G. CLARK, Christianity and Roman Society. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004. Pp. xii + 137. ISBN 0-521-63386-9. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). ISBN 0-521-66569-8. STG £15.99 (Pb).
Review by David Woods
This slight volume is part of the series Key Themes in Ancient History, and one suspects that its main faults ought to be laid at the doors of the editors of this series rather than of the author herself. The main problem is that the basic purpose of this volume remains unclear. On the one hand, it is not suitable for use as a text-book. There are no maps, tables, diagrams, photographs, or mnemonic aids of any kind. Furthermore, it is too selective in its coverage to be used as a general introduction to the history of the early church. This is strange because the author seems to think that she has written a work by which one could introduce the university students of a ?post-Christian society? to early Christianity (pp. 1-2). On the other hand, this book is extremely superficial. There are no original insights. The author rushes through each of the sub-themes within the book, and there are practically no notes of any kind. On most issues, she simply refers us to the author of latest English-language book or article on this topic by including their name and date in brackets within the text. References to primary sources are minimal. The result is that each chapter resembles nothing so much as a superficial review of the latest English-language publications on the relevant sub-themes.
The chronological coverage of the book effectively extends from the life of Christ to the death of Augustine of Hippo in 430. There are six chapters. Chapter 1 is an introduction. It explains the contents of the book and sets the scene by explaining who Jesus was and identifying the more important differences between Christians and the mass of Roman society. Chapter 2, ?Christians and Others?, surveys the attitude of pagan writers towards the rise of Christianity, the reasons for the growth of the church, and the rise of different schools of thought, or heresies, within the church. Chapter 3, ?The Blood of the Martyrs?, surveys the reasons for the persecution of Christians, the process of martyrdom, and the rise of the cult of saints and the traffic in relics. Chapter 4, ?Body and Soul?, surveys the rise of the ascetic way of life within the church. Chapter 5, ?People of the Book?, discusses the level of literacy within the Christian population, access to education among the wider Christian population, and the relationship between the developing Christian and traditional classical systems of education. Chapter 6, ?Triumph, Disaster, or Adaptation ??, discusses the mutual effects which church and state had upon one another following the legalization, promotion, then adoption of Catholicism as the official religion of the state during the 4th and 5th centuries.
Unfortunately, this book fails to address many of the more obvious questions which the average ?post-Christian? student would surely ask. Or even the average Christian student, given the laughable state of Christian education in modern Europe. I will highlight two more obvious gaps. First, there is no clear explanation of the organization of the early church, in particular, the origin and evolution of the various offices of deacon, priest, and bishop. That on p. 28 is most unsatisfactory, not least because it could deceive the unwary into believing that modern ?presbyterian? churches can trace a continuous descent from the communities mentioned by St. Paul. Nor is there any discussion of the relationship between various episcopal sees, the origin and conduct of church councils, or the origin and nature of papal primacy. Second, there is no clear statement of basic Christian doctrines, nor the way in which the understanding of these doctrines evolved over the centuries. Again, the subject is touched upon in a fleeting manner during the discussion of ?heresy? (pp. 30-34), but a more systematic treatment is badly needed. Yet even when the author does purport to discuss a subject in some depth, readers will be left with some obvious gaps in their knowledge. For example, the chapter on martyrs does not mention the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Nor does it contain any discussion of the role of church calendars or martyrologies in continuing or spreading the memory of the martyrs. Similarly, ?People of the Book?, does not outline even the most basic facts concerning the nature and evolution of the Christian canon. The ?when? and ?what? are studiously ignored.
Finally, the author remains politically correct throughout. Some may like this approach. Others may not. There is the obligatory reference to AIDS (p. 44), and the patron saint of feminist scholarship Perpetua of Carthage - is duly exalted (pp. 40-47, passim). The author, a professed member of the Church of England (p. ix), prefers the inaccurately titled ?Common Era? dating to Christian dating throughout (pp. 4, 14), despite the fact that there is something ridiculous about Christians who fear to use Christian dating, especially when they write about martyrs. Similarly, we are duly informed that ?many present-day theologians? prefer the term ?Hebrew Bible? to ?Old Testament? (p. 9), apparently because the latter could give the impression that ?Jewish scripture is outdated?. I assume that these are supposed to be Christian theologians, although this remains unclear. Nevertheless, the preface concludes with a condescending anecdote concerning a former student of the author?s who had entered her religious order in Ireland before the alleged reforms of the Second Vatican Council. One is reminded of Robert Kilroy-Silk?s description of Ireland as a country peopled with peasants, priests, and pixies. As for the alleged reforms, whatever the intention of the church fathers gathered at the council, these have proven an unmitigated disaster.
In conclusion, the title of this volume, indeed the volume itself, has been carefully crafted to serve the author?s needs and interests. It allows her to dwell on her favourite research topics, but to avoid those topics that do not particularly interest her. For example, the choice of ?Roman Society? rather than ?Roman State? allows her to avoid a more detailed treatment of the subject of the Christian attitude to war and military service (pp. 105-06). Such an approach is entirely acceptable in the case of a research monograph, but most unsatisfactory in the case of a work which purports to be aimed at undergraduate students. Contrary to the publisher?s blurb on the back-cover, this volume does not offer the student of early Christianity ?a comprehensive treatment of its role and influence in Roman society?.