on 14 February 2012
This is another great book by Charles Freemen and a perfect compliment to his fantastic book 'The Closing of the Western Mind'. It explores the development of christianity as a political and social force through the roman period, and onwards, which played such a key role in shaping the medieval world of Europe and parts of Africa and subsequently a large part of the the modern world. It also shows the way in which christianity was changed and reshaped when it was adopted by Constantine and the later emperors, and that many of the elements that underpin so much of christian thinking (such as the Nicene creed), the nature of Jesus as divine being and human being etc, are the products of political compromise and infighting, that forced later theologians to go through a absurd theoretical hoops to explain. Freeman also discusses the origins of the very odd attitude that christianity has towards sex, largely the product of a group of deeply misogynistic men (St Paul, Ambrose and Augustine and a good few others). The book is not unsympathetic to christianity, it recognises its progressive elements as well as the truly reprehensible stuff. It would be good if believers read this, it would give them a good understanding of the origins of their own belief system I think.
on 8 April 2010
In this book Freeman simply treats Christianity as a professional historian would any other subject. Which means using the latest and best research possible, and filling the gaps in that research where necessary with clearly indicated reasoning and best guesses. It would take a very small mind indeed for even a committed Christian to object to this book simply because it isn't based on the assumption that his own faith is correct. Thoughtful Christians will find this book just as interesting as those atheists and agnostics who appreciate Christianity's historical importance.
on 31 December 2009
A Bright Lantern in a Murky Night
Not since I read Theology at Cambridge some years ago have I experienced such an intellectually and spiritually refreshing approach to the origins of Christianity. How many authors are prepared to face the challenge of taking a genuinely historical view of the tangled beginnings of Christianity? Charles Freeman patiently and lucidly uncovers the complex and contentious upheavals of the first five centuries when isolated groups of Christians were both struggling with their own understanding and competing with the different emerging beliefs of other groups, while intermittently facing political persecution and the insidious dangers of political patronage.
Freeman's enquiry takes as a starting-point the historian's observation that the emergence of Christianity has been probably the most important influence on western civilisation in the last two millennia; his account also accepts that this transforming movement undoubtedly had its origin in historical events in the first century AD. The crucial question, however, is "How much can we know about those events and how much do their details matter in evaluating the subsequent development of a theology and church structure?" He does not set out to undermine Christianity in this book, rather, to shine a light on its foundations and, given that Christianity makes unique claims about its historical founder, to offer the historian's tools for uncovering the evidence about him. Some readers may be disturbed to encounter for the first time the confusion and conflict which characterised the early centuries of Christianity, but more will be reassured by being led through a dispassionate survey of the evidence, which pays due attention to the doubts and queries shared by so many Christian enquirers, which are too often obscured by conventional religious language, or suppressed as irrelevant or irreverent by orthodox authorities.
Scriptural evidence is fundamental to this enquiry, as other types of evidence are conspicuously absent for the first two centuries, and Freeman has quarried deeply into recent scholarly research to illuminate the saga of the compilation of the New Testament and the difficult issues of the authenticity of its constituent documents. His account maps the documents within their original geographical communities wherever possible, and sets out the many linguistic difficulties arising from their origins and subsequent processes of edition and translation. He is particularly insightful about the enigmatic figure of Paul, whose focus on crucifixion and resurrection, sin, sacrifice and redemption provided much of the raw material of the later creedal controversies. During the first four centuries Christians grappled with an emerging theology ranging from Jesus the Aramaic-speaking friend of fishermen to the cosmic Son-of-God figure responsible for the creation of the universe. They tried to disentangle his original teachings and figure out the morality of daily life while simultaneously attempting to close off routes into heresy, involving contortions such as the self-contradictory abstractions of the Trinity. Add to all this the political calculations of Roman emperors desperate to maintain cohesion in their empire and ruthless in the exercise of their authority, and you have the raw materials of a sort of primeval soup, so rich that subsequent generations of Christians have selected from it all kinds of flavours, so dense that perhaps no one can see the through the murk. Through relentless concentration on the evidence, Freeman shows in a measured and lively account how the different ingredients of Christianity evolved. This is not a condemnatory book; rather, an enlightening liberal critique of the problems which arise when people seek to resolve diversity of individual perception by imposing exclusive orthodoxy. For any reader prepared to seek his own way, rather than looking for someone to tell him what to believe, this book is certain to be a lantern to his feet; it may even be a guiding light.
Anthony Stanton, MA Theol. Cantab, Dip. Ed. Oxon
Here's another boy, like Hitchens and Dawkins, who is heading straight to Hell in a handcart, and who will die roaring.
Mr Freeman seems to be allowing for the possibility that some at least of the early Church Fathers and Bishops were sociopaths, bullies, brawlers, graspers, corner boys, crap artists, flimflam men, carpet baggers, potential participants on The Jeremy Kyle Show, or any combination thereof. Pick of the crop from these bruisers would seem to be Saints Paul, Jerome and Augustine - a formidable triumvirate of head-the-balls with whom you would not like to have a drink, and to whom you (most emphatically) would not want to introduce your girlfriend.
Fair enough, one or two of the nascent Church's leaders might have been a bit dodgy in terms of the stuff Jesus is supposed to have banged on about: love, good deeds and giving up riches or whatever - sure didn't his brother James try to keep that stuff going after the Crucifixion but there was no market for it even in those days, in fact he bought the farm because he wouldn't catch himself on. And maybe when Constantine turned the tide in their favour they were a tiny bit unsympathetic to the opposition, lost the rag a couple of times and instigated a few persecutions, massacres and whatnots, defiled and/or wrecked a shrine or two, destroyed the odd magnificent library collection, stifled curiosity and intellectual progress for a wee while, even encouraged and exploited a cult of credulity, but this is all part of life's rich pageant surely, and, anyway, worse things happen at sea, get over it. That was then and this is now, and if the secularists who hold sway so abusively today can't grant believers the tolerance and right to live that believers never granted them ... well, it's a quare conundrum and a terrible hard pancake.
Mr Freeman fails to recognise the true genius of such divinely inspired heavyweights: when it came to clarifying doctrine they knew how to dig a hole and keep digging. (And this tradition still flourishes, as a quick look at the other reviews and comments here will attest.) The Virgin Birth, Three Persons in one Godhead, Christ 100% divine/100% human, 'begotten not made', 'of one substance with the Father' - no, they weren't just having a laugh, these lads were deep. The Classical philosophers (always stupidly asking how) couldn't hack it, but our men (asking why and what's in it for me) sweated and fretted themselves grievously until the Emperor lost the bap and told them to shape up or ship out. With their minds thus focused, and the Emperor clearing their desks and collecting the empties, they got the big questions down hunky-dory and well understood, sometimes, such was their acuity, without having to refer at all to Scripture!
So, all in all a top read. Written in an engaging, accessible style; short, easily digested chapters; well researched; good maps, very useful glossaries (for when you get a bit confused as to who is and isn't a heretic - like treason, it's a matter of dates!) and a great further reading section. Paperback well made, nicely presented, bound a little too tightly so if you insist on opening it flat you will break the spine completely, but no matter. Highly recommended and a worthy successor to Chadwick.
In memoriam Christopher Hitchens (1949 - 2011)
on 23 December 2015
In spite of a discouraging start, with a silly theory about the resurrection, the book is a highly readable analysis of the progress of the Church in late Antiquity. In fact I found it a real page-turner. The author shows impressive grasp of the shenanagans at the various church Councils from Nicaea onwards, ground which he covered in what for me is his most outstanding book, 381.
on 3 January 2013
Freeman's work is useful for understanding the development path of orthodox Christianity. The Christianity of the gospels is seen as focused on a Kingdom of God that was expected to be manifest within the lifetimes of many of Christ's listeners. Sometime after the gospels were written, it became apparent that the Kingdom of God could not be expected within any particular lifetime, and there was a shift of emphasis towards the physical resurrection of Christ. The emergence of Christianity as the official and majority religion in the 4th and 5th centuries led to a further shift of emphasis. In the early centuries, acceptance of Christ and baptism were sufficient to qualify as being saved in the approaching Kingdom of God. However, under the orthodoxy of St. Augustine being a Christian was still necessary, but no longer sufficient, for being saved. This was now predetermined by God.
The less satisfactory aspect of this book seems to be a factor in common with other examples of US academia's approach to the subject, in which there is an implicit assumption that only those writings and figures leading to the triumph of orthodox Christianity need to be taken seriously. Gnosticism is seemingly dismissed because it was not a single belief system, although the same was also true of the rest of early Christianity. Simon Magus is barely mentioned. Manicheism is not connected to later heresies in Europe. The influence of mystery religions is barely touched on. The greater importance and different nature of baprism in the early centuries deserves more comment. Finally, there is a surprising historical determinism in the treatment of Christianity's move to dominance in the 4th century. From the look of it, Christianity got lucky on at least three occassions, first with Constantine's choice of the religion, secondly with the early death of Julian the Apostate and finally with Theodosius's close-call victory at Frigidus in 394. The latter perhaps the most tantalising because of the shallower roots of Christianity in the Latin west. Some attempted comment on how assured the triumph of Christianity was by the mid and late 4th century could have added value to this book.
If you thought you knew about the origins of Christianity, you may be surprised by the evidence given in this book. Whatever you learned at school or Sunday school probably bears little relation to the story presented here. This book is thoroughly researched and reads well, being sufficiently rigorous academically without becoming too technical.
As with all research on religious subject, there will be some critics who have come to their conclusions before examining the evidence. If you have a more open mind then you you will find this book to be a useful addition to debates about the forms of Christianity. we now have. That Christianity was just one of a number of evangelical Jewish sects of the first century, that the gospels were written in Greek, a language that Jesus is very unlikely to have spoken, and that there were a large number of competing versions of Christianity and texts before the 1st Council of Nicea are just some of the sub-plots in the book. Did you know that the Epistle to the Hebrews predates the Gospels, or that the references in Mark to the resurrection were interpolated in the 2nd century?
If you are at all interested in how Christianity developed, then this is the book for you.
on 1 November 2009
I had tried to read the Penguin version with a similar title by Chadwick but it was written in 1966 by an academic whose style I found inaccessible. So I tried this. It is so much easier to read.
What I wanted was a historians treatment of the subject. One that was logical and thorough that could lead me to further study if I chose. Charles Freeman writes well and it ticked all the boxes for me. Very enlightening and engaging. There are good diagrams, a glossary and guide to further reading. It may not be to the liking of Christians (perhaps hence the previous review) but it seemed measured and rational to this ex Christian.
on 19 June 2010
As a Irish Christian - I can't call myself Roman Catholic anymore due to my no longer accepting the "virgin birth" to mention but one reason - I have been interested in this subject for many years.
I agree with Drs. Jones' and Stanton's reviews - this is a easy read, where all the "heavy" (academic) material is neatly tucked away at the end of the book, which provides the reader with extensive references to investigate the subject matter further.
One might say that this is the sort of approach to writing about complex subjects which should be used more often as it allows the non-academic to explore the subject as deeply as they wish through the references.
I was already familiar with some of the material but found quite a bit of new information regarding the many alternative "heretical" beliefs of the time and the interaction with Pagan beliefs, both Roman and, particularly, Greek philosophers.
One is struck by the thought of the similarity of the development of Christianity with that of early science - for example, where the "orthodoxy" of Ptolemy's cosmology all but crushes the "heretical" (though relatively more accurate) alternative of Aristarchus.
That if only matters had been different...!
The two main ones being:
1) The conceptual/lingual trap of "God the Father, God the Son,..." leading to the Arian Heresy/"sub-ordinationism" and the problems of how to explain - never mind, understand! - the concept of the Holy Trinity, which led to the imposition of orthodox beliefs encapsulated in the Council of Nicaea (AD 326) and the Councils of Constantinople (AD 360, 381 and 383);
2) The "young girl" (almah) to "virgin" (virgo) translation/interpretational error, which ultimately led to its logical conclusion of the orthodox belief in the Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus (AD 431).
And those are just the main ones!
As a result of this book's extensive references, I'm now further investigating various areas of this subject, which are of interest to me - Robin Lane Fox's "Pagans and Christians" was already on my "must read" list, this book has added impetus to my getting it; equally, I'm exploring Hellenistic philosophy further and the "Desert Fathers" (Evagrius, John Cassius, etc) as well.
Perhaps the author should claim commission for selling other authors' books which he references!?
This is a book well worth reading - if only for the references, timeline, glossary, etc.
Glossary (Page 341) - "Filioque":
The description includes the phrase "... rather than the Son alone." Should this not read "... rather than the Father alone.", as explained in the text on pages 290-1?
Marcus Terentius Varro is mentioned in the text but not referenced in "People" or the index.
I was somewhat discomfited at seeing "heaven and/on earth" throughout the book without the expected capitalization - I'm not sure if this was intentional or not. Certainly one would expect "Earth" when referring to the world as against "earth" for the soil.
PS - I may reply to another reviewer's somewhat negative impressions...
on 30 March 2011
History, it is said, is a chaotic mix of contingence and necessity. With one exception, I may add: the history of revealed religion. There it is all necessity: God's will through men. History then degenerates into mere chronicle of God's will as it unfolds - a "just so story" writ in capital letters.
It is the great and enduring merit of Charles FREEMAN to have eschewed writing such an implicitly hagiographic history, and to have taken Christianity to be a historical phenomenon as any other. How did Christianity emerge? The book portrays a tradition in the making: from many humble, disparate and often contradictory sources and rivulets the main stream of orthodoxy eventually materializes - decisively helped, from a crucial point on, by the secular power of the Roman emperors, who settled theological issues as they saw fit, and enforced their choice for their own purposes. The picture that emerges of Christianity is less one of the irreversible spread of an inerrant "revealed truth" as one of contingent but convergent "political compromise".
Core elements of religion are its theology, its personal ethics, its view of afterlife, and its rituals. Their contingent interplay results in the religion successfully implanting in the social tissue of the time, growing, and eventually displacing other religions.
On the theology FREEMAN's dosage of detail is just right. We can understand and appreciate the successive discussions on the essence of the Trinity. The interplay with pagan philosophy is essential, and he sorts out the crucial concepts with great clarity. In attempting to explain themselves to Pagans the early Christians had to deepen their view of the Trinity - using philosophical categories and concepts. The early optimism that revelation would suffice to understand God's nature soon yielded to pessimism - part Zeitgeist, part the unseemly wrangle of clerical ambitions. In the end the stamp "dogma" - undisputed doctrine that needs no rational justification - was placed on the now "sealed" topic. In many cases that stamp is that of the Emperor's hand, and the Emperor then secured compliance. Though certainly not novel, the central role of secular power is worth expliciting and underlining.
At the time of Constantine's edict of toleration, and 300 years after Jesus, Christianity was less than 10% of the empire's population. 200 years later, it was the dominant religion. Imitative positive feedbacks may have played a role, but the role of civil authority in first defining, then spreading by means fair and foul the faith remains undisputed. If the advantage of Christianity in consorting with power is clear, the need of the Roman Emperor for a religion like Christianity is less clearly fleshed out in the text. It was not occasional. As KULIKOWSKI has pointed out recently: "Over the centuries, even the most backward parts of the empire had come to be integrated into Greco-Roman culture and Roman citizenship, while imperial government grew to resemble an administered state rather than a parasitic superstructure delegating the actual tasks of government to local authorities." The bishops provided a ready-made administrative structure with a relatively homogeneous ethic. In addition, a personality like Constantine would no longer satisfy himself with being revered as a god; he wanted to act as God (or at least in His place). The Christian religion gave him here far more scope than Paganism.
A central point in the book is the "unintended" outcome of the quest for canon. When Constantine and then Theodosius started down that path, they could not have fully understood the consequences of centrally imposed conformism. Or they may have thought that they could be "just a bit pregnant" with it. In hindsight, the "closing of the Western mind" was a "path-dependent outcome" - and a cautionary lesson to all those clamoring for orthodoxy.
In the area of personal ethics, Dr. FREEMAN is somewhat less than complete. He points out the different strands - from Pauline and Augustinian pessimism to the emerging obsession with sexual matters. On the positive side, we have the novel and deep concern for the poor, and the commandment of love for each other. The positive attitude of Jesus toward women is noted, but the theme gets somehow lost. The subject of slavery is hardly mentioned.
If Christianity spread it was also because it offered a profoundly different ethics from that of the day. Just an example: slaves, who had been considered chattel, were now recognized as moral agents - and slaves probably made up more than half the population. Here, one may begin with Jennifer A. GLANCY Slavery in Early Christianity. Morals, furthermore, had been a private matter - in Christianity they became also a matter of the community. A better contrasting between everyday Christian and Pagan ethics would have been useful in understanding the attractiveness of the religion - but also its strangeness. Just imagine: a proud Roman knight is told that he may burn in hell, while his slave may have eternal bliss. What would have been his reaction?
One great novelty of Christianity with respect to Paganism was its emphasis on afterlife. Life was but a short trial period, followed by everlasting bliss or punishment. Notions of afterlife existed in Paganism, but were inchoate, or elitist, and certainly not universal or egalitarian. Even Judaism was unclear here, and on one point so was early Christianity - Jesus never mentioned Purgatory, and this concept emerged slowly, and was only fully affirmed by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (Protestantism recused it). Again, a bitter contrasting of the Christian and Pagan views on afterlife might have given us a better view.
Rituals get shortchanged. Priests and then bishops and monks are mentioned, and somehow surface. But there is no clear focus on the inner structures of the Church as such, or on the changing role of women in them. Also sacraments only get incidental treatment.
By making these comments I'm not saying that Dr. FREEMAN would have been able to supply all answers: but simply addressing them explicitly would have helped me better to visualize the scope of the implanting process that Christianity went through in the society of its day, and on the extent of the change it eventually wrought to the pre-existing worldviews.
Other topics that would be addressed could be e.g. "portability". Pagan gods were all "local". With increasing movement of population, it would have been useful to be assured of a spiritual home anywhere in the empire. As economic conditions declined, the emergence of "praeter-natural insurance policies" against the vagaries of fate might have looked attractive.
To conclude, Dr. FREEMAN is very good on the inner development of the Christian faith. But a non-dogmatic history of early Christianity also needs to address the question: what were the popular bases of its appeal and eventual success (but for the heavy fist of the Emperor)? What changes did it bring to the people, and why did they embrace Christianity? A mapping of the subject would already have been a step in the right direction.