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“Early Christianity in Contexts”: Recent Book

June 19, 2015

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.

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  1. James Ernest permalink

    Larry, although I’m no longer at Baker Academic, I remain attached to this book, the idea for which was hatched a number of years ago in conversations betweenn Bill Tabbernee and myself, and then several others who became contributors. Bill’s own labors over the years were truly trans-Herculean, and the cast of contributors whose work he pulled it was stellar. Brian Bolger at Baker and others working with and for him to edit and design this book also deserve medals, as far as I’m concerned. So I am tremendously gratified by your very favorable estimation of its value! Many thanks for taking the time, and the space on your million-plus-hit blog (congrats on that!), to notice this book.

    I do whether whether readers of your blog might get the impression (which I don’t think you intended to give) that the authors forgot to attend to texts, including nonliterary documents. That impression would be incorrect. The list of abbreviations in the front of the book includes a large number of papyrus collections that they consulted. The introduction (page 7) discusses the value of texts as evidence for early Christian culture. In the body of the book, papri are noted on p. 29 (Judea), p. 56 (Petra), p. 59 (the Negev), 97 (a Diatessaron papyrus at Dura), 174 (Muziris). Unsurprisingly, I think, the chapter on Egypt has the most: pp. 189-194 (texts at Alexandria and in the Chora), 196-97 (third century), 199-204 (fourth century). Page 218 notes a Nubian papyrus. That’s just the papyri specifically. Texts more generally are discussed in numerous places throughout the book–e.g., extensive discussion of Christian texts at Dunhuang. That said, the book is mostly not about texts, either as physical manuscripts or as traditioned discourse. But they aren’t overlooked.

    Now, how much of this is germaine to your point about *manuscripts as artifacts* I will leave to you. I also do not know for how many of the cities and regions discussed in the book, outside of Egypt and Dunhuang, any manuscripts even survive from the periods under discussion.

    But thanks again for your good words about the book. It was intended as an alternative (less grand generalization, more concrete and local actualities) introduction for students to the rise and spread of Christianity, and I think it is that; but we’ve also been hearing that even for advanced scholars it offers much that is fresh and informative.

    • James: I had hoped that my critique had to do with an insufficient notice of early manuscripts as physical objects. That there are early papyri copies of many texts is duly noted in all the places that you cite, to be sure.

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