Topics in Early Church History?

My fall semester class on Early Church History started tonight. My prof is very enthusiastic: this is her favorite period of history and her favorite class to teach. So that should be fun! We have 12 people in the class, from a wide variety of Christian traditions, at various places in our degree programs.

For this class, I will be writing two 6-7 page papers. They can be on any topic that can be explored in the context of the first five centuries of Christianity for which there is primary source material available. (And she’ll work with us to find primary sources.)

So that’s a wide open field, and I’m taking suggestions. Is there something you’ve always been curious about? Convince me it’s really interesting, and maybe I’ll research it for you. 🙂

Some ideas I have so far:

– the development of the doctrine of original sin. (Was this really all Augustine’s idea, or was he building on ideas that were floating around?)

– the decision that the ordained bishops, rather than the “confessors” who survived persecution at the hands of the Romans without renouncing the faith or handing over church books or properties, exercised leadership in the church. (I’ve wondered since first learning about this controversy whether that decision didn’t go the wrong way.)

– the development of the sacrificial and/or scapegoat understanding of the crucifixion

– the use of images in Christian worship

– the extent to which Constantine influenced the Christian canon. (In Phyllis Tickle’s talks at the NBS conference, she asserted that Constantine provided a list to Irenaeus Eusebius of the books he wanted in the canon. I’d never heard that before.)

Any other ideas?

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15 Responses to Topics in Early Church History?

  1. Trey Medley says:

    The politics of Athanasius might be interesting. Also to consider, Ignatius’s view of the imago dei/ soul in contrast with the more predominant platonic conception of the soul. A final thought, the movement away from hermetic monasticism (sole individuals in the dessert) to communal monastic life (which dominated the Middle Ages, and remains the predominant strain). Just some thoughts from someone who has a great appreciation for Church History.

    • Thanks for the suggestions! Can you expand a bit re: the politics of Athanasius?

      • Trey Medley says:

        Well some would argue that the whole thrust of Athanasius’s actions were based less upon theology and more upon his desire to gain/keep dominance in the largely Arian led area around Alexandria. Again, it’s highly contentious, but it might be an interesting study to see how much of it was theologically/orthodox faith motivated and how much was his own agenda (keeping in mind that the official cannon was still in a bit of flux at that point).

  2. Derek Olsen says:

    I’m afraid Phyllis was out in left field on that one: Irenaeus died in 202…It’s possible she may have meant Eusebius, but—again—there’s no evidence on that one. Speaking of Eusebius, on your second point, he gives us a great both/and in his description of the bishops who gathered for the council of Nicaea most of whom bore the marks of their torture.

    Here’s a possibility: St Jerome is often seen as a total misogynist for his views on sex. However, he gives us a very interesting perspective on the lives of pious women in his letters. There was a circle of wealthy women (led by Paula and Eustochium) he corresponded with over a period of years—he sent them advice on ordering their lives, raising their daughters (including the best ways to teach them to read…), and answering their theological and biblical questions. It’d be really neat to see some research on the Church Mothers in Rome based on the information that could be teased out of his letters, many of which are translated in the NPNF.

    • Ah, that was my memory at fault rather than Phyllis – I hesitated over the name and now that you say Eusebius, I do recall that’s who she had said. I’ll update the post accordingly – thanks.

      Interesting suggestion on Jerome. Have you seen Suzanne McCarthy’s post speculating on whether Paula influenced some of Jerome’s translations involving childbirth?

  3. Antonius says:

    In my opinion, one interesting topic it’s the development of monasticism. I think there was no specific tradition in eastern Mediterranean of cenobitic life. Another topic that interests me it’s the early christian view on the life after death, in particular the part where the soul is detached from the body.

    • Thanks for the suggestions! Do you think the Qumran community constitutes a tradition of monastic life?

      My understanding is that the general Greco-Roman view of death is that the soul, finally freed from its prison of matter, returned to the heavens where it belonged. So the Christian take on that would have to reject the view of matter as evil and inferior. And it seems like this would somehow have had to interact with the early church transitioning from the expectation of an immanent parousia, to an eventual one. Hm!

      • Antonius says:

        Well yes the Qumran community is one case study, but not something definitive.

        The general Greek view of death (and I suppose the Roman too ) was that everyone is going to Hades, no matter what he had done in his life. Later in the Classical and Hellenistic era we have some notion of paradise but I doubt that these beliefs reached the masses, they were mostly elitist.

  4. Theophrastus says:

    Well, there are probably insufficient primary sources available to discuss this topic, which is admittedly off the beaten path, but I am interested in the symbolism of the Green Man in early Christianity.

    (Cross commenting on BLT.)

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  7. Angel says:

    Came upon your post and after reading it, I’m curious to what topic did you write on? Care to share?

    • Sure! My first paper was titled “Body, Soul, and Immortality: Christian, Jewish, and Stoic Thought in the Second Century.” I was looking at whether the Christian idea of the resurrection of the body might have emerged from combining Jewish and pagan ideas. One of the primary sources I used was the Testament of Abraham, which was hilarious.

      My second paper was titled “Consubstantial: On Christ’s Dual Consubstantiality leading up to the Council of Chalcedon.” I looked at the evolving understanding of how Christ could be fully human and fully divine, and how it was constrained by common understandings of how human persons are constituted and of the attributes proper to divinity and to humanity. (Then I got to pick Christology as the topic for my final exam.)

      Thanks for asking!

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