- ISBN: 9780802876867
- Published By: Eerdmans Publishing
- Published: November 2021
All too often in the Western academic tradition and popular imagination, the expansion of Christianity from its Palestinian origins has been predominantly depicted as moving westward, with its eastern ambitions ultimately frustrated by the rise of Islam or otherwise obscured along the Silk Road. While many may have a cursory familiarity with the various Eastern Orthodox churches (Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, etc.), they may be less familiar with what distinguishes them theologically from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Furthermore, their respective regional histories, literary bodies, and internal religious formations often receive only nominal acknowledgement in general surveys of the Christian world. To address this gap, J. Edward Walters, in his edited volume Eastern Christianity: A Reader, seeks to expand access to the study of Eastern Christianity by historically contextualizing and presenting these traditions in translation. Reflecting themes and circumstances as diverse as the varied Christian communities that produced them, each featured text and accompanying essay introduces a wealth of further resources through the brief bibliographies provided. This format effectively facilitates the sustained analysis of these texts and their traditions.
With major sections offering excerpts of historical texts from the Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Coptic, and Ethiopic Christian traditions, Walters’s impressive volume unveils the other half of the story of Christianity’s development from the Late Antique to Medieval periods. Traditionally referenced as “Oriental Orthodox”—a term applied to the non-Chalcedonian autocephalous churches but which has faced contestation in recent scholarship—the umbrella term “Eastern Christians” is favored by the anthology. While the reader spans a substantive 423 pages, its vast geographic and temporal scope prevents comprehensive coverage of any one tradition. In this sense, Eastern Christianity can be viewed as “but a series of windows” into the larger libraries of these respective traditions (xv). With a total of thirty-nine excerpted texts, the anthology may occasionally struggle under the weight of the massive literary corpus it samples. As many readers may find the array of unfamiliar personal names, locations, and theological references overwhelming if engaged too rapidly, a slower reading pace that allows for thoughtful absorption and contextualization is recommended.
Both newcomers and seasoned enthusiasts in the study of Eastern Christianity should find each section in the volume immensely valuable in supplementing their understanding of how various Eastern Christians engaged and expanded their religious worldviews to respond to the crises, debates, and major events of their time. I was especially fascinated by the various political and religious others I encountered throughout the volume, such as Zoroastrianism, Mandeism, Manichaeism, and several varieties of Gnosticism, as well as Islam, and different Christian groups deemed heretical. As with their Western counterparts, these encounters demonstrate the extent to which communal identity formation might be tempered, reinforced, and influenced both within and against external others. While Eastern Orthodoxy experienced religious minority status within the Islamic hegemony of 9th-century Jerusalem—as exhibited in the theological debates in “The Disputation of Abraham of Tiberias”—the Armenian Christian tradition supplanted its prior Zoroastrian heritage to undergo a notable period of theological and political primacy between the 4th to 7th centuries, a transformation that “The Teaching of Saint Grigor” triumphantly sacralizes.
This propensity for exchange, accommodation, appropriation, and expansion all contribute to the diverse traditions’ capacities to serve as sources of communal and/or national strength, providing clarity and hope during uncertain times. The volume’s selection of texts implicitly attests to the strong relative emphasis on literacy and pedagogy within the different non-Greek Eastern Christian communities throughout their histories, barely scratching the surfaces of their rich literary environments, which—in the case of the Ethiopic tradition, for example—might number in the millions of extant manuscripts. (371) Still, students and scholars alike will inevitably face significant barriers across language, geography, and culture, which the Western academic world has historically proved reluctant to overcome through funding, programming, and research initiatives. What Walters and his selection of texts persuasively demonstrate is that not only can these barriers be surmounted, but such must also take place in order to accurately comprehend and appreciate the Body of Christ in all its forms and manifestations.
So says the fifth century Syriac poet and teacher, Narsai:
“The news of the name of Jesus went out to all the regions;
and the nations and cities gathered together to listen to his word” (65).
Whether manifested in works of scriptural commentary, hagiography, interreligious polemic and apology, poetry, liturgy, or monastic literature, Eastern Christianity illuminates the pluriform ways in which ancient and medieval Christian believers and communities received and lived “the news of the name of Jesus” across diverse contexts. For this reason, this work could serve as a critical resource for university-level courses and beyond, with the potential to inspire a wave of renewed scholarly commitment to plumbing the depths of the Christian worlds it helps make visible.
Jaxon Washburn is a master’s student in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School.Jaxon WashburnDate Of Review:April 25, 2023