Harry Gamble fills a gap in our knowledge of the early Christian movement by exploring the extent to which early Christians were capable of writing and reading. Beginning by debunking the form critical distinction between Kleinliteratur and Hochliteratur, with the concomitant "romantic conception of the folk community" of early Christianity (20), G. illuminates the complexities of determining literacy levels in a multilingual society. Uncovering the sociological assumptions behind prior discussions, G. shows that the literary culture of the early church involved a rich collection of texts directed at a wide spectrum of socioeconomic classes. The early Christian use and interpretation of Jewish scriptures demonstrates "a scholastic concern and activity . . . from the beginning . . ." (24f).
Gamble's discussion of the Christian use of the codex is a fascinating example of historical reconstruction based on close examination of the evidence. Through a painstaking analysis (in chpt. 2), he makes a strong case for the seven-churches edition of Pauline letters being the incentive for the disproportionate use of the codex form by early Christians. Eventually, the wide currency of Christian books shifted the traditional preference from inscribing literary works on scrolls to codices.
In his discussion of how ancient books were transmitted and "published," G. shows that Christian writings were disseminated very rapidly and over a wide geographical area. This does not presuppose a Christian "publishing house" in the contemporary sense of the term; the closest thing to this seems to be Origen's private scriptorium in Alexandria. But there exists plenty of evidence that churches shared copies of their documents, and that collections of Christian writings were in circulation at very early dates (e.g., the collection of the letters of Dionysius of Corinth already during his own lifetime, ca. 170).
The recurrent concern that texts might be adulterated (e.g., Rev. 22:18-19; cf. Eus. HE 5.20.2) testifies to a scholarly interest on the part of Christian writers. This interest in studying texts is confirmed by the proliferation not only of copies of early Christian writings texts but also their vernacular translations for use in the more remote sectors of the provinces. The practice of keeping stenographic records of church councils reinforced a strong Christian orientation toward the written word. Christians' reliance on sacred scriptural texts was the most significant factor in giving Christianity the external appearance rather of a philosophical movement than a religious cult.
The broad distribution of Christian books at an early date and their collection by even small local communities naturally led to the establishment of larger libraries in Christian centers such as Alexandria, Caesarea, and Rome. Even smaller churches had sizeable congregational libraries by the beginning of the fourth century. Diocletian's edict ordering the confiscation and burning of Christian books attests that they were seen as vital to the continued viability of Christian communities.
In his extensive discussion of libraries in antiquity, G. shows that early Christian libraries were relatively unique in their type of holdings. These church libraries "consisted primarily of religious texts used for religious purposes, a phenomenon closely paralleled in the Greco-Roman world only by Judaism." (196f) Yet, even from the late second century, Christian libraries included texts from classical pagan authors, and became the medium through which these classical texts were collected and preserved. (202)
In his final chapter on "the Uses of Early Christian Books," G. covers
the gamut from public reading of the texts in communal worship, to private
reading, to bibliomancy and other magical uses. His surprisingly unsupported
claim that the public reading of texts like acta martyrii "was never
confused with the reading of scripture" (218) is the exception that proves
the rule to his careful and sequential analysis of the evidence. True,
some may rather employ a "hermeneutic of suspicion" in analyzing the evidence
of private ownership and reading of Christian texts, seeing in it a stronger
aristocratic bias than does G. (e.g., 233). But such minor flaws as these
do not overshadow the truly ground-breaking nature of G.'s contribution
to the history of early Christian literature precisely as texts
produced by Christians and for Christian use.
Sheila Elizabeth McGinn, Ph.D.
John Carroll University
University Heights, Ohio 44118
14 May 1997