Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, (Lion Hudson, Oxford); 317pp. £12.99. ISBN 978 0 7459 5367 0
“Christianity…has on several occasions been destroyed in regions where it once flourished. In most cases the elimination has been so thorough as to obliterate any memory that Christians were ever there, so that today any Christian presence in these parts is regarded as a kind of evasive species derived from the West. Yet such a comment about the destruction of churches runs contrary to the story of Christianity as it features in the popular consciousness.” This paragraph reflects the two themes that stood out prominently for this reviewer in Philip Jenkins’ excellent book, firstly the balance and corrective to the usual Christianity as an exclusively Western phenomenon (the USA and Euro centric [mis]understanding of Christianity) and the death or destruction of Churches.
The view of Christianity as a Western phenomenon is regrettably not something limited to ignorant or ill educated obscure fundamentalists, witness Pope Benedict’s (2006) insistence “that authentic Christianity had to be based on the Greek philosophical tradition, establishing the European intellectual model as the inevitable norm for all future ages.” Or maybe those obscure fundamentalists do not have a monopoly on ignorance? For “through much of history, leading Churches have successfully framed the Christian message in the context of non-Greek and non-European intellectual traditions, of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.”
Apart from its questionable historical accuracy the Euro-centric model is not particularly helpful to Christians: “the word Christendom implies for many a theocratic regime in which the most stringent moral and doctrinal codes were enforced by law, while Jews or other outsiders were excluded… all too often, Christian states were associated with ignorance, in a world that remembered only vestiges of classical learning and science.” If only we would “move our focus away from Europe, everything we think we know about Christianity shifts kaleidoscopically”. Some twenty years before the coronation of Charlemagne in AD800, the event and date by which many mark the beginning of Western or European Christendom, Timothy became patriarch of the Church of the East: “Timothy’s career violates everything we think we know about the history of Christianity – about its geographical spread, its relationship with political state power, its cultural breadth, and its interaction with other religions… Timothy was arguably the most significant Christian spiritual leader of his day, much more influential than the Western pope, in Rome” with something like a quarter of the world’s Christians considering Timothy their spiritual head. With metropolitans in Afghanisatan, Turkmenistan, China, Tibet; operating “in multiple languages: in Syriac, Persian, Turkish, Soghdian, and Chinese, but not Latin, which scarcely mattered outside Western Europe”, Philip Jenkins gives deserving but by no means exclusive attention to Timothy’s Church of the East. He also majors on the equally neglected Syrian Orthodox Church, one of our sister Oriental Orthodox Churches. The neglect of these Churches by Church historians is woeful and shameful – and we should find it as absurd as we would find European Christianity being left out of Church history.
These eastern Churches used texts which “according to most Western accounts should have been forgotten long since… abundant alternative scriptures and readings, some of them truly ancient”. There was the late Eighth or early Ninth Century discovery of a large collection of ancient manuscripts near Jericho (something akin to the Twentieth Century finds at Nag Hamadi or the Dead Sea Scrolls) which when compared with the Greek Septuagint and available Hebrew scriptures threw light on New Testament passages that referred to the Old but scholars had not been able to locate in the Old Testament – herein were the original references discovered. These ancient finds included among other things some two hundred Psalms some of which “also appear in the Qumran scrolls.” Western scholars of the time would have known few of the relevant languages of the manuscripts – indeed very few “Western Christian scholars…would have known how to hold the manuscripts: which way was up?”
What of “the destruction of churches” so “contrary to the story of Christianity as it features in the popular consciousness”? A chapter appropriately entitled The Great Tribulation chronicles something of the centuries of persecution and destruction Christians through the Middle East, Africa and Asia suffered under Islam. And the sufferings of our persecuted brethren are brought up to date even through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is something of a rarity to read in any book of the genocide of the Armenians and Syrians (the word genocide coined as a new term in response to what had been inflicted upon them) and still rarer to read Hitler’s reported words when challenged about his ethnic policies, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” All this Christian history deserves to be vastly better known than it too often is and this book is another excellent attempt to rectify this lack. The author’s exploration of reasons and circumstances for Christianity having vanished “utterly from regions…once dominated” makes for fruitful consideration. One particular point still desperately relevant today is Christians’ use of “material successes as proofs of their faith.” This is an argument just ready to backfire and reinforce the competing claims of an alternative religion when it triumphs over Christianity in terms or worldly power and success and has encouraged more than one Christian’s conversion to Islam. It is important to be reminded of a truth too many Christians find uncomfortable or maybe even ignore; that we have no guarantee of any Church continuing in any particular given place, as illustrated by Vincent de Paul’s observation during the Thirty Years’ War that “Jesus promised that his church would last until the end of time, but that he never mentioned the words in Europe.” One aspect of the death or destruction of Churches from particular areas possibly lacking was an sufficient appreciation that even if a once vast Church completely dies out, such a Church is not necessarily a failure – what, after all, of the millions of Christians who found salvation throughout its centuries of ministry?
In vivid contrast to the general tale of Churches dying out is the achievement of the Coptic Church in reaching the hearts of the people, being “firmly rooted among ordinary Egyptians, too deeply to be affected very badly by most disasters that might befall.” Philip Jenkins stresses the significance of the Coptic language in this achievement and in this he is certainly right but the Coptic Church put down roots throughout its native Egyptian culture, language yes but art too, transfiguring Horus slaying the serpent into the standard portrayal of Saint George slaying the dragon, and transfiguring the Ankh, the Key of Life into the new Key of Life, the Cross. “Even when Coptic itself gave way to Arabic, Christianity was too thoroughly naturalized to vanish without a lengthy struggle. Not all the disasters of the fourteenth century could eliminate this absolute association between Christianity and Egyptian-ness.”
One important corrective is highly relevant at this time when European and Western culture’s supposed debt to Islam is repeatedly mentioned. “It is common knowledge that medieval Arab societies were far ahead of those of Europe in terms of science, philosophy and medicine, and that Europeans derived much of their scholarship form the Arab world; yet in the early centuries, this cultural achievement was usually Christian and Jewish rather then Muslim. It was Christians…who preserved and translated the cultural inheritance of the ancient world… Much of what we call Arab scholarship was in reality Syriac, Persian, and Coptic… Syriac Christians even make the first reference to the efficient Indian numbering system that we know today as “Arabic”, and long before this technique gained currency among Muslim thinkers.” Ancient Eastern Christianity influenced more than Muslim Numeracy, medicine and science but even religion: “religious practices…including the prostrations that appear so alien to modern Westerners” and the “self-denial of Ramadan was originally based on the Eastern practice of Lent.” It is good to see again corrected this popular misconception that Copts bow because of Muslim influence when the reality is that the Copts were bowing in worship centuries before Islam existed and that it is their bows and prostrations that influenced Muslim worship. When it comes to Christianity and especially to Orthodox and Oriental Christianity ignorance abounds in the West as many of us know who frequently experience this. One thinking of joining the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate was quizzed by his supposedly educated English clergy friends as to why he wanted to join a Muslim sect! Well, the Coptic Church is in Egypt – right? And we all know Egypt is Muslim – right? Therefore…
One definite criticism, however, must be made of this generally outstanding book and that is the use of the term Monophysite (belief “that Christ had only one nature, so that the divine overwhelmed the human”) for Egyptian (Coptic) and Syrian (Jacobite) Christianity. Considering the author’s evident education, research and scholarship I really must regard this as a blot in, I repeat, an otherwise excellent work.
May this magnificent book to which this review cannot begin to do justice add its impressive weight to that small but growing list of books which are endeavouring to pierce through the dark clouds of Western parochialism and ignorance of Christian history.
Father Simon Smyth
Chalcedon in Context: Church Councils, 400-700, ed. Richard Price and Mary Whitby, Translated Texts for Historians, Contexts 1 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009). viii + 205 pp. £65 ISBN 978-1-8463 1-177-2.
I was fortunate enough to attend a Colloquium on the Council of Chalcedon in 2006 at Oxford University, organised by Mary Whitby, one of the editors of this volume. Many of the papers which were read on that occasion were both interesting and informative, and although I still have the notes I took at the time they are never as useful as having the full text of the papers. This volume is a collection of the revised and expanded papers which were presented at the Colloquium, and together they provide an important source for placing the councils held during this period in a proper historical context.
Of course there are always aspects of any paper which might be disagreed with, but most of these papers are entirely and surprisingly free from a polemical or party spirit, and the position of the non-Chalcedonian communion is dealt with intelligently and respectfully. There are ten papers presented here, covering the period from Ephesus I in 431 AD to the Quinisext Council in 692 AD, although the majority of the papers are concerned with the period before and after Chalcedon.
Fergus Millar provides an interesting view of the Acts of the Second Council of Ephesus, 449 AD, which shows how the production of Acts for all councils was not a matter of verbatim record, but was a deliberate composition and exclusion of materials for a definite purpose. In the case of the Syriac Acts of Second Ephesus which have come down to us, these are dated to 535 AD and concentrate on the condemnation of various heterodox figures in 449 AD who became of wider interest at exactly this period in the 6th century during the Three Chapters controversy.
Richard Price provides three papers, and each one is a pleasure to read. He seems to always take a sympathetically critical view of our non-Chalcedonian fathers, and this allows him to present a much more balanced view of the historical context surrounding Chalcedon than those who take a strictly partisan point of view. His papers provide a refreshingly honest overview of Chalcedon, and he is able to speak of St Dioscorus as ‘the Athanasius of his age’. His paper on Constantinople in 553 AD is also thought-provoking, as he contrasts the idea that orthodoxy is conservative and unchanging, with the historical evidence that shows history being rewritten to produce a simpler narrative that excluded any recognition that the past had been confused and controversial.
There is an interesting paper included by Charlotte Roueché, which considers the place of acclamations at Chalcedon and elsewhere. These are often treated as if the council in question had descended into violent anarchy, but Roueché shows that in fact this was a normal means for the majority to make its views known. These acclamations were carefully recorded because they were as much a part of the official record of a council as the official contributions of leading bishops.
This volume is a pleasure to read, and I fear it is only the great cost which will prevent it being widely known and appreciated. Each paper adds something of value to the study of this period and the Christological controversies which dominated the attentions of the Church. The fact that our non-Chalcedonian position is treated in a balanced manner means that there is no constant irritation at being misunderstood and misrepresented. On the contrary, this book could very easily be studied with profit by any thoughtful Oriental Orthodox student of theology and Church history.
Father Peter Farrington
The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553 – 2 vol set: With Related Texts on the Three Chapters Controversy (Liverpool University Press – Translated Texts for Historians) Richard Price, 978-1846311789. 488pp. £120
Richard Price has already served the church well by producing the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, and has now shown himself worthy of a double portion of praise by producing this excellent and comprehensive translation of the Acts of the Council of Constantinople, 553, with many important supporting documents.
More than a third of the first volume is taken up with an introductory essay in which Price sets the scene for the council, and describes the ecclesiastical policy of the emperor Justinian, who was the driving force behind the event. He also produces a useful summary of the substance of the Three Chapters which were condemned at Constantinople, and the difficulties associated with its reception.
The translated material begins with correspondence describing the North African response to Justinian’s first edict against the Three Chapters, followed by the text of Justinian’s Second Edict. He concludes this preparatory material with a series of letters to and from the unfortunate Pope Vigilius, sent before the council.
In volume I Price then provides the acts of the first five sessions of the council, which he completes in volume II, by providing the final three sessions. To make this work as comprehensive as possible he then adds translations of the constituta of Vigilius, and the anti-Origenist canons which were associated with the council. A selection of maps, and a lengthy bibliography round off volume II.
Clearly this volume will be of use to historians, as the series is intended, but it will also be of inestimable value to those Oriental Orthodox students of the Christological controversy who wish to understand the relation of this council to our own theological tradition. It will also be of great use to those engaged in ecumenical dialogue who wish to return to these primary sources and consider afresh how they can be made a means of unity rather than a source or object of polemics.
Richard Price has produced an interesting, and even exciting collection of translated texts and introductory materials. His writing style is easily accessible, without being populist, and his content is rewarding of study without being unnecessarily opaque. He is sympathetic and understanding of the participants in the events he describes, and has produced a finely balanced account of the council of Constantinople that can be entirely recommended to members and students of the Oriental Orthodox tradition.
This is a two volume edition, and is priced beyond the pockets of many of those who would find it interesting, and it is to be hoped that a paperback edition, as with the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, will appear in due course.
Father Peter Farrington
John Fenwick, The Forgotten Bishops. The Malabar Independent Syrian Church and its Place in the Story of the St. Thomas Christians of South India, (Gorgias Press, Piscataway, NJ, USA: 2009), Gorgias Eastern Christian Studies 20), xlvii + 636 pp. & illus. ISBN 978-1-60724-619-0. Price: US $160.
In 1992 John Fenwick published his delightful study of the Malabar Independent Syrian Church (MISC), which until then had remained no more than a footnote in other histories of Christianity in Malabar. He has now returned to the topic with his usual thoroughness and attention to detail with this very substantial history, which is a significant contribution to the history of Orthodoxy in South India.
The first thing that needs to be noted is that this is much more than a history of MISC but actually chronicles Malankara Church history as a whole from its foundation to the beginning of the twentieth century. Although it is essentially an historical study, it stands its ground with Bishop Leslie’s Brown’s The Indian Christians of St. Thomas (1982) insofar as its stance is neutral and there is a willingness to critically re-examine historical sources.
Chapter 1 offers a simple but valuable introduction dealing with the geographical context, the ethnography and political organisation; whilst Chapter 2 on Syriac Christianity explores the Syriac tradition, the Christological controversies of the fourth century and Rome’s involvement with the Syriac churches prior to 1498. Chapter 3 briefly outlines the tradition concerning St. Thomas and India and the internal administration of the Indian Church under the Pakalomattom Archdeacons. These all prepare the ground for the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498 and its disastrous impact on the indigenous Christian community.
Having chronicled the subjugation of the local church to the Roman Catholic Church at the Synod of Diamper (1599) and the revolt of the Coonen Cross Oath (1653) followed by sporadic contacts with Mesopotamian bishops which led – almost in a fit of absent-mindedness – to the switch of allegiance from the East Syrian Patriarchs of Babylon to the West Syrian Patriarchs of Antioch, we move onto less familiar ground. This is not because the events are totally unfamiliar but because Bishop Fenwick’s use of sources is exact and his analysis sagacious.
The Malankara Metropolitan, Mar Thoma V (1728-1765) was not canonically consecrated but took the pontifical insignia from the hands of his predecessor when he was too moribund to perform the ceremony. Anxious to protect his position from the predations of the Catholics, Mar Thoma V sent several appeals to the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, Gregorios III. Unfortunately the Patriarch despatched more than one bishop to Kerala, thus causing confusion. An impartial observer might even feel that Antioch’s interventions throughout Malabar Church history have remained consistent ever since. Mar Ivanios al-Arqugianyi arrived in 1746 and begun conforming the Indian Church to West Syrian traditions, although he surprisingly flirted with Rome. In 1751 Patriarch Gregorios sent Mar Basilios Shukr Allah, Maphrian of the East, and Mar Gregorios Yuhanna, Metropolitan of Jerusalem, to Malabar. Mar Basilios and Mar Ivanios soon quarrelled and the former induced the Dutch authorities to deport Mar Ivanios. Mar Thoma also proved a problem as he was not inclined to relinquish his authority and was in no hurry to meet the Syrian bishops. The result was that the Orthodox community split into two factions. Mar Basilios continued the process of training clergy in the West Syrian ways and in 1752 consecrated one of his retinue as Mar Ivanios Yuhanna of Malabar. A brief concordat was established with Mar Thoma V leaving him free to administer the church provided the supremacy of the Antiochian Patriarchate was recognised but this did not last and the irregularity of his position was not resolved. In 1760 he purported to consecrate his cousin, Mar Thoma VI, as his successor. In 1764 Mar Basilios died and was followed by Mar Thoma V the following year.
Six years later (1770) Mar Thoma VI submitted to be consecrated at the hands of Mar Gregorios and Mar Ivanios who gave him the new name, Mar Dionysios I. The delay in resolving his position appears to have been due to the insistence of the Syrian bishops that the West Syrian uses should be adopted unequivocably. However, once again relations broke down between the Syrian bishops and the new Indian bishop – who, like his uncle, also began flirting with Rome – so that in 1764 Mar Mar Basilios consecrated one of his protégés, Ramban Abraham Katumangat, as Mar Koorilose I and named him as Metropolitan of Malabar. When Mar Gregorios died in 1773 he bequeathed all his possessions to Mar Koorilose as his heir. Initially accorded recognition as Metropolitan by the Rajah of Cochin he soon faced fierce opposition from Mar Dionysios who used his influence with the more powerful Rajah of Travancore to have that recognition rescinded and Mar Koorilose dispossessed and imprisoned. Managing to escape to Anjur, only 5 kilometres outside the territory of Cochin and just within British Malabar, he eventually purchased land at Thozhiyur, which became the centre of his diocese.
However, the MISC does not disappear from view with this defeat as the line of Mar Dionysios I eventually died out in 1816 and the MISC Metropolitan, Mar Philoxenos II, was not only asked to consecrate bishops for the larger church but on two occasions occupied the position of Malankara Metropolitan himself (1817 and 1825-9). In due course the death of Mar Koorilose III of Thozhiyur in 1856 ended the succession from Mar Gregorius of Jerusalem and it became necessary for Mar Koorilose IV to receive consecration from the Malabar Metropolitan, Mathews Mar Athanasios, who had received direct consecration from Patriarch Elias II of Antioch in 1842. Although he was subsequently deposed by Patriarch Peter IV of Antioch he retained government recognition as Metropolitan until 1876. This relationship with the “Reformers” meant that the MISC metropolitan provided the episcopate to the Mar Thoma Church in 1894. In 1935 the Mar Thoma bishops were able to return the favour and since then have consecrated subsequent MISC Metropolitans. Despite this co-operation, however, the MISC has not adopted the Mar Thoma reforms but has remained faithful to Syrian Orthodox faith and order.
Bishop Fenwick steers his way through these intractable problems with remarkable skill and analyses contradictory accounts with a clinical detachment. Apart from this he has unearthed resources previously little, if ever, used whilst drawing on the CMS records at Birmingham University and other archives in Britain.
Gorgias Press is to be commended for its encouragement of such works, but its proof-reading is sadly lacking and the use of the same cover design for several different books is strangely unimaginative. It is sad that the price is so inflated, especially as this is an essential work of reference for those wishing to understand the convulated history of Malabar Christianity.
Exegesis and Hermeneutics in the Churches of the East. Ed. Vahan S. Hovhanessian. Peter Lang. 2007. 175pp. 978-1-4331-0495-4
The Orthodox tradition is often viewed in a populist manner in the West as if it had no interest in Scripture. Perhaps it has picked this mis-perception up from the same populist view of Roman Catholic history. This volume, a collection of papers presented at the 2007 meeting of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions unit of the Society of Biblical Literature will surely go some way to proving such views to be entirely misguided.
The eleven papers presented here reveal that the Orthodox traditions have always been rooted in the study of the Scriptures, and have always based their theological and spiritual developments on their reading of Scripture.
Although the titles of some of the papers might suggest that they are beyond the interest of the intelligent lay Orthodox reader, nevertheless the time spent in reading each paper is well rewarded with a greater understanding of the place of Scripture in our Orthodox tradition, and important insights into the manner in which Scripture was understood and treated by the eastern Fathers.
Some of the Fathers studied in this volume will be less well known to the wider Oriental Orthodox community. Several of the papers deal with the exegesis and hermeneutics used by Aphrahat for instance, a fourth century Syrian writer in Persia. Two others are concerned with Ephrem the Syrian. Another paper provides some interesting insights into the place of the Book of Revelation in the lectionaries of the East. Each of the papers will be of great interest to a serious student of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Scriptural tradition.
The fact that these papers were presented at an international conference means that they are not so long that the lay student will get defeated by academic detail, nor so short that nothing of value will be communicated. The volume benefits from the respectful and entirely Orthodox manner in which the Fathers of the past are studied. This is not a critical deconstruction of the Orthodox view of Scripture, but equally each paper is reflective and provides insights into the views of those Fathers that are considered, the contexts in which they studied and wrote, and the value of these insights for our own Orthodox Christian study of Scripture.
Father Peter Farrington