BÍLÝ, Jiří. Christianizing the Roman Ancient State

1st ed. Prague: KEY Publishing s.r.o., Metropolitan University Prague Press, 2015. ISBN 978-80-7418-250-1, 978-80-87956-13-7

The book conceives the overall structure of Christian history differently, from any of its predecessors. Within the cluster of beliefs making up Christian faith is an instability which comes from a twofold ancestry. Far from being simply the pristine, innovative teachings of Jesus Christ, it draws on two much more ancient cultural wellsprings, Greece and Israel. The story must therefore begin more than a millennium before Jesus, among the ancient Greeks and the Jews, two races which alike thought that they had a uniquely privileged place in the worlďs history. More surprising is the fact that the Jews‘ constant experience of misfortune did not kill their faith in their own destiny. Instead it drove them to conceive of their God not simply as all‑powerful, but as passionately concerned with their response to him, in anger as well as in love. Such an intensely personal deity, they began to assert, was nevertheless the God for all humanity. He was very different from the supreme deity who emerged from Greek philosophy in the thought of Plato; all‑perfect, therefore immune to change and devoid of the passion which denotes change. The first generations of Christians were Jews who lived in a world shaped by Greek elite culture. They had to try to fit together these two irreconcilable visions of God, and the results have never been and never can be a stable answer to an unending question.

After the period of Jesus’s life and its immediate aftermath, the history of Christianity can only be a unified narrative for around three centuries before it begins to diverge into language‑families: Latin‑speakers, Greek‑speakers and those speaking Oriental languages (the chief among them being of course Jesus Christ himself). As a result, after the three or four centuries which followed the birth of Jesus, the story of Christianity told here is divided three ways. One split emerged because a section of Christianity, the Church within the Roman Empire, found itself suddenly receiving patronage and increasingly unquestioning support from the successors of the emperors who had formerly persecuted it. Those to the east of that empire did not. Within the imperial Church, there was a further division between those who, when looking for a formal language in which to express themselves, habitually chose Greek and those who turned to Latin. This tripartite split became institutionalized after the Council of Chalcedon in 45I.

The Christians of the Middle East spoke a language akin to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus himself, the language which developed into Syriac, and
very early they began developing an identity which diverged from the Greek‑speakers who first dominated most of the great Christian centres of the Roman Empire to the west. Many of these Syriac Christians were on the margins of the empire. When, at Chalcedon, a Roman emperor sought to impose a solution to a difficult theological problem – how to talk of the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ – most Syrians rejected his solution, though they radically disagreed among themselves as to why they 509 were rejecting it, taking precisely opposite views, which are most precisely if inelegantly described as ‚Miaphysite‘ and ‚Dyophysite‘. We will find Miaphysite and Dyophysite Syriac Christians performing remarkable feats of mission in north‑east Africa, India and East Asia, although their story was also profoundly and destructively altered by the coming of a new monotheism from the same Semitic homeland, Islam. Still in the eighth century of the Christian era, the great new city of Baghdad would have been a more likely capital for worldwide Christianity than Rome. The extraordinary accident of the irruption of Islam is the chief reason why Christian history turned in another direction.