Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A People’s History of Christianity:
Volumes 1 and 2

edited by Denis Janz, Richard A. Horsley,
and Virginia Burrus.
Fortress. 318 and 322 pp. $35 each.

It all began with Eusebius, the garrulous bishop of Caesarea who invented ecclesiastical history around A.D. 325 with a work that was, in various versions and translations, profoundly influential for more than a millennium. Rich in details, some of which are verifiable, Eusebius’ history tells the story of cities and their bishops. Church history was his theme. For a long time, writers followed his lead. In the nineteenth century, church history produced luminaries among whom John Henry Newman, Henry Hart Milman, and Philip Schaff might be mentioned as representative figures, and their work still repays and delights the reader. Among their many twentieth-century successors, several names stand out: Kenneth Scott Latourette, Roland Bainton, Owen Chadwick, and Paul Johnson. What all these writers have in common is an interest in the ecclesial communities into which historical Christianity organized itself.

In the post-Reformation era the “History of Christianity” emerged as an alternative approach. Its focus was aimed more at Christian thought than at Christian churches. Primarily this approach permitted Protestants to embrace Catholic writers without acknowledging that they were Catholic. The basic approach was similar regardless of which side of the confessional divide one stood on. Readers turned pages to move from one great thinker and one great book to another.

In the last generation or so, both of these approaches have lost ground in the academy to “History of Religion,” which can mean Christianity as the lived experience of the faithful or else the rediscovery of the marginal, excluded, oppressed, and forgotten. One could mention many studies that range from the instructive and inspiring to the weird and ideological.

Enter this People’s History. Right away I must say that volumes one and two vary greatly. The scholarship, and the writing, in volume two are appreciably higher. Volume one treats basically the age of Christ and the apostolic era. Its editor and authors rail endlessly about “Gentlemen’s History” and its blindness to ordinary people. So these authors aim to find those ordinary men and women and tell their story. Which men and women? “Christ believers,” and participants in “Jesus Movements,” who were illiterate and powerless. They are uniformly referred to as “peasants,” a term which does not capture well either urban Christians or Galilean fisherman.

The sociology, so to speak, of early Christianity has taken some sharp turns in recent years. For a long time, among both the genial and the hostile, the earliest Christians were seen as marginal: slaves and silly women. Then scholars began to find a broader, more complex swathe of ancient society among those who embraced the Gospel. But A People’s History of Christianity puts us back a generation. It’s peasants all the way down. The “elite” are the enemy, the running dogs of Roman imperialism. What is more, they eventually invented Christianity and the Church, and suppressed the “people.”

Richard Horsley defines the project this way: “our investigations do not depend heavily on the standard assumptions, approaches, and interpretive accounts of New Testament studies, which have been heavily determined by Christian theology. Rather, the exploration of new materials, new questions, and different questions addressed to familiar texts requires us to work critically toward the new assumptions and approaches that seem appropriate to the focus on the people and their communities, social forms, and distinctive modes of communication.”

This statement is unobjectionable until one realizes that it is a sweetly baited trap. Horsley continues: “We focus on the religious aspects in these case studies . . . .Yet insofar as religion is inseparable from the political-economic aspects of ancient life, religious motives and expressions can be understood only in the political-economic context in which they are embedded.” This is, therefore, Christianity without Christ. Belief is a matter of social and economic imperatives. Jesus was, at least to his “believers,” a revolutionary. Frantz Fanon comes up in volume one. Salvation is absent.

And what about those new materials and new questions? Caveat lector! Some valuable use is made of recent archaeological findings. The Jewish historian Josephus is mined for the occasional factoid or chided for taking the side and perspective of the elite. Mainly, however, the authors of the chapters in volume one base their interpretations on the gospels, the Pauline and Catholic epistles, and Revelation.

These materials are often unforthcoming, however, so they must be “read against the grain” and scrutinized for “hidden transcripts.” On one level, this is fair enough. But in this book, the authors have awarded themselves a license to steal. Several of the authors also permit themselves unbridled usage of the “Q” document to find their “transcripts.” Q, of course, does not exist. It was a construct of nineteenth-century German (it stands for Quelle , “source”) higher criticism, designed to account for the logoi , the sayings of Christ, that appear so frequently and similarly in Matthew and Luke. Ironically, these authors caricature modern historical studies while violating the most elementary canons of source-based scholarship.

Ordinary believers will be baffled and offended by a good deal of what they encounter in volume one, and serious historians will be irked, but all is not bleak. The authors create a credible picture of just how brutal and oppressive the Romans actually were. They also reveal the different pressures exerted by the Roman administration and their local toadies in the various locales of first-century Palestine.

These demonstrations form helpful backgrounds to the daily experience of ordinary people in biblical times. Several chapters limn the politically charged environment that produced four great rebellions between the 160s B.C. and A.D. 132-35. These accounts will help readers of the New Testament to contextualize some of Jesus’s political discourses.

One intriguing chapter extracts twenty-six “birth prophecy” stories from the Old and New Testaments and uses them to discern something about the hopes and aspirations of women. Those aspirations in this telling are all about political liberation, which seems to me to do scant justice to the vision of the women or to the beauty of their stories, but the stories are “good to think with.” A particularly good chapter draws widely on scholarship concerning ancient families to create plausible pictures of the family and household environments of the earliest Christians (or “Christ-believers,” as the book insists). Two further chapters explore, in one case, slavery in its broader Roman and narrower Christian context, and in another case, social attitudes in the early Roman imperial world. It is interesting, if unsurprising, to see how the writers of the New Testament shared the values of the world in which they lived and learned.

Virginia Burrus sketches the project of volume two this way: “emphasis on diversity rather than sameness, on the local rather than the universal, and on practice rather than doctrine. Some may see this turn to a ?people’s history of Christianity’ as the secular study of a particular religion; others may experience it as the practice of a genuinely incarnational theology.” Clearly, the volume had left-wing aspirations. Happily, the editor seems to have lost control of her team. What one finds here, for the most part, is a robust portrait of the complex, fascinating, messy world of late antique Christianity. Almost without exception, the chapters in volume two are clearly and engagingly written, solidly grounded in the sources, and agreeably free of ideological cant.

All that Burrus’ term “diversity” turns out to mean is that there really were vast differences in the practice and experience of the faith between about 200 and 600 from Mesopotamia to Britain. People spoke, wrote, and worshiped in a bewildering array of languages. Large-scale phenomena like martyrdom and asceticism were never specific to a place, to rich or poor, to men or women. This makes it a little hard to find the “people” who are the preoccupation of volume one, but creates, in honest expositions, an enthralling story.

A fascinating chapter tells how children played and how their games were parts of a catechetical program. Studies of the architecture of baptisteries and of private chapels convey wonderful impressions of the kinds of places where Christians gathered. Some chapters take us into houses, households, and families, private spheres, “conventicles,” open to freedoms unavailable in public. The social and religious meanings of food, and of abstention from various kinds of food, have interesting lessons to teach. There were heretics aplenty but their stories are more interesting and important than is sometimes assumed in straight-forward narratives. That is, heretics never saw themselves that way. They were right, they believed, and others had lost their way. It is true that heresiologists said awful, and sometimes untrue, things about them but the constant friction between groups played a key role in permitting the eventual rise of strict orthodoxy.

An especially good chapter dealing with “Judaizers” and “Jewish Christians” (I could not quite figure out the difference) proves beyond a doubt that the traditional Christian and Jewish story of an early an definitive split between the two traditions is simply wrong, and that relations between the two faiths were intimate for centuries. Several chapters, but one in particular, look at selected local settings to show how individual groups of Christians blended family traditions, local customs, and Christian practices. Sometimes these blends resulted in spiritual and ecclesial peduncles. Sometimes, however, they produced, say, Coptic Christianity.

One puts down the second volume of A People’s History of Christianity with two clear impressions. The first is that the late antique world is awash in sources: histories and chronicles, martyr’s passions, saint’s lives, conciliar canons, patristic writings, Roman law, and Christian art and architecture, to name only a few. In the hands of skilled interpreters, these materials can be made to tell an engrossing tale. The second is that once Christianity gained legal status in the Roman world and burst forth in all its profusion, it sometimes became hard to tell who was in charge, what was to be believed, and how to worship.

These two volumes are the first to appear of a projected six. The others will treat Byzantium, the medieval West, the Reformation, and the modern era. I fervently hope that the other volumes will be more like volume two than volume one.

I am nevertheless not quite sure about the audience for these books. They are, with a few exceptions, pretty well written. They are lightly annotated and each chapter concludes with suggestions for further reading that are almost always limited to recent works in English. All chapters have illustrations in rather muddy black and white reproductions, and each volume has a gallery of color plates. The chapters are studded with sidebars containing brief and well-chosen excerpts from primary sources.

All of this suggests to me that an academic audience is not the primary target. But I have a hard time imagining the people in the pews curling up with these books. Well-stocked parish libraries will probably want to buy them. All in all, they are better for browsing than for reading right through.

Thomas F.X. Noble is Robert M. Conway Director of the Medical Institute and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift