The Graeco-Roman Context of Early Christian Literature (JSNTSS 137)

Written by Roman Garrison Reviewed By Loveday Alexander

The title of Roman Garrison’s work might lead the reader to expect either a heavyweight historical survey of the world in which early Christian literature came into being or an index of resources for exploring that world, like Everett Ferguson’s helpful Backgrounds to Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987). What we have instead is a slim monograph exploring a number of suggestive themes which have the potential to illuminate the ambivalent relationship between early Christian texts and the literary culture of the Graeco-Roman world. Thus successive chapters look at sexual attitudes in Paul and the cult of Aphrodite; Jesus’ ‘eating with tax-collectors’ and the symposium tradition; ‘last words’ in the Gospels and in ‘hellenistic Roman drama’; political concord in Plutarch and in I Clement; the will of God and the pagan idea of fate; the love of money in Polycarp; misunderstandings of the kingdom; and the ‘athlete’ metaphor in the Stoics and in Paul. It is a fascinating agenda, and Garrison makes a number of interesting juxtapositions not only with the more obvious philosophical traditions (Plato, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus) but also with the big themes of Greek epic and drama: Achilles on the inevitability of a fated death and Hippolytus as a type of innocent suffering. Ultimately, however, the total result is disappointing. Too much of the book comes across as a series of ‘intriguing parallels’ (p. 23) without a coherent theoretical framework: ‘no particular thesis is being defended; it is enough to have the reader consider possibilities’ (p. 26). If there is a programme, it is ‘to call attention to the social and even linguistic setting of early Christian literature’ (p. 26); but Garrison is not the first to make this (in itself excellent) proposal, and his book takes little account of the important strides that have been made in the last twenty years in working towards a more precise and detailed map of the complex relationships which connect early Christianity to the cultural world of the Greeks and Romans. Bibliography is patchy, with some good material (e.g. on the symposium theme in ch. 3), but there is too much reliance on older secondary literature (students need more critical guidance here). Even where the relevant literature is cited, it has not always been allowed to affect the text (e.g. in ch. 2, where the author cites Murphy-O’Connor but does not engage with his critique of the consensus view on cult prostitution in Corinth; Will Deming’s Paul on Marriage and Celibacy (SNTSMS 83; Cambridge University Press, 1995), which is highly pertinent here, was perhaps too late to be included). The text contains an alarming number of editorial infelicities (e.g. repetition on pp. 11/27, 96/98) and errors, especially in the use of Greek words within English sentences (e.g. p. 38, where πάθει ἰπιθυμὂας, is treated as if it were πάθη ἱπιθυμὂας; or pp. 98–101, where ἳγκράτεια seems to be used interchangeably with αὦτάρκεια; p. 99 n. 21 Diogenes Laertius 2.24 describes Socrates as αὦταρκὓς, not ὑγκρατὓς).

Loveday Alexander

Department of Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield