The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity

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The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. By Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press, 416pp, Pounds 25.00. ISBN 9780300118841. Published 20 December 2012

In 1998, the economic historian David Landes wrote The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, a book with the subtitle Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. What matters here is not Landes' explanation for the difference but his comparison of success with failure. The former is explained by contrasting it to the latter.

Robert Wilken's The First Thousand Years does not operate comparatively. A distinguished historian of early Christianity, Wilken is hardly obliged to do so. He has enough to do in tracing the amazing growth of Christianity from an obscure Jewish sect to the biggest religion in the world. So stupendous was the growth that some celebrated historians attributed the success to God, although Wilken does not.

In his many previous works, Wilken focuses on relations between Christians and pagans on the one hand and between Christians and Jews on the other. He concentrates on theological debates between religions. Never limiting himself to Christian views of paganism or of Judaism, in his 1984 book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, he analyses pagan criticisms of Christianity. Similarly, in John Chrysostom and the Jews (2004), he argues that, for all John's diatribe against Jews, John took seriously the threat that Judaising Christians posed to Christianity in the 4th century.

Wilken has also written on Christianity's social, not merely intellectual, aspects. His new volume brings together his multiple interests. He attributes the early success of Christianity to social factors, especially communal organisation: "Christianity came into the world as a community, not a casual association of individual believers."

Christianity quickly became organised into churches and in turn into regional units and eventually into international ones. There was an elaborate hierarchy, atop which were powerful bishops: "Unlike the pagan priest whose function was chiefly ritualistic, the bishop was overseer of the community . …