I mentioned a few weeks back that I’ve been enjoying Carl Sommer’s We Look for a Kingdom: The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians. It’s a new book, just out from Ignatius Press, and it does for the patristic era what classics like Henri Daniel-Rops’ Daily Life in the Time of Jesus did for the New Testament era.
Carl and I have been going back and forth by email. I asked him if I might interview him for the blog, and he kindly consented. I’ll post our Q&A over the next few days.
So … now perhaps we begin.
Your book is different from other books on Christian antiquity. It’s not a history of theology, nor is it a social history. Nor is it really a work of apologetics. How would you describe your method, and what made you choose it?
There are many books, better than anything I could write, about the developments in theology or the Sacraments in the early Church. New Testament studies are also quite thick on the ground. There is nothing wrong with any of these books, but I wanted to try to do something a little bit different. I wanted to see if I could reconstruct the daily lives of everyday Christians in the first three centuries. My methodology was fairly simple. I ransacked the Ante-Nicene fathers and the archaeological records, not for developments in Trinitarian thought, but for references to marital and childrearing practices, daily prayer, care for the poor and sick, life in the military, and other aspects of daily life.
What do you think modern Christians gain by entering imaginatively into the ancient world? Why, for example, should we care about the practice of Roman medicine or the methods of ancient mail carriers?
It’s hard to pinpoint any immediate, practical benefits. I think, though, that general knowledge about the Roman world can enhance our understanding of the New Testament, and certainly, an appreciation of the difficulties Christians faced during the age of martyrs can inspire us to be better Christians today. I remember how I felt when I walked out at the end of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.” The secularists were afraid people would come out wanting to beat up Jews, but the movie had the opposite effect on me. I came out wanting to be a better person. I think reading about the daily lives of the early Christians could have the same effect on people.
Of course, the specific examples you gave have specific uses. Understanding the inadequacies of the public postal system helps students of the early Church to understand one aspect of communications between communities, and the importance of personal oral testimony. Those who carried the letters were more than just mailmen. They were trusted emissaries who passed their most important messages by mouth, not by letter. Nineteenth and twentieth century scholars, members of literate societies that highly prized the written word, have often made the assumption that in the first century, as in the twentieth, anything important would be most likely communicated in writing. In fact, in the first century, the opposite was true. The most important messages were transmitted orally first, and by the written word only as a way of confirmation. Thus, the Catholic notion of an oral tradition is borne out by the actual facts on the ground. And in fact we find that Papias and others who made inquiries into the origins of Christianity trusted oral tradition over the written word: “I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice” (Papias of Hierapolis, Fragments, I).
Regarding medical practices, too, many inferences can be drawn. In We Look for a Kingdom, for instance, I have suggested that some of the condemnations of sorcery in the New Testament might actually be condemnations of abortion. The argument is complicated, but has primarily to do with the meaning of the Greek word pharmakeia. See We Look for a Kingdom, pp. 312-315, for the entire argument.
In your opinion, what are the most common misconceptions about early Christianity?
The most common misconceptions about the early Christians are that they were egalitarian, and that they were anti or non-liturgical in their worship. The notion of egalitarianism is easy to dispel. If one honestly looks at the New Testament data, one quickly realizes that the Twelve had more authority than the body of believers, and that they routinely passed a share of their authority on to others. That the apostles exercised discipline over the churches is also easy to confirm in Scripture, when one considers passages like this one: “I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them…” (2 Corinthians 13:2).
It is, admittedly, harder to demonstrate the liturgical nature of early Christian worship, because there is no direct description of the Liturgy in the New Testament, but shortly afterward, in the Didache and in Justin Martyr’s First Apology, we find descriptions of Liturgies that look a lot like what we do today. We can’t simply assume that the first century Church worshipped as Justin did, but it seems reasonable to suppose that very early on, the Christians took existing Synagogue rituals and modified them for Christian usage, all the while with Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me” foremost in their minds.
Even mistaken ideas have consequences. What are the ill effects of these misconceptions?
The ill effects of the first misconception are many. First and foremost, Christ willed that His body should be one (or so I believe a fair reading of John 17:20 would lead one to conclude), but the belief that individual interpretation of Scripture should somehow override the authoritative teachings of the Bishops has resulted in an almost unbelievable fragmentation of the Body of Christ. We have paid bitterly for this disunity.
The anti-liturgical bias, which manifests itself outside Catholicism in the more charismatic forms of worship, and within Catholicism in the spirit of experimentation that has prevailed in the past thirty years, has had a more subtle, but nonetheless real, effect. The assumption that the words of Scripture that we read in the Liturgy of the Word, and the salvific act of Christ that we memorialize in the Liturgy of the Eucharist need somehow to be packaged and marketed have led to a trivialization of the Gospel message itself. I recently heard Donald Trump assert on TV that “Nothing sells itself.” That may be true of the products of this world, about which Mr. Trump knows more than I. But the Gospel can and does sell itself every day. We need to get out of the way, and let the ancient Liturgy speak for itself.
Stay tuned. I’ll post more from the conversation tomorrow.