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The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia

by Philip Jenkins

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-06-147280-0
Publisher: HarperOne

Deeply erudite, sure-to-be-controversial history of the persecution of Christian churches throughout the world.

Before Christianity was a Western European concept, it was Eastern, demonstrates Jenkins (History and Religious Studies/Penn State Univ.; God’s Continent, 2007, etc.). The religion took shape first in Syria-Palestine and in Egypt, and until the 13th century, churches extended east from Constantinople to Samarkand and south from Alexandria to the desert of the Ogaden. In fact, what is now the Islamic world was once Christian, and two Eastern churches, the Nestorians and the Jacobites, flourished in Mesopotamia and Syria well into the Middle Ages as repositories of scholarship and spirituality. The author looks at the life and work of the bishop Timothy (d. 823), patriarch of the Church of the East. What we learn about his career “violates everything we think we know about the history of Christianity,” Jenkins states. There never was a Dark Ages in the East, which maintained access to texts, science and classical learning. The Church of the East spoke and thought in Syriac, had a rich interaction with other religions and built on the ruins of other great cultures in Persia, Assyria, Babylon and Elam. Much of what we call Arab scholarship, Jenkins asserts, was actually Syriac, Persian and Coptic. Yet with the rise of Islam—and here he begins to tread perilous waters—assaults by Saracen Muslims and pagan Northmen combined to eradicate the Christian world of the East so completely that “its memory is forgotten by all except academic specialists.” The author patiently chronicles the subsequent cycle of conversion, discrimination and persecution, studying the remarkable survival of “ghost” churches, like the “hidden Christians” in Japan.

Complex material ably digested for the lay reader.