The novelty of sermons

I’ve been thinking recently about moral instruction on marriage in the early centuries AD and how it was changed or not by the coming of Christianity. And it occurred to me that the sermon as a method of moral instruction is something distinctively different from the previous Roman culture. What’s new about the sermon? Essentially that it provided repeated moral instruction to a substantial non-elite audience.

It’s this combination that strikes me as distinctively new (although I’m open to correction). The Roman tradition of speechmaking (whose style influenced some preachers, such as Augustine, heavily) was centred on political speeches and those in the lawcourts: accessible to the non-elite, but not on moral topics and not repeated regularly. Wandering teachers and preachers of various religions provided moral instruction to a non-elite audience, but their itinerancy meant that only a relatively small number of faithful disciples would hear them repeatedly.

The ancient philosophical tradition of moral teaching, meanwhile, was predominantly aimed at a small elite (although Stoicism was more of a popular philosophy), who gained repeated instruction as a pupil of the philosopher. The nearest equivalent to the Christian sermon and presumably its inspiration was the Jewish homiletic tradition of the derasha, a vernacular explanation and exposition on a passage of Scripture.

The difference between the derasha and the sermon that I’m interested in is the changing size of the relative audiences. While Jewish communities were greatly disrupted after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Christianity continued to spread and flourish throughout late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, with more and more churches and parishes appearing at which the priest was expected to give a sermon or homily every week. Churchmen may have complained about the infrequency with which many of their flock attended church, but I think that the sermon still provided a more substantial platform for moral outreach than had previously available in the classical world.


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