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The Early Church in North America: Late Antiquity, Theory, and the History of Christianity

  • David Brakke


By almost any measure, the study of ancient Christian history is alive and well, even if one limits one's view to the North American scene. Over the last three decades the number of publications in the field, both books and articles, has grown considerably, fueling (among other things) the astonishing success of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, founded by the North American Patristic Society (NAPS) a decade'ago. Each year the program of the annual meeting of NAPS features more papers and attracts more participants (even though they must stay in less than ideal, even appropriately monastic, dormitory rooms). The number of papers on early Christian topics at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature (as well as the American Philological Association) is very impressive.



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1. Rev. edn. (London: Penguin Books, 1993).

2. Cameron, Averil, The Later Roman Empire, AD 284–430 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity, AD 395–600 (New York: Routledge, 1993).

3. Doran, Robert, Birth of a Worldview: Early Christianity in its Jewish and Pagan (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1995); Kelly, Joseph F., The World of the Early Christians (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1997). The controversial A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity by Hopkins, Keith (New York: Free Press, 2000) has entertaining moments, but its actual coverage of early Christianity is spotty. Throughout this essay bibliographic references are meant to be illustrative rather than definitive or exhaustive.

4. Many (but not all) of the authors in the outstanding series The Transformation of the Classical Heritage, edited by Peter Brown and published by the University of California Press, are classicists or historians treating Christian persons or materials.

5. Cox, Patricia, Biography in Late Antiquity: A Quest for the Holy Man, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage 5 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1983); Miller, Patricia Cox, Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994); Frankfurter, David, Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998); Smith, Jonathan Z., Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

6. Valantasis, Richard, ed., Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice, Princeton Readings in Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).

7. I told a scholar in Buddhist studies in my department that I was traveling to this conference, and she already knew that our colleague, Robert Orsi, was attending the same meeting. What kind of conference could it be, she asked, that includes both of us? This colleague knows that both Orsi and I are historians of Christianity, but that commonality does not register as strongly as the differences between us in time periods and methodologies.

8. The “purity” position is best exemplified by Wiebe, Donald, The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy (New York: St. Martin's, 1998). I find more congenial (not to mention realistic) the “genre bending” advocated by Miller, Richard B., Casuistry and Modern Ethics: A Poetics of Practical Reasoning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 199221.

9. See for example King, Richard, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India “The Mystic East” (New York: Routledge, 1999).

10. Fitzgerald, Timothy, The Ideology of Religious Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

11. Strohm, Paul, Theory and the Premodern Text, Medieval Cultures 26 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), xiv.

12. Clark, Elizabeth A., “The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the ‘Linguistic Turn,’” Church History 67 (1998): 131; Clark, Elizabeth, “Rewriting Early Christian History: Augustine's Representation of Monica,” in Portraits of Spiritual Authority: Religious Power in Early Christianity, Byzantium and the Christian Orient, ed. Drijvers, Jan Willem and Watt, John W., Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 137 (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 323; Clark, Elizabeth, “Women, Gender, and the Study of Christian History,” Church History 70 (2001): 395426.

13. Barnes, Timothy D., Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

14. Stewart, Columba, Cassian the Monk, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

15. “Nostalgia” is probably not the best word for Young's, Frances M.Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), although even here the alleged failure of historical criticism to speak to contemporary Christians is invoked as a motivation to study the Fathers. This sensibility informs Hall, Christopher A., Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, Inter Varsity, 1998) and portions of the collection edited by Fowl, Stephen E., The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997), especially the essays of David C. Steinmetz (although he prefers medieval rather than patristic exegesis) and David Yeago. Two major new book series aim to restore the Fathers as interpretive authorities: The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS; InterVarsity Press), of which several volumes have appeared, and The Church's Bible (Eerdmans), of which no volume has yet appeared. For the aims of ACCS, with disparaging remarks about “the Enlightenment,” “modernity,” and “historical criticism,” see For the aims of The Church's Bible, see Robert Wilken, “The Church's Bible” (www., who speaks less polemically of Christians “dissatisfied with the results of historical-critical biblical scholarship,” which implies that the Bible's “home is the university not the Church.” Predictably, competition between the two series has generated some heat: see Young, Robin Darling, “Texts Have Consequences,” First Things 91 (March 1999): 4043, and the responding letters in First Things 94 (June/July 1999): 2–7.

16. Norris, Frederick W., “Black Marks on the Communities’ Manuscripts,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 2 (1994): 443-66.

17. Ibid., 465. Tertullian no doubt would object to Norris’ desire that NAPS be a place where “Christians” and “Gnostics” can “talk to each other” and even learn from one another.

18. For a critique of postliberal theology on these grounds, see Tanner, Kathryn, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), esp. 93155. For a more complicated understanding of the position of the Christian historian, see Bobertz, Charles A., “Prolegomena to a Ritual-Liturgical Reading of the Gospel of Mark,” in Reading in Christian Communities: Essays on Interpretation in the Early Church, ed. Bobertz, Charles A. and Brakke, David, Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002): 174-87.

19. See Arianism after Arius: Essays on the Development of the Fourth Century Trinitarian Conflict, ed. Barnes, Michel R. and Williams, Daniel H. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993), esp. Rebecca Lyman, “A Topography of Heresy: Mapping the Rhetorical Creation of Arianism” (45–62); the essays in “The Markings of Heresy: Body, Text, and Community in Late Ancient Christianity,” a special issue of the Journal of Early Christian Studies 4 (1996): 403513; Shaw, Teresa M., “Wolves in Sheeps' Clothing: The Appearance of True and False Piety,” Studia Patristica 29 (1997): 127-32; the contributions of Elm, Susanna, Lyman, Rebecca, and Burrus, Virginia to Orthodoxie, Christianisme, Histoire/Orthodoxy, Christianity, History, ed. Elm, Susanna, Rebillard, Éric, and Romano, Antonella, Collection de l'école française de Rome 270 (Rome: École française de Rome, 2000).

20. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000). 21. Oddly, though, thanks to their shared attention to the rhetorical dimension of patristic literature and thought, these two perspectives can sometimes occupy the same volume: Christian Origins: Theology, Rhetoric and Community, ed. Ayres, Lewis and Jones, Gareth (New York: Routledge, 1998).

22. Cameron, Averil, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse, Sather Classical Lectures 55 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1991); Clark, Elizabeth A., Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Chris tianity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).

23. Clark, Reading Renunciation, 371–73.

24. See Clark, “The Lady Vanishes” and “Women, Gender, and the Study of Christian History,” for consideration of this issue with regard to the study of women. For the following discussion I am indebted to Andrew S. Jacobs, “The Lion and the Lamb: Rethinking Rhetoric, Reality, and ‘Jewish-Christian Relations,’” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the North American Patristic Society, Chicago, May 2001.

25. For example, Harnack, Adolf von, Die Altercatio Simonis Iudaei et Theophili Christiani: Nebst Untersuchungen über die antijüdische Polemik in der alten Kirche, TU 1.3 (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1883). The inventor of the term “Spätjudentum” may have been Bousset, Wilhelm, Die Religion des Judentums in neutestamentlichen Zeitalter (1903; reprint Berlin: Ruether and Reichard, 1906) (Jaffee, Martin, Early Judaism [Princeton, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1997], 22).

26. Simon, Marcel, Verus Israel: A Study in the Relations Between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire (135–425), trans. McKeating, H. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). 27. The labeling of this approach as the “conflict model” or “conflict theory” may be attributed to Taylor, Miriam, Anti-Judaism and Early Christian Identity: A Critique of the Scholarly Consensus, Studia Post-Biblica 46 (Leiden: Brill, 1995).

28. See Merendino, Pius, Paschale Sacramentum: Eine Untersuchung über die Osterkatachese des hl. Athanasius von Alexandrien in ihrer Beziehung zu den frühchristlichen exegetischtheologischen Überlieferungen, Liturgiewissenschaftliche Quellen und Forschungen 42 (Munich: Aschendorff, 1965), 16 (Alexandrian Jews as “belligerent”); De Lange, Nicholas, Origen and the Jews: Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations in Third-Century Palestine, University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 25 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976); Wilken, Robert L., John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage 4 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1983).

29. Taylor, Anti-Judaism and Early Christian Identity, passim. In turn, Taylor has her critics, chief among them Paget, James Carleton, “Anti-Judaism and Early Christian Identity,” Zeitschrift für Antike Christentum 1 (1997): 195225.

30. E.g., Cameron, Averil, “The Jews in Seventh-Century Palestine,” Scripta Classica Israelica 13 (1994): 7593. More recently, among many examples, see Jacobs, Andrew S., “Visible Ghosts and Invisible Demons: The Place of Jews in Early Christian Terra Sancta,” in Galilee Through the Centuries: Confluence of Cultures, ed. Meyers, Eric M. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 359-76; “The Place of the Biblical Jew in the Early Christian Holy Land,” Studia Patristica 38 (2001): 417-22; “Judea Sancta”: Holy Land Jews and Making of a Christian Empire (Stanford University Press, forthcoming); Shepardson, Christine, “Anti-Jewish Rhetoric and Intra-Christian Conflict in the Sermons of Ephrem Syrus,” Studia Patristica 35 (2001): 502-07.

31. For example, Shoemaker, Stephen J., “‘Let Us Go and Burn Her Body’: The Image of the Jews in the Early Dormition Traditions,” Church History 68 (1999): 775823; Brakke, David, “Jewish Flesh and Christian Spirit in Athanasius of Alexandria,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 9 (2001): 453-81.

32. Boyarin, Daniel, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism, Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999), esp. 141; Fonrobert, Charlotte, “The Didascalia Apostolorum: A Mishnah for the Disciples of Jesus,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 9 (2001): 483509.

33. Spiegel, Gabrielle M., The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, Parallax: Re-Visions of Culture and Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

34. Similarly Clark, “Lady Vanishes,” 14–15; Clark, “Rewriting Early Christian History,” 8.

35. Theory and the Premodern Text, xv-xvi, the source of the quoted phrases and terms that follow, with one exception noted.

36. The phrase comes from Greenblatt, Stephen, “Toward a Poetics of Culture,” in The New Historicism, ed. Veeser, H. Aram (New York: Routledge, 1989), 114. Of the recent trends in literary studies, New Historicism may have the most to offer the historian of religion, since it combines an appreciation for representation with “a touch of the real”: see now the essays in Gallagher, Catherine and Greenblatt, Stephen, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

37. Cf. Clark, “Lady Vanishes,” 12. Among the theoretical perspectives that may be useful in this effort, depending on the agenda set by the text, are Foucauldian power analysis, gender studies, queer theory (e.g., Burrus, Virginia, “Queer Lives of Saints: Jerome's Hagiography,” journal of the History of Sexuality 10 [2001]: 442-79), post-colonialist analysis (e.g., Jacobs, “Judea Sancta”; Brakke, David, “Ethiopian Demons: Male Sexuality, the Black-Skinned Other, and the Monastic Self,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10 [2001]: 501-35), and a chastened form of psychoanalysis (see Elliott, Dyan, Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages, The Middle Ages Series [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1999], 79; Strohm, Theory and the Premodern Text, xvi, 165–214, standing behind my next point, the “textual unsaid”).

36. For these themes especially in New Testament studies see my “Cultural Studies. Ein neues Paradigma US-amerikanischer Exegese,” Zeitschrift für Neues Testament 2 (1998): 6977.

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The Early Church in North America: Late Antiquity, Theory, and the History of Christianity

  • David Brakke


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