The Lost History of Christianity (2008)

We can usefully recall the words of Saint Vincent de Paul [who] recalled that Jesus promised that his church would last until the end of time, but that he never mentioned the words in Europe (41).

Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity is an extraordinarily fascinating read. In it, he traces the history of the church outside of Europe/the Americas. So often, as Jenkins’ rightly points out, when we think of the history of the church, we think in terms of Palestine to Rome to Charlemagne to France, Germany, and England to the Americas. Little attention is paid to Palestine once Rome gets involved—at least in mainstream historiography. Jenkins sets out to pay due attention to Palestine and the Church of the East, which originated therefrom. He begins by giving a broad overview of the impact that the eastern church has had but that has gone unappreciated. Focusing on the catholicos (or patriarch) Timothy, who lived in the eighth century and “was arguably the most significant Christian spiritual leader of his day. He lived in Seleucia, a busseling Christian center, and later in Baghdad. He oversaw missionaries in the so-called Far East as well as in Mesopotamia. Jenkins thus gives grounds for seeing the world in three “lobes” as certain medievals did. map_three-fold_world Jerusalem in the center; Asia, Africa, and Europe equal in importance. By the time Timothy dies in 823, Christianity is still going strong. Jenkins says, “[T]he Church of the East had plenty of opportunities in central Asia and China, and the continuing presence in India” (19). Things however would deteriorate, and the strength of Christianity in the east would decline through a number of factors. That deterioration cut off hierarchical ties that went all the way back to the apostles. (A fascinating succession of the Nestorian catholicoi includes several figures who were “of the laying on of hands at Antioch,” where Christians were first called “Christians” [84]). “We can debate,” Jenkins asserts, “how far [Timothy’s] world represented authentic primitive Christianity, but it is quite certain that no later ages could possibly replicate the apostolic world anything like as faithfully. The loss of continuity . . . makes moot later efforts to enforce the culture-specific regulations of the earliest Christian communities” (26). Overall, and in sum, Jenkins observes that “what we today call mainstream historical orthodoxy looks more like the view that happened to gain power in Europe, and which therefore survived” and that “[m]any mainstreams once flowed” (27). The Church of the East, as Jenkins points out, has deep roots such that “that time span is far longer than the entire history of Protestantism to date” (28)—perhaps that dissuades us from writing it off merely because it is forgotten. As far as its culture goes, the Church of the East focused on monasticism. Jenkins notes that those who bemoan the absence of the Gnostic gospels from the Christian canon don’t have much to complain about because the Church of the East had those documents and chose also not to bring them into their canon; in fact the Church of the East’s canon was more conservative than the Western canons. Nevertheless, Jenkins points out that the asceticism that characterized the Gnostic’s spirituality expressed itself in the desert monastic tradition (74–75). To the original point, though, Jenkins adds that

[e]ven as early as the second century, the Diatessaron [i.e., the harmonized summary of the gospels used by Nestorians] assumes four, and only four, authentic Gospels. Throughout the Middle Ages, neither Nestorians nor Jacobites were under any coercion from the Roman/Byzantine Empire or church, and had they wished, they could have included in the canon any alternative Gospels or scriptures they wanted to. But instead of adding to the canon, they chose to prune. . . . The deep conservatism of these churches, so far removed from papal or imperial control, makes nonsense of claims that the church bureaucracy allied with empire to suppress unpleasant truths about Christian origins (88).

The churches of Asia thrived much longer than is normally assumed, with its fall coming after the turn of the first millennium. A strong role was played by religious intolerance of conquering powers. Taxation and discrimination practices were introduced, but these were not unique persecutions—Jenkins says that such was commonplace in premodern times. Cities that were culturally and architecturally Christian were displaced with churches being either razed or converted into new places of worship for the conquering powers. Tragic notes sprinkle Jenkins account about the loss of ancient texts in these now-destroyed cities: “Reading such accounts, we can only speculate about the books and manuscripts that must have been lost in the catastrophe that overwhelmed cities like Edessa and Ephesus, which must once have contained treasure troves of records of the earliest Christian communities” (117). Numbers of Christians dwindled, starting in about the thirteenth century and lasting until today. Some were lost to the sword; others chose to convert. At one point, Jenkins even records an edict from the patriarch of Constantinople sanctioning “double faith,” saying that said Christians could convert officially but remain Christian covertly (178); such official sanction of accommodation is interesting in light of today’s hardliners. Jenkins spends a chapter on “The Last Christians,” which records the final generations of Christians in certain areas of Asia. Whether Catholic missionaries or Muslim or Mongol conquerors, the Church of the East started to suffer greatly after the thirteenth century. Persecution was consistent if not always severe. Though they were certainly severe at times, especially where Christians were viewed as allies of invading powers—as in Egypt, Iraq, and Armenia. In fact, early twentieth-century massacres of Christians in the Middle East necessitated the invention of a new word: genocide (140). Additionally, the degree to which Americans have direct culpability for the backlash against Iraqi Christians is truly chilling. “In the ensuing anarchy [after the second American invasion in 2003], Christians became primary targets of mobs and militias” (170). Christ have mercy. Next, Jenkins discusses the ghosts of religions left behind. With great lucidity, he paints a picture of a world that can only be understood as having evolved from Christianity. Churches were converted to mosques; an icon of the Virgin Mary was placed in a Shinto temple. There is much to be pondered in regards to the decline of Christianity in these parts of the world—not least of which is the role climate change had in many persecutions (135). The notion of “the mystery of survival” appears next in the book. Why do some religions (or traditions) stick and others fade away? To answer this question in part, Jenkins looks at the history of the Coptic church versus the church of north Africa. Jenkins notes that in the early centuries of Christianity, northern Africa was a hotbed of Christian scholarship and devotion; however, by the eighth century it was all but gone. While in Egypt, Coptic Christianity has endured even until today. Why the difference? Jenkins argues for the importance of mission amongst indigenous peoples. Northern Africa, according to Jenkins, focused on the learned people, and so when trouble came, the learned folks just packed up and went to Rome. “The African churches . . . fell because they were the churches of a party and not of a people” (qtd. on 230). The Copts in Egypt, however, have lasted precisely because theirs was a religion of the people. Missionaries and preachers and theologians used the local language of Coptic and evangelized working classes, so to speak. By the time Arabic arrived as the language of choice, Christianity was already too deeply ingrained in the culture to be removed easily. Jenkins offers six lessons for us drawn from the “mystery of survival”: (1) tying one’s legitimacy or truthfulness to worldly success is just asking for trouble; (2) persecutions harm the church, but Christians need to study history so as to see what steps have been taken by Christians to speed their own demise; (3) failure is likely when a only a certain class or race are attended to by churchpeople; (4) survival can be helped by spreading globally, offering resistance against certain geographical threats; (5) “Christians must adapt, but they face the grave dilemma of just how far to take such accommodation”; and (6) “[w]hen we know the authentic history of anti-Christian persecution and discrimination, we realize how sparing we should be in deploying such terminology today” (242–246). Jenkins concludes by attempting to advance “a theology of extinction.” He rejects two possible grounding notions, namely that extinction is a divine punishment and that, in trashing certain areas of Christianity, God is ridding the world of unproductive witnesses. Having rejected those, Jenkins offers a third alternative for extinction theology:

A conservative Catholic once criticized my statement that the North African church had ceased to exist. Of course it had not, he argued. True, the dioceses in question happened, at present, to have no clergy, no members or lay people, and no buildings. But regardless of the number of people it included, the church had never ceased to exist as a body at once mystical and institutional (253).

Jenkins goes on to say that

on reflection, I think he was making a worthwhile point about the time span of human history. The scriptures of many religions remind us that the divine does not necessarily work according to our concepts of time. . . . Perhaps only our limited awareness of time leads us to think that the ruin of a church has happened “forever,” when all we really mean is that, by our mortal standards, we can see no chance of it being reversed (253–254).

Thus, extinction does not mean a failure for all time, nor does it mean extinction for all time when talking about religions, but rather it means taking a long view instead of fearing all is lost due to wrath or divine creative destruction. Moreover, as Jenkins notes, following the Anabaptists, we might say that persecution and minority status are the “natural and predictable outcomes of attempting to live a Christian life” (260). In the end, extinction does not mean that God is silent, for “[s]ilence, after all comes in two very different forms,” Jenkins says.

Sometimes, indeed, nobody is speaking; but on other occasions, people are unable or unwilling to listen to what is being said. Christians believe that God speaks through history; and only by knowing that history can we hope to interpret momentous events . . . Yet Christians have systematically forgotten or ignored so very much of their history that it is scarcely surprising that they encounter only deafening silence. Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarcely less damaging. To break the silence, we need to recover those memories, to restore that history” (262).

If I ever were to engage in professional studies again, it would now undoubtedly be centered on such history and memory. UPDATE (4 June 2015): A reflection essay about “the last Christians” has been published on the Tokens website, here.

2 responses to “The Lost History of Christianity (2008)

  1. Pingback: 2015 Year-in-Review | Three New, One Old·

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