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The First Thousand Years

The First Thousand Years

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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    The First Thousand Years
    Book Description:

    This sweeping history begins with the life of Jesus and narrates the remarkable story of Christianity as it unfolded over the next thousand years. Unique in its global scope, the book encompasses the vast geographical span of early Christianity, from the regions around the Mediterranean Sea through the Middle East and beyond to central Asia, India, and China. Robert Louis Wilken, beloved professor and renowned author, selects people and events of particular importance in Christian history to bring into focus the full drama of the new religion's development. The coming of Christianity, he demonstrates, set in motion one of the most profound revolutions the world has known.

    Wilken tracks the growth of Christian communities around the ancient world and shows how the influence of Christianity led not only to the remaking of cultures but also to the creation of new civilizations. He explores the powerful impact of the rise and spread of Islam on Christianity and devotes several chapters to the early experiences of Christians under Muslim rule in the Middle East, Egypt, north Africa, and Spain. By expanding the telling of Christian history to encompass perspectives beyond just those of the West, Wilken highlights how interactions with new peoples and languages changed early Christian practices, even as the shared rituals of Christian people bound them in spiritual unity despite their deep cultural differences.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18898-1
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    “What power preserves what once was, if memory does not last?” These words from the Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz kept coming to mind as I was writing this book. The past doesn’t vanish at once; it dies slowly. But if remembered, the dead maintain their ground and live among us.

    Historical memory, like all memory, is selective, and there are many claimants to the telling of Christianity’s early history. The Christian Church has a long and crowded past, and whether by design, forgetfulness, or ignorance, its history will be remembered in different ways. Our knowledge of the past is not...

  5. 1 Beginning in Jerusalem
    (pp. 6-16)

    In the centuries before the birth of Jesus, Rome, a city-state on the Italian peninsula, had gradually extended its rule not only over Italy but also over Gaul (modern France), Spain, and North Africa (modern-day Tunisia and Algeria). In the first century B.C. the Romans conquered large territories in the eastern Mediterranean, Greece, the Balkans, the ancient kingdoms of Asia Minor, Egypt, greater Syria (including the land of the Bible), and beyond. As the empire grew, and the earlier republican form of government proved ill-suited to the new challenges, the order and stability of the empire were invested in the...

  6. 2 Ephesus, Rome, and Edessa: The Spread of Christianity
    (pp. 17-27)

    In hisAnnals,an account of the Roman Empire in the first century, Tacitus the Roman historian had this to say about the early spread of Christianity: “The name Christian came from Christ who had been executed by Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea during the reign of Tiberius. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.”

    I’ve always been fond of the phrase “temporary setback.” For Tacitus, Christ’s death...

  7. 3 The Making of a Christian Community
    (pp. 28-36)

    Early in the second century, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, a metropolis in ancient Syria (southeastern Asia Minor) near the Mediterranean coast, was arrested during a persecution of Christians in the city. He was sent to Rome under guard of a cohort of ten soldiers. Along the way his keepers picked up other prisoners to be taken in chains to the capital. From Antioch they sailed to the southwestern coast of Asia Minor, where they planned to make their way to Ephesus, but instead they headed northeast to Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia, Ignatius was allowed to meet with a group of...

  8. 4 Divisions Within
    (pp. 37-46)

    It is tempting to romanticize the early Church and imagine a golden age of peace and harmony. In truth there was never a time, even in the first decades, that Christians had no differences. Because Christian faith holds that certain things are true (there is one God, creator of all that exists), controversy over what is to be believed as well as how the faith was to be practiced was present from the beginning. Sharp divisions arose during the first decades over whether the Jewish law should be observed by non-Jewish converts. At the end of the first century this...

  9. 5 Constructing a Catacomb
    (pp. 47-54)

    In the oft-cited passage from the Epistle to Diognetus, a second-century writing, it is said that Christians are distinguished from others neither by nationality (Egyptians or Scythians, for example), nor by language (such as Aramaic or Coptic), nor by customs. They call no country home, they do not live in their own cities, and they observe the mores of the people among whom they live. They are known to honor Christ as God, they shun the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome, and they gather weekly for a ritual meal. Yet, there is little else that set them apart....

  10. 6 A Learned Faith: Origen of Alexandria
    (pp. 55-64)

    In the early centuries few Christians made an impact outside the Christian community. Although by the beginning of the third century they had already composed a considerable body of writings, including the letters of Paul and Ignatius, different kinds of gospels, colorful tales of the lives of the apostles, an account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, Irenaeus’s book against the gnostics, these were read largely by Christians. Some wrote apologies, works that explained and defended Christianity to the outsider, but even these writings may have been aimed primarily at Christians. Few outsiders had detailed knowledge of Christian beliefs and practices,...

  11. 7 Persecution: Cyprian of Carthage
    (pp. 65-74)

    The first general persecution of Christians began in January 250. The date is noteworthy. Christianity had been around for more than two hundred years, yet this was the first systematic effort on the part of imperial authorities to force Christians to give up their beliefs and worship the Roman gods.

    In popular imagination the early Church is portrayed as undergoing repeated and ruthless persecution. In truth, suppression of Christianity in the Roman Empire was spasmodic and infrequent, usually prompted by local circumstances. We know about some of these incidents: the execution of bishop Polycarp by fire early in the second...

  12. 8 A Christian Emperor: Constantine
    (pp. 75-87)

    Although Christianity became linked to the fortunes of the Roman Empire, the role Rome was to play in the Church’s history was not apparent in the early centuries. Some Christians thought it providential that Christ was born during the reign of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, but most saw no convergence between the hopes of the Church and the aspirations of earthly rulers. In the early centuries the life of the Christian communities went on largely independent of the political affairs of the society around them. There were of course sporadic persecutions, social and cultural influences on Christians (on the...

  13. 9 The Council of Nicaea and the Christian Creed
    (pp. 88-98)

    In any telling of the story of Constantine’s rise to power, his triumph over rivals, his embrace of Christianity, and the building of a city bearing his name in the East, Constantine is the protagonist. But in giving allegiance to the God of the Christians he had taken on a new constituency as well as a new creed and one that was quite unlike any he had known previously. To become a Christian was one thing; to deal as emperor with Christianity as a corporate body was another matter. For the Church was an independent society with intelligent leaders accustomed...

  14. 10 Monasticism
    (pp. 99-108)

    In the year the controversy over Arius erupted in Alexandria a farmer in the village of Karanis in lower Egypt, fifty miles south of present-day Cairo, filed a legal petition alleging that a neighbor’s cow had trampled and destroyed the plantings in his fields. By happy fortune this petition was discovered some decades ago on a papyrus preserved in the sands of Egypt. In it the plaintiff, Aurelius Isidorus, complained that the cow had done this more than once. So he caught the cow and as he was leading it back to the village he was met on the road...

  15. 11 A Christian Jerusalem
    (pp. 109-117)

    In the year 409 a monk named Euthymius made the long journey from his homeland in Armenia to Palestine to behold with his own eyes the places where the great events of biblical history had taken place, to touch the rock of Golgotha where Christ had been crucified, and to kiss his sacred tomb. He was the first of a large company of monks from all over the Christian world to leave their native lands and settle in the desert of Judea east of Jerusalem, the “desert of the holy city” or the “dear desert,” as the monks called it,...

  16. 12 Emperor Julian, the Jews, and Christians
    (pp. 118-126)

    Emperor Constantine died in 337, and after some months of political maneuvering, along with the execution of several members of his family by other family members, he was succeeded by his three sons, Constantine II, who became caesar in the West, Constantius II, who ruled in the East, and Constans, who had responsibility for Italy and North Africa. Politics was bloody business in those days, and it was hardly an arrangement that could last. In 340 Constantine II was killed. For the next ten years there was relative peace between the brothers, but Constans was killed by a usurper in...

  17. 13 Bishop and Emperor: Ambrose and Theodosius
    (pp. 127-135)

    Although Julian’s brief reign as emperor disquieted Christians, he was a man of the past. The Church was growing in numbers and influence, and with each new generation the imprint of Christian beliefs on the mores of society became more visible. City life had begun to move to the rhythms of Christian time. Sunday had become a religious holiday, and festivals such as the Pasch (Easter) and Pentecost in spring and the Nativity (Christmas) in the dead of winter began to displace the Roman calendar. As churches rose from the ground in the center of cities the urban landscape had...

  18. 14 Architecture and Art
    (pp. 136-144)

    Architecture is the most conspicuous of the arts. Unlike poetry or painting, it occupies and shapes public space as a tangible and inescapable object whose impact is felt by all who make their way about the city. This was particularly true in the Mediterranean world, where life was lived outside. Such quotidian activities as cutting hair, repairing a sandal, or teaching children their ABCs took place out of doors. In the fourth century the face of the cities was changing as Christian churches were constructed across the Mediterranean world, altering, for example, the location of streets and alleys and opening...

  19. 15 Music and Worship
    (pp. 145-153)

    At the beginning of the twentieth century a papyrus was found in Egypt with a fragment of an early Christian hymn in praise of the holy Trinity. The papyrus is quite unusual, for it gives not only the Greek text of the hymn but musical notations as well, letters signifying the melody to which it was sung. The notations have been deciphered by musicologists, and a rendition of the hymn can be heard on a CD. As the stones of ancient buildings help us imagine how people lived long ago, so this precious document allows us to hear the sounds...

  20. 16 The Sick, the Aged, and the Poor: The Birth of Hospitals
    (pp. 154-162)

    Cappadocia is a mountainous region set high on the plateau of central Anatolia, or Asia Minor. The major road between Constantinople and Syria traversed the province, and soldiers, merchants, and adventurers passed through repeatedly. Its large conical-shaped rocks give the landscape a moonlike appearance, and the area was irresistible to early Christian monks who carved monastic cells and churches in its soft rock. The area is known best in Christian history as the home of three of the most illustrious thinkers in the early Church, Basil of Caesarea, called the Great, his gifted younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory...

  21. 17 The Bishop of Rome as Pope
    (pp. 163-173)

    Far beneath the ornate baroque interior of the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome lie the remains of an ancient cemetery. Nothing gives evidence that Christians were buried in the tombs, but close by there was a vacant field where people of modest means were laid to rest under terra-cotta slabs placed over their bodies. Sometime in the middle of the second century A.D. a brick wall was constructed to set off a new burial ground from the older cemetery. When the site was excavated in the 1940s, archaeologists found a small niche in the wall with a slab at...

  22. 18 An Ordered Christian Society: Canon Law
    (pp. 174-182)

    From its beginning, the Christian Church was a rule-making community. Even when the churches were very small, Saint Paul laid down guidelines for the ordering of their common life. In his letters he has things to say about marriage and divorce (1 Corinthians 7), membership in the church (1 Corinthians 6), celebrating the “Lord’s supper” (1 Corinthians 10), and meat as part of a public sacrifice to idols (1 Corinthians 8). The Gospel of Matthew includes sayings of Jesus on marriage and divorce (Matthew 19: 3–9) and gives language to be used in baptizing someone who has responded to...

  23. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  24. 19 Augustine of Hippo
    (pp. 183-194)

    It is a conspicuous, if seldom noted, historical detail that during the first millennium of Christian history the Church attracted many of the most gifted thinkers in the ancient world. The parade of luminaries is impressive: Clement and Origen of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, and of course the four Latindoctores ecclesiae(teachers of the Church), Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great. Yet Augustine towers above all. It is not hyperbolic to say that during his lifetime he was the...

  25. 20 The Great Controversy over Christ
    (pp. 195-204)

    Eloquence without wisdom is hazardous. In 428 a famous preacher from Syria named Nestorius was consecrated patriarch of Constantinople. Though fluent of speech, he lacked prudence and soon found himself at odds with the imperial family and monks in the city. The misstep that sparked his troubles was a sermon preached by his private chaplain denouncing the use of the termtheotokos,God-bearer, or mother of God, as a title for the Virgin Mary. Mary is but a woman, he said, and God cannot be born of a woman. In defending his presbyter, Nestorius preached a series of sermons that...

  26. 21 Egypt and the Copts; Nubia
    (pp. 205-213)

    When the bishops from Egypt returned home from the Council of Chalcedon they knew what awaited them. “Every district of Egypt will rise up against us,” they said. The actions of the council struck Alexandria like a huge wave from the sea. Dioscorus, the patriarch of Alexandria, had been deposed and the council had adopted a formal theological statement using language alien to the Alexandrian tradition. And by reaffirming the privileges of Constantinople as second to Rome, thereby relegating Alexandria to third place, Chalcedon had offended the dignity of the ancient apostolic see of Saint Mark.

    Emperor Marcian ordered that...

  27. 22 African Zion: Ethiopia
    (pp. 214-221)

    To the ancient Greeks, Ethiopia was the land of the “burnt-faced people” who lived far to the south of Egypt, near the headwaters of the Blue Nile, the great river that joins the White Nile at Khartoum in Sudan. The Greek historian Herodotus called its people “the most distant of men,” and Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright, dubbed it a “land far off, a nation of black men . . . who lived hard by the fountain of the sun where is the river Aethiops.”

    Viewed from the perspective of the Mediterranean world where Christianity first made its way, Ethiopia...

  28. 23 Syriac-Speaking Christians: The Church of the East
    (pp. 222-228)

    Unlike the Egyptian bishops who left Chalcedon in defeat, many from Syria, particularly in the orbit of Antioch, returned home with the satisfaction that the “two natures” formula was now enshrined in a solemn declaration of an imperial council. One bishop in particular had reason to rejoice. His name was Ibas, the Syriac-speaking bishop of the city of Edessa, east of Antioch. An energetic spokesman for the Antiochene tradition and a sharp critic of Cyril, Ibas had been deposed by Dioscorus at the “Robber Council” in Ephesus in 449. But two years later at Chalcedon he was restored to his...

  29. 24 Armenia and Georgia
    (pp. 229-237)

    Armenia is a large mountainous region west of the Caspian Sea and north of Mesopotamia (Iraq), bordering eastern Anatolia (Turkey). It is a land of lofty mountain ranges and river valleys with few lowlands. The average altitude is 5,900 feet above sea level, and its most famous geological feature is Mount Ararat, a towering peak of 16,000 feet, where according to the book of Genesis (8:4) the Ark of Noah came to rest when the floodwaters receded. The region around the great saline sea, Lake Van, was inhabited as early as the thirteenth century B.C., but it was not until...

  30. 25 Central Asia, China, and India
    (pp. 238-245)

    In the mid sixth century, a merchant set out from Egypt to sail to the southern coast of India. Like earlier visitors from the Roman Empire, he had undertaken the long journey to bring home peppercorns from the Malabar coastal region, and he called India the land where “pepper grows.” Pepper is indigenous to India, and it was one of the most prized spices in the ancient world. The Romans loved it as do we. In hisNatural History,Pliny the Elder said that pepper had nothing pleasing about it except its pungency, yet “we go all the way to...

  31. 26 A Christian Empire: Justinian
    (pp. 246-256)

    As Christianity was spreading eastward among new peoples, Christians in the Roman Empire were fashioning a Christian society. This work had been under way since the fourth century, but it was not until the sixth that it was realized, if only imperfectly. As recently as a hundred years earlier, a significant minority of people clung to the old ways and worshiped the Roman gods.

    In the early fifth century, several major Christian writers had written apologies in defense of Christian belief to the cultured despisers of the new religion. Most famous, of course, was Augustine’s great work,City of God...

  32. 27 New Beginnings in the West
    (pp. 257-268)

    What the Syriac language was to Christians east of Jerusalem, Latin was to Christians in the West. Its geographical reach was not as wide as that of Syriac, but it would bind the peoples living in Germany, France, the Low Countries, Poland, Scandinavia, the British Isles, Spain, and Italy into a distinctive Christian civilization that we know as Europe. Latin became the language of learning and of law, of civil administration and royal decrees, and of the Church’s principal rituals, baptism and the Eucharist. The language in which the poet Virgil sang the glories of Rome was the tongue in...

  33. 28 Latin Christianity Spreads North
    (pp. 269-278)

    The daunting task of carrying Christianity to the peoples living north of the Alps and in the British Isles was carried out, in the main, by brave and hardy Latin-speaking monks and bishops. It is a story—in truth many stories—stretching over hundreds of years, roughly from the fifth to the eleventh centuries. A case can even be made that the great period of Christian expansion in Europe did not come to an end until the fourteenth century, when Jogaila, the grand duke of Lithuania, adopted the faith.

    In the century after the demise of the empire in the...

  34. 29 The Sacking of Jerusalem; More Controversy over Christ
    (pp. 279-287)

    Although Constantinople was the political, administrative, and economic center of the Roman Empire, the hearts of Christians were fixed on Jerusalem, the city of King David where Solomon built the first Jewish temple, the stage for the Hebrew prophets, and the place of Jesus’s death and resurrection. To mark the site of Christ’s burial, Constantine’s architects had constructed a shrine with twelve enormous columns encircling the tomb. Across from the tomb they placed a courtyard to enclose the rock of Golgotha where Christ was crucified, and next to it they raised a huge basilica with four aisles and a nave....

  35. 30 No God but God: The Rise of Islam
    (pp. 288-296)

    No event during the first thousand years of Christian history was more unexpected, calamitous, and consequential than the rise of Islam. Few irruptions in history have transformed societies as rapidly and irrevocably as did the conquest and expansion of the Arabs of Islam in the seventh century. And none came with greater swiftness. Within a decade three major cities in the Byzantine Empire, Damascus (634), Alexandria (635), and Jerusalem (636), fell to the Arabs. There had been reports that something large was happening in the Arabian peninsula early in the seventh century, but the Byzantines were preoccupied with the Sasanids...

  36. 31 Images and the Making of Byzantium
    (pp. 297-306)

    Constantine’s decision in the fourth century to build a new capital of the Roman Empire at the site of the ancient city of Byzantium was serendipitous. Had he chosen to locate it in one of the major cities in the eastern Mediterranean, at Antioch in Syria, at the great port city of Caesarea on the Palestinian coast, or at Alexandria in Egypt, the empire would surely have collapsed in the face of the Arab conquest of the Middle East. Constantinople’s advantage was that it was located far to the west, and to an attacking army from the east it was...

  37. 32 Arabic-Speaking Christians
    (pp. 307-315)

    By the middle of the eighth century more than fifty percent of the Christian world had fallen under Muslim rule. In the span of less than a hundred years, the Arabs had conquered greater Syria (including the Holy Land and Jordan) and Egypt, and made their way from the western edge of Egypt along the North African littoral until they reached the Atlantic Ocean. From the Arabian peninsula they advanced northeast through Persia and across the Asian steppes to India. In 711 they reached Sind, today a province in Pakistan. Within the same decade, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar...

  38. 33 Christians Under Islam: Egypt and North Africa
    (pp. 316-323)

    After the triumphant march through greater Syria and Iraq, the Muslim commanders turned west, to Egypt, the most obvious next goal of their conquest. The Nile Valley was the granary of Constantinople, and Egypt the portal to the North African coast and points westward. The task fell to Amr Ibn al-As, one of the “companions” of Muhammad. As a merchant in Egypt he came to know the country well and had led the Muslim advance on Gaza bordering Egypt. In making the case to Caliph Umar that his forces should turn to Egypt, he is reported to have said: “The...

  39. 34 Christians Under Islam: Spain
    (pp. 324-332)

    At the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that after visiting the Christians in Rome his plan was to go on to Spain (Romans 15:28). But he died before he could make the journey, and there is no evidence that Christianity reached Spain in the first century. But it did arrive early and most likely from North Africa. The first mention of Christians in Spain appears in a writing of Tertullian of Carthage at the end of the second century. By the middle of the third century an ecclesiastical structure was in place embracing bishops from its...

  40. 35 An Emperor in the West: Charlemagne
    (pp. 333-343)

    Emperors stride again and again across the pages of Christian history, and in the early centuries four of them gave particular shape to the story: Caesar Augustus, during whose reign Jesus was born; Constantine, who signifies the turning of the people of the Roman Empire to Christianity; Theodosius in the late fourth century, who ruled that Catholic Christianity would be the religion of the empire; and Justinian, the great builder and lawgiver of the Eastern Roman Empire. By any measure these four emperors mark major epochs in the Church’s history. But there was a fifth, no less significant, no less...

  41. 36 Christianity Among the Slavs
    (pp. 344-354)

    The city of Thessalonica, sitting at the head of the Thermaic Gulf that opens into the Aegean Sea, enters Christian history early. Paul visited it in the late 40s and preached in the synagogue for three weeks. His labors led to the formation of a Christian community, the first on European soil. After leaving the city he wrote two letters to the Christians in Thessalonica, and the First Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, written in A.D. 50 or 51, is the earliest Christian writing we possess.

    Under the Roman Empire, Thessalonica became the capital of the province of Macedonia...

  42. Afterword
    (pp. 355-360)

    After a thousand years the scope of early Christian history comes into full view. Geography gives the clearest picture. Christianity began in Jerusalem and spread east to Syria and Mesopotamia and on to India and China; in the first decades churches were established in Egypt, Asia Minor, and Greece, later in the Balkans and among the Rus; in the West the new faith took root in North Africa, Italy, Spain, and later in northern Europe, the British Isles, and Scandinavia (including Iceland); far to the south it was adopted in Nubia and Ethiopia. By any measure the movement that began...

  43. Chronology and Maps
    (pp. 361-372)
  44. Suggested Readings
    (pp. 373-376)
  45. Translations
    (pp. 377-380)
  46. Index
    (pp. 381-388)