Feast of the Martyr Sabinas of Egypt
The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken
“CHRISTIANITY IS an affair of things.” This line comes late in Wilken’s book, but it sums up his entire approach to the rise and flourishing of the Church in the first millennium of its existence. For Wilken, the Church moved from a persecuted minority to an imperial powerhouse in the Mediterranean world and beyond because it produced a tangible culture, things that existed and remained in the world: catacombs, churches, monasteries, hospitals, icons. Even the bones of the martyrs became material objects of religious devotion. The Church, in other words, has a deep investment in the material world. It is according to this rubric—how the Church manifested its truth claims in things—that Wilken lays out his history. He does this patiently and methodically; but far from being wooden or mechanical, his prose unfolds in lovely, languorous sentences, demonstrating his deep affection for his source material. Despite the book’s broad scope, the details are vivid and sharp. The chapters are short, focusing on distinct regions, personalities, or controversies in the Church’s first millennium, moving the book forward in slow, purposeful steps that range as far west as Great Britain and as far east as China. Wilken thus surveys not only the more familiar movements of the early Church—the trinitarian and christological controversies at Nicaea and Chalcedon and unforgettable personalities such as Constantine, Augustine, Basil the Great, and Maximus the Confessor—but also rehabilitates largely underexplored aspects of the Church’s life in its initial centuries: the potent missionary initiatives of the Syrian church, the emergence of Christianity in Armenia and Georgia, and the lives of Arabic-speaking Christians under Islamic rule. Wilken’s book is best read slowly, relishing, as he does, both the obscure details of life at the edges of the empire (and beyond) and the civilization-making convulsions and controversies at its very heart. For beginners and seasoned scholars alike.
416 pp. paper $22.00
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