Recherche – Detailansicht






Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie


Stewart-Sykes, Alistair


From Prophecy to Preaching. A Search for the Origins of the Christian Homily.


Leiden-Boston-Köln: Brill 2001. XIV, 306 S. = Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, 59. Geb. ¬ 69,00. ISBN 90-04-11689-3.


Stuart George Hall

Surviving early Christian sermons are clearly identified and have been studied among works of Origen. If we exclude, as Stewart-Sykes does, missionary preaching, and look only for sermons within the assembly of the faithful, there is an absence of systematic study of Christian sermons before that time, even though many fragments or adaptations of sermons are alleged by scholars. Stewart-Sykes attempts a comprehensive review of the sermon in the period before Origen; he regards his work as a first foray into untrodden territory, a prehistory of Christian preaching. He looks first for preliminary indications that preaching existed in the first two centuries, and finds evidence for exhortation (paraklesis), a function particularly associated with prophets in the earliest assemblies.

Next he looks for features by which early sermons in the assembly might be identified, beginning with alleged parallels in Hellenistic and Jewish practice. Terms such as diatribe and protreptic are not clearly enough defined to be of more than secondary use, diatribe in particular having hardly existed as an independent form of speech or writing. Jewish preaching cannot give concrete parallels, since we have no examples early enough to suggest a model for the primitive church. Due attention is paid to Philo and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and some useful examples of biblical exegesis identified in Pseudo-Philo. From all this useful ideas emerge: Christian preaching when it does appear includes elements of diatribe and protreptic, and an exegesis of scripture with ethical conclusion not unlike rabbinic preaching, especially the proemic homily. A large number of early Christian documents are then examined in detail, where homilies have been alleged by modern interpreters, among them I and II Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the Johannine Gospel and Apocalypse, Melito and the Pseudo-Hippolytean In s. pascha, and the review concludes with the evidence of Hippolytus and Tertullian. The upshot is that in the beginning preaching was not present, its paracletic function being performed by prophecy. The church, consisting originally of households directed by their proprietors and inspired prophets, was transformed by a process variously termed synagogalization and scholasticization and the change from oikos to oikos theou. This change included the canonization and use of scripture, which had not been formally read in the primitive worship represented by I Corinthians, but came to be normative. Instead of prophetic oracles, which were tested (diakrisis) in the light of reason, scripture and tradition, the scripture itself came to be the divine word which was so discussed, explained and applied, and the sermon was born. At this point the prophet, though he or she might still exist and even flourish, became unnecessary, and the authorized preacher performed the vital task: the family became a synagogue or school, the conversation passed from homilia as prophetic dialogue to homily as scriptural monologue (188). The sociological analysis on which this work is based is becoming familiar through the work of New Testament critics, especially on Paul's Corinthian correspondence (s. Guido O. Kirner, Apostolat und Patronage [I]: ZAC 6/1, 2002, 3-17) and recent church history-writing (e. g. Allen Brent, Hippolytus and the Roman church in the third century, 1995 [SVigChr 31]). The result is an elegant, original and stimulating hypothesis, based on wide reading both of primary and secondary sources. It should provoke others to do better.

Unfortunately St.-S. has some weaknesses of detail, which may lead to his work being neglected. His standards of accuracy are made to look poor by a few repeated errors, especially of Greek spelling and accentuation. Some of these (like the spelling exegesis) occur so often and prominently that they are plainly bad habits and not occasional slips. The malformation sumbouleutic appears frequently, and there is casual inconsistency in presenting Greek words sometimes in Greek letters, sometimes in italicized English, sometimes English text without italics. The generally sound referencing of citations breaks down on p. 132, n. 142, where the Acta Pauli are cited in the translation of Schneemelcher: in fact it is from Wilson's English version of Hennecke/Schneemelcher in one or other of its editions, none of which appears in the list of Sources on p. 282. The reader would be well advised to stomach such weaknesses and apply himself to the substantial thesis which the author presents. Here the proposition that primitive Christian worship did not include the reading of Scripture is the most striking, and most questionable.

First, it assumes a consistency of behaviour in primitive congregations which we have learned to reject in other fields. Secondly, it assumes that Paul's descriptions of the worshipping congregation in ICorinthians 11-14 excludes the presentation of scripture texts. When Paul in emphatic summaries of his Gospel speaks of its basis in prophetic Scripture (Romans 1,1-5; ICorinthians 15,3 f.), it is difficult to believe that his congregations operated with no copies at all of the Greek Bible, or at least of some of its books or chapters. How otherwise could they begin to understand Galatians 3 or Romans 4? If St.-S. had not excluded missionary preaching from his purview, he would have found himself obliged to observe the sermons in Acts which argue from scriptural texts that Jesus is the Christ. It was perhaps a mistake to distinguish so sharply between preaching to outsiders and preaching in the assembly. Both required the fundamental texts. St.-S. himself includes the use of scripture in the diakrisis of primitive Christian prophecy; and the communities which pioneered the revolution in book-production by passing from scroll to codex earlier than their pagan contemporaries were plainly of a scholastic turn from the start. Nothing in this book has persuaded me that the function of divining God's word from the ancient oracles was not itself a primitive charisma. Hebrews discovers the high-priesthood of Christ from Psalm 109/110, and 1Clement elicits the divine appointment of presbyter-bishops from texts in Isaiah and the Pentateuch. In the school of Paul mysteries hidden for ages past are revealed to holy apostles and prophets in the spirit, including the fundamental point of the inclusion of Gentiles in Christ (Ephesians 3,5). St.-S. has a useful consideration of parts of the Gospel of John, and finds prophecy and homiletic, especially in chapter 6. He would do well to take more account of the way in which early Christians constructed narratives and teachings of Christ in the light of, or even directly from, the inspired texts of the Old Testament.

His method might also advance if someone were to look for residues of prophecy in the early texts among the Nag Hammadi codices. St.-S. includes a few NT apocrpypha and the authentic sayings of Valentinus in his review, but has nothing of the other so-called gnostics. He considers, for instance, the I am sayings in John's Gospel and Apocalypse, Melito and the Montanists to be adapted from prophetic utterances: consideration might be given to similar sayings near the beginning and end of The Apocryphon of John (NH II,1 etc.) and in Thunder: Perfect Mind (NH VI,2). The preoccupation of the sectaries (as well as orthodox writers) with expounding Genesis 1-3 might also derive from early charismatic exegesis (St.-S.' term: 128). There was probably more debate about scripture in the primitive communities, even in the conversations (homilia) around their dining tables, than St.-S. allows. His work should nevertheless be given due credit and the weight it deserves.