Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2017-18: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time


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Unit VII: Christianity and Late Antiquity to A.D. 600

Week 23: Christian Liturgy and Scripture,
First-Second Centuries A.D.

For this week, please read:

Though we have not nearly covered all the complexity the late Roman world can afford, we are also going to have to move on into the realm of Christian literature. As a parting glance at the Roman world, I have assigned the second chapter of Auerbach’s Mimesis, entitled “Fortunata”. Though you have probably not read any of the literature it addresses (certainly I have not assigned it), the passage Auerbach discusses is given in the text. It may help you understand and appreciate the cultural context in which Christianity grew into a world religion. Make of it what you can — I will not be testing you on this particular part.

Against this background I would like you to read the Gospel According to Mark and the Acts of the Apostles. I suspect many of you are more familiar with the New Testament than with anything else we have read this year anyway (which is fine!) but I would like you to try to read these with a fresh eye — with a view toward how you would have taken these had you never read them or heard the story before. That is, I am not asking you to approach them from a standpoint of unbelief, but to try to imagine what kind of impact the central Christian story would have upon you had you not grown up steeped in the tradition, as most of you have.

Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, but also one of the most gripping just from a narrative point of view: it would be best to read it at one sitting if you can. One curious fact about the Gospel of Mark is that it may have been one of the very first books to appear primarily in the form of the book we know best now — that is, pages bound along a spine, called a codex. As such it would be much more compact than the older roll form of the book, and more suitable to being carried about by rootless Christians on the move (perhaps fleeing persecution, perhaps forwarding their mission). There are some other consequences of this change in the form of the book: do any occur to you?

The book of the Acts of the Apostles chronicles the first encounters of the Christian faithful with the world at large, and the growth of Christianity from what was apparently a Jewish sect to a form of faith for all the nations. What are some of the cultural collisions that occur? Try here to get past mere partisanship for the Christian “side” to see what is going on.

As you read, consider the fact that the Gospel is, in a very special way, a kind of hero-story: how does it differ from the other hero stories you have read so far? What different model of the hero does it offer, and how does it transform the model of heroism for all Christians afterward?

Finally, however large the Bible may loom in your faith, it is important to realize that the earliest Christians didn’t have it: the Bible was a product of their efforts, not the impulse that brought them together in the first place. The scattered and fugitive groups of Christians could hardly have afforded a copy of the Hebrew scriptures — either in Hebrew or in Greek. They had some of the letters of Paul, perhaps, and by the second century they were beginning to acquire copies of the Gospels. But it is important to recall that the Good News as they knew it was not so much a book as the story that was passed on in and through their community. The canon of scripture was not established for several hundred years. Prior to that point it would have been a purely academic task anyway: the production of a book — any book — was very expensive, and the earliest communities had neither the funds to afford them nor places to hide them in periods of persecution. What they did have was prayer and the beginning of a liturgy that would eventually take shape through a number of different traditions. Here, largely for the benefit of the students who do not come from a Catholic tradition (as I myself do not), I am presenting the text of the ordinary (that is, the part that doesn’t change from week to week) of the Latin Mass. The form given here is something that emerged hundreds of years later, though its roots go back to the early church, and even farther — back to traditional Hebrew prayers and chants. I hope it goes without saying that I am not here trying to persuade anyone for or against the Catholic faith; but I do want to emphasize that these potent words, which stand behind a number of different Western liturgies, including many Protestant forms, have penetrated as deeply into the western mind as any set of words ever written.

Ivory evangelarium cover: Paris, Musée national de Moyen Âge (Cluny); Ancient miniature painting of St. Paul: New York, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photographs by Bruce A. McMenomy