Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years Paperback – February 22, 2011
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“Immensely ambitious and absorbing.”
—Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
“A landmark contribution . . . It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive and surprisingly accessible volume than MacCulloch’s.”
—Jon Meacham, The New York Times Book Review
“A prodigious, thrilling, masterclass of a history book. MacCulloch is to be congratulated for his accessible handling of so much complex, difficult material.”
—John Cornwell, Financial Times
“A tour de force: it has enormous range, is gracefully and wittily written, and from page one holds the attention. Everyone who reads it will learn things they didn’t know.”
—Eamon Duffy, author of Saints and Sinners
“MacCulloch brings an insider’s wit to tracing the fate of official Christianity in an age of doubt, and to addressing modern surges of zeal, from Mormons to Pentecostals.”
“A triumphantly executed achievement. This book is a landmark in its field, astonishing in its range, compulsively readable, full of insight even for the most jaded professional and of illumination for the interested general reader. It will have few, if any, rivals in the English language.”
—Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
“A well-informed and—bless the man—witty narrative guaranteed to please and at the same time displease every single reader, if hardly in identical measure. . . . The author’s prose style is fluent, well-judged, and wholly free of cant. . . . You will shut this large book with gratitude for a long and stimulating journey.”
—The Washington Times
“A tour de force . . . The great strength of the book is that it covers, in sufficient but not oppressive detail, huge areas of Christian history which are dealt with cursorily in traditional accounts of the subject and are unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers. . . . MacCulloch’s analysis of why Christianity has taken root in Korea but made such a hash in India is perceptive and his account of the nineteenth-century missions in Africa and the Pacific is first-rate and full of insight. . . . The most brilliant point of this remarkable book is its identification of the U.S. as the prime example of the kind of nation the reformers hoped to create.”
—Paul Johnson, The Spectator
About the Author
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To the extent that I am qualified to comment, I find his views in line with mainstream Christian scholarship. Since I have difficulty with what I will uncharitably call the biblical revisionism that forms the foundation for much of the modern understanding of ancient Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible, at least in mainstream liberal critical circles, I found his exposition of Jewish and Christian history, through the second century, disappointing but unsurprising. I look forward to the day when scholars come to terms with the fact that, if they reject the more speculative aspects of nineteenth and early twentieth century biblical revisionism, they must also reject the more recent extrapolations of the earlier conclusions. My viewpoints are much more inline with those of Bruce, Carson, Kitchen, Longman, and Robinson.*
After introducing himself, MacCulloch starts his book with a discussion of ancient Greek history and philosophy, and its influence on Christian belief and theology. I found this very helpful. MacCulloch explained how Greek culture influenced Jewish culture throughout the Roman empire. He discussed how Greek notions of the perfection of God clashed with the more personal, passionate, and earthy Jewish God of the Bible. He pointed out how that for Greeks, the God of the Old Testament was the almost the antithesis of their ideas of God. Included in the discussion was Diogenes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. MacCulloch later shows how these philosophers influenced both mainstream and heretical Christian belief throughout Christian history.
MacCulloch is really quite ambitious to try to teach all of Christian history, in all the world, from before Christ to now. This is not just a broad brush summary of Christian history: there is depth and detail, in my opinion, too much detail. In any given century, there seem to be about a half a dozen major heresies, at least two or three mainstream accepted theologies, a number of important Christian leaders, several major wars, one or more genocides, a new expectation of the end of the world, a few major missionary efforts, one or several large political shifts, a new understanding of what it means to be Christian, and the relentless expansion of the Christian church. There is a lot of information here, and I would like to assimilate it better, but for me, I am overwhelmed.
I like MacCulloch's story telling style. It is enjoyable and informative and very readable. But I had trouble absorbing key points. As MacCulloch points out, many Christian leaders and theologies continue to impact the faith for centuries after their inception. When a student first encounters these leaders and theologies, it is not obvious which ones will become important. As I am reading about them, I don't know what to focus on. Without knowing history, I don't know how to read history! A little help from the teacher in this instance would be appreciated.
As an example, MacCulloch describes Martin Luther's theology in the context of his life, including his upbringing, rivalries, influences, politics, and travel. We then learn the stories of Luther's followers. Eventually great changes are triggered by Luther's writing, several large protestant denominations develop, even the course of nations is changed, and each development has a history of its own. MacCulloch expounds seemingly on each development of theology, ritual, art, politics, and culture, decade by decade, throughout Europe, and then beyond. In the midst of all this information, I become lost. What was it that Luther was trying to say? The problem with history is there is just too much of it!
In spite of my complaints, I am glad I read the book. It has made me aware of the size and diversity of Christianity. I have learned a little about tolerance, and especially intolerance. I have learned about the quest for power, influence, and control in human institutions, churches, and nations, and especially the horror that can result. And I have learned a little about belief, faith, hope, and spirit; I think I have especially learned that humility is key to love and understanding, for each other and our creator. Overall, I liked the book, not a lot, but I liked it. I may read it again, and if I do, I will take better notes. I hesitantly recommend it.
* That is I more closely embrace the viewpoints expressed in the following books:
- Bruce, F. F. The New Testament documents : are they reliable. Grand Rapids, Mich. Downers Grove, Ill: Eerdmans InterVarsity Press, 2003.
- Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009.
- Kitchen, K. A. On the reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 2006.
- Longman, Tremper, and Raymond B. Dillard. An introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006.
- Robinson, John A. Redating the New Testament. London: S.C.M. Press, 1976.
Note: Rated three out of five stars on Goodreads, as Goodreads defines three stars as "I like it" and two stars as "It's okay".
So, long story short, I think this is overall a great work of Church history that every serious student should probably read. Even if you disagree with MacCulloch, which I often find myself doing, he provokes thought and that is always a good thing. If you decide to read Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years just do yourself a favor and read a shorter, simpler introduction to Christianity first and, then, as you are reading the work always keep in mind that some of his assertions may be more personal opinion than scholarly consensus. With these two caveats in mind, I think any reader will enjoy the book and find it a gold mine of information.
Top international reviews
Muhammad is called "The Prophet" which for a scholar to do who is claiming to be a neutral historian is remarkable as nowhere else in the book for example is Jesus The Christ called The Messiah.
And then to make the astonishing claim that Muslim conquerors did little to explain their faith to their new subjects or to convert them to it.
For almost 1400 years Islam has forcibly converted non Muslims to Islam especially children.
Anybody seeking further proof of this should study closely the brutal Islamic conquest of India.
These are just afew examples of the Isamic apologist attitude of the author so please read with caution.
The author has structured this book in such a fantastic way that it makes a really absorbing read. As a student of the Christian theology, I was extremely impressed by the layout of all the material contained inside this book and I found it very simple to follow.
The attention to detail was clearly evident as each historical period was covered; presented accurately in such a wonderful easy-to-read format.
I will admit that I purchased audible alongside the kindle edition to help get through it due to its length. However I would have finished it either way.
If you're looking for a comprehensive historical book which explains all aspects of Christianity in depth then this is the one