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A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
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31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
I'm what you might call a slightly bewildered agnostic, but I've always had a particular interest in Christianity. So much of its own history - fragmented, argumentative and hypocritical - has always seemed to be at odds with much of Christ's core message, and I've never quit understood how so many Christians can fail to see that contradiction in their own faith's history. But this book, which is surely destined to become a classic in the field, goes a long way to explaining why Christianity has had so many schisms, so many sects and splinter groups, reformations and counter-reformations.

It is an immense book, and justifiably so - such a complicated history, ranging across the entire globe and spanning more than two thousand years, could scarcely be anything less, but it rarely flags or fails. It is a difficult history to tell, particularly when the major Churches begin to establish themselves - the early African churches, the Ethiopian Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church - and it becomes impossible to tell the full history in any meaningfully chronological way.

But it's well-worth the challenge, particularly in the areas not usually focused upon in the West - such as the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. I personally found it particularly interesting to see the history of Christianity as a whole and how all the different Churches that seem so far apart relate and respond to one another; and particularly how the various trends in religious attitudes and behaviour have evolved and changed over the centuries.

It's hard to tell MacCulloch's own position from this book, and that's another mark in its favour. If I had to tell, I'd say the overall tone is one of fond and perhaps somewhat bemused affection, tempered with a healthy dose of enlightened scepticism. It makes for a lively and engaging read, although not one to be entered into lightly.
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197 of 205 people found the following review helpful
on 19 November 2009
This book goes with a TV series, but it is not the over-illustrated coffee-table type book you might expect. On the contrary, it is long (1150 pages) and scholarly, though not dauntingly so. The style is readable and engaging, and the book provides an excellent overview of the history of Christianity. It begins with Judaism and Greek philosophy, giving the background to religious thought in the Roman period. It then covers the origins of Christianity, before going on to trace its development and the varying forms it took as it spread over the world. The mainstream of Catholic / Protestant /Orthodox Christianity is well covered, but the book is particularly good on the odd corners of Christianity, such as the sects that took hold in China and India.
The tone is mildly sceptical, but respectful, so believers and non-believers will find nothing to object to, and both will learn much about what Christianity actually is.
Highly recommended.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
After all the plaudits which have been heaped upon this book, it seems presumptious of me to say anything. When I first saw it in a bookshop, I was overawed by its size, but after reading one particular review I was convinced that I should attempt it. The amazing amount of information is presented in an accessible form and it is a joy to read. There is a comprehensive bibliography; in some cases, one has the feeling that bibliographies are added to lend credibility to what may be a dubious 'agenda' to the book, but here that is not the case. Unfortunately, without access to a university library, it can be more tantalising than helpful. The illustrations are carefully chosen, and do their purpose:they illustrate the text appropriately. Perhaps my most positive comment is to say that no-one need, or should, be detered by the size; it would not be possible to do justice to the subject in anything less.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 23 January 2011
As a non Christian I found this hard going from time to time. It was not always compulsive reading. Nevertheless having ploughed througn it and looking back on it, I find it immensely rewarding in the long term. It provided for me some understanding of such a diversity of beliefs,practices and forms of governance within the supposedly single tradition that I can only marvel at it. A very important framework in time and space within which much can be understood with a formidable and a very helpful reading list as a springboard for futher exploration of narrower specific interests. Tough but worth it.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 23 October 2010
This is quite simply a magnificent book. MacCulloch's scholarship, and his ability to synthesise and organise a vast amount of material, are truly remarkable. But equally impressive are the wisdom, humanity and occasional acerbic wit that he brings to the task. Time and again his approach results in a different and enlightening perspective on world history. As an non-believer, I feel that he is scrupulously fair to (and hence equally critical of) all sects and forms of Christian belief, now and in the past. But I imagine that this will sometimes make the book uncomfortable reading for some more ardent believers! Above all this is a terrific read, and one of the most engrossing history books I've yet come across.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 November 2010
An encyclopaedic account. The story is often told with freshness and offers some unusual perspectives and countless nuggets (and indeed whole slabs) of fascinating information.

Provocatively subtitled "The First THREE Thousand Years", it begins with two substantial chapters about the thousand years before Christianity, describing the cultures out of which Christianity arose: one chapter is about Greece and Rome and the other about Israel; and already we are warned that these roots will imply tensions within Christianity. There will be further tensions as differing and opposing strands develop, and these are beautifully brought out.

Most western readers will be much more familiar with the story of the Western churches than with that of the Eastern ones. Yet the Eastern Church covered the areas where Christianity originated; it was greatly boosted after the Emperor Constantine, after having legalized and favoured Christianity, had moved his capital to Constantinople; the Western Empire succumbed to the barbarians while the Eastern Empire remained in existence for another thousand years. For a time, therefore, what MacCullough calls "the centre of gravity" of Christendom lay in the East, and it was the Muslim conquest of so much of the area that tilted it to the Latin West, described by MacCullough as being originally "the poor relation of the Greek- and Semitic-speaking Churches of the East" (p.290). The passionate theological disputes in the Western Church (Athanasianism versus Arianism) were complicated enough. Today one cannot but be amazed by the passion, bitterness and persecutions engendered by these doctrinal differences which had so much less bearing on how Christians should lead their lives than had the later differences between Catholicism and the various branches of Protestantism in the West.

But the disputes in the Western Church were simple compared with those in the Eastern Church. Possibly because I am so much less familiar with the latter, I found them much harder to follow and remained bemused by the theological disputes (Monophysite, Dyophysite, Chalcedonian), muddied as they were by the convolutions of politics. The same applies to the dense and chunky chapters on the later history of the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire and in Russia, studded as they are with names and events with many of which most western readers will be unfamiliar. But I also feel that these chapters do actually lack the engagement with which the story of the western churches is told and read more like the result of MacCulloch's dutiful reading.

We return to the West with the more familiar story of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation and of the wars and persecutions which followed. There is an account of the imposition by force of Christianity in Latin America in the 16th century, despite the protests of Dominicans and later of the Jesuits at the violence involved; but by the 18th century the attempts by one denomination to impose itself on others have largely been given up, at any rate in most of Europe.

It is a different story in the 19th century colonial empires of the western powers, where Catholics and Protestants vied with each other to impose their beliefs - usually now by persuasion rather than by force - on non-Christians. But Christians would also be in the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery. (There can be few major omissions in MacCullough's book; but one of these is the role played in the colonization of southern Africa and later of New Zealand by the relationship between the Evangelical Sir James Stephen, Undersecretary at the Colonial Office, the missionaries, and the settler interest represented by Edward Gibbon Wakefield.)

While Christianity expanded massively in the colonial empires in the 19th century, the main thread in the story of Christianity in Europe itself from the 18th century onwards is the challenge to the churches and indeed to religion in general of secularism and of unbelief. While in one sense this period sees the retreat of Christianity, MacCullough shows that this is by no means the whole story, and he documents the many different response of churches and sects to the challenge. It certainly was a surprise to me to learn that there are nearly four times as many Christians in the world today as there were in 1900.

All the same, while in, say, 16th and 17th century Europe religious issues were common currency, I was struck by how marginal to the major currents of history are 20th century stories like that of the Ecumenical Movement, which have impinged on the consciousness of only a small minority even of professing Christians.

The most vigorous, influential, varied, flamboyant and emotional Christianity these days is not in Europe, but in the United States (where it is also politically very powerful) and in Africa, for the most part conservative and firmly against any liberalization of social life (in respect of homosexuality, abortion, women clergy). By contrast, many churchmen, especially in Latin America, involved themselves with radical social movements (Liberation Theology).

I have selected here only a very few aspects of a richly packed text of a thousand pages, which ranges in time over three millennia and in geography from Latin America to Korea. There are, for instance, particularly good chapters tracing the story of Methodism from its origins in the Moravian Pietists of Germany through Wesley in England and then to the black churches in the United States.

It is truly a monumental achievement.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 18 March 2010
I bought this book and the accompanying DVD a couple of weeks ago, and have watched the DVD and am now making my way through the book. The DVD and book (so far) complement each other beautifully. The way I am approaching them is that the DVD gives the overview and the book the detail. In addition, having studied aspects of the history of Christianity at university, I have not yet found too much about which to quibble. I think MacCulloch's views on the early controversies and councils are fair and balanced, and I am delighted with his coverage of the Russian and Oriental Orthodox Churches whose contributions are not well known in the West.

I am sure I will find issues in which I disagree with MacCulloch, but that's the nature of historical research and reflection upon it. One reviewer writes of MacCulloch's anti-Catholic bias, but I have not got that far into the book, and may update this review later. However, so far, I think it is a fair and sensitive history of the subject that brings the reader up-to-date with contemporary research.

In short, this book and its accompanying DVD are worth buying for anyone who has an interest in the history of Christianity.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 7 January 2010
The History of Christianity is exceptional in several ways.It is profoundly informed - wide scholarship lightly warn. The style is accessible and easy to read without the least lowering of quality.The approach stands somewhere between Anglicanism and Agnosticism and is directed at grown-ups.His enemies atre the fanatics, literalists and clerical politicians.He is wise to clericalism, the exaltation of the priesthood - in Tennessee as much as Rome. His understanding of how complex theolgy was created out of institutional purposes puts the Church parties' correct lines into an ironical light from which they don't escape.He is excptionally good on the Tractarians of Oxford, St Paul, Calvin and Calvinism,D.F.Strauss and what followed him. He is too especially sympathetic and understanding of the Anglican Church through all its vicissitudes.This is a book to learn from, honest, fair, humorous and marked by affectionate doubt. It is also written in the sort of quiet good English, not readily available in these slatternly days. Genuinely I think this is a masterpiece. Edward Pearce
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 4 September 2014
Wow, just when we thought Islam was complicated with the various factions of Sunni and Shia fighting each other all over the world, and among themselves too, this history of Christianity shows a birth of a religion even more fractured than the basic split in Islam over the succession to the Prophet Mohammed.

I suppose it is just luck that there is not much infighting today (well the sort with guns) between the various beliefs in Christianity and new factions and beliefs are still emerging. Could this be because the Christians have sated their blood lust against each other many years ago or do we take the old view that in war both parties claim that God is on their side. Mohammed never claimed to be a man of peace and indeed his religion was founded on his successful wars against the surrounding tribes. Jesus came as a man of peace and, arguably, more have been slain in the name of Christianity than any other cause.

This is a very well written book and it is not difficult to read despite being an outstanding piece of scholarship. However, the sheer weight of information and the complexity of the disagreements between the various factions with the resulting schisms that have made the Christian Church what it is today make the book something that needs to be read slowly and with total concentration in order to understand the complicated links between one theory and the next which are all that one can call the ever-changing beliefs in these religions.

I have started to re-read this book it is so good but you would have to be a divinity student not to intersperse this with something a little more lighthearted.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 18 April 2014
Well I for one did read this book end-to-end and very swiftly, considering its length and my lack of free-time. I found it absolutely riveting and it gives an excellent summary of the full history of Christianity; covering all the main denominations, events and places. It does not shy away from the complex theological debates that influenced many of the disputes (in tandem with the politics). It does of necessity move back and forth in time and place, but it is generally well cross-referenced. There is a full glossary and further reading suggested. The author writes from a particular perspective and does frequently give his own judgements, but he is very up front about it. (We all have our own perspective but are not all so honest about it!) He is fond of the Anglican Church but not afraid to criticise it, just as he is keen to highlight the great positives in the history of Catholicism as well as the negative aspects. He also seems to write from the perspective of a non-believer (who is intimately familiar with the Anglican Church). This allows him a certain "historian's distance", but also leads to certain assumptions and statements that seem unjustifiably hyper-critical of Christian belief. Despite this, I found the text to be highly educational; and in spite of the hefty size, this tome frequently feels all too brief. (E.g., Bernadette Soubirous is swiftly dismissed in about sentence or two.) That cannot be avoided given the scope of the subject matter. However, I often read a sentence that stated or alluded to a very interesting fact, almost as an aside; but that carried no further explanation, and left me wondering as to the actual details. Finally, as the author often writes in long, complex sentences; one does have to occasionally re-read sentences to correctly comprehend them.

In summary, though, this is an excellent, informative and interesting overview of the history of human Church organisations. It covers most of what you should know as a cultural inheritor of this wide-reaching legacy. It may of necessity lack depth in places, but is should show how relevant, interesting and indeed fundamental this subject is to a proper understanding of our history and culture. Hopefully, it will also lead to further study.
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