[30 August 2010]
Tradition holds that Christianity began 50 days after Christ’s resurrection, on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on his disciples and compelled them to spread the good news to all those who would listen. Though Pentecost can rightfully be viewed as the “birthday of the Church”, Christianity’s conception can be traced back nearly a thousand years earlier, to ideas that began to take shape in the lands of ancient Greece and Israel, ideas that served as a foundation for this highly successful, highly influential new religion.
In Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, author Diarmaid MacCulloch seeks to illuminate the long, often convoluted history of the upstart religious movement that became a world power. MacCulloch is tactful, and treats his subject with respect, but never wavers from his clear-headed analysis of the multifaceted, at times obscure history of the religion. His massive tome begins with the first formulations of spirituality and philosophy as they emerge in Athens and the Middle East and runs all the way up until the present day, where Christianity exists as a seemingly eternal force dealing with temporal problems. The result is an impressively comprehensive narrative full of surprises and packed with facts and anecdotes that will help readers better understand the massively complicated array of beliefs, dogmas, and traditions that is modern Christianity.
MacCulloch’s sober, scholarly storytelling is second to none, capable of explaining some of Christianity’s biggest, most difficult issues as well as revealing the surprising hidden histories behind practices you may never have even thought to wonder about. From ancient heresies to modern schisms, MacCulloch has it covered, showing that the faith has undergone nearly constant evolution and revision, trying to adapt to or address the issues of the day while maintaining its institutional integrity.
One theme that MacCulloch revisits throughout the text is that the allegedly unchanging word of God has proved conveniently malleable. It may only be a slight exaggeration to claim that Christianity is a multi-millennia search for exceptions to the rules, in which the spirit of the rather crisp pronouncements in the Bible is paid more mind than the letter.
Even something as seemingly clear cut as the Ten Commandments is up for debate. MacCulloch shows how the various Christian sects have interpreted the order differently, editing the original Jewish division of commandments to better suit their needs. The aesthetic influences of ancient Greece had instilled early Christians with a belief that artistic depictions of the divine were natural and important, whereas Judaism, taking instruction from the original second commandment, shunned such imagery. Early Christians, writes MacCulloch, “could not contemplate altering the total number of Commandments”; they did, however, shuffle them around a bit.
Augustine of Hippo decided to tuck the taboo on divine imagery into the first commandment as a subsidiary, making it less powerful, while dividing the Commandment against covetousness into two separate items on the list to preserve the number. This elegant, if ethically dubious solution worked for a time, only to reappear as a central point of contention during the Protestant Reformation.
What’s striking about MacCulloch’s narrative is how closely the history of Christianity is intertwined with the history of the world. Following Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan and his efforts at marginalizing Roman paganism in the fourth century CE, Christianity became a player on the global stage, and came to dominate Western Europe even more upon the collapse of the empire. MacCulloch rightfully seeks to explore the religion’s lesser known influence in other parts of the world, however, and these are some of the book’s most revealing chapters. His examination of the Ethiopian Christian Church, which spent many centuries out of touch from the main body of Christendom, is particularly interesting; the Ethiopians claim to have possession of the original Ark of the Covenant, though MacCulloch is skeptical that the Jewish relic would be adorned with Christian crosses as the Ethiopians claim it is.
Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years is not merely a timeline of events; the book is willing to confront the thornier aspects of Christian philosophy and MacCulloch proves to be adroit at explaining the theological worldviews of such luminaries as Augustine, Origen of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, and Desiderius Eurasmus in a readable, relatable way. For readers interested in truly understanding the faith, it’s an excellent introduction to the bold-faced names and important movements that shaped it. The story of Christianity is one of constant battle between theologians and intellectuals fighting for the fate and future of the faith. MacCulloch deftly describes these scholarly internal battles, making them as exciting and engaging as the political intrigue and martial maneuvering that comprises the rest of the story.
MacCulloch’s title not only pushes the origins of Christianity into the past, it implies something more. “The First Three Thousand Years” is his way of stating that he believes Christianity has a long future ahead of it, even in the face of growing secularism in the West and the prospect of an increasingly technologically, scientifically connected world. If you doubt his prediction at the start of the book, it’s likely you’ll have reconsidered by the end.
The difficulties that Christianity may face in the present pale in comparison to the struggles of the past, and all along the way the faith has proved adaptable, resilient, and appealing. It may take a reformation now and again, a schism here and there, but despite the differences in details that divide the sects, the central, unifying thread of Christ’s teachings persists.