In Search of the Early Christians

Wayne Meeks, Yale University Press, 2002

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Meeks, of the Department of Religious Studies, Yale University, explores a fascinating range of studies embracing social theory, history and literature, from the figure of the androgyn to New Testament pictures of Christianity’s separation from Jewish communities.

       (Androgyn:  myth of a bisexual progenitor of the human race, using metaphors of clothing symbolism, spiritual marriage, even baptism; ‘there is no longer male nor female’ cf. Galatians 3:28.  Androgyny.)

        A major theme dealt with by Meeks is the discussion of roles of women in the Christian congregations.  He lists the women who were leaders and patrons in the early churches, who shared Paul’s struggles.  ‘There are a number of signs that in the Pauline school women enjoyed a functional equality in leadership roles that were unusual in Greco-Roman society as a whole and quite astonishing in comparison with contemporary Judaism’ (p 20).

        The early Paul (eg 1 Cor 12) does not deny women the right to engage in charismatic leadership’ (p 22).  Meeks tellingly points out ‘that the most normal and startlingly ways of talking about Jesus—precisely the language that would lead the church later to define its great, complex creedal formulae about Christ’s divine and human nature and the doctrine of the Trinity—first appears in the records as poetry’ (p xxvii).

        A wonderful treatment of the early church’s beliefs and faith, a faith that will embrace rather than fear a certain kind of skepticism.  ‘Faith can never rest easily with the necessary skepticism of a good historian but the two need not be enemies’ ( 261).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.