Jonathan HILL, Christianity: How a Tiny Sect from a Despised Religion Came to Dominate the Roman Empire. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012. Pp. 250 + Index. ISBN 978-0-8006-9777-8.
Reviewed by Nathan R. KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY 14618.

Christianity is a description in word and pictures of the Christian religion’s first four centuries of existence. It emphasizes the diversity of early Christianity more than its unity; the personalities more than the ideas. The spread of Christianity is well illustrated. The language used is accommodating to the lay reader with only an occasional use of the precision of academic terms. It doesn’t say anything more than, say, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Thousand Years but it has more illustrations and photos. I found MacCulloch style easier to read than Hill’s. The detailed description of the interplay between “pagans,” the Roman Empire’s religion, and Christianity is helpful. So are the ups and downs associated with the Arian controversy. The detailed account of the development of Eastern monasticism is well done and important to those studying early Christianity who often spend more space on doctrinal disputes rather than spiritual development.

Christianity’s eleven chapters are divided into three parts: Chapters 1-3 covers the first century; 4-7 covers the second and third century; 8-11 cover the fourth century. The endnotes are sparse; the further readings more than adequate, and the index satisfactory. The extremely small print of these perhaps met the page demands of editors but limit their accessibility to those with a magnifying glass. While the acknowledgments at the end of the volume indicate who are responsible for the pictures, maps, and diagrams I am not sure who made the final choices. I say this because in a book such as this, where they form such an essential part of the description of early Christianity, many are photographs of art throughout the ages which express the artists’ view of early Christianity or current landscapes. The art seemed arranged in a literalist rather than historical context. For example, a piece identified as from the “Flemish School” illustrates the taking of Jerusalem by Titus. It takes up half the page that begins the discussion of Judaism in the first century. Does its presence indicate an historical rendering of what happened? If so, is this a claim that this painter from the (15-17th century) has such historical knowledge? I did not understand the relationship between the historical narrative and these photos. I wonder if the author of the verbal narrative had anything to say about the pictorial narrative. In either case it would have helped if all the photos were dated as to their origin.

Christianity, then, may be read as an excellent discussion of the early centuries of the Christian religion. It may also be a coffee table book for people to view some beautiful pictures. I am uncertain as to whether a reader should do both at the same time. However, friends of mine say they don’t read books, they skim them. For that purpose this entire text is perfect for contemporary readers.

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