The Rise of Christian Beliefs: The Thought World of Early Christians
by Heikki Räisänen
432 pages (paperback)
When I’m teaching a class on ancient Christianity, I spend a significant amount of time covering the culture and context out of which Christian beliefs developed. What did the Greeks contribute to the language of the faith? Why does the Gospel of John use the term “logos?” Why are the writers of the New Testament quoting extra-biblical material as if it has authority? What contemporary movements are biblical writers responding to in the New Testament? What does the book of Hebrews have in common with platonism?
The Rise of Christian Beliefs may be my new go-to supplemental text for both seminary and undergraduate religious studies courses.
Heikki Räisänen has produced a great text on ancient Christian theological development for the world of religious studies. The world of the Bible is properly connected to its human origins and this text would not settle well with the fundamentalist. On the other hand, that is not the targeted reader.
In the seminary classroom, I challenge my students to accept the fully human nature of Scripture. They are usually uncomfortable with discovering the sources behind the sacred text and much of what I cover gets put together nicely in this single volume. In fact, as first year students in my course on Biblical Interpretation, I usually have to cover the basics. Consider, for example, the long history of the development of the canon. My students—who are often second career and new to studying the history of Christianity—sometimes think that the Bible was handed down from the clouds by God in a complete form, including a copyright date and Zondervan printed on the cover. They are surprised to find that the production of a complete Bible has a story behind it, from the time of its writing to the time of its canonization. I am on the constant look for books that bring out these various stories and The Rise of Christian Beliefs does this for the history and trajectory of ideas involved in the crafting of Scripture.
For those interested in comparative religions, this is a good read, even for a textbook (since many are averse to reading them). The language is accessible. There is no pre-commitment to a theological agenda (as can happen when a text is written from a confessional perspective). It is exactly what a theological classroom needs—seminaries need religious studies. It gives the student permission to exit the bubble and think differently. At 432 pages it is a nice addition to my library. In the interest of full disclosure, it was a review copy sent to me by the publisher, but I probably would have purchased it or put it on the to-buy list for the university library.