What is the best book for someone interested in the early Catholic church?
April 15, 2005 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Inspired by the recent coverage of John Paul II's death, I'm looking for a book about the early history of the Catholic church. I'm more interested in an historical analysis than a religious analysis, but obviously there might be some overlap. Any suggestions?
posted by HiddenInput to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Elaine Pagels' _Beyond Belief_ has a pretty good account of how the Church decided what constitutes the gospels. She's an academic, but this is an easy read.

ISBN 0375501568
posted by jmgorman at 6:39 AM on April 15, 2005

not exactly what you're looking for, but interesting and relevant (especially since jp was a marist of some kind, i believe) is alone of all her sex. although it's a long, detailed study of mary, it necessarily sheds a lot of light on the catholic church itself (particularly relatively early history).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:41 AM on April 15, 2005

Check out "Groundwork of Christian History," by Diarmaid MacCullouch. You might be disappointed in knowing that most papal traditions weren't really formulated in the early church. You'll mostly find a lot of debates about gnosticism and other heretical notions.
posted by geoff. at 8:08 AM on April 15, 2005

Bart Ehrman, chair of the religious studies department at UNC, has written a number of readable, intelligent books about early Christianity, which he demonstrates was a chaotic mix of beliefs that eventually culminated in the success of the "proto-orthodox" movement that became Roman Catholicism (and the marginalization of other sects as heresy). Ehrman's 2003 book Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew was very well-received and is probably now the go-to source for information on this topic. Here's an excerpt from an interesting interview with Ehrman at Beliefnet:

Why do you think the religion that Constantine chose, the current form of Christianity—which you call the proto-orthodox—won out?

To some extent they won because they were better debaters. Each of these groups was fighting all the other groups on various fronts, but the proto-orthodox seemed to have been better organized than the other groups and seemed to have been more intent on establishing a worldwide network of similar people. And so they ended up taking over the churches in the major areas where there were lots of Christians, such as Rome, and eventually in Alexandria, Egypt, and Jerusalem...

When were these battles over Christianity taking place?

The main battles that we know about took place about 100 years after Jesus died and for the next, say, 50 or 70 years. The battles then dribbled on into the third century, and it’s during this period that people were formulating theological statements for their points of view. That formulation of theological views came to a head in the early fourth century, when the earliest Christian creeds were formulated. The proto-orthodox had won by the time of the Council of Nicea, and so the arguments at that point are on much more subtle points of theology. Everybody at the Council of Nicea would have agreed that these other groups were heretical.

I also really liked the introduction to the companion volume, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview with Ehrman last year; it was one of the most fascinating hours I've ever spent. Oh, and Pagels is good, too.
posted by mediareport at 8:10 AM on April 15, 2005

The best general history of the early church is Peter Brown's The Rise of Western Christendom, though you might also enjoy Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians. The best history of the papacy is Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners.
posted by verstegan at 9:00 AM on April 15, 2005

A good read (albeit polemical) from an orthodox Catholic perspective is Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church. It is written for a popular audience, easy to get through and engaging.

A more historical and scholarly account (although still from a unapologetically Catholic perspective) is the first volume of Warren Carroll's The Founding of Christendom.
posted by PadrePuffin at 9:45 AM on April 15, 2005

I'm currently reading The Catholic Church: A Short History, by Hans Kung (part of the Modern Library Chronicles series). It doesn't go into great depth, but it's a good introduction.
posted by Guy Smiley at 9:56 AM on April 15, 2005

Second for Bart Ehrman. He's also given audiobook lectures on Early Christianity and Lost Scriptures.
posted by turbodog at 10:30 AM on April 15, 2005

I'll second the nod for Brown's Rise of Western Christendom. I used it in the last early medieval history course I taught. I find it much` more accessible than most of the history textbooks on the period.
posted by ahughey at 11:06 AM on April 15, 2005

I second the nod for Pagels' Beyond Belief, though it is in some ways a personal book and is not an unbiased account. Will Durant's Age of Faith contains all sorts of interesting information, though it shows its age in spots. Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror is a fantastic book detailing one of the most interest periods of pre-reformation christianity.

For original sources on early Christianity, you can go for Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History who is quite readable and a major source from the Patristic (~ 4th c. and earlier) period.
posted by vraxoin at 11:32 AM on April 15, 2005

An enjoyable novel that conveys the feel of what it was like to be caught up in the theological controversies of the fourth century is The Beacon at Alexandria, by Gillian Bradshaw. You'll never think of Athanasius as a dusty figure attached to a creed again.
posted by languagehat at 11:50 AM on April 15, 2005

Depending on what you mean by the "early" history of the Catholic Church, the best book on this topic may well be The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God Volume 3 by Oxford historian N.T. Wright. Wright is not Catholic, but if you're looking for a history of the early Church (which any Catholic would tell you was the Catholic church), this is without question the definitive work. It's very long, and very, very thorough, so it's really only for people who seriously want to know their history.
posted by gd779 at 5:45 PM on April 15, 2005

Perhap slightly out of range, but well written and most interesting is Steven Runciman's The Medieval Manichee, a study of early heresy which sheds a different kind of light. A quick read, in any event
posted by IndigoJones at 6:48 PM on April 15, 2005

Personally, I'm wary of "unapologetically Catholic" accounts of the history of the Catholic church. In my experience, even the most, er, catholic of Catholic historians has almost laughably credulous moments that make me question their work in toto. Not that I've read all of them, of course; I don't have the patience. So take that into account.

I haven't read Pagels' Beyond Belief, which this editorial review confirms is a very personal book; my recommendation would be to start with Adam, Eve and the Serpent or The Gnostic Gospels - both provocative interpretive histories, yes, but also very scholarly ones.
posted by mediareport at 6:51 PM on April 15, 2005

To avoid misunderstanding, I should add that by "laughably credulous moments" I'm not referring to a belief in god, but to moments in which the historian seems to simply accept at face value the validity of the Catholic Church's version of its own institutional history, or moments in which conflicting accounts are minimized in support of a single, rather triumphalist narrative. It's been a decade or so since I've looked at them, so perhaps that was a product of a certain time, but I can't shake the lingering distrust of orthodox religious historians.

Historians like Ehrman - who told me he was a believer until he started seriously studying the history of the Church - don't seem to play favorites like that, preferring to honor the uncertainty and conflicting accounts in the historical record.
posted by mediareport at 7:10 PM on April 15, 2005

In our History of Christianity to 1517 course we use

The Early Church, by Henry Chadwick and A History of The Church in the Middle Ages by Donald Logan.

Both are written fairly clearly, and provide a nice overview of the history involved.
posted by korej at 4:20 PM on April 21, 2005

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