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

Hardcover, 2008




New York : Harperone, 2008.


The Lost History of Christianity will change how we understand Christian and world history. Leading religion scholar Philip Jenkins reveals a vast Christian world to the east of the Roman Empire and how the earliest, most influential churches of the East-those that had the closest link to Jesus and the early church-died. In this paradigm-shifting book, Jenkins recovers a lost history, showing how the center of Christianity for centuries used to be the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, extending as far as China.Without this lost history, we can't understand Islam or the Middle East, especially Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Complete with maps, statistics, and fascinating stories and characters that no one in the media or the general public has ever heard of, The Lost History of Christianity will immerse the listener in a lost world that was once the heart of Christianity.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member kant1066
To speak of Christianity is almost necessarily to turn our imaginations toward Western Europe, where Christianity flourished for centuries in the midst of religious wars, social turmoil, and even Islamic competition for economic and military power. However, the “thousand-year Golden Age” referred to in the subtitle of Philip Jenkins’ book refers not to the West, but the various Christianities that arose all over northern Africa, the Levant, the Middle East, and the far East. Instead of the Latin that dominated the West, Christianity in the rest of the world was conducted in a number of languages, including Syriac and the Koine Greek of Saint Paul. While Jenkins looks at Christianity in various parts of the East, he largely clumps them together as “Syriac-Nestorian,” referring to the language and Nestorianism, a brand of Christian theology long considered a heresy in the West but that held on in the East.

Jenkins spends most of his time talking about Christianity in different parts of the Eastern world, instead of, as the subtitle hints, telling us “how it died.” This is much more a book, in fact, of how these communities flourished and lived side-by-side with people of other religions. We get vignettes of how, in the East, Christians lived next to Jews and especially Muslims for centuries. Around the thirteenth or fourteenth century, however, Muslims – who almost always were the power-holding elites in these regions – began to grow increasingly intolerant toward religious minorities. Why? Jenkins never really says. He offers a number of explanations, which I believe were meant to be the heart of the book, including the marginalization of certain languages, and the rise of a powerful, political Islam, but he never makes it seem like he is convinced of any of them.

I found this to be a confusing, or rather confused, book that wasn’t aware of what it wanted to say. It would have been much better with a different (sub)title, and a thesis – any thesis. Instead, the reader gets a mishmash that tries to convey the importance of Christianity in the East and to some extent succeeds. But if you want an explanation of why Christianity survived in the West, but was nearly totally decimated in the East, you won’t find much of an explanation here. I might suggest this to someone for whom the Christian East is a wholly new concept, but there are sure to be better resources out there than what this book has to offer.
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LibraryThing member Wheatland
This is an outstanding synthesis of several specialized studies to produce a large historical overview of the phenomenon of the disappearance of Christians from the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. It is written for the general but educated Christian reader in the European strands of Christian tradition. Because such readers are in the main not knowledgeable about eastern church histories, the cases presented in this book will make heavy going with their large number of unfamiliar names and places. The author, Philip Jenkins, has written the book precisely to fill in this lack of knowledge. The reader who perseveres with the unfamiliar history and names will be well rewarded.

Neither western nor eastern church history seems well known among Christians in the European-North American tradition, and particularly among Protestants, who have long emphasized the Bible as the highest authority and thus have largely ignored the lessons for their faith of the 2000 year global accumulation of Christian experiences. The result of this historical neglect is a tendency for European-North American Christians to regard current Christian expressions of faith as inevitably the best possible such expressions, the ones God intended all along to be true. When faced with a decline in the presence of Christians, whether by choice or by force, such a view of one's own tradition is severely challenged. It will help, thinks Jenkins, to reflect deeply on this historical rise and fall and re-rise of churches, and the reappearance of forms, and the connections between religious traditions, to make sense of one's own religious place in the world.

Christian communities have disappeared historically for two basic reasons: either by attrition, because local people found other traditions more attractive or convenient, or by coercion. The author supplies examples of both, with coercion receiving rather more attention.

Jenkins wants us to know in particular about the history of the Nestorian Church, or Syriac Christianity coming out of Mesopotamia, which for more than one thousand years covered large areas of the Middle East and Asia. At its height it well surpassed Christian movements in Europe in terms of numbers of adherents and levels of scholarship and liturgy. An observer of the time would not have predicted it would be this movement that would disappear and the European one that would grow. And the reasons that this did happen seem contingent on political and geographical developments rather than on points of theology or scripture. Although he uses Syriac Christianity as his dramatic centerpiece for the Christian disappearance phenomenon, he also points out the ways it has not disappeared -- he uses the term "ghosts"-- and the various ways in which Christian communities have survived in non-Christian areas, such as the Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Church, and the Syriac Church in India, or where they have re-appeared, as in China and Japan.

The author concludes his book by drawing lessons for Christians about how to understand these phenomena and not become trapped in discouragement. He supplies valuable clues for how Christians might begin to reflect theologically on the history he describes, clues that are valuable in today's more pluralist religious settings. Although this book is written for Christians the author seems well aware that his interpretations could be applied equally well to Buddhists, Muslims, or members of any faith tradition.

There are some maps, but the book could use further such aids for the general educated reader. The notes are copious but a bibliography would be a helpful addition.
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LibraryThing member sergerca
Generally, it’s taught that Jesus lived then Pope Urban II called for the Crusades a thousand years later. Obviously something happened in between. That’s the subject of Philip Jenkins’ new book, The Lost History of Christianity.

It is a dense, if short, book. Every line is packed with facts making it one of those books I couldn’t read at any great length. But Jenkins is correct that this is a part of Christian history that is overlooked by the vast majority of people, and it’s a shame. In 12 years of Catholic school I never learned this history. And if it’s not being taught there it can’t be being taught anywhere, save at the university level.

Contrary to other reviews here, this is hardly a screed against Islam. Jenkins goes out of his way to show that there were waves of tolerance and oppression by the Muslim conquerors of the formerly Christian lands. And for balance he repeatedly cites corresponding waves of oppression by Christians against European Jews. Religious oppression is nothing new to the world. And it will never end until the eschaton.

This book is, however, very much about Islam, because it was Islam that conquered the Middle East and northern Africa. This didn’t happen by accident. Some argue that Islam spread as a consequence of Arab conquests, and others that Islamic jihad was present from the beginning. Jenkins is in the former camp, and I disagree with him here, though it’s a qualified disagreement. The marriage of politics and faith has been part of Islam since its inception and it’s hard to argue that there wasn’t a religious motivation behind the Muslim conquests. Just because once the Christians were conquered they weren’t forcibly converted to Islam right away does not mean that wasn’t the ultimate goal. And that goal was largely achieved except for pockets of Christian hold outs such as the Coptics in Egypt.

This is not a religious book. Jenkins, a former Catholic (he’s some sort of non-evangelical Protestant now), is not out to make the argument that Christianity is true and will ultimately prevail. Of course, it will. Rather, his point is that there are ebbs and flows in religious dominance. For centuries, the Middle East was a Christian land. That may not always be the case. Africa was for centuries a tribal continent, but Christianity is booming across the continent now. China is now between five and ten percent Christian.

The Catholic Church often says that it thinks in terms of centuries. There’s no telling how the story of Christianity will continue to unravel over the coming centuries. But, to forget its early history will ensure that Christianity will have a much rougher road than if it can learn what went wrong and ensure that the faith is much deeper rooted so that the setback described by Jenkins don’t happen again.
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LibraryThing member gmmoney
I enjoyed learning about this "lost" Christianity, the Christianity that thrived in Africa, the Middle East and Asia during the first millennium. In spite of the fact that much of the records have been lost, the author did a good job of painting a picture of this early and truly Eastern (not just Eastern Orthodox) Christianity. I was so intrigued to learn how much mixing there was in this early time among the different religions and languages, and how much Judaism, Christianity and Islam influenced each other liturgically and theologically. I also think the author illuminated the foundation of many of our modern conflicts with the Middle East and other parts of the world.Finally, Jenkins took time to discuss the broader implications of a dying church, and contrasted the reasons some churches and religions thrive.A good read for students of religion and those wanting a good book that discusses some of the fundamental issues between East and West.… (more)
LibraryThing member jontseng
Fascinating glimpse at the Church we never knew (but probably should have done). Meanders off a bit at the end, unfortunately.
LibraryThing member jarlalex
One of the flaws of western society is that we take broadly defined terms, and then assume a narrower definition of them. For example, we consider "Christianity" to reflect only the family of the Church of Rome; but the latter was founded centuries after Christ's death. The exploration of other derivatives of Christianity, with the same beliefs but none of the same rituals or histories, is key to understanding what a world religion is.… (more)
LibraryThing member Darrol
This book tells the important story of Christianity that once existed in the middle and far east and that, very early, counterbalanced European Christianity. It puts the current conflict with Islam in historical context, countering both the apologists of Islamic tolerance and the idea that Christianity is exclusively the persecuted party. (The theological meditation at the end is the least useful part of the book.)… (more)
LibraryThing member Steve777
Opens up a little-discussed aspect of Christianity, that of its flourishing for many hundreds of years in Asia and Africa. Interesting discussion of possible contributions to its decline from these areas. This book broadens ones idea of the extent of the reach of Christianity in the history of the world.
LibraryThing member angeluski
An eye-opener for "one true faith" believers.
LibraryThing member davidpwithun
Excellent book; a must read for anybody interested in the history of Christianity outside of Europe. The information provided on the Coptic, Assyrian, and Ethiopian churches is just awesome. The tracking of the decline (and, in some cases, disappearance) of the Eastern Churches under Islam is very, very interesting to read. Fair, well-documented.… (more)
LibraryThing member stillatim
Not really what I was hoping for, nor what it's advertized as. Most of the book, I would say, is taken up with a) complaints that Europeans and their descendants know too little about the churches of the East and b) attempts to make the history of those churches 'relevant.' You know what? I would much rather have an actual history of them than an argument that we don't have a history of them - which is self-evident, and ignorance of these churches must be the reason most people would read this book; and an actual history than an explanation of why we should 'care' about that history. You know why I care? I'm curious, and it's interesting. The history which is told in this book is repetitive and rambling. On the up-side, at least he's trying, and he can write quite well in bite size chunks. But there's no attempt to link the chunks together. Too bad- hopefully Jenkins, or someone else, will actually try to write a solid history of what really is a crazy interesting time.… (more)
LibraryThing member leandrod
Very sad history of the lost Greek and Assyrian (Semitic) Monophysite, Nestorian and Helenist churches.

Looses a star for political correctness, equating all forms of Christianity. Besides Reformed literature, a good antidote would be Jacques Ellul’s _La subversion du christianisme_ [The Subversion of Christianity].… (more)
LibraryThing member AmishTechie
Jenkins does a grand job os illuminating the lost history of the eastern church. Western Christianity has been overly-smug in its (our) opinion that we evangelised the world, and that we stood alone against the Muslim tide. Jenkins tell the story of how Christianity and Islam coexisted and fed each other. Thought provoking and engaging.… (more)
LibraryThing member NickZ1959
An excellent book about the History of Christianity in Eastern World. It is a very relevent in the context of the western world trying to understand Christian History in the context of Islam.



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