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William Tabbernee: Prophets and Gravestones


William Tabbernee, Prophets and Gravestones: An Imaginative History of Montanists and Other Early Christians (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009), 385 pages, ISBN 9781565639379.

The Montanists were an important early Christian movement that began in Asia Minor during the late second century. They were essentially a charismatic upstart group, headquartered in the towns of Pepuza and Tymion, and disliked by the bishops for their perceived resistance to the bishops’ authority. Montanism is a movement that Pentecostals should know something about. Although they were widely condemned by a number of church fathers, virtually all their modern students, beginning with John Wesley, have found nothing heretical within their belief system.

As the world’s leading authority on Montanism, William Tabbernee is just the person to write a popular level introduction to the Montanists’ textual and archaeological remains. Prophets and Gravestones, however, is no normal introduction. As the subtitle suggests, this is an “imaginative history”. It is written in narrative form as a series of very short stories. This is Tabbernee’s way of fleshing out to the remains of this movement. Each narrative vignette is based upon a specific inscription or patristic detail. In effect, Tabbernee tries to imagine what went through a Montanist’s mind in the face of some personal crisis.

Montanism is a movement that Pentecostals should know something about.

I have mixed feelings about this way of writing. I can understand how some readers would like it—even prefer it—but I was disappointed by the book’s format. For those who really want to know the ins and outs of Montanism, this simply is not the best approach. It also comes at a cost that is more than aesthetic, as it blurs the line between facts and imaginative reconstruction. For example, when Tabbernee works his descending “mothership” interpretation of the Montanist heavenly Jerusalem into a vignette on life at Pepuza, the uninitiated reader might assume that their view of the heavenly Jerusalem is a cold, hard fact, spelled out somewhere in a Montanist source. Unfortunately, that view is a matter of Tabbernee’s own speculation, based on the topography of the recently found site of Pepuza. Although Tabbernee often provides footnotes detailing the source of his information, he provides no footnote for this detail. Little things like this can add up to a major distraction.

I can recommend this book only to those inclined toward an “imaginative history”. The study of Montanism is important, but most readers (and all serious students) should discover the facts about Montanism through some other source.

Reviewed by John C. Poirier


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Category: Church History, Spring 2010

About the Author: John C. Poirier, Th.M. (Duke Divinity), D.H.L. (Jewish Theological Seminary), is an independent scholar who has published numerous articles on a wide range of topics. He is the author of The Invention of the Inspired Text: Philological Windows on the Theopneustia of Scripture (2021).

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