Quick Review Of Decoding Early Christianity

Decoding Early Christianity: Truth and Legend in the Early Church is a book I was able to pick up off of the new books shelf at DTS. It looked interesting enough, had a cool cover (even if a bit odd for the subject matter), a great title, was short, and fell within my reading interests, so I decided to check it out. In summary, it is a book of inconsistent quality, and will not be the book I end up recommending for a good introduction to early Christianity (despite its cool name).

I was originally planning on have a series of posts to review the book, one on each chapter. I already have two typed up, and notes on a few more. I decided, though, that it probably wouldn’t be worth my time. From an academic perspective, it is hardly worth the time to read it; its audience is not academicians. If it ever becomes popular in the non-academic world then it would be worth my time, and I’ll work through it then.

The chapters I enjoyed the least were the chapters on Jesus and on the disciples. The chapter on the apocryphal New Testament had its rough points too, like where it said that John 1:32-34 and Acts 2:36 present the idea that Jesus was just a man who was promoted to status of God. Seriously? Come on. I also found the chapter on Heretics to be annoying in several places, like when it said Paul was more peace-and-lovey than Jesus was, and the implication is that it was Paul’s interpretation of Jesus that made him more palatable. I wonder if this is related to the author’s attempt to say that heresy spats were something that the earliest church wasn’t concerned with, and was a negative preoccupation of the later centuries. All this I find to be quite laughable. Paul wasn’t concerned with heresy? Sure, he didn’t use the word, but in Galatians he said his opponents, if they really believed what they say they believed, should just go ahead and cut off their wankers (Gal 5:12)! All peace and love and not concerned with heresy indeed...

That being said, I enjoyed some of the chapters. The one on "The First Popes" was good, despite its misleading title. I also enjoyed the chapter on early Christian worship. There were little bits and pieces throughout most of the chapters that I found interesting and thoughtful. There were just some bad apples.

As I mentioned above, the cover is cool, though a bit odd. My guess is the picture is from one of the dead sea scrolls. Whatever it is, it is something either Hebrew or Aramaic and not Greek. And though you may argue that Jesus spoke in Aramaic or Hebrew, the language of the Christians in the first few centuries was obviously neither! Oh well. No big deal.

This book is a collection of chapters, each written by different individuals. One of the problems you will usually have with books of this type is coherency and consistency. If the point of the book is to give multiple perspectives on a topic then this setup is ideal. You could say the same for those which are just collections of essays from well-respected scholars. But for a book of this type, that I suppose is intended to give its lay audience consistent overview of what the early church was like, the format seems less than ideal.

So, overall, I would say the book was average or just below average in quality of content. You should be in no big rush to pick it up.


Chuck Grantham 2008-04-02 11:24:38

$49.95 for 160 pages? Holy Shades of Brill, Batman!

I’ve been looking for a good recent semi-technical book on Early Church history and writings, but for that sum and that "nehhh" a review I’ll go get that copy of Paul Maier’s Eusebius off the bookshelf. If I want semi-technical I’ll see what archive.org and google books have in pdf.

Eric 2008-04-02 11:29:42

Yeah, I think the price is going to be a show-stopper for most. I wouldn’t have bought it either. It’s great to have a theological library nearby...