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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Early Christian Literature

The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies  by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter (Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology: Oxford University Press) responds to and celebrates the explosion of research in this inter-disciplinary field over recent decades. As a one-volume reference work, it provides an introduction to the academic study of early Christianity (c. 100-600 AD) and examines the vast geographical area impacted by the early church, in Western and Eastern late antiquity. It is thematically arranged to encompass history, literature, thought, practices, and material culture. It contains authoritative and up-to-date surveys of current thinking and research in the various sub-specialties of early Christian studies, written by leading figures in the discipline. The essays orientate readers to a given topic, as well as to the trajectory of research developments over the past 30-50 years within the scholarship itself. Guidance for future research is also given. Each essay points the reader towards relevant forms of extant evidence (texts, documents, or examples of material culture), as well as to the appropriate research tools available for the area.

This volume will be useful to advanced undergraduate and post-graduate students, as well as to specialists in any area who wish to consult a brief review of the 'state of the question' in a particular area or sub-specialty of early Christian studies, especially one different from their own.

Recent decades have seen an explosion of research in the area of 'early Christian studies. This Handbook has been prepared, in large measure, as a response to that development. Early Christian studies examines the history, literature, thought, practices, and material culture of the Christian religion in late antiquity (c. 100— 600 CE). Once pursued primarily as a sub-speciality within Ecclesiastical History or Theology (that is, as `Patristics'), the study of early Christianity has recently emerged as a distinctive and fully interdisciplinary endeavour in its own right, embracing the fields of Classics, Ancient History, Theology, Religious Studies, Art History, and Archaeology, among others. New trends in historiography, critical theory, and the humanistic sciences have also made their mark on this academic discipline.

A number of events have fostered this development. In recent decades there have been discoveries of new documents (for example, the Nag Hammadi Library, the Divjak letters and Dolbeau sermons of Augustine, and the Turfan Manichaean texts). New journals and book series have appeared, as well as a steady stream of new critical editions and translations. 'Late antiquity' has increasingly been recognized as a historical period with its own distinctive features and significance.

This proliferation of scholarship on early Christianity has called forth the present volume. When the representatives of Oxford University Press approached us with the idea of editing a volume in the Oxford Handbook series, it seemed an ideal opportunity to provide a useful service to the field. Because of the increasing range and diversity of scholarly work in early Christian studies, it has become impossible for any one scholar to maintain expertise in every aspect of the discipline. Certain topics have provoked an extraordinary amount of discussion (early Christian asceticism, for example, or the fourth-century Trinitarian controversies); other areas have become highly specialized sub-disciplines (Manichaean studies, for example, or Gnostic studies). A scholar working in one branch of early Christianity might have little notion of developments in another area of the field. We hope this volume in the Oxford Handbook series will address this difficulty by introducing readers to the wide variety of ways in which 'early Christian studies' are conducted and have been conducted, especially within the past thirty years. We intend it to be an aid to research both for beginners and for more seasoned scholars entering an unfamiliar sub-speciality.

To accomplish this task, we invited contributors to address their topics with the aim of orienting readers to the current 'state of the question' in that area. Contributors were asked to reflect on the main questions or issues that have animated research, to provide an introduction to the relevant primary sources, and to offer some guidance on the directions in which future research might be profitably pursued. Depending on the topic, different contributors emphasized one or more of these tasks, but our intention has been to provide a useful starting point for further investigation in that increasingly disparate discipline of 'early Christian studies.

This focus on the trajectory of research and the developments within the scholarship itself differentiate this volume from others aiming to provide cogent summary introductions to various topics, figures, or historical assessments (that is, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, or histories). Further, it is the categories, issues, and areas (whether spatial or intellectual) of these developments that have guided our structuring of the essays into broadly defined thematic sections. The structure as a whole is prefaced by a set of prolegomena: three essays surveying the intellectual and scholarly changes that have refrained our study of the early Christian past. We encourage readers to consider the specific discussions of individual chapters against the backdrop of these prefatory essays.

The section divisions offer broad ways of organizing early Christian studies. They also reflect how the changing agendas of scholarship have refocused how we consider even the best known of the ancient materials. Thus, following Part I, `Prolegomena, Part II, 'Evidence: Material and Textual, considers types of evidence crucial for establishing early Christian history and for providing concrete assessment of the literary evidence that has long dominated historical reconstruction of ancient history. Part III, 'Identities, looks at specific religious identities that have long been the foils against which the meaning of the term 'Christian' took shape, both by and for its ancient advocates and by modern scholars (as well as adherents). These labels, common in usage but elusive in historical reality, gain further and more nuanced substance in Part IV, 'Regions, where the huge geographical expanse of early Christianity is brought into play. One of the most significant results of recent scholarship has been the realization of the extent to which geographical

location affected the issues, concerns, and even forms of early Christianity. Consideration of Donatism in terms other than as a problem confronting Augustine, for example, or of the Cappadocian fathers within their regional context brings to light important but generally neglected features. Part V, 'Structures and Authorities, draws out fundamental social structures and ecclesiastical authorities by which ancient Christians organized their lives, whether institutionally, politically, or domestically. Part VI, 'Expressions of Christian Culture, looks at the array of literary forms by which Christians articulated their concerns, identities, interests, debates, memories, practices, and teachings. In Part VII, 'Ritual, Piety, and Practice, those expressions are considered through their implementation as activities both collective and individual. Part VIII, 'Theological Themes, takes up perennially vibrant areas of theological discussion that have been much affected by the scholarly shifts charted in the volume as a whole.

Careful review of the Table of Contents and use of the indexes will help readers find topics or key figures whose locations may not seem to be readily apparent under this organizational scheme. Each essay is followed by suggestions for further reading, as well as important bibliography for the topic. The final chapter of the volume, 'Instrumenta Studiorum: Tools of the Trade, provides an extensive guide to various scholarly tools critical to any study of the field: major journals, published series of critical editions and translations, dictionaries and handbooks of various sorts and foci, data bases, websites, and related research tools. Our hope is that the fruitfulness of recent decades can here be not only acknowledged, but also gathered together in a form that will promote rich inquiry for a long time to come.

This volume takes as its chronological duration the period from loo to 60o CE: that is, the period roughly stretching from the end of the New Testament era to the eve of Islam's appearance on the historical horizon. New Testament studies is in itself a field of massive scholarly enterprise, and its work is handled in a separate volume of the Oxford Handbook series. There will inevitably be some essays in the current volume that require engagement with New Testament materials, just as—at the other end of the chronological spectrum—there will be some that consider trajectories extending into the medieval and Byzantine periods. However, our focus is on that period during which Christianity takes its shape specifically as a religion. The salient issues are not those involving the historical figure of Jesus or his immediate followers or the formation of the New Testament documents, but rather, how the movement around those persons and events became an established, institutionalized, differentiated religion: a body of self-identified adherents related (however loosely) by practices and beliefs.

Dictionary of Early Christian Literature (A Herder & Herder book: The Crossroad Publishing Company) The long-awaited successor to the Altaner Patrologie handbooks, the Dictionary presents the life and work of Christian authors up to the eighth century and an assessment of their lasting influence on the Christian tradition. Articles on authors provide a brief description of their lives, a presentation of their works, and an assessment of their influence on the Christian tradition. Other articles deal with types of works and their particular characteristics. Scholars and students will both appreciate the extensive, up-to-date bibliographical information that is supplies.


Textbooks have their history. In Germany the introductory and standard textbook for patristic studies, later known as "Altaner," began its career with the Grundrifb der Patrologie (Outline of Patrology) of Gerhard Rauschen, a "short textbook for students and clergy." Since the third edition in 1910, this "Outline," enriched by numerous additional references, was already the standard work in patrology, which by this time had begun to move away from pure church and dogmatic history.

Starting in 1921, Josef Wittig attended to the production of several new editions, and the "Outline" appeared under the name of the editors: Rauschen-Wittig. After Wittig left the theological faculty at Breslau, he was replaced as editor by Berthold Altaner in 1931. The tradition of hyphenated names continued: Wittig-Altaner, Grundrifb der Patrologie (Freiburg, 1931). In 1938, however, Altaner presented a newly conceived textbook which he alone had designed entitled Patrologie.

Altaner's three-part presentation of the individual authors and anonymous works—life, writings, teaching—remained binding for later editions. In the third part, "teaching," Altaner attempted to sketch briefly the basic ideas of individual church fathers. This provided a first entry into patrology and dogmatic history for the beginner, even if the sketches remained problematic because of their neoscholastic coloring. In the spring of 1959, Altaner handed over editorial responsibility for his handbook to Alfred Stuiber, who brought out an expanded new edition in 1960. The seventh edition appeared in 1966 under the name Altaner-Stuiber. The eighth edition, published in 1978, remained unchanged except for an appendix with bibliographical supplements.

The advantages of the proven handbook are evident: it provides a one-volume, ready reference work with the most important bibliographical information regarding text editions and secondary literature, providing the reader with a first impression of the personality and work of a given church father. From this perspective, "Altaner" was an indispensable reference work for a generation of theologians. It was intended not so much to be read in its entirety as to be a source of initial information.

The new editors have decided to break from the historical-genetic presentation of "Altaner" and to capitalize on its lexical value by transforming it into a thoroughgoing dictionary. This not only corresponds to the actual use of its predecessor, but also takes into account the contemporary academic situation. No individual researcher is in the position to survey the entire scope of early Christian literature, especially in light of the amount of new information generated by research into Middle Eastern national literatures.

The preliminary work necessary for a transition to a purely literary and genre history of Christian literature is lacking. This being the case, it seemed reasonable to the editors to include articles addressing questions of literary genre, schools, and language.

As a rule, articles on individual authors do not focus on their theological teachings. A sketch of the content of the theology of the most important authors is presented, wherein their influence on later theology is less determinative of the content than the importance they enjoyed among their contemporaries. Included (with few exceptions) are authors and writings from which works or fragments exist and who, in the widest sense, can be counted as belonging to the Christian tradition. A borderline case is the Nag Hammadi writings, which are fully represented.

The traditional dating of the patristic period has been retained with John of Damascus in the East (d. before 754 CE), and Isidore of Seville in the West (d. 636 CE), constituting the upper limits of the period.


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