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.


Intro to Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise


Sebastian Brock gives an outstanding introduction to the thought-world of Ephrem the Syrian.  At the risk of people crying “Harnack Thesis,” Brock teaches you how to view reality as a Semite.  Brock’s introduction is doubly good, for St Ephrem’s mindset is not always easy to crack.

This is the best way to explain the problem.  For the Hellenized Greek, priority was given to the Form or the Real.  Whether Ephrem would have agreed or not, we don’t know. But instead of Forms, in Ephrem we see symbols.  Further, Ephrem often moves from individual to corporate to individual without telling the reader. Brock alerts us to these moves: “The Semitic mentality of the biblical writers and of the Syriac poets, such as St Ephrem, finds it very easy to move from the collective to the individual, and from the individual to the collective” (Brock 27).

Key Concepts and Symbols

While St Ephrem held to virginity as the ideal, he didn’t take it in the nigh-Galatianist heretical ways that guys like Methodius of Olympus would.  For the word “singleness” Ephrem uses a broader term, ihidaya (wholeness). “Let one such man who is divided/collect himself and become ihidaya before You.”

The meter of the poems doesn’t perfectly translate to English.  It was originally some variant of 5 + 5. 5 + 5. 7. 5 + 5. 5 + 5.

While St Ephrem has a strong theology of transcendence, he didn’t do away with the material world.  There is a symbolic link between the material and spiritual realms.

Hayla kasya: hidden power, meaning.

The Greek philosopher defined a term by its opposite, which implied a limit to both.  Not so with a Semitic thinker like Ephrem. Imagine a circle whose center is inaccessible (think of God’s essence).  Ephrem will then juxtapose paradoxical statement on the circumference. Brock explains: “The central point is left undefined, but something of its nature can be inferred by joining up the various opposite points around the circumference” (40).

Raza: symbol. Actually participates in some sense with the spiritual reality.  It expresses “relationships and connections” (42).

Kasyutha: hiddenness.  That which is to be revealed in Christ.

Galyutha: an objective reality but can only be experienced in a hidden way.

The garment of words.  God, who is inacessible, puts on names.  This is what Eastern fathers would say by the energies’ revealing who God is.


Brock argues that for the Syriac tradition there was an opinion that Paradise was an abode of sacred time, as the Peshitta translated miqqedem (to the East) as “from the beginning.”  Brock then ties all of Ephrem’s topological details about the paradisical mountain: it is circular (I.8), encircles the Great Sea (II.6), the Flood only reached the foothills (I.4), on which is seated a barrier (syaga) guarded by the Cherub.  The Tree of Knowledge is halfway up (III.3). This is the point at which Adam and Even, presumably after death, could not cross (51-52).

The threefold concentric structure of the mountain is an analogue to the threefold structure of the human person: intellectual spirit (tar’itha), soul (naphsha), and body (gushma).