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Charles Freeman


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This book provides an account of Christianity from the death of Jesus in approximately 30 AD to the founding of the mediaeval papacy by Pope Gregory (the Great) at the end of the sixth century. The story is told three parts. Part 1 describes how the followers of Jesus developed their understanding of him in the decades after his death, Part 2 is about how Christianity arose from this background and expanded as a religion in the Roman empire, sometimes in the face of persecution, and Part 3 describes the radical changes that followed the Emperor Constantine's patronage after 313.

It has often been said that no one would be more surprised than Jesus by the way Christianity developed after his death. This certainly emerges from Freeman's account. He follows probably the majority of modern scholars in thinking that Jesus was an apocalypticist, meaning that he expected God to produce a radical transformation of history in the immediate future—probably in his own lifetime and certainly in the lifetimes of his disciples.* This belief was also held by his early followers, gradually fading as the years went by. This means that Jesus did not think he was founding a worldwide religion.

In the early years Christianity was a Jewish sect and there was much argument about whether non-Jewish converts needed to follow Jewish religious requirements including circumcision. It was Paul who was primarily responsible for making Christianity available to Gentiles, a view that caused conflict with Peter and James in Jerusalem. The importance of Paul for the subsequent history of Christianity can hardly be overstated.

Paul dominates the history of early Christianity, He is the loner who made Christianity universal, the authority who wrote in terms of the equality of all before God. He transformed the spiritual teacher of Galilee into the crucified and risen Christ.
Some theologians, such as Augustine and Luther, have given Paul's letters a central role, perhaps even precedence over the gospels. But Freeman attaches more importance to the Letter to the Hebrews, which, although traditionally ascribed to Paul, was actually written later by an unknown author.
The Letter to the Hebrews is important because it shows how worship of Jesus was developing some thirty to forty years after his crucifixion, in communities that appear never to have read any of the gospels. … The letter has a theological sophistication and coherence which is greater than anything to he found in the genuine letters of Paul. It is a vivid reminder of how mature the Christian communities had become in their worship before the writing of the known gospels.
In Part 2 Freeman has a lot to say about relations between Christianity and Judaism in the second century. Many Christians wanted to find prophecies in the Hebrew bible (Old Testament) that could be interpreted as relating to Jesus, although others wished to reject all this completely and some even considered the God of the Old Testament to have been malevolent. There was no coherent body of Christian doctrine at this time. Another view of Jesus was mystical; this is what we now know as gnosticism, but Freeman finds that "it is hard to talk of a gnostic movement, still less of a gnostic church, in the second century."

Gnosticism may have appealed mainly to converts from paganism with a background in Greek (Platonic) philosophy. Some Christians rejected philosophy completely, but others, such as Origen (posthumously declared heretical), were deeply versed in it and used it to help them formulate an understanding of God. For a long time practically all Christian theology was written in Greek, and Freeman places a lot of emphasis on the contrast between the Greek and Latin views as they later developed. His preference is clearly for the Greek approach, which was subtler and not so legalistic.

The decisive event in Christian history was, of course, Constantine's endorsement of it. It is possible that, if Constantine had not given Christianity the special status in the empire that he did, it would now be no more than a footnote to history. But whether his intervention was entirely beneficial is unclear. Freeman's aim in Part 3 is to show why and how patronage by Constantine and his successors changed the religion as radically as it did.

The Roman emperors were administrators not theologians, and their aim was always to eliminate disunity in the interest of stability. This frequently resulted in people who disagreed being branded as 'heretics' and suffering penalties in consequence. Constantine attempted to establish a 'correct' formulation of the relation of Christ to God at the Council of Nicea in 325. This resulted in the first version of the 'Nicene Creed'. The council did not put an end to the wrangling and there continued to be traumatic disputes between those who favoured the view that Christ and God were equal to each other and the 'subordinationists', who held that Christ was created by and therefore inferior to the Father.

The question was finally settled arbitrarily by Emperor Theodosius in 381. This followed a council held at Constantinople, which issued a revised version of the Nicene Creed, still in use today. Christ was now said to be 'consubstantial' with the Father. Theodosius ruled that everyone in the empire had to accept this. Even so, "[T]he episode is shrouded in mystery because the new Creed is only known from a declaration at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 when it was accredited to the council of 381."

The imposition of the Nicene Creed was thus motivated by politics as much as by theology, although this is often not recognised.

Yet histories of Christian doctrine still talk of the Nicene solution as if it had floated down from heaven and had been recognized by the bishops as the only possible formula to describe the three members of the Trinity. In reality, Theodosius brought the belief from his native Spain to the eastern empire where the matter was still unresolved and then imposed it by law before calling a hand-picked council on the matter.

By the fifth century the western part of the empire was about to disintegrate into what is often called the Dark Ages, yet this period saw the emergence of a major intellectual figure, Augustine. Freeman describes this in a chapter he calls "The End of Optimism". For in spite of Augustine's brilliance his influence, Freeman thinks, was largely destructive of original thought.

Human beings were for centuries defined in terms of their sinfulness … and this filtered through into political philosophy in the sense that it made authoritarian societies easier to justify. It took centuries before secular forces and alternative ways of defining human values were able to reassert themselves—the achievement of the Enlightenment.
I found this an often illuminating book. Having been brought up as a Roman Catholic I was familiar with the outline of the story and particlarly with the Nicene Creed, but I lacked a clear picture of how the main actors in the drama (for that is what it was) had played their parts and interacted with one another. There were also some interesting nugggets of information along the way. I had not realised that the story of the discovery of the True Cross by Constantine's mother Helena is not recorded until 395, long after Helena's death, when it appeared in Ambrose's oration on the death of Theodosius. And Freeman has an interesting speculation on how the belief in Christ's resurrection may have arisen.

In brief, he suggests that this was engineered by the High Priest Caiaphas, who wished to get Jesus's disciples to leave Jerusalem peacefully without the need for more arrests. He therefore had Jesus's body removed from the tomb and posted someone there to tell the disciples to return to Gallilee, where they would meet the risen Jesus. This seems plausible, although there is obviously no direct evidence to support it.

As Freeman explains at the outset, he is writing history not theology. There is definitely a need for a book of this kind at present. Many people in the west today are uninterested in religion and are largely ignorant about Christianity, and even those who call themselves Christian often have only the sketchiest notion of how it originated and reached its present form. Yet whether one is religious or secular it is impossible to understand our culture without this knowledge. Freeman's book comes at the right moment.

* On this, see Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium by Bart D. Ehrman; The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders; From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Image of Jesus and Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen.


%T A New History of Early Christianity
%A Freeman, Charles
%I Yale University Press
%C New Haven and London
%D 2009
%G ISBN 978-0-300-12581-8
%P xxvi+377pp
%K history
%O illustrations, maps, timeline

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