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“Early Christianity”: A Plea and a Modest Programme Proposal

July 29, 2015

In researching for my current book project on early Christian distinctives, I note repeatedly how scholarly attention to the second and third centuries seems often to suffer in comparison to the first century and the post-Constantinian period. On the one hand, many New Testament scholars today (especially those from a Protestant background) all too often tend to lose much interest after about 100 AD, almost anything thereafter terra incognita (or at least not considered other than in a cursory manner), in this quite distinguishable from earlier scholars such as Lightfoot, Hort, Zahn, Harnack, and others (including, may I note, New Testament colleagues here in Edinburgh). I recall, for example, that in several seminars held to discuss my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, I was informed upon arrival that we would only deal with the first seven chapters (omitting the three chapters on the second century), and that the students hadn’t been asked to read any farther than that!

On the other hand, although the second century and thereafter is the traditional territory of scholars in “Patristics” (to use a traditional label, now increasingly replaced with “Early Christian Studies”), all too often the second and third centuries fail to get their due from these scholars as well. To use a baseball metaphor (and to risk caricature to make a point), it sometimes seems that the second century in particular is treated as the “bull pen” time in which a “warm-up” goes on for the “game,” which really gets underway with Constantine. One of the buzz-words now is “Late Antiquity,” and in practice this can sometimes mean a focus on the fourth century and thereafter, with less attention to the “pre-Constantinian” time.

Now, granted, in and after the fourth century AD the extant Christian texts and other data (church buildings, art, sarcophagi, jewels, elegant manuscripts, etc.) multiply considerably. But I wonder if this perhaps makes it more difficult for scholars to recognize adequately what we do have from the earlier period. If you come to the second century, with training and previous focus on the post-Constantinian period, does this make you too aware of what seems missing, and less able to appreciate what is there in its own terms? For example, perhaps judged from the post-Constantinian period (especially the fifth century and thereafter), the earlier centuries may seem to be simply a time of incredible diversity in practices and beliefs, and only a very loose linkage and structure. Well, diversity there certainly was then, and there weren’t synods and ecumenical conferences and creeds. But how would we judge matters if, instead, we made comparisons of second/third century Christianity with other religious options of those earlier centuries?[1]

As another illustration (and to “ride a pet horse”), as to artifactual data, OK, we don’t have the buildings and items that archaeologists more typically study, and we don’t have the lavish Christian art of later centuries that art historians write about. But what if we recognized that earliest Christian manuscripts were not only copies of texts but are also material/visual objects, early Christian artifacts?[2] As such, for example, they are direct artifacts of the practices involved in the use of the texts that they contain. Likewise, precisely in light of the diversity of earliest Christianity, what are we to make of the rather clear and widely-shared Christian preference for the codex (especially for texts treated/read as scripture) and right from the earliest extant manuscripts? And, similarly, of what import is the curious scribal practice, apparently distinctive to early Christians, called the “nomina sacra,” which likewise seems to have been adopted across various Christian circles?

As still another illustration, what if we studied the writings of the second century in their own terms and time, not comparing them with the later writings and issues that are (justifiably) given so much attention classically (e.g., Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, etc.)? Eric Osborn showed that the second century was in fact a time of remarkable Christian intellectual activity.[3] The journal, Second Century, that appeared in 1981 was intended to focus on that Cinderella period in Christian studies, but, unfortunately (for whatever reasons) did not survive in that form.[4]

Certainly, the social and political circumstances of Christians (of their various stripes) in the first three centuries were categorically distinct from those that obtained in the post-Constantinian period. So, there continues to be scope for analyses of these matters.

It was to contribute to breaking down the unhelpful barrier between New Testament studies and “early Christian” studies that I founded here our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins (1997), which focuses on the first three centuries AD. The conferences that we’ve held in recent years, on Justin, Irenaeus, and Peter, reflect this scope of interest. The formation of the New Testament was a process that originated in the first century (when the earliest texts were composed) and ran through the second and third centuries (when these writings and others were read, copied, cited, and collections of these writings began to be made) into the fourth century (when the current list of New Testament writings began to achieve progressively wider acceptance).

So, New Testament scholars need to define the field chronologically to include at least the first two centuries.  The recently established journal, Early Christianity, reflects this view of the field (publisher’s information here).  And I also hope that more scholars in “Early Christian Studies” might focus on the pre-Constantinian period, without invidious comparisons to later developments, and with a full appreciation of this period in its own right.  Together, we could enrich further our understanding of this vital and unique era.

[1] Perhaps the “normative self-definition” project run in McMaster University by E. P. Sanders and Ben Meier back in the 1980s illustrates a more positive approach.

[2] Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

[3] Eric Osborn, The Emergence of Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[4] The journal was taken over by the North American Patristics Society and re-branded as The Journal of Early Christian Studies, and now has a much wider chronological scope.

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4 Comments
  1. I greatly appreciate your efforts here Larry. My own tradition puts a great deal of emphasis upon the first century and a reasonable amount of attention on the 2nd century. But many tend to view developments thereafter with a great deal of suspicion. On the other hand, I find myself often distressed to the point of throwing padded bricks at the television when I see scholars discussing the development of Christianity as though the only part that matters began in the 3rd century, particularly when that restrictive treatment becomes the basis of the general public’s belief of the origin of Christianity.

  2. Deane permalink

    Too right, Larry, I couldn’t agree more. I hope your forthcoming book dissipates the dark shadow of Cotelier – to show how we can study the second century on its own merits, without imposing ideas of ‘proto-orthodoxy’, imposed anachronistically from the future, or the concept of the ‘post-apostolic’, with its eyes on an idealised past. I very much suspect it will.

    And the second century is just too damn interesting not to study in its own right!

  3. Thank you for this Larry. Where I have seen a recent focus on “distinctives” in Christianity has been in the study of children and childhood. Not that everything Christianity brought to the table was distinctive, but there is enough to allow for an examination of how Christianity reshaped childhood. There is also a necessary engagement with second and third century texts in these discussions. I think of Bakke’s work on childhood, Margaret MacDonald’s new book on children and the household codes, and Cornelia Horn’s and my work on children (http://www.amazon.com/Let-Little-Children-Come-Christianity/dp/0813216745/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1438357913&sr=1-1&keywords=martens+john+w). The list of research in this (sub)field continues to grow. If people are interested in dipping their toes in this water, my paper which argues for a distinct Christian approach (and language) to the question of pederasty is available for download at my academia.edu page: https://stthomas.academia.edu/JohnMartens.

  4. Jeremiah Bailey permalink

    I’d encourage anyone who is interested to come to our second century consultation at SBL in November titled “Texts and Traditions in the Second Century.” We’ve got two great sessions planned with a fantastic lineup of scholars.

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