Wednesday, October 20, 2010

History of Christianity by Paul Johnson


Richard Marius The Christian Century Paul Johnson, an English Roman Catholic, has given us the best one-volume history of Christianity ever done. -- Review

History of Christianity Book Review

First published in 1976, Paul Johnson's exceptional study of Christianity has been loved and widely hailed for its intensive research, writing, and magnitude. In a highly readable companion to books on faith and history, the scholar and author Johnson has illuminated the Christian world and its fascinating history in a way that no other has. In "the best one-volume history of Christianity ever done," according to The Christian Century, Johnson takes off in the year 49 with his namesake the apostle Paul. Thus beginning an ambitious quest to paint the centuries since the founding of a little-known "Jesus Sect", A History of Christianity explores to a great degree the evolution of the Western world. With an unbiased and overall optimistic tone, Johnson traces the fantastic scope of the consequent sects of Christianity and the people who followed them. Information drawn from extensive and varied sources from around the world makes this history as credible as it is reliable. Invaluable understanding of the framework of modern Christianity - and its trials and tribulations throughout history - has never before been contained in such a captivating work. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author:Paul Johnson

Born in 1928 and educated at Magdalene College, Oxford, Paul Johnson was editor of the influential English weekly, The New Statesman, from 1964-1970, and is now Director, New Statesman Publishing Company. Mr. Johnson's prodigious scholarship and varied interests are evident in the themes of his books. Since publication of A History of Christianity he has written Enemies of Society, The Civilization of Ancient Egypt and Civilizations of the Holy Land.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Rise and Rescue of the Jesus Sect (50 BC-AD 250)
Some time about the middle of the first century AD, and very likely in the year 49, Paul of Tarsus travelled south from Antioch to Jerusalem and there met the surviving followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified about sixteen years before. This Apostolic Conference, or Council of Jerusalem, is the first political act in the history of Christianity and the starting-point from which we can seek to reconstruct the nature of Jesus's teaching and the origins of the religion and church he brought into being.
We have two near-contemporary accounts of this Council. One, dating from the next decade, was dictated by Paul himself in his letter to the Christian congregations of Galatia in Asia Minor. The second is later and comes from a number of sources or eye-witness accounts assembled in Luke's Acts of the Apostles. It is a bland, quasi-official report of a dispute in the Church and its satisfactory resolution. Let us take this second version first. It relates that 'fierce dissension and controversy' had arisen in Antioch because 'certain persons', from Jerusalem and Judea, in flat contradiction to the teaching of Paul, had been telling converts to Christianity that they could not be saved unless they underwent the Jewish ritual of circumcision. As a result, Paul, his colleague Barnabas, and others from the mission to the gentiles in Antioch, travelled to Jerusalem to consult with 'the apostles and elders'.
There they had a mixed reception. They were welcomed by 'the church and the apostles and the elders'; but 'some of the Pharisaic party who had become believers' insisted that Paul was wrong and that all converts must not only be circumcized but taught to keep the Jewish law of Moses. There was 'a long debate', followed by speeches by Peter, who supported Paul, by Paul himself and Barnabas, and a summing up by James, the younger brother of Jesus. He put forward a compromise which was apparently adopted 'with the agreement of the whole Church'. Under this, Paul and his colleagues were to be sent back to Antioch accompanied by a Jerusalem delegation bearing a letter. The letter set out the terms of the compromise: converts need not submit to circumcision but they must observe Certain precepts in the Jewish law in matters of diet and sexual conduct. Luke's record in Acts states that this half-way position was arrived at 'unanimously', and that when the decision was conveyed to the Antioch congregation, 'all rejoiced'. The Jerusalem delegates were thus able to return to Jerusalem, having solved the problem, and Paul carried on with his mission.
This, then, is the account of the first council of the Church as presented by a consensus document, what one might call an eirenic and ecumenical version, designed to present the new religion as a mystical body with a co-ordinated and unified life of its own, moving to inevitable and predestined conclusions. Acts, indeed, says specifically that the ruling of the Council was 'the decision of the Holy Spirit'. No wonder it was accepted unanimously ! No wonder that 'all' in Antioch 'rejoiced at the encouragement it brought'.
Paul's version, however, presents quite a different picture. And his is not merely an eye-witness account, but an account by the chief and central participant, perhaps the only one who grasped the magnitude of the issues at slake. Paul is not interested in smoothing the ragged edges of controversy. He is presenting a case to men and women whose spiritual lives are dominated by the issues confronting the elders in that room in Jerusalem. His purpose is not eirenic or ecumenical, still less diplomatic. He is a man burning to tell the truth and to imprint it like fire in the minds of his readers. In the apochryphal Acts of Paul, written perhaps a hundred years after his death, the tradition of his physical appearance is vividly preserved: '...a little man with a big, bold head. His legs were crooked, but his bearing was noble. His eyebrows grew close together and he had a big nose. A man who breathed friendliness.' He himself says that his appearance was unimpressive. He was, he admits, no orator; not, in externals, a charismatic leader. But the authentic letters which survive him radiate the inner charisma: they have the ineffaceable imprint of a massive personality, eager, adventurous, tireless, voluble, a man who struggles heroically for the truth and then delivers it in uncontrollable excitement, hurrying ahead of his powers of articulation. Not a man easy to work with, or confute in argument, or rebuke into silence, or to advance a compromise: a dangerous, angular, unforgettable man, breathing friendliness, indeed, but creating monstrous difficulties and declining to resolve them by any sacrifice of the truth.
Moreover, Paul was quite sure he had got the truth. He has no reference to the Holy Spirit endorsing, or even advancing, the compromise solution as presented by Luke. In his Galatians letter, a few sentences before his version of the Jerusalem Council, he dismisses, as it were, any idea of a conciliar system directing the affairs of the Church, any appeal to the judgment of mortal men sitting in council. 'I must make it clear to you, my friends,' he writes, 'that the gospel you heard me preach is no human invention. I did not take it over from any man; no man taught it me; I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.' Hence, when he comes to describe the council and its consequences he writes exactly as he feels, in harsh, concrete and unambiguous terms. His Council is not a gathering of inspired pneumatics, operating in accordance with infallible guidance from the spirit, but a human conference of weak and vulnerable men, of whom he alone had a divine mandate. How, as Paul saw it, could it be otherwise? Jewish elements were wrecking his mission in Antioch, which he was conducting on the express instructions of God, 'who had set me apart from birth and called me through his grace, chose to reveal his Son to me and through me, in order that I might proclaim him among the gentiles'. To defeat them, therefore, he went to Jerusalem 'because it had been revealed by God that I should do so'. He saw the leaders of the Jerusalem Christians, 'the men of repute', as he terms them, 'at a private interview'. These men, James, Christ's brother, the Apostles Peter and John, 'those reputed pillars of our society', were inclined to accept the gospel as Paul taught it and to acknowledge his credentials as an apostle and teacher of Christ's doctrine. They divided up the missionary territory, 'agreeing that we should go to the gentiles while they went to the Jews'. All they asked was that Paul should ensure that his gentile congregations should provide financial support for the Jerusalem Church, 'which was the very thing I made it my business to do.' Having reached this bargain, Paul and the pillars 'shook hands on it'. There is no mention that Paul made concessions on doctrine. On the contrary, he complains that enforcing circumcision on converts had hitherto been 'urged' as a sop to 'certain sham-Christians, interlopers who had stolen in to spy upon the liberty we enjoy in the fellowship of Jesus Christ'. But 'not for a moment did I yield to their dictation.' He was 'determined on the full truth of the gospel'. Unfortunately, continues Paul, his apparent victory at Jerusalem did not end the matter. The 'pillars', who had contracted to stand firm against the Jewish 'sham-Christians', in return for financial support, did not do so. When Peter later came to Antioch, he was prepared at first to treat gentile Christians as religious and racial equals and eat his meals with them; but then, when emissaries from James arrived in the city, he 'drew back and began to hold aloof, because he was afraid of the advocates of circumcision'. Peter was 'clearly in the wrong'.