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.

Another Logos Free Book of the Month – Origen: Treatise on the Passover

Recently Logos has added a second free book promotion. Usually at the middle of the month the offer up something for free and a few discounted books. This month they are offering four volumes of Origen published by Paulist Press. The Ancient Christian Writers series began in 1946, the most recent volume appeared in 2010. Each volume is a new translation of a text, edited and annotated by an expert in early church literature.

Many Logos users may have the Ante-Nicene Fathers set as part of a package, and volume 4 of that series includes some Origen, but it is far from complete. That volume does not include any of the works offered here, the Ancient Christian Writers series provides translations for texts not commonly available. Naturally Logos will sell you a 23 volume set of the Anti-Nicene Fathers in the Ancient Christian Writers series (currently $299, 32% off), or all 66 volumes for $599 (40% off), but here is a good chance to read several important works without spending so much money.

You might not know who Origen was or why you should read his work. Origen of Alexandria (184-253) was an early Christian scholar and theologian who was a prolific writer. He produced commentaries and theological texts as well as the Hexapla, a six column comparison of various translations of the Old Testament. Most agree he was one of the most influential figures in early Christian theology, although not everyone agrees that influence was good. Two of these almost-free books are commentaries, so this is a good opportunity to read early Christian exegesis.

For free, you can add Origen: Treatise on the Passover and Dialogue of Origen with Heraclides and His Fellow Bishops on the Father, the Son, and the Soul (Vol 54, translated and edited by Robert J. Daly).

The Treatise on the Passover dates from around 245. Its central insight is that the passover is not a figure or type of the passion of Christ, but a figure of Christ himself, of Christ’s passing over to the Father. The Dialogue with Heraclides probably comes from between the years 244 and 249. It seems to be the record of a synod-like meeting of bishops, in the presence of lay people, called to discuss matters of belief and worship. Both pieces seem to come from the last decade of Origen’s activity, when he was at the height of his powers.

For $4.99, add Origen: Prayer, Exhortation to Martyrdom (Vol 19, translated and annotated by John J. O’Meara). “Composed in AD 233, Origen’s Prayer combines both a theological treatise on prayer and a unique expression of prayer.”

For $6.99, add Origen: Homilies 1–14 on Ezekiel (Vo. 62, translated and edited by Thomas P. Scheck). “This is the first English translation of Jerome’s Latin edition of Origen’s Homilies on Ezekiel, This volume contains the homilies 1–14.”

For $8.99, add Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies (Vol 26, edited and translated by R. P. Lawson). “widely regarded as the first great work of Christian mysticism, is characterized by extraordinary intellectual depth and spiritual understanding.”

Logos Bible Software 8 is a significant upgrade to this powerful Bible study system. I did a “first look” review of Logos 8 here. The software runs much more efficiently than the previous version, that alone is worth the upgrade. Everything seems to run faster than Logos 7 and the upgrade is well worth considering. As always, there are less expensive paths to upgrading that will keep you from mortgaging your home. At the very least, download the free Logos Basic or the $79 Logos 8 Fundamentals (currently on sale for 20% and you get some free books by following the link).

With either minimal package you can download and use the free book every month and build your Logos library.  These free and almost free books of the month are only available through the end of September.

Giveaway Winner – John E. Johnson, Under an Open Heaven

Johnson, John, under open heavenLast week I celebrated the beginning of the new school year with a book giveaway: John E. Johnson, Under an Open Heaven: A New Way of Life Revealed in John’s Gospel (Kregel, 2017). This is a book which reflects good scholarship, but is written for a popular audience and would make a great addition to a pastor’s library. I reviewed this book when it was published, where I commented:

The thirteen chapters of the book read like sermons, with introductory illustrations drawn from pop culture or personal experience, and chapter sections with alliterative headings. He even cites Bob Dylan, which is always a plus. Since the book is written on a conversational level, it would work well in a small group environment or as personal devotional reading. Johnson has included a few questions at the end of each chapter to prompt discussion.

There were only twelve entries this time, so I sorted them at random and picked a number at random.org. The winner is:

Steve Williams

Steve’s “favourite pericope is John 9:23 to 9:38.” The spelling of “favorite” makes me think I will be shipping this book some distance, so get in touch with me soon at plong42@gmail.com and I will drop in the in the mail as soon as I can. Thanks to everyone for participating.

This is an exceptionally good semester for me, should I do one more giveaway?

Book Giveaway – John E. Johnson, Under an Open Heaven

Johnson, John, under open heavenOnce again, to celebrate the end of the summer and beginning of the new academic year, I am giving away a few books. In this case, it is another book I purchase and then discovered I already had it on the shelf. This week I have an extra copy of John E. Johnson, Under an Open Heaven: A New Way of Life Revealed in John’s Gospel (Kregel, 2017). This is a book which reflects good scholarship, but is written for a popular audience and would make a great addition to a pastor’s library. I reviewed this book when it was published, where I commented:

The thirteen chapters of the book read like sermons, with introductory illustrations drawn from pop culture or personal experience, and chapter sections with alliterative headings. He even cites Bob Dylan, which is always a plus. Since the book is written on a conversational level, it would work well in a small group environment or as personal devotional reading. Johnson has included a few questions at the end of each chapter to prompt discussion.

To have a chance at winning these books, leave a comment with your name and favorite chapter / pericope in John’s Gospel so I can contact you if you win. I will randomize the names from the comments and select one winner at random.

I will announce the winner picked at random on September 7, 2018 (one week from now). Good Luck!

Book Giveaway Winner! – The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, edited by Bauckham and Mosser

Bauckham, Gospel of JohnToday is the day I pick a winner for The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, edited by Richard Bauckham and Carl Mosser (Eerdmans, 2008). There were 51 comments (after I deleted my comments and some duplicates). This was one of the highest number of entries I have seen for a book giveaway, and several of the usual suspects did not enter.

I randomized the names then pasted them into a spreadsheet, generated a random number at random.org. And the winner is…..

Kevin Boyle

Congrats to Kevin! Please contact me via email (plong42 at gmail .com) with your mailing address and I will drop the book in the mail ASAP. Thanks to everyone who commented, look for the next “Back to School” book giveaway later this afternoon.