Interview by Sophie Roell. How did you decide what particular areas of it to focus on? There is a lot to cover. It also involves the entire world now, apart officially from Saudi Arabia and North Korea.
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- ICS BiblioSelect: History of Early Christianity – International Catacomb Society.
- A New History of Early Christianity | Thinking Faith: The online journal of the Jesuits in Britain?
What you can do is separate out the various strands in its history. The three obvious ones are Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism.
What also fascinated me as I wrote my book were the bits of Christianity not covered by those categories — the really ancient Christianities of the Middle East, which in many ways are more in touch with the very first Christians. They are given dismissive names by the mainstream, like Monophysites or Nestorians. But if you get a strong sense of these different categories — the big three and also the other bits of Christianity that could have been the future of the Church — then it becomes a bit simpler to grasp.
Bede lived in the 7th and 8th centuries of the Christian era. There were these people, many of whom would call themselves Angli, and he calls his book An Ecclesiastical History of the English People , the Gens Anglorum. His book is a celebration of the English becoming Christian, and, in the centuries after him, these people, the Angli, will think of themselves as a single nation, England. Christian history had been going for six centuries or so; there were little fragments of history in some big books.
But Bede is really readable. He has wonderful stories, human interest stories, and he talked to people — very old men who remembered things before his time.
Review of Charles Freeman’s “New” History of Early Christianity
He was careful about getting documents, and there are all sorts of little ways in which he feels a bit like a modern historian. The English were very, very proud of that fact.
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They felt really drawn to Rome, and united with Rome. He makes a big point about this and sort of sneers at them. That was a big sticking point, at that time, which date they celebrated Easter on. So you get a sense that for him being in a relationship with Rome is what it is to be true, and yet also curiously what it is to be local, to be where he is in the north of England. Gibbon is terribly different from Bede. Edward Gibbon was a very self-absorbed 18th-century Englishman, and yet also a citizen of the world. He felt that the enlightened, sceptical outlook that he held was the way people ought to be.
He left us a wonderful account of his life — a rather solemn and not terribly humourous autobiography — in which you get a picture of a snobby, rather prissy, self-important man who likes everything just so. Otherwise, he was a single man who devoted his time to writing this immense book. All the time there is a wonderful, slight edge to what he is writing.
A New History of Early Christianity – By Charles Freeman
I think he may have enjoyed the past more than the present. What modern historians would say is that this is a story of transformations, and one of those transformations was the alliance between emperors and Christianity, which made the Empire very different. Far from the Empire falling after Christianity, it lasted another years, in the form of Byzantine Christianity in Constantinople. But what you do see in Gibbon is a very exhilarating rejection of priestcraft, the claims of the Church to absolute authority, and the attempts of the Church to boss people around in their lives.
He would be searing in what he said. In his day, the big enemy was the Roman Catholic Church, but all the same things applied.
He was not an atheist, he was not anti-religious, but he was anti-clerical, he distrusted clergy — and that seems to me a very healthy instinct. So was writing about Christianity in the Roman Empire just an excuse to be rude about the contemporary Church? Oh, by no means. He tells us that great story about going to Rome and standing in the ruins of the forum as the friars chanted in the background.
He was gripped by this great civilisation which was in ruin in his day. This city is small compared to what it was.
Your next three books are more recent, but rather less well known than Bede and Gibbon…. What I have done so far is to give you two of the great classics of Christian history. She is writing about the Scottish Reformation, which produced the Presbyterian Church of Scotland still the Scottish national church. But what Margo does is present this wonderfully rich, detailed picture of the lives that people led.
It was a very disciplined society. For example, the Scottish Protestants invented a new piece of church furniture which they called the Stool of Repentance. The whole congregation would stare at these people Sunday after Sunday and then, at the end, the whole congregation would welcome them back, hugging them and shaking their hands. It was a very scary world in which anyone might burst into crime, and you can see how attractive this sort of structure would be for people.
She has the most wonderful stories about these disciplines: for example, one sea captain who was visiting from the Netherlands and went out on the razzle one night and had a wonderful time drinking and fornicating and when he had a hangover the following day he felt so guilty that he went to the local church and offered himself for penance before the congregation. You get the sense of people struggling with their own consciences and trying to fit into this world. It only existed in Scotland, and an Englishman came up to visit Edinburgh one day, and he went to church on a Sunday.
And it goes on like that. Was there a big change in Scotland between the pre- Reformation period and the post-Reformation period, or was it always quite strict and dour? It was an absolutely huge turnaround, part of a real reformation of manners. Society moved from a society where the festivals of the church were hugely important, to one where discipline was valued. Scottish society remained full of festivity, but it had a rather different relationship with the Church.
The Church was generally on the side of buttoning yourself up after the Reformation, whereas beforehand it might well be on the side of unbridled fun. It depends where you start from. We all make bargains with the society we live in, and theirs were just a different set of bargains.
This is one volume in a long series called the Oxford History of the Christian Church. I chose it because its author, who is sadly now dead, was not only a great historian but also a participant and observer. He was a Roman Catholic priest who went to Africa and worked particularly in Mozambique. And it really destroyed the credibility of the Portuguese, the last people in Europe really to defend their colonial empire. It made him very unpopular in certain circles at the time. The expertise that Hastings brought to what he did was quite exceptional, and this history is just entrancing.
Can you tell me a bit about Christianity in Africa? They more or less got on with being Christian, without much contact with the outside world, for centuries, and became pretty odd in the process.
A New History of Early Christianity, By Charles Freeman | The Independent
Then he starts showing the reader how from that initial mission from outside, Africans took over and made this religion their own. The Christian Church is an important part, then, of the history of Africa as a whole? Uncovering the difficulties in establishing the Christian church, he examines its relationship with Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy and Greco-Roman society, and he offers dramatic new accounts of Paul, the resurrection, and the church fathers and emperors.
Charles Freeman is a specialist on the ancient world and its legacy.
Ancient Man and His First Civilizations
He has worked on archaeological digs on the continents surrounding the Mediterranean and develops study tour programs in Italy, Greece, and Turkey. He lives in the UK. Customer Reviews Average Review.