Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History

By Rousseau, Philip | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2007 | Go to article overview
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Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History


Rousseau, Philip, The Catholic Historical Review


Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History. By Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell. 2 vols. (Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 2005. Pp. xxiv, 455; xxvi, 734. $99.95.)

Two questions are especially raised by this weighty but finely translated survey. First, what does one mean by "Christian Literature"? second, what should one make of the new subtitle, "A Literary History"? (The original title, Storia delta letteratura, is equally problematic; and comparable difficulty arises with titles like Histoire littéraire or Literaturgeschichte.) The authors suggest (1, xi) that "literatures" are defined by their languages, whereas Christian literature is defined by its content. They admit that the languages used have their own histories and therefore their own effects; but they would not divide Christian literature in the first instance according to language.

One should note at once the authors' deliberate omission of material in Syriac and other languages of the Oriens christianus. It is true that the earliest Christian texts have to be placed within the context of (predominantly Greek) Hellenistic culture, which they modified by their particular approach to sacred texts and sacred rituals, to the Hebrew Bible, and the sacramental life. Yet the impact of languages further east, not to mention Hebrew itself and Aramaic, had become apparent by the second century at the latest, and continued to grow in importance. It also has to be borne in mind that several elements of early Christian literature survive only in their "eastern" translations and recensions-which raises the immediate question of whether the survivals mirror accurately the originals. In short, it is no longer acceptable to fly the Greek-and-Latin flag and still lay claim to an inclusive "Christianity."

I also think an opportunity was lost when the authors turned to the Latin tradition, in which "the importance of the Bible . . . was utterly decisive" (I, 318). Here a new thread could have been identified and pursued; but that does not happen, and in particular there is never an attempt to set down in one place a comparison between the Greek biblical tradition, so conscious (with time) of both the Hebrew and the Septuagint texts, and the Latin tradition, based essentiaEy (until Jerome) on a translation or translations. How odd, also, to confine to a chapter on "The First Christian Literature of the West" the observation that Christians "tried to find in the Bible elements that could be matched to standards by which secular texts were usually judged" (1, 323)-hardly a peculiarity of the West.

A real attempt is, however, made to define a literary history. "Literary forms and genres were adapted to the needs of the new faith," and "literary history focuses on the development of literary forms in relation to the development of institutions and ideas" (I, xiii). In other words, needs, institutions, and ideas have a certain priority, an explanatory force in relation to the texts themselves (even though the needs are betrayed to us only in texts). These are brave avowals, but the temptation to rest content with textual forms alone is never quite resisted. "In literature," the authors declare, "it is not possible to reach the same certainty-or probability-as in the interpretation of historical or economic facts" (whatever they are, I, 317), which is to overlook their earlier suggestion that the two have to go hand in hand: if one lacks security, then so does the other. When we come, in the second volume, to the period after Constantine,we find amore explicit emphasis on "rhetoric," which encourages or demands "a reading that includes formal structures as part of the linkage of literature with its times"-which must consist in part, one assumes, in "needs, institutions, and ideas." "In late antiquity," we learn, "reality and rhetoric were closely connected in an indissoluble symbiosis" (II, 9).

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