Review: Jenkins, “The Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years”

This is a good book. I admit that I was extremely skeptical when I first saw it, assuming it to be some sort of modern nonsense on how Constantine created Christianity or something like that. However, when I saw that the Philip Jenkins is indeed an academic historian with serious credentials, I decided to give the book a read. I am glad I did, because I now have a single volume popular history on the late antique church councils and the politics that surrounded them that I can pass on to others as a good summary of the period. A shoddily abridged version of this review can be found on Amazon.

The essential premise behind Jenkins’ work is that the politics surrounding the church councils which took place from the early fourth century to the middle of the fifth played an enormous role in their respective outcomes. At times it feels like Jenkins is trying to make his thesis sound more controversial than it is, despite the fact that this book is basically academic orthodoxy. That hardly detracts from the lively narrative, however, as Jenkins cogently discusses the relations between the great sees in the east, as well as Constantinople and Rome. While he does a very good job in summarizing the theological issues, the core of this book surrounds the politics that characterized the councils. Jenkins does not fall into the trap of disregarding the beliefs of the major actors just because politics are involved, and in fact he does a good job demonstrating how Eusebeian Christianity made the theological issues imperative for both churchmen and the rulers of the later Roman Empire. The section on Nestorius (chapter five: “Not the Mother of God?”) is particularly well done, and Jenkins helps to rehabilitate his reputation as well as show the role that the squabbling Theodosian women played in his deposition. Interested readers should take a look at Holum’s Theodosian Empresses, and Jenkins’ references to the similar deposition of John Chrysostom at the beginning of the fifth century are carefully placed inside their context. None of Jenkins’ arguments for Nestorius’ orthodoxy is novel or controversial today in academic spheres, and he should be applauded for bringing it into the sphere of popular history so smoothly. He demonstrates how the previous councils led to Chalcedon in 451, but then goes on to show that despite the importance of Chalcedon in the west, many of the matters were hardly settled.

Nonetheless, this is not a perfect book. For one, Jenkins wrote on the politics of the late Roman church councils, and yet I really wonder about his understanding of the late Roman world. It seems that everything has to be interpreted inside the religious sphere for Jenkins, and as such many of the momentous events of the fifth to seventh centuries are forced into a religious context that they do not necessarily belong to. For example, he states that the persecution of the “Nestorian” church drove them to expand in Persia. It is true that the Nestorian church was persecuted, but it was not done because they did not harbour Chalcedonian views: it was done because their Romanitas was questioned because of the group’s success in Persia. The Persian element and the Roman fear of a fifth column in Syria lay behind the persecution of this group, but Jenkins never mentions it. Another example is the insinuation that the emperors of the fifth century in the east were more interested in theological questions than in governing their empire. Contrary to the picture that the author attempts to paint, the fifth century in the eastern half of the Roman Empire was remarkably peaceful, especially when compared to the west. There were a couple of notable incursions by the Huns, but the Persian frontier was remarkably quiet and on the whole the east survived the century that brought an end to the west almost unscathed. The emperors had their hands somewhat tied by barbarian generals and aristocrats in this period, which may explain the prevalence of their female relatives in politics. Nonetheless, the interest shown by the emperors towards establishing orthodoxy was both an activity that attempted to assert their authority by acting like a new Constantine, as well as one that had major implications on God’s favour under the Eusebeian belief system.

Most of the problems in this book belong to the penultimate chapter, “How the Church Lost Half the World” where this good book begins to unravel precipitously. The argument of this chapter is based around the emperors of the six century beginning to more consistently support Chalcedonian Christianity. His treatment of Justinian’s subtle policy of allowing Theodora to have Monophysite views is very good and almost certainly correct. The idea that he is trying to push here is that imperially mandated Chalcedonian Christianity led to the establishment of separate churches in the east. There is no denying the fact that separate, Monophysite clerical orders were established in the east, but he downplays the attempts at reconciliation. Jenkins brings up Monotheletism, an imperial attempt to ignore the results of Chalcedon by arguing that Christ whether Christ had one nature or two, he had one will. This was not merely an attempt by a struggling empire to keep its provinces theologically “correct”, but rather just one side of what the Monophysite provinces tried to do as well. To them, Constantinople and Rome were in error and they needed to fix that if the Roman Empire was going to continue to prosper. They did not try to secede from the Empire due to their religious differences, they fought for just what they had fought for at Nicaea, Ephesos, Constantinople, and Chalcedon: universal belief. It was the political separation that resulted from the Muslim conquest that forced the churches who were trying to work together to go separate ways. Even after this time reconciliation attempts were made by both sides. For example, in the ninth century the patriarch of Constantinople tried to settle issues with the Monophysite Armenian church.

The Muslim conquest brings up my final bone of contention with the penultimate chapter. Like many before him (including the venerable G. Ostrogorsky), Jenkins rehashed the idea that persecution of the Monophysites by Constantinople allowed the Muslims easy entry into Syria. They supposedly welcomed the tolerant Muslims with open arms. The Muslims were certainly very tolerant of the divergent beliefs in the lands that they conquered, but this argument has one fatal flaw in it. How were the Syrians supposed to defend themselves? The Limes Arabicus (“the Arabian Frontier” in Latin; it was a chain of forts) never seems to have been intended to be a solid frontier. It was a set of fortified tolls on roads leading into Arab-dominated areas, and by the time of Justinian may have been totally defunct due to the sixth and seventh century reliance on Christian Arab tribesmen to guard that frontier. In comparison, the Mesopotamian frontier with the Persians was guarded by fortress after fortress, and even when the Persians attacked when the emperor Maurikios was murdered in 602, it still took them almost a decade to grind through the defenses. There never were any major defences to the south, because there had never been any major threat from the Arabian peninsula before. In the Roman Empire, it was also illegal for private citizens to own weapons. Given that much of Syria and the Levant had been peaceful save for the occasional Persian raid and local revolt since the time of Pompey’s conquest in the first century B.C., there was little impetus for civilians to attempt to obtain illegal weapons. Despite Herakleios’ order that the cities resist the Muslims, one has to wonder just how they would have done so. Imperial troops had been withdrawn to the area around Antioch, and would shortly be withdrawn into the Tauros Mountains, where the Byzantines would hold the Muslims for the next couple of centuries. Regardless of how they felt towards Constantinople, a populace with no soldiers, no weapons, minimal defences, and who had just seen a near-miraculous imperial recovery (Herakleios’ campaign in the mid-620s took him just outside the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, where the government there collapsed) had no good reason to resist to the death.

Despite these long criticisms, I have to stress that this is a really good book, minus the penultimate chapter. Jenkins tells the story of both theology and politics in the late Roman church councils masterfully. It is very readable, and the dense theology is summarized nicely. This is a good history of the formation of Christian orthodoxy.

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2 Responses to Review: Jenkins, “The Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years”

  1. mucbkksfo says:

    Good review. IMHO, however, most scholar do agree that differences between Monophysites (and other groups) and even more the disputes of Rome (Latin Church) with Constantinople made the Muslims conquest far easier. So did different tax rates as Constantinople tended to squeeze out the last dime. I would agree with Bat Ye’or and Sylvain Gouguenheim, that the dhimmni system of the Islamic sharia law was never a matter of tolerance but of practicality and systematic intellectual and commercial, extortion, exploitation and segregation of non-Muslim, or “dhimmi” communities. I understood even Bernard Lewis politely argues this way.

  2. Pingback: Why does Paganism scare Christians? - Page 28 - Christian Forums

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