UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

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.



Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image

Editorials

David Wilson%

Observations

by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image

Society

July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots

World

June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.

Justice

June 2017

Undocumented

by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.

World

June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.

Society

April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart

Society

March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image