First Steps in Christian Beginnings
Bart D. Ehrman (ed.), After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Though the Church in the Second and Third Centuries is a "Dark Age" in the minds of most Christians, the darkness is not due to lack of data. The 19th Century series The Ante-Nicene Fathers runs to over 5,000 large pages in small type - and it was not complete even in its own day. Subsequent discoveries, most notably the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic-Christian literature, have added much to our knowledge or, oftentimes, to our perplexity.
Professor Ehrman's selection of readings gives an overview of this vast forest. He has selected 76 works, mostly self-contained excerpts, though a few are complete. In addition to familiar items that cannot be omitted from such a collection (e. g., the Epistle to Diognetos, large parts of the Epistles of St. Ignatios, and selections from Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen), we are given much that later generations found heretical, dubious or silly: apocryphal Scriptures, esoteric Gnostic speculation and writings by Christians who refused to recognize any separation between their faith and Judaism. The texts are arranged thematically (e. g., "The Attack on Christianity: Persecution and Martyrdom in the Early Church", "Anti-Judaic Polemic", "The Development of the Liturgy") in such a way that neighboring pieces illuminate one another.
The translations have all appeared in print before, and the editor deserves credit for choosing clear, readable versions. His introductions, while well-suited to the intended audience, are open to criticism. On the positive side, they are judicious and nonpartisan, avoiding (except on the topic of the ministry of women in the early Church, where no mainstream modernist can afford to be completely candid) speculation beyond the evidence. On the negative, they are so judicious that the untutored reader is left unaware of controversies that have a major impact on the meaning of the texts. To take a significant instance, Prof. Ehrman blandly states that "most scholars" date the manual of Church discipline known as the Didache to c. 100 A.D. True enough, but some date it much earlier and some much later, and its value as evidence depends crucially on the time and place from which it came.
All in all, for anyone who would like to know more about pre-Nicene Church history, this volume is, if not the last word, a useful and interesting preface.