Sunday Salon – Review of “Jesus Wars” by Philip Jenkins

The Sunday

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.

Council of Chalcedon

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

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18 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “Jesus Wars” by Philip Jenkins

  1. There have always been heresies, there will always be heresies. There have always been and there will always be intellectual arguments. But I don’t think that means there is not an objective Truth, an objective Truth that God has revealed to His Body, the Church.
    But that’s just me. 😉

  2. I find this topic always fascinating. Thanks for your splendid review and sharing this book.

  3. Jenny says:

    I’m very interested in how Christianity formed its beliefs – the real version of how that happened, not the Dan Brown version. This book sounds great!

  4. Lisa says:

    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. So much of Christian belief is based on what man has said happened and what direction certain people chose to steer the faith.

  5. Alyce says:

    Topics like this are so fascinating, but also hard for me to grasp all of the details because there is so much history involved.

  6. This sounds fascinating. I have often wondered about both the scholarship and the politics of what has been established as truth in Christian teachings. I’ll look for this at the library.

  7. Margot says:

    After reading Phillip Gulley’s If the Church Were Christian, I have been thinking a great deal about the issues raised in this book. It hasn’t caused my faith to waver – just the opposite. I’d like to read this book next. I think this one will give a bit more historical balance to the subject. Good review, and thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  8. Julie P. says:

    This doesn’t sound like light reading! Excellent review! Of course, it first caught my eye when you said one of the authors was a Penn State prof!

  9. Staci says:

    Thanks for reading this one for me!! 😀 I find this fascinating…I enjoyed your well written thoughts on it and appreciate the time you devoted to reading this.

  10. maphead says:

    Thanks for posting this review. I’ve been curious about this book and now after reading this review I think I will give this book a shot.
    If you get a chance check out my brief review of How Jesus Became Christian over at my blog.
    Thanks for the helpful review !

  11. kiss a cloud says:

    I find arguments surrounding ambiguity about Christ’s identity fascinating. Not that I question it, because I wholly, totally believe He is real, although, based on research (yes, I love reading about origins and debates regarding deity and such, not to mention my particular love of reading prophecy) it isn’t as most people assume (in my belief, anyway). But anyhow, my faith is strong enough to weather reading such arguments as these, so I’m most interested in this book. I like knowing the defenses of the other side. 😀 Thanks for introducing me to this book, definitely going on the wish list.

  12. Liz says:

    I echo the comment above that this topic is fascinating. I’m just wondering how “dense,” for lack of a better word, the book is. I’ll have to look through it; I know myself well enough that if it’s not readable as well as informative, I just won’t get through it. But it sounds well worth a look. I’ve recently finished a work of Christian fiction
    bringing to life the so-called “good” angels, “The Testings of Devotion,” with a focus on the never-ending jobs of the angels that serve the Almighty One in heaven. It may be controversial to some, because it shows even the angels seemingly safe behind the gates of heaven tempted by the dark angels who want to bring the good guys to the dark side. The book is fiction, but it shares from a Biblical perspective to open your eyes to what life in heaven might be like for angels. Very interesting.

  13. Gary says:

    ” Contemporary readers who struggle with this issue will appreciate the discussion of the debates that have tested Christianity from the beginning.” This is an interesting statement because if you believe in Christ then there is no issue to struggle with. Either Jesus was a complete lunatic or he was the Son of God as he did indeed say he was. Either you believe or you don’t. Even the Jews pointed out that he taught as one with authority. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” I don’t care about rituals and I’ve no need to look elsewhere to know what is true or who my Savior is.Believing in Jesus was one of the better choices I’ve made in my life. And it’s proven that God likes it when we make good choices!

    • Kimberley says:

      Was your Jesus (1) the Son of God–born in the year one C.E. or (2) the eternal logos [as in the gospel of John]? They are not the same. Is your Jesus the equal of God the Father, or merely one who sits at his right hand? What is your understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity? How did God impregnate Mary? What about Jesus’s brothers? Those kinds of issues are what the book (and the Council of Chalcedon) was about.

  14. Tony C says:

    Peter Jenkins in the first sentence of the review? Seriously?

  15. Pingback: Haroon Siddiqui – The Hypocrite Harpooned | Kaffir Kanuck

  16. Ignore This Book and Read the Holy Bible and put your faith in what it says. Don’t look for Too Many Answers to Too Many Questions, if we do that we miss the purpose of the Bible and the reason why Jesus came to the earth. Remember There was a time when the clergy and popes dominated the people. This was even to the point of death if you tried to translate or read the Bible. Don’t become your own self made God because you are disalusioned with religion and the Bible and its teachers. Not knowing the answers to All your questions is what is called faith. However most but not All questions can be answered by a lot of studying. The best Answers are the most basic. Jesus came to earth to let people know there is hope for the future of mankind. He mentions this in Matthew in the Lords Prayer–let your kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven! He will be king of that kingdom. It is also mentioned in the book of Daniel chap 2:verse44 That is the reason he came. For us to put faith in the king of Gods kingdom, and that it is coming to the earth, in thenear future. Any thoughts on my comment send to

    • Kimberley says:

      Faith is the implacable belief in propositions despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

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