Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Lost History of Christianity - Book Review

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died

I haven't finished this, but I started reading it to Isaac while we were doing a road trip. Phillip Jenkins is a history professor at Penn State, and he argues that because Christianity was carried into the governments of the controlling powers in the West, the history of Christianity that we see is that only half the story. Christianity in East was alive and strong too, but we have forgotten that part of the story because eventually it was lost when conquering powers killed, persecuted, or overran Eastern Christianity.

The particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm: another, earlier global Christianity once existed. For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and this was true into the fourteenth century. Christianity became predominantly European not because this continent had any obvious affinity for that faith, but by default: Europe was the continent where it was not destroyed. Matters could have easily developed differently.

He's right, we in the West know so little about Christianity in East. In fact, I've written about the Church of the East several times on this blog, but always referring to the Eastern Orthodoxy that was centered in Constantinople. In Jenkin's book, this is the center of the map, and the East is what is now Central Asia, India, China, and the Middle East. The research and information he gives is SO interesting. Isaac was skeptical to begin with. Many of these churches were started by the Nestorians, known to theological as being heretics. Isaac also thought he overstated his points at times to make them sound more dramatic. However, after reading the book Isaac went and did some basic research of his own, most of which reaffirmed everything Jenkins was saying.

The Lost History of Christianity is filled with little-known and infinitely intriguing facts (from here):

-While the Holy Roman Empire wallowed in ignorance and violence, the Middle Eastern Church was intimately familiar with classical literature and pursued peaceful relations with Islam and Buddhism.

-Great minds such as Timothy, Patriarch of the East in 780 C.E., have been all but lost to the destruction of Middle Eastern Christianity.

-Great works, including Syriac versions of classical literature which do not exist today and manuscripts of the Bible and other early Christian literature, were all in the possession of these churches which died an early death.

-Middle Eastern Christians preserved Semitic customs, calling Jesus Yeshua as late as the thirteenth century, calling themselves Nazarenes, an calling their scholars Rabbans!

-These Eastern churches possessed scrolls found in Jericho — perhaps some of the Dead Sea Scrolls now lost to us.

-The great surviving Patriarchate of the Middle Eastern Assyrian Christians is now in Chicago.

-100 years ago the Middle East was still 11% Christian (Muslims in America are 4.5% and Jews 2%), whereas today Christians are virtually zero percent of the Middle Eastern population.

It's fascinating. This is from a PBS review of the book:
To illustrate his point, Jenkins focuses on the figure of Timothy I (727-823) who, in 780, was enthroned as patriarch, or catholicos, of the Church of the East, then based in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Seleucia, less than two dozen miles southeast of modern Baghdad. According to Jenkins, “in terms of his prestige, and the geographical extent of his authority, Timothy was arguably the most significant Christian spiritual leader of his day, much more influential than the Western pope, in Rome, and on par with the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople,” since “perhaps a quarter of the world’s Christians looked to Timothy as both spiritual and political head.”

While the medieval English church, for example, had only two metropolitans, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, Timothy presided over no fewer than 19 metropolitans and 85 other diocesan bishops. During his more than four-decade-long patriarchate, Timothy created no fewer than five new metropolitan sees, including one at Rai, near modern-day Tehran, and erected a diocese in Yemen alongside the four on the Arabian Peninsula that he had inherited from his predecessor....

In contrast, in Egypt, which was conquered by the armies of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 640, not only did the Coptic church survive, but it continues, even today, to be the faith of at least 10 percent of the population. After discounting a number of explanations, Jenkins concludes that the key factor is “how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community, and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed.” Whereas the Latin church of North Africa was essentially a colonial faith, appealing mainly to urban elites, the Coptic clergy translated their doctrine and practices into the idioms readily grasped by ordinary people, both city dwellers and rural peasants. Thus, despite persecutions, the Copts survived and their patriarchate spread Christianity up the Nile, deep into Africa to Nubia in present-day northern Sudan, which remained a Christian kingdom into the 15th century, and to Ethiopia (which also had contact with Syriac Christians), where the local church remains in communion with the see of Alexandria to this day. The lesson Jenkins draws here—although some might well be discomfited by the terms with which he articulates it—is that “for churches as for businesses, failure often results from a lack of diversification, from attaching one’s fortunes too closely to one particular set of circumstances, political or social.”

Jenkins also uses the chronicle of the long endurance of ancient Christian communities in areas which came under Muslim rule to inquire just how far churches, which he asserts must adapt when faced with “a powerful and hostile hegemonic culture,” can take accommodation:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Technically Nestorius was condemned but the Eastern Christians are at times recognized as saints in the Orthodox Church - for example St Isaac of Ninevah. These ancient Churches give a glimpse both of what primitive Chrisianity was like and how shockingly at odds contemporary America is with respect to "the faith once delivered to the saints" in both practice and belief.