A People's History of Christianity

Article excerpt

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY. Denis R. Janz (Gen. Ed.). Volume I. CHRISTIAN ORIGINS, Richard A. Horsley (Ed.), 2005; Volume II. LATE ANCIENT CHRISTIANITY Virginia Burrus (Ed.) 2005; Volume III. BYZANTINE CHRISTIANITY. Derek Krueger (Ed.), 2000. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Augsburg. Pp. Vol. I 318 + xviii; Vol. II 318 + xviii; Vol. Ill 252 + xviii. Cloth, npi. Reviewed by J. Harold Ellens.

Fortress Press, under the series editorship of Denis R. Janz, has undertaken a worthy and weighty publication of a history of Christianity oriented toward the believer in the pew or at the local community library who may be enticed by a readable story of the centuries of the unfolding Christian faith traditions and institutions. The first three volumes are of direct interest here and four more are anticipated in future years. Those forthcoming volumes, as one would expect, will address Medieval Christianity, Daniel Bornstein, (Ed); Reformation Christianity, Peter Matheson (Ed.); Modern Christianity to 1900, Amanda Porterfield (Ed.); and Twentieth-Century Global Christianity, Mary Farrell Bednarowski (Ed.).

The three volumes we already have in hand form a closely woven cord of highly readable narrative. Horsley presents us with twelve chapters in three parts addressing the Early Jesus Movement, Cities and Texts at the root of Christian development, and Social Patterns and Practices in the first century CE Roman Empire. Such notable scholars as Antoinette Clark Wire, Neil Elliot, Allan Dwight Callahan, Steven Friezen, and William R. Herzog II, and others, join Horsely as authors of significant chapters of this first volume. The general thrust of this volume and its strength is the socio-cultural perspective which prevails throughout.

Its weakness, from my point of view, is its preoccupation with the rise of Christianity from first century peasant culture, with its questionable sub-text of god's preferential option for the poor. This perspective is difficult to defend in the face of the historical data and the testimony of the scriptural documents of that early period of Christian development. It seems quite clear that God has a preferential option for all humanity and tends to be focused on needs of body, mind, and spirit in whomever they appear. Moreover, when you consider that Jesus was the son of a building contractor who probably had major Roman contracts as Sephoris and Tiberias, in conjunction with Paul's remark that while he was rich, he made himself poor on our behalf, it is difficult to argue the historic romantic notion of the "poor little Jesus boy, meek and mild." Moreover, it is quite clear that early in the history of the church, rich widows became leading characters in the movement, and a considerable presence in its population, to say nothing about Christians being prominent in Caesar's household.

The authors of volume I struggle appropriately with this problem, and fashion the message in terms of the way in which the early believing community negotiated a unity of allegiances between the two markedly different social groups in the Roman world, the rich and poor, the powerful and unempowered, attempting to express what the "Christian consciousness" of early Christianity was really like. Mark U. Edwards, of Harvard, is appropriate when he highly recommends Volume I, but also falls prey to the questionable notion of the decrepitude of the first Christians, when he says, "Hidden for centuries by their anonymity and illiteracy (italics mine), the people of God-the body of Christ, the church!-are finally having their story told, and by some of today's finest historians of the church. The saints, bishops, and theologians of traditional histories can now be placed against the panoramic and fascinating backdrop of the lived religion of ordinary men and women of faith."

While Horsley is at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Virginia Burrus is at Drew and provides an overview in Volume II in this series, of the varied forms of Christianity in the second to the fourth centuries, but mainly the period which begins already around 80 CE and runs mainly to 250 CE. …