A History of Early Christian Literature

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Justo L. González
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox
    , August
     2019.
     425 pages.
     $40.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664264444.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Justo González’s A History of Early Christian Literature looks at the change and continuity in the history of early Christian literature from the origins of this religious movement to transitional medieval figures, such as Gregory the Great and John of Damascus. This comprehensive work covers over 675 years, four hundred texts, and eighty-five authors in the history of Christianity. Methodologically, the chapters are categorized chronologically to demonstrate the development of this discipline over the centuries in six parts: (1) “The Earliest Christian Literature outside the New Testament,” (2) “Christian Literature in the Late Second Century,” (3) “Christian Literature in the Third Century,” (4) “From Nicaea to Constantinople,” (5) “The Fifth Century,” and (6) “Transition into a New Age.” The book covers a plethora of literary genres such as epistles, manuals of instruction for the worship of the church and life in it, apologetics, sermons, acts of martyrs, pseudepigraphic literature, biographies, doctrinal essays, and biblical commentaries, to name a few.

González’s work is comprehensive and reads like a sourcebook. He provides solid introductions to major figures before explaining main concepts and themes from their literary production. He also does a great job of showing how these figures affected others and how Christian literature changed throughout the years. González realizes that some authors, such as Augustine, wrote treatises in a variety of genres, so influential figures such as him are treated holistically.

González’s treatment of Augustine is a good representation of the other thirty-two chapters. It covers more than the conventional three works that most scholars include in their brief summary of this figure—Confessions, City of God, and On the Trinity. Indeed, this book also provides summaries of some of his other works, such as On the Happy Life, On the Teacher, and Soliloquies. González also covers figures surrounding Augustine, such as John Cassian, and individuals who provide bridges of Augustine’s thought into the Middle Ages, such as Gregory the Great. These sections go beyond the mainstream fathers of the church to cover other important people, such as Vincent of Lerins, Salvian of Marseille, and Faustus of Reiz. These additional figures help González show the impact and legacy of Augustine in early Christian literature in a new way. Other sections of the book also cover lesser-researched early Christian theologians, such as Firmilian of Caesarea, Arnobius of Sicca, and Lucifer of Cagliari, to name but a few. In this way, Gonzalez’s broad strokes also provide new avenues of investigation and intrigue for readers unfamiliar with these topics.

A particular strength of the book is González’s weaving of the history of Christianity in with its literature. He masterfully contextualizes each Christian phase of history and its major influences, which helps explain the development of each phase’s literature and Christian thought overall. This is not surprising given his other contributions to the history of Christianity, such as his two-volume The Story of Christianity, which is a key history of Christianity textbook and resource around the country. An additional strength of this book is González’s analysis of how early Christianity’s literature has changed throughout the centuries, the thesis that he sets out to accomplish in this survey. His sweeping approach helps him accomplish this goal with a sound argument.

The weakness of this book is a result of its scope. It is not intended to serve as an in-depth analysis of a particular Christian figure. Scholars looking for a comprehensive understanding of an early Christian’s literary production at length will not find it here. However, González is clear about his thesis and methodology in his introduction. Those who read the entire book will recognize the argument and its usefulness as a resource as it stands. The book also is focused on individuals who wrote primarily in Greek and Latin. Thus, a history of early Christian literature in languages such as Syraic, Coptic, and Armenian is needed in the future. González admits this shortcoming as well.

Overall, this is a great sourcebook, and González furthers the field of early Christian literature. It is a welcome work that undergraduate and graduate students, researchers, and specialists would benefit from reading.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul A. Brazinski is part of the teaching faculty at Saint Elizabeth University in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Justo L. González is the author of dozens of books on church history and Christian theology. The Story of Christianity is a standard textbook in the Americas and around the world.

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