Book Review: Robert E. Winn, Christianity in the Roman Empire

Winn, Robert E. Christianity in the Roman Empire: Key Figures, Beliefs, and Practices of the Early Church (AD 100–300). Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Academic, 2018. x+158 pp.; Pb.  $19.95  Link to Hendrickson Academic

Most Christians want to know more about the early centuries of the church but are often put off by highly detailed, complicated studies. Robert Winn orients this book at the general reader who is interested in early Christianity rather than the academy. In fact, he intends the book to be used in a traditional Sunday school class, small group, home group, or reading group. He chose to begin with the end of the first century and end with Eusebius, approximately A. D. 100-300.

Winn, Christianity in Roman EmpireMost of the brief chapters in the book feature a particular writer in the early church in more or less chronological order (for example, Didache, Clement of Rome, Cyprian of Carthage, Irenaeus of Lyons, etc.)  Some chapters feature a theme such as Worship in A. D. 100 or Prayer and the Spiritual Life of Early Christians. Winn provides citations along with enough context for the modern reader to hear to the voices of the early Christians. of the three parts of the book begins with a short introduction and timeline of important events in the century.

Part One describes Christianity in the year 100. Winn chose this date to begin his history because by that time the original generation that knew Jesus was gone and many New Testament books were circulating, although not in a finalized canon yet. In addition, the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple was a generation in the past, raising questions about the relationship of Jews and Christians.

He begins with the status of Christians in the Roman world, as illustrated in Pliny’s letter To Trajan. Pliny describes Christians as leading a moral life, although he struggled to understand their commitment to Christ. This way of living is the subject of Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas, two of the earliest post-apostolic Christian documents available. Winn uses 1 Clement, a letter sent from Clement of Rome to the Church of Corinth and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch to illustrate the core elements of “True Christianity” and to describe the worship and church order early in the second century.

The second part of the book tracks the rise of Christianity in a Hostile World (A. D. 100–250). Persecution in these years was regional As Winn observes, even though persecution was regional in the Roman empire, Christians continually faced ridicule and harassment as their numbers grew. He begins this section with a chapter on one of the chief critics of Christianity in the period, Celsus. Celsus’s but biting and sarcastic attack against Christians” were popular enough to be answered by Origen of Alexandria.

Winn focuses on Justin Martyr as an example of a second century apologist. Justin argued that Christians do not hold outlandish or strange beliefs. He compares things like resurrection and ascension to Roman myths of divinity. In fact, Christian beliefs are not alien but rather superior to Roman religion. Despite the work of the apologists, the Empire did persecute Christians an occasionally but them to death. Two chapters in this unit discuss martyrdom: The Martyrdom of Polycarp (chapter 8) and the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity (chapter 9). The final chapter in the unit examines Cyprian of Carthage and his book, On the Lapsed. Writing after Decius’s persecution of the church, Cyprian was concerned about Christians who had recanted their faith to escape persecution. Could they be restored? If so, who was responsible for restoring lapsed Christians to the church?

In part three, Winn focuses on faith and practice in the third century. As Winn observes, by A.D.  200 Christians were “out of the shadows” (p. 93) and by 300 Christians were petitioning the Roman government to settle property disputes. During this period, it was important to define true Christianity from false. Since this required a careful reading of Scripture, Winn uses Melito of Sardis as an example of how early Christians used Scripture used typology to read the Old Testament (chap. 12). Irenaeus of Lyons, The Proof of the Apostolic Teaching (chap. 12) Tertullian response to Marcion (chap. 13) to define “true Christianity” in the mid-third century. Using Hippolytus and Origen as his examples,

Winn discusses prayer and the spiritual of early Christians. Hippolytus talk to Christian should pray throughout the day, even raising from the beds in the middle of the night to pray. Gathering at church early in the morning was necessary for Christian growth in the prevention of sin. Origen’s Treatise on Prayer encourages Christians to prayer actual words (rather than a spiritual disposition), using the Lord’s prayer as a model. In addition, he recommends kneeling in prayer when confessing sin. Finally, Winn uses Eusebius of Caesarea as a way to look back at early church history. Eusebius was born about 290 and is best known for this Ecclesiastical History.

Winn provides ample text from each of the early church writers he discusses. Endnotes will point the interested reader to English editions for further reading. Chapters conclude with a few discussion questions for a reading group or small group Bible study. Winn provides a short “what to read next” section and a brief bibliography.

Conclusion. Since the aim of the book is to trace “key figures, beliefs and practices” of the early Church for the layperson, some readers will notice a lack of detail expected in an introduction to church history. There are many church fathers missing and great controversies omitted. There is far less on the Christological controversies and development of the canon than expected. A fourth section on Nicaea, Augustine and Jerome and the post-Constantine church would have been welcome (perhaps a second book?)

However, Winn succeeds in his goal of introducing key figures and ideas for a discussion in a small group setting.

NB: Thanks to Hendrickson Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on August 11, 2020 on Reading Acts.

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