The world of ancient Christianity can be daunting, complex, and easily misunderstood. In fact, unless you hold multiple PhDs in archaeology, art history, ancient near eastern studies, patristics, classics, and theology—not to mention the ability to read Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac—then you may be at a loss for where to even begin learning about early Christianity.
Fortunately, you no longer need any of those distinctions to take a deep dive into some of the most formative centuries in the history of the world. The authors and editors of Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, who do have those exact qualifications, have prepared the ideal guide.
Ancient Christians is particularly suited, as the title indicates, for Latter-day Saints—a community that the authors feel have been susceptible to misunderstanding, ignoring, and even judging their “earliest Christian sisters and brothers” (vii). For this reason, Ancient Christians is a gentle corrective, an invitation to reconsider our relationship with “kindred Christian saints” in a spirit of openness, generosity, and admiration (viii).
The core of the volume is laid out in the introduction, where Jason R. Combs illuminates how “Early Latter-day Saints inherited from Protestants a great apostasy narrative” (9). Combs cautions readers against the assumptions that stem from such a narrative, particularly because the term “great apostasy… does not appear in our standard works” (10).
By clarifying what is meant by terms like apostasy and restoration, Combs points out that these doctrines “do not require us to dismiss the inspired insights of ancient Christians or even other modern Christians” (11). Instead, Combs argues: “Rather than imagine ancient (and modern) Christians as duplicitous in their efforts to write about, understand, and practice their faith, it is more accurate to view them as earnest, believing Christians—our spiritual ancestors and modern brothers and sisters” (11).
This paradigmatic view constitutes what Combs calls “a new Latter-day Saint approach to ancient Christianity,” an approach that is both liberating and uplifting—one that seeks to understand early Christians on their own terms with a spirit of love and appreciation (16).
I was personally astonished by how empowering such a paradigm shift could be. As someone who was a victim of many erroneous narratives and biases that were picked up while teaching the apostasy and restoration (poorly) as a missionary, reading this book opened my eyes to a new perspective—one that does not “unnecessarily limit the power, scope, and purposes” of the Restoration in these latter-days (12).
Ancient Christians is a gentle corrective, an invitation to reconsider our relationship with “kindred Christian saints” in a spirit of openness, generosity, and admiration.
By tempering the impulse to Latter-day Saint exceptionalism, this book even suggests that we should honor these early-day saints “for keeping the light of Christ alive… enculturating Christianity across the world, preserving and transmitting scripture, and developing rich traditions of worship and diverse modes of religious life” (508). These ancient Christians, doing the best they could under the circumstances of their own time and place, “devoted their lives to Jesus Christ” just as many of us are striving to do (508). Observing their example can provide respect, strength, and insight as we likewise follow Christ in these latter-days.
The remaining thirteen chapters of the volume are filled with just such insights. I will highlight just a few representative favorites.
In chapter two, Kristian S. Heal masterfully summarizes sermonic culture in early Christianity. As a rhetoric scholar, I appreciated his deft attention to language, tropes, oratorical culture in antiquity, and the way that Christian preaching was influenced by classical rhetoric via Augustine.
In chapter four, Ariel Bybee Laughton traces expansions and contractions of women’s roles. While the earliest Christian women had considerable authority and responsibility in early house-churches, institutionalization shifted worship from the home to the cathedral, which restricted opportunities for women. However, Laughton optimistically concludes that “the Church’s recent move toward home-centered, church-supported models of learning and worship is a return in many respects to the house church model of ancient Christianity and presents new possibilities for women’s leadership and participation” (128).
In chapter nine, Cecilia M. Peek outlines four different models for describing the Atonement used by ancient Christians: Christ the Illuminator, Christ the Restorer, Christ the Victor, and Christ the Victim (342). Thinking through these various roles of the Redeemer in isolated focus was a tender experience for me.
In chapter eleven, Catherine Gines Taylor explores work for the dead performed by ancient Christians. My reading of this chapter sparked holy envy for “the savings acts of vigil, fasting, salvific prayer, and regular commemoration” (401). Thinking of funerary feasts, “ritual oral lament,” and the way early Christians “washed and anointed the dead” was particularly thought-provoking (403).
Lastly, in the penultimate chapter, Nicholas J. Frederick unpacks eschatological anxiety, or the worry about “the questions and timing surrounding Jesus’s return” (423). “How much time do we have? How much should we be investing in a world that could cease to exist tomorrow? And how should we deal with the disappointment that often comes as the years go by and we begin to realize it may be a future generation who will see the Savior’s return in the flesh?” (495). Early Christians grappled with these same questions, and their responses can make us thoughtful about our own.
A wealth of other concepts, principles, and lessons are stored in the thick 561-page volume, ranging from the process of canon creation (chapter 3) to the use of sacred space and ritual (chapters 5 and 6). Readers will add substantially to their theological vocabulary as they learn about adoptionism, asceticism, docetism, gnosticism, modalism, monasticism, catechesis, Parousia, soteriology, and more.
The book strikes a delicate balance of simplicity and nuance, at once highly accessible to college-level readers but simultaneously rigorously researched and full of intellectual stimulation.
The book strikes a delicate balance of simplicity and nuance, at once highly accessible to college-level readers but simultaneously rigorously researched and full of intellectual stimulation. The book can be read cover to cover but each chapter stands alone for thematic study. A once-over would be mind-expanding, but thorough study would yield nothing short of graduate-level competence in the major schools of thought among the most famous Church fathers and versatility in the issues and theories of early Christian theology.
In other words, it would take a significant time investment to memorize and master all the concepts and principles in this sweeping overview—but doing so would mean mastery of introductory content in early Christian studies.
Plus, for scholars or researchers seeking deeper purchase in the field of ancient Christianity, each chapter contains full academic citation information in detailed endnotes—averaging between 60 to 100 sources each. The result is an impressive array of the best resources for future study in the discipline.
I’ve saved one of the best details for last: the thing is gorgeous. With hundreds of images of early Christian art and material culture, delicate formatting—including concept boxes (gold), figure notes (pink), headings and subheadings (blue)—and specially designed graphs, charts, and maps… this hefty tome is thick with a visuality that intends to immerse you in the colorful world of ancient Christianity. See sample pages HERE.
The work is a paragon of public humanities, the smartest scholarship made relevant and readable for a lay audience.
By now, my own stance on the volume should be clear. I devoured the entire 561 pages within the month of January and found my soul stirred and my mind blown at every turn of the page.
I also believe this venue, the BYU Humanities Center Blog, to be an appropriate place for this informal book review. The work is a paragon of public humanities, the smartest scholarship made relevant and readable for a lay audience. Faculty and students in the college from all disciplines—art, literature, history, philosophy, and near eastern languages especially—will find their artifacts and methods of study represented in this richly diverse volume.
For those of us seeking a more textually and contextually informed scripture study, Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints makes for a rich and powerful pairing with this year’s Come Follow Me curriculum on the New Testament.
As Combs says: “Welcome to the world of ancient Christians!” (17). I hope you’ll consider experiencing the magic of that world for yourself, and I hope that experience is as transformative for you as it was for me.
This blog post was written by Isaac Richards, BYU Humanities Center intern.
Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints. Edited by Jason R. Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Catherine Gines Taylor, and Kristian S. Heal. Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2022. $49.95 (hardcover), $9.95 (Kindle). 574 pages.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain.