Misc Notes on Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years

I recently finished reading Robert Louis Wilken’s rich overview of church history. It was well written and packed with a lot of core information – very little fluff and very few rabbit trails. Ultimately though, as is the case with most histories, especially ancient ones, it focused a bit too much on kings, emperors, and popes. I’d love to read something that took a closer look at life on the ground level for the average Joe, if such a thing exists or is even possible.

Of the thirty plus chapters, only three dealt with topics that I was familiar enough with personally to be aware of what was cut out for brevity. (Those would be the chapters on Celtic Christianity, Ethiopia, and the development of the Apostles Creed.) Assuming that just as much was abridged from the other chapters (and this was not a short book), it serves to make one aware of how much more there must have been going on behind the scenes.

The following are assorted passage I found of interest while reading.

On the origin of Christian art and how it is nearly always story-telling.

In constructing a catacomb with chapels and altars as well as tombs Christian leaders had more in mind than a place of burial. The dead created for the first time a Christian space that bound the community together over time, knitting the tremulous present to the grander past and forging solid and stable feelings through collective memory. And it is in this setting, where the irresistible ravages of time and mortality were most palpable, where hope was joined to memory, that the first Christian art is found. “Dead,” as Wallace Stevens wrote, “is the mother of beauty.”

Christian art tends toward narrative, the telling of a story, the depiction of events from biblical history. Even if the artist pictured only a single event, such as the denial of Peter, the event was understood as part of a larger story. On occasion Christian artists used symbols, for example, a lamb or a cross, but these are exceptions, and as we shall see later in discussing the controversy over icons, there came a time when symbols were discouraged, even prohibited. Further, unlike later Islamic art with its love of calligraphy, Christian art seldom includes scriptural texts. Though the Scriptures include the poetry of the Psalms, the moral precepts of the Proverbs and Sirach, and the letters of Saint Paul, the Bible is first and foremost a book of history, the history of the people of Israel and of Jesus Christ and the first Christian communities. So it was to this history, and the persons and events who appear in the biblical stories, that Christians turned when they wished to decorate their churches.

Some “Christian bakeries” (as some journalists phrased it) were in the news recently for refusing to bake wedding cakes for homosexual couples. More accurately, these were retail bakeries that happened to be owned and operated by Christians. But it turns out that the church has a long history owning and operating bakeries, to provide food to the poor.

Papyri from Egypt give tangible evidence of the administrative structures that had been set up to distribute aid to the needy. In the city of Oxyrhynchus, twenty-five miles south of present-day Cairo, four memos were issued on one day ordering that the widows of three churches were to receive one diploun (three to four liters) of wine, and widows of another church were to receive five diploun. On another day the “holy church” of Oxyrhynchus instructed Peter, the steward of the church, to provide a widow named Sophia with a coat. Churches kept lists of widows who needed assistance. These provisions were not random acts of charity; they were part of an organized and regular system for providing food and clothing. In these cities the responsibility for overseeing the care of widows was taken over by a group of laywomen known as the “women of the widows”. Significantly, the most common commercial property owned by churches was a bakery.

The most impressive evidence of the presence of Christianity in ancient China is a large stone monument discovered in the seventeenth century on the precints of a temple in Sian-fu, not too far from Xi’an. The monument of black limestone is ten feet high and three and a half feed wide, with seventeen hundred Chinese characters, interspersed with Syriac words and Syriac names with Chinese characters indicating how they are to be pronounced. It was erected in 781 on the site of a monastery of the Church of the East.
Besides this… a cache of Christian documents was found in a walled-up chapel in Tunhuang early in the nineteenth century. These include writings in Chinese by Christian monks, some translated from the Syria, others original contributions. There is a hymn in adoration of the “Transfiguration of our Lord”, a work entitled Jesus Messiah Sutra that outlines the fundamental teachings of Christianity, a Discourse on the Oneness of the Ruler of the Universe, and another on almsgiving. According to those who have studied them, these writings are difficult to understand because they were written by someone who did not know Chinese well. Nevertheless, they show that Christian monks were consciously attempting to present Christianity in a way that would be intelligible to Chinese. For example, they emphasize virtues such as ancestor worship, filial piety, even veneration of the emperor. Other documents written 150 years later display a surer knowledge of the Chinese language, a more accomplished literary style, and skillful presentation of Christian beliefs.

I love that we have records of some early missionary trying to hack his way through learning a foreign language. If you were trying to learn Chinese from scratch with no reference materials, of course you would suck! But these monks kept trying and it paid off. They got better over time. It’s also interesting that in their early attempts to communicate the gospel, local beliefs and ideas (or at the very least vocabulary) was mixed in to try and get the point across. This resulted in syncretism of course, but a temporary and fading syncretism – the best kind! It’s unfortunate that this strain of Christianity was wiped out in a later century.

A keen early observation regarding Islam:

The earliest recorded comment of a Christan reaction to Muhammad dates from ounly a couple of years after the Prophet’s death. When tales of a prophet amont the Arabs reached Christian Syria, someoe asked an old man, “What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?” The old man groaned deeply and said, “He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword.”

[Alcuin’s] most enduring achievement [around 800 AD] was the introduction of a new and more uniform script, what is known as the Carolingian or Caroline minuscule. In the ancient world, Latin manuscripts had been written soley in capital letters, without punctuation or divisions between words and sentences. To read aloud publicly required great skill and preparation. The new script used small letters, called minuscules, as well as capital letters, majuscules, to mark the beginning of a sentence or a new train of thought. Clearer and more legible, simpler to write, friendly to the reader, it quickly became the standard for the copying of books. Punctuation was added, including commas and periods, and the question mark appears for the first time. Manuscripts from this time begin to resemble the printed page of a modern book.

I guess if you have studied printing at all you know all about the monk Alcuin, but this was new to me. The idea that centuries of early writing happened without spaces between sentences or words is kind of mind-blowing.

A funny anecdote about Christianity’s inherent friendliness to drinking:

An account of Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity is told in a colorful story in The Russian Primary Chronicle, a work made of different sources from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. According to the chronicle, Vladimir received visits from representatives of the several religions practice by neighboring peoples. First came a group of Muslims from the Bulgars. When Vladimir asked them to explain their faith to him they said they believed in God, practiced circumcision, ate no pork, and drank no wine. When he hears what they had to say, the told them that circumcision and abstinence from pork were disagreeable to him. As for drinking, that “is the joy of the Rus. We cannot exist without that pleasure.”

On the broad cultural expressions of Christianity – only the core of it is monolithic:

The global outreach of Christianity in the early centuries is a testimony to its cultural adaptability and diversity. Christianity as practiced among the Armenians differed from the ways of the Greeks or Ethiopians. Of course, the Armenians, Greeks, and Ethiopians had much in common: they were governed by bishops; they fostered monastic life; they baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit; they confessed the Creed of Nicaea. But the difference in language, customs, liturgical practices, architecture, and art gave birth to distinctive spiritual and cultural forms of life across the Christian world. When the Crusaders arrive in the East to free their fellow Christians from the yoke of Islam, they had great difficulty recognizing and understanding the way Easter Christians lived and prayed.

Textbook accounts of Christianity preset its history as a tale of continuous growth and expansion. By a selective choice of periods, events, and geographical regions the conventional account (seen from the perspective of Europe and North America) gives the impression that Christianity is always moving forward. Seen in global perspective that picture is illusory. If on injects in this sanguine narrative the spread of Islam, things take on a different coloring. Set against the success of Islam and its staying power, the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and attrition as it is by growth and triumph.

At one point ~50% of Christians lands had been conquered by Islam, but then it bounced back. We should not be dismayed if we have to live through some kind of decline. The acceptance of Christ as Lord among the nations has always been in a combination of small growth, lurches, and occasional setbacks.