Christian Origins: A People's History of Christianity, Volume 1/late Ancient Christianity: A People's History of Christianity, Volume 2

By Hearon, Holly E. | Interpretation, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Christian Origins: A People's History of Christianity, Volume 1/late Ancient Christianity: A People's History of Christianity, Volume 2


Hearon, Holly E., Interpretation


Christian Origins: A People's History of Christianity, Volume 1 edited by Richard A. Horsley Fortress, Minneapolis, 2005. 318 pp. $35.00. ISBN 0-8006-3411-X.

Late Ancient Christianity: A People's History of Christianity, Volume 2 edited by Virginia Burrus Fortress, Minneapolis, 2005. 318 pp. $35.00. ISBN 0-8006-3412-8.

UNDER THE DIRECTION OF Denis R. Janz (Provost Distinguished Professor of the History of Christianity at Loyola University), Fortress Press has undertaken the exciting and ambitious project of producing a people's history of Christianity. According to Janz, the goal of the series is to study the religious lives, pious practices, and self-understandings of the "people" as Christians. The series will cover twenty centuries in seven volumes; the first three volumes are currently available and this review will discuss vols. 1 and 2. Judging by these first two volumes, every effort is being made to bring together notable scholars who are able to provide first-rate scholarship in a format that is accessible to a wide audience. Janz wisely observes that the series is not intended to be either comprehensive or definitive: "Essentially, what we offer here is a preliminary attempt at a new and more adequate version of the Christian story-one that features the people" (vol. 1, p. xv).

But who, precisely, are the people? The complexity of this question is signaled by the fact that the first two volumes answer the question differently. For Richard Horsley, editor of vol. 1 (Christian Origins), the "people" are the non-elite: not the non-elite within Christianity, but "small groups from the people subject to the wealthy and powerful imperial elite and their aristocracies in the provinces and cities of the Roman Empire" (p. 3). Operating under this definition, each of the essays in this volume offers a critical analysis of status systems in the ancient world. One critique that could be made is that readers are subjected to repeated discussions of the situation of Judean and Galilean peasants; however, these discussions are shaped to the particular foci of each chapter and allow the chapters to stand independently. Several essays are careful to distinguish between the experiences of men and women (see Wire, Pickett, Callahan, Osiek, Martin, and Rossing), an occurrence that is rare in scholarship and, consequently, welcome where it occurs in this volume.

Virginia Burrus and Rebecca Lyman, writing in the introduction to vol. 2 (Late Ancient Christianity), are more cautious in attempting to offer an answer to the question, "Who are the people?" This is, in part, because the picture has changed. By the second and third centuries, the social and economic makeup of the Christian movement was far more complex, as was its relationship to the Roman empire; and within the movement itself, divisions of status were being increasingly created. Burrus, as editor of this volume, chooses to focus on the multiplicity of voices that are represented in the local and everyday practices of men, women, and children: the "peoples" rather than the "people". Many of these practices are shared by both elite and non-elite; the distinction drawn here is more often between clergy and laity, orthodoxy and heterodoxy. As in vol. 1, several essays distinguish the experience of women from that of men (see Clark, Perkins, Young, Horn, and Fonrobert).

Read alongside each other, these two volumes offer a helpful critique of one another. Volume 2 suggests that future studies of Christian origins would benefit from greater attention to status divisions that were present within emerging Christianity, a subject largely absent from vol. 1, although touched upon in essays by Antoinette Clark Wire, Ray Pickett, Clarice Martin, and Barbara Rossing. In contrast, vol. 1 challenges students of late ancient Christianity to engage more thoroughly issues of social status in relation to local practice, a topic that emerges only in essays by Elizabeth Clark, Robin Darling Young, and Cornelia Horn.

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