The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology) Hardcover – 4 Sep 2008
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This is not simply another multi-author volume on the first Christian centuries. It addresses itself to the task of bringing together a review of the approaches, assumptions and results of recent research in a growing range of interdisciplinary areas. It is for the most part technical and exact without being inaccessible to the interested beginner. This is an invaluable work of reference and full of meat. (G.R. Evans, Theology.)
Without doubt, this will become a major reference tool and a number of the chapters will find their way onto reading lists for classes studying early Christianity. (Paul Foster, Expository Times)
...this book is a treasure trove. The editors have assembled an impressive bench of contributors and they tackle a staggering array of subjects...This hefty and wonderful volume reminds us just how preposterous an unnecessarily adamantine view of Christianity is and ever war. (Jonathan Wright, Catholic Herald)
This is a volume that goes far beyond the descriptive survey and contains much of interest for both the beginner and the old hand ... it should indeed stimulate further research (F. Lucy Grig, Journal of Theological Studies)
In many ways the appearance of this volume is timelf ... It seems in general to reflect the wide-ranging and many-sided characters of its subject ...and does so with clarity and learning. Any student intent upon engaging in research on an aspect of the field of early Christian studies would do well to start here ... in the company of distinguished scholars in thoughtful mode. (James Carleton Paget, Journal of Ecclesiastical History)
The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies stems from the rich scholarly tradition of Oxford and features within a handbook series devoted to a plenitude of scientific topics and in which various domains of history, theology and religious sciences are already covered ... impressive volume ... a must for all beginners and a quick reference for specialists in the field. (A. Dupont, Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses)
About the Author
Susan Ashbrook Harvey is Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University. She is the author of "Asceticism and Society in Crisis: John of Ephesus and The Lives of the Eastern Saints" (1990) and coauthor of "Holy Women of the Syrian Orient" (1998), both from UC Press.
Hunter is the Monsignor James A. Supple Professor of Catholic Studies at Iowa State University.
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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.Read more ›
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Without further ado, let me say a few words about the book. It would be impossible for me to analyze the contents of all the chapters that I read. Instead, I will provide a brief overview of the main sections of the book and then make a few brief comments about a handful of chapters. The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies comprises four main sections: “Part I: The Discipline,” which contains chapters on topics ranging from primary sources and archeology to epigraphy and numismatics; “Part II: The Physical World,” which contains chapters on political geography, population, buildings, and agriculture, as well as other topics; “Part III: Institutions and Relationships,” which contains a number of chapters on the emperor, the state, the church, society, “the spiritual world,” art, language, education, and related subjects; and, “Part IV: The World Around Byzantium,” which contains two chapters, one by James Howard-Johnston entitled “Byzantium and Its Neighbours,” and one by Cyril Mango entitled “Byzantium’s Role in World History.” I found every chapter that I read to be edifying and interesting, but some deserve special praise. These include the two chapters by Howard-Johnston and Mango that I just mentioned, as well as the following: Clarence Gallagher’s chapters on the early councils and relations between the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches; Liz James’ chapter on women; Geoffrey Horrocks’ chapter on language; Andrew Louth’s chapters on Byzantine theology and theological literature; Nigel Wilson’s chapter on Greek palaeography; Todd Hickey’s chapter on papyrology; and John Haldon’s chapters on the state (“Structures and Adminstration”) and the army. Anthony Bryer’s chapter on food and wine was delightful, but one wishes that more evidence had survived; as it is, the ability of historians to reconstruct the dietary habits of Byzantines is rather limited. Some chapters are so specialized that their usefulness will probably be rather limited for both experts and non-experts alike. I include Robert Taft’s chapter on liturgy in this category, though I should mention that Taft has written a number of solid books on Byzantine liturgy.
For those who have never read a book on Byzantium before, The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies is probably not a good introduction to the subject. However, non-specialists with some background can find a nice overview of Byzantine political history in four survey chapters by Geoffrey Greatrex, John Haldon, Catherine Homes, and Angeliki Laiou. Together, these chapters explain the main events and trends in Byzantine’s political history (both domestic and foreign) in roughly sixty pages. Readers who desire a short but analytically rigorous political history of Byzantium will find these chapters immensely helpful, though I would also recommend that they read the chapter by Mark Whittow on geography and the chapter by Dionysios Stathakopoulos entitled “Population, Demography, and Disease,” to which Alan Harvey’s chapter on the economy and Haldon’s previously mentioned chapter on the state could be added.
There is much more that I could say about The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, but I think that I have already said enough to give potential readers a decent sense of the volume. In closing, I will share four thoughts. First, although the volume is incredibly detailed in its historical coverage, there were a few events, such as the Battle of Manzikert (1071) and its aftermath, that arguably deserved more attention. Second, while I have studied early church history in some detail, I learned a number of important things from the volume, including some things that were disturbing to me as a newly minted Orthodox Christian. Indeed, I have been given much to ponder, and for that I am most grateful, despite being perplexed. Third, the volume does a nice job of explaining the complex history of relations between Byzantium and the various Islamic empires that bordered it. Fourth, the volume explodes a number of popular misconceptions about history, such as that the Ottomans were entirely responsible for the demise of Byzantium (internal mismanagement and European enemies were also significant factors), or that the so-called heresy of Nestorianism was both espoused by Nestorios himself and widely embraced by many Christians in the East. The only serious problem with the volume is its cost – at $175 for the hardcover edition, one can certainly agree with the old adage that knowledge isn’t free!
There is, of course, nothing inherently leftwing in the study of how Christian "sausage" is made. So, for example, sociologist Peter Berger (not a contributor to this work) has written a good deal about the worldly functions of supernatural religion, most notably THE SACRED CANOPY. Yet, precisely because empirical studies of religion are not held back by concerns for orthodoxy and reverence, they can keep religion honest. In Berger's view, Christianity does not require or benefit from deception (including self-deception). On the contrary, as he remarked in one of his earliest works, sociology is the "profane auxiliary of the Christian faith." Berger thinks that there is such a thing as Christianity and that it is true (though not, of course, empirically verifiable). So does C. S. Lewis (MERE CHRISTIANITY).
But Harvard Professor of Divinity Karen King in her contribution, "Which Early Christianity?," writes "Essentializing categories tend to reify the complex, overlapping, multifarious clusters of material that constitute the continually shifting, interactive forms of early Christian meaning-making and social belonging into homogeneous, stable, well-bounded theological or sociological formations" (71). Without explicitly denying that there is such a thing as Christianity, her extreme deconstructive nominalism leaves no room for it. And, as fellow contributor Antti Marjanen notes in his article on "Gnosticism" (the scare quotes are his), King is explicit in denying that there is such a thing as "Gnosticism" (209).
I find it amusing that Marjanen, who happens to be a Professor of Gnosticism at the University of Helsinki, concludes his somewhat deferential narrative on the latest deconstructive bull (double entendre intended) by making a modest plea for the retention of the concept of Gnosticism, suitably redefined. In short, Marjanen does not think we are faced with the choice of using inerrant concepts or committing ourselves to a career of debunking those who do. He writes, "Although typological definitions [of Gnosticism] are reached by making observations on a certain set of ancient religious texts, they serve as overarching theoretical models which are assigned to understand and explain individual features in various 'gnostic' texts and groups representing the 'gnostic' religion" (206). Another name for "overarching theoretical models" is stereotypes. Whether the motto of Early Christian Studies is "don't stereotype" or "don't conceptualize," the advice seems either trivial or mistaken. By the way, I would not cynically accuse Marjanen of simply trying to protect his job. It is much more plausible to view his interest in ("actually existing"!) Gnosticism as the reason he went into the field in the first place. Yes, we see through a glass, darkly, but that doesn't mean that our "socially constructed" concepts refer to nothing. As Berger counsels, don't forget that our religious "projections" may also be reflections (of reality).
I cannot read this handbook without finding a good deal of value-- but that has much more to do with the reported empirical research findings than the "overarching theoretical model" of the editors. My background in this field is not strong-- I took a course in "Early Church Fathers" at a time when that title did not yet cause feminists to throw up. Here I was expecting a handbook of Christian Early Christian Studies, but I am grateful for the manual of Christian sausage-making, which can have soteriological significance for those who know where to hold their nose.
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