CUP (2019) h/b 342pp £75 (ISBN 9781108481465)

In this book Paul McKechnie, an associate professor in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, offers a work of immense and impressive scholarship, following up and evaluating evidence from literary, archaeological and epigraphical sources with exhaustive thoroughness.

It is a constant engagement (as the comprehensive bibliography confirms) with scholars of the present and previous generations. A paragraph beginning ‘As Markus Bockmueld argues (agreeing with Ernst Dassmann) in his review of S. Heid’s 2010 volume of studies interrogating Zwierlein’s conclusions…’ is not untypical. So, for the non-specialist in one sense it is not an easy read. With extensive footnotes it requires close concentration on points of details, for example in a discussion whether a name which appears on two inscriptions with a slight variation, possibly caused by a split in the stone, refers to the same person. But in another sense, it is an easy read as M.’s written English is clear, straightforward and almost completely jargon-free. 

M. conducts the reader through the early Christian leaders and evangelists of Asia Minor, figures such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna, and then discusses the impact of Montanus and the division caused by the New Prophecy.

He seeks to identify evidence of significant families who passed the faith down from generation to generation, influencing to a greater or lesser degree the communities in which they lived. He devotes one of his eleven chapters to tracing the history through several generations of the Olympicos family of the small city of Apollonia and sees in it an example of the shift, described in an evocative phrase, ‘from the sacred canopy of polytheist and imperial religion to the Christian sacred canopy.’ For M., pre-Constantinian evangelization is process rather than event. He discusses the evidence for Christians serving as town councillors, a role which some purists at the time considered incompatible with the higher service of God to which they had been called.

M. treads carefully in assessing the validity of claims made for some church leaders by some of their hagiographers. Indeed, he offers as a lengthy appendix his own translation of the life of St Aberkios (Vita Abercii), Bishop of Hierapolis towards the end of the second century, and devotes two chapters in the body of the book unpicking fact from fiction in the life of the saint. There is discussion on the background and impact of various persecutions, including the Great Persecution under Diocletian and then an outline of the developments which followed Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity.

The book is a model of cautious scholarship, cautious because M. appreciates the uncertainty of so much of the evidence. An example is his attitude to the suggestion that the number of similar gravestones with Christian symbols in a certain locality justifies identifying the workshop that produced them as ‘one of the earliest known Christian businesses’. For M. this is a deduction too far. For many of the theories that others have put forward, his highest praise is often ‘plausible’. In an endearing passage he himself confesses that when in an article in 1999 he dated a particular monument ‘my confidence was misplaced.’

The careful reader will benefit not only from M.’s reflections on the process of evangelization, but from observing a first-rate scholar at work.

Ray Morris