The Lost History of Christianity

Over the last few years I have felt compelled to brush up on my church history – not because of my history-loving husband, or because of a subject I took at college, but because I have spent most of my adult life talking to Chinese people about Jesus. A lot of those Chinese people are interested in Jesus because they are curious about Western religion. And more and more I am discovering that Christianity is not actually a Western religion. I thought it might be a good thing to so some more research on how the global church has grown and changed over the last two and bit thousand years.

Cue the holidays and time to read!

My holiday reading time so far has mostly been spent in The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins. It’s been blowing my mind, and driving me to distraction. Thanks to all those friends who have patiently listened to me process this book over the last week!

Despite what the title might suggest, this is not a book of conspiracy theories. It’s not one of those books where someone discovers some secret lost manuscript that changes the face of Christian history forever.

The reason this book has taken me through such excited highs and concerned lows is the way it has collected non-Western historical data that, up until now, I had never really understood the context of. It’s full of Syrians, Copts and Nestorians, it’s the story of the Silk Road, it’s story of the Armenian Genocide. It places all these moments into a narrative I have never heard before.

It’s a history of the church, a history of God working through his people, but it’s completely different to the church history I have been taught and retold over the years.

I wish I could just share the entire book with you right here, but that would definitely count as plagiarism and would probably be a little too much reading! Instead I’d like to take you on a whirlwind tour of some huge assumptions of mine which have been beaten around by Jenkin’s historical analysis.

1. What is orthodoxy?
In the Christian communities I live and work in there is plenty of disagreement about what we believe and how we practice our beliefs – from robust debates to petty squabbles. I personally find it very easy to think that everyone who doesn’t think like me is a border-line heretic; one helpful way to keep some perspective has been to trace my Christian heritage back to the early orthodox church – to those great councils of the early church who confirmed together central Christian beliefs. It’s what all Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches trace their heritage back to. These orthodox positions have helped to ground me during theological debates.

So, if you were me, what would you make of a book that traces the fervent missionary energy, rich spiritual traditions and courage to stand firm in the face of death among the Nestorian and Jacobite churches of Central Asia, whose nuanced theological positions weren’t always represented at those early councils?

A Nestorian Bishop

A thousand years ago, orthodoxy (with a small o) represented one theological position among several, and very different positions prevailed in large and populous sections of the Christian world. Neither Jacobites nor Nestorians were anything like as floridly heretical as the Gnostics… what we today call mainstream historical orthodoxy looks more like the view that happened to gain power in Europe, and which therefore survived. (p.27)

I need to think about this some more. And on a related note…

2. Is the course of history justified because things just turned out that way?
If you believe in a sovereign God (which I do), it’s easy to make some quick logical (or illogical) jumps and decide that everything that has ever happened in the history of the world is justified and vindicated by the God who is in control of everything. Just for the record, I try to avoid making those illogical jumps!

But sometimes I fall into this way of thinking by accident, especially when I tell myself the history of the church. I have definitely told myself, subconsciously and consciously, that God has been working through the church to protect strong movements that maintain the truth of the Gospel. In the opening chapter of the book Jenkins smacked me with a sharp rebuke:

When modern observers look at the course of Christianity, they often apply a kind of Darwinian perspective, assuming that some versions of the religion succeeded because they were better adapted to their circumstances than were others.

From a theological standpoint, this would mean that some kinds of Christianity survived and flourished because they were more faithful, and truer to the divine plan. And the fact of survival in turn validates the present-day beliefs of Christians who follow these particular forms of the faith: faith interprets history, which supports faith.

Yet such a model meshes poorly with the actual history of those other churches, which perished not through their own theological failures and contradictions, their own loss of faith, but through secular politics. In no sense where they less authentically Christian than the churches of Rome and Constantinople. (p.28)

Jenkins provides some really fantastic responses to this issue in his final chapter. Switching tone in the final pages from historian-sociologist to theologian his reminds his readers that the God of history is not bound to work in the time frames and geographies that we expect. More significantly, he reminds us that ‘success’ measured in military, economic or demographic strength is definitely not a Christian idea!

Instead of seeking explanations for the less of divine favour, Christians should rather stress the deep suspicion about the secular order that runs through the New Testament, where the faithful are repeatedly warned that they will live in a hostile world, and a transient one. (p.260)

3. The development of the Biblical canon
So many people who are not Christians are cynical of how the biblical cannon came into existence. In response to this common concern, I thought this quote was super-interesting:

In recent years, accounts of the early church claim that scriptures and gospels were very numerous, until the mainstream church suppressed most of them in the fourth century…

… The problem with all this is that the Eastern churches had long familiarity with the rival scriptures but rejected them because they knew they were late and tendentious. Even as early as the second century, the Diatessaron* 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 wish, they could have included in the canon any alternative Gospels or scriptures they wanted to. But instead of adding to canon, they chose to prune. The Syriac Bible omits several books that are included in the West (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and the book of Revelation). Scholars like Isho’dad wanted to carry the purge further, and did not feel that any of the Catholic Epistles** could seriously claim apostolic authorship. (p.88)

*The Diatessaron was a Syriac translation of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John written around 170AD, which brought the four gospels together into one storyline. I guess it was like the first bible fanfiction? Or like the original version of this thing?
**For those playing at home, the Catholic Epistles are the letters in the bible written to a br
oad community (like Peter’s letters and John’s letters), rather than to a church in a particular city (like Paul’s letter to the Romans, or Paul’s letters to the Corinthians)

An Arabic translation of the Diatessaron, from around the 11th century.

4. Exegesis and contextual bible reading is actually a pretty old phenomenon
In the Christian communities I live and move in, we put lots of effort into carefully reading the text of the bible in historical context.

I often have to defend this way of reading the bible to people who are used to reading the bible as an ahistorical, allegorical text. Sometimes these conversations make me worry that the way I read the bible is purely the result of my modernist/postmodernist education.

Nope! We are not alone! It turns out all the Eastern churches that came from Antioch were into contextual reading right from the very beginning:

The Syriac churches inherited the approach to bible criticism associated with Antioch, which demanded that texts be put into proper historical and cultural context, rather than (as in Alexandria) being used as the basis for spiritual allegories. (p.89)

Also, how funny is this quote from Solomon of Basra in the 1220s, who was exasperated with people who interpret biblical metaphors literally:

The things which certain stupid men invent, who indulge their fancy and give bodily form to the punishment of sinners and the reward of the just and righteous, and say that there is at the resurrection a pair of scales, the Church does not receive…

Thanks for boldly pointing that out, Solomon. An actual set of scales at the resurrection would indeed be really weird.

5. Chinese Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism: roughly the same age!!!
Did you know that the first known Christian missionaries were establishing churches in the heart of China at around the same time that Buddhist missionaries were taking their religion into Tibet!? Doesn’t that blow your mind?! From the 600s and throughout the Tang Dynasty there were Christian churches established in China, doing their thing. WHAT!?

Now, let this story blow your mind even more:

Nestorian Christians in China and India often used the symbol of a cross embedded in a lotus.

In 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in the Chinese imperial capital of Chang’an*, but was unable to translate the Sanskrit sutras he had brought with him into either Chinese or any other familiar tongue. In such a plight, what could the hapless missionary do but seek Christian help? He duly consulted the bishop named Adam…

Adam had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese, and the two probably shared a knowledge of Persian. Together, Buddhist and Nestorian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical good will, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued…

Adams efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other residents of Chang’an at this time included Japanese monks, who took these very translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan these works became the founding texts of the two great Buddhist schools – respectively, Shingon and Tendai; and all the famous Buddhist movements of later Japanese history, including Zen and Pure Land, can be traced to one of these two schools. (p.15-16)

6. Contextualising the Gospel
At Moore College (and subsequently in my current job) I have learnt heaps about “contextualisation” – a process of communicating the truths of the Christian gospel in language and concepts that transcend cultural boundaries.

Communicating the Gospel in culturally significant and relevant ways has been going on since the time of the apostles (you can see it happening even in the New Testament itself!); it’s encouraging, although probably not very surprising, that the first missionaries to China were explaining the Gospel using Taoist and Buddhist language. The Nestorian Monument, dated from the 780s, lists members of the Christian community in Chang’an (Xi’an) and outlines the work of Jesus:

The illustrious and noble Messiah, veiling his true dignity, appeared in the world as a man;…
he fixed the extent of the eight boundaries, thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross;
he opened the gate of the three constant principles,
introducing life and destroying death;
he suspended the bright sun to invade the chambers of darkness,
and the falsehoods of the devil were thereupon defeated;
he set in motion the vessel of mercy by which to ascend to the bright mansions,
whereupon rational beings were then released;
having thus completed the manifestations of his power, in clear day he ascended to his true station. (p.15)

Well, if someone had explained Jesus to me like that I would have been very confused, but hopefully it helped some Taoist people understand the Gospel 1200 years ago!

7. Protestant missionary history and the 10-40 window
The 10-40 window is a fairly recent term used by Protestant missionaries to refer to the enormous part of the world between 10N and 40N degrees latitude. About two thirds of the global population live in this region, and in many of these countries the church is so small and under-resourced that it is almost impossible to hear the Gospel.

Acknowledging the non-Western branch of church history kind of shakes up my view of the 10-40 window. When we pray for ‘workers to go into the harvest field’, and we pray specifically for countries in the 10-40 window, I am not praying for the Gospel to go into a brand new place. I am praying for people living in landscapes that were once covered in Christian communities. I am praying for fields and cities where rich Christian traditions once flourished, where the scriptures were translated into multiple languages, where faithful brethren in Christ laboured in fruitful ministries, and in less-fruitful ministries, where the blood of believers was spilled again and again. It’s not a brand new harvest field. It’s new people living in ancient places, new nation-states with with ancient ethnic heritage, a vast land with a Christian heritage as old as the apostles.

A long time ago the 10-40 window was the place that missionaries were sent from! When we pray for Christian ministry in these places, I think we should be acknowledging that, somehow. Maybe acknowledging that God is at work not only through our favourite missionaries or ministry organisations, not only through our own denomination, not only in our century? After all, it appears he has worked through people I didn’t even know about, brothers and sisters I have trouble identifying with! Through his word and Spirit , he is at work throughout history and throughout the world in ways beyond the confines of my cultural imagination. I should pray expectantly, and expect him to work beyond my expectations.

8. 20th Century: Political allegiance vs Spiritual kinship
Jenkin’s analysis of the Middle East in the 20th Century was most shocking. Technically I think I had already learnt a lot of it in year 12 Modern History, but here was yet another example of my Western church history assumptions trumping the actual events of recent history:

The extermination of Christians in the Middle East is a comparatively recent thing.

I know, I know, any readers of this blog who studied any history might think I am an idiot at this point, but you can understand why this surprised me. Everything in the media, everything in missions awareness campaigns and prayer journals paints Central Asia and the Middle East as a long-term Christian wasteland, where the church has been practically non-existent for centuries. The few Christians who might remain in these lands are portrayed as cowering underground, or maybe as compromising their beliefs in the face of the pressures of Islam, or maybe as crazy heretic sects remaining from an ancient Christian hey day.

The invisible men: Heads of churches in Jerusalem, 1922

So it turns out maybe not. Throughout the 20th Century many Christians didn’t just survive in the Middle East, they asserted themselves in politics and the public sphere. Especially in Palestine:

Christians were prominent in Palestinian nationalist causes – inevitably, since they represented much of the educated professional elite that stood to lose most from the growth of Zionist settlement… Christians enjoyed a wholly disproportionate role in the leadership of the Palestinian guerrilla movements through the 1980s. Much of the sensational Palestinian terrorism across the globe in the 1970s was planned and orchestrated by Christian commanders… Some notorious Palestinian attacks were aimed at freeing Hilarion Capucci, a Melkite archbishop who was jailed by Israel for running guns and explosives to the Palestinian guerrillas. After his release, the archbishop became a personal envoy to Yasser Arafat, and a member of the Palestinian National Council. (p.167)

The Western response to these national movements during the Cold War does not surprise me, but I think it surprises many people who assume that All Westerners are Christians, and that religious kinship trumps all. Unfortunately politics often comes first:

The West was alarmed at the progress of secular leftist movements across the Arab world, of Marxist, Baathist and nationalist currents, many of which featured Christians so prominently in their leadership. Americans in particular found it easy to choose between leftist pro-Palestinian Christians and anti-Communist Muslims. Western governments and intelligence agencies cooperated with the Saudis and other conservative regimes to promote traditionalist Muslim religious organisations. (p.167-168)

In the end, this adventure through the untold-version of Eastern church history has served as a strong reminder to me that Christians should be wary of measuring their movements by the standards of the world, wary of prioritising ethnic, political and denominational bonds over the kinship-bonds of the global church, and wary of confining God’s mission into a particular model or timeframe.

It is an even stronger reminder to praise the Lord of the harvest, who has been faithfully at work for a long time, to pray that the Spirit keeps equipping the church for the work that needs to be done, to long for the return of Jesus when justice is done and to look ahead to the resurrection, the new heavens and the new earth, when the church will finally be gathered together in a lasting home.


2 thoughts on “The Lost History of Christianity

  1. Pingback: schtuff i like | celibateinthecity

  2. J

    Great review Alison !
    ‘Orthodoxy’ has always functioned as a way of silencing minority voices in the church. Same thing Israel did to the prophets. No doubt some voices that got silenced were nutters or heretics. Others had insights worth hearing. what they had in common was , they nearly all got squashed.


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