Note: This book is reviewed by my husband Jim.
The author of Jesus Wars, Peter Jenkins, who is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Distinguished Senior Fellow, Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, argues that the official orthodoxy of Christianity today was forged by the political machinations of certain key political players of the fifth century.
Who was Jesus Christ? Was he God? Was he a man? Was he the Son of God? If God, had he existed from all eternity, or was he born around the year One? Was he the equal of or subordinate to the creator? Was he both God and man? Was he the mysterious Son of Man referred in the gospels? Did he have two natures or one? Did he have a single will? Was he an ordinary (if virtuous) man until his baptism, and then became infused with the nature of God? Could he suffer? Could he foresee his own passion and death? Was Mary the mother of God?
Those questions are not easily answerable from a reading of the New Testament. The gospels are both ambiguous and inconsistent. Even a believer in the inerrancy of the Bible could find solid arguments in the gospels for either a yes or a no answer to each question formulated above (except for the first one, which does not call for a yes/no answer). In fact, in the Gospel of Mathew, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They answered that stories circulated that he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet come back to earth. Jesus then asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Although Jesus agrees with Peter’s answer, he does not explain or elaborate on what those terms mean. He further “sternly ordered” the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
For the first four centuries of Christianity, believers tried to resolve those questions through logic and a close reading of scripture. Many early Christians virtually ignored Christ’s humanity, thinking of him only as divine. On the other hand, the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus, became uniformly adopted by some of the Germanic tribes. Surprisingly to modern Christians, the theological disputes often led to violence. Several Church councils attempted to resolve the issues, but it was not until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that the definitions to which most modern Christian churches adhere were formulated. There, the Council concluded that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. Even Chalcedon did not settle the matter, since various heresies persisted for hundreds of years thereafter.
In Jesus Wars, Philip Jenkins tells the stories of the personalities and the politics that led up to and shaped the theological and Christological debates and their attempted resolutions. Jenkins’s narrative is labyrinthine and complex, as were the events he describes. At times it is difficult to distinguish the distinct theological positions of the combatants. What is clear is their geographical provenance of the conflicting isms. Jenkins concludes that the resolution of the controversies was not a matter of one side having better arguments than the other, but “what mattered were the interests and obsessions of rival emperors and queens….To oversimplify, the fate of Christian doctrine was deeply influenced by just how well or badly the empire was doing fighting Attila the Hun.” In the end, the Roman Church became “right” because it survived.
Evaluation: This is an important book with continuing relevance, since, as Jenkins observes, “In modern times, too, ancient debates and creeds are much in evidence, despite the official victory of Chalcedon.” The emphasis has changed somewhat however: whereas in ancient times, believers had trouble accepting that Christ could be anything less than wholly divine, “many modern believers struggle with contemplating a Jesus who is more than human.” Contemporary readers who struggle with this issue will appreciate the discussion of the debates that have tested Christianity from the beginning.
Published by HarperOne, 2010