The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature. Edited by Frances Young, Lewis Ayres, and Andrew Louth


Pp. xxvii, 538 , Cambridge University Press , 2004 , reprinted 2006 , $38.00 .

Young is Emerita Professor of Theology, University of Birmingham, Ayres is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at the Candler School of Theology and Graduate Division of Religion, Emory University, and Louth is Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at the University of Durham. Acknowledging that the output of Christian literature between c.100 and c.400 represents one of the most influential periods of textual production, this History offers a systematic account of the literature and its setting in Early Christianity, analyzing the work of individual writers as well as surveying the social, cultural and doctrinal context within which Christian literature arose. It provides essays on the major schools of Alexandria, Antioch, Edessa, and Nisibis, covering the major controversies found in each school. This work notably includes feminist and sociological approaches to the material; fifteen different contributors offer a total of forty chapters.

The book is divided into three parts, covering the second, third, and fourth centuries, with two subdivisions within each, an ‘A’ section devoted to the literature of the period, with a ‘B’ section offering perspective on various hermeneutical questions arising from the preceding section. In Part I, entitled ‘The Beginnings: The New Testament to Irenaeus’, R.A. Norris contributes a chapter on the Apostolic and subapostolic writings, as well as a chapter covering Gnostic literature. Young writes about Christian teaching in the third century and then contributes a summative chapter ‘Towards a Hermeneutic of Second-Century Texts.’

In Part II, Ronald Heine begins by providing an illuminative essay on the Alexandrians, with a following chapter on the beginnings of Latin Christian literature. Sebastian Brock offers an essay covering Syriac literature in this period. Young's concluding review of the literary culture and significance of the third century is alone worth the price of the book. The third part, ‘Foundations of a New Culture: From Diocletian to Cyril,’ covers the fourth century. Louth contributes individual chapters on Eusebius and the birth of Church history, the Cappadocians, and the literature of the monastic movement. Sebastian Brock contributes an essay addressing Ephrem and the Syriac tradition. Young again writes a concluding essay regarding the necessity of the interpretation and appropriation of early Christian literature.

The editors have arranged the articles in a logical manner, not alphabetical, which I find to be a strength. All of the articles focus on the literature itself, its interpretation and significance, its context, from historical, social, and philosophical perspectives. This is an excellent reference book for scholars and students alike, which will be a welcome addition as a ‘standard’ work.