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READ: Charles Freeman: A New History of Early Christianity
One of the few negative reviews on Amazon, by someone offended by Freeman’s secularism, says:
If you are looking for a secular or fundamentalist liberal account of the Early Church, which presupposes that there is very little which needs to be understood about the person of Jesus, and his followers’ convictions about him, then you could do no better than buy this book.
Yup. And that makes it a great read for me.
I’ve read a fair bit on both Historical Jesus and the Early Church, but this account still foregrounded for me a lot, and I appreciated it for that. That includes:
- The incoherence of Paul’s theology
- The lack of curiosity Paul had about the actual Jesus the Nazarene (something Nikos Kazantzakis lampooned towards the end of The Last Temptation of Christ)
- The massive contradictions between the three or four strands of the New Testament (Hebrews vs Romans in particular)
- The lack of a well-defined orthodox Christian theology for centuries
- The long-running prominence of Subordinationism in Christian theology prior to Nicene Christianity. (The conventional narrative is of course that the Trinity was there all along to be uncovered; the account of the homoousion as a stumbled-on catchword, which was never really thought through, was a welcome corrective.)
- The extent to which the first four Ecumenical councils were the products of imperial intervention
- The Da Vinci Code narrative of Christianity being this unsullied chalice before the Empire got hold of it was one I long found puzzling, with my orthodox (Orthodox) Christian instruction in the Ecumenical Councils. This was the first time I got it.
- The fact that Leo I could claim much of the credit for the Chalcedonian creed—at a time when the West was otherwise a laggard in theology
- The closing down of inquiry in the face of orthodoxy
- How much Jerome and Augustine have to answer for, in their ascetic and pessimistic view of humanity
The most sensational bit of the book is the very early speculation on what happened to the body of Jesus. It’s still an unsettling notion for me—unsettling because it is plausible. But that is a bit of speculation, and it should not distract readers from the rest of the book.
I found myself thinking this would be a particularly interesting read for Muslims. They would get their kicks, I suspect, from the fact that a lot of their polemics against Christianity were live issues in third- and fourth-century Christendom.
One review I’ve found sneered that Freeman is a generalist not a theological historian, and that this work does not break new ground. That does not compel me: there’s a hell of a lot of room in the world for cogently argued summaries of modern scholarship.