How was early Christian literature made? Who read it? In what circumstances were Christian books read? How did they compare to other ancient books in physical form, literary quality and reading function? The significance of these questions is often overlooked. In fact, in the many NT classes I have taken both at the undergraduate and graduate level, rarely have these questions been addressed.
It is precisely to these questions that Harry Gamble attends in his masterful, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. The goal of the book is to provide “a history of early Christian texts” (x). It is a difficult history to write. Early Christian writers give few details regarding the production, circulation and use of their literature because they assumed the process to be common knowledge. Rather than seek to answer these questions by focusing on a specific geographic region or time frame, Gamble attempts to provide a portrait of the entire landscape of the literary culture of the burgeoning Christian movement in the first five centuries.
Gamble’s study includes five chapters:
1. Literacy and Culture in Early Christianity
2. The Early Christian Book
3. The Publication and Circulation of Early Christian Literature
4. Early Christian Libraries
5. The Uses of Early Christian Books
In each chapter Gamble seeks to answer his questions by first placing them in the larger context of Jewish and Greco-Roman literary culture. He then, as far as possible, compares what we know about literacy and books with what is evidenced among the early Christians. The result is a fantastically insightful book. In light of this book’s significance I will provide a review of each chapter in a series of upcoming posts. Stay tuned. Larry Hurtado thinks Gamble’s book “ought to be required for any PhD student in the field.” You will want to know why.