In addition to being academically meditative, Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints offers a wonderfully holistic and refreshingly nuanced view of ancient Christian religiosity and its deeply influential relationship with modern practice.
The authors pack essential philosophical, sociological, and historical context into the chapters, while also weaving in reminders to the reader to interpret this history through a curious and empathetic lens. The book was edited by a team of religious scholars at Brigham Young University and published in timing with the 2023 Come Follow Me New Testament theme, making it relevant for a BYU audience. Well-researched, thoughtful, and easy to understand, Ancient Christians deserves your train ride, your bed-side lamp light, or your Sunday afternoon.
In the introduction to the book, one of the editors, Jason R. Combs, posits that the early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints inherited what he calls an “apostasy narrative” from the 19th century Protestantism surrounding them. This narrative of “dark ages” is an over-simplified way of understanding history and overlooks ancient religious, artistic and cultural movements that continue to impact global modern Christianity today. The editors assert their united belief in the need for the Restoration, but they also carefully inspect the use of household phrases like “Great Apostasy” and “restored church” and offer a more doctrinally accurate perspective. These phrases aren’t actually used in the Latter-day Saint standard works of scripture with the same meanings they’ve taken on over time in Church vernacular. This brief yet pivotal focus on semantics sets the tone for the book to be both an intellectual and spiritual framing of the past.
Ancient Christians is a compilation of chapters written by different authors, making the book itself a mosaic of historical scholarship and spiritual testimony by and for Latter-day Saints.
Ancient Christians is a compilation of chapters written by different authors, making the book itself a mosaic of historical scholarship and spiritual testimony by and for Latter-day Saints. Each chapter focuses on a foundational concept in general Christianity, like human nature, creating canon, and the Second Coming. The chapters take the reader through the development of each respective concept and any notable events, theologians, scriptural disputes, or what-have-you involved in the temporal trek toward our modern understandings.
There are many parallels drawn by the authors between ancient Christian practices, rituals, and beliefs and ones that are practiced today in the Church, but the book focuses very little on modernity and instead gives an impressively comprehensive overview of ancient Christianity through an exploration of various Christian concepts, while also providing a balanced understanding of the necessary cultural, political, and spatial contexts of the first several centuries after Christ.
For example, the chapter “Sacred Spaces and Places of Worship: From House Churches to Monumental Basilicas” details the way early Christianity was impacted by the social and architectural structure of the home in Jewish and Roman society and culture. As a wayward sect of Judaism in its beginning, Christianity was born into domestic structures and, for a few centuries, flourished that way. Ancient Christians met in their homes and viewed each other as an extension of the family — as brothers and sisters. During this time, the Christian mission was one of hope and of caring for lost souls. After the Roman emperor Theodosius recognized Catholic Orthodoxy as the state’s official religion, Christianity’s position in society shifted dramatically, which manifested in changes in worship spaces and architecture, as well as in mission and emphasis.
The chapter “Church Organization: Priesthood Offices and Women’s Leadership Roles” cites the apostle Paul’s use of terms like apostle, elder, and deacon sweepingly and for both women and men. All through the New Testament, women actively participated in the Church as prophets and leaders. As the Church became integrated into Roman society, it began to reflect Roman social structure and social expectations. In Rome, the public space was a man’s space and the private space was designated to women. As worship moved outside of the home and into the public sphere, gender roles became more apparent in the practice of Christianity. By the 3rd century, women’s participation in any leadership capacity had become severely limited.
After a thorough dive into each concept, every chapter concludes in several pages of fine-print citations. Cover to cover, there are more than 90 pages of notes. With sources ranging from first century sermons to Christian hymns from ancient Asia Minor to contemporary research, the writing remains captivating while being thoroughly cited.
Ancient Christians seems to argue for the need for temporal humility. Pride makes us think we’re better than those around us, but it also makes us think we’re better than those who came before us.
In the introduction, Combs makes the observation that members of the Church often rejoice in a perceived “differentness” they have from others, rather than in the blessings of the modern Church and the blessings of the ongoing Restoration. This same in-group-based pride may also inhibit members from understanding themselves fully or learning from the past.
The authors draw many comparisons between ancient and modern Christians, point out stark differences, and outline the ways both groups are made up of people doing their best to follow the scriptures and follow their church leaders while also being heavily influenced by their unique cultural contexts. In the 21st century, Christians still acknowledge that a complete comprehension of Christ is beyond human capability. We can understand that ancient Christians and their subscription to or emphasis of certain aspects of Jesus Christ’s Atonement or the energy they spent trying to uncover truth was their attempt to draw near to God.
If we open ourselves up to learning from our Christian ancestors, we also open ourselves up to more modes of spiritual enlightenment and inspiration.