The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity

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How did a community that was largely invisible in the first two centuries of its existence go on to remake the civilizations it inhabited, culturally, politically, and intellectually? Beginning with the life of Jesus, Robert Louis Wilken narrates the dramatic spread and development of Christianity over the first thousand years of its history. Moving through the formation of early institutions, practices, and beliefs to the transformations of the Roman world after the conversion of Constantine, he sheds new light on the subsequent stories of Christianity in the Latin West, the Byzantine and Slavic East, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Through a selected narration of particularly noteworthy persons and events, Wilken demonstrates how the coming of Christianity set in motion one of the most profound revolutions the world has known. This is not a story limited to the West; rather, Christian communities in Ethiopia, Nubia, Armenia, Georgia, Persia, Central Asia, India, and China shaped the course of Christian history. The rise and spread of Islam had a lasting impact on the future of Christianity, and several chapters are devoted to the early experiences of Christians under Muslim rule. Wilken reminds us that the career of Christianity is characterized by decline and attrition as well as by growth and expansion. 

Ten years in the making and the result of a lifetime of study, this is Robert Louis Wilken’s summa, a moving, reflective, and commanding account from a scholar at the height of his powers.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this brilliant survey of the development of Christianity, Wilken, dean of early Christian history (The Christians as the Romans Saw Them), tells a riveting story of a struggling young religion searching for an identity that slowly, over the course of centuries, develops into a collection of religious communities of global proportions. He traces the lives and thought of many individuals who give the story of Christianity its peculiar vigor: Macrina, who introduced a form of monasticism to Asia Minor; Theodore Abu Qurrah, the first Christian to write theological works in Arabic; theological thinkers such as Augustine and Origen, among others. Wilken elegantly weaves the colorful threads of the Christian development of doctrines and rituals with the influence of three significant institutions—bishops, monks, and kings or emperors—into a patchwork quilt that colorfully covers Christianity's expansion in the first third of the millennium, its mid-millennium rise, and its decline in its encounters with Islam in the eighth and ninth centuries. By the end of the first millennium, Christians lived in three large areas—Syria and the Arabic Middle East, the Greek and Slavic East, the Latin West—and each region had its own distinctive forms of Christian life, art, worship, and piety. (Nov.)
Impressive . . . a compelling narrative . . . an outstanding achievement.—Maria E. Doerfler, Commonweal

— Maria E. Doerfler

Library Journal
In this ambitious book, Wilken (history, Univ. of Virginia; The Spirit of Early Christian Thought) aims to present not just the history of a religion but rather the history and development of a "religious community." A major theme is that Christianity is a "culture-forming religion." It is because of its transformative force that Wilken extends his account beyond the early Church to a millennium; many of the transformations did not reach fruition until that much time had passed. VERDICT Given the vast scope of material covered, it is perhaps unavoidable that the book becomes dizzying and superficial at times, leaving readers asking questions and, most likely, looking to other books for further detail. However Wilken's descriptions, particularly of the often-neglected locations of early Christianity (e.g., Armenia, China, India), make this a worthwhile read. Serious readers seeking an introduction to early Christianity or seeking to contextualize its global growth will find this useful.—Fred Poling, Long Beach City Coll. Lib., CA
Mark Noll

“Robert Wilken has written the best kind of authoritative historical survey.  Its treatment is learned, thorough, but also accessible for all aspects of early Christian history, and especially for the great significance of Islam to the entire Christian world from the seventh century forward.”—Mark Noll, author of The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys
Carlos Eire

“A marvelous and unique survey, learned and authoritative, yet also a perfect introduction to the early history of Christianity.  Robert Wilken redraws many boundaries, expanding horizons, summarizing and analyzing with consummate skill.  This beautifully written book sets new standards on multiple levels, and should stand for a long time as the benchmark by which all other surveys are measured.”—Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy
David Hart

“This is a rich and wonderful book, not only because of Robert Wilken's narrative gifts, but because of his immense scholarly range and sympathies.  His is one of the few treatments of Christianity's first millennium for Anglophone readers that embraces the faith's whole history, cultural and geographical, Eastern and Western, Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian, European, Asian, and African.  It is a pure joy to read.”—David Hart, author of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
Francis Cardinal George

“Robert Wilken reminds us that our association of “global” developments in culture, communications and economics with the beginning of the Third Millennium forgets the world of the First Millennium, which was integrated by a universal faith.  This book is both unique and timely, the fruit of broad erudition and deep reflection.”—Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., Archbishop of Chicago
Commonweal - Maria E. Doerfler

"Compelling. . . . An outstanding achievement.”—Maria E. Doerfler, Commonweal

Christian Century - Philip Jenkins

“Ambitious and wide-ranging . . . [This] highly accessible volume abounds with lively tales and fascinating connections, and the color illustrations are a delight. Wilken’s recent scholarship has also given him a global perspective of impressive sweep.”—Philip Jenkins, Christian Century 
First Things

“Elegantly written [and] highly readable.”—First Things 
Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan

“I’ve been a fan of Robert Wilken for decades, but even he outdid himself on this one, a remarkable blend of scholarly precision and attractive readability.  It’s even more: I found it also spiritual reading, from a professor who detects something beyond the worldly at work in one of the most colorful institutions around.”—Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York
Semper Reformanda - Jacob Sweeney

“A lively, engaging, and highly enjoyable tour of the church’s first millennia.” —Jacob Sweeney, Semper Reformanda (blog)
Catholic Books Review - Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo

"Readable and reliable."—Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, Catholic Books Review
New York Review of Books - Eamon Duffy

“[A] masterly and generous-spirited account . . . [that] brings new freshness and clarity.”—Eamon Duffy, New York Review of Books
Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly - Joel Otto

"[W]ilken's book would make a nice addition to the library of a pastor or seminary student seeking an up-to-date overview of the first millennium of Christian history. His writing style makes it easy and interesting to read....His emphasis on the spread of Christianity beyond the Roman empire shows that the gospel has had a global reach from the very beginning of the church's history."—Joel Otto, Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly
Washington Post Book World - Michael Dirda

Praise for The Spirit of Early Christian Thought:
“Magnificently learned [and] deeply felt.... An attentive reader of Wilken, whether believer or nonbeliever, will be touched anew by his survey of Christian intellectual life.”—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World
Timothy George

“Christianity is a historical religion, yet much of its actual life from the New Testament until early modern times remains largely unknown.  Robert Wilken, one of our best historians, provides here a fascinating account of Christianity’s first millennium, the undivided church which is the patrimony of all Christians.  Written with elegance, grace, and insight.”— Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School  
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300118841
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/27/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 412,407
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus, University of Virginia. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 Beginning in Jerusalem 6

2 Ephesus, Rome, and Edessa: The Spread of Christianity 17

3 The Making of a Christian Community 28

4 Divisions Within 37

5 Constructing a Catacomb 47

6 A Learned Faith: Origen of Alexandria 55

7 Persecution: Cyprian of Carthage 65

8 A Christian Emperor: Constantine 75

9 The Council of Nicaea and the Christian Creed 88

10 Monasticism 99

11 A Christian Jerusalem 109

12 Emperor Julian, the Jews, and Christians 118

13 Bishop and Emperor: Ambrose and Theodosius 127

14 Architecture and Art 136

15 Music and Worship 145

16 The Sick, the Aged, and the Poor: The Birth of Hospitals 154

17 The Bishop of Rome as Pope 163

18 An Ordered Christian Society: Canon Law 174

19 Augustine of Hippo 183

20 The Great Controversy over Christ 195

21 Egypt and the Copts; Nubia 205

22 African Zion: Ethiopia 214

23 Syriac-Speaking Christians: The Church of the East 222

24 Armenia and Georgia 229

25 Central Asia, China, and India 238

26 A Christian Empire: Justinian 246

27 New Beginnings in the West 257

28 Latin Christianity Spreads North 269

29 The Sacking of Jerusalem; More Controversy over Christ 279

30 No God but God: The Rise of Islam 288

31 Images and the Making of Byzantium 297

32 Arabic-Speaking Christians 307

33 Christians Under Islam: Egypt and North Africa 316

34 Christians Under Islam: Spain 324

35 An Emperor in the West: Charlemagne 333

36 Christianity Among the Slavs 344

Afterword 355

Chronology and Maps 361

Suggested Readings 373

Translations 377

Index 381

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