A History of Christianity

by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Paperback, 2010



Call number



1st edition (2010), Edition: London: Penguin Books.


We live in a time of tremendous religious awareness, when both believers and non-believers are deeply engaged by questions of religion and tradition. This ambitious book ranges back to the origins of the Hebrew Bible and covers the world, following the three main strands of the Christian faith, to teach modern readers how Jesus' message spread and how the New Testament was formed. We follow the Christian story to all corners of the globe, filling in often neglected accounts of conversions and confrontations in Africa and Asia. And we discover the roots of the faith that galvanized America, charting the rise of the evangelical movement from its origins in Germany and England. We meet monks and crusaders, heretics and saints, slave traders and abolitionists, and discover Christianity's essential role in driving the Enlightenment and the Age of Exploration, and shaping the course of World Wars I and II.--From publisher description.… (more)

Media reviews

Ultimately, despite a few hiccoughs, MacCulloch proves a learned and genial guide to the welter of Christianities that come within his purview. And, on a generous reading, every bit of this unruly efflorescence of Christian life is precisely the story MacCulloch wants to tell, since it proves “a
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vital lesson to learn for modern Christians who wish to impose uniformity on Christian belief and practice which has never in fact existed.”
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6 more
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
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Charlemagne and Carolingians? That is here, too. On the Fourth Crusade and its aftermath? Look no farther.
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Sprawling books like MacCulloch's pose a unique challenge. His admirers know him best for his penetrating work on the theological divisions that led to the Reformation schisms. But with this book, he has shown his readers that he can hold our attention over the long-haul as well. [...] Every home
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should invest in a copy of this fine book. You won't finish it in a single session, but you will find yourself reading it for years to come.
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Diarmaid MacCulloch, one of the best historians writing in English, has tackled with verve the gargantuan task of telling the story of the world’s largest faith community over the whole of its history. [...] MacCulloch has given us a model of lucid and sympathetic exposition, vast in scale, wide
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in coverage, and conspicuously fair-minded: this is a generous book, in every sense of the word.
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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 [...] Yet the book as a whole is dull, and a struggle
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to read. [...] Despite overcrowding, I shall keep this book on my shelves, for reference. But I can’t imagine anyone reading it for pleasure.
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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. The story is told with unobtrusive stylishness
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as well as clarity. And at a time when Christianity's profile in our culture is neither as positive nor as extensive as it has been, this book is crucial testimony to the resilience of the Christian community in a remarkable diversity of social settings. The first three thousand years do not seem likely to be also the last.
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A History of Christianity is a prodigious, thrilling, masterclass of a history book. MacCulloch is to be congratulated for his accessible handling of so much complex, difficult material – the quarrels between the Monosophytes and the Christian majority on the dual natures of Christ, or St Thomas
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Aquinas on the metaphysics of contingent and necessary being, are no doddle. But he keeps the reader engaged with wit and choice anecdotes.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member StephenBarkley
Diarmaid MacCulloch must be a walking encyclopedia. In Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, he has written a thousand page behemoth which covers (as the subtitle suggests), three millennia of human history.

I don’t exaggerate when I say “human history,” either. One of the things I
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realized during my reading of this book was that nothing happens without the influence of religion. Our cherished Western idea of the “separation of church and state” is quite ridiculous when viewed either practically or historically.

MacCulloch starts, counter-intuitively, a thousand years before Christ. This was a wise move. It’s only when you understand the Jewish and Greek cultural background that you are able to situate the birth of Christianity accurately.

During the early years of Christianity, the church broke into three main groups, along language lines. The first group consisted of Semitic language speakers who spread south into Africa and east all the way to China. The rise of Islam effectively squashed this expression of the church. The two more familiar wings are the Greek speaking orthodox church and the Latin-flavoured Roman Catholic church. Of course, the Reformation is dealt with in detail as well. (In 2005, he published The Reformation: A History.)

The history of Christianity is also a history of politics. During the first three hundred years, it was the story of how Christ-followers defied and evaded political power. After Constantine, it was (tragically for me) the story of capitulation and power-mongering.

A book like this makes me wonder what will come next. Unlike more simplistic histories which treat the progression of culture and religion as inevitable, MacCulloch describes the various false starts and cut-off limbs which prove that history is anything but predictable.

This book is dense but readable. As you might expect, I found the subjects I was most knowledgeable about to be the most interesting to read. The areas I was weaker in seemed more difficult to understand. If you have a background in church history or theology, this book is worth the investment of your time.
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LibraryThing member dmichaud
Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Written by Diarmaid MacCulloch. London: Viking, 2010. 1184 pages. ISBN: 978-0670021260. $45.00 US, $56.00 CDN.

Put simply, and at only slight risk of hyperbole, MacCulloch’s Christianity is the history of the church incarnate. Covering the global
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Church from its Jewish and Hellenistic pre-history to the most recent trends in the so-called “culture wars” and coming in at well over one thousand pages in total, is a comprehensive guide to the complex and intertwined stories that are church history.

While holding firm to the narrative form, MacCulloch offers no single “metanarrative.” Rather, the complex history of Christian self-expression is held together in all its actual lived messiness by a heavily cross-referenced series of interwoven “micro-narratives” of limited geographic, cultural, and temporal scope. In this way MacCulloch overcomes the great obstacle to offering a representative history of global Christianity. Gone is the familiar straight line from Bethlehem to Boston.

At first glance a book on the first “three-thousand years” of Christianity seems either prophetic or simply mistaken. Only upon taking up the text does the genius of its title become apparent. By presenting the deep roots of Christianity in both its Hebraic and Hellenic sources in his first major section, MacCulloch makes the early church intelligible as a complex social and theological phenomenon rather than as an institution revealed ex nihilo. The wisdom of this thousand year backstory is as clear as it is rare among histories of the church.

Without the history of the people of Israel (covenant, prophecy, and Torah) the life and message of Jesus are unintelligible. Likewise, without the traditions of Greek thought (religion, philosophy, and letters) the reception of the Rabbi from Nazareth by the larger world is equally mysterious. Since Jesus was a Jew and his gospel was written (and interpreted) in Greek, the necessary pre-history of the faith he inspired includes the prophets of Israel and the philosophers of Greece.

After a second section treating the early church until Chalcedon (461 CE), MacCulloch first follows developments in Asia and Africa for a full thousand years before turning to the “Unpredictable Rise of Rome (300-1300).” Likewise, the distinctive developments of the Orthodox churches (“The Imperial Faith [451-1800]”) is laid out for nearly one-and-a-half millennia before back-tracking in time and shifting in space to address “Western Christianity Dismembered (1300-1800).” The final section, “God in the Dock (1492-present),” presents the reunion of the churches as players on a world stage that made a truly global faith possible.

Each of these major sections stands alone as introductions to the politics, economics, culture, and theology of their respective regions and eras. What makes these parts a whole is the frequent use of cross-references; illustrating the persistent points of contact and mutual influence across the miles and centuries. What emerges is a network of interconnected themes, events, and personalities scattered over time, space, and ideology. All of this supplies a depth that is often lacking in histories of this ambitious scope. Where others give us a map, MacCulloch offers a globe.

MacCulloch’s sensitivity to the modes of thought contributing to Christian self-consciousness also opens up to a more subtle issue. Christianity includes a great deal of (sometimes arcane) theological detail. This is important because, for example, without understanding their theological views one cannot hope to begin to appreciate the forces that separated the Latin, Greek, Southern, and Eastern churches. MacCulloch is fully aware that conflicts really were fueled by matters as seemingly minor as a single letter (i.e., homoiousios, “similar essence,” vs. homoousios, “same essence”).

In an age when even the first-year seminarian cannot be expected to be familiar with the Christian theological tradition, no history of the church can afford to be without a good deal of theology. Ironically, however, the level of theological detail required to make MacCulloch’s historical narratives intelligible can interrupt the flow of that narrative and makes for some relatively difficult reading at times.

Still, Christianity is an excellent first read in church history and will make a convenient reference for scholars as well. The limitations of MacCulloch’s history – and there are gaps here and there – have more to do with the limits of book binding and the vigor of the reader than with any real fault in plan or execution. Despite the enormity of his task, MacCulloch largely succeeds in bringing politics and piety as well as economics and theology together to tell the stories of real people, for whom all were equally important and often inseparable.

Derek Michaud
Boston University
[email protected]
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LibraryThing member wildbill
I really enjoy reading well written history and I consider this book an excellent piece of historical writing. The final product reflects hours of careful editing that created a smooth flowing literary style of writing. The many details of the events and the people involved kept the book
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interesting throughout. These factors made reading the book a very pleasant experience for me.
The author covers a topic of great scope both chronologically and geographically in the 1000 pages of text. As I read the book I watched a small religion grow into a church and then many churches that now comprise one of the greatest cultural movements on the planet. Unless you find the topic offensive it is one of the amazing stories of humankind.
The book is written in a very objective tone that shows a great respect for the topic. While the author narrates many of the specific events that gave rise to Christianity I did not detect any bias on the subject of belief. There are hints of Anglo-centrism, I have never heard Tennessee referred to as part of the American Midwest, but the author gives equal coverage to all of the areas of the world where the topic takes him.
I learned a great deal about all of the places and people involved in the history of Christianity. While some sections of the book read like a history of Medieval Europe there are extensive sections on Christianity in the Middle East and the effect of Islam. There is also a substantial section on the growth of Christianity in South Korea. The author describes all of the various types of churches, church organizations and monastic associations that comprise the great mosaic of the different types of institutions that have been created for Christian worship and practice.
The author does an excellent job of telling the different stories of the different people involved in the history of Christianity. The book is full of biographical details that make the people come alive and remind the reader that history is primarily the story of people through time. Any book about religion has to delve into theology and that area was the most difficult for me. I had to do a little research at times to stay up to speed. I do know the difference between Dyophysites, Monophysites and Miaphysites.
I think the author's great talent was taking all of this information and making it into a narrative that was both concise and complete. He obviously came to the project with a great deal of knowledge and did a vast amount of research. He had a story to tell and when he was finished he had told the complete story without any repetition. If I were a theologian I might be able to point out a flaw but I am not and I can only give my impressions of the book.
I could obviously say a great deal more about what was in the book but then I could never stop. I learned a lot about an interesting topic and I had a good time doing it. I have an audio edition of the book and I am sure that I will listen to it often. The narrator is very good and I have much more to learn from this book.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
So many books have been called “magisterial” that the impact of the word has been diluted. Thus I fear it will not suffice to convey what a monumental work MacCulloch has produced. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years covers the story of Christianity with (pretty much) all the
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variations, heresies, and twists and turns from its origins in Judaism, to the history of the early Christian Church, through the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counterreformation, and up to the present day. And it does so with sympathy and wit. I must warn the casual reader that it is over one thousand pages long, so be prepared to spend a lot of time with Professor MacCulloch.

The revelations contained in MacCulloch’s account are too numerous and complex to summarize. Instead, I will just note a few of the author’s more interesting observations.

If Jesus ever wrote anything, it did not survive in the historical record. In fact, there appear to be no contemporaneous written mentions of Jesus. The gospels, both canonical and apocryphal, as the well as two references to him by secular historians, were written at least a generation after his death. The four canonical gospels themselves appear to have been written by early followers who had agendas that differed from one another’s. Much of MacCulloch’s history describes the efforts of various individuals or groups to control the story and the meaning of Christ’s life that would be included in the official canon. (The earliest surviving complete list of books that we would recognize as the New Testament comes as late as 367 C.E.)

The author notes the contradictions in the alternate stories of the birth of Jesus found in Mathew and Luke [Mark and John are silent on that issue]. He summarizes, “We must conclude that beside the likelihood that Christmas did not happen at Christmas, it did not happen in Bethlehem.”

Early Christians (most of whom were converted Jews) did not want to be enemies of the Roman Empire, so they played down the role of Roman authorities in the execution of Jesus, preferring to shift the blame to Jews who did not convert.

As for the Resurrection, the central event of Christianity, MacCulloch calls it “not a matter which historians can authenticate; it is a different sort of truth, or statement about truth. It is the most troubling, difficult affirmation in Christianity….”

The problem of biblical interpretation is a theme that runs through the entire history of Christianity. Origen, an early Christian theologian, asks, “who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life, of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life?” MacCulloch writes, “Origen might be saddened to find that seventeen hundred years later, millions of Christians are that silly.”

MacCulloch treats Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism equally and dispassionately. He seldom loses sight of his role as historian rather than apologist or debunker. Occasionally, however, his sense of irony cannot be contained, as when he describes the appearances of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes shortly after Pope Pius IX had used his infallible authority to define and promulgate the doctrine that Mary had been conceived without original sin. Noting that the many appearances of Mary in the nineteenth century were surrounded by fierce controversies, he observed:

"Our Lady showed her approval of the Pope’s action by appearing at Lourdes in the French Pyrenees only four years after the Definition, announcing…with a fine disregard for logical categories, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception….’”

Over the next few months, it was said that those who questioned Our Lady “found themselves troubled by poltergeist-like phenomena and specifically directed storms….[or] acute diarrhoea. These aspects…zestfully narrated by locals at the time, have subsequently been edited out of the shrine’s official narratives; Our Lady has become a much better behaved Virgin.”

The role of the mother of Jesus has been a source of contention between the various strands of Christianity. Without explicitly taking sides, the Protestant MacCulloch notes that a proclamation of Mary’s perpetual virginity has caused devout Catholic commentators to appear clumsy in handling “clear references in the biblical text to Jesus’s brothers and sisters, who were certainly not conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

MacCulloch writes cogently and non-judgmentally about the millennium-long struggle for pre-eminence between pope and emperor for control of the Church.

MacCulloch’s devotes only two pages to the role of religion in the founding of the American Republic, but those pages should be required reading for candidates for national office. He notes that at the time of the American Revolution, only around 10% of the American population were formal Church members. Many of America’s founding fathers were deists, creatures of the Enlightenment rather than practicing Christians. Thomas Jefferson “deeply distrusted organized religion and spoke of the Trinity as ‘abracadabra…hocus-pocus…a deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign to Christianity as is that of Mahomet.’” Washington never received Holy Communion, and was inclined in discourse to refer to providence or destiny rather than to God.

MacCulloch summarized the influence of religion among the founding fathers as follows:

"What this revolutionary elite achieved amid a sea of competing Christianities, many of which were highly uncongenial to them, was to make religion a private affair in the eyes of the new American federal government. The constitution which they created made no mention of God or Christianity (apart from the date by ‘the Year of our Lord’). That was without precedent in Christian polities of that time, and with equal disregard for tradition…the Great seal of the United States of America bore no Christian symbol but rather the Eye of Providence, which if it recalled anything recalled Freemasonry….The motto ‘In God We Trust’ only first appeared on an American coin amid civil war in 1864, a very different era, and it was 1957 before it featured on any paper currency….Famously, Thomas Jefferson wrote as president…that the First Amendment…had created a ‘wall of separation between Church and State.’”

Evaluation: This book is truly comprehensive in scope. Any review simply cannot touch upon all the issues covered in the book without being absurdly long. MacCulloch is meticulous in referring to, analyzing, and putting into historical perspective just about every known variety of Christianity: Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Mormons, several varieties of Orthodox practice, Coptics, Arians, Pentecostals, and a host of lesser known offshoots and heresies. All get their due. Even if you don’t (yet) know the difference between a Miaphysite and a Chalcedonian Christian, this book contains a great deal to learn and ponder.

Note: Maps and pictures are included with the text.

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LibraryThing member elimatta
Compelling book, placing Christianity in broad world historical context. Requires a great deal of patience to read to the end. That may be because the disputes, even over language, within Christianity are so complex and absurd to relative outsiders such as me. It's no surprise that fundamentalists
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and Pentecostals are disturbed by this book. It suggests that there is not just one approach to dealing with Christianity, and that it is a human artifact. Imagine that.
His approach is to Christianity is sympathetic yet intellectually honest. This is what real history looks like.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
Mr. MacCulloch has written a wonderful book that provides a deep and interesting history of Christianity. I especially liked the back-story (so to speak) which covered the Jewish prophets and Greek philosopers that Christianity sprang from. In fact, the early development of theology was one of my
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favourite sections of the book -- I now understand some of the reasons for the different Christian religions. I liked the way Mr. MacCulloch made so many of the historical figures come alive.

What I struggled with was the thematic (vs. chronological) approach to the history. Each of the sections stands alone in telling the story of the politics, economics, culture, and theology of their respective regions and/or time period. To hold them together, though, the author makes excessive use of cross-references – sending the reader backwards and forwards in the text far too much. So, depth of treatment resulted in a somewhat chunky reading experience.
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LibraryThing member Widsith
‘What religion am I?’ asks Homer Simpson in one episode of his family’s eponymous cartoon. ‘I’m the one with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work out in real life...uh...Christianity.’ One of the many pleasures in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s amazingly comprehensive book is getting a
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handle on what historical basis there is for the rules and doctrines of this prolific and mercurial religion, which nowadays seems characterized by extreme reactions of either perfect secular indifference or increasingly literalist devotion.

There are excellent books available for all kinds of angles on this story, but a single-volume history of the whole lot seems crazily ambitious. I think MacCulloch has done a beautiful job, and let’s note the fact that anything which is acclaimed by both Christopher Hitchens and the Archbishop of Canterbury as being the definitive work of its kind must be doing something right. What makes it particularly impressive is that it combines a clear explanation of the usual theological debates of the early Church with a very wide-ranging, internationalist scope that also has perceptive things to say about Christianity’s survival and development in Ethiopia, or why it succeeded in Korea but failed in Japan.

Though MacCulloch is too even-handed to build a cumulative argument out of this story, the theme that emerges for me is the constant interplay between Christianity’s interior, metaphorical truths, and the factual historicity of the information by which such truths have been communicated. This is related to a crucial duality present from the very start.

Jewish and Christian traditions want to say at the same time that God has a personal relationship with individual human beings and that he is also beyond all meaning, all characterization.

In part this comes from the dual heritage of Christianity, which is well encapsulated by this book’s provocative subtitle, ‘The First Three Thousand Years’. The first 70 pages trace the Greek philosophical traditions of thinking about divinity – the Platonic idea of a remote, unknowable God – which became fused with Judaic tradition in an uneasy but dynamic relationship that is unique to Christianity.

One result of this, after the Enlightenment, has been a hyper-literalist defence of religion which in modern times can be seen, especially in the US, in the uneducated flourishing of ‘Creationism’. MacCulloch, who demonstrates well that ‘there is no surer basis for fanaticism than bad history’, gives such concepts short shrift.

The modern conservative Christian (and Islamic) fashion of Creationism is no more than a set of circular logical arguments, and Creationist ‘science’ has been unique among modern aspirations to scientific systems in producing no original discoveries at all.

Quite; and yet, despite referring to modern ‘fashion’, one thing this narrative shows is that polarities of literalism and metaphoricity have always been there. In the second century, Marcion of Sinope was already writing commentaries on Biblical scriptures which denied any but the most literal interpretations; while his contemporary Origen could write such opposite things as this:

Who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life, of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life?

MacCulloch notes drily: ‘Origen might be saddened to find that seventeen hundred years later, millions of Christians are that silly.’ And yet neither of these theologians really won out: both saw their writings declared heretical, and the ‘official’ Churches have maintained an uneasy balance between the two ever since. Reading this, it’s impossible to escape a sense of arbitrariness about such decisions among early religious authorities.

This is particularly true when it comes to the bewildering array of theological debates over what exactly was meant by such counter-intuitive doctrines as the Trinity, or Christ’s divinity. It’s instructive to consider how little modern Christians think about such things, given their central importance to early thinkers. Were the three persons of the Trinity separate substances, or one substance manifested in three different essences? The difference was almost wholly semantic, and yet people fought and died over it. Did Christ have two distinct natures, fully human and fully divine, or did he have one composite nature which blended human with divine? The question was fought over with a violence and vehemence that now seems incredible. Those involved would be amazed to know that many modern Christians are probably not sure of the ‘right’ answers to these questions.

While MacCulloch is bracingly clear on the arbitrary nature of many of these doctrines, he is also often critical of modern revisionism – he offers a reminder, for instance, that Gnosticism, far from being a kind of early New-Age mysticism, was generally much more ascetic and authoritarian than mainstream Christianity was. Similarly, a text like 1 Timothy 2:12, often pounced on by the anti-religious because its patriarchal ideas seem so opposed to modern values, is here given a far more interesting and nuanced reading:

One has always to remember that throughout the New Testament we are hearing one side of an argument. When the writer to Timothy inisists with irritating fussiness that ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent’, we can be sure that there were women doing precisely the opposite, who were probably not slow in asserting their own point of view. But their voices are lost […].

One thing that this book creates is a deep awareness of just how different things might easily have been, had a few decisions gone the other way. It is fascinating to realise, for example, that if Islam had not suddenly exploded across the Middle East, the centre of Christendom in the Middle Ages would almost certainly have moved east to the region of Iraq, rather than west to Rome. MacCulloch is especially good on the interplay between these two faiths, offering such titbits as the fact that Islamic minarets may well have come about in imitation of Christian stylites – the early Orthodox monks who lived their lives on top of pillars. Such fascinating windows on history and belief are thrown open right the way through to the modern day, revealing such unexpected delights as the fact that most Christians among the Maasai in southern Africa think of God as a woman.

It’s hard to find much fault with this book, although there will always be sections where the narrative flags a little, depending on where your interests lie. I thought the tone was exemplary – in the words of Rowan Williams, who reviewed it for the Guardian, it is ‘neither uncritical nor hostile’, which is no small achievement in itself. In one of his most felicitous phrases, MacCulloch describes Christianity at one point as ‘a marginal branch of Judaism whose founder left no known written works’. Such a faith is always going to be a struggle between different interpretations, leading to a term – ‘Christianity’ – which can embrace the incense swung around an Orthodox icon, the speaking in tongues of a Pentecostalist, the resonant stone slabs which call faithful Ethiopians to prayer, and indeed the breezy indifference of Homer Simpson. If any book can give you a sense of how such diversity developed, and what it can possibly have in common – it’s this one.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
This is a rather astonishing overview of the history of Christianity. An ambitious subject to handle in one volume, and the author does a fine job as discussing the most disparate strands of this almost universal faith.

The title seems a bit odd at first, considering Christianity is only two
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thousand years old. But the author does not skimp at first, covering the Platonic and Hebraic traditions and how they affected the background of early Christianity.

One of the more interesting assertions is how Christianity spread into the Middle East and North Africa, in a different form than either Orthodox or Catholic Christianity. Of course, this changed rapidly after the meteoric rise of Islam. The predominance of Roman Catholicism in the West was by no means assured in the earlier period.

And it splinters and splits and feuds. Dozens of sects and wars. It's humbling and rather sad. So many heresies and papal bulls it's -almost- hard to keep track. Killing in the name of peace. Yet the author somehow makes it easy. His tone is distantly affectionate, yet skeptical.

Another interesting analysis is how Christianity spread in the modern world. For example: a form of Presbyterianism became an essential part of Korean national identity, as a means of rebelling from Chinese influence. As a result, South Korea is one of the most Christian nations in Asia, second only to the Philippines.

There is also the issue of how Christianity has reacted and counterreacted against movements of social reform, humanism, and the later 20th century, somehow surviving them all. Of course, some aspects of conduct were less than exemplary (ex: The Catholic Church not allowing the use of condoms, even against STDs, and their snubbing liberation theology) and some were rather progressive (ex: The same Catholic Church broadening 'pro-life' to be 'anti-war' as well as a position on reproductive rights).

Of course, because it is so huge and divergent, that is precisely why it is impossible to characterize the whole 'Christian' population. Of course there are some aspects which could use further exploration. But there is still so much here, that this will be a solid reference for any interested scholar, skeptic or true believer.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
MacCulloch makes reading exhaustive history exhilarating rather than exhausting, and although everyone will have a favourite nit to pick - mine being the dubious treatment of Hegel, and the absence of anything about Erigena - only the most die-hard partisan could claim that this is anything other
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than brilliant. Ignore anyone who tells you it's anti-(insert your own sect here), and read it. Take your time. And I'm sure you'll be mining the 'recommended reading' section at the back of the book before you've finished chapter 7, at the latest.

What I want to know is how MacCulloch manages to tell a linear story in a way that doesn't pervert the thematic content... or maybe he's written a thematically arranged book which doesn't pervert the temporal changes? In either case, a great relief from most long histories which are full either of repetition or of anachronies. Finally, I would guess that this is the only perspective from which such a book could be written: son of a clergyman, friend of but not believer in the religion, who obviously nonetheless cares greatly not only about its history, but also about its survival.

Avoid, of course, if you want a biased, slanted interpretation of any given point.
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LibraryThing member KirkLowery
This thousand page tome is excellent, with all the limitations of a single-volume work on such a large topic. The writing is excellent and the narrative coherent, but it is very dense. Don't expect this to be a quick read. It is heavily documented, but as usual the notes are stuck in the back
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instead of at the bottom of the page. (Okay, I'll stop ranting now.) The author begins a thousand years before the birth of Jesus and comes right up to the beginning of this millennium. He pays as much attention to the church in the East as to Rome and the West, which I consider to be the distinguishing feature for an history of the Church. It is a traditional history in that the focus is upon social and political structures: how the the union of the Church with the State affect political and economic events? His treatment of saints, miracles and other supernatural phenomena is classically skeptical, but not dismissive: he tries to view events from the standpoint of the participants who hold a worldview so radically different from his own. Another great strength of this work is the sections in the back on "Further Reading." It's a great first textbook on the history of Christianity.
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LibraryThing member annbury
Wonderful book, for those who view Christianity as a religion with a history that stretches back into the pre-Christian era. The development of theology in the first five hundred years after Christ, and its roots in pre-Christian philosophy, are masterfully developed. I was left with the feeling
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that I finally understood some key issues in theology which had heretofore been incomprehensible to me. The development of various strains of Christianity was less interesting only in comparison, but provides a very valuable summary of the differences and similarities amongst the different strains. Great book!
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
Monumental review of everything you wanted to know about Christianity.
LibraryThing member revslick
Diarmaid presents a very exhaustive look into the history of Christianity. This is a must read for any amateur Christian historian as it is full of wonderfully researched details of all the various Christian off shoots from beginning to within the past 50 years.
The bad: His pedantic and almost
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sophomoric description of the NT is appalling. Even the most basic of Sunday School literature would debunk this material.
The good: His historical research is brilliant! He covers all sorts of little tidbits than many have overlooked plus he gives mad props to John Wesley.
I would have given the book a five, but his comments on Paul seemed to be written by Ferris Bueller.
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LibraryThing member roblong
Starts with the development of Jewish religion in the thousand years prior to Jesus's life and ministry, and also the rise of Greece and Rome that so shaped the religion that grew up afterwards. It then traces the subsequent story as Christianity spread through Europe and east to Baghdad and China,
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as well as south through Africa to Ethiopia. That's only the beginning of what is, for long periods and in many places, one side of a history of civilization. The amount of material to be covered is immense, but MacCulloch strikes a great balance between not dwelling on topics that entire books are written about for too long, while still giving sufficient depth that nothing feels glossed over. Very much worth the time, as a history of the world and of the ideas that have shaped it, many of which are still hugely important now, even in countries where secularism has taken over and religion - not just Christianity - has faded out of many people's lives.
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LibraryThing member Dilip-Kumar
Almost five hundred pages into this tome, and we have barely crossed into the second millennium! This is a detailed, unhurried sort of account of the 2000 odd years of Christianity (3000 if one co-opts the previous, Hebrew age of the Old Testament), encompassing a truly astounding time span and
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geographical spread. For a reader like me who was not born in the community, nor grew into the faith, this account does not serve to enlist one's sympathy or understanding. The main response is one of surprise, that a religion which was supposed to be based on compassion and forgiveness, has given rise to so much sheer violence and brutality. Much of that was apparently directed at fellow-religionists who happened to favor a slightly different cosmic outlook. It passes all comprehension how grown men could be ready to break bones and strip off flesh to impose their own version of such abstruse ideas as the nature of god and the soul. The author affords one explanation, almost in passing: when the Roman Empire (the original, before the Holy one) was broken up by the northern tribesmen a few centuries after Christ, the deposed Roman gentry needed some alternative structure to find a political role for themselves... and what better than an organized religion to do so! So the Christian church developed into a fighting, and conquering, force, rather than a motley crowd of fearful vegetarians like some others.
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LibraryThing member RajivC
This book is a real tour de force. It requires real discipline to go through it, as it is not an easy read. The breadth of material that he has covered is stupendous. This is not an easy history, and is quite complex. The focus of the book is very much centered around the developments in the
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West,with not too much mention of the developments in Africa and Asia. Personally, I can live with this, as I see Christianity as a Western religion.
The manner in which he has laid out the chapters is marvelous, and I think that he has, by and large, managed to keep a rather neutral tone through the book. This is really good, and is not easy to do.
The amount of material that he covers, and the amount of material that the reader has to cover is tremendous. While I read the book rather slowly, the sheer amount of material, and the complexity of the movement of Christianity did sometimes leave me a bit bemused as to what was happening. However, this is a really good read. I was not aware of the strong Greek influence on early Christianity, and this came as a surprise. Hence, the first 3,000 years.
There is a decline in church going in Europe, and I wonder what he feels about the future of the Church. This has not been covered and could be the subject of a next book.
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LibraryThing member billiecat
MacCulloch's Christianity suffers in comparison to his earlier book on the Reformation, which might have been called "Christianity: the Good Parts" The chapters before the Reformation spend a lot of time on obscure doctrinal differences, while that which comes after moves at breakneck speed through
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the enlightenment to Vatican 2, and sadly stops before the papacy of Francis. There is still much of interest in this book, ranging from the discussion of early Christian beliefs that show paths not taken, to a look at Eastern Christian churches and their complicated history with Islam and autocrats, so I can recommend it for a survey of a huge field of knowledge.
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LibraryThing member John_Warner
MacCulloch writes an extensive history of Christianity, warts and halos all. Unlike many other books on the history of Christianity, this tome is not limited to Western Christianity. The author details, occasionally peppered with amusing anecdotes, the spread of Christianity to the four corners of
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the globe. Although the information within this book is extensive, because it touches so many aspects, it only whets your appetite regarding some of the subjects. However, it could be an initial jumping off place for anyone interested in particular topics of Christian history.
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LibraryThing member MarcusBastos
Christian Faith and Change
This is a one volume history of Christianity. That’s not an easy task, even in a volume with 1184 pages. The author succeeds in it, beginning with the origins of christian faith (greek and judaic thought) and examining the constitution and development of the Christian
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Church in the West and in the East. Diarmaid MacCulloch argues that the longevity and success of the Christian Faith is derived in great measure to its capacity to accommodate change. Dogmatism and fanaticism, history shows, didn’t always prevails. The book emphasizes the main facts in christian’s history and explains the history’s backgrounds of their development. This
is an enlightening work, specially for the students of Christian Church and beliefs.
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LibraryThing member A.Godhelm
This book is a dense tome of christian history and as comprehensive and extensive as it is, you'll probably need to re-read it. There are just too many strands of history and theology interwoven to have it all stick on one read through. The book should be read side by side with a history of Europe,
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since the evolution of christianity is so closely linked to the historical political changes, however MacCulloch doesn't make the mistake of seeing everything through the "politics through other means" lens (until, arguably, the end of the book). Theological changes are allowed to be the origin of political change and movements, rather than the reverse.

The weakest part of the book is clearly the last that extends into modern history where it becomes wrapped up in the politics of near history and doesn't have the page count and depth left to substantiate much of what it claims. But it is easily forgivable given the very readable and comprehensive history that precedes it.
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LibraryThing member datrappert
There's not a lot to fault here. The fascinating story occasionally gets bogged down in religious terminology and you may need a scorecard to keep track of all the various players art some point, but McCulloch's narrative is compelling and fair. This is not a book about the truth of the bible or
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the integrity of biblical text, although it touches upon those matters. It is more a book about the beginnings of the Christian Church, its success in putting down early heresies, then its later splits into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant (and all the sub-varieties within at least the last two of these.) Along the way a modern reader should be repulsed by the violence committed in the name of religion--I won't even say in the name of god, although I'm an atheist, since it is so clearly about preserving the hegemony of one church or another. McCulloch tries to point out good things along the way, and a few folks do emerge as principled and thinking. But the church leadership (see The Bad Popes for some good examples) is often out of touch with reality. Infallibility? Give me a break. The last part of the book focuses on the changing nature of Christianity after its separation from government. McCulloch makes some hopeful noises, and yes, despite those of us who just wish it would go away, religion still holds a central part in the lives of people all over the world, including well over two billion Christians. I just have to be honest and admit that they are going to outlast me. But books like this do provide a better understanding of and even some enjoyment in Christianity.
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LibraryThing member Jonatas.Bakas
Christianity, one of the world's great religions, has had an incalculable impact on human history. This book describes the main ideas and personalities of Christian history, its organisation and spirituality, and how it has changed politics, sex, and human society.


Cundill History Prize (Finalist — Grand Prize — 2010)
PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize (Shortlist — 2010)

Original publication date

2009 (UK)
2010 (USA)


0141021896 / 9780141021898
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