Review of "A New History of Early Christianity"
by Tom Bissell, The National April 2. 2010
"Jesus and his original followers spoke Aramaic. At some point the faith became predominantly Greek in its expression. “The difficulty here,” Freeman writes, “is that it is impossible to know what was lost, culturally and linguistically, in the process.” But some Greek speakers brought with them an esteemed philosophical tradition. The Platonists conceived God as being entirely separate from the world of matter and flesh. Forms and ideas existed outside of the material world, there for us to discover them, with God’s guidance. But how did God communicate with us? One answer was logos, or “word,” an incredibly complex idea in Greek, the literal translation of which “gives little of the breadth or philosophical depth of the Greek original,” in Freeman’s words. Logos became a kind of second divinity, the ambassador of God. These ideas, which greatly influenced the author of John’s gospel, would determine the course of Christian thinking by allowing an important philosophical reconciliation between pagan and Christian ideas.
Indeed, many early Christians conversant with pagan thinking were embarrassed by the primitive nature of Christian scripture. Origen once asked a fellow Christian to “apply the things that are useful from geometry and astronomy to the explanation of the Holy Scriptures”, as though in recognition that scripture alone was not intellectually filling. Clement of Alexandria regarded pagan philosophy as, in Freeman’s words, “a sort of preliminary discipline for those who lived before the coming of Christ.”
Clement and Origen represented the Christianity of Alexandria, where debate was initially encouraged, but Christian thinkers such as Tertullian and Augustine influenced the church to a far greater extent. Both emerged from the more hostile Christian milieu of Carthage, and this intellectually censorious, North African Christianity would help lay the foundations for later orthodoxy. “With our faith,” Tertullian wrote, “we desire no further belief ... [and] there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.”
As Christian thinking became more stable, the church, at least as we today understand the word, began to emerge. What was settled intellectually by this process? Several things: a new phase of history had been launched upon by God when he sent Jesus to the earth; the “Wisdom” referred to frequently in the Old Testament was Jesus himself; and Jesus had redeemed the sin of Adam by becoming human and taking on all the sins of the world. Only some of these beliefs were scriptural– and then barely – and others appeared to contradict scripture. But without the codification of these beliefs, it is hard to imagine Christianity ever becoming appealing enough for men like Constantine to throw the weight of empire behind it. Orthodoxy was, in Freeman’s words, a “model for survival” in which “a single truth” was passed on “within an institutional framework.”
After the doctrinal purgings of Theodosius, the attacks on pagan temples and synagogues began in earnest, many of them led by “roving bands of monks” who demolished anything they deemed insufficiently Christian. (Much of this shocked even Theodosius.) The freedom of pagan teachers to instruct freely was withdrawn, and Plato’s Academy was shuttered in 529. Thousands of important classical works were lost forever, and no one would be able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics again for 1,400 years. “What was lost for centuries,” Freeman writes, “was any form of restraint on the exploitation of credulity. The exploitation of the miraculous by both religious and secular elites acted as a major brake on intellectual progress.”
Christianity took the best minds of several generations and, if not destroyed them, certainly set them to counterproductive ends. That is the story of early Christianity. The authoritative theology many Christians believe can be located in the New Testament is not found there. New Testament theology had no authority, and so authority was brought to bear upon New Testament theology. This has nothing to do with whether or not Christianity is “true” but is a question of how it was understood through time – a process that destroyed centuries of human progress. Freeman says as much, but then adds, a page from the end of this fine book, that this is “too bleak a conclusion. The churches have fulfilled many needs.” It is not too bleak a conclusion, and the only reason the church fulfilled those needs was because it was the only institution the church itself had not helped destroy. Charles Freeman reminds us why understanding how this faith developed is the best way to ensure it will never again wield such unquestioned institutional power."