Thine Is the Kingdom  CHRISTIANITY

The First Three Thousand Years

By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Illustrated. 1,161 pp. Viking. $45


Published: April 1, 2010

It is only a brief moment, a seemingly inconclusive ­exchange in the midst of one of the most significant interviews in human history. In the Gospel of John, Jesus of Nazareth has been arrested and brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Improbably polite, reflective and reluctant to sentence Jesus to death (the historical Pilate was in fact brutal and quick-tempered), Pilate is portrayed as a patient questioner of this charismatic itinerant preacher. “So you are a king?” Pilate asks, and Jesus says: “You say that I am a king. I was born for this, and I came into the world for this: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is committed to the truth listens to my voice.” Then, in what I imagine to be a cynical, world-weary tone, Pilate replies, “What is truth?”
Jesus says nothing in response, and Pilate’s question is left hanging — an open query in the middle of John’s rendering of the Passion. I have always thought of Pilate’s question as a kind of wink from God, a sly aside to the audience that says, in effect, “Be careful of anyone who thinks he has all the answers; only I do.” The search for truth — about the visible and the invisible — is perhaps the most fundamental of human undertakings, ranking close behind the quests for warmth, food and a mate.
With apologies and due respect and affection to my friends Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, that perennial search for an answer to Pilate’s question usually takes religious form. “All men need the gods,” as Homer has it, and nothing since then — not Galileo, not Darwin, not the Enlightenment, nothing — has changed the intrinsic impulse to organize stories and create belief systems that give shape to life and offer a vision of what may lie beyond the grave.
For Christians, the answer to Pilate’s question about truth is the death and Resurrection of Jesus and what those events came to represent for believers. “Came to” is a key point, for the truth as Peter and the apostles saw it on that dark Friday was not the truth as 21st-­century Christians see it. The work of discerning — or, depending on your point of view, assigning — meaning to the Passion and the story of the empty tomb was a historical as well as a theological process, as was the construction of the faith.
Christianity’s foundational belief is that Jesus was the Son of God, who died and rose again as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of a fallen world. It seems banal even to note this. But guess who did not know it on that epic morning of Resurrection long ago? Those closest to Jesus, the disciples, who, when told of the empty tomb by the women who followed Jesus, were perplexed: what could this mean? Jesus had not adequately prepared them for the central dramatic action of the new salvation history that was to take shape in the wake of his Passion. Read carefully, the Gospels tell the story of the disciples’ working out what a resurrected Messiah might mean, and the conclusions they drew formed the core of the belief system that became Christianity.
Why the initial uncertainty? Because it is vastly more likely that Jesus’ contemporaries expected his imminent return to earth and the inauguration of the kingdom of God — a time, in first-century Jewish thought, that would be marked, among other things, by a final triumph of Israel over its foes and a general resurrection of the dead. How else to understand, for instance, Jesus’ words in Mark: “I tell you with certainty, some people standing here will not experience death until they see the kingdom of God arrive with power”? Or why else were the Gospels written decades after the Passion? Could it be because Jesus’ followers believed that they were the last generation and did not expect to need documents to pass on to ensuing generations? If Jesus were returning to rule in a new kind of reality, there would be no need for biographies, for he would be here, as he also said in Mark, “with great power and glory.” As the years passed, however, and the kingdom did not come — despite the prayers of the faithful — the early Christians realized they should record what they could in order to capture the stories and traditions in anticipation of a much longer wait. The Gospels that have survived, then, are apologetic documents, composed to inspire and to convince. John is explicit about this, saying he was writing “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and so that through believing you may have life in his name.”
A word of disclosure: I am an Episcopalian who takes the faith of my fathers seriously (if unemotionally), and I would, I think, be disheartened if my own young children were to turn away from the church when they grow up. I am also a critic of Christianity, if by critic one means an observer who brings historical and literary judgment to bear on the texts and traditions of the church.
I mention this because I sense a kind of kinship with Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, who has written a sprawling, sensible and illuminating new book, “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.” A biographer of Thomas Cranmer and the author of an acclaimed history of the Reformation, MacCulloch comes from three generations of Anglican clergymen and himself grew up in a country rectory of which he says, “I have the happiest memories.” He thus treats his subject with respect. “I was brought up in the presence of the Bible, and I remember with affection what it was like to hold a dogmatic position on the statements of Christian belief,” he writes. “I would now describe myself as a candid friend of Christianity. I still appreciate the seriousness which a religious mentality brings to the mystery and misery of human existence, and I appreciate the solemnity of religious liturgy as a way of confronting these problems.” Then, significantly, MacCulloch adds, “I live with the puzzle of wondering how something so apparently crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species.” That puzzle confronts anyone who approaches Christianity with a measure of detachment. The faith, MacCulloch notes, is “a perpetual argument about meaning and ­reality.”
This is not a widely popular view, for it transforms the “Jesus loves me! This I know / For the Bible tells me so” ethos of Sunday schools and vacation Bible camps into something more complicated and challenging: what was magical is now mysterious. Magic means there is a spell, a formula, to work wonders. Mystery means there is no spell, no formula — only shadow and impenetrability and hope that one day, to borrow a phrase T. S. Eliot borrowed from Julian of Norwich, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
Magic, however, has powerful charms. Not long ago I was with a group of ministers on the East Coast. The conversation turned to critical interpretations of the New Testament. I remarked that I did not see how people could make sense of the Bible if they were taught to think of it as a collection of ancient Associated Press reports. (Cana, Galilee — In a surprise development yesterday at a local wedding, Jesus of Nazareth transformed water into wine. . . .) “That’s your critical reading of the Gospels,” one minister replied, “but in the pulpit I can’t do that.” “Why?” I asked. “Because,” he said, “you can’t mess with Jesus.”
Well. If the power of Jesus — “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” as Peter called him — cannot survive a bit of biblical criticism, then the whole enterprise is rather more rickety than one might have supposed. Still, the objecting cleric’s remark illuminates one of the issues facing not only Christians but the broader world: To what extent should holy books be read and interpreted critically and with a sense of the context in which they were written, rather than taken literally? To later generations of the faithful, what was written in fluctuating circumstances has assumed the status of immutable truth. Otherwise perfectly rational people think of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven on the 40th day after Easter to be as historical an event as the sounding of the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. To suggest that such supernatural stories are allegorical can be considered a radical position in even the most liberal precincts of the Christian world. But the Bible was not FedExed from heaven, nor did the Lord God of Hosts send a PDF or a link to Scripture. Properly understood — and MacCulloch’s book is a landmark contribution to that understanding — Christianity cannot be seen as a force beyond history, for it was conceived and is practiced according to historical bounds and within human limitations. Yes, faith requires, in Coleridge’s formulation, a willing suspension of disbelief; I do it myself, all the time. But that is a different thing from the suspension of reason and critical intelligence — faculties that tell us that something is not necessarily the case simply because it is written down somewhere or repeated over and over.
Which brings us to the significance of the history of Christianity, and to the relevance of MacCulloch’s book. The story of how the faith came to be is a vast and complex tale of classical philosophy and Jewish tradition, of fantastical visions and cold calculations, of loving sacrifices and imperial ambitions. It was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, a close-run thing: a world religion founded on the brief public ministry, trial and execution of a single Jew in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. In my view, an unexamined faith is not worth having, for fundamentalism and uncritical certitude entail the rejection of one of the great human gifts: that of free will, of the liberty to make up our own minds based on evidence and tradition and reason. John’s Gospel says that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Perhaps; I do not know. (No one does; as Paul said, we can only see through a glass, darkly.) But I do know this: Short of the end of all things, it is the knowledge of the history of the faith that can make us free from literalism and ­fundamentalism.
It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive and surprisingly accessible volume on the subject than MacCulloch’s. This is not a book to be taken lightly; it is more than 1,100 pages, and its bulk makes it hard to take anyplace at all. Want a refresher on the rise of the papacy? It is here. On Charlemagne and Carolingians? That is here, too. On the Fourth Crusade and its aftermath? Look no farther.
To me the appeal of the book lies in its illuminating explications of things so apparently obvious that they would seem to require no explanation. How many common readers could immediately discuss the etymology and significance of the word “Israel”? It comes from a stranger who wrestled Jacob and found him to be admirably resilient. Hence Jacob was given the name Israel, or “He Who Strives With God.” Or would know that Emmaus, the scene of the risen Jesus’ revelation of himself to two disciples over bread and wine, may not have been an actual village in first-century Judea but rather an allusion to another Emmaus, two centuries before, the site of the first victory of the Maccabees over the enemies of Israel, a place where, in the words of the author of I Maccabees, “all the gentiles will know that there is one who redeems and saves Israel”? Or, in a wonderfully revealing insight of MacCulloch’s, that the “daily bread” for which countless Christians ask in the Lord’s Prayer is not what most people think it is, a humble plea for sustenance. “Daily” is the common translation of the Greek word epiousios, which in fact means “of extra substance” or “for the morrow.” As MacCulloch explains, epiousios “may point to the new time of the coming kingdom: there must be a new provision when God’s people are hungry in this new time — yet the provision for the morrow must come now, because the kingdom is about to arrive.” We are a long way from bedtime prayers here.
So how did Christianity happen? In fulfillment of the book’s provocative subtitle, MacCulloch begins his tale in remote antiquity, with the Greek search for meaning and order, the Jewish experience of a fickle but singular Yahweh and the very practical impact of Rome’s early globalism. The predominant peace forged by the empire made the spread of ideas, including Christian ones, all the easier. Politics mattered enormously, and the faith’s temporal good fortune began even before the early fourth century, when Constantine decided that the Christian God was the patron of his military victories. As a tiny minority in the Roman world, Christians knew they could not choose their friends: an early supporter of Christians at court was Marcia, the emperor Commodus’ mistress and the woman who instigated his assassination. Accommodations with the princes of the world drove the rise of the faith, and the will to both religious and political power corrupted it, too. “For most of its existence, Christianity has been the most intolerant of world faiths,” MacCulloch says, “doing its best to eliminate all competitors, with Judaism a qualified exception.”
Powerful allies were crucial, but so was the Apostle Paul, whose writings make up the oldest sections of the New Testament. Partly because of the expectation of the imminent coming of the kingdom, Christianity, MacCulloch writes, “was not usually going to make a radical challenge to existing social distinctions.” Hence Paul’s explicit support for slavery. “Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called,” Paul wrote, and his Epistle to Philemon was, MacCulloch says, “a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery.”
The example of Christianity and abolition, though, is ultimately a cheering one. An evolving moral sensibility led to critical interpretations of Scripture that demolished the biblical arguments for slavery. “It took original minds to kick against the authority of sacred Scripture,” MacCulloch writes, but thankfully such original minds were in evidence, and their legacy “was an early form of the modern critical reconsideration of biblical intention and meaning.” The sheer complexity of the story of Christianity is a welcome and needed reminder that religion is fluid, not static.
Questions of meaning — who are we, how shall we live, where are we going? — tend to be framed in theological and philosophical terms. But history matters, too, and historians, MacCulloch says, have a moral task: “They should seek to promote sanity and to curb the rhetoric which breeds fanaticism.” That truth provides at least one answer to Pilate’s eternal query.
Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”