Christianity: How a Tiny Sect from a Despised Religion Came to Dominate the Roman Empire

Article excerpt

Jonathan Hill

Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2011. 256 pp. (Cloth), $29.95.

Between the lives of Christ and Constantine, Christianity moved from a minor apocalyptic Jewish sect to a Gentile world religion; from an unknown company of fishermen in a remote and irrelevant province of the Roman Empire to the dominant force shaping and controlling the empire; from a new faith movement of humble and oppressed believers to the primary oppressor in its world. All this in four centuries! Jonathan Hill has traced the history of this turbulent turn of churning events in his attractive new book, Christianity.

Hills graduated in philosophy and theology from Oxford, took his PhD at the University of Singapore, and is now a famous author. He wrote such highly acclaimed fast-sellers as The History of Christian Thought (2003), Faith in the Age of Reason (2004), What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us? (2005), and The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (2007). There are a number of things, however, that make this new book distinctive. It is laid out like a volume that is part art book for your coffee table and part textbook. It is richly illustrated on nearly every page with full color plates of scenes, artifacts, and personages of the centuries of Christian history. The pristinely white dust jacket is embossed with an unidentified numismatic medallion that looks like the image of Alexander the Great but is probably supposed to be Constantine. It is definitely not Jesus of Nazareth.

The book is laid out with a rather elaborate table of contents like a text book, a very brief introduction, 11 chapters, a few cryptic end notes, a nicely rounded bibliography, and an adequate index. This book is for beginners in the quest for Christian understanding and for specialists who are looking for a neat summary of the latest research. The latter will find the chapter headings revealing indicators of the contents and the unfolding story of the rise of Christianity. They are as follows: Jesus and the First Christians, From One Generations to the Next, Opposition and Persecution, The Church in the Empire, Christians in a Hostile World, Christian Philosophy, Heresy and Orthodoxy, The Christian Empire, A Divided Church, The First Monks, The Official Church. The story is closed with a brief Epilogue on the final triumph in 394 of the Imperial Christendom of the East over the Barbarian Paganism of the Western Empire. It happened in the victory of the Eastern Emperor Theodosius over the Western Emperor Eugenius at the River Frigidus. This gave rise to the imperial policy of extermination of all ancient Roman religions.

A virtue in Hills presentation of this phase of the historical narrative is that he tells the story forthrightly, he does not prettify it or avoid the rather chronic monstrous character and behavior of the variety of Christian movements that populate the first four centuries of the faith. …