Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous
JETS 23:1 (March 1980) p. 75
Early Christianity and Society. By Robert M. Grant. San Francisco: Harper, 1977, xii + 221 pp., $10.00.
This book is a collection of seven loosely-related essays that focus primarily on the institutional and economic development of the early Church. Grant first examines the evidence regarding the growth of the Christian population within the Roman empire. Prior to the conversion of Constantine, the Christian movement comprised “a relatively small cluster of more or less intense groups, largely middle class in origin” (p. 11). But what was the attitude of this movement toward the empire? The Church was generally favorable toward Rome and its hierarchical structuring of society—the sharp anti-Roman attacks of Hippolytus and Tertullian must be seen as exceptions to the generally optimistic attitude of the Church that reached its culmination in Eusebius. As a result of its esteem for Rome the Church became a state within a state, and hierarchical ideas were reinforced by the development of the episcopate and the papacy. Another aspect of the relationship of Church and state was the matter of taxation and compulsory public service. The early Christians were not unwilling to fulfill such obligations to the state, but neither were they unwilling to take advantage of the exemptions that became possible for Christian clerics after 313.
Subsequently Grant turns his attention to the early Christian views on work, occupations and the acquisition of private property. A survey of the NT and later ecclesiastical literature shows that the Church was firmly committed to promoting socially useful arts and crafts, although the definition of acceptable vocations tended to be influenced by the surrounding culture. While evidence shows the presence of all social classes among the Christians, slaves probably represented only a small minority of the total Christian population. The Church did not condemn slavery per se but favored practical improvement of the conditions of slavery. With regard to private property, the fathers generally rejected the idea of communal sharing set forth in the early chapters of Acts. The Christian attitude was aristocratic, allowing the rich to remain rich but discouraging social mobility and the avaricious accumulation of wealth.
The final essays treat the organization of alms and the acquisition of buildings and endowments by the Church. The fourth century saw a growing interrelationship between Christianity and the empire: Clerics became administrators for the state’s grain dole, while the government closed pagan temples and began the construction and endowment of basilicas.
Grant is properly concerned to interpret the Church’s “practicality” in its broader historical context. I was left with doubts, howev...
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