Holier than Thou

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch and A New History of Early Christianity by Charles Freeman

Books Faith History The Catholic Church The Church of England
Albrecht Dürer's depiction of the Turin Shroud

In a letter of 1521, Martin Luther exhorted his fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon to “be a sinner and sin strongly, but have faith and rejoice in Christ even more strongly!” The antithesis is carefully couched, suggesting a subtle dynamic between the extremes of bold sinfulness and joyful faith as though in some indefinable way they fed upon one another (and perhaps they do). Luther’s words convey that tremulous equipoise of irreconcilables which has characterised Christian belief from its beginnings. In his new, massive history of Christianity, the distinguished Reformation scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch balks at such robust paradoxes. Unreason — that “faith in things unseen” — leaves him queasy. It leads to beliefs he finds preposterous. Christianity intrigues him because he cannot understand “how something so apparently crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species”. It inspires intolerance, bigotry, fanaticism and their murderous consequences. “For most of its existence,” he writes, “Christianity has been the most intolerant of world faiths.” As if this weren’t bad enough, it indulges in “gender-skewed language.” 

Although MacCulloch purports to be writing a history for the general reader — his book was the basis for “a major BBC TV series” this autumn — his take on Christianity is highly tendentious. When he sticks to events, such as the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which provoked the first momentous schism in Christian history, or when he untangles obscure doctrinal disputes, ranging from the controversies incited by the Iconoclasts to the baffled modern clashes between genteel traditional Protestants and rowdy Pentecostals, he can be superb. His scope is enormous. His discussion of Christianity in Ethiopia is as thorough as his explorations of 19th-century American revivalist movements. And his attention to often disregarded detail is impressive. His affectionate references to devotional music, from the hymns of Charles Wesley to Negro spirituals to the old Roman Catholic service of Benediction, enliven his account. Unsurprisingly, as the author of the magisterial Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, he is excellent on the rise of Protestantism and on the Catholic Counter-Reformation. But he’s just as informed, and as informative, about recent developments, whether the Second Vatican Council or the Orthodox Church in post-Soviet Russia.

Unfortunately, despite its large ambition, this is a strangely timid book. MacCulloch seems haunted by the fear of giving offence. In his introduction, he discloses, “When I was young, my parents were insistent on the importance of being courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions and I am saddened that these undramatic virtues have now been relabelled in an unfriendly spirit.” The disclosure carries a distinct whiff of the sanctimonious. It forces MacCulloch to bizarre formulations. He rechristens the British Isles “the Atlantic Isles” because the usual term “no longer pleases all their inhabitants, particularly those in the Republic of Ireland”. It doesn’t trouble MacCulloch that other citizens of the British Isles may not be “pleased” to find their homeland so arbitrarily annulled. This weird presumptive grovelling is carried to new depths whenever MacCulloch encounters what he calls “the language of maleness”. The most absurd instance comes when he rephrases an innocuous remark by his teacher, the late Sir Geoffrey Elton, and then appends an apologetic note in which he explains that “being of a certain generation and cast of mind, his remark was phrased in the singular and with a masculine reference”. Such twisted protocols of etiquette have nothing to do with old-fashioned courtesy and respect. MacCulloch doesn’t mind offending his male readers. His stance is really a smug proclamation of his own virtue.

This compulsive faddishness mars MacCulloch’s presentation. He seems to feel that fussiness over nomenclature entitles him to more sweeping assertions. Of the current turmoil in the Anglican Church over homosexuality, he remarks that it is “also a debate about whether God’s plan for the world centres on the supremacy of heterosexual men”. He can speak of the “neurosis of the Catholic layman” in knowingly Freudian accents. He’s convinced that recent returns to conservative religion reflect “the hurt of heterosexual men”. Such balderdash forms a subtext throughout this very long work. 

Related to his holier-than-thou historicism is MacCulloch’s mastery of the insinuating juxtaposition. Sometimes this appears in sly asides. Describing the murder of the last Tsarina by the Bolsheviks in 1918, he notes that one of the books found in her room after her death was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. What are we to infer from this poisonous tidbit? It casts aspersions but without clarity. Again, recounting his own first visit to Rome, MacCulloch notes that he was astonished to see the tomb of Pope John XXIII “flanked by a pair of large bronze-effect wreaths, gifts from the late General Francisco Franco of Spain”. What is the significance of the juxtaposition? Was Pope John XXIII some sort of crypto-fascist? Was it a plot by the Curia? MacCulloch doesn’t tell us but a seed of suspicion has been sown. Such insinuations become something of a stylistic tic. Thus, of John Wesley’s famous revelatory moment when he felt his “heart strangely warmed”, MacCulloch comments that “less frequently remembered, though characteristic of the man, is the fact that this led him immediately to pray in a somewhat passive-aggressive manner ‘for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me'”. Why is this “passive-aggressive”? Might it not be simply “turning the other cheek”? 

This tendency reaches its lowest point in his account of the life of Jesus. According to MacCulloch, Jesus was probably not born in a stable and certainly not at Bethlehem. Nor was he born at Christmas. His birth occurred probably in 4 AD. His ancestry as “the son of David” was a sham and the notion of the virgin birth arose from a mistranslation of a Greek word. The Gospels themselves, composed decades later, are inconsistent and contradictory. None of this is new, of course, but what is MacCulloch’s point? As an historian, he’s obliged to point out discrepancies in ancient accounts. He’s also right to report the findings of modern textual scholarship. But he should have presented the traditional narrative of Jesus’s life and ministry as well. How else can we make sense of the centuries to follow? His reductive account vitiates his own narrative (and it deadens his prose: tedium in place of Te Deum, as it were). Was all the sanctity and fervour, as well as the spectacular cruelty and intolerance, of later Christian history, nothing more than a gust from an empty tomb? 

By contrast, in his A New History of Early Christianity, Charles Freeman, though more of a sceptic than MacCulloch, takes the Gospel narratives pretty much as given. He’s aware of the problems of provenance and authorship. Even so, he seeks “the bedrock of the earliest oral traditions” about Jesus. Like MacCulloch, he believes that the search for “the historical Jesus” is doomed to fail and yet he cannot resist the attempt. Where evidence is absent, “pure speculation” must suffice. Freeman writes well and his narrative is clear and swift with fine flashes of insight. Thus, beyond Jewish horror at the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, he observes that for the Jews of Jerusalem, “a sense of defilement by the outsider was pervasive, intensified with each new Roman intrusion”, and this aptly captures an ancient attitude. Freeman knows how to ask good questions too. Given that Jesus spoke only Aramaic — and only 26 Aramaic words are attributed to him in the Gospels — how did his teachings come to be recast in Greek? This leads him into interesting observations on society and linguistic practices in early Palestine.

Freeman shares with MacCulloch a penchant for retrospective psychologising, often to lurid effect. What “neurosis” is to MacCulloch, “trauma” is to Freeman-not only “the trauma of the crucifixion” but the “traumatised disciples” as well. To appreciate their state, compounded by “emotional exhaustion”, “sleep deprivation”, not to mention the tendency “to hallucinate” — diagnoses buttressed by the latest clinical “studies” — Freeman suggests that we imagine how we might feel “after experiencing the crucifixion of a close friend”. (Downright squiffy, I’d guess.) Such free-wheeling speculation arises from Freeman’s unwillingness to consider the Resurrection or the disciples’ encounters with the risen Jesus as anything more than fanciful concoctions. Instead, Freeman imagines a body-snatcher scenario in which Caiaphas, the high priest “who masterminded the crucifixion”, contrives to have his lackeys steal Jesus’s body from the tomb. This ghoulish fantasy, though “pure speculation”, is, Freeman argues, the “most plausible explanation” of otherwise inexplicable events.

Freeman is the author of the controversial The Closing of the Western Mind (2005), which posited the simplistic notion of a radical split between Greek rationalism and Christian faith. Like MacCulloch, he is vexed by those pesky imponderables that elude the historian. As a result, despite great erudition, an enviable grasp of their subject and impressively ambitious range, both authors tend too often to be led astray by their own stubborn preconceptions. Too often they seem to be doing little more than scratching desperate graffiti on the walls of that empty tomb.