The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Ritual

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Risto Uro, Juliette J. Day, Richard E. DeMaris, Rikard Roitto
Oxford Handbooks
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     752 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Ritual is a work of history, social science, religion, and theology all in one. The book is divided into four parts: “Ritual Theory” (covering ritualization, performance, identity, cognition, cooperation, transmission); “Ritual in the Ancient Mediterranean World” (covering sanctuaries, guilds/associations, household/family, magic, meals, purification, prayer, music, sacrifice and votives, pilgrimage and festivals, divination, initiation, death and burial, and texts); “Ritual in Nascent Christianity” (covering water, meals, reintegration, healing, language and sacrifice, religious experience, church hierarchy, and orthodoxy; and “Ritual in the Ancient Church” (Christian initiation, eucharist, time, prayer, art, music, weddings, women, asceticism, cult of the saints, and urban space).

The first sections are heavy in theory, digging into various aspects of contemporary psychological, social, and cognitive science. It is not always clear how much these new fields of study, like Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), meaningfully contribute to various facets of the subject matter—and I found this true for many of the contributions. Sometimes the framework of the prose and argument is somewhat baffling. For instance, we read in one article that “it is yet to be determined by extensive testing that these bodily manipulations [kneeling] are in fact used by the religious traditions to promote the power of a deity […] such bodily positions are perfect examples of ritual body enforcements of specific attitudes and mental and emotional states” (87), and in another that “Since its result cannot be confirmed or rejected by an empirical test…[baptism] does not count as magic, in our definition” (189).

In short, it was distracting to encounter uncritical empiricist reductionisms and even pseudo-science emerging from some of the religion-social science intersections of the book. The collection of authors obviously come from different perspectives, some more cogent and thoughtful than others. Some write about what they know and have discovered in vocabulary they are comfortable with, while others have an odd urge to frame arguments in scientific language, and assume the epistemological superiority of quantitative data and empirical “testing.” For that reason and others, I found Barry Stephenson’s essay (“Ritualization and Ritual Invention”) and critical engagement of CSR (26-27) level-headed, refreshing, and desperately needed.

After wading through 391 pages, readers finally get to the subject of early Christian ritual. As one would expect, there are all sorts of interesting discussions and facts surrounding early Christian and Greco-Roman ritual, such as how it isn’t always accurate to speak of “house-hold churches” as popularly conceived; “If we were to see a snapshot of the life of a first or second-century Christian community, we should not be surprised to see it gathered around a meal in a rented room in an inn or tavern, in a barn outside city walls, next to a tomb in a cemetery, or at a picnic on a river bank” (418-19).

When comparisons are made between the culture of the day and the early church, the more resistant and subversive elements of Christianity are seen. Amidst the new Roman bathing culture, the fact of baptizing once “(versus daily Roman bathing) signaled resistance to Roman hegemony” (405). Because of Roman associations with theatre, gladiator games, and sacrificial rites, the “early Christians rejected the use of instruments” (276). To assert the unity the church had in Christ, it was important to sing in unison (276). Regarding sacrifice, “Early Christianity emerged as a movement without actual sacrificial rituals; in the Eucharist, the ritual component with the cup of wine then adopts some sacrificial imagery precisely because Jesus did not reject the sacrificial cult as such” (472; cf. 294). Readers also receive clarity regarding the historical Jesus. “the miracle tradition is no late invention, produced by Jewish messianic expectations or a general ancient belief in miracles. There is, however, a remarkable ‘popular shift’ that transformed the memory of Jesus according to general patterns of ancient beliefs in miracles. The historical Jesus was undoubtedly a healer and an exorcist” (448).

While there was much discussion of meals and banquets, I was surprised that no one really drew the connection between the Christian destratification of classes in the symposium versus the failed realities of the Roman equivalent—as pointed out in Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Baker Academic, 2016).  Communal meals in the Roman world were rituals “part of the strategies of power negotiations in which societal differences are merely replicated…Even rituals of status transformation, which by definitions are ‘transformative’, serve to reinforce the overarching social system(s) of which they are a part. In the context of the Roman meal setting, change is not realized” (216). Kreider and others suggest that the Christian version of the symposia perhaps had more success in that regard.

On the other hand, the observation that Roman tombs were also “spaces for the living to celebrate and commemorate” (183) is a fascinating contrast to popular stereotypes about contemporary Greco-Roman cynicism regarding death. Evidently, some tombs had kitchens and dining rooms, fountains, and other decorations. It seems that the line between a party and a somber funeral is not always clear—and that despite not having a resurrection tradition or claim, mourning/death rituals were not always a time of pure mourning.

Regarding the book itself, The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Ritual has simple white paper in contrast to the thick glossy paper of The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archeology (reviewed in Reading Religion) and cream, recycled paper of The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism (reviewed in Reading Religion). As I’ve noted in these reviews and others, the lack of folded signature binding a puzzling choice for such a big and expensive volume. In fact, I received the book in the mail alongside the latest “Elephant and Piggie Book,” which noticeably had superior binding. It is a strange world when children’s books can be expected to outlast those published by Oxford University. (Credit to my colleague Sir Gregorius Confessorus for bringing this to my attention.)

But it is really emblematic: much (though certainly not all) of The Oxford Handbook to Early Christian Ritual content is embedded in too many untried trend theories to last through the coming decades. Yet, aside from poor binding, being top-heavy in method, and saturated in the needless and distracting fog of cutting-edge psychobabble, The Oxford Handbook to Early Christian Ritual is a helpful distillation of resources. To get to the “good stuff,” there’s just a lot of brush to cut through.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin Andreas Hübner is a Research Fellow for the Center of Faith and Human Flourishing at LCC International University.

Date of Review: 
November 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Risto Uro is a Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies and Chair of the BA programme in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Helsinki.

Juliette J. Day is Docent and University Lecturer in Church History in the Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki, and Senior Research Fellow in Early Christian Liturgy at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford.

Richard E. DeMaris is Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Valparaiso University and has served as the Catholic Biblical Association Visiting Professor to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

Rikard Roitto is Docent and University Lecturer of Biblical Studies, New Testament, at Stockholm School of Theology.


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