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The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity by Guy G. Stroumsa

14 July 2017

John Court reflects on religion and culture

READERS of the Bible may be surprised to be told how revolutionary an event in human history the simple transition in scripture from scroll to codex (book) format could be, as the means of recording the essentials of the faith. For the codex had the power to convert paganism, and so the Roman Empire was enabled to become Christian.

This may not be the whole story, but the book format was a necessary and acceptable means to the end. “It was by the book, rather than by the sword, that the new world religions conquered.” Religious ritual, therefore, becomes focused on scriptural interpretation and patterns of reading rather than on blood sacrifice.

Modern readers may well be accustomed to the questions about canonical limits applied to the biblical texts, essentially an internal matter for Christianity. But this fascinating study takes a much wider view, examining a diversity of external issues affecting both literary materials and philosophical contents. There is an intricate relationship between religion and culture.

A non-biblical text in Greek or Latin could be adopted selectively, as happened with Platonism, in ways that are parallel to the Christian use of the Old Testament and seen as applicable to the new faith.

This book offers a survey in nine chapters of the interactive relations between religion and culture, taking the story into late antiquity and beyond. Metaphors are used to convey the dazzling variety of stars in this universe, or “the turbulence created by the whirlpool of texts, oral traditions and behavioural patterns stemming from varied religious and cultural backgrounds in the Mediterranean and Near East”.

In terms of the literal assemblage of text, the author favours the image of the palimpsest (“a divine palimpsest” in chapter two). Among issues raised are memory, the classical concept of paideia, developments in reading practices in the monastic communities, Wisdom and the relations between East and West, and authority both scriptural and personal.

Guy Stroumsa holds emeritus professorships at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Oxford. This present work is a sequel to The End of Sacrifice (Chicago, 2009), and the result of a sustained period of reflection and teaching in lectures and seminars. Written in Jerusalem, it shows the harsh realities of place and an inspiring depth and breadth of vision.


Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.


The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity

Guy G. Stroumsa

Harvard University Press £31.95


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