A Forgotten Golden Age
The Lost History of Christianity
by Philip Jenkins
315 pages, $26.95
In the old walled city of Famagusta in Cyprus, a curious building testifies to the mixed heritage of the island's peoples. Towering over what is now a predominantly Turkish-Cypriot-inhabited city is a gothic edifice once known as St. Nicholas Cathedral, built by the Crusaders some seven centuries ago. On the north side of the church stands a minaret, built after the Turkish conquest of the island in 1571, marking the church's subsequent transformation into the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque. A once largely Christian population has been replaced by a largely Muslim one—a situation repeated elsewhere throughout the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia.
Given my own paternal roots in the island, I was drawn to Philip Jenkins's latest book, The Lost History of Christianity, and especially its subtitle, "The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died." In his celebrated earlier work, The Next Christendom (Oxford University Press, 2002), he chronicled the dramatic shift in recent decades of Christianity's center of gravity from Europe and the West to the "Global South" (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). As he told this story, he dropped some tantalizing hints that the historical demographics of Christianity might not have been what most people think they were.
Jenkins now fleshes out those hints in this new volume. Most of his readers will be familiar with the two worlds of Latin and Greek Christianity, centered in Rome and Constantinople respectively. Few will be aware of the territorially vast Christian world east of the Roman Empire extending from the Syriac-speaking Near East to the borders of China or to the south in Egypt and Ethiopia. These Christians were more than just a few "schismatics" peripheral to the "mainstream" of Christianity. The numbers were large, at times exceeding those of the Latin West under papal jurisdiction, and therefore constituted another Christian "mainstream"—one closer than the others to the Semitic cultural world of the New Testament.
To illustrate the size of this "Third Christian World," Jenkins focuses on Timothy I of Baghdad, Patriarch, or Catholicos, of the Church of the East around 800. His ecclesiastical jurisdiction extended far beyond Mesopotamia. Jenkins estimates that, in terms of the extent of his ecclesial jurisdiction, Timothy may have been the most important Christian leader of his day, with possibly a quarter of the world's Christians under his care. While the medieval church in England had two archbishops (or, as the Eastern church called them, metropolitans) at York and Canterbury, Timothy oversaw 12 metropolitans and 85 bishops.
What Wiped Them Out?
So what happened to this now nearly defunct Christendom? It endured as a vital spiritual community into the fourteenth century, that is, up to the very cusp of the modern age. Through most of this time Christianity was in large measure a Syriac religion whose adherents breathed the very atmosphere of Yeshua and his apostles. And this during the supposed zenith of western Christendom.
Of course, the Muslim invasions of the seventh century put enormous pressure on the Christian communities they conquered. Yet the latter continued to survive and thrive for centuries thereafter, even under foreign domination. In the fourteenth century, however, a series of catastrophes led to the virtual collapse of Syriac Christianity and the far-flung communities it had spawned. These included renewed persecution at the hands of Muslim rulers, successive Mongol and Turkish invasions, a cooling global climate leading to failed harvests and conflict over scarce resources, and the Black Plague. The remaining Christian communities were finally finished off in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as nationalistic régimes sought to cleanse their territories of ethnic and religious minorities.
Turning to the south and west, Jenkins examines the Christian communities of North Africa and Egypt, which fared differently under Islam. In North Africa, whose most famous figures were Tertullian and Augustine, Christianity died because it was primarily an urban religion that never caught on in the countryside. When the cities were destroyed, so was the faith. In Egypt, by contrast, the Coptic Christians have continued as a vibrant witness to the faith, primarily because they were protected by the narrow land bridge joining—or separating—Africa and Asia, and because Christianity became more deeply entrenched amongst ordinary Egyptians.
This is a story that has not been fully told and understood until now. We are indebted to Jenkins for bringing it to our attention. How his book will be received probably depends on the audience. It is obviously not intended primarily for scholars, but it's not entirely a popular work either. It is, rather, a thought-provoking volume aimed at an educated audience. Some of Jenkins's fellow academics may fault him for his lack of knowledge of Syriac-language primary sources and his dependence on (mostly) English-language secondary sources. Yet others will applaud his effort to put before an English-speaking public a significant historical episode with which they are almost certainly unfamiliar.
One facet of Jenkins's argument gives me pause as a political scientist: A key reason why so many Christian minorities were able to survive into the twentieth century is that they successfully eluded central government authority within relatively inaccessible topography—for example, the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon and the Orthodox Montenegrins in the Ottoman-dominated Balkans. Until fairly recently, few governments were able fully to exercise their authority over every square inch of territory nominally under their jurisdictions. This provided an opportunity for disliked minorities to continue to live their faith relatively free from harassment. By the twentieth century, however, technical developments enabled governments to enforce their control uniformly over all their territories. This monopoly on the power of the sword, to use Paul's expression in Romans 13, enabled governments to punish brigandage and other criminal activity more consistently than in the past. This represented a net gain for justice; on the other hand, it also gave the modern state the means to oppress more consistently as well. It was only in the twentieth century that Turkey, for example, finally rid itself of its minorities, either through death or exile. If justice becomes more certain in the modern state, so does injustice.
Jenkins's Lost History might be profitably used in church history courses at universities and seminaries, but it is also a must-read for everyone who wants a better understanding of the global character of the 2,000-year-old Christian story.
David T. Koyzis is professor of political science at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada, and the author of Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity, 2003).
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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David Neff blogged on The Lost History of Christianity at the Christian History Blog.