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From Qumran to Qur’ān: the Religious Worlds of Ancient Christianity*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Guy G. Stroumsa*
Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University of Oxford


This essay seeks to present, in a nutshell, a number of reflections on the long trajectory of ancient Christianity, particularly in the East, from its beginnings until the coming of Islam. As is well known, the Islamic conquests transformed the Christian self-understanding in the East, on both sides of the border between Byzantium and the Caliphate. In the West, too, the consciousness of the new, powerful challenge to the Christian empire was never very far away. Hence the advent of Islam constitutes the first real challenge to the belief in the ecumenical destiny of Christianity.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2015

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I should like to thank Professor John Wolffe for his generous invitation to present this work in the form of a keynote lecture at the conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society held in Chichester in July 2013.


1 For a panoramic vision of the perception of nascent Islam by contemporary Christians, see Howard-Johnston, James, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford, 2010).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 See, for instance, Stroumsa, G. G., Savoir et salut: traditions juives et tentations dualistes dans le christianisme ancien (Paris, 1992)Google Scholar; idem, Barbarian Philosophy: The Religious Revolution of Early Christianity (Tübingen, 1999).Google Scholar

3 For Troeltsch’s main work on sociology of religion, see his The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, transl. Wyon, Olive (Louisville, KY,1992; first publ. in German 1912 and in English 1931)Google Scholar. Weber’s concepts of charisma and routine were mainly developed in his The Theory of Social and Economic Organizations, transl. Henderson, A. M. and Parsons, Talcott (New York, 1947; first publ. in German 1921).Google Scholar

4 See Becker, Adam H. and Reed, Annette Yoshiko, eds, The Ways that never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Minneapolis, MN, 2007; first publ. Tübingen, 2003).Google Scholar

5 See Friedmann, Yohanan, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition (Cambridge, 2003).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 For a brilliant work of haute vulgarisation describing the different religious worlds of the late antique Near East up to the coming of Islam, see Holland, Tom, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (London, 2012).Google Scholar

7 On the use of ‘laboratory’ for describing the emergence of various theological schools in Early Christianity, see Löhr, Winrich, ‘Epiphanes’ Schrift Peri diakaiosyês (= Clemens Alexandrinus, Str. III, 6, 1—9,3)’Google Scholar, in Logos. Festschrift für Luise Abramowski, ed. Brennecke, H. C., Grasmück, E. L. and Markschies, C. (Berlin and New York, 1993), 12—29, at 29.Google Scholar

8 See, for instance, Stroumsa, G. G., ‘Religious Dynamics between Christians and Jews in Late Antiquity’, in Casiday, Augustine and Norris, Frederick W., eds, CHC, 2: Constantine to c.600 (Cambridge, 2007), 151—72.Google Scholar

9 Hopkins, Keith, A World Full of Cods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity (New York, 2001).Google Scholar

10 See, for instance, Vermes, Geza, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 3rd edn (London, 1987)Google Scholar; also idem, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective (Philadelphia, PA, 1977).Google Scholar

11 The literature is of course immense. On John the Baptist and the Essenes, see, for instance, Stegemann, Hartmut, Die Essener, Johannes der Taufer und Jesus (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1998)Google Scholar. For two classics, see Vermes, Geza, Jesus and the World of Judaism (London, 1983)Google Scholar; Sanders, E. P., The Historical Figure of Jesus (London, 1995).Google Scholar

12 See, for instance, Mimouni, Simon Claude, Le judéo-christianisme ancien: essais historiques (Paris, 1998).Google Scholar

13 Irenaeus, , Against Heresies 1.29 (transl. Rousseau, A. and Doutreleau, L., Sources Chrétiennes 264 [Paris, 1979], 3589).Google Scholar For an authoritative presentation, see Brakke, David, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity (Cambridge, MA, and London, 2010).Google Scholar

14 See, for instance, Strounisa, G. G., ‘Jewish Christianity and Islamic Origins’, in Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts: Essays in Honor of Patricia Crone, ed. Sadeghi, Benham et al., Islamic History and Civilization 114 (Leiden and Boston, MA, 2014), 72—96.Google Scholar

15 Wansbrough, John, The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (Oxford, 1978).Google Scholar

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18 What the anthropologist Dan Sperber, together with the psychologist Deirdre Wilson, has called the ‘epidemiology of representations’ might prove here a useful conception: Sperber, Dan, ‘Anthropology and Psychology: Towards an Epidemiology of Representations’, Man n.s. 20 (1984), 73—89.Google Scholar Sperber researches the ways in which microprocesses of cultural transmission affect the macro-structure of culture, its contents and its evolution. In other words, he asks how social phenomena related to psychological, mental phenomena. On our side, we should ask how both theologoumena and modes of religiosity are transformed in history: see G. G. Stroumsa, ‘Patterns of Rationalization in Late Antique Religion’, forthcoming.

19 For a grand and authoritative overview of the Islamic conquests, see Kennedy, Hugh N., The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World we live in (Philadelphia, PA, 2007).Google Scholar

20 See, for instance, Stroumsa, G. G., ‘Athens, Jerusalem and Mecca: The Patristic Crucible of the Abrahamic Religions’, in Markus Vinzent, ed., Studia Patristica 62, Papers presented at the Sixteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 2011, 10: The Genres of Late Antique Literature; Foucault and the Practice of Patristics; Patristic Studies in Latin America; Historica (Leuven, 2013), 153—68.Google Scholar

21 On the concept of the Abrahamic religions, see Stroumsa, G. G., ‘From Abraham’s Religion to the Abrahamic Religions’, in Historia Religionutn 3 (2011), 11—22.Google Scholar

22 For a detailed historical study of the conflict between empires in the late antique Near East, see Saris, Peter, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700 (Oxford, 2011).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 Veyne, P., Quand notre monde est devenu chrétien (Paris, 2007)Google Scholar; Balnez, Marie-Françoise, Comment notre monde est devenu chrétien (Paris, 2008)Google Scholar. On patterns of Christia-nization, see Inglebert, Hervé, Destephen, Sylvain and Dumézil, Bruno, eds, Le problème de la christianisation du monde antique (Paris, 2010).Google Scholar

24 Boyarin has expressed his views in a number of essays; see in particular his Border Lines:The Partition of Judeo-Christianity (Philadelphia, PA, 2004).Google Scholar

25 I assume here that any definition of religion would include a mixture of words and deeds, of myths and rituals.

26 Stroumsa, G. G., The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity (Chicago, IL, 2009)Google Scholar, first publ. as La fin du sacrifice: Mutations religieuses de l’antiquité tardive (Paris, 2005). For a succinct presentation of the book’s main theses, see my ‘The End of Sacrifice: Religious Mutations of Late Antiquity’, in Arnason, J. and Raaflaub, K., eds, The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (London, 2011), 134—47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 See, for instance, Marrou, Henri-Irénée, Décadence romaine ou antiquité tardive? IIIe—IVe siécle (Paris, 1977)Google Scholar; for Marrou, the new religiosity constituted the main originality of late antiquity. See also Dodds, Eric R., Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine (Cambridge, 1965)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fox, Robin Lane, Pagans and Christians (Harmondsworth, 1986)Google Scholar; Brown, Peter, ‘Brave Old World’ (a review of Lane Fox’s book), New York Review of Books, 12 March 1987, 27.Google Scholar

28 For a new analysis of Jaspers’s thesis, see Eisenstadt, S. N., ed., The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations (Albany, NY, 1986)Google Scholar; cf. Stroumsa, G. G., ‘Robert Bellah on the Origins of Religion —A Critical Reviewl’, Revue de l’histoire des religious 229 (2012), 467—77 Google Scholar. See further Bellah, Robert N. and Joas, Hans, eds., The Axial Age and tts Consequences (Cambridge, MA, and London, 2012).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29 For further developments, see Stroumsa, , Barbarian Philosophy, 8—26.Google Scholar

30 On this, see Stroumsa,’Religious Dynamics’.

31 For an excellent study of religious violence in late antiquity, see Sizgorich, Thomas, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam (Philadelphia, PA, 2009).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32 This is developed in Stroumsa, , Barbarian Philosophy, 44—56.Google Scholar

33 Cf. Stroumsa, , End of Sacrifice, ch. I.Google Scholar