham believes we should. Again as with the Papias thesis, Bauckham's view that these very later eyewitness testimonies ( if such they were) would lead to an accurate record, goes against the assumptions with which mainstream historians work.
One looks forward to seeing how the debate unfolds. I have simply set out here some obvious objections to the thesis of this book which need further discussion. It in no way reflects my admiration for the breadth of Bauckham's scholarship -it is just that I feel that his central thesis might all too easily crumble under pressure from other biblical scholars and readers should be warned of this. I am only giving a historian's response to his thesis.
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The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
by Rodney Stark
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.15

36 of 60 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A profoundly misleading book., 14 Feb 2007
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The thesis of this book appears to be that Catholic Christianity founded capitalism. One's first assumption might be that, if this were true, the medieval church had betrayed the teachings of its founder and that this book was a polemic (not unknown for instance, when even Dante and other medieval figures complained of the greed and corruption of the church) to this end. Not at all, it is praise of the church. The subtitle turns out to be How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success.
To maintain this improbable thesis, the author needs to denigrate the Roman empire. No one would want to give the empire unqualified praise -it could be brutal and much of its treatment, of criminals, for instance, was sickening. However, it did successfully keep the Mediterranean world in comparative peace for several centuries. The Roman and Greek parts had different kinds of achievements but it was to take many centuries before anyone could build an acqueduct which led water evenly down into a city over ninety miles, a dome as big as the Pantheon in Rome (or Santa Sophia in Constantinople) or as vast a building as the baths of Caracalla which could house 4000 bathers and provide hot water for them. The organisation of the empire's defence and administration again had no equals for many many centuries. The problem is that the author either is completely ignorant of how the ancient world works or chooses not to find out. His texts is full of basic errors. For instance:
`Ultimately, Greek learning stagnated of its own inner logic [whatever that means] . After Plato and Aristotle very little happened beyond some extensions of geometry'. (P.20)
How one can leave out Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Plotinus, Galen, Hipparchus, all of whom were writing in the centuries after Aristotle, is extraordinary. The pleasure of reading Plutarch's Lives still awaits Stark. I could not really believe that anyone could write the sentence without checking up in any introductory book on Greek culture to make sure it was correct. Some of the greatest work in Greek science, e.g. Ptolemy in geography and astronomy and Galen in medicine, took place over four hundred years after Plato and Aristotle. The fact that the rational tradition lasted so long, nearly a thousand years ( 570 BC to the suppression of paganism by the emperor Theodosius in the 390s AD),is a testament to its vitality. For this reader, the sentence immediately discredited the book as a serious work of scholarship, but the errors went on.
Stark "Roman buildings were essentially unheated'.
Well-documented and sophisticated heating systems from rural villas ( hypocausts) to the vast public baths of Rome existed throughout the empire. Often cutaway plans of heating systems are provided in children's textbooks on the Romans. In fact, I put in `Roman underfloor heating' in a Google search and came up with such a children's website with a nice picture of a Romano-British villa complete with its heating system. I have recently visited the Roman villa in Piazza Armerina in Sicily and noted how its flues and pipes worked to provide heat. The heating of the baths in Rome (and in all other large cities) where sometimes thousands of bathers were accommodated in a range of rooms of different temperatures is even more impressive. (Stark has the medieval world inventing chimneys but as, to take Britain, brickmaking collapsed with the fall of the empire and did not reappear for eight hundred years,it is not until the mid-fifteenth century that homes are heated through chimneys, for those who could afford bricks or fashioned stone. This was a long time to wait from Roman times and had nothing directly to do with the church in any case.)
`Roman trade mainly dealt in luxuries and was unproductive.' This is an old theory which has been completely undermined by archaeological research , not only of shipwrecks but of humbler sites which show the extent to which even peasants were benefitting from trade. A glance at the recent edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary under `Trade' would have shown the following:
`The number of shipwrecks recorded for the period 100 BC to AD 300 is much larger than for either the preceding period or the `Dark Ages'- this suggests a level of operation which was not to be reached again until the High Renaissance. . . .the greatest spur to the development of this trade was the creation of a fully monetarised economy throughout the empire.'
This is where the `Christianity brought capitalism' argument falls down. The empire was a fully monetarised economy and as a result of long years of stability, the fruits of this extended downwards to peasant level. With the fall of the empire, money disappears in the west for centuries. A horde found at Hoxne in Suffolk from the late Roman empire had 14,000 coins in it, the Sutton Hoo treasure from a few miles away and two centuries later had a mere 40 and these seem to have been prestige objects.
Having got off to a bad start, Stark then continues with his thesis that Christianity preserved reason. One would need to offer a sophisticated argument in support of this counterintuitive view but none is given. Stark gives, as an example of Christian reasoning, Thomas Aquinas' `reasoned' argument that the Virgin Mary had no other children. `So we assert without qualification that the mother of God conceived as a virgin, gave birth as a virgin and remained a virgin after birth'. This is presented as `an example of careful deductive reasoning leading to new doctrines'. I read and reread this extraordinary assertion of `reasoned thought' which went alongside others which claimed that the church founded modern science! (This claim in itself was problematic as Stark admits he knows of no `Greek learning ` after Aristotle'. Most historians of science give the Greeks precedence in science and mathematics but as Stark admits he knows of no Greek learning after Aristotle, when the greatest Greek work in these disciplines took place, he eliminates himself from any serious debate) Surely the continuing belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is one of the doctrines which suggest to many that the church does not support empirical reasoned thought. It is not only extremely unlikely in any biological sense, how would one find the empirical evidence to support it in any case? The odd thing is that if Stark knew his Aquinas he would be able to find examples of where he backed Christian theology by reason.

Everywhere there are problems with his thesis. Stark introduces the concept of the `Dark Ages', not much used nowadays in scholarship. Then comes the sweeping polemical statement: `The idea that Europe fell into the Dark Ages is a hoax originated by antireligious and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth century intellectuals.' (The language is typical of Stark's sweeping and often unjustified rubbishing of his (often more scholarly `intellectual') opponents.) Not so, the idea was originated by Petrarch in the fourteenth century (put in 'dark ages' and 'Petrarch' in any search engine) as he revived the idea that the achievements of the classical period had been forgotten as the result of the long period of darkness which followed it. Petrarch was a good Catholic but even he could see how culture had deteriorated. In fact, he states very opposite of what Professor Stark is trying to prove.
Again he seems to assume that the fall of the Roman empire somehow liberated new energies and innovations. It took centuries before the economy of Europe began to pick up. Even in 1000 there were only some 100 towns in Europe. Bryan Ward-Perkins's The Fall of Rome provides the archaeological evidence that in many parts of Europe, above all Britain, standards of living went back to pre-Roman levels and it was often hundreds of years before basic commodities such as bricks reappeared. Again and again Stark makes sweeping generalisations about innovation being widespread but the underlying evidence from ice cores and shipping records (see above) is that it took a thousand years before levels of industrial and trading activity reached what they had been in Roman times.
The Middle Ages -500- 1500 is an exciting place to be at the moment as a mass of new scholarship and the integration of archaeological research is being put together in new interpretations. Overall, scholarship seems now (and this must be a generalisation when the church controlled such a large proportion of wealth) be stressing the secular contribution to new technology and innovation. The leading books hardly mention the church as it was simply not involved in most of the growth areas of the economy. There is a new emphasis on how social and economic change was stimulated by forces outside the church, even the universities appear to be rooted in the urban pride and administrative needs of the city states of northern Italy, although the church did acquiesce in their foundation. Literacy fell dramatically in the years after the fall of the empire - there are complaints from some communities that they could not find anyone able to write. The church did not spread literacy beyond itself and monastic libraries were often tiny -only fifty volumes in many English cases. When the Irish scholar Eriguena produced his The Division of Nature in 860, it was said that there was no one in Europe with the learning to understand it. Perhaps this is why it survived until the thirteenth century when someone in the church could and declared it heretical! Far from seeing Christianity behind the revival of the European economy (as Stark argues), Michael McCormick sums up his magisterial Origins of the European economy as follows: 'the rise and economic consolidation of Islam changed the nature of an emerging European economy - it offered the wealth and markets which would fire the first rise of western Europe."
This new scholarship on the period 500 - 1200 is detailed and analytical. There were innovations but a study of each needs to explore the social and economic forces which sustained them. The Arab world was important in stimulating trade and was the medium through which instruments such as the astrolabe came back into Europe (as well as texts such as those of Aristotle which brought back the possibility of reason into intellectual thought). Many innovations appear to have simply been responses to technological bottlenecks and one did not have to be Christian to make them. As Stark is a professor of social sciences one would expect him to analyse these social forces. Yet, everything is attributed to Christianity. The major weakness of this book is that there is no study of how the church related to society, let alone to innovation. It is simply assumed that if a change happened it was the church which brought it. There were certainly forces against reason. It was Bernard of Clairvaux, in his campaign against the brilliant Abelard , who opined ` Let him who has scanned the heavens go down in the depths of hell.' There were forces in the church, and powerful ones at that, which opposed reason, and others, notably Aquinas who supported it. In most cases, the church, so long ,as it maintained its wealth, was not really interested in capitalism and the growth areas of the European economy normally operated independently of the church. The economy of Florence is exceptionally well documented -it had major ups and downs -but while its leading commercial and banking familes paid lip service to the church,and in the case of the Medicis, used their wealth as a stepping stone to the Papacy, it is hard to see how the church did anything to support the Florentine economy. Instead the surplus from the church's enormous estates and the taxation of the faithful was channelled into non -productive areas such as church building. (The high literacy , perhaps seventy per cent, of the Florentines both girls and boys was largely due to private education.) Just look at the layout of any medieval city to see how money became ties up in churches. Architecturally they were great achievements but they had nothing to do with capitalism or provision for the poor.
One can also look at Venice,the most dynamic economy of the thirteenth to early fifteenth century Stark pays some lip service to this achievement. However, there is no mention of how Venice's wealth was consolidated and it is worth reminding readers why. A new crusade to the Holy Land was launched for 1204. Venice agreed,for a price, to provide the ships. The crusaders could not pay and the Venetians diverted the crusader fleet to the Christian (if heretical) city of Constantinople which was then sacked. Venice grabbed a number of Byzantine trading stations along the Mediterranean and its economy boomed. So the capitalist wealth of Venice was indirectly stimulated by the initiation of the notorious Fourth Crusade by the church. Is this the argument Stark wishes to make? Again,Stark wisely leaves Europe before the seventeenth century when the wars of religion devastated large areas of Europe, cutting population in some areas to a third of what it had been. It was partly as a reaction to the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of institutional religion that these wars showed , that reason reasserted itself in the Enlightenment. A study of the forces resisting Enlightenment ideals, however, show just how powerful `unreason' continued to be.
There is some correlating evidence to suggest that it was not until the sixteenth century before the European economy reached the level of prosperity it had enjoyed under the Roman empire. If both a Christian and pagan society achieved relatively high standards of living in this part of the world,this would suggest that it is something in the nature of Europe, its fertility, geographical position in relation to other markets, etc.,etc, which fostered its wealth. This is the argument one would expect a social scientist to explore. One could well argue that to take a thousand years to reach Roman levels of prosperity is an argument against Christianity but that would be to make an unsubstantiated generalisation when there are already rather too many in this book already!
What worries me most about this book is that Stark is so often lauded for his scholarship. Many Christians in the US who ,through no fault of their own, have not explored European history (just as I have not explored the history of the Americas between 500 and 1500 except at a cursory level) will think that this book is trustworthy from a historical point of view. I cannot make up my mind as to whether Stark is really as ignorant of the ancient world and medieval Europe as he comes across in this book, or whether he feels he has an argument to offer and the evidence against it can safely be disregarded. Why did he not just sit down and read through some of the recent scholarship in this area before starting the text? He may have his acolytes in some Christian circles but, in this book at least, he makes nonsense of any claim to be a serious scholar.
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by T. J. Binyon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine biography., 28 Jan 2004
This review is from: Pushkin (Paperback)
I knew almost nothing of Pushkin before reading this book. Binyon does a fine job of taking us through his life. His judgements are balanced, his prose measured but readable and the story, though taken rather slowly at first, builds up into the moving climax of Pushkin's untimely death. Binyon's research is impeccable- he tells us just enough about the other characters in the story without overwhelming the reader with trivia. There were times when I wished he had stood back from his subject and allowed his own personal reactions to Pushkin more scope. (Binyon is too intelligent and perceptive for these not to have been of interest.) It is also difficult for non-Russian readers to understand quite why Pushkin appealed and appeals so strongly to the Russian soul and Binyon might have explored this further. However, I cannot award a book I have so enjoyed anything less than five stars.

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