Saturday, January 22, 2011


The Author battles a dreaded Jesus Myther

After a rather long hiatus, I'd like to apologise to those following this blog and other regulars for the last few months' radio silence.  It was largely caused by a hard-drive crash that wiped out drafts of several reviews and an iPhone crash that wiped the notes I'd made while reading several other books (I do most of my reading while commuting, so I use my phone to jot notes).  Yes, I have now bought a large external hard-drive and back up weekly.  Hopefully my new review below will begin to make up for the long break.

The good news is that in the interim I have been reading and buying quite a few books, many of which are relevant to the focus of this blog.  Christmas saw a number of newish books land in my stocking, and I am about to finish Ian Hughes' Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome. Despite its slightly silly sub-title (he wasn't and he didn't) it's a very solid and detailed account of a turning point in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

Yesterday I ordered Peter J, Leithart's Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.  It seems to be a book that is part history and part theology; both examining the history and myths around the much maligned Emperor Constantine and tackling the idea that his adoption of Christianity was ultimately a "bad thing" for that faith.  Naturally, as a non-believer, I'll be looking at it purely from the historical angle, but it looks interesting.

Less interesting but perhaps more fun, is a slender self-published tome that hit my desk a couple of weeks ago.  It glories in the title Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All and is by one David Fitzgerald.  It's actually Fitzgerald's contribution to an odd little competition held by some of the usual suspects from the online "Jesus Never Existed" brigade.  It came runner up last year, apparently, but thanks to the wonders of print-on-demand online publishing services ("helping kooks get into print for over five years!") befuddled clowns and frothing fanatics can now purchase it on Amazon etc and have their prejudices and misconceptions gently stroked.  I suspect that review won't be kindly.

Finally, please take part in the Readers' Poll on the blog's left sidebar.  It gives you a choice of a number of potential future reviews and articles on this blog.  I will tend to read what I find in the book shops or what publishers and authors send me, but I want to use your responses to the poll as at least something of a guide.

My new year's resolution is to ensure I update this blog regularly, so hopefully 2011 will see a lot more activity hear.
Best regards,

Tim O'Neill
Sarcastic Bastard and Prick

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins

Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, (HarperOne, 2008) 336 pages. Verdict?: 4/5 A fascinating overview of a neglected area of history.

On January 7th, AD 781, around the time Charlemagne was in the process of converting the Saxons to Christianity by the sword and Islam first reached what is now Pakistan and Kashmir, a Chinese monk called Jinging oversaw the raising of a three metre tall stele of dark stone in the northern Chinese imperial city of Chang'an (now Xi'an).  The inscription on the monument, carved in elegant Tang Dynasty calligraphy by one Lü Xiuyan, was entitled "Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin" and it celebrated 150 years of the spread of this religion in northern China.

"Daqin" or "Da Qin" was the Chinese word for the Roman Empire, though here it probably refers to Syria.  And the religion of Daqin was Christianity.  The monk Jingjing's alternate name was Adam and the stele is a testament to a largely forgotten era in Christian history - one where Nestorian and Jacobite Christianity was practised across Asia, where place names known to us from the evening news about Iraq - Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit - were thriving Christian centres, where the monks of Nisibis (now in Turkey) and Jundishapur (now in Iran) made translations of Aristotle that were to find their way to Europe via Muslim Spain and where Chinese Christian priests ministered to Mongol khans.  Philip Jenkins' fascinating book brings this forgotten world to life, jolts us out of a Eurocentric perspective on the rise and propagation of Christianity and poses some interesting questions about how and why religions die.

The Nestorian Christian stele from Chang'an
The Christianity that Time Forgot

About a year before Jingjing/Adam raised his monument in China, Bishop Timothy was made catholicos, or Pope, of the Nestorian Church in the Mesopotamian city of Seleucia, just south of modern Baghdad.  His name is virtually unknown today, but at the time he was the most influential Christian in the world, far overshadowing the influence of Pope Adrian I in Rome (who was too busy trying to fend off the Lombards to have influence much beyond the walls of his city) and a powerful rival to the Orthodox Patriarch Paul IV in Constantinople (then mired in the iconoclast controversy).  Catholicos Timothy was the spiritual and political head of one quarter of the Christians in the world, he had followers from Syria to Korea, laid claim to the leadership of the true successor to the original apostolic church and read his Bible in a descendent of Jesus' native tongue.  Timothy's followers called themselves Nasraye or "Nazarenes"; a form of the earliest Aramaic name for the followers of Jesus.  Jesus himself was called Yeshua and priests were called rabban, related to the Aramaic title of Jesus, rabboni, and the Hebrew rabbi.

At a time when England had just two metropolitans - York and Canterbury - Catholicos Timothy presided over no less than nineteen, with 85 bishoprics. He headed a church which operated in many languages, including Syraic, Persian, Turkish, Soghdian, Chinese and Tibetan.  As Jenkins notes, Timothy's form of Christianity was both widespread and already venerable.  When Saint Benedict was founding his first monastery in Italy, Nestorian bishops were ruling in Nishapur and Tus in Persia.  When the first church was being founded in England, the Nestorians already had a metropolitan administering multiple bishoprics from Herat in Afghanistan:

Our common mental maps of Christian history omit a thousand years of that story, and several million miles of territory.  No reasonable historian of modern Christianity would leave Europe out of the story, and omitting Asia from the medieval record is just as unconscionable.  We can't understand Christian history without Asia - or, indeed, Asian history without Christianity. (Jenkins, p. 11)
 Jenkins notes that we tend to think of Christianity as a religion which began in the Middle East and then spread west, via the Roman Empire, eventually finding some kind of natural home in Europe before expanding across the globe from there in the Modern Era.  Whereas, in fact, it was not until around 1500, with the conversion of the last European pagans in the Baltic and the expulsion of the last major Muslim presence in Spain, that Europe became fully Christian.  Co-incidentally, around the same time the last remnants of what had been a vibrant, continent-wide Asian Christianity were being extinguished - just in time for a newly expansionist European Christianity to forget it had ever existed.  

Because clearly Christianity did not just expand westward from its Middle Eastern origin; it spread eastward as well and rather more rapidly.  Antioch - the place where Christians got their name and an early centre of the primitive church - lay at the western end of the Silk Road.  From Antioch to Athens is 800 miles, to Rome it is 1400 and it is over 2000 to London.  But travelling in the opposite direction it is 600 miles from Antioch to Baghdad, less than 1000 to Tehran and 1850 miles to Samarkand, near the north-east border of the then Sassanian Persian Empire.  As Jenkins points out "Jerusalem is actually closer to the seemingly exotic territories of central Asia than it is to France." (p. 53).  Not surprisingly, Christianity spread there via the Persian Empire early and quickly thrived.

European Catholic missionaries debate with Nestorians in Central Asia

People of the Book

Jenkins is careful not to overstate the importance of Christianity in the east.  In most places, unlike in Europe, it established itself as a minority faith alongside more dominant religions.  Whereas the conversion of Europe always had the inertia and legacy of the conversion of the Roman Empire behind it, Nestorian and Jacobite Christianity never quite managed to convert a powerful political elite and reap the evangelical rewards of doing so, though Nestorianism came close with the Mongols.  So while Nestorians were establishing missions in China as early as the 500s AD, their roots were shallow and in the mid-Ninth Century the fiercely Taoist emperor Wuzong banned and expelled all "foreign cults", including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity.  Christians were not to have a major presence in China again until the coming of the Mongols.

One interesting way that Christians in Asia had an enormous impact despite their minority status was in the area of scholarship.  Byzantine crackdowns on "unorthodox" forms of Christianity saw many scholars flee to the relatively benign and receptive Persian Empire and the scholarly Christian centres of Nisibis and Jundishapur flourished under the sponsorship and protection of the Sassanian shahs:

The fame of Nisibis spread around the world, supplying a model for the pioneering Latin Christian scholar Cassiodorus in far-off Italy.  It was at Nisibis that much of the ancient world's learning was kept alive and translated, making it available for later generations of Muslim scholars and for Europeans after them.  Among other classical works, Nisibis preserved the writings of Aristotle and his commentators. (Jenkins, p. 77)
 When debating those who try to claim that "Christian monks" actively "destroyed" or passively "neglected" ancient learning and that we only have these works thanks to the Muslims, I like to point out that the Muslims got them from "Christian monks" - Nestorians writing in monasteries on the Tigris and in Khūzestān.  Anyone who has read Aristotle has these Syraic-speaking monks to thank.

The range and breadth of these scholars is illustrated by the bishop Severus, known as Seboukt of Nisibis.  From his Jacobite monastery on the Euphrates, this mid-Seventh Century scholar wrote "extensively on cosmography, on the causes of eclipses and on geometry and arithmetic" (p. 78).  He wrote a treatise on the operation of the astrolabe, wrote several commentaries on Aristotle and translated his Analytics.  He was also aware of Indian scholarship and makes the first reference in the west to the remarkable Indian numerical system that used just nine signs - which we now know as Arabic numerals.

The book also makes some interesting points about eastern Christian Biblical scholarship.  It notes that the Syraic Bible - the Peshitta - was a highly conservative translation.  Jenkins observes that recently there has been a growing perception that the pre-Nicean church had a plethora of texts that were considered scriptural and that these included "many heterodox accounts of Jesus, which were suspect because of their mystical or even feminist leanings" (p. 88)  The modern myth goes that this variety and freedom was only stamped out once Christianity was adopted by Constantine and these variant scriptures were savagely expunged from the canon.

As exotic and exciting as all that sounds, it is actually without foundation (despite what legions of The Da Vinci Code fans would like to believe).  Apart from some quibbling around the edges, largely about the inclusion of some of the Catholic Epistles and Revelation, the Biblical canon was fairly solidly fixed by the Second Century and the four canonical gospels, in particular, were firmly established as the only canonical ones.  This is evidenced by the Syraic Biblical tradition, which "rejected (the rival scriptures) because they knew they were late and tendentious" (p. 88)  Interestingly, the Syraic Bible does omit several of the disputed epistles and Revelation, which were only included in the Western canon after much debate and with widespread misgivings.

Fourteenth Century Iranian manuscript - the monk Nestorius recognises the teenage Muhammad

Of particular interest to Jenkins is the other dominant faith in the east - Islam.  Given that the latter part of his book describes the violent and oppressive turn in relations between eastern Christianity and Islam that consigned these Asian branches of the Church to the dustier corners of historical memory, Jenkins is judicious in his handling of the role of Muslims in his story.  He is rightly dismissive of the post-9/11 modish fawning over Islam, painting it as a wholly tolerant and benevolent faith compared to the wicked and ignorant Christians of the time.  Karen Armstrong's syrupy oversimplifications and the cartoonish pseudo history of the PBS documentary series Empires of Faith and Ridley Scott's laughable sermons in the movie Kingdom of Heaven get short shrift from Jenkins.  "Even in the most optimistic view," he writes, "Armstrong's reference to Christians possessing 'full religious liberty' in Muslim Spain or elsewhere beggars belief." (p. 99)

But he also avoids the trap of going to the other extreme and painting Islam as an intrinsically violent faith spread by jihad and marked by intolerance and fanaticism.  He notes that no-one in this period had any monopoly on massacres and oppression and all were happy to justify these largely political extremes by reference to their religion.  He notes that while it is easy to find examples of violence and oppression in the Muslim conquest of Middle East and north Africa, they were actually less violent and oppressive than "the Normans who conquered England in 1066, the Germans who subjugated Prussia, or the English occupiers of Ireland." (p. 100)

Mongols and Muslims

One thing that offered a chance for Asian Christianity to move from influential minority faith to a position of dominance was the rise of the Mongol Empire.  From the beginning, Christian Mongols played a prominent role in the empire of Genghis Khan, since the Keraits, Ongguds and Uyguyrs were all substantially Christianised and all were prominent in the new Mongol power.  Kublai Khan was renowned for his tolerance of Christians and many of them rose to prominence in his court and administration.  By the mid-Thirteenth Century many Asian Christians held out hopes that a Christianised Mongol Empire would crush Islam and unite with Christians in Europe.  Such hopes filtered west and formed the kernel of the persistent and long-lived rumours of the legendary central Asian Christian king "Prester John", who hovered like a mirage over much late Crusading ideals as the possible saviour of the kingdoms of Outremer who would ride under banners of the cross from the east and sweep away the armies of Islam.

This idea was not entirely fantasy.  Papal envoys to the Great Khans early in the century meant that both the Mongols and Europeans were well aware that they shared an enemy in Islam and several attempts were made to co-ordinate their wars against Muslim targets.  King Louis IX of France met two envoys from the Persian Khan Güyükin Cyprus in 1248 and in 1287 a Mongol embassy made it all the way to Paris to meet King Philip the Fair, Gascony to meet King Edward I and finally back via Rome to meet the newly elected Pope Nicholas IV.  In all of these cases the Mongol envoys were Nestorian Christians and the one who met the two kings and the pope was Rabban Bar Sauma, probably a Mongol and Turkic speaking Onggud whose journeys from Beijing to Paris read like the travels of Marco Polo in reverse.  But the dream of an alliance was never fulfilled and when the Kerait Christian Mongol general Kitbuqa was crushed in battle by the Mamluk Egyptians at Ain Jalut the dream of the end of Islam faded as well.

The Death of Churches

Jenkins story then moves on to the end of this continent wide network of non-European churches.  As he points out, some of them had already long since died.  The churches of north Africa, which for centuries had been amongst the most vigorous and substantial Christian communities in the world, were effectively extinguished within a century of the Muslim conquest.  But it was not until the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries that active persecution began to erode and finally all but destroy Asian Christianity.  First resurgent Mamluks began savage persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, then newly vitalised Turks began doing so as the Ottoman Empire spread.  Mongol khans who had been Christianised or friendly to Jacobites and Nestorians turned increasingly to Islam and in China a backlash against all things foreign sweep away Christianity along with Zoroastrian and Buddhist communities.

The last quarter of Jenkins' book contains many useful insights and a some food for thought regarding religion in the modern world.  He makes excellent use of modern examples of repression of religion, the impact of massacres and ethnic cleansing, reactions to persecution and the dynamics of marginal religious survival to vividly illustrate the end of this 1000 year ago of Asian Christianity.  His section on the "Lessons" that can be drawn from the story of the fall of Christianity in the east is particularly interesting.  He notes that there is nothing in this story to give support to "the directions favoured by the far Right - namely as a deadly warning against the Islamic threat." (p. 242)  But he does make some observations about how certain religious communities in his story managed to hasten their demise: lack of diversity, alliance with a single political grouping, dependence on a certain set of economic circumstances and ethnic insularity amongst them.  He notes that the balancing act between totally accommodating the non-Christian or anti-Christian environment around them and  resisting it utterly is a difficult one and going too far in either direction can be fatal to a church.  As he sums it up "too little adaptation means irrelevance; too much leads to assimilation and, often, disappearance" (p. 245).

While I must say that, for a non-believer, the rather theological final chapters about how the rise and fall of religions is not due to "blind chance" but have a divine purpose (typically, a "mysterious" one) seemed a little gratuitous, Jenkins never pretends he is anything other than a Christian historian of Christianity and, to his credit, does a far better job of objective analysis than many non-Christian polemicists pretending to be historians (eg Charles Freeman and Richard Carrier, to name two repeat offenders).  Overall Jenkins has written an elegant and intriguing history of a forgotten corner of history - and I find it is usually those corners that are the most interesting.