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The Greatest Story Ever Told

THE BARBARIAN CONVERSION: From Paganism to Christianity.\o7 By Richard Fletcher (Henry Holt: 562 pp., $35)\f7 ; THE BIRTH OF CHRISTIANITY: Discovering What Happened In the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus.\o7 By John Dominic Crossan (HarperSanFrancisco: 654 pp., $30)\f7

September 06, 1998|ROBERT L. WILKEN | Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is "Remembering the Christian Past" (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.)

The story of how Christianity came into being, how the religion that began with Jesus in Palestine made its way across the Mediterranean, spread north, crossed the Alps and began to create a Christian society out of the barbarian tribes that inhabited what is now Western and Eastern Central Europe has been told again and again. And the publication of "The Birth of Christianity" and "The Barbarian Conversion" might seem to offer an excellent opportunity to hear it afresh on the basis of the latest historical scholarship.

But first impressions are deceptive. For only one of the books, "The Barbarian Conversion," offers truth in advertising and lives up to its title. In it, one gets what one expects, a historical account of the conversion of the peoples of Northern Europe--the Irish, the Anglos, the Franks, the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Moravians, the Bulgars and many others. It is a magnificent story, the beginning of European Christian culture, and Richard Fletcher tells it with immense learning, keen insight and literary grace.

"The Birth of Christianity" by John Dominic Crossan, however, is a self-absorbed academic exercise, the product of a cramped and airless world in which theories feed on theories, scholars are endlessly commenting on the views of other scholars, and words intertwine without a footing in historical reality. Unlike "The Barbarian Conversion," which creates a spacious and vibrant world we can imagine even as we marvel at its sharp differences from our own, "The Birth of Christianity" constructs a world that never existed and lives today only in the minds of a small coterie of skeptical biblical scholars.

"Birth" in the title does not mean beginning. It refers to the continuation of the Jesus movement (a "companionship of empowerment" in Crossan's phrase) after the unexpected death of its leader. And the word "Christianity" does not mean the religion that worships the resurrected Christ and conquered the Roman world in a few short centuries. It refers to Crossan's fanciful reconstruction of a sect within Judaism composed of Jesus' followers in the decade after his death. St. Paul, whose writings are the earliest sources for Christian history, does not figure in Crossan's account of the birth of Christianity.

One cannot draw a historical line from "The Birth of Christianity" to "The Barbarian Conversion," for Crossan is not really talking about what we know as historical Christianity. The Christianity that made its way in the Roman Empire and converted the peoples of Northern Europe was centered on the resurrected Christ; Crossan's earliest "Christianity" has no place for the resurrection of Jesus. It is a movement centered on the memory of a dead man, Jesus of Nazareth. First, then, to "The Barbarian Conversion."

The earliest history of Christianity takes place largely within the boundaries of the Roman Empire and in the cities that were located within easy reach of the Mediterranean. Of course, the Roman Empire extended beyond the Alps, but the two great rivers, the Rhine flowing northwestward on the edge of Gaul and the Danube flowing eastward into the Black Sea, provided a natural boundary between the Roman world and the world of the "barbarians." So profound was the division between the world in which Latin was spoken and the society beyond, that the boundary of the Roman Empire can be seen even today along a linguistic fault line dividing French-speaking Belgium from the region that speaks Flemish.

During the early centuries, Christian leaders showed little interest in the world outside of the empire. In spite of the injunctions within the New Testament to go into the world and make all nations disciples, few thought Christianity had a mission to the world beyond Rome. The idea of a mission to the world came relatively late. By the 5th century, however, Prosper of Aquitaine, a bishop in Gaul, could write: "Christian grace was not content to have the same frontiers as Rome." His statement provides the plot of "The Barbarian Conversion," an account of how over the course of eight centuries all the peoples on the European continent, one by one, embraced Christianity and began the task of building a new civilization.

What makes Fletcher's book so satisfying is that he gives us the history of the conversion of Europe in its entirety, beginning in the 4th century with Ireland and parts of the Balkans and ending in the 13th century with the conversion of Lithuania. What is more, he tells the story in unparalleled detail, patiently recounting the coming of Christianity to each region, who the main players were, the varying patterns of acceptance among different peoples, and the emergence of ecclesiastical and social structures that were different from the pattern in the Mediterranean world (for example, in Northern Europe the bishop was closely aligned with the king and sometimes received the symbols of his office from the king).

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