The Graeco-Roman Context of Early Christian Literature

By Maclean, Jennifer K. Berenson | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Graeco-Roman Context of Early Christian Literature


Maclean, Jennifer K. Berenson, Journal of Biblical Literature


The Graeco-Roman Context of Early Christian Literature, by Roman Garrison. JSNTSup 137. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. Pp. 123. 24.50/$35.00.

Garrison's book focuses on the relationship of early Christian literature to GrecoRoman philosophy, poetry, and cultural practices. After an introductory chapter, he explores eight different issues in separate chapters. Garrison's introductory chapter defends the necessity of investigating early Christianity in its Greco-Roman context by appealing to two distinct reactions to Greco-Roman culture exhibited by early Christians: virulent polemics against the mythic portrayal of the gods as immoral, anthropomorphic, and duplicitous, and "cautious acceptance of the Greek poets and philosophers" (p. 14). Thus although ecclesiastical rhetoric has traditionally denied that Christian beliefs and practices had been influenced by Greco-Roman culture, and, according to Garrison, modern scholarship has followed its lead in emphasizing the Jewish origins of Christianity, the explicit statements of the early Christians themselves warrant a closer investigation of the influence of Hellenistic culture on early Christianity. "While the affirmation of the Jewish and Palestinian roots of early Christianity is certainly justified, to emphasize this influence to the neglect of significant 'Hellenistic' sources and parallels risks distorting our understanding of Christian origins" (pp. 20-21). Garrison sets out "to offer an understanding of how certain themes, stories, and concepts from the Hellenistic world may well have influenced the teachings and writings of the early Christians" (p. 23) or alternatively, "to call attention to the social and even linguistic setting of early Christian literature and, secondly, to explore the apparent significance of specific `parallels"' (p. 26).

Eight such connections or parallels are explored in the ensuing chapters. In chapter 2 Garrison suggests that Paul's exaltation of agape in 1 Corinthians 13 is an implicit polemic against Aphrodite's influence on the Corinthians' sexual behavior. In chapter 3 the topic is the symposium and its impact on early Christian meals. Chapter 4 examines Mark's and Luke's utilization of the literary topos of an individual's last words. In chapter 5 Garrison argues that Clement of Rome's awareness of contemporary political philosophy influenced his choice of the "state" as a metaphor for the church and the specific ways in which he addressed the conflict in Corinth. Chapter 6 addresses Matthew's depiction of Jesus as fulfilling God's will by drawing on the literary representations of Achilles, Socrates, and Ignatius of Antioch. Redemptive almsgiving in Polycarp's letter to the Philippians and its relation to the Hellenistic vice of the love of money is discussed in chapter 7. Chapter 8 addresses controversies evident in 1 Corinthians and Ignatius about the nature of the kingdom of God. The final chapter deals with Paul's adaptation of the topos of the athlete in Hellenistic moral philosophy.

While Garrison is right to emphasize that understanding the Greco-Roman context of early Christianity is essential (pp. 20-23), and while his use of noncanonical Christian sources to shed light on the NT is noteworthy, his arguments for "specific `parallels"' need to be developed in greater detail to be convincing. As Garrison himself surprisingly admits, in this book he is defending no specific thesis (p. …

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