Four Witnesses | Rod Bennett
Ignatius Press (2002)
Imagine: living among the first Christians. What must that have been like? How must it have felt to hear the preaching of Peter or Paul or encounter a passerby who knowingly traced the symbol of a fish in the dust at their feet? How terrifying, when the Roman persecution of those professing the name of Christ began in earnest?
Indeed, compelling accounts of the early Church do exist. (Though perhaps none so much as the ever-classic novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, which, if you haven’t read, GO DO SO IMMEDIATELY. IT’S INCREDIBLE. AAAAH.) Still, something that gets overlooked more often than not when discussing the early Church is doctrine, and the history surrounding it. At least in my mind, there hovered a preconceived notion that there weren’t a lot of documents available from the Church’s early days- and I mean its really early days, pre-300’s A.D. type early. Sure, there’s the Didache and that Clement guy and Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus must have written a little bit, but surely not enough to give one much of a complete picture.
Rod Bennett does the less-informed public like myself a tremendous service in his book Four Witnesses by helping to turn this notion (which he himself once held) on its head. It’s a kind of shaking-by-the-shoulders, by way of an enthusiastic tour guide cracking open the covers of dusty old forgotten volumes and revealing how full of life they actually are. Indeed, one of the most notable aspects of Bennett’s writing is how novel-like it is. He fills in the gaps with historical context where needed, both providing the facts and balancing them with dramatic re-imaginings of how certain incidents might have happened (such as the emotional arrival of the news of Polycarp’s martyrdom to Irenaeus, or the kinds of entertainment enjoyed by the Roman public). In this regard, he is, for the most part, successful.
I also appreciated the way Bennett’s more imaginative side shifts to the back-burner when the writings of the eponymous witnesses is brought into focus. His approach in these sections is to frame them with the historical data necessary to make them cohesive. (These, often as not, go unmentioned by the writers themselves, and understandably so, considering they would be common knowledge at the time.) Beginning with the epistle of Clement of Rome around the turn of the second century, the narrative advances chronologically through Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr to Irenaeus of Lyons, closing out near the end of the 100’s A.D. The text is supplemented throughout by relevant passages from other early Church writers, by far the most frequently cited being Eusebius (who authored of one of the first ecclesiastical histories in the early 300’s). One one or two occasions, Bennett seems forced to resort to texts that have not been as perfectly preserved from later additions. This happens most notably with regards to the biographical account of Ignatius, but he points out such instances in the footnotes. (Side note: if you’re like me and find excessive footnotes irksome, Bennett’s are less intrusive than many authors’, and they’re conveniently placed at the bottom of the page instead of the back of the book. Sweeet.)
Acting as necessary bookends to the bulk of the text are an introduction, which briefly details Bennett’s first experiences of the early Church Fathers, and an afterword relating the rest of the work to his conversion to Catholicism. Bennett’s Catholic perspective is certainly discernible from his writing, at least in the way he emphasizes certain over-look-able passages, if you will. But even more notable is the fact that he allows these four authors to simply speak for themselves to such a large degree. (The Early Church in Her Own Words, reads the subtitle.) The result may surprise even the Catholics among us. Indeed, Bennett’s Baptist upbringing perhaps renders the work the more reputable, given his experience of the worldview of both sides of the proverbial aisle. As Bennett himself puts it, upon first delving into these writings, “I suddenly realized, with a little trepidation, that I was actually going to have to start dealing with the early Church from now on … rather than just identifying myself with her” (13).¹ Indeed, the same is true for all of us.
(Got something to say about this book or others? A request for a future book review? Let me know in the comments, dear reader. And thanks for tuning in. 🙂 )
- Ellipsis in original.