THE LOST HISTORY OF
The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died
By Philip Jenkins
HarperCollins Publishers, 2008
314 pages, $32.95
“Our accepted chronology of the ancient Church is wrong: Ancient Semitic Christianity dies out not in the fourth century, but in the fourteenth century.”
Thus historian Philip Jenkins repeatedly challenges Anglo-American Christian Eurocentrism. He shows that Middle Eastern and Asian Christianity, largely Nestorian or Syriac, thrived culturally, theologically and materially for centuries. The European believers were in the spiritual and intellectual backwater.
The Oriental Christians were much more orthodox than we have taken them to be. They rejected the Gnosticism and apocryphal writings just as solidly as the Orthodox and Latins did, despite Elaine Pagels’ claims to the contrary. The entire Christian family for centuries, in fact, was largely in sync.
The Middle Eastern and Asian landscape up to the 14th century in many areas was full of monasteries, Christian shrines and pilgrimage routes, great learning centers and ancient metropolitan sees. “Before Good King Wenceslas ruled a Christian Bohemia, Samarkand and Patna all achieved metropolitan status,” Jenkins writes.
Oriental Christians used their spiritual wealth to spread the faith as far as China and perhaps even Korea and Tibet. Christian and Buddhist monasteries stood side by side, while Christians read Buddhist scriptures and even helped translate some Buddhist writings into Chinese and other languages.
Countless such examples testify to a Christian culture much more advanced than the one in Europe until the Renaissance. Because of the deeply entrenched religious civilization, Islam did not simply take over. Instead, Jenkins points out that we have misread history by stressing difference and conflict over peace, tolerance and influence.
The two religions theologically, spiritually and culturally blended into each other to a surprising degree. Sufism was a way for Christian converts to more easily identify with the new religion, as this Islamic path emphasized saints and pilgrimage, and mystical spiritual experiences, much as Christianity did. In fact, many aspects of Islamic practice originated in Eastern Christianity, and Muslim converts from the older religion reinforced Christianity’s influence on the new religion by continuing many of their previous practices.
Ironically, Oriental Christianity nourished Islam more than it did Greek or Latin Christianity. These latter two Christian groups all but ignored their brother Christians’ existence. This is a heavy loss to this day: “For a thousand years, Syriac Christians produced scholars and thinkers who could be set beside the best of their Greek and Latin contemporaries, and who shaped the emerging world of Islamic science and philosophy.” Even now, who is aware of the 11th-century “Syriac Renaissance”?
In fact, Jenkins notes, “Virtually all these works [from the period] are now lost,” sometimes due to Islamic belligerence, but also because of European and Byzantine indifference to aiding and learning from the Syriacs. This is doubly ironic because many Christian dissenters, persecuted in the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, had often left for the relative freedom of more eastern lands, including the various Islamic states. Perhaps a little more information in the book on the Syriac Renaissance would have been interesting.
It also would be nice to have photos of once-Christian buildings, such as in Syria, and artwork from Cappadocia and other now-Muslim areas.
The great strength of this book is Jenkins’ refusal to whitewash the Islamic persecutions of the Oriental Christians, which reached high points in the globally miserable 14th and the European-expansionist 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the first instance, global climate change led to crop failures throughout the known world. Coupled with the conversion to Islam of the warrior Mongols, the Christian communities stood little chance of surviving the pogroms, despite being so deeply entrenched. Jenkins could have offered more information on this sad piece of history.
While the Christian powers France, Britain and Russia spent the 19th and early 20th centuries carving out the Ottoman Empire, Muslim Turks and Arabs in that empire committed genocide against Armenian, Greek and Assyrian Christians, leaving very little of a once far-reaching culture. Both Middle Eastern countries and Christian culture in the West are the poorer for the loss of such a great and ancient Christian culture, which can never be re-created.
Brian Welter writes from