When I first got this book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How it Died, I was arrested by the cover.

I, so far, was very familiar with early Christianity in Europe—that would be the Holy Roman Empire. I was somewhat familiar with Christianity in Northern Africa. Three really famous theologians of the early church were African:

  • Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt (AD 293–373)
  • Augustine of Hippo, Algeria (AD 354–430)
  • Origen of Alexandria, Egypt (AD 185-254)

But Christianity in the East?

I mean, sure, the Middle East. But China? Really?

Really, really.

It was Christians—Nestorian, Jacobite, Orthodox, and others—who preserved and translated the cultural inheritance of the ancient world—the science, philosophy, and medicine—and who transmitted it to centers like Baghdad and Damascus. Much of what we call Arab scholarship was in real reality Syriac, Persian, and Coptic, and it was not necessarily Muslim. Syriac-speaking Christian scholars brought the works of Aristotle to the Muslim world … Syriac Christians even make the first reference to the efficient Indian numbering system that we know today as “Arabic,” and long before this technique gained currency among Muslim thinkers.

Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p18

In fact, by the fifth century there were five Christian centers, called patriarchates, dotted throughout the known world. Only one was in Rome.

The other four were in Africa (Alexandria) and the Middle East (Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem). As the papacy developed, six popes came from Syria, several of them Greek natives, between 640-740 CE.

Ethiopia, Abyssinia, Armenia, Nubia, Syria, all deeply Christian nations from as early as the third century.

By the sixth century, Christian missionaries were evangelizing and translating scripture in the heart of Asia—the Turks, Uygurs, and Soghdians, the Mongols, Huns, and Tatars.

  • Scripture was translated into the language of the Huns.
  • By 635 CE, missionaries were preaching in the Chinese imperial capital of Ch’ang-and, a mission that lasted over two hundred years.
  • In 170 CE, all four Gospels had been translated to Syriac, and combined into a single account.
  • By the second century, Christianity was growing in southern India.

So what happened?

In this amazing and often heart-wrenching account, I read about the early signs of division, beginning with nuances of meaning altered in the Latin translation of the originally Greek Apostle’s Creed (the oldest of all Christian creeds). This breach was further deepened by the west’s and the east’s separate understandings of the nature of God and Christ. A “Great Schism” formed, creating the Roman Catholic Church (with one See in Rome), and the Eastern Orthodox Church (all nine of the other Sees, or centers). On the Eastern side were the Nestorians and the Jacobites, now excommunicated from the western church for what was then branded as heresies.

In a chapter marked The Great Tribulation, the rise of Islam is described.

What a frightful decline! Read all and you shall greatly lament … Fifty-one metropolitanates, eighteen archbishoprics, and 478 bishoprics are desolate … And not only were those metropolitanates, archbishoprics, bishoprics, the monasteries and churches desolate, but also the provinces of the three patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Neither will you find a single metropolitan there, nor other Christian, layman, or clergy. But on the thrones of those patriarchates you will find barely a few priests, monks, and laymen. Because the churches of their provinces have been obliterated completely and Christ’s people, that is the Christians, have been utterly destroyed.

—Anonymous Greek churchman, c. 1480

I learned about how the Crusaders coming from the West to “rescue” the churches of the East and to re-open the Holy Land after Turkey and Palestine came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. In truth, Western Crusaders often looted Eastern churches, and sent their ancient treasures back to Rome (and also Venice).

I learned about the mysterious “crypto” Christians who kept their faith hidden for centuries in such surprising places as Japan.

And I learned about how early Eastern Christianity and Islam were very similar at the start.

Honestly, though I am not an historian by trade, I consider this book a must-read for every Christian. Oneness in Christ is a precious unity that is easily lost when current divisions are considered insurmountable. If only those early Christians had given each other more time to wrestle with Ephesians 4, and understand that crucial apostolic teaching.

Let us learn from the tragedy and horror of our past.


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