Saturday, April 23, 2011

The First 100 Pages of the First 3000 Years

A few days ago, I started reading the newish book by Oxford church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. It's a big book, over 1,000 pages long. What follows are a few of my reactions after reading the first three chapters, which take up about 100 pages.

Of course, nowadays authors are expected to come up with a title or a subtitle that intrigues and reels in the prospective buyer. The title Christianity doesn't create much of a stir. Here it's the subtitle, The First Three Thousand Years, that raises the obvious question. I thought Christianity was only two thousand years old. So what's the author up to? In the first few pages, you find out. MacCulloch believes that the Christian faith owes so much to its roots in (a) the ancient Greek tradition and (b) the history of Israel that it's no stretch to say that the Christianity sort of began about a thousand years before the time of Christ.

Those two strands of Christian pre-history take up the first two chapters of the book. Here, MacCulloch packs a lot of information into a few dozen pages. The reader can learn a good bit about how ancient Hellenism and Judaism shaped the world into which Jesus and his movement were born. At times, MacCulloch offers up some refreshing takes on well-known texts. A good example is found on page 50:

Around Abraham's rackety grandson Jacob are woven several engaging tales of outrageous cheating and deceit, and they culminate in an all-night wrestling match with a mysterious stranger who overcomes Jacob and is able to give him another new name, Israel, meaning 'He who strives with God'. Out of that fight in the darkness, with one who revealed the power of God and was God, began the generations of the Children of Israel. Few peoples united by a religion have proclaimed by their very name that they struggle against the one whom they worship. The relationship of God with Israel is intense, personal, conflicted. Those who follow Israel and the religions which spring from his wrestling match that night are being told that even through their harshest and most wretched experiences of fighting with those they love most deeply, they are being given some glimpse of how they relate to God.

Through the first two chapters of the book, MacCulloch's presentation is mostly good. But then comes Chapter 3, "A Crucified Messiah (4 BCE--100 CE)." Here the reader easily detects a zeal for debunking the Four Gospels that appears to have gone to seed.

For example, on page 79 MacCulloch says that “the Gospels agree on hardly any detail about Jesus’s infancy.” But the fact that Matthew and Luke report different traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus does not mean that they necessarily disagree. In fact, they don’t.

On page 83, we read: “The Gospels do not give a definite answer as to whether Jesus’s ministry lasted one year (John) or three years (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).” Here it’s hard to know where to begin. It is true that upon reading one of the first three Gospels one might guess that the public ministry of Jesus took up no more than one year. However, this is far from the notion that any of the evangelists state that one year was the time frame. On the other hand, the church derives its tradition that Christ’s ministry lasted three years from John’s Gospel, which mentions three Passover festivals (see 2:13, 6:4, and 11:55). Not only does MacCulloch insinuate a disagreement where there isn’t one, he also makes the confusing mistake of reversing the categories. Again, it is not the Synoptic Gospels, but rather John who establishes the three-year time frame.

Although it is not intended to contradict the Gospel accounts, one can only wonder about MacCulloch's discussion of the parable, Jesus’s favorite form of teaching. The author suggests that Jesus invented the device and adds that parables “emerge as a literary form in later Judaism only after Jesus’ death” (p. 87). He then asks, “Was this form of Jesus’s teaching so successful that it impressed and influenced even Jews who did not become his followers?” The entire section is unaware that instructing and convicting others by means of narrative metaphor finds its origin not in the teaching of Jesus, but in the Hebrew Bible, the Scriptural tradition in which Jesus stood. How did MacCulloch, the son of an Anglican priest, forget how the prophet Nathan revealed to King David the true character of his sin with Bathsheba?

There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him (2 Samuel 12:1-4).

Other examples from the Jewish Scriptures include Jotham's parable of the trees in Judges 9, the parable of the two sons told by the wise woman of Tekoa in 2 Samuel 14, and several others, like those found among the oracles of the writing prophets; for example, the story of the two eagles and a vine in Ezekiel 17.

These mistakes and misreadings in Chapter 3 do not inspire confidence in MacCulloch who otherwise seems to be a competent historian and a fine writer. So, anyone else out there who has read or who's reading MacCulloch? I'd be interested to hear your reactions. If not this book, then what are you reading these days?

1 comment:

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Frank I have always viewed MacCulloch as a popularist writer rather than a serious critical scholar. I have flipped through "Christianity" at Borders but havent gotten around to shelling out the dough for it. His volume on the Reformation I found to be an interesting read though. Yet that his Christianity was published by Penguin rather than Fortress or similar publisher sort of makes me look askew at it.

But he is not the only one like this. I have been reading my own thousand page book, The Bible in English by David Daniel. This is a very good book for the most part. Yet I was literally floored when on page 648 he says that Alexander Campbell "with his brother Thomas" formed the Disciples of Christ. I almost decided to write the publisher (which is Yale University Press btw!!) those kinds of errors do cast a shadow over other areas where I am less familiar!!