The Faith: A History of Christianity
By Brian Moynahan
AURUM pounds 30
The first and last serious attempt to annihilate Christianity as a world religion began in the year 361, when the Roman Emperor Julian attempted to restore the pagan cults abolished by his uncle Constantine the Great. It had failed before Julian died of wounds on the battlefield two years later. Christianity had been the sole official religion of the Empire for less than 50 years, but within that time it had changed people's expectations of what religion is and does. It was no longer possible to pull down the churches and let the garden run wild again. Julian was forced to create a parody of Christianity which even he realised was futile. Europe was still overwhelmingly pagan, but at its heart paganism was dead, and could only exist as an object of nostalgia. In what was, for all the grandeur of its claims, a small corner of the world, humanity had changed, and that change would spread. Julian's last words were "Vicisti Galilaee" - "You've won, Galilean".
There were many more attempts to eradicate Christianity at a local level yet to come, most far bloodier and more brutal than Julian's. The depressing conclusion that Brian Moynahan repeatedly returns to, however, is that Christians need no enemies because they are so inclined to persecute each other.
The ambitious scope of this book requires that it is a history of events rather than ideas. As such Moynahan does not rootle around among Jewish sects and Hellenistic mystery cults to question where Christianity came from. He accepts Christianity's own version: that it arrived literally out of the blue on a spring morning during the fourth decade of what was about to become the first century AD, when the Holy Spirit descended on the original disciples. "The essence of the faith," he writes, "a cause of its perpetual restlessness, of its energy, curiosity, experimentations, schisms, and heresies, of its countless sects, of the vengeful orthodoxies and wild idealisms to which it remains so uniquely prone - was present at its birth."
The lively narrative he produces justifies this approach. From its earliest days Christianity was producing victims of extraordinary dignity, but once given the opportunity, produced tyrants, some as bad as the Caesars, some arguably worse, because all the Caesars required of their subjects was the occasional pinch of devotional incense, while Inquisitor and Reformer alike were in pursuit of souls. The appalling John Calvin actually shopped a fellow reformer to the Inquisition on one occasion. Moynahan is puzzled by this contradiction. Once or twice he suggests that the root of the trouble is the Old Testament, and its unfortunate precedents for theocratic warfare. Apart from the fact that the New claims much of its authority from the Old, can the two be separated so easily? Commenting on the renewed interest in Mosaic Law which came about as the Bible became more widely available during the Reformation, Moynahan writes: "One line was inconvenient …