Roots

Each academic discipline has a handful of members whose every new publication is eagerly anticipated and enthusiastically received by their peers. In the field of Early Christianity, Robert Wilken is among this select number of scholars—and with good reason: for over thirty years, his work on ancient Christian thought, culture, and approaches to Scripture has shaped the field in a decisive fashion.

In his new book, Wilken offers an account of the Christian tradition’s first millennium. The book’s title, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, points to two of its most distinctive features. “The First Thousand Years” may strike readers as a peculiar slice of the historical pie, a period transcending the boundaries of the patristic era without encompassing the entirety of the Middle Ages. Yet Wilken’s work participates in a recent scholarly trend that sets aside traditional periodization and instead chooses time frames that  focus attention on otherwise neglected aspects of the historical record. Such a change in temporal scope frequently results in a change in narrative. Rather than telling the story of Christian origins as one of progressive expansion and triumph, Wilken has chosen a time frame that allows him to note the new religion’s setbacks and defeats—particularly those associated with the rise of Islam—alongside its successes.

The book’s subtitle, A Global History of Christianity, provides further clues to its distinctive nature. Traditional accounts of ancient Christian history have focused primarily on the Latin West—roughly the region of Western Europe and North Africa—and the Greek-speaking East. Wilken concentrates instead on the spread of Christianity into regions beyond the Roman Empire. Most prominent among these is the Syriac realm, an exceedingly fertile source of literary and theological production, as well as a launch pad for Christian mission into other parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. A glance at the book’s index reveals Wilken’s engagement with Christian groups from Armenia to India, from Egypt to the Slavic territories.

The impressive scope of Wilken’s project might have made for an intimidating work; indeed, such topics as Nubian Christianity, Arab Christian responses to the rise of Islam, or the evangelization of the Georgian people are typically the province of academic specialists. Yet Wilken’s book is primarily intended not for ancient historians or medievalists, but for the educated general reader with an interest in the history of Christianity. The chapters are short, the text almost entirely unburdened by notes, and references to the work of other scholars kept to a minimum. More significant than the ways the book accommodates its intended readership, however, is the fact that The First Thousand Years is written to be read—and read with pleasure. Wilken weaves a compelling narrative, tracing complex historical trajectories and addressing notoriously convoluted aspects of Christian history with the pedagogical wisdom developed over a lifetime of teaching. Throughout much of the volume, Wilken allows the ancient sources themselves to speak through his text, either directly in well-contextualized quotations or by extensive paraphrase, thus drawing readers into greater comfort and familiarity with patristic writings.

The result is a work that traces not just the history of Christianity, but the history of the Christian tradition throughout its first millennium. The First Thousand Years, in other words, emphasizes a historical account that, for all its complexities, is both coherent and teleologically focused. For all the theological, liturgical, and developmental diversity among the groups whose history Wilken narrates, his is nevertheless the story of the church as a unified whole. Naturally, themes from Wilken’s own history of scholarship appear prominently throughout the work. Chief among these is his rejection of any kind of “golden age” narrative for the church, a topic already at the heart of his Myth of Christian Beginnings (1980). The Christian community, Wilken argues, is ultimately eschatologically oriented—directed toward its heavenly future rather than beholden to narratives of decline and corruption vis-à-vis an ideal beginning. That is not to say that the past is unimportant for Christians: to be able to look ahead, Wilken argues, Christians must examine their shared history, carrying with them the collective memory of the church’s past.

Both themes—the emphasis on the Christian tradition’s trajectory and the reluctance to idealize its history—are palpable in The First Thousand Years. Wilken proceeds in a scrupulously historical fashion, and the book will be of use to readers from a wide range of confessional backgrounds. But The First Thousand Years is not primarily a work by or for the disinterested; the perspective is distinctively Christian. Wilken is especially interested in tracing Christianity’s influence on its cultural surroundings. Much of The First Thousand Years examines the building blocks of the cultures Christians encountered during these centuries. Art, architecture, music, law, philosophy, and statecraft all figure prominently in Wilken’s account. By contrast, readers eager for a socio-historical account of the role of women or slaves in the ancient world, the configuration of the household, or Christian attitudes toward military service will find these topics more fully explored elsewhere.

Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay a nearly four-hundred-page work chronicling the first millennium of the Common Era is that it whets the reader’s appetite for more. Wilken has anticipated this effect by providing readers with resources for further exploration. These include a straightforward timeline, a well-chosen set of maps, and a selection of recommended reading. These are all good supplements to Wilken’s narrative. One hopes that in future editions—and one feels sure there will be future editions—these materials will be developed and enhanced. The bibliography for further reading combines books pertinent to a wide range of topics in early and medieval history. A briefer bibliography at the end of each chapter might prove more user-friendly. Also helpful would be a glossary of terms with which many readers may be unfamiliar: words like “miaphysite” that recur throughout large parts of the book may send readers flipping back through hundreds of pages to refresh their memory.

One of the book’s most attractive features is the meticulous attention Wilken pays to material culture. The history of early and medieval Christianity has traditionally been written by scholars focused almost exclusively on the written word. By contrast, The First Thousand Years devotes considerable space to describing the architectural intricacies of churches and the splendors of mosaics and icons, conveying the effect of such monuments and sacred art on those who worshipped within and among them.

Yale University Press hails The First Thousand Years as Wilken’s “summa,” the culmination of his scholarly achievement. Indeed, this book—testimony as much to Wilken’s erudition as to his pedagogical sensitivity—is a labor of love, and an outstanding achievement by anybody’s standards. The First Thousand Years is designed to acquaint readers with some of the least-known strands of ancient Christian tradition, thus providing a great service to the academy—to scholars who work on texts from these still-neglected cultures, as well as to teachers who seek to introduce their students to a fuller measure of ancient Christianity’s complexity. At the same time, by addressing the history of theologically and liturgically distinctive Christian communities about which most Western Christians know little, Wilken’s work is a service to the church.

Published in the 2012-10-26 issue: 
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Maria E. Doerfler is assistant professor of the history of Christianity in late antiquity at Duke Divinity School.

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