A History Of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

by Alec Ryrie

The Times Higher Education Supplement
November 19, 2009

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. By Diarmaid
MacCulloch. Allen Lane, 1,184pp, 35.00. ISBN 9780713998696.

Published 24 September 2009

You might be forgiven for expecting a 1,000-page book to be a
little self- indulgent. Not this one. The prose is taut and tart,
sometimes to the point of breathlessness; and it is an astonishing
feat of compression. After all, this book aspires to be a global,
comprehensive account of perhaps the most diverse, long-lived,
pervasive and powerful movement in human history.

That diversity is the book’s most important theme. Although all the
usual suspects are here, from Constantine I to John Wesley to John Paul
II, MacCulloch has little patience with Eurocentric (or Latin-centric)
visions of Christian history. The Eastern Orthodox churches are
fully covered; so too (and this is a particular preoccupation) are
the bodies cast out by the deeper schism of the 5th century – the
Monophysite ("Miaphysite") churches of Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia,
and the Nestorian ("Dyophysite") churches whose scattered presence
once reached deep into China.

The great future of non-Latin Christianity has largely faded, but
MacCulloch reminds us of its lost power and promise, as well as other
teasing, forgotten religious possibilities, such as the failed scheme
for joint Anglo-Moroccan colonies in North America. He positively
celebrates the riot of religious pluralism in the modern world, and
is inclusive of squabbling Christian offspring such as Quakerism,
Unitarianism, Mormonism and even atheism ("the ultimate form of
Protestant dissent").

And a family is what Christianity is: tied together by history,
descent and relationship, not by shared beliefs, hence the three
millennia of MacCulloch’s subtitle. Christian culture is the child of
a mixed marriage between Greek and Jewish culture, and he begins with
that vital prehistory. The family historian’s advantage, of course,
is the ability to spot recurrent patterns in the genes. Music is a
particular theme here, whose beat has so often quickened the blood
of Christians and whose wordlessness can take over when the intellect
is overwhelmed or repulsed.

There is always violence, too, the product of diversity and passion:
citing the story of Cain and Abel, MacCulloch notes that the Bible’s
first act of worship is immediately followed by its first murder. And
there are wonderful parallels and synchronicities, too (for example,
the similarity of The Book of Mormon to The Lord of the Rings).

But if this is not a family united by its beliefs, it is supremely a
family in which belief matters. MacCulloch will not let his readers get
away without engaging seriously with theology and recognising that it
is serious. The three-way schism of the 5th century, for example, was
over the nature, or natures, of Jesus Christ as both God and human. It
is hard for modern imaginations to credit that rival theories about
this could matter so much, but as we follow the stories it becomes
clear that those different theories produced radically different ways
of seeing the world. It also becomes clear that all of us in the Latin
West are heirs to that struggle, whether we like it or not. Likewise,
MacCulloch argues that one of the oddities of modern Christianity
(of all kinds) is its this- worldliness and indifference to doctrinal

And so, despite all the globalisation and context, one giant still
dominates the book. We meet Augustine of Hippo only on page 301, but
thereafter he is inescapable: his insights and extraordinary reading
of the Bible continue to tower over Latin Christianity to the present.

Most of the key convulsions of the Western Church begin with someone
rereading or rediscovering Augustine.

Inevitably, in common with Augustine’s massive works, this will be
a book for dipping into as much as for full immersion. Tasters will
miss the bigger picture, but there is plenty for them. MacCulloch
writes with great moral seriousness, but also with a waspish wit (Ivan
the Terrible’s fear for his own soul was "intense and justified")
and a sense of mischief that he occasionally lets off the leash (as
in his argument that early Christians probably smelled worse than
most Romans).

Beneath these vignettes is a grander story of repeated rise, fall and
rise again – a cycle that, as his subtitle indicates, he expects to
continue. The decline into doubt and pluralism in the post-medieval
West is explained with particular power and traced ultimately to
the brutal expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492 (an event that becomes,
with bitter irony, the foundation of later Western liberties).

Christianity’s rise is a deeper mystery. Eurocentric histories have
sometimes dismissed it as a fluke, the product of one Roman emperor’s
idiosyncratic conversion. MacCulloch explodes that by showing how
often Constantine’s story has been paralleled elsewhere, from Syrian
kings beyond Rome’s frontiers before Constantine’s time, through
Ethelbert of Kent to (he wonders?) modern China. What is it that made,
and makes, the Christian Gospel so astonishingly appealing? Perhaps
history cannot tell us.

Alec Ryrie is professor of the history of Christianity, Durham

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS