Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins

esus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years cover imageSummary: A history of the early Christian political and theological history.

I am not sure that the book’s subtitle, “How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years,” helped my perception of the book. I have read two previous books by Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity and The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. I am mixed, even as I am glad I read them. I bought Jesus Wars on Kindle years ago but never read it. I noticed it was free as part of my Audible membership, but it was leaving the free section soon, so I picked it up. 

Jesus Wars is part of my reading in response to Christian Nationalism, especially Noll’s America’s Book and Whitehead’s American Idolatry. A point that many pro-Christian Nationalists attempt to make is that their expression of Christianity is more consistent with historic Christianity than those that oppose Christian Nationalism. If their point is narrow, that there have been some aspects of Christianity that are similar to their understanding of Christian Nationalism, then I think that is accurate. But not all expressions of Christianity should be emulated.

Philip Jenkins is a historian of Christianity who tends to look at significant trends and demographics. I appreciate how he draws attention to both geographies and times to parts of Christian history that are less well-known or ignored. In all three books I have read, he draws attention away from traditional Western (European and North American) Christianity and toward Christianity of Africa and Asia. He is not anti-orthodox (in the theological sense), but he believes that some of the lines drawn in the past were more about politics, language, and culture than theology. Jenkins wants to introduce the reader to what is often called Miasophite or Nestorian Christianity. The introduction discusses why those descriptions are inaccurate but still commonly used. He concludes that there were fundamental differences in approach with these early theological battles but that the disagreements were not only about theology but also language, culture, and politics. I think Jesus Wars and Christianity The First 3000 Years are examples of trying to do Christian history by primarily looking at the political and social history as a contributing factor to the theological history. This is important to Christian history because, so many times, Christian history is presented as solely spiritual. Christian history is messy, as Jesus Wars presents.

Jesus Wars is mainly a political and social history of about 400 to 800, focusing primarily on the later councils. If you have heard of the violence of European Christianity around the Reformation, the violence and persecution during this earlier era were just as bad. The Roman Empire was slowly breaking up, and the politics of that breakup influenced political involvement in theological and ecclesiological issues. There was a different understanding of the idea of covenant and God’s role in the world. Gods were geographical, and as nation/states developed, the understanding of the gods’ role was as a sponsor or patron of those entities. This is not how we generally conceive of the role of God today, but that change in understanding is relatively recent. Christendom understood the ecclesiology and politics as connected. Bad decisions politically had theological implications. If the state was allowed by God to wield the sword, then the church often was as well. And it wasn’t just that there was the option, but an obligation to wield.

(As a side note, there has been a discussion on spanking within Christianity on Twitter recently. Many pro-spanking voices are not simply saying there is an option to spank as a type of parental discipline allowed within Christianity but that there is an obligation to spank. These voices seem to suggest that spanking is not one of several options that should be allowed but, in some way, a biblical mandate. I can’t help but think that this is part of the discussion of Christian nationalism because of the exertion of power and authority that is associated with Christian nationalism. And as I said above, there is historical precedent for the wielding of power in this way. But there is also historical precedent for many other things like slavery and patriarchy, and the presentation of these as obligations is where the fundamental disagreement rests.)

Jenkins’ presentation often revolves around the concept of Jesus and what his body was made of, how divinity and humanity related, and what the role of Mary in the making of that body was the surface-level fight. But underneath the surface, philosophy, previous cultural understanding of the role of the gods, and metaphysics in general were part of why the fight over Jesus was occurring. There is an ongoing “joke” that it is virtually impossible to talk about the Trinity without entering into some type of heresy. Jenkins wants the reader to understand that the characters fighting were often much closer in position than we tend to believe. Part of the problem in our current understanding is that we do not always know the positive views of different sides because we lack documentation. We only have the stereotype of losing views because positive views were repressed and often destroyed.

This led me to pick up The Virgin Mary: A Very Short Introduction because I had not considered some of the aspects of the role of Mary in a number of these discussions. And then, I am starting Mideieval Christianity to explore further ideas that Jenkins brought up.

Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years by Philip Jenkins Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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