From Clement to Origen: The Social and Historical Context of the Church Fathers. By David Ivan Rankin


Pp. x, 171 , Aldershot : Ashgate Publishing , 2006 , £45.00 .

David Rankin, already known for his work of Tertullian, offers in this book a survey of early Christian theology set in its social and historical context. On his very first page, he claims that attention to the social and historical context of early Christianity is rare on the part of patristic scholars. Fifty years ago, such a remark would have been unexceptional, but there has been a revolution in patristics in the last half-century, associated partly with the name of Peter Brown, so that, if anything, attention to the Fathers themselves is in danger of getting lost in interest in their social and political background. It also begins to emerge, as one reads into the book, that there is some unclarity as to whether this book is about the social and historical context, or about setting the early Christian writers in their social and historical context, or even discerning what we can learn about the social and historical context from the works of the Fathers (this latter emerges when Rankin laments that some of the Fathers give little hint as to their social and historical context). Nevertheless, whatever the book is about, it is arranged city-by-city with chapters on Rome, Carthage, Antioch and Asia Minor, and Alexandria. Each chapter begins with a page or two on the city involved, and then plunges into the Fathers, treated one-by-one; the introductory page is not enough to evoke much sense of the difference between (say) Rome and Alexandria and mostly concerns the ancient history of the city that a theological student might be thought not to know, rather than giving much sense of the social and historical context in late antiquity. There are rather a lot of Fathers, so everything is very rushed, and one is left wondering what has been achieved in putting all this information together. There is no space to consider what difference the several geographical contexts might entail. There are some odd locations: notably, Minucius Felix in Rome, rather than his native North Africa, though the fact that he can be seen as belonging to both might have provoked some reflection on what difference it makes. Rankin is pretty well up in the recent scholarly literature (though one is amazed that Peter Lampe's Die stadtrömische Christen is completely overlooked), and much of the discussion concerns the latest scholarly theories. Clearly this is of some merit for some, but it sounds odd to discuss the vexed issue of the statue of ‘Hippolytus’ by going back no further than Alan Brent's recent book. The bibliography is really quite strange: at first glace it looks quite comprehensive, but then one notices gaps. There is no mention of Molly Whittaker's edition and translation of Tatian or even her critical edition of Hermas, and the invaluable annotated translation of Cyprian's letters by G.W. Clarke, a fellow Australian, is in four volumes not three (and the last volume came out in 1989). The copy-editing, too, has left a lot to be desired: there is not much consistency in referencing, and the placing of a space before a footnote cue has predictably left some of these cues dangling in the air at the beginning of a line.