Our Supersubstantial Bread

Frank Kermode

  • A History of Christianity: The First 3000 Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch
    Allen Lane, 1161 pp, £35.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9869 6

Eamon Duffy, whose opinion of this book will not be lightly disputed, remarks on its jacket that ‘everyone who reads it will learn things they didn’t know.’ Most lay reviewers will think this an understatement; yet the scope of the project, its distance from anything that might be described as parochial, may persuade them that the records of Christianity, preserved and interpreted for the most part by assiduous priests and scholars, deserve a few moments of their attention. Consider, as one instance among a thousand (I’ll come back to them), the decisions or ‘Definitions’ of the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). Even if we have never heard of them they are valid today. And the words of St Augustine, issuing eloquently from North Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries, would be debated as matters of life and death more than a thousand years later in Calvin’s Geneva and in the American colonies – even in some modern Nonconformist churches.

We may envy a tradition so firmly established, though cruelty and fanaticism seemed inevitable adjuncts of theological certitude. It is well known that this history contains many instances of virtue and sanctity, enough perhaps to rival or outdo those of folly and wickedness. Both belong equally to the record. The material documenting these achievements and delinquencies is presented to the historian as an enormous quarry of data inviting further refinement. Few readers will underestimate the achievement of a historian who is willing to take on what he himself calls a ‘risibly ambitious project’ and, with every appearance of pleasure, control a narrative that runs from ‘Greece and Rome (c.1000 BCE-100 CE)’ to ‘Culture Wars (1960-Present)’, dealing generously with the bewildering profusion of enthusiastic and schismatic variations on the 2000-year ground bass of Christianity.

The ‘3000 years’ of the book’s subtitle begin, then, in the ancient world, with Greece and Rome, the latter being the dominant world power at the time of the birth of Jesus. It has not escaped Christian notice that the coming together of the birth of Jesus and the reign of Augustus, the first emperor, might have been divinely arranged: that Augustus was inspired to ensure a peaceful pause in imperial history in order to accommodate the tranquil arrival of Jesus into a world supposed to have been, for a moment, free of imperial wars. Such was the Augustan peace. Later, over the centuries, there would be more collaborations, less mythical, between faith and empire, as in the reigns of Constantine and Charlemagne.

The languages that recorded these coincidences were Greek and Latin. But the world into which Jesus was born was polyglot; the Jews who were the first Christians mostly spoke Aramaic, as Jesus did, though in Alexandria, which had a large Jewish population, their language was Greek, and so was their Bible; and the language of early Christianity was Greek also. Variant styles of religion soon developed. The Jerusalem variety, which was controlled by a brother of Jesus, remained in many ways close to Judaism, while the energetic Paul opened up the new religion to Gentiles, even if they failed to practise circumcision and observe dietary laws. The Greek of these Jews was what modern scholars, at ease with Plato and Sophocles, loftily call ‘marketplace’ Greek. It was quite unlike Aramaic, a Semitic dialect, and unlike Latin, the language of the Roman oppressor, though Paul used Latin to obtain release from prison. Like Cicero, he was a Roman citizen.

Such is the exciting blend of cultures, languages and religions dealt with in the early pages of this book. A thousand pages later, as it reaches a temporary halt, MacCulloch is equably discussing some of the very latest things in religion, and recording the almost incredible success not only of Roman Catholicism but of a great diversity of lesser churches and sects. As nearly always, he explains these diversities patiently, if not always with complete approval. He seems to feel less than his usual warmth about the Jesuits, and he writes with special keenness about what might be called the ‘plot’ of Vatican II: the return to Rome of Giovanni Battista Montini, an agent of change; the arrival there in 1962 of 2000 bishops, only half of whom were European; the reluctant appointment of a Vatican press officer, ‘although, with a disdainful symbolism, he was not actually given anywhere to sit during his attendance at the council’s proceedings.’

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