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on 29 July 2013
Professor Philip Jenkins has written a book about a very difficult subject and he has succeeded very well. The Title is provocative, Jesus Wars, but the story is about how Christians fought during several centuries over the issue of how to view Jesus. God, human or both?

Seen with todays eyes this sounds like a mere exercise in theoretical theology best taken place in universities or churches but as he shows it was far from that. Thousands of people were killed, tortured or persecuted and the debate had the same political weight as the wars fought during that period. This is one of the book's great values. It complements all other history books dealing with this period (300 - 700 AD)and gives you a fuller understanding of what took place.

The Subject is hard to grasp since it is how to interpret details in the bible concerning Jesus and his time. There are no hard facts to base the story on, just theological discussions going on for centuries. Professor Jenkins has managed to make these events come alive and presents it in a way that even if it takes some effort you do not have to be a professional theological student to follow the presentation. The Main impact on the Roman and Byzantium empires from these events is presented in a clear and interesting way.

The Story is supported with a number of appendixes that are very helpful. There is just one lacking. There should have been an appendix on all Christian subgroups in the book in order to understand them better. Sometimes there are just names of various churches listed without any closer presentation.

The Subtitle of the book is "How Four Patriarch, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would believe for the Next 1.500 Years". Unfortunately, there are so many Patriarchs, Queens and Emperors in the book that I am not sure who he was thinking of when he wrote the subtitle. I could guess but I am not certain. On the other hand I did not focus on identifying them through the text. Anyhow, the subtitle is misleading since professor Jenkins in the end of the book gives most of the credit to the spread of Islam. Islam conquered all territories where the churches had a different opinion so in the end we were left with what we have today.

Rather early in the book professor Jenkins makes an attempt to compare Christianity and Islam and probably wants the reader to understand that we are not that different. He compares the violent development in Christianity AD 500 with the violent development in Islam today and wants us to know that we used to be troubled by the same problems like they have today. Unfortunately, what he does is telling us that Islam is 1500 years behind us in development. Maybe that was not his intention.

But apart from these minor details the book is very educational and a great source for those of us trying to understand our common history.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 20 October 2011
This book is the perfect follow-on to Ehrman's Lost Christianities, which offered an amazing tableau of the many versions of Christianity that arose in the 2 centuries since Jesus' death. Jenkins starts with the state of theology in the 4C CE - the great debate on the nature (or purity) of Christ's divinity - and examines in great detail how it played out in the declining Western Roman Empire at the moment that Byzantium and later Islam arose. His history is entirely secular and historical, covering the theological positions as elements in what is essentially a political drama. In my view (as an atheist), it is a useful perspective that completely leaves the theological debate (as the truth, the right way, etc.) to be resolved in other sources from the point of view of believers. It was exactly what I was looking for. That being said, Jenkins in my view never ventures any opinions that are purely theological and respects the advocates of each view.

The historical context is, to put it mildly, complex. The western portion of Rome is facing a series of reversals during the barbarian wars and has become a backwater to the Eastern Roman Empire (Greek Byzantium), that stands at the cultural crossroads of Asia and EUrope. Stretching from the immensely wealthy vassal states of Egypt deep into Mesopotamia and North to cover the Black Sea, Byzantium was where it was happening. As Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire, in Jenkins view, there was a proliferation of churches and theologies that became the bases for regional powers and strong men. While dependent on the Emperor and the approval of his court (and above all of their women, who were a must to cultivate and convince), these regional groupings lived out their power struggles through theological disputes, complete with armies of monk thugs to force their beliefs onto all in their sway and suppress those of opponents. Hoping to dominate the political sphere as theocrats, they modeled their organizations on the autocratic institutions that supported the Emperors. In this way, the Pope of Rome was merely one of many who were competing to establish their ascendence as theocrats as this time. In Jenkin's hands, this does not in any way detract from or demean the sincerity of their beliefs, but it adds a much-needed historical perspective.

Jenkins masterfully sketches portraits of a succession of these religious leaders, who range from the extremely shrewd and brutal (e.g. Cyril of Alexandria) to the naively idealistic (e.g. Nestorius, for whom Jenkins shows uncharacteristic sympathy). Some of them were expert courtiers, others moral forces that could mobilize mobs and threaten the power base of the emperors themselves. Clearly, with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, power relations and the personal experience had been fundamentally transformed.

The nub of the theological debate was the nature of Christ's divinity. Was he both human and a God? How could this be? Or was he purely a God, hence not tempted by human emotions but acting a prescripted role? The logical implications of the different views were legion. If Christ was God, then did his mother give birth to God? Would that make her a God as well, deserving of worship? Would that be polytheism? Was there one God or many? With Christ's death, did God die as well? Depending on the view you chose - and choosing the wrong one meant to some that you would burn in Hell forever - this would shape religious ritual and the type of power that the holy could wield up to the present. It was both practical and highly theoretical. And the implications were immense. While I cannot do justice to the nuance that Jenkins covers, I did on occasion tire of their abstruseness.

However, as Jenkins argues, the theological struggle was less about the issues it logically raised than about regional bases of power, whose members for their own reasons chose to follow the dictates of the theological leaders among them. Hence, in the West, the dual nature of Christ was advocated (Christ struggled with human emotions and pain, but was also one with God, the orthodox view) while in the East, he was viewed as pure divinity (in what would become the Coptic Church); Byzantium for centuries wavered between these two poles, depending on the views of the Emperors and their women; the various factions (the Blues and Greens, I believe) would periodically riot at sports games and mortally threatened the Emperor Justinian at one time.

For the most part, these disputes played themselves out in a series of church councils that were supposed to debate and decide theological doctrine for all of Christendom. In Jenkins' view, the most important one was Chalcedon in 451 CE, where the orthodox version was chosen (or more accurately, imposed). Of course, the councils never really settled matters and were marred by extreme violence (one Patriarch of Constantinople was beaten to death by rival monks), backhanded political maneuvers (with bribery, deceit, exclusion from votes, etc.), and accusations of heresy that resulted in persecutions throughout the Empire. The Eastern church remained bitterly opposed to the Western ones of Rome (Catholic) and COnstantinople (Greek Orthodox).

In geopolitical terms, Jenkins argues that the schism decisively weakened the Empire and that when Islamic invaders finally arrived in 7 C, they faced little opposition from the monophysites as Christians were called in the East. In my opinion, this is an extremely valuable supplement to the usual explanation that Byzantium had exhausted itself with its struggles against Sassanid Persia and hence collapsed in the face of invading Islamic zealots, who nonetheless were more tolerant of rival faiths in their midst. According to Jenkins, the schism was the principal cause of the decline of Byzantium as a global power.

There were two things that I did not find in the book. First, I still do not understand why Christianity was able to replace the pagan religions that had flourished in Rome for 1000 years. What was its appeal and why did it come to be so fully accepted at that time? I have always thought that the explanation - that emperors influenced Roman citizens by example - far too pat. Christianity must have addressed some need that people felt then. Second, it was unclear to me what difference the choice of one theology over another would make in people's everyday lives, from their relation to political power to their personal experience of religion. If anyone has suggestions on these fronts, please share them!

This is a very interesting and important book. As with all books I find particularly fecund, I was constantly looking in the notes to see what sources I would want to read later. Jenkins also has a clear writing style, rendering difficult material palpable to non-specialist readers. The book is quite advanced, assuming a fair amount historical knowledge, but accessible. Warmly recommended.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 20 October 2011
This book is the perfect follow-on to Ehrman's Lost Christianities, which offered an amazing tableau of the many versions of Christianity that arose in the 2 centuries since Jesus' death. Jenkins starts with the state of theology in the 4C CE - the great debate on the nature (or purity) of Christ's divinity - and examines in great detail how it played out in the declining Western Roman Empire at the moment that Byzantium and later Islam arose. His history is entirely secular and historical, covering the theological positions as elements in what is essentially a political drama. In my view (as an atheist), it is a useful perspective that completely leaves the theological debate (as the truth, the right way, etc.) to be resolved in other sources from the point of view of believers. It was exactly what I was looking for. That being said, Jenkins in my view never ventures any opinions that are purely theological and respects the advocates of each view.

The historical context is, to put it mildly, complex. The western portion of Rome is facing a series of reversals during the barbarian wars and has become a backwater to the Eastern Roman Empire (Greek Byzantium), that stands at the cultural crossroads of Asia and EUrope. Stretching from the immensely wealthy vassal states of Egypt deep into Mesopotamia and North to cover the Black Sea, Byzantium was where it was happening. As Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire, in Jenkins view, there was a proliferation of churches and theologies that became the bases for regional powers and strong men. While dependent on the Emperor and the approval of his court (and above all of their women, who were a must to cultivate and convince), these regional groupings lived out their power struggles through theological disputes, complete with armies of monk thugs to force their beliefs onto all in their sway and suppress those of opponents. Hoping to dominate the political sphere as theocrats, they modeled their organizations on the autocratic institutions that supported the Emperors. In this way, the Pope of Rome was merely one of many who were competing to establish their ascendence as theocrats as this time. In Jenkin's hands, this does not in any way detract from or demean the sincerity of their beliefs, but it adds a much-needed historical perspective.

Jenkins masterfully sketches portraits of a succession of these religious leaders, who range from the extremely shrewd and brutal (e.g. Cyril of Alexandria) to the naively idealistic (e.g. Nestorius, for whom Jenkins shows uncharacteristic sympathy). Some of them were expert courtiers, others moral forces that could mobilize mobs and threaten the power base of the emperors themselves. Clearly, with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, power relations and the personal experience had been fundamentally transformed.

The nub of the theological debate was the nature of Christ's divinity. Was he both human and a God? How could this be? Or was he purely a God, hence not tempted by human emotions but acting a prescripted role? The logical implications of the different views were legion. If Christ was God, then did his mother give birth to God? Would that make her a God as well, deserving of worship? Would that be polytheism? Was there one God or many? With Christ's death, did God die as well? Depending on the view you chose - and choosing the wrong one meant to some that you would burn in Hell forever - this would shape religious ritual and the type of power that the holy could wield up to the present. It was both practical and highly theoretical. And the implications were immense. While I cannot do justice to the nuance that Jenkins covers, I did on occasion tire of their abstruseness.

However, as Jenkins argues, the theological struggle was less about the issues it logically raised than about regional bases of power, whose members for their own reasons chose to follow the dictates of the theological leaders among them. Hence, in the West, the dual nature of Christ was advocated (Christ struggled with human emotions and pain, but was also one with God, the orthodox view) while in the East, he was viewed as pure divinity (in what would become the Coptic Church); Byzantium for centuries wavered between these two poles, depending on the views of the Emperors and their women; the various factions (the Blues and Greens, I believe) would periodically riot at sports games and mortally threatened the Emperor Justinian at one time.

For the most part, these disputes played themselves out in a series of church councils that were supposed to debate and decide theological doctrine for all of Christendom. In Jenkins' view, the most important one was Chalcedon in 451 CE, where the orthodox version was chosen (or more accurately, imposed). Of course, the councils never really settled matters and were marred by extreme violence (one Patriarch of Constantinople was beaten to death by rival monks), backhanded political maneuvers (with bribery, deceit, exclusion from votes, etc.), and accusations of heresy that resulted in persecutions throughout the Empire. The Eastern church remained bitterly opposed to the Western ones of Rome (Catholic) and COnstantinople (Greek Orthodox).

In geopolitical terms, Jenkins argues that the schism decisively weakened the Empire and that when Islamic invaders finally arrived in 7 C, they faced little opposition from the monophysites as Christians were called in the East. In my opinion, this is an extremely valuable supplement to the usual explanation that Byzantium had exhausted itself with its struggles against Sassanid Persia and hence collapsed in the face of invading Islamic zealots, who nonetheless were more tolerant of rival faiths in their midst. According to Jenkins, the schism was the principal cause of the decline of Byzantium as a global power.

There were two things that I did not find in the book. First, I still do not understand why Christianity was able to replace the pagan religions that had flourished in Rome for 1000 years. What was its appeal and why did it come to be so fully accepted at that time? I have always thought that the explanation - that emperors influenced Roman citizens by example - far too pat. Christianity must have addressed some need that people felt then. Second, it was unclear to me what difference the choice of one theology over another would make in people's everyday lives, from their relation to political power to their personal experience of religion. If anyone has suggestions on these fronts, please share them!

This is a very interesting and important book. As with all books I find particularly fecund, I was constantly looking in the notes to see what sources I would want to read later. Jenkins also has a clear writing style, rendering difficult material palpable to non-specialist readers. The book is quite advanced, assuming a fair amount historical knowledge, but accessible. Warmly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 8 August 2010
Whether you are a believer, non-believer, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or just curious you will get an immense amount of information in a very intelligent and enjoyable way by reading this book. You think we have trouble today with disputes between various Christian denominations? You think we have problems today understanding other faiths so different from our own? This is nothing new! These arguments and fights have been going on since the invention of religion. Religion, the man-made (excuse me for not being politically correct on this) institutions that parade around pretending to be the exclusive way to God, has always been a battle field. Religion, really has nothing to do with God and everything to do with the smallminded individuals that set them up. Philip Jenkins puts all of this into incredible historical detail; none of it boring or sleep inducing. He brings to life the history of early Christianity with warring factions in the new Christian church, battling monks, murder, expulsion and the occasional sex scandal. The disagreements we have today in our churches are as nothing compared to what the beginning looked like. And it sure does explain how Islam got started and spread so quickly.

If you have any interest at all in understanding the beginnings of Christianity and all the many problems that seem to accompany this so-called great faith, please read this book. You will begin to understand that what most people hold to be truths directly transmitted from God are really the devious machinations of power hungry men and deceitful women. It's a shocker alright and you will never look upon the so-called "eternal truth" in the same way ever again. That God may act through humble human beings is not in question. That some elements of organized religion may be of some consolation to believers is undeniable. But that Christianity or any religion holds all the truths is just not true.

Philip Jenkins has done us all a great service in writing such a highly intelligent and readable book. Your faith will thank you for reading this book.
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on 10 August 2010
This book is amazing, and heavy. By the review on the back I thought it would be a good casual read but it's a lot more of a commitment than I'd planned on. I would probably only reccomend this book to a serious history or bible student unless you're willing to take it on as a learning project.
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