The Lost History of Christianity:
The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died
by Philip Jenkins, 2008, HarperOne.
This book could easily have been several things it is not: an academic treatise, an intemperate diatribe against Islamic violence, or an uncritical glamorization of Nestorian and Jacobite Christianity.
In the able hands of Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity becomes a balanced reading of the loss of a treasure of knowledge and culture the world is too ignorant about to mourn. While meeting all the standards of academic rigor, the book manages to avoid tedious prose. While firmly recognizing and decrying Islamic violence, Jenkin’s account recognizes both the culpability of non-Islamic violence and the reality in which religion becomes an excuse for violence seeking power. While lamenting the lost treasures of knowledge that would be afforded us had Middle Eastern Christianity survived, Jenkins is honest about the differences in doctrine in the Eastern churches.
The Lost History of Christianity is filled with little-known and infinitely intriguing facts:
-The world’s view of Christianity is tainted with a Western veneer that does not accurately reflect its historical genesis.
-While the Holy Roman Empire wallowed in ignorance and violence, the Middle Eastern Church was intimately familiar with classical literature and pursued peaceful relations with Islam and Buddhism.
-Great minds such as Timothy, Patriarch of the East in 780 C.E., have been all but lost to the destruction of Middle Eastern Christianity.
-Great works, including Syriac versions of classical literature which do not exist today and manuscripts of the Bible and other early Christian literature, were all in the possession of these churches which died an early death.
-Middle Eastern Christians preserved Semitic customs, calling Jesus Yeshua as late as the thirteenth century, calling themselves Nazarenes, an calling their scholars Rabbans!
-These Eastern churches possessed scrolls found in Jericho — perhaps some of the Dead Sea Scrolls now lost to us.
-The Eastern Churches mounted a monument in the East explaining the good news in Buddhist style to reach out peacefully to them (rather than the oppositional approach of later churches).
-The great surviving Patriarchate of the Middle Eastern Assyrian Christians is now in Chicago!
-The Eastern canon gives the lie to the claim that Christendom suppressed the apocryphal gospels for political reasons.
-The Karen Armstrong depiction of Muslim tolerance “beggars belief” (p.99).
-“Genocide” is a term coined to describe a massacre of Assyrian Christians by Muslims in 1933 (a fact to which Hitler alluded in a speech).
-100 years ago the Middle East was still 11% Christian (Muslims in America are 4.5% and Jews 2%), whereas today Christians are virtually zero percent of the Middle Eastern population.
-Vlad the Impaler (the figure who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula) was known for using the viscious methods of Turkish Muslims against them (hence his reputation for bloody cruelty).
-800,000 to 1,000,000 Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks in a massacre rarely mentioned alongside other historical genocides.
-The word thought to mean “virgins” in the promises of the Koran to martyrs and killers of Jews and Christians may be a mistranslation of the word “raisin” in earlier Christian texts about the afterlife!!
Examples of Jenkins’ careful language about Islamic violence include this portion from page 30:
In stressing the role of conflict with Islam, we should not exaggerate the intolerant or militaristic nature of that religion. Some egregious examples of church extinction were perpetrated by other faiths, by Buddhists or followers of Shinto, or by Christians themselves, most thoroughly in the case of the Cathars. Nor did the spread of Islam chiefly result from force and compulsion at the hands of Muslim soldiers who supposedly offered a crude choice between the Quran and the sword. For several centuries after the original conquests, the great majority of those who accepted Islam converted quite voluntarily . . .
Yet Jenkins is equally critical of exaggerated claims of Islamic tolerance:
Karen Armstrong regularly contrasts Muslim tolerance with the bigotry so evident in Christian history. Writing of Islamic Spain in the ninth century, for instance, she remarks: ‘Like the Jews, Christians were allowed full religious liberty within the Islamic empire and most Spaniards were proud to belong to such an advanced culture, light years ahead of the rest of Europe. . . . As was customary in the Muslim world, Jews, Christians and Muslims had coexisted there for centuries in relative harmony.’ The persecutions [by Muslims] would also surprise the many Americans who derive their view of Muslim tolerance from the widely seen PBS documentary Empires of Faith, or the film Kingdom of Heaven, about the First Crusade. In reality, the story of religious change involved far more active persecution and massacre at the hands of Muslim authorities than would be suggested by modern believers in Islamic tolerance. Even in the most optimistic view, Armstrong’s reference to Christians possessing “full religious liberty” in Muslim Spain or elsewhere beggars belief.
More importantly, Jenkins’ book leaves the reader longing for the lost pearl of Middle Eastern Christianity. The literature, including classical, Biblical, and other religious texts, as well as the architectural and artistic wonders now lost, stagger the mind with lost possibilities and unrealized knowledge.
What would it be like if millions upon millions in the Middle East still referred to Jesus as Yeshua and their scholars as rabbans? Due to Western indifference, Muslim intolerance, and the tragic mixing of violent politics with religious claims, we will never know.
And what would Christianity look like today, and how might Christian-Jewish relations be different (not to mention Christian-Islamic and Christian-Buddhist relations) if the voice of Middle Eastern Christianity had not been silenced? Perhaps Post-Holocaust Christian theology would have turned to the Middle East for a third way of viewing these issues. And perhaps the blonde Jesus and the Roman-centric idea of Christianity would have a rival to at least broaden the world’s conception of who Jesus is.