“Early Christianity in Contexts”: Recent Book
A new book on early Christianity merits serious attention: Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration across Cultures and Continents, ed. William Tabernee (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014). The publisher’s information online here. It’s a hefty (600+ pages) book, but reasonably priced for its size. More importantly, it’s uniquely broad in geographical and cultural coverage, and each component part is written by recognized experts in that particular area.
The publisher’s online description includes the table of contents, which will indicate the impressive breadth of coverage, with extended discussions of all areas of the Roman Empire, but areas beyond the imperial borders as well, including the Caucasus, the Balkan Peninsula, Persia and northern Mesopotamia, China, India, and Nubia. The time-frame seems to be roughly the first 600 years of Christianity.
The particular focus stated by Tabernee is “the earliest available ‘material evidence’,” including “inscriptions, coins, mosaics, remnants of church buildings, baptisteries, decorative artwork, icons, crosses, symbols, ecclesiastical vessels, reliquaries, and a host of other artifacts” to describe the forms of Christianity in each geographical area. This is commendable. But notice anything missing? Once again, as so often the case, early Christian manuscripts are omitted as artifacts, physical evidence of early Christianity. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. It’s simply indicative of a wider failure among historians to recognize that manuscripts are not only copies of texts but also physical/material/visual artifacts, with “meta-textual” data useful in understanding the Christian past. Granted, the chapter on “The World of the Nile” (181-222) refers to the early papyri of Christian provenance (190-93), but mainly to note what texts are evidenced. There is scant attention to the papyri as physical objects.
But this criticism aside, the book seems otherwise thoroughly commendable. There is rich documentation of primary sources and references to current scholarly publications as well, some 123 illustrations (maps, photos, etc.), a 61-page bibliography, a 46-page subject index, plus an index of ancient writings referred to in the book.
For readers who might want to push out their own frontiers of knowledge of early Christianity, this book will be a gold mine.