Book review/recommendation

Book Recommendation: A New History of Early Christianity

 

A New History of Early Christianity by Charles Freeman, published by Yale University Press 2009

The relevance of Christianity is as hotly contested today as it has ever been. ‘A New History of Early Christianity’ shows how our current debates are rooted in the many controversies surrounding the birth of the religion and the earliest attempts to resolve them. Charles Freeman’s meticulous historical account of Christianity from its birth in Judaea in the first century A.D. to the emergence of Western and Eastern churches by A.D. 600 reveals that it was a distinctive, vibrant, and incredibly diverse movement brought into order at the cost of intellectual and spiritual vitality.

Against the conventional narrative of the inevitable ‘triumph’ of a single distinct Christianity, Freeman shows that there was a host of competing Christianities, many of which had as much claim to authenticity as those that eventually dominated. A great read!

Review:

A New History of Early Christianity‘ is a masterful book, and a pleasure to read. Freeman narrates the development, diversity, and spread of Christianity with originality and verve. It is a story that brims over with fascinating accounts, intriguing quotations from figures in the ancient Mediterranean, and illuminating historical analysis. It is also a crucial resource for our understanding of ongoing cultural negotiations of religious and political spheres, all these theologico-political paradoxes that face us now more than ever. I do not think there exists a more engaging and illuminating history of early Christianity than this one.’  Ward Blanton, University of Glasgow

11 replies »

  1. A very good book on early Christianity is “The Orthodox Church” by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware). The Orthodox and the Muslims have had a long history – and actually, there are some surprising elements within Islam that are directly from the Orthodox and Byzantium🙂

    • yes I agree it is a good book, I’ve read it several times. However I’m curious to know what you mean by :

      “there are some surprising elements within Islam that are directly from the Orthodox and Byzantium:?

      • Quick examples: the method of prostration for prayers, some of the architectural themes of course, the name “hajji” for those who have made pilgrimage. And some of the practices of Orthodox emerged from the time under Ottoman rule. For example, at monasteries they returned to the use of hammering on wooden planks as a call to prayer because church bells were banned. The style of head covering worn by Greek priests (you’ll notice it’s different from Russian priests). And of course the guards who accompany the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem at all times are Muslims.

      • Quick examples: the method of prostration for prayers, some of the architectural themes of course, the name “hajji” for those who have made pilgrimage (this is from the Greek word, and practice of adding this to the name after pilgrimage to Jerusalem). And some of the practices of Orthodox emerged from the time under Ottoman rule. For example, at monasteries they returned to the use of hammering on wooden planks as a call to prayer because church bells were banned. The style of head covering worn by Greek priests (you’ll notice it’s different from Russian priests). And of course the guards who accompany the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem at all times are Muslims.

    • interesting examples. As to the method of prostration for prayers, the Muslims were simply continuing the noble practice of the earlier prophets (as recorded in the Bible).

      are you a convert to Orthodoxy?

  2. Ah – the last thing I should say we share (then I will stop rambling) – St. George! This I learned when visiting his tomb in Lod. Right next to it is a mosque. When I asked about this, they say that St. George has performed so many miracles for Muslims that they venerate him there.

    As for choosing Orthodoxy….it basically just comes down to a difference in opinion about whether the Old and New Testaments have been preserved faithfully, what the message of the Gospel was and if it has been preserved, and whether the crucifixion and resurrection happened (and what they would mean). The Baha’is taught me to wave away what can be seen quite plainly in both the Qur’an and the Bible – they call it interpretation, I call it mental gymnastics. When I read the Qur’an, it seemed very plain to me that Mohammed called himself the very last prophet, not to be followed by others. And that he did not think Christ was God or even a Manifestation of God – or anything else mystically different from a “regular” human prophet. That he did not believe Christ was actually crucified and resurrected.

    And yet, based on my reading, it seemed very clear to me that the earliest of Christians believed in the actual crucifixion and resurrection – even scholars who do not believe in the resurrection tend to agree that the earliest Christians did indeed believe in it. And that the meaning of all of this alluded to a belief very different from that of Baha’is and Muslims, when understood within an ancient Jewish context and the concept of the Fall of man. So I had the choice that everyone has the right to make – to believe that the Christians had misunderstood, lost, or corrupted their texts and beliefs, almost immediately from the get-go….or that they suffered and died to preserve it. Growing up as a Hindu, I had no problem with understanding that when people truly believe in something sacred, they can preserve it for thousands of years. The most ancient of orally preserved Hindu chants are analogs of bird-song – from before the time of human speech! Couched in the Christian meta-story, my own roots fit in a sensible way into the entire picture of human history….So I chose to believe – in the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection – the joining of our natures to Christ’s to have communion restored with God as in the days before the Fall – in theosis, the day of resurrection, the defeat of the Devil, and all throughout, the protection of the Church through by the Holy Spirit. But that whole story is much better told by St. Athanasius and C. S. Lewis or course.

    • As for why Orthodox….because it grew up organically, it was established on the day of Pentecost. The Oriental Orthodox church was the first to break away….then the Roman Catholics. I know they say we broke away…but honestly, when you’ve got a group of bishops who agree that the bishop of Rome is first among equals as a sign of respect, but not above the others in a hierarchical way, then that one bishop differs and walks away – essentially “firing” all the rest of them….I mean – if you had a company run be a group of people, and then one got up during a meeting with an opinion that others all agreed was new and incorrect…then he walked out and stated everyone else was fired, and they had chosen to break with him……to me it seems clear that in reality, it was he who walked away, who broke off and left the company. That’s the way I think of it. Imho, the novel concepts and practices the arose in the Catholic church, as well as the way the Protestants broke away are proof that they have strayed. I understand that would be a very heated topic for Catholics….but it is also interesting that 30% of Orthodox seminarians in the US are converts, mostly of Protestant background. Anyway, yak yak yak. You’ve touched on a subject that I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about, but hadn’t mustered the energy to write about….I keep putting it off. I do need to eventually post all of this on my own blog….Sorry for hogging yours🙂

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