on 16 September 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.