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Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

Oxford professor journeys through the turbulent history of the Christian church

By Patricia Clarke

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
(Viking) $56

Yes, it’s more than 1,000 pages, and no, it’s not a fast read. But it’s the best journey you’re ever likely to take through the turbulent history that created today’s Christian church.

Take it slowly, and enjoy the trip. Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of church history at Oxford University, recounts how a marginal branch of Judaism, whose founder left no known writings, grew and changed over two millennia into a religion very different from anything envisioned by Jesus or by his apostle Paul, one that has been guilty of “criminal folly” yet brought forth “goodness, generosity and artistic creativity.” 

For MacCulloch, the roots of Christianity are 1,000 years before Christ, in the Greek image of God (perfect, remote, passionless) and the Judaic concept (intimate, personal, involved). That difference, he says, remains unresolved.

He follows the faith through the centuries of argument over the exact nature of Christ (divine, human or both?), introducing and explaining Gnosticism, Marcionism, Monophysites, Duophysites and more. His account of the ruthlessness with which some so-called heresies were eradicated should temper our criticisms of other world religions. For most of its life, Christianity has been “the most intolerant of world faiths,” he says, and Christians have suffered far more from other Christians than from non-believers.

MacCulloch spices theological explanations with dryly witty asides: after describing adultery, incest, infanticide and murder among the Greek gods, he comments, “How unlike the home life of the Holy Trinity.” He tells us things we never knew about the well known (Paul, Augustine, Constantine) and also about the unknown: Agnes Blannbekin, for instance, a 14th-century mystic who recorded her dreams of naked dancing nuns in heaven and took special relish in the Feast of the Circumcision; or Kondratii Selivanov, who founded an 18th-century sect based on a misprint in his Russian Bible that confused the word for “redeemer” with that for “castrator.” 

There is a good deal that was new to me about how Christianity in its early centuries turned east to win impressive converts as far as China, and perhaps too much about its multiple forms in the United States and not enough about its surging growth in Africa and Latin America. 

“Can the many faces of Christianity,” he asks, “find a message that will remake religion for a society that has decided to do without it?”

His answer is implicit in the book’s title: The First 3,000 Years.

Patricia Clarke is a writer and editor in Toronto.

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