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Writing the History of Early Christianity, by Markus Vinzent

01 November 2019

Mark Edwards looks at the sources for several early Christian lives

IN THIS typically learned and original collection of studies, Markus Vinzent continues to test our retrospective confabulations of early Christian biography.

After a long introduction, in which he warns that much supposed “reception” of second-century literature is active reconstruction, from the fourth century to the present, he devotes successive chapters to the missionary bishop Abercius, the polymath Hippolytus, the pioneering apologist Aristides, and the episcopal martyr Ignatius of Antioch.

The chapter on Abercius juxtaposes three pieces of evidence: a prolix epitaph in hexameters from the Life of the saint, a fragmentary inscription that contains the middle section of this epitaph, but without the name Abercius, and another inscription attributing the top and tail of the poem to one “Alexander, [disciple] of Anthony”.

Whereas the convention has been to assume that the Life provides the full text, of which both inscriptions give us a partial copy, Vinzent proposes that the Life has conflated the two, removing the name Alexander and interjecting lines that name Abercius as the subject. (This is certainly the most economical argument, and consonant with Vinzent’s usual practice of postulating no texts earlier than those that are extant; but is he too quick to dismiss the fact that the name Abercius makes a true hexameter, while “Alexander of Anthony” is hypermetric?)

Hippolytus of Rome is the putative subject of a statue that surmounts a list of writings, some of which are ascribed elsewhere to this author. The history of this artefact and the integrity of the heterogeneous corpus ascribed to Hippolytus have been the subject of much controversy, which Vinzent recapitulates with trenchant criticisms: his principal contribution is to note that the man who identified Hippolytus as the subject of the statue may have been flattering Ippolito d’Este, his patron in the Church.

The Apology of Aristides of Athens, if we possessed it, would be the earliest extant specimen of such writing. As Vinzent reminds us, however, the Greek text is embedded in a Byzantine novel, and differs in many cardinal features from the more ample version that survives only in Syriac. The discovery of a papyrus containing a fragment of the Greek, together with partial renderings into Armenian and Georgian, has merely added complexity to the existing riddles, and Vinzent wisely concludes that no archetype can be extracted from our sources.

In his final and longest chapter, he argues that the so-called “middle recension” of seven letters by Ignatius (whose authenticity he has disputed elsewhere) is an expansion of the “short recension” of three letters, once again extant only in Syriac. One strong argument is that these three letters are the only ones cited by our earliest witnesses; another is that many common words are absent from the short recension which appear in the middle recension, while other equally common words are absent from the middle recension except where it overlaps with the short recension.

Less compelling, in my view, is the inference that Origen cannot have known the letter to the Smyrnaeans (absent from the short recension) because he ascribes a sentence from it not to Ignatius but to the Preaching of Peter. Ignatius also hints that its source is Peter, and Origen had reason to adduce the most primitive version.

Vinzent’s efforts to prove, against Lightfoot, that the short recension is at least as logical, if not more so, than the middle recension also seem to me inconclusive: the authenticity of a text is no guarantee of its logical perspicuity, as all readers of Paul can testify. None the less, this is a book that no student of second-century Christianity can afford to leave unread.

Professor Mark Edwards is Lecturer in Patristics in the University of Oxford, and Tutor in Theology at Christ Church, Oxford.


Writing the History of Early Christianity: From reception to retrospection
Markus Vinzent
Cambridge University Press £105
Church Times Bookshop £94.50

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