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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars how early theological struggle met imperial politics, 20 Oct 2011
rob crawford "Rob Crawford" (Balmette Talloires, France) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
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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