In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Christianity

  • Introduction
  • The Study of Early Christianity
  • Surveys of Scholarship
  • Women and/in Early Christianity
  • Christian Origins

Biblical Studies Early Christianity
Gerhard A. van den Heever
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0207


The study of early Christianity overlaps with closely related fields of study such as New Testament canonical literature, Historical Jesus studies, and early Christian history (or church history/patristics). This survey will concentrate on the broader conceptualization of the formation of the religio-historical phenomenon named Christianity, the religio-historical contexts that formed the matrix for the emergence of Christianity, Christianity as the taxonomizer for a number of cultural practices or as a subset of the broader Greco-Roman Mediterranean culture including its cultural production, and the history of scholarship on early Christianity. Broadly speaking, early Christianity as a historical phenomenon is framed by two “events,” namely, at the one end, the career of Jesus of Nazareth and the subsequent formation of Jesus- or Christ-groups in the 1st century CE, and at the other end, in the 4th century CE, the Constantinian revolution which signaled the Christianization of the Roman Empire (or which goes by the shorthand of “Nicaea”—after the Council called in 325 CE). These are not hard and fast boundaries as there are good reasons to include subsequent developments beyond the Council of Chalcedon, into the 6th century CE, in the purview. Beyond that, the study of early Christianity also encompasses the newly emerged field of “Christian origins,” by which is specifically referred to the interdisciplinary, non-theological theorizing of the origins of Christianity. All in all, this bibliographic overview assumes, in line with new directions in scholarship on early Christianity, that the study of early Christianity is best approached from the perspective of the newly defined study field of early Christian studies. The difference between early Christian studies and disciplines such as early church history and patristics is constituted by the fact that early Christian studies is informed by theories of history and of religion and is practiced as a kind of cultural studies.

The Study of Early Christianity

The most important statement of what the study of early Christianity entails is the volume Harvey and Hunter 2008. Since new directions in the conception of history and historiography inform this volume, it is essential to refer to Clark 2004 here as well. The volume Alkier 1993 is also included here although it focuses on the question why the study of the history of early Christianity is located primarily in the context of the exegetical study of the New Testament. However, what Alkier clearly shows is how the conception of early Christianity in the 17th/18th centuries and especially with the rise of historical-critical study of early Christian literature in the early 19th century is deeply implicated in and shaped by cultural and intellectual discourses obtaining at the time in Europe.

  • Alkier, Stefan. Urchristentum: Zur Geschichte und Theologie einer exegetischen Disziplin. Beiträge zur historischen Theologie 83. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1993.

    Treats the most significant philosophers and intellectuals who formed the matrix for a new historical conception of early Christianity. Concludes with a proposal to take leave of terms like Urchristentum or Apostolisches Zeitalter and to rather to use Frühchristentum instead, which connotes more adequately both the phenomena implicated and the discipline to study them.

  • Clark, Elizabeth Ann. History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Clark deals with the history of historiography and covers recent trends in theorizing history. The book aims to make developments in historiography applicable to the study of early Christianity. Of special relevance is the last chapter, “History, Theory, and Pre-modern Texts,” which relates the study of early Christianity to rhetorical theory, discourse theory, and literary theory.

  • Harvey, Susan Ashbrook, and David G. Hunter, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199271566.001.0001

    Comprehensive introduction to the study of early Christianity. It places the study of early Christianity within various theoretical frameworks and offers ways of organizing early Christian studies focusing on material evidence; constructions of diverse Christian identities; area studies; social formations and domains of authority constructions; Christian culture-making; performance and practice; and a section on specific theological themes.

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