"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. HarperOne (San Francisco,
2008). 315 pp., $26.95.
The Iraq War has brought the presence of Christians in what
was once Mesopotamia and Babylon to global attention.
However, what many do not recall is that these centers of the
Christian faith were flourishing communities for centuries,
with bishops, monasteries and universities, while Germany,
Britain and France were still on the barbarian frontier.
Maps of early Christianity often center on the Mediterranean.
However, some maps of the Middle Ages show Jerusalem at the
center, with Beijing on the Asian right, Britain on the
European left and the upper Nile Valley in Africa as the
bottommost point, well before Poland and Scandinavia even
appear as mission lands.
These ancient Persian and Syrian churches, which at one time
rivaled the Latin- and Greek-speaking world in learning,
missionary zeal and geographic extension, still exist and
carry a significant heritage of our common 2,000 years of
In 1984 Pope John Paul II and Syrian Patriarch Ignatius of
Antioch (now resident in Damascus, and called in this volume
the Jacobite Church) signed a common declaration on
eucharistic sharing, based on agreements of the 1970s
resolving disagreements on the nature and person of Christ
dating from 451. In 1994 a similar declaration was made with
the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East (called here
Nestorian), formerly of Baghdad and Persia, now resident in
Chicago. These ancient and living Christian communities have
a rich history, which now becomes part of our Catholic
heritage and our common future.
In "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year
Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia
- and How It Died," Philip Jenkins provides an engaging
volume, whose clarity of style and accessible narrative
belies the carefully researched and detailed documentation
that lies behind such a readable story.
He outlines the rise, heritage and expansion of these
churches in the early centuries with centers attributed to
the apostles. He describes their successful missionary
activity as far as China, India and Indonesia, their rich
literary and theological production, and their evangelization
of whole cultures. He gives an engaging and differentiated
view of the coming of Islam, its complex relations with its
Jewish and Christian roots, and the variety of approaches it
took to its Christian neighbors and subjects. Like Christian
relationships with Jews in Europe, periods of toleration
alternate with periods of persecution.
The author gives the lie to those who would characterize the
Muslim faith as any more violent in its history than
Christianity, or even biblical Judaism. Intolerance, violence
and persecution are common characteristics of particular
moments in all of the great world religions. Likewise, there
are periods of peaceful coexistence and cultural interchange.
He outlines the mutual support of the two and sometimes three
communities at particular points in the story.
However, the common thread is the decline of many of these
churches in their ancestral Christian homeland, and the
extinction of some communities. What will also surprise some
is that the final blow to many of these Christian communities
came with the violence following World War I in Turkey and
some other areas of the Middle East.
Jenkins also compares and contrasts the reasons for decline
and the differences between some communities that went
totally extinct, like Latin North Africa, and others that
survived heartily, like Christian Spain before the reconquest
of 1492 or the Coptic Orthodox Christians of Egypt.
The book, while descriptive and objective, ends with a series
of provocative questions which challenge received Christian
wisdom and secular oversimplifications. He explores in his
last chapter what might be the foundation for a theology of
Christian extinction, in the context of a doctrine of God,
the church and providence, which attends as much to the
vagaries of human history as to the successes of missionary
This volume makes an engaging read for the general public and
a useful resource for the historian of Christianity and the
theologian exploring the doctrine of providence and God's
action in human history.
Brother Gros is a professor of ecumenical and historical
theology at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tenn.,
and a former staff member of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of
Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.