Major Reviews -- the Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries by Wayne A. Meeks

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The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries, by Wayne A. Meeks. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993. 275 pp. $30.00. ISBN 0-300-05640-0.

STUDIES OF MORAL AND ETHICAL ISSUES in early Christianity have been just that--studies of particular problems (e.g., sex, war, poverty), often motivated by modern religious concerns. Rarely have these studies been informed by relevant work in other disciplines (e.g., philosophical ethics or psychology) and only seldom do they look to the broader context of Greco-Roman culture (recent work on parallels between Cynic and early Christian thought marks an important exception). Yet even in the latter case, the approach commonly takes the form of citing parallels--Jesus says XYZ about issue A; several Cynics say the same thing; therefore, Jesus was a Cynic of sorts. And so on.

Meeks's book undertakes a welcome departure from these dead ends. As his chapter titles reveal ("The Body as Sign...," "The Grammar of Christian Practice," "Senses of an Ending," "The Moral Story"), he has read widely outside the field of New Testament studies. But the presence of "hip" terms in chapter titles indicates more than a call to biblical scholars to read outside their chosen discipline, important though this exhortation is. Beyond this, they make a difference in how issues are framed, how evidence is considered, and how interpretive contexts are chosen.

At the very outset, Meeks lays out his distinctive points of departure. Negatively, he defines his parameters as follows: not the New Testament but early Christianity; not ethics but morality; not individuals but communities; not Socrates but Aristotle; not ideas and principles but an ethnography of what was actually said and done; not permanence but change and diversity. Positively, he isolates two fundamental forces or frameworks for approaching the moral world of early Christian communities: conversion and ambivalence. These are, on the one hand, a sense that early believers had come to Christianity from something else; on the other hand, they did not think of themselves as fully attached to the cities and cultures in which they lived. In the ensuing chapters, Meeks develops these ideas with energy and penetrating insight.

Chapter 2 ("Turning: Moral Consequences of Conversion") begins with Paul and stresses the role of conversion stories in establishing certain patterns of behavior in the community. The more radical the conversion (story), the greater the sense of tension between the community and the surrounding society. Of particular interest here is the role played by baptism in defining boundaries between community and society. Chapter 3 ("City, Household, People of God") carries forward the theme of ambivalence, stressing the extent to which Christian communities adopted Greco-Roman models of the hierarchical household and of patron-client relationships while at the same time projecting themselves as standing apart from their earthly cities. Meeks concludes by making what seems an unconvincing contrast with their Jewish contemporaries, arguing that "unlike the Jews, they (Christians) had no homeland" (p. 50). Chapter 4 ("Loving and Hating the World") concludes the theme of ambivalence with a look at the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of John, and Paul.

Chapters 5 and 6 turn to what we might call the linguistic and behavioral media of Christian morals; that is, how values were announced and transmitted. In part, Christians made use of familiar literary devices--lists of virtues and vices, vows, pithy sayings (chreiai), wisdom discourses, sermons, testaments, and the like. At the same time, however, the context within which these devices took shape set the moral world of Christians apart from their neighbors. By grounding their moral discourse in references to God, Christ, the Old Testament, and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians once again gave expression to their paradoxical stance in the world, a simultaneous Yes and No. …