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Jonathan Phillips: Holy Warriors; Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of Christianity

Jenkins’ narrative removes numerous preconceived Western notions in The Lost History of Christianity; for example, since the majority of the world’s Christians lived in Europe from the 15th century to the 20th, the West assumed it was always that way. By using a relatively unknown historical figure, Timothy, the Catholicos (primate) of the Church of the East (what we in the West would consider to be Nestorian but as Jenkins points out, that also is not as simple as we would believe). Timothy was a contemporary of Charlemagne and oversaw a church that extended over a much larger area than the Pope. His was a dynamic, growing parish that reached from Jerusalem in the West to Armenia, Turkistan, Persia, Tibet, Patna (on the Ganges in India) and Khanbalik (Beijing, China). Serving under Timothy were nineteen metropolitans and eighty-five bishops!

Timothy was a scholar and diplomat. Men like him provided the basic scholarship for the so-called Gold Age of Islam. Eastern Christians translated texts from Greek into Arabic, starting the circle of scholarship that would be completed when scholars of the Latin Church rediscovered Aristotle in Arab libraries.

Jenkins deals admirably with many misperceptions about the region and about Islam. For example, he notes that many liberals like to say that Islam is a religion of peace, but he shows that while Christians who submitted to Islamic authority and paid the dhimmi tax were treated fairly well, there was harsh treatment from the beginning. For example, at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636 perhaps 50,000 Byzantine Christian soldiers were massacred. While city dwellers who paid the dhimmi tax were spared, Muslim armies showed no mercy to Christians in villages and rural areas. Also, the Christian Church was destroyed in North Africa. While Copts were able to keep churches in Egypt, persecution was sporadic and local. The treatment of Christians by Muslims degenerated as the centuries went by. With time, Islam forgot the heritage and beliefs they shared with Arab Christians. Jenkins provides too many examples to mention that counter the argument that Islam is a religion of peace (of course, history does not bear out any claim Christians might make on that title.)

Many Christians as well as Muslims would be shocked to learn how much they once shared, and Jenkins enumerates the commonalities. Jesus is mentioned some 70 times in the Koran; Jesus is one of the six “prophets” of Islam; Jesus is going to be the judge on the Last Day. More than that, perhaps all of the five “pillars” of Islam are based on Christian practice which came from Jewish tradition, such as fasting, praying while prostrated, pilgrimage, giving alms, etc. When Christians first heard of Islam in the 7th Century, they took it to be a variant form of Christianity. After all, they acknowledged Jesus and the Virgin Mary and gave preferential treatment to Christians in Dar al Islam.

In many ways Christians today could learn to see Islam for what is positive and begin to build more bridges. What are the alternative ways to treat a religion with a billion adherents? Another Crusade?

Many Christians as well as Muslims would be shocked to learn how much they once shared.

The Islamic world was once for the greater part Christian. The Church of the East lasted until the stressful times of the Late Medieval period. Jenkins shows that in each region of the world, even Europe, the stress led to persecution of groups that did not share the dominant religion. The Church of the East began to disappear where it was strongest, along the old Silk Road as the trade route itself disappeared under Mongol oppression with Timur sealing the coffin lid shut.

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Category: Church History, Summer 2010

About the Author: Eric Jonas Swensson is an author, blogger, historian, and social media director. He was a pastor for 17 years before resigning to go overseas on the trip that became the basis for his book, A Year in Tyr (2011). His dissertation has been published as Kinderbeten: The Origin, Unfolding, and Interpretations of the Silesian Children's Prayer Revival (Wipf & Stock, 2010). Google+

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