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The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries
by Wayne A. Meeks
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Bibliography: p. 243. Includes indices
Traces development of morality of early Christian community as differentiated from surrounding soiciety and based on Scripture and Church writing
Constructing the moralities and ethical sensibilities of people is always difficult, especially when you’re at a remove of about twenty centuries, yet this is what Wayne Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies at Yale University, does in “The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries.”
Some of the things Meeks looks at won’t surprise people, but the depth and breadth of the readings that he can bring to the conversation is striking. He discusses conversion and how it always emphasizes both the personal and the communal, breaking away from a wider community and joining a more “select” one. He looks at some of the conversion stories, like Justin Martyr’s “Dialogue with Trypho,” as a way of trying to concretize this change of a primary reference group. By emphasizing the world from which they turned, new Christians (mostly Jews, but later Gentiles, too) also serve to provide exhortatory stories of the morality of the new group itself.
Another common topic in early Christian morality is whether we should come to love or hate the world. By looking at a variety of texts, including Gnostic, Pauline, and Johannine, he shows how they all give different advice about how connected we should be to the world. In John, for example, the goal was not what Meeks calls “philosophical high-mindedness,” but the cultivation of “a passionate, sectarian, practical love that binds members to the group exclusively to one another and to the God they believe in” (p. 61). Gnostics, on the other hand, were often accused of being ascetics who hated the world because of the way they wanted to escape the creation of the Demiurge.
Meeks includes a fascinating section on the specific language of Christian obligation, and how those took certain literary forms. Christian moral practice took a number of shapes, some of which were quite simply lists of dos and don’ts, while others included gnomes (gnomia in Greek, sententiae in Latin) which were collected aphorisms or witty maxims. Still others were moral imperatives (precepts and commands), or discussions of certain topics and commonplaces (like “on friendship” or “on the family”). Meeks composes a grammar of moral obligation through these forms and how they are connected with some schools of Hellenistic philosophy. He goes on to discuss similar topics in the following chapters, including “The Body as Sign and Problem,” “A Life Worthy of God,” “Senses of an Ending,” “The Moral Story,” and “History, Pluralism, and Christian Morality.”
I really took a lot away from this book, and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the first two centuries of Christian ethics, especially with an emphasis on the development of moral communities. It’s a scholarly book, with no hint of an agenda that we usually associate with books on subjects like this. As you might be able to tell from my discussion above, Meeks arranges his discussion topically, making use of the appropriate texts as he goes along. He also writes in the best of ethnographic traditions, with a thorough, rigorous knowledge of the material and an objective, concerted effort to better understand his subjects.
This book describes the formative years-from the crucifixion of Jesus to the end of the second century of the common era-when Christian beliefs and practices shaped their unique moral order. Wayne A. Meeks examines the surviving documents from Christianity's beginnings (some of which became the New Testament) and shows that they are largely concerned with the way converts to the movement should behave. Meeks finds that for these Christians, the formation of morals means the formation of community; the documents are addressed not to individuals but to groups, and they have among their primary aims the maintenance and growth of these groups. Meeks paints a picture of the process of socialization that produced the early forms of Christian morality, discussing many factors that made the Christians feel that they were a single and "chosen" people. He describes, for example, the impact of conversion; the rapid spread of Christian household cult-associations in the cities of the Roman Empire; the language of Christian moral discourse as revealed in letters, testaments, and "moral stories"; the rituals, meetings, and institutionalization of charity; the Christians' feelings about celibacy, sex, and gender roles; and their sense of the end-time and final judgment. In each of these areas Meeks seeks to determine what is distinctive about the Christian viewpoint and what is similar to the moral components of Greco-Roman or Jewish thought.--From publisher's description.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)241.09Religions Christian Devotional Literature and Practical Theology Christian Ethics
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Yale University Press
An edition of this book was published by Yale University Press.