Ever eager to increase interest in early Christianity, I keep a running list of what I consider the best introductions on various subjects. (These may and have changed as new publications appear.) For early Christian philosophy, Karamanolis’s The Philosophy of Early Christianity; for liturgy, McGowan’s Ancient Christian Worship; for spirituality, Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought; and so on. The criteria for inclusion in this list are austere. Each title must be scholarly, accessible, and readable, and must avoid becoming a mere history of scholarship, as is the wont of more formal, academic introductions.
I have waited years for a book like González’s. Not to be confused with biblical history (i.e., history in the Bible), The Bible in the Early Church is a history of the Bible as a book, that is, as a material artifact, a piece of technology, and a work of handwritten literature. Before González, Christopher de Hamel’s The Book was my top recommendation, but González is more expansive: not only does he describe the Bible’s early physical appearance(s), but proceeds to give us peeks into how the Bible was used in early Christian worship, education, and controversies. He concludes with a section on early exegetical practices. This third and last section is the weakest (which I will get to), but there is no denying González has managed to produce a tight but comprehensive introduction in under two hundred pages. A tour de force!
This isn’t to say González covers everything significant. I would have appreciated a chapter dedicated to early Bible translations. The Septuagint and Jerome’s Vulgate make an appearance in González, of course, but they deserve their own chapter. The pre-Jerome Old Latin translations, Tatian’s Diatessaron (i.e., an edition of the Gospels which combined them into a single book, abridged only to those stories and teachings which are repeated between the four) and its Syriac reception, and other Greek translations (besides what is called the Septuagint) are unmentioned. Translation was a feature of biblical reception from the beginning; but a reader could put down González secure in the falsehood that, with the exceptions of the Septuagint and Jerome, translation work was not a major part of the history of the Bible until the Reformation. In fact, González frequently steps out of the early period to compare his subject matter with Reformation-era developments (e.g., private Bible reading, availability of Bibles, etc.): I find this annoying, but it may help readers more familiar with Reformation and early modern history to make connections with the early period.
A second omission is González does not consider the Bible as a work of religious art, or otherwise as a sacred symbol. This, too, could have merited its own chapter. No mention is made at all regarding the feelings of early Christians toward their Holy Book, despite abundant examples of its careful handling by lectors (i.e., literate members who were trained to read the Scriptures during services; these were often laypersons, and they were apparently charged with safekeeping their church’s copy in their own homes), its use as a “prop” by homilists (e.g., Chrysostom’s frequent use of demonstratives in connection with the manuscript he was preaching from suggests he held it, or had it close to hand, and would from time to time point at it or hold it up to his audience—perhaps even brandishing it like a fourth-century Billy Graham), and the venerable language used for Scripture in early Christians writings (e.g., Scripture is an altar where God’s people pour out self-offerings of attention and contemplation [Origen, Hom. Num. 5.1.1]), as well as other ritual uses which indicate a reverence for the book itself, not only for the message it contained. While González does remark on the physical appearance of early Bibles, such remarks are in the main editorial (e.g., absence of punctuation or spaces in the text, etc.). González’s history thus treats the Bible exclusively as though it were a text to be exposited, not a sacred artifact to be approached and handled reverently. He subsequently fails to capture the character of early Christian veneration for the Book, which leaves us with little notion of how the physical Bible was seen or imagined in early Christianity as a sacred symbol, or how it figured—as a thing—in their actual worship and devotion.
Though an introduction is not meant to be exhaustive, I consider these omissions substantial. At any rate, González delivers on the true spirit of an introduction, which is he leaves us wanting more. His genius is his ability to anticipate the initial questions most modern evangelical Christians might have about the history of the Bible: How was it made, and with what materials? How was it transmitted? When was the text sorted into chapters and verses? How was it used in worship, private devotion, and education? Etc.
Regarding historical accuracy, González is widely seen as an industry standard. Most of my disputes are nitpicking. For example, González claims that the practice of seriatim reading in early Christian worship is “why we have several ancient biblical commentaries that are in truth series of homilies preached on successive occasions” (70). This statement suggests there was no substantial difference between an anthology of homilies and a commentary, but this is not true. Origen of Alexandria, the most prolific ancient preacher, indicates the difference during a homily on Numbers 22:
There are more things that remain for us to explain from the reading about Balaam and his donkey. But because the sermon that is being given in the church for the sake of edification is of limited duration, there was not enough time for us to set forth in detail the words of Scripture, so that nothing at all would remain unconsidered, and to present an explanation of each detail. For indeed the latter method would be more in the style of a commentary. (Hom. Num. 14.1.1; emphasis added)
Origen recognized a difference between a homily and a commentary: while both are for the edification of the church, and may be identical in structure and often in content, a commentary forgoes the pastoral expediencies and contemplates every aspect of the text, explores all possible meanings, etc. This is an obscure point, however. Nitpicking.
The second section is titled “The Use of the Bible,” and features chapters on the Bible as it appeared in early Christian worship, education, and private devotion. González even devotes a chapter on the prominence of the Psalms in this period, which I found especially astute, since the Psalms often traveled separately from the rest of the Bible as an independent Psalter (as it still does today), which gives them a unique reception history. Psalms were also the most memorized of all biblical texts, traditionally chanted: for many in the early church, the Psalter functioned as a microcosmic Bible.
Everything I have written up to this point pertains to the first two sections of González’s work: “The Shape of the Bible” and “The Use of the Bible.” These two sections are impressive in scope but economic in prose. They provide an excellent general introduction to the early Christian Bible as book; perhaps the best currently available in English. Of the third and final section, “The Interpretation of the Bible,” I have little positive to say, but a thorough review would require more space than I have here. This section covers not so much the history of the Bible as book, but the history of early biblical exegesis. Suffice to say, González, in my estimation, does not understand early Christianity’s theology of Scripture (a theology which informs their exegetical practices) and perpetuates scholarship forty years out of date (particularly regarding Origen of Alexandria’s “allegorism”).
I wish, however, my review to be positive. The first two sections are worth the whole book.
Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is an associate at the Church of the Resurrection (ACNA), where he serves as Lead Sacristan. He is the founder and main writer of Read Religiously, a retrieval project that aims to give obscure Christian classics a wider readership. Blake specializes in early Christian history, exegetical practices, and asceticism; on these he is published widely. He lives with his wife in Wheaton, IL. Follow him on Twitter @BlaketheObscure.