Stroumsa, Guy. The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
The sheer volume of material contained in this slim volume is staggering. Guy Stroumsa leaps between Jewish, Christian, Manichaean, and other sources with ease, quoting texts in various languages. Initially trained as a scholar of Gnosticism, in this book Stroumsa reveals his current interest in the history of religion as both a contemporary phenomenon and a shifting paradigm within the ancient world itself. Not only has our own modern view of religion shifted dramatically, but ancient Jews and Christians, Stroumsa suggests, underwent a dramatic shift in their own understanding of their relation to the divine. This is not the author’s first time making such a claim: in many ways, this book builds on his earlier La Fin du Sacrifice: Les Mutations Religieuses de l’Aniquité Tardive, which argues that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was, and should still be, considered a watershed moment in the history of religion.
As an entrée into his significant claim, Stroumsa describes and analyzes the “scriptural universe” of ancient Christianity, the constellation of texts and reading practices that made up the intellectual world in which Christianity ultimately became dominant. He is clear from the outset: this book is not a synthesis, nor can it be, given the “dazzling complexity” and “the turbulence created by the whirlpool of texts, oral traditions, and behavioral patterns stemming from the varied religions and cultural backgrounds of the Mediterranean and Near East.” It is a glimpse into a network of texts, practices, and people—a network that, Stroumsa argues, had a specific shape and form that was, in many ways, constituted around its relationship to Judaism.
This book holds that texts are crucial for religions in much of the modern world, and that we need to trace this reliance on the written word to Late Antiquity. Stroumsa makes a subtle move here, however: rather than suggesting, as many before him have, that there was a transition from cult-centered religion to book-centered religion, he argues that book becomes cult. This is the watershed moment in both the history of religion and our understanding of it; this is the process that became inevitable when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and this is the reason that a book exploring a “scriptural universe” can act more like a roadmap than a traditional argument. He presents the Emperor Julian as a prime example: Julian’s religious reforms did not fail because he lacked a specific holy book, but rather, because he did not have “a mechanism of holy book use.” This is an important argument, although it left this reviewer wondering about the role of Homer, or Julian’s own compositions, in the emperor’s religious program—and how modern scholars are to make distinctions between legitimate religious uses of religious texts, and religious uses of other texts. It seems to me that such a distinction might ultimately hinder us more than it helps us.
The body of Stroumsa’s book is a brisk meandering walk through the sources and their contemporary interpretations. His parallel interests in the history of religion and its academic study are perhaps most lucid when he discusses Freud in chapter two: Freud’s work on unconscious memory becomes a perfect model for the “palimpsest” of ancient Christian textual authority, in which Jews are never “fully effaced” on the “divine parchment.” This conception of cultural memory, and of the possibilities nascent in a deep archaeology of knowledge, undergird the majority of the book.
A close analysis of texts on the subject of education and ethical formation in chapter three, which focuses on “Religious Revolution and Cultural Change,” leads Stroumsa to contrast Greek philosophical “care of the self” with early Christian “sapiential activism”—a reduced emphasis on understanding the world, and an increased focus on transforming it, to paraphrase Theodoret of Cyrrhus. This concept, he argues, has its origins in Hellenistic Jewish thought and remains current in rabbinic literature. This is another of the book’s central conceits: that much of what we can understand about this scriptural universe owes its existence and formulation to Jewish attitudes towards texts and study. Consider, for example, the mishnaic equation of Torah study to the performance of various commandments (Mishnah Peah 1:1). This is further explored in the analysis of “new” reading practices in chapter five, and the centrality of monasteries in focusing and amplifying this new “reading culture” in chapter six.
When he asks what, exactly, caused early Christianity to take root—what allowed it to become, in some ways, synonymous with “culture” in the late ancient Mediterranean—Stroumsa looks yet again at Jewish roots. He highlights Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible as a profoundly important ideological stepping stone, and endeavors to show how Christians went a step beyond. Instead of producing wholesale translations of biblical books, various texts were translated piecemeal, and into numerous languages at once. Some were even combined and paraphrased (like the Diatesseron), making them even more accessible to a wide variety of people across the Mediterranean. An old argument, about the importance of the codex in this process, makes its appearance here.
The remainder of the book brings a wider network of players into focus. In chapter seven, we are treated to an expanded view of the intellectual Mediterranean. Stroumsa suggests a late antique “orientalism,” and presents scholars that travel east for wisdom (Plotinus, Apollonius), as well as texts and stories that made the journey from India to the Greek East (Barlaam and Joasaph, reworked by John of Damascus) as evidence for this phenomenon. A brief excursus into traditions surrounding mystical alphabets (chapter eight) reinforces this orientalism, which Stroumsa recasts in terms he has used earlier: “Thus Christian paideia, or at least the monastic paideia considered in this book, is Greek in form and Hebrew in content.” Its ideals may have begun in the west, but it came to fruition looking east.
Before concluding, Stroumsa meditates on the various forms of authority that Scripture is capable of providing for human actors who involve it in their practices. This is part of a broader discussion about textual authority that has been taking place for some time: Eva Mroczek’s The Jewish Literary Imagination in Antiquity has challenged our notions of what an “authoritative text” looks like, and Michael Satlow’s How the Bible Became Holy posits that different types of authority were ascribed to what became the biblical text at different times. Stroumsa relies on older models, and is particularly indebted to Weber, and Harvey Whitehouse’s further development of his ideas.
The Scriptural Universe of Early Christianity ends much as it begins: with a hint toward the broad view with which its author views his evidence, and a promise to trace still more of the ripples that his arguments have created. This time, the scope stretches even beyond the wide Mediterranean basin of Late Antiquity. Stroumsa brings in provocative sources in Arabic, and leaves us with a tantalizing hint of how he thinks the processes he has adumbrated might help us understand early Islam—and specifically, the development of the Qur’an.
There is much in this book that a reader might quibble with: its scope is so broad, and its claims are far-reaching. Furthermore, Stroumsa is writing about a highly contested historiographic period. The reader is left with a sense, however, that the mechanics and the details aren’t really the important thing here. There have been major shifts in our orientation to religion, and the texts we use to study and practice it, over the past few centuries. These shifts can be productively mirrored in similar changing paradigms from Late Antiquity. The question left lingering is less one of content, and more of practice: how might our own orientation towards text, history, and religion change when we begin examining them with a more expansive view?
Daniel Picus is a PhD Candidate in Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean at Brown University.
 Guy Stroumsa, La Fin du Sacrifice: Les Mutations Religieuses de l’Aniquité Tardive. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2005. Translated by Susan Emanuel and published in English as The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
 Stroumsa, The Scriptural Universe of Early Christianity, 9.
 Stroumsa is careful to note that terms like “Christianity,” “Judaism,” and “Gnosticism” are but shortcuts.
 Jan Assman’s The Price of Monotheism is perhaps the most famous contemporary formulation of this concept.
 Stroumsa, The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity, 15.
 Stroumsa, The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity, 27.
 Stroumsa, The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity, 38.
 Stroumsa, The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity, 70.
 Stroumsa, The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity, 120