Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Guy G. Stroumsa, The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 184. ISBN 9780674545137. $39.95.

Reviewed by Philip Burton, University of Birmingham (

Version at BMCR home site


Guy G. Stroumsa has over recent years done as much as anyone to bring together people engaged in the general study of late-antique Mediterranean culture and religion, whose work might otherwise have been pigeonholed into disparate academic disciplines. Such titles as Tolerance and Intolerance in Early Christianity and Early Judaism (co-edited with Graham Stanton, 1998), Dream Cultures: Towards a Comparative History of Dreaming (co-edited with David Shulman, 1999), and Homer, the Bible, and Beyond (with Margalit Finkelberg, 2003) tell their own story. The present volume is offered as 'a sequel of sorts' to Stroumsa's 2005 monograph La fin du sacrifice. Mutations religieuses dans l'antiquité tardive (English translation The End of Sacrifice, 2009).

In the Introduction to this work, Stroumsa outlines what he means by 'scriptural universe'. It is the rise of a book-based model of religion in late antiquity, common to Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam. He intends to approach this not with reference to matters such as canon-formation and hermeneutics, but rather looking at 'patterns of reading … performative and emotional aspects of books' (p. 2).

Chapter one ('A Scriptural Galaxy') looks at the general role of books in late-antique religion, considering briefly such matters as the availability and circulation of books, the development of 'helps for readers', and the rise of religious education as 'a scholarly venture, rather than a praxis-based skill' (p. 5), leading to the rise of communities defined by their shared books.

Chapter two ('A Divine Palimpsest') is a brief consideration of the relationship between memory, individual and collective, and books. Stroumsa introduces also the concept of implicit and explicit religious memory. Christianity is presented as a palimpsest, an overwriting of the existing Jewish tradition which 'never fully efface[s] the ancient text.' Reference is made to Sigmund Freud.

Chapter three ('Religious Revolution and Cultural Change') address the rather portentous question of 'what will be revealed when religion and culture are written anew' (p. 40). The answer is that under the new dispensation 'a single scriptural corpus constituted the core of the new religious education', and that the ethical implementation of this education 'explains the basic Christian attitude to pagans books and to traditional paideia' (p. 54).

Chapter four ('Scripture and Culture') deals with hermeneutical communities in late antiquity, that is, 'secondary canons and hermeneutical writings', and the ways in early Christian communities engaged with Greek intellectual traditions.

Chapter five ('The New Self and Reading Practices') reverts to Stroumsa's Foucaultian concern with Christianity as a form of care for the self, and considers the question (now familiar through the work of Brian Stock and others) of how far this is caused and reflected by the new reading practices in Christianity, especially in monasticism. Augustine is invoked as the apostle of the 'reflexive self'.

Chapter six ('Communities of Knowledge') addresses the relationship between gnōsis, specifically 'soteriological knowledge' (p. 90), and epistemē (sic), the 'factual' religious knowledge taught in the public schools of late antiquity.

Chapter seven ('Eastern Wisdom') revisits a topic Stroumsa has made his own elsewhere, namely that of 'the fascination, even infatuation, with the East and its traditions of wisdom' (p. 7). Chapter eight ('A World Full of Letters') develops a particular aspect of this, namely the widespread 'ontological status given to the letters of the alphabet' (p. 107). This is, I think, the most successful chapter of the book, in which Stroumsa deploys his wide linguistic knowledge to good effect in demonstrating a tradition common to different parts of the eastern Mediterranean and its hinterland; it is only surprising that much consideration is not given to the Greek magical papyri.

Chapter nine ('Scriptural and Personal Authority') considers another familiar issue in early Christian studies, namely the tension between institutional and individual forms of leadership. Both sorts, Stroumsa argues, can use literacy to reinforce status: institutional leaders as shapers of canons and as gatekeepers of interpretation, holy men and women as 'scribe and subjects of hagiographical works' (p. 127, citing Rapp). Conclusions, notes, acknowledgements, and index conclude.

This, then, is a book by a leading international scholar, on a wide-ranging whose role in shaping the modern world—for better or for worse —cannot be doubted. It is also a book with an avowedly irenic purpose, aiming to bring the Abrahamic religions into a single compass, and break down old oriental/occidental divisions. Yet I find it difficult to be as enthusiastic as I would like, for three main reasons.

First, there is a marked tendency to paint in bold strokes and bright colours. Consider, for instance, the early programmatic statement we are told that 'traditional approaches to early Christianity (studied, almost, as if it had grown in a vacuum) are fraught with theological preconceptions and methodological misperceptions' (p. 2). It is true that there are many books with the phrase 'the early church' in the title, and that such phrases may reveal a central concern with the institutions of early Christianity, perceived as a single whole. But how far does this reflect recent scholarship? Even if we go back half a century, to Chadwick's or Frend's The Early Church, it is hard to say that either author considers the matter in a vacuum. I am not suggesting that Stroumsa has Chadwick or Frend in mind, but he must have someone—if this 'traditional approach' is not merely a straw man. As for his 'methodological misperceptions', we are all against sin—but how, precisely, do we distinguish a misperception from any other sort of perception? Elsewhere, there is a tendency to somewhat woolly truism ('The ethos of a society, its essential character, guides its beliefs and ideals and constitutes the foundation of its ethics', p. 41), and to statements which might be true but which really need some grounding in the data ('For the Christians, memory is essentially "the memory of God" (mnēmē theou …'). This broad-brush style may be inevitable in a book with ambitious intellectual goals. It may be a side-effect of the genesis of at least some chapters in his 2011 Birkbeck Lectures in Trinity College, Cambridge. It may be exacerbated by the use of endnotes rather than footnotes or in-text references. But in any case, a more documented argument might have been more persuasive.1

Secondly, there is a notably prominent version of a feature typical of all Stroumsa's writing, namely his desire to locate his interpretations of late-antique culture within a wider modern intellectual framework. Admirable in itself, it here approaches a stylistic tic. Thus in the course of a few pages (30-2) we are introduced to 'the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs', whose 'Bergsonian taxonomy' of memory in turn leads to a 'Halbwachsian reduction of religion to memory', which is then elucidated with reference to the views of 'the French sociologist Danielle Hervieu-Léger'; at which point the torch is taken up by 'the Oxford social anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse' and his neo-Weberian approach, and so on. Often the impression is less that of close engagement with the sources, and more that of a very powerful telescope trained on an immensely distant object.

At times the theoretica overshadow the data. To take one example, in Chapter nine Stroumsa attempts to identify 'types of authority' by appealing to Weber's tripartite distinction between 1) 'rational-legal authority', 2) 'legitimacy [based] upon a complex system of written rules, traditional authority, including customs, habits, and social structures, and 3) charismatic authority.' We are then re-introduced to Harvey Whitehouse and his distinction between 'doctrinal' and 'imagistic' modes of religiosity, which are 'found in all societies', even if this distinction is 'nonradical' and cannot 'reflect fully the complexities of historical reality' (pp. 124-5). We might at this point pause to reflect whether Weber's second class of authority, as formulated by Stroumsa, is not couched in such general terms as to engross an unduly large part of all human experience, or whether Whitehouse's doctrinal/imagistic distinction is not hedged about with so many caveats as to lose much of its heuristic power. All this leads us to the conclusion that 'In Patristic Latin, "authority" and "power" imply different things' (p. 126). This is, of course, hard to deny, once one has noted the obvious fact that 'authority' and 'power' are English words, not Latin, and substituted the terms auctoritas and potestas. But these words too at least overlap in meaning, in both Patristic and other Latin; against the examples of the auctoritas pontificum and the regalis postestas that Stroumsa quotes from Gelasius, we might set Cyprian's reference to sacerdotalis potestas and Augustine's to regalis auctoritas. Moreover, in Greek both 'authority' and 'power' might be expressed by ἐξουσία, which we might subdivide into 'charismatic' and 'institutional' types; but then why point to the existence of two Latin words as evidence for two different concepts in early Christianity, when in Greek there is but one word? Such a philological approach might not be to everyone's taste. But if philology is to be invoked at all, it should not be simply as the ancilla sociologiae. I am not advocating an opportunist sort of eclecticism, or suggesting we should just 'let the facts speak for themselves'. But theoretical approaches need to pay their way.

My third observation may be seem a paradoxical one. Despite Stroumsa's concern to locate his thought within wider philosophical and sociological contexts, his coverage of the secondary literature more immediately relevant to his thesis is curiously uneven. Thus Harry Y. Gamble's influential Books and Readers in the Early Church (1997) is summarized in one paragraph, in which the author is criticized for arguing that 'Christian attitudes … to their holy books … reflected those of the surrounding society.' But that is hardly a good ground for criticism; and it is far from clear whether, in drawing out these commonalities, Gamble excluded the possibility of anything distinctive and original in Christian book culture. Klingshirn and Safran's edited volume The Early Christian Book (2007) gets several passing references, but no detailed treatment. Elsewhere there seemed to me some major omissions both of some standard and some recent works. Thus Stroumsa's chapter on scriptural and personal authority makes no use of Rousseau's Ascetics, Authority, and the Church, first published in 1978. His discussion of letter-magic contains no allusion to Cox Miller's evergreen chapter 'In Praise of Nonsense,' from 1986. His treatment of 'oral Torah' in Judaism omits any reference to Jaffee's Torah in the Mouth (2001). In a volume on book culture in late-antiquity Christianity, one might expect to find a mention of Alexander's (1990) essay on 'The Living Voice: Skepticism towards the Written Word in Early Christian and in Graeco-Roman Texts,' or of Holmes' magisterial survey (plus bibliography) of 'The Biblical Canon' (2008). A study of the 'performative and emotional aspects' of Scripture might have found cited Grig's fascinating study of 'The Bible in Popular and Non-literary Culture' (2013). Hunting out bibliographical omissions can easily become a sort of low-grade academic parlour game; but these are, I think, works which really do pose and seek to answer questions important for Stroumsa's thesis.

Overall, then, this book is one that seems to fall between several genres. Reading the endnotes one learns that seven of the nine chapters here have been published, in 'a former version' vel sim., before (some more than once). The publishers might, perhaps, have been more forthcoming about this; the collected papers of an acknowledged expert in a given field may, of course, be very useful for other researchers. We have noted also that some at least of these chapters began life as public lectures. Now again, a public lecture series may be reach out beyond the usual academic ghettoization to create new and exciting syntheses; rereading Stroumsa's chapter on 'The Rise of Religions of the Book' in The End of Sacrifice, also conceived originally as a lecture, I was struck by precisely this. Such books may also be frustratingly lacking in focus, shifting uncomfortably between different target groups within the audience. More than once I felt this had happened here; as, for instance, where we have the retelling of familiar material (Jerome's Ciceronianus es dream, Augustine's marvelling at Ambrose's silent reading), alongside abundant theoretical discussion whose immediate import may be unclear. It was always unlikely that a book by Stroumsa would be anything other than thoughtful, well-informed, and intelligent. But what works brilliantly as a series of lectures by a distinguished scholar does not necessarily work so well as a monograph.

The work is very well presented on the whole. Quotations from Greek, Hebrew, Arabic etc. are all transliterated. There are no maps, or illustrations.


1.   Where references are supplied, they may need to be followed up carefully. Thus on p. 12 the author refers to 'new categories of readers (referred to as uulgus, plebs, media plebs, and plebeia manus, in which Ovid includes women' (a passage partly recycled from his chapter 'On the Status of Books in Early Christianity,' in C. Harrison, C. Humfress, and I. Sandwell (edd), Being Christian in Late Antiquity (2014)). I assume the Ovidian passage is Tristia 3.1.82, but can detect no specific allusion there to women as readers.

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