The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken

Robert A. Segal on a comprehensive study of the growth of the world’s biggest religion

February 21, 2013

In 1998, the economic historian David Landes wrote The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, a book with the subtitle Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. What matters here is not Landes’ explanation for the difference but his comparison of success with failure. The former is explained by contrasting it to the latter.

Robert Wilken’s The First Thousand Years does not operate comparatively. A distinguished historian of early Christianity, Wilken is hardly obliged to do so. He has enough to do in tracing the amazing growth of Christianity from an obscure Jewish sect to the biggest religion in the world. So stupendous was the growth that some celebrated historians attributed the success to God, although Wilken does not.

In his many previous works, Wilken focuses on relations between Christians and pagans on the one hand and between Christians and Jews on the other. He concentrates on theological debates between religions. Never limiting himself to Christian views of paganism or of Judaism, in his 1984 book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, he analyses pagan criticisms of Christianity. Similarly, in John Chrysostom and the Jews (2004), he argues that, for all John’s diatribe against Jews, John took seriously the threat that Judaising Christians posed to Christianity in the 4th century.

Wilken has also written on Christianity’s social, not merely intellectual, aspects. His new volume brings together his multiple interests. He attributes the early success of Christianity to social factors, especially communal organisation: “Christianity came into the world as a community, not a casual association of individual believers.”

Christianity quickly became organised into churches and in turn into regional units and eventually into international ones. There was an elaborate hierarchy, atop which were powerful bishops: “Unlike the pagan priest whose function was chiefly ritualistic, the bishop was overseer of the community…and teacher, as well as priest. He was responsible for the care of orphans, widows, and the poor.”

He notes that, in the ancient world, rituals were more important than beliefs - a point first made by the great Scottish scholar William Robertson Smith back in 1889. But Wilken still gives much attention to beliefs. He celebrates those Christian thinkers who met the intellectual challenge of pagan philosophy and not just of pagan religion - Origen and Augustine above all. He explains the efforts of the Council of Nicaea and other councils to unify and systematise Christian doctrines, about the nature of Christ most of all.

Seemingly all aspects of Christianity are discussed here. Wilken devotes chapters to catacombs, art, architecture, music, persecution, Jerusalem and hospitals. He also turns his attention to the spread of Christianity to the ends of the Roman Empire and beyond - to Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, Armenia, Georgia, Central Asia, China, India, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, North Africa and the Slavic world.

He rejects “textbook accounts of Christianity…as a tale of continuous growth and expansion”, and argues that compared with the success of Islam, to which he devotes several chapters, “the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and attrition as it is by growth and triumph”.

Overall, Wilken, whose writing is (no pun intended) graceful, argues that Christianity was more than a religion. It was a whole society and culture. It succeeded for two key reasons: first, its remarkable ability “to adapt to diverse linguistic and cultural traditions”, and second, the office of the bishop. How religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism also achieved world status, and how religions such as Judaism and Sikhism failed to do so, would make for ideal future points of comparison.

The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity

By Robert Louis Wilken

Yale University Press, 416pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780300118841

Published 20 December 2012

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