The Lost History of Christianity (Jenkins)

I am going to write glowingly of several Christian groups in this review.  It might seem like I am sympathetic to them.  If I am, it is important to note that these groups are formal heretics on the post-Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ.  That should be acknowledged.  Now to the review.  This book was sheer excitement.  I consider myself fairly well-read on Eastern Church history.  I’m not a scholar or an expert, but I know about as much as a layman could possibly know. I learned a lot.  I got excited about what I learned.

Not only is this a fine narrative of church history, it’s also a good text on missiology (if you think that kind of stuff is important).  It also has some geopolitical insights.

[1] This book teaches you how to interpret maps.  We know a lot about Western and Roman Christian history.  It is 3,100 miles from Jerusalem to England. We can assume Christian missionaries got to England at least by the second century.  Let’s turn that 3,100 miles eastward.  We now arrive in either Kyrgyzstan or Nepal. We know that Christians were in China by the 8th century.  Even among the Mongols centuries later Nestorian Christians had a respectable presence.

[2] It’s the current rage among both low-church evangelicals and apostolic traditions like Rome to claim continuity with “the early church,” or even worse, “the first century Christians.”  Romantic delusions aside, the church most closely resembling a Palestinian worship service would have been a Syriac church. They were Semites and spoke a widely-known Semitic language. Patriarch Timothy of Mesopotamia even claimed that his people were closer in habit to Abraham that Rome could be.

[3] Christians east of Syria would have been Nestorians.  Christians south of Syria would have been miaphysites (or monophysites, depending on whether you want to use loaded language).

[4] Patriarch Timothy of Seleucia (800 AD) wielded wider influence over the Christian world than did either Pope or Charlemagne. He was also more widely read. Although under Islamic rule, there were thriving Christian metropolises in Iraq, Iran, and Turkmenistan.  

[5] Is Islam violent?  Yes.  Did Islam’s violence eradicate Christian communities in the Middle East?  Also, yes.  However, most would draw the wrong conclusions from those facts. Initially, most Christian communities did quite well after the invasions. Muslim armies moved so rabidly they didn’t bother to eradicate Christian social structures.  Indeed, that would have been counterproductive.

Early on Islam needed Christian thinkers and architects.  If the Greeks were lost in the West, Syriac Christians were intimately familiar with them.  One could make an argument that it was the Syriac Christians that passed on Aristotle to the Arabs.  Moreover, early Muslim mosques were nearly identical to earlier Christian cathedrals. That’s not an accident.

[6] If a Christian apostasizes to Islam today, it would require a significant culture shift.  If that happened in 9th century Syria, it wouldn’t be noticeable at all.  Jenkins suggests that the Koran actually plagiarized sections of Syriac liturgies.

Moreover, Islam itself isn’t monolithic.  Even Arabic changes. That’s not to mention the bigger differences between Shi’ite and Sunni. Jenkins even notes, quite positively, the influence of Alawites in today’s Syria (showing obviously that this was written long before the Syrian Civil War turned in Assad’s favor; no reputable publisher, Jenkins’ own views notwithstanding, would allow such positive light about Assad to be mentioned today).

The book is a dream. It is a fascinating account of a lost history of Christianity that ironically held sway in large sections from Syria to Japan to India.

One thought on “The Lost History of Christianity (Jenkins)

  1. Pingback: A Patristic Linkstorm | Har Mo'Ed

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