The mutation of Christianity

Diarmaid MacCulloch examines a faith that has repeatedly shown a remarkable capacity for change

The Holy Face by Andrei Rublev. Tempera on wood, 14th century. Moscow, Russia. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Christianity is, at root, a personality cult. Its central message is the story of a person, Jesus, whom Christians name also as the Christ (from a Greek word meaning ‘Anointed One’): an aspect of the God who was, is and ever shall be, yet who is also a human being, set in historic time. They believe that they can still meet this human being in a fashion comparable to the disciples who walked with him in Galilee and saw him die on the cross. In a BBC TV series, starting this month, I am trying to tell their stories.

There are two thousand years’ worth of Christian stories, which may seem a daunting task for historians who are used to modern professional expectations that a true scholar knows a lot about not very much. Yet two millennia isn’t a long time. Christianity has to be seen as a young religion, far younger than for instance Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism or its own parent Judaism, and it occupies a small fraction of the lived experience of what is so far a very short-lived species.

The series conceives the overall structure of Christian history differently from most predecessors. After Jesus’s life and its immediate effects, the history of Christianity can only be a unified narrative for around three centuries before it begins to diverge into language-families: Latin-speakers, Greek-speakers and those speaking Oriental languages (the chief among them being of course Jesus Christ himself). As a result, after the three or four centuries following the birth of Jesus, the story I tell is divided three ways.

One split emerged because one section of Christianity, the church within the Roman empire, found itself suddenly receiving patronage and increasingly unquestioning support from Constantine ‘the Great’, successor of emperors who had formerly persecuted Christianity. Christians to the east of that empire did not. Within the imperial church, there was a further division between those who, looking for a formal language in which to express themselves, habitually chose Greek, and those who turned to Latin. This tripartite split became institutionalised after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and the three tales occupy three television episodes, with little overlap until around 1700.

First is the Christianity which in the early centuries one would have expected to become dominant, that of the Middle Eastern homeland of Jesus. These Christians spoke a language akin to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus himself, which developed into Syriac. Many of these Syriac Christians were on the margins of the empire.

When a Roman emperor sought at Chalcedon to impose a solution to a difficult theological problem – how to talk of the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ – most Syrians rejected his solution. However, they radically disagreed among themselves as to why they were rejecting it, taking precisely opposite views – which are most precisely, if inelegantly, described as ‘Miaphysite’ and ‘Dyophysite’.

Miaphysite and Dyophysite Syriac Christians performed remarkable feats of mission in north-east Africa, India and east Asia, although their story was also profoundly and destructively altered by a new monotheism from the same Semitic homeland, Islam. Still, in the eighth century of the Christian era, the great new city of Baghdad would have been a more likely capital for worldwide Christianity than Rome. The extraordinary accident of the irruption of Islam is the chief reason why Christian history turned in another direction.

The second story is that of the western Latin-speaking church which came to look to the bishop of Rome, and within which he became a largely unchallenged leader. In the Latin west of the fourth century, the prominence of the bishop of Rome, already often referred to as papa (‘pope’), was becoming apparent, as the emperors abandoned Rome, and he was increasingly left to his own devices.

After this western story has reached the 14th century, when the papal project of monarchy ran into difficulties, we move eastwards to meet the third strand, Orthodoxy. Like Rome, the Orthodox are heirs of the Roman empire, but whereas western Latin Christians emerged out of the ruins of the western half of that empire, the Greek-speaking eastern church was shaped by the continuing rule of the eastern emperor. Just when it seemed doomed to decay after the fall of Byzantium to the Ottomans, a new variety of Orthodoxy far to the north began revealing its potential as leader among the Orthodox: Russian Christianity. The western Latin story resumes with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, which tore the western church into fragments, but which also launched Christianity as the first world faith.

From 1700, the three stories converge once more, as the world was united by the expansion of western Christian empires. Despite their present variety, modern Christianities are more closely in touch than they have been since the first generations of Christians in the first-century Middle East.

Alongside these narratives is the tangled and often tragic story of the relations between Christianity and its mother-monotheism, Judaism, as well as with its monotheistic younger cousin, Islam. For most of its existence, Christianity has been the most intolerant of world faiths, doing its best to eliminate all competitors, with Judaism a qualified exception, for which (thanks to some thoughts from Augustine of Hippo) it found space to serve its own theological and social purposes.

Even now, by no means all sections of the Christian world have undergone the mutation of believing unequivocally in tolerating or accepting any partnership with other belief systems. There were huge consequences when the 15th and 16th-century monarchs of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) reinvented their multi-faith society as a Christian monopoly, and then exported that single-minded form of Christianity to other parts of the world. The destruction of Spanish Judaism and Islam after 1492 had a major role in developing new forms of Christianity which not only challenged much of the early church’s package of ideas, but also fostered the mindset that led in the 17th and 18th centuries to the Enlightenment in the west.

In the old city of Jerusalem is a medieval church standing on the foundations of the basilica that the Emperor Constantine and his mother built over the likely site of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Within the walls of what the western churches call the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the Orthodox give it an entirely different name, the Anastasis, meaning resurrection), the results of Constantine’s decision are played out daily in the epically bad behaviour of the various fragments of the imperial Christian church whose adherents worship in the building.

I have witnessed early one December morning the instructive spectacle of two rival ancient liturgies noisily proceeding simultaneously above the empty tomb of the saviour himself, on opposite faces of the ugly and perilously decayed 19th-century Sepulchre shrine. It was a perfect juxtaposition of Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christianity, as the serenity of a Latin mass with full organ struggled against the chanting of the Miaphysite Copts.

I particularly enjoyed the moment when the bearer of the Coptic censer swept with brio around the shrine to the very frontier of the rival liturgy, and sent his cloud of incense billowing into the heretical Latin west. The extremes of Christianity result from its seizing the most profound and extreme passions of humanity. Its story cannot be a mere abstract tale of theology or historical change.

All the world faiths which have known long-term success have shown a remarkable capacity to mutate, and Christianity is no exception, which is why one underlying message of this history is its sheer variety. Many Christians do not like being reminded of Christianity’s capacity to develop, particularly those who are in charge of the various religious institutions which call themselves churches, but that is the reality and has been from the beginning.

This was a marginal branch of Judaism whose founder left no known written works. Jesus seems to have maintained that the trumpet would sound for the end of time very soon, and in a major break with the culture around him, he told his followers to leave the dead to bury their own dead. Maybe he wrote nothing because he did not feel that it was worth it, in the short time left to humanity.

Remarkably quickly, his followers seemed to question the idea that history was about to end: they collected and preserved stories about the founder in a newly invented form of written text, the codex (the modern book format). They survived a major crisis of confidence at the end of the first century when the Last Days did not arrive – perhaps one of the greatest turning points in the Christian story, although we know very little about it. Christianity emerged from it a very different institution from the movement created by its founder or even its first great apostle, Paul. This is emphatically a personal view of the sweep of Christian history. I hope that the series will help readers stand back from Christianity, whether they love it or hate it, or are simply curious about it, and see the big picture.

Although modern historians have no special capacity to be arbiters of the truth or otherwise of religion, they still have a moral task. They should seek to promote sanity and to curb the rhetoric which breeds fanaticism. There is no surer basis for fanaticism than bad history, which is invariably history over-simplified. My aim has been to seek out what I see as the good in the varied forms of the Christian faith, while pointing clearly to what I think is foolish and dangerous in them.

Religious belief can be very close to madness. It has brought human beings to acts of criminal folly as well as to the highest achievements of goodness, creativity and generosity. I tell the story of both extremes. If this risibly ambitious project can at least help to dispel the myths and misrepresentations which fuel folly, then I will believe it to have been more than worthwhile.

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Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church in Oxford University. His book, A History of Christianity, was published by Allen Lane in September 2009. The accompanying BBC Four series aired in November 2009.