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date: 15 December 2019

Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

The section divisions in this Handbook offer broad ways of organizing early Christian studies. After Part I, Part II considers types of evidence crucial for establishing early Christian history. Part III looks at specific religious identities that have long been the foils against which the meaning of the term ‘Christian’ took shape. Part IV examines the huge geographical expanse of early Christianity. Part V draws out fundamental social structures and ecclesiastical authorities by which ancient Christians organized their lives, whether institutionally, politically, or domestically. Part VI looks at the array of literary forms by which Christians articulated their concerns, identities, interests, debates, memories, practices, and teachings. Part VII considers those expressions through their implementation as activities both collective and individual. Part VIII takes up perennially vibrant areas of theological discussion that have been much affected by the scholarly shifts charted in the Handbook as a whole.

Keywords: Christian studies, Christian history, ecclesiastical authorities, theological discussion, social structures

Recent decades have seen an explosion of research in the area of ‘early Christian studies’. This Handbook has been prepared, in large measure, as a response to that development. Early Christian studies examines the history, literature, thought, practices, and material culture of the Christian religion in late antiquity (c. 100–600 ce). Once pursued primarily as a sub‐speciality within Ecclesiastical History or Theology (that is, as ‘Patristics’), the study of early Christianity has recently emerged as a distinctive and fully interdisciplinary endeavour in its own right, embracing the fields of Classics, Ancient History, Theology, Religious Studies, Art History, and Archaeology, among others. New trends in historiography, critical theory, and the humanistic sciences have also made their mark on this academic discipline.

A number of events have fostered this development. In recent decades there have been discoveries of new documents (for example, the Nag Hammadi Library, the Divjak letters and Dolbeau sermons of Augustine, and the Turfan Manichaean texts). New journals and book series have appeared, as well as a steady stream of new critical editions and translations. ‘Late antiquity’ has increasingly been recognized as a historical period with its own distinctive features and significance.

This proliferation of scholarship on early Christianity has called forth the present volume. When the representatives of Oxford University Press approached us with the idea of editing a volume in the Oxford Handbook series, it seemed an ideal opportunity to provide a useful service to the field. Because of the increasing range and diversity of scholarly work in early Christian studies, it has become impossible (p. 2) for any one scholar to maintain expertise in every aspect of the discipline. Certain topics have provoked an extraordinary amount of discussion (early Christian asceticism, for example, or the fourth‐century Trinitarian controversies); other areas have become highly specialized sub‐disciplines (Manichaean studies, for example, or Gnostic studies). A scholar working in one branch of early Christianity might have little notion of developments in another area of the field. We hope this volume in the Oxford Handbook series will address this difficulty by introducing readers to the wide variety of ways in which ‘early Christian studies’ are conducted and have been conducted, especially within the past thirty years. We intend it to be an aid to research both for beginners and for more seasoned scholars entering an unfamiliar sub‐speciality.

To accomplish this task, we invited contributors to address their topics with the aim of orienting readers to the current ‘state of the question’ in that area. Contributors were asked to reflect on the main questions or issues that have animated research, to provide an introduction to the relevant primary sources, and to offer some guidance on the directions in which future research might be profitably pursued. Depending on the topic, different contributors emphasized one or more of these tasks, but our intention has been to provide a useful starting point for further investigation in that increasingly disparate discipline of ‘early Christian studies’.

This focus on the trajectory of research and the developments within the scholarship itself differentiate this volume from others aiming to provide cogent summary introductions to various topics, figures, or historical assessments (that is, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, or histories). Further, it is the categories, issues, and areas (whether spatial or intellectual) of these developments that have guided our structuring of the essays into broadly defined thematic sections. The structure as a whole is prefaced by a set of prolegomena: three essays surveying the intellectual and scholarly changes that have reframed our study of the early Christian past. We encourage readers to consider the specific discussions of individual chapters against the backdrop of these prefatory essays.

The section divisions offer broad ways of organizing early Christian studies. They also reflect how the changing agendas of scholarship have refocused how we consider even the best known of the ancient materials. Thus, following Part I, ‘Prolegomena’, Part II, ‘Evidence: Material and Textual’, considers types of evidence crucial for establishing early Christian history and for providing concrete assessment of the literary evidence that has long dominated historical reconstruction of ancient history. Part III, ‘Identities’, looks at specific religious identities that have long been the foils against which the meaning of the term ‘Christian’ took shape, both by and for its ancient advocates and by modern scholars (as well as adherents). These labels, common in usage but elusive in historical reality, gain further and more nuanced substance in Part IV, ‘Regions’, where the huge geographical expanse of early Christianity is brought into play. One of the most significant results of recent scholarship has been the realization of the extent to which geographical (p. 3) location affected the issues, concerns, and even forms of early Christianity. Consideration of Donatism in terms other than as a problem confronting Augustine, for example, or of the Cappadocian fathers within their regional context brings to light important but generally neglected features. Part V, ‘Structures and Authorities’, draws out fundamental social structures and ecclesiastical authorities by which ancient Christians organized their lives, whether institutionally, politically, or domestically. Part VI, ‘Expressions of Christian Culture’, looks at the array of literary forms by which Christians articulated their concerns, identities, interests, debates, memories, practices, and teachings. In Part VII, ‘Ritual, Piety, and Practice’, those expressions are considered through their implementation as activities both collective and individual. Part VIII, ‘Theological Themes’, takes up perennially vibrant areas of theological discussion that have been much affected by the scholarly shifts charted in the volume as a whole.

Careful review of the Table of Contents and use of the indexes will help readers find topics or key figures whose locations may not seem to be readily apparent under this organizational scheme. Each essay is followed by suggestions for further reading, as well as important bibliography for the topic. The final chapter of the volume, ‘Instrumenta Studiorum: Tools of the Trade’, provides an extensive guide to various scholarly tools critical to any study of the field: major journals, published series of critical editions and translations, dictionaries and handbooks of various sorts and foci, data bases, websites, and related research tools. Our hope is that the fruitfulness of recent decades can here be not only acknowledged, but also gathered together in a form that will promote rich inquiry for a long time to come.

This volume takes as its chronological duration the period from 100 to 600 ce: that is, the period roughly stretching from the end of the New Testament era to the eve of Islam's appearance on the historical horizon. New Testament studies is in itself a field of massive scholarly enterprise, and its work is handled in a separate volume of the Oxford Handbook series. There will inevitably be some essays in the current volume that require engagement with New Testament materials, just as—at the other end of the chronological spectrum—there will be some that consider trajectories extending into the medieval and Byzantine periods. However, our focus is on that period during which Christianity takes its shape specifically as a religion. The salient issues are not those involving the historical figure of Jesus or his immediate followers or the formation of the New Testament documents, but rather, how the movement around those persons and events became an established, institutionalized, differentiated religion: a body of self‐identified adherents related (however loosely) by practices and beliefs. (p. 4)