The Lost History of Christianity

One of my favourite authors in recent years has been Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University. During my time at Westminster Seminary, we were able to welcome this genial Welsh academic to the campus to talk about the expansion of world Christianity and the key features of Christianity in the global south and east, based on his research as published in The Next Christendom (2002) and The New Faces of Christianity (2006). His most recent offering, The Lost History of Christianity, tells an interesting and surprising story.

As the cover notes point out, most Christians think of Christianity as a Western faith which grew out of its origins in the Middle East towards Rome and into Europe, paving the way for the Enlightenment, science and modernity. Jenkins reveals that the largest and most influential churches of Christianity’s youth lay to the east of Rome, covered the world from North Africa to China, ruled the Middle East, and only expired after a thousand year reign after Constantine. The story he tells is not only how these churches were the dominant expression of Christianity for its first millenium, but how they became extinct.

Only very recently, in historical terms, Christians were quite as familiar a part of the Middle Eastern scene as Jews are in the modern United States, or indeed Muslims in contemporary western Europe. Middle Eastern Christians in 1900 actually represented a much larger part of the overall population (some 11 percent) than do American Jews today (2 percent) or European Muslims (4.5 percent). the removal or destruction of that community represented a historic transformation for the region, no less than for the Christian world. p141.

Jenkins describes how the decline of Christianity in the Near East occurred in two distinct phases. In the first phase of decline, during the Middle Ages, Christians lost their majority status within what became Muslim-majority nations. The Syriac sects suffered worst of all and the Copts least. But as minorities they proved to be very durable. In the second phase, which is barely a century old, Christians as organised communities are ceasing to exist altogether. In both phases, the largest single reason for decline was organised violence, whether in the form of massacre, expulsion or forced migration.

One of the most dramatic declines has taken place within Iraq. In 1970, Christians represented 5 or 6 percent of the population. The number is now around 1 percent and is shrinking fast. Christians in the 1980s reportedly made up 20 percent of Iraq’s teachers and many of its doctors and engineers. Two wars, one in the 1980s against Iran and one in 1990-91 against the U.S.-led coalition, devastated the country’s economy. Everyone who could leave easily did so, particularly the professional groups among whom Christians were well-represented. In the anarchy which followed the second invasion in 2003, Christians became the primary targets of mobs and militias, and were regularly kidnapped.

When Pope Benedict gave his controversial address in Regensburg in 2006, the “Lions of Islam” retaliated by beheading a Mosul priest, Paulos Iksander. Father Paulos belonged to the Syrian Orthodox Church, the denomination anciently known as Jacobites. In 2008, Islamists murdered Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, head of the Chaldean church in northern Iraq. Between 2003 and 2007, two-thirds of Iraq’s remaining Christians left the country.

Jenkins believes that the most vulnerable groups are those in Syria which has become the refuge for thousands of exiled Middle Eastern Christians. Yet a change of regime there could have a dreadful effect on minorities. If Egypt found itself under an Islamist regime, it would drive the remaining Copts to choose between mass migration and conversion.

Jenkins concludes:

Middle Eastern Christianity will not become extinct in the same way that animal or plant species vanish, with no representatives left to carry on the line and no hope of revival. Even in the worst-case scenario, a few families, a few old believers, will linger on for the decades to come. Millions of people from the region will also continue the tradition elsewhere. For practical purposes, however, Middle Eastern Christianity has, within living memory, all but disappeared as a living force. p172

The main point of the book is that Christians need to learn important lessons not only from the triumphs and expansion of the faith, but also by acknowledging the defeats and disasters.

Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarcely less damaging…we need to recover those memories, to restore that history. p262

Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity (Oxford, Lion, 2008).