Book Review: Christianity In The Roman Empire

Christianity In The Roman Empire:  Key Figures, Beliefs, And Practices Of The Early Church, by Robert E. Winn

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Hendrickson Publishers.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

In reading this book I must admit I am rather two minds.  On the one hand, I found the author’s discussion of the church fathers and early apologists and the context of Hellenistic Christianity to be deeply interesting, and something I have often read and written about myself [1], but my pleasure in reading the book was not unmixed because it is clear that the author has beliefs about the continuity between apostolic Christianity and Hellenistic Christianity that I do not have and this wide gulf in belief made it impossible for me to agree with the author’s conclusions.  For the author, the apostolic fathers form a chain of succession with the Gospels, while for me they form a rejection of the practice and belief system of the apostles and a rejection of God’s laws and God’s ways that was never accepted by the apostles themselves.  While many readers will find this book to be deeply interesting, those readers who do not share the author’s background and loyalty to Hellenistic Christianity will not find the author’s connection between the church of Diotrophes and his successors (like Ignatius and Cyprian and the author of the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas) and that of the apostles.

In terms of its contents, this book is about 150 pages long and consists of fifteen short chapters in three parts.  The first part of the book looks at Christianity in the early second century, with chapters on the complex relationship between Jews, Christians, and Romans at that time (1), the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas as evidence of a “new” way of life (albeit not necessarily a biblical one) (2), the relationship between Clement of Rome and the church of God at Corinth (3), the dubious tie between Ignatius of Antioch and true Christianity (4), and the issue of worship and church order in the early second century (5).  The second part of the book looks at Christianity in a hostile world between 100 and 250 AD, through a look at the writings of Celsus (6), Justin Martyr, an early Hellenistic Christian apologist (7), the issue of the persecution of Christians (8), the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity (9), and Cyprian and the issue of church unity (10).  The third part of the book examines the faith and practice of the third century with chapters on reading the Bible (11), Irenaeus of Lyons (12), Tertullian (13), the prayer and spiritual life of early Christians (14), and Eusebius of Caesarea (15).

Throughout the book, and in many of the discussion questions included helpfully at the end of each chapter, there is a strong attempt by the author to connect the various thinkers of the early Hellenistic Christian church with “true” Christianity.  The author takes it for granted that the Nicene church sprang out of genuine Christianity rather than being descended from a group of authoritarian (see Athanasius and Ignatius for this tendency) professed believers who sought to view the Bible in a Hellenistic worldview that was hostile to the laws of God and especially the Sabbath and was largely ignorant of God’s family planning by placing instead of this a closed trinitarian godhead.  The fact that the author and I disagree fundamentally on the presuppositions of the work made this book less enjoyable than it would be otherwise.  Since most professed Christians do spring from the Hellenistic Christianity of the author, though, this book will likely be very encouraging for them to examine the roots and institutional development of their faith that the author examines so enthusiastically.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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