The Magazine

God Looked East

The disappearance of Christianity in its homeland.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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The Lost History of Christianity

The Thousand-Year Golden Age of
the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died

by Philip Jenkins

HarperOne, 336 pp., $26.95

In the summer of 2002, I traveled in southeastern Turkey to meet with members of the two-millennia-old Syriac church, of whom only a few thousand are left in their homelands. Their language, Syriac-Aramaic, is as close as any living language to the one that Jesus spoke, yet they are forbidden by the Turkish government to teach it to their schoolchildren. We came to deserted villages such as Kafro, whose inhabitants had been driven out by the attacks of Turkish Hezbollah, and which were now sealed off by the military. We visited the monastery of Tur Abdin, a major center of Eastern Christianity, now dwindling under suffocating government restrictions. We met the only two monks remaining in the monastery of the village of Sare.

In Nisibis (now Nusaybin in southeast Turkey), where a famous Christian community dates back to the second century, and which nurtured Ephrem, the greatest of the Syrian theologians, there is a church dating from 439. It was locked and abandoned after World War I when the inhabitants, fleeing massacre, escaped into Syria. For 60 years there had been no Christians there, but now the diocese had sent a Christian family from a local village, who live in a small apartment in the church and try to keep it from falling apart.

We went into the crypt to see the tomb of Jacob of Nisibis, from whom the term "Jacobite" church is named, and while we studied his sarcophagus, our driver, unprompted, began to sing an ancient hymn. His strong voice filled the tomb. We asked him what the words meant, and he told us that the lyrics came from Ephrem himself:

Listen, my chicks have flown,

left their nest, alarmed

By the eagle. Look,

where they hide in dread!

Bring them back in peace!

Philip Jenkins's marvelous new book, The Lost History of Christianity, tells the largely forgotten story of Nisibis, and thousands of sites like it, which stretch from Morocco to Kenya to India to China, and which were, deep into the second millennium, the heart of the church. While Christians will be particularly concerned with this story, it will be of interest to, and significant for, far more than they.

After an already distinguished career as a historian, Jenkins has, during the last six years, produced a series of books designed to inform modern readers of the religious shape of the world we inhabit, a shape radically different from that of the popular, or even not-so-popular, mind. While much of what he has written will be of little surprise to specialists, he has a gift for clearly and cogently synthesizing and summarizing copious research. The Next Christendom (2002) described how Christianity's demographic center of gravity, in the 20th century, moved to the Third World. The New Faces of Christianity (2006) argued that, since their culture is closer to the Bible, Africans and Asians understand the book very differently from Europeans and North Americans, and find in it a great liberatory force. God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis (2007) found in Europe much more than fading Christianity and growing Islam.

The story usually told of Christianity is that, while it certainly also spread elsewhere, its major influence and home was in Europe. The church developed early, Europe became in some sense Christianized, and subsequently it set the pattern for the faith. With the discovery of America and the European voyages of exploration, as well as colonialism, Christianity then spread to the rest of the world largely as a Western export.

Jenkins demonstrates that this story is flat wrong--or as he more charitably puts it, "much of what we know is inaccurate."

For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa and Asia, and this was true into the 14th century. Christianity became predominantly European not because this continent had any obvious affinity for that faith, but by default: Europe was the continent where it was not destroyed.

As late as the 11th century Asia was home to about a third of the world's Christians, Africa another 10 percent, and the faith in these continents had deeper roots in the culture than it did in Europe, where in many places it was newly arrived or still arriving.