Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous
JETS 41:4 (December 1998) p. 651
The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries. By Wayne A. Meeks. New Haven: Yale University, 1993, x + 275 pp., $30.00.
Wayne Meeks, continuing his important work on the origins of early Christianity, here moves to the second stage of such formation. Picking up the story after the death of Jesus, he explores how it was that Christian morality developed in the first two centuries. These centuries are admittedly a difficult period to reconstruct with regard to the ethical development of what emerged in the third and fourth centuries as “orthodox” Christianity, but Meeks has made a creditable attempt.
Meeks approaches his subject in several noteworthy ways. He is not concerned to articulate a set of ethical principles by which the early Christians lived, so much as to trace the developing “moral common sense, a set of moral intuitions” (p. 11) that the Christian community came to accept. He utilizes a number of sources in his attempt to arrive at this reconstruction, including a number of texts from the NT and a number of texts, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas, that were not included in the canon. All of these he treats in a critical way, reflective of a more sophisticated and necessary form of textual analysis than has often been applied to these documents of early Christianity.
As a result, Meeks has developed a series of portraits of how early Christianity came to view its ethical life. For example, he discusses the important moral consequences of conversion and the resulting effects that this moral stance had upon such categories of life as the city, household and people of God, one’s relationship to the world, the development and use of parenetic literature, the rituals that came to be practiced by early Christians as a reflection of their ethical beliefs (e.g. baptism), the confrontation with sin and evil, problems with the human body, varying conceptions of God, and eschatology. Meeks concludes with two chapters that attempt to extend the implications of his analysis. Drawing on recent work regarding the value of story, he summarizes the early Christian stories of a number of the sources that he has consistently drawn upon, including that of Paul and other NT writers but also of those such as the Valentinians. In the final chapter, he tries to establish moral guidelines by which the modern Christian community can live in the contemporary world.
Meeks’ volume provides interesting reading, especially in its attempt to integrate the NT texts with noncanonical texts from early Christianity and in its outlining of a set of principles to make early Christian moral reflection relevant for today. Needless to say, many will not take the same view toward these texts t...
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