This was originally posted in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (vol. 75, no. 2, pages 18-23) and then reposted on this website. I only post it here because it fits my conclusion about early Christianity being a sordid enterprise of politics and not divine intervention.
When bishops brawled: An interview with Philip Jenkins
A U.S. Catholic interview
Professor Philip Jenkins, who studies Christianity both ancient and modern, devotes a whole book to the story, but there’s more to it than just airy theological questions. Scheming bishops, monastic militias, and the imperial court all played their parts, along with a healthy dose of chance.
“When you look at history, you realize that what we think of as orthodoxy gets established only gradually by a long series of events, which seem to be almost random,” says Jenkins of the story he tells in Jesus Wars (HarperOne, 2010). “Is it pure chance or, looking at it in a good Old Testament way, is it providence?”
Theological questions aside, Jenkins argues that ancient conflict among Christians contributed to the rapid spread of Islam in the seventh century in what had been the heartland of Christianity. “Where did Islam come from? You cannot understand how Islam appears in the seventh century unless you understand the world of the divided churches,” he says. “A lot of problems that we think about as modern actually go back 1,500 years or more.”
Your new book is called Jesus Wars. Why would you describe the debate over the natures of Christ as a war?
For several hundred years, especially in the 400s and following centuries, the whole world revolved around literal and figurative wars over who Jesus was. That basic question ultimately destroyed the Roman Empire and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people during the fifth century.
Theological ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. The toughest thing to explain to people in the fifth century would be the difference between politics and religion. They would see the distinction as meaningless. Religion was about God and how God took care of the world, including how God rewarded and punished states.
Why were these questions arising at this point in history?
A large part of it was connected with establishment. Christianity received toleration in 313, but then the empire had to decide which particular part of Christianity it was going to tolerate. In the fourth century the Roman Empire got more specific about who it recognized as legitimately Christian. There was a lot at stake, because once you said that somebody was not legitimately Christian, they didn’t have the right to have church buildings and would have to operate secretly.
The world became a lot less tolerant as the fourth century went on. In 385 the Roman Empire executed its first heretic, and by the 430s people talked about burning heretics quite regularly. By the year 500 your life depended on whether you were the right kind of Christian.