In a vigorous historical analysis, Meeks (Biblical Studies/Yale; The First Urban Christians, 1983) offers new perspectives on the early days of Christian morality. Conventionally, Christian morals are understood as a set of principles to which each believer must adhere, or at least struggle toward, in the depths of his or her conscience. But Meeks redefines morality in the first Christian centuries as a communal activity in which members of the new faith adopted not only a creed but a way of life with its own revolutionary language, customs, and stories. To be a Christian was to undergo a thorough conversion of moral and social dimensions—a transformation in which a new kind of human being was forged. This conversion, Meeks shows, produced an ambiguous relationship toward the world at large, ranging from gnostic rejection by Valentinus to ambiguity on the part of St. Paul and his followers. To help converts, moral directives were promulgated in the form of maxims, rules of thumb (``gnomes''), teaching tales, letters, testaments, and lists of virtues and vices. A new ``grammar'' was developed through rituals like baptism and the Eucharist, as well as through the practice of almsgiving and hospitality. Evil became personified in Satan and his demons; a hierarchy of fallen creatures warred with God's ministers for human souls. Complex views of the body evolved, leading to a ``democratized asceticism.'' Perhaps the most dramatic innovation was the struggle ``to do God's will,'' often through suffering—a radical surrender that lay at the heart of Christian morality. Learned and lucid: an important piece of sociohistorical research.
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