14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Well researched and easy to read,
Amazon Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: A New History of Early Christianity (Hardcover)
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.
Sort: Oldest first | Newest first
Showing 1-10 of 22 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 17 Jun 2010 19:20:06 BDT
Last edited by the author on 2 Jul 2010 16:00:32 BDT
I believe that the gospel story should be examined using historical methodology. However just because somebody purports to use historical methodology doesn't imply that they are neutral and unbiased in their assessment of the evidence. Your review seems to suggest otherwise.
In reply to an earlier post on 26 Jun 2010 19:13:39 BDT
Dear Mark, Thanks for your comments but I do need to stress that I never argue that the Epistle to the Hebrews was the earliest New Testament text - I only say that it may well have been written before any of the gospels. It is an interesting example of a very sophisticated early analysis of the representation of Christ, far more sophisticated than Paul in my opinion. ( Put Hebrews alongside the epistle to the Galatians, for example and you will notice the immense difference in style and coherence.)
Every time I look at Dr. Devitt's review, which I see he has also posted on amazon.com, it seems to get longer , more hysterical and more remote from reality but I must leave him to make his own way.He cites Dodd's The Greeks and the Irrational without even being aware that it has nothing to do with Christianity and it only deals with the period up to the fourth century BC. What is an author to do but to continue to trust in his own scholarship and those who can respond to it? Best wishes, Charles Freeman.
In reply to an earlier post on 26 Jun 2010 23:10:19 BDT
Last edited by the author on 27 Jun 2010 08:18:54 BDT
Unfortunately Charles hasn't doesn't his homework on E.R. Dodds. A quick glance, for example (and this is only one example of oodles of possible examples), at Ch 8 of Dodds The Greeks and the Irrational (pp236-269) shows extensive engagement both in the main body of the text and in the footnotes on Christianity and Paganism in Late Antiquity even though it focuses mainly on the classical Greek period. As I type this email I have a copy of Dodds book in front of me. It is littered with references to Christianity and Pagan religion up to and beyond the conversion of Constantine. I suspect that Charles hasn't actually read this book. The fact is that other reputed scholars have referred to Dodds in their criticism of Charles' book. What is more interesting though is that Charles should single out my reference to Dodds, and not also my citation from Bentley Hart regarding Charles' credibility as a historian of early Christianity. This is more to the bone I feel. The readers can decide for themselves why Charles might have elected to ignore this. I am particularly sorry that Charles should feel my review of his book is "hysterical and remote from reality". The truth is I have raised uncomfortable questions for Charles in my review which he hasn't yet answered. I can easily see how this might cause him to view my critique with alarm and distaste.
In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jun 2010 10:58:07 BDT
Devitt, you are simply being irresponsible. I have taken down Dodds The Greeks and the Irrational from my bookshelf where it has sat since I last read it in detail, precisely to refute some 'scholars' who claim it has some relevance to my work on the fourth century AD. The earlier chapters deal with the period to the fourth century BC and do not even cover such greats as Archimedes, etc. I have turned to the final chapter and the pages you have quoted and I find (pp. 236-7),which does deal, very briefly, less than twenty pages after the preceding 235 pages, with the later centuries. 'Our survey [in this chapter] starts from an age when Greek rationalism appeared to be on the verge of final triumph, the great age of intellectual discovery that begins with the foundation of the Lyceum about 335 BC and continues down to the end of the third century [AD]. This period witnessed the transformation of the Greek science from an untidy jumble of isolated observations mixed with a priori guesses into a system of methodical disciplines. In the more abstract sciences, mathematics and astronomy, it reached a level that was not to be attained again before the sixteenth century [ Dodds seems fair here]; and it made the first organised attempt at research in many other fields, botany, zoology, geography and the history of language, of literature and of human institutions. Nor was it only in science that the time was adventurous and creative. It was as if the sudden widening of the spatial horizon that resulted from Alexander's conquests had widened at the same time all the horizons of the mind. Despite its lack of political freedom,the society of the third century BC was in many ways the nearest approach to an "open society" that the world had yet seen and nearer that any that would be seen again until very modern times.' Again I would agree with Dodds here.
Where are all these references to Christianity in The Greeks and the Irrational? -there is one in the Index to the text and one to a footnote - so much for Devitt's 'littering' and there is nothing I can find beyond Constantine. The text reference simply tells us that Christians only valued 'profane knowledge' only so far as it helped see God face to face. Here Dodds quotes Seneca to say we should not value worldly knowledge and goes on (p. 249),'In such sayings we already feel the intellectual climate of the Middle Ages'. There is,of course, another well -known Dodds book on Late Antiquity but Devitt rests his case on The Greeks and the Irrational, that actually argues the OPPOSITE of what he claims it argues in his review. So who is the one who has been doing the actual reading of this book?
Readers can read Devitt's full review and see how helpful they find it. I am sorry but as the previous paragraphs should make clear, I cannot waste my time dealing with Devitt's arguments which seem to suggest that I am not scholarly in my approach while he is. How he can believe that the Renaissance or the Enlightenment was caused by Christianity is beyond my imagination ( I run study tours of Renaissance Italy and have never come across a Christian cause of the Renaissance, although the Church did integrate much classical learning, its heroes,etc, after the humanists had rediscovered them). It is true that Jonathan Israel in his monumental work on the Enlightenment does see one catalyst of the Enlightenment belief in toleration as the result of the appalling suffering caused by the Thirty Years War that left Catholicism, Calvinism and Lutheranism still standing and each claiming to be the one true Christianity. Naturally anyone with an open mind realised that religious toleration, one of the key elements of Enlightenment thinking, was crucial if such suffering was to be avoided in the future and so we get the various approaches to toleration that Israel explores in his Enlightenment Contested.
On David Bentley Hart, Hart's summary of my The Closing of the Western Mind is so inaccurate that I suspect that he has not even read it and I raised this point ( which Hart never answered) in a blog discussion following an article by Hart recently. Actually , as a historian with a passing interest in the transmission of texts, I can often trace a line from some hopelessly misleading criticisms of Closing , down through a 'Freeman hates Christians' tradition. But life is too short. The vast majority of people who read my books find them accurate and interesting introductions (as a trawl of Amazon.com reviews will show) and I am more than happy with that. Sorry, Devitt, you have had all the time I can spare you.
In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jun 2010 14:28:15 BDT
Last edited by the author on 27 Jun 2010 18:19:05 BDT
Charles, let me make a brief response to some of the points you raise.
1) You state that you cannot find any references to Christianity in Dodds book, and certainly nothing beyond Constantine. How about this from p294-95: References to Pope John XXII (1316-1334 AD), references to medieval Italy and medieval Byzantium, to Zosimus (historian from the late 5th early 6th century AD), Iamblichus (Neo-Platonist 250-325 AD), Augustine (354-430 AD), Eugenius (usurping emperor 392-394AD), the emperor Theodosius (347-395 AD), Flavianus (pagan grammarian, historian, 334 - 394 AD), Jabir b. Hayyan (Arab Natural Philosopher 721-815 AD), and Porphyry (Neo-Platonist 234-305 AD). I repeat: this is just the tip of the ice berg - I could multiply other references to Late Antiquity in Dodds - they are all over the book! It is quite obvious on this count that you haven't read Dodds carefully. Moreover it is very telling (coming from your own lips) that you plunged into Dodds to refute other "scholars" who were making exactly the same claims that I was making about the relevance of Dodds work to your fourth century historical reconstruction of Christianity. You see Charles, there are serious academics out there who have grave problems with your thesis - it isn't just me. You are admitting this yourself by seeking to rebut them.
2) The Renaissance was firstly and foremostly a Christian phenomenon even if its orientation was towards the Classical age. No historian would disagree with this (almost tautalogical) generalisation. The overwhelming majority of renaissance thinkers were anchored to the Catholic faith even when they questioned it.
3) The Enlightenment came on the back of (and would not have been possible without) the intellectual revolution of the Protestant reformation as well as the scientific advances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The great names behind the reformation and scientific revolutions were Christian. The "philosophes" stood on their shoulders.
4) I do not think for one moment that you are a hater of Christianity. I do feel however that you work on early Christianity is historically problematic. I am not the only person who thinks this.
My review is not a personal attack on you however! I would be delighted to meet you over a beer and have a chat about common interests.
In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jun 2010 18:17:48 BDT
Last edited by the author on 27 Jun 2010 20:24:39 BDT
I am not seeing this as a personal attack. I am just seeing it as a shoddy attempt to suggest that I had not read a book that I have,in fact, read in detail, and a claim that the book somehow has something to do with my work. You have now changed from the chapter you cited, perhaps because you have now read it and find that it has nothing to do with your claim, and have taken some references from an appendix to Dodds' book, a few pages on 'Theurgy', a particular form of the practice of magic, which is a reproduced article from the Journal of Roman Studies and deals largely with pagan authors. It has nothing to do with anything I have written.
I reread Dodds precisely because some 'scholar' said that Dodds refuted my thesis and I could not understand from my earlier knowledge of the book what point he could be making. My rereading was simply to reassure myself that this individual, who,so far as I know, has no background in ancient history, was talking nonsense, which he was. It is odd that you follow his line.
I am sure you know enough medieval history to know what happened to you if you did question the Catholic faith. The Italian city states got as far as they could to distance themselves from institutional Catholicism, Florence even fought wars with the Pope (and remember that Dante placed several popes in Hell) and Venice refused to allow the Inquisition into the city. It was in this atmosphere that Renaissance thinking based on secular classical sources was able to get a foothold, in Florence in particular. Christianity as such had nothing to do with it- it was rather that these cities knew how to exploit the weaknesses of the Church .
On the Enlightenment try reading Spinoza and in particular the FIRST volume of Jonathan Israel where he shows the often pathetic attempts of the churches to stop Enlightenment thinkers who queried the reliability of scripture, miracles, and the whole panoply of church authority. (Israel's pages on the attempts to publish Spinoza without being punished verge on the hilarious.) Have you really missed the widespread criticism of institutional Christianity that pervaded the whole Enlightenment movement? Are you really arguing that the critiques of Christianity came from within the churches?? The Reformation ,in fact, brought a different kind of authoritarianism, perhaps not quite as comprehensive as that of the Catholic Church with its Index and the forbidding of Italians even to hear the gospels in their own language , but often as harsh and unforgiving, especially when challenged by the philosophes. As you will know, Newton could not publish his comprehensive critique of the Trinity as it would have led to him being hounded from public life.
I do suggest that you are more careful before making wild assertions about the work of other historians who you may disagree with. I have a right to put you right when you make a misrepresentation of the kind you have, which some people, quite possibly, might take seriously.
The moment when I start writing history that everyone agrees with, I will give up. It will show that I have lost any originality and vitality in my approach and that,for me, would be truly tragic but I naturally prefer to debate with scholars who have grasped my arguments, as when I was guest speaker at the Harvard and MIT Roundtable of Faith and Science in 2008 where Closing was chosen as the subject of the debate. It is taken as a serious contribution to the debate in some circles at least and Hart just risks making a fool of himself but that is his problem,not mine! (Hart is 'acclaimed' within the narrow Christian circles for whom he writes- you may have, however, seen Anthony Kenny's review of Atheist Delusions in the TLS where he ridicules Hart's use of philosophy.)
In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jun 2010 20:49:50 BDT
Last edited by the author on 27 Jun 2010 21:48:30 BDT
Thank you for your reply Charles. I am glad you do not think that my critique is personal or vindictive in intent. Quite the opposite. The wider issues I raise in my review you have yet to address. But I respect that a busy man like yourself cannot devout time to picking through my points when there is somebody of the stature of Bentley_Hart to contend with (and I think perhaps you need to contend with him sooner or later as his book Atheist Delusions seriously undermines your reconstruction of Christianity in Late Antique). In my review however the point I (and others have) made is simply this: that fourth/fifth century AD pagans were not intellectually refined as opposed to their superstitious, bumpkin Christian neighbours whose thought life had been strangled by the church (Bentley-Hart cogently destroys this notion in Atheist Delusions). Dodds is relevant in this instance because he demonstrates that "irrationalism" (of a kind that is disparagingly attributed to Christians) was alive and well in classical and post classical pagan Greek culture - in fact it was always at the very heart of Greek life. This has a direct bearing on your work because you suggest that pagan thinkers were not intellectually shackled in the way that Christians were by the emerging imperial church, particularly under Theodosius. As you know well Mary Beard (Cambridge University) takes issue with you on this very point in her review of your book Closed Minds. I'm going to quote her at length here:
"On the other hand, the sense in which Freeman is right depends on a highly selective vision. To make pagan antiquity a bastion of scientific rationality demands ignoring the Dodds effect and skating very lightly over a whole range of decidedly "irrational" features. There is little mention here of all those pagan miracles no less unbelievable than the Christian variety, nor of the fantastic myths that antiquity devised for explaining how the world worked. And the horrible truth about Greek medicine would come as a nasty shock to anyone who had read Freeman's paean of praise (it was not based on any tradition of human dissection, but on a set of misogynistic prejudices about the structure and function of the body). Conversely, as Freeman's own discussion hints, early Christians were positively overflowing with intellectual and rational argument. They deployed it on the nature of divinity, rather than the movement of the planets. The real problem is in Freeman's stark opposition between the classical and Christian worlds. The truth is that we are only able to read most of the scientific triumphs of pagan antiquity because the hard-working monks of Christian monasteries chose to copy and study them. Thomas Aquinas may have "re-discovered" his Aristotle through Arab translations. But, by and large, we have Freeman's "irrational" Christians to thank for preserving classical "rationality" - and, for that matter, irrationality".
This is where all the talk about Dodds comes from Charles. I don't think it's unreasonable. And you can hardly say that an authority like Mary Beard is one of those (like me) who hasn't "grasped" your arguments.
As regards the Enlightenment all I said in my review is that without the critical heritage of Christian thought in particular the reformation it wouldn't have got off the ground in the first place. The philosophes put their Christian education in the service of underming the church.
As for critiques of Christianity coming from within the church itself: why yes. What about Giordano Bruno? Savanarola? The reformers? The Cambridge Platonists? Wesley? Nineteenth century liberal Christianity? Liberation and Feminist theology more recently? "Critique" has been on-going throughout the centuries - even when the ecclesiaistical authorities sought to stifle it. But that's the point isn't it? It still went on...
I have both of J. Israel's books. In fact I sent him an email about a year ago gently berating him for calling John Toland an "Englishman" (he was of course Irish). He has promised to put this matter straight!
p.s. I did read Anthony Kenny's review of Hart in TLS. I would say overall that his assessment of Hart was more positive than you make out.
In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jun 2010 09:39:41 BDT
Last edited by the author on 28 Jun 2010 09:42:36 BDT
Well, I am just happy to go on my way , developing my ideas, reading widely and writing for an intelligent audience who, judging from the mass of reviews I get from Amazon.com ( I sell mainly in the States), value my work. If you wish to keep your assessment of Dodds in your review of my work and earn the ridicule of those who have read it that is your own affair- I can do no more.
Yale is publishing my book on the Relic Cults of Medieval Europe ( which shows how the overwhelming belief in the miraculous was one factor in holding up intellectual progress) next spring and, as a sequel to that, I am working on the synopsis of The Reawakening of the Western Mind that details how the theological constraints on western thinking were gradually dismantled between 1450 and 1800, plus leading study tours to Renaissance Tuscany and Classical Turkey so there will be a lot of new material coming out for those who enjoy my work. Long may it last.
In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jun 2010 10:01:11 BDT
Last edited by the author on 28 Jun 2010 10:03:10 BDT
Charles, I wish you every success in your future endeavours - I shall look out for your new publications and shall be very interested to see why you argue that the cult of relics held up intellectual progress. James Hannam's *God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Icon Books 2010)* would offer an alternative perspective to yours on what was happening intellectually in Catholic Europe. As for Dodds - I merely share the view of Mary Beard (cited in my previous email). I'm very happy to be in the same camp as her on this issue: "But, by and large, we have Freeman's "irrational" Christians to thank for preserving classical "rationality" - and, for that matter, irrationality" (Mary Beard). Enjoy your lecture trips to Tuscany and Turkey. They sound fascinating.
In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jun 2010 13:22:28 BDT
Last edited by the author on 28 Jun 2010 15:28:25 BDT
Hannam does not overlap with my synopsis. Unaccountably for someone who argues that medieval Europe was 'progressive' he has virtually nothing on Italy where my main interest lies and the most exciting intellectual developments took place from 1200 onwards (you have here the first medieval conceptions of 'libertas' so you can see why I am interested) and his chapters on the post -medieval period are so weak that I cannot see anything I need to respond to. I think that even the benign Anthony Kenny would tear him to shreds! In any case, the history of science is only part of what I am writing about, I am more concerned, as in all my books, with the way that church and state combined to stifle freedom of thought in general and how their authority was gradually dismantled with the restoration of reason,of which scientific activity was but a part. Eventually I will have five interlocking books, starting with Closing, that argue my central thesis. Goodness knows there is no shortage of material.