Jesus Wars: Phillip Jenkins

Books / Religion

Every year it’s always a bit of trial to find a good book for Lenten study, but it was a little easier this year than most. Late last year I finished Jenkins book on the lost history of Eastern Christianity and was so impressed by it that I decided to take a shot on his newest book; “The Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Year.”

Mind you, Jenkins, a recognized authority in Church History and formerly a darling of the more strident evangelicals, is no liberal. He writes both as a historian, and as a person of faith. You get a sense of his own struggle with the implications that the details of the history he lays out has for an overly romanticized vision of the Church. (The sort of vision that I tend to stray into more often than is warranted.)

We’re using this book for our Lenten series and I’m reading it with a group of ordinands that I’ve been asked to help prepare for ministry in the Episcopal Church. Both groups have been delighted with the book. It reads well. In fact most of the people in both groups have galloped ahead and finished the book ahead of schedule. A few have gone back and bought Jenkins’ book on the lost Churches of the East and his earlier book on the rise of African Christianity.

The most telling point for me comes in the introduction to the book. I was already familiar with the struggles over Christology in the early Church but I think I tended to imagine the struggling was all very genteel. A raised eyebrow over sherry or something like that. Very proper.

Jenkins points out, picking up a theme of his previous book, that if we want to have a sense of the daily life of the early Church we should be looking at Islam today. He notes in passing in his previous book that much of the common life of Islam is directly descended from the popular piety of what we call the Syriac and Nestorian Churches. (What he calls the Miaphysites – whose Primate was found in Babylon and who broke away from the Orthodox, Chalcedon faith in the fourth and fifth centuries.) He notes that the minaret has its origin in the poles that the stylites lived upon, and the regular bowing to the East that is a common part of daily Islamic practice is a custom well known among the Syriac Christians.

If we want to have a sense of the real flavor of the struggle between the Chalcedonian Christians and the Miaphysite Christians, we should look at the present day struggles between the Sunni and the Shiite Muslims. The Iraq Iran wars represent just about the level of ferocity as the literal wars between the Chalcedonian and Myphysite churches in their day. The Arab street has nothing really on the old Blue and Green factions of Constantinople (New Rome) whose chariot racing factionalism rather naturally bled over into religious sectarianism.

Watching the film Agora earlier this year was a visceral glimpse into the world that Jenkins is writing about. If you’ve seen the movie but not read the book (or vice-versa) make sure to complete the pairing.

The other big impression the book has made upon me is to put some of the present political scheming within the denomination that I am a part of (Episcopal) into a large context. It’s hard to get nearly as upset over the scandal of people writing nasty blog posts about each other when you read of bishops using their thuggish monks to bash in the heads of the priests and bishops who opposed their theological views. We may take each other to court, but that’s a much better venue for uncontrolled conflict in the Church than the battlefield. Perhaps we need to do a better job making that point to some of the people affecting scandal over the present state of affairs within modern mainline Christianity.

But it is the scandal over the present division that the books presentation of history makes even more concerning. Yes, we’re fighting with subpoenas and not with clubs or swords today, but we’re still fighting. Jenkins points out that Islam rose so meteorically, and so categorically killed off the Syriac christians (in the same way it is doing today) because the Western parts of the Church (Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox) refused to come to their aid. The schism was so deep at that point that we could no longer imagine that there was a reason to make common cause.

Mainline denominations, and pretty much all of organized Christian religion are in serious decline in the West today. And rather than make common cause with each other to teach about the God who loves us and would save us from ourselves, the gulf between us is growing wider and wider. It won’t be too long I fear before the concept of working cooperatively with each other becomes as unimaginable to us as it was the Eastern and Western Christians of the sixth and seventh centuries.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Fascinating, and timely. What’s that line about those who do not remember history, are destined to repeat it?

  2. Paula says

    I will have to read Phillip’s book! To venture a bit earlier, read “Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries” by Reidar Hvalvik and Oskar Skarsaune, or “In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish influences on Early Christianity” by Oskar Skarsaune. We lost so much in the destruction of the early church in Jerusalem and the series of unfortunate and bitter events following, and the loss of so many Jewish believers and Jewish voices really influenced the evolution of what we believe and how we understand our scriptures and Yeshua Ha’Mashiach today.

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