Robert WILKEN. The First Thousand Years. A Global History of Christianity. 2012: Yale University Press: New Haven (350 pp. with index) $35.00 Reviewed by Anthony M. STEVENS-ARROYO, Brooklyn College, CUNY
The book begins with the Church of Jerusalem (Chapter 1) and ends after the rise of the Empire of the West under Charlemagne witnesses the emergence of Christianity among the Slavs (Chapter 37). The author demonstrates a grasp of church history from the time of the Apostles through centuries of imperial intrigue, warring theological battles, the cultural decay brought by the Dark Ages and the impact of successive waves of barbarian invasions and Muslim conquests. Wilken steers his narrative through the turbulent waters of such stormy epochs of Church history. With grace and insight, the dissents of Arians, Monophysites, Nestorians are explained as the issues that outlived the Councils of Nicea, Ephesus and Chalcedon, which were supposed to have resolved them. None of this is easy reading, but Wilken demonstrates a deft touch in coloring these arcane disputes with details about personalities and places. While his history is basically textual, he manages to satisfy readers interested in the contextual. For instance, Wilken unravels the interplay of social forces with historical events behind the compilation under Emperor Justinian (Chapter 26) of a comprehensive code of laws intended to unite East and West of the Roman Empire. As in his description of other cardinal events during these first thousand years of Christianity, the author here successfully integrates politics and theology to effectively demonstrate that they influence each other. (I would complain that he missed how the plague [541-542 AD] stymied Justinian’s efforts to keep Rome and Constantinople united.) Overall, the book communicates a wealth of detail about the differences between East and West that were as much cultural and economic as doctrinal and theological and eventually produced the Great Schism of 1054 AD.
The writer understands the importance of architecture, both for the technology exhibited in construction and the symbolism of design. His readers may be less interested in some of the details he provides (Chapter 14) and his effort at providing color to the narrative skirts the boundaries of the merely trite. Do we really need to know (pg. 139) that St. Mary Major was constructed so that “above the columns and below the clerestory are twenty-seven mosaic panels (out of an original forty-two)….”? I also noticed how he repeated (pg. 72) the verdict of Cyprian of Carthage against Pope Stephen, Bishop of Rome, that “None of us has set himself up as bishop of bishops.” From a Catholic point of view shaped after two millennia, this may appear as an intrusive bit of anti-papal Protestant polemic.
Mercifully, such drawbacks are too few to spoil the product. The principal value of this slender volume is how it covers so much history in so few pages. Moreover, it describes regions of Christian experience that were later eclipsed by Muslim invasions, but nonetheless were vital and creative contributors to first millennium Christian history. Where else can you find an informative synthesis of Coptic Christians (Chapter 21), of the Church in Ethiopia (Chapter 22), of the Syriac-Speaking Christians (Chapter 23), of Armenia and Georgia (Chapter 24), of Central Asia and China before Marco Polo (Chapter 25) and of Arabic-Speaking Christians after the rise of Islam (Chapter 32)?
I would have wished for a more taxative index and more detailed chronological outline (pp. 361-365). I also wonder why the text’s description of the layout of basilicas and church art did not include references to the illustrations found on plates in the middle of the book. Had Wilken suggested the reader take a peek at the illustrations, the descriptions of apse and nave, etc. would have been much easier to visualize.
I think this book proves to be a readable and reliable source that summarizes a wooly millennium of Christian history. It simultaneously serves both academic and general audiences looking for understanding about often neglected periods of Church history.