sehepunkte 17 (2017), Nr. 2

Eva Baumkamp: Kommunikation in der Kirche des 3. Jahrhunderts

Eva Baumkamp's revised doctoral thesis (Münster, 2011) is a study of communication strategies in the medium of epistolography in third-century Alexandria and Carthage. The publication of this book in 2014 rides the waves of a new scholarly interest in letter-writing in Late Antiquity, which has resulted in an abundance of recent studies of individual letter-writers (see, for example, the 27 chapters of a recently published volume. [1] Baumkamp's bibliography is comprehensive up to 2012. More recently attention has moved to the collections themselves, and the process of compiling a collection of letters according to a particular rationale, and their reception by later audiences. Roy Gibson's 2012 article [2] made cautious comparisons between Greco-Roman and Christian practices of letter compilation. Two more recent edited volumes have crossed traditional disciplinary divisions in the study of ancient epistolography: the reference guide to individual pagan and Christian letter-collections from Late Antiquity, mentioned above, and Collecting Early Christian Letters: From the Apostle Paul to Late Antiquity [3], which combines the study of New Testament and later Christian epistolary collections and their reception up to early modern times. The focus of this volume is rather on the Briefpraxis of two individuals at a particular point in time. That is to say, it is synchronic rather than diachronic.

Baumkamp examines the letter exchanges of two famous bishops, the contemporaries Dionysius of Alexandria and Cyprian of Carthage, who were both subject to the Decian persecutions and were both involved in the conflict over rebaptism of those who had lapsed during the persecution but wished to rejoin the mainstream church afterwards. Cyprian scholar Graham Clarke made the first comparison of the two bishops in an article of 1998. Clarke also brought the letters of Cyprian to a general audience by his four volumes of translations in the Ancient Christian Writers series (1984-1989). Both bishops were prolific letter-writers in the Pauline tradition of pastoral epistolography. Their letters thus have much to tell us about ecclesial communities in North Africa and Egypt in this formative period of early Christianity. Baumkamp is the mistress of her subject, the letter collections of Dionysius and Cyprian, drawing on a wide field of earlier studies. She treats the primary sources with sensitivity and draws upon their multiple contexts - literary, doctrinal and historiographical - to create a vivid portrait of these two avid letter-writers. Their letters canvass the various conflicts that characterised Christian communities in a period of persecution: the struggle between clerics and confessors to legitimise their authority; the conflict between more for moderate bishops like Cyprian and the rigorist Novatian and his followers, who opposed allowing the lapsed back into communion; and the rebaptism question, which queried whether baptisms performed by lapsed or heretical clergy were still valid. On this last question Cyprian was at odds with the bishops of Rome, who ruled that no second baptism was required. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil used episcopal letters as their main source to study various types of crisis in their book, Crisis Management in Late Antiquity: A Survey of the Evidence of Episcopal Letters (410-590 CE). [4] Baumkamp's volume focuses on one kind of crisis (doctrinal/theological) and extends the timeframe back by almost two centuries.

The first chapter usefully locates the two letter corpora in the context of information exchange in the early Christian church. Baumkamp draws a detailed portrait of the information exchange networks that characterised first-century Jewish and early Christian communities, making a useful comparison between the spatially limited Briefpraxis of Judaism and the much expanded letter-writing activities of Christian leaders (32-36). She also deals briefly with earlier pagan theories of letter-writing (28-32). In Chapter 2 she gives an overview of the treatment of Christians in the imperial persecutions of the mid-third century (58-64).

One of these is foreshadowed already in Chapter 2 (64): the persecution of Christians in the third century had the unintended effect of strengthening existing structures within Christian communities, headed by their respective bishops. The following four chapters show how this was worked out in the churches of Alexandria and Carthage, and how it was expressed in episcopal correspondence. The rest of the book is divided unequally between Chapter 3 on Dionysius and Chapters 4-6 on Cyprian. The contents of Patriarch Dionysius's festal letters (247/248-265 CE) are preserved in Eusebius' Historia ecclesiastica. With exceptional skill the author shows what Dionysius's letters reveal of structures of authority, both in the Alexandrian church and in the larger Egyptian context, from the first century to the era of persecution in the third century. The rest of the book is devoted to Cyprian of Carthage (c. 248-258 CE) and the development of the North African church's epistolographical networks during his episcopacy. Both bishops were in correspondence with the bishop of Rome, and had to deal with his views on ecclesiology. Baumkamp's findings resonate with previous work on Cyprian's selective application to Rome when he needed support from further up the hierarchy to strengthen his own position at the episcopal synods held in Carthage in 252-254 CE (e.g. Dunn 2007 [5]). The volume ends with a brief statement of conclusions (327-334).

This is an original treatment of two ancient letter writers, and the ways in which they fortified and instructed their communities in a period of crisis. It is recommended to all who seek to view the persecutions of the third century from another angle, and to understand the role of Alexandrian and Carthaginian bishops in organising the resistance and mopping up afterwards. It is compelling reading for any scholar interested in communication networks in the ancient world and how they were exploited by those with spiritual authority.


[1] Bradley Storin / Cristiana Sogno / Edward Watts (eds.): Late Antique Letter Collections. A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide, Berkeley 2016.

[2] Roy Gibson: On the nature of ancient letter collections, in: JRS, 2012.

[3] Pauline Allen / Bronwen Neil (eds.): Collecting Early Christian Letters. From the Apostle Paul to Late Antiquity, Cambridge 2015.

[4] Pauline Allen / Bronwen Neil (eds.): Crisis Management in Late Antiquity. A Survey of the Evidence of Episcopal Letters (410-590 CE), Leiden 2013.

[5] G. D. Dunn: Cyprian and the Bishops of Rome: Questions of Papal Primacy in the Early Church (Early Christian Studies; 11.) Strathfield, NSW 2007.

Rezension über:

Eva Baumkamp: Kommunikation in der Kirche des 3. Jahrhunderts. Bischöfe und Gemeinden zwischen Konflikt und Konsens im Imperium Romanum (= Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum; 92), Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2014, X + 376 S., ISBN 978-3-16-153686-1, EUR 89,00

Rezension von:
Bronwen Neil
Macquarie University, Sydney
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Bronwen Neil: Rezension von: Eva Baumkamp: Kommunikation in der Kirche des 3. Jahrhunderts. Bischöfe und Gemeinden zwischen Konflikt und Konsens im Imperium Romanum, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2014, in: sehepunkte 17 (2017), Nr. 2 [15.02.2017], URL:

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