The Greatest Story Ever Told

Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is "Remembering the Christian Past" (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.)

The story of how Christianity came into being, how the religion that began with Jesus in Palestine made its way across the Mediterranean, spread north, crossed the Alps and began to create a Christian society out of the barbarian tribes that inhabited what is now Western and Eastern Central Europe has been told again and again. And the publication of "The Birth of Christianity" and "The Barbarian Conversion" might seem to offer an excellent opportunity to hear it afresh on the basis of the latest historical scholarship.

But first impressions are deceptive. For only one of the books, "The Barbarian Conversion," offers truth in advertising and lives up to its title. In it, one gets what one expects, a historical account of the conversion of the peoples of Northern Europe--the Irish, the Anglos, the Franks, the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Moravians, the Bulgars and many others. It is a magnificent story, the beginning of European Christian culture, and Richard Fletcher tells it with immense learning, keen insight and literary grace.

"The Birth of Christianity" by John Dominic Crossan, however, is a self-absorbed academic exercise, the product of a cramped and airless world in which theories feed on theories, scholars are endlessly commenting on the views of other scholars, and words intertwine without a footing in historical reality. Unlike "The Barbarian Conversion," which creates a spacious and vibrant world we can imagine even as we marvel at its sharp differences from our own, "The Birth of Christianity" constructs a world that never existed and lives today only in the minds of a small coterie of skeptical biblical scholars.

"Birth" in the title does not mean beginning. It refers to the continuation of the Jesus movement (a "companionship of empowerment" in Crossan's phrase) after the unexpected death of its leader. And the word "Christianity" does not mean the religion that worships the resurrected Christ and conquered the Roman world in a few short centuries. It refers to Crossan's fanciful reconstruction of a sect within Judaism composed of Jesus' followers in the decade after his death. St. Paul, whose writings are the earliest sources for Christian history, does not figure in Crossan's account of the birth of Christianity.

One cannot draw a historical line from "The Birth of Christianity" to "The Barbarian Conversion," for Crossan is not really talking about what we know as historical Christianity. The Christianity that made its way in the Roman Empire and converted the peoples of Northern Europe was centered on the resurrected Christ; Crossan's earliest "Christianity" has no place for the resurrection of Jesus. It is a movement centered on the memory of a dead man, Jesus of Nazareth. First, then, to "The Barbarian Conversion."

The earliest history of Christianity takes place largely within the boundaries of the Roman Empire and in the cities that were located within easy reach of the Mediterranean. Of course, the Roman Empire extended beyond the Alps, but the two great rivers, the Rhine flowing northwestward on the edge of Gaul and the Danube flowing eastward into the Black Sea, provided a natural boundary between the Roman world and the world of the "barbarians." So profound was the division between the world in which Latin was spoken and the society beyond, that the boundary of the Roman Empire can be seen even today along a linguistic fault line dividing French-speaking Belgium from the region that speaks Flemish.

During the early centuries, Christian leaders showed little interest in the world outside of the empire. In spite of the injunctions within the New Testament to go into the world and make all nations disciples, few thought Christianity had a mission to the world beyond Rome. The idea of a mission to the world came relatively late. By the 5th century, however, Prosper of Aquitaine, a bishop in Gaul, could write: "Christian grace was not content to have the same frontiers as Rome." His statement provides the plot of "The Barbarian Conversion," an account of how over the course of eight centuries all the peoples on the European continent, one by one, embraced Christianity and began the task of building a new civilization.

What makes Fletcher's book so satisfying is that he gives us the history of the conversion of Europe in its entirety, beginning in the 4th century with Ireland and parts of the Balkans and ending in the 13th century with the conversion of Lithuania. What is more, he tells the story in unparalleled detail, patiently recounting the coming of Christianity to each region, who the main players were, the varying patterns of acceptance among different peoples, and the emergence of ecclesiastical and social structures that were different from the pattern in the Mediterranean world (for example, in Northern Europe the bishop was closely aligned with the king and sometimes received the symbols of his office from the king).

Across the pages of "The Barbarian Conversion" stride a cast of memorable characters: Ulfila, the Arian bishop of the Goths; Patrick, the apostle to the Irish; the "second" Augustine, sent to England by Pope Gregory I; Columba, who established Iona off the coast of Scotland; Columbanus, who founded the monastery of Luxeuil in Gaul; Boniface, who boldly cut down the sacred tree at Geismar and used its timber to build a church; Cyril and Methodius, who translated the Bible into Slavonic; Anskar, who converted the Danes; and many others. Mixed in with the feats of these monks and bishops there are tales of kings, such as Clovis, Ethelbert and Edwin; of queens who would not sleep with their husbands until they became Christian; of visionary popes and pious and wealthy noblemen.

Yet there is more here than a good story told on a grand scale. Fletcher is a sophisticated historian who alerts his readers at regular intervals to the significance of what he describes. His most insightful comments have to do with the nature of conversion itself. Conversion was not, as is often thought, an "adherence body and soul to a new set of beliefs." Rather, it was more a "determination to change public practice," a communal undertaking, a kind of "ritual transference." As Gregory the Great advised Augustine, his missionary to the British Isles: "The idol temples . . . should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them." In other words, preserve the building, change only what one does in it and call it a church, not a temple. There was nothing "mere" about the acceptance of a new rite, for with it came not simply religious teaching but a gradual remaking of law, custom, behavior, calendar, public space, language and, in time, memory--in short, a new culture.

Again and again, Fletcher calls attention to the "material factor" in the success of Christianity. Poverty was not an advantage in mission work. When a barefoot and unkempt monk appeared among the Pomeranians, they said: "How can we believe that you are a messenger of the most high god, since he is glorious and filled with all riches and you are contemptible and so poor that you cannot afford shoes?" One medieval writer said that Charlemagne had converted the Saxons "partly by wars, partly by persuasion, partly even by gifts." The adoption of Christianity and the consolidation of political authority went hand in hand.

"Calculation and hesitation," writes Fletcher, "diplomatic nicety, consideration of realpolitik, greed, self-promotion, the hard-nosed search for political advantage; the historian of conversion must take account of all these more or less ignoble foibles." In the end, however, he is not satisfied with a political or economic interpretation. In our "impious age," he observes, it is convenient to explain away the genuinely religious impulse that converted the barbarians and created Europe, to point to the desire of kings to have their power enhanced by the authority of Roman bishops or the hopes of merchants to gain favorable terms from wealthy Greeks in Constantinople. But it is well to remind ourselves, he concludes, as a mysterious nocturnal visitor reminded King Edwin in the tale of the Venerable Bede, "that what was at issue was not the here and now but the eternal things: a God who could give salvation."

"The Birth of Christianity" moves across a much smaller canvas. It is not really a work of history but a literary analysis of the Gospels and other early Christian literature such as the noncanonical Gospel of Peter. It is generally recognized by scholars today that the Gospels of the New Testament were written down two or three generations after the death of Jesus. Because the Gospels, though different in many respects, have certain material in common, it is assumed that there existed earlier written sources or oral traditions that each writer adapted to his own purpose. Crossan's book is an attempt to determine the content of the earliest traditions before the Gospels were written.

His claim is that the basic story found in the Gospels--which culminates in a narrative of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ--is a creation of the earliest Christian communities. Before there was such a narrative, there were two bodies of material, one centered in Galilee, the "Life Tradition," which included vignettes of Jesus' activity in Galilee and a collection of sayings, and the "Death Tradition," which centered on Jerusalem and recalled his death. Over time, through a process of "ritual lament" in which the traditions were recited and additions were made by interpreting texts from the Old Testament (such as the "suffering servant" of Isaiah 53), the materials on which the Gospels are based took form. In Crossan's words, the "detailed story was created from scriptural patterns and not from historical remembrances."

Unfortunately, there is no way to corroborate what Crossan says. The whole enterprise is speculative and has no basis in existing sources. In Crossan's brand of biblical scholarship, the "sources" are imaginary documents or oral traditions created by the scholar. They have no independent character and are as evanescent as the grass that flourishes in the morning, and in the evening withers and dies. For 200 years now, scholars have been trying to determine the form and content of these presumed "sources," and still there is no consensus. Nor will there ever be. It is a sterile debate without hope of resolution, and the best evidence of this is that much of the book takes the form of tiresome and inconclusive arguments with scholars who hold opposing views.

The unhappy truth is that this kind of biblical scholarship, in the name of being thoroughly historical, has become radically ahistorical. Reading "The Birth of Christianity" alongside a work of such genuine historical scholarship as "The Barbarian Conversion" makes one realize the bankruptcy of much of what passes for biblical scholarship in the academy today. For it presumes to interpret the person of Jesus and the beginning of Christianity without reference to the framework provided by the ancient texts. It is noteworthy that Fletcher, who is no less critical of his sources, realized that the medieval histories (for instance, the work of the English historian Bede) or lives of his central figures gave coherence and intelligibility to his narrative. By dismissing, as Crossan does, what is written in the Gospels in favor of a fictive body of free-floating traditions accepted by a tiny group of scholars or an individual, the figure of Jesus and the history of the early church become infinitely malleable, molded at will according to whatever logic is deemed reasonable by a scholar.

Unfortunately, what Crossan considers plausible is shaped by his own social and theological agenda. For him, Jesus is a "rebel with a cause" and Christianity primarily a movement for justice in the world, a community for empowering people to reform the world's social structure. In an extraordinary epilogue, he says that Psalm 82, about God's justice, is the most important text in the entire Bible. "It is, for me, more important than John 1:14 which speaks of the Word of God becoming flesh and living among us." The "appearances" of Jesus to his disciples are "apparitions," and resurrection means that the life and death of the historical Jesus somehow continue to be experienced by his followers.

The Christ of the New Testament is as alien and incomprehensible to Crossan as he was to the ancient Romans. As I read "The Birth of Christianity," what kept coming to mind was a passage from the ancient Roman historian Tacitus: "Their originator Christ had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh." If one substitutes "the Jesus movement" for the phrase "deadly superstition," Tacitus in a few lines aptly summarizes the argument of this book. At one point, Crossan says, "When I need to establish a position I write a book, not a footnote." Would that he had given us a footnote rather than the book.

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