Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Viking, 2009, 1161 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 12, 2010
Diarmaid MacCulloch begins his detailed study of Christianity in Greece around 1000 BCE. He continues with the history of Israel during the same period, and then with the story of Jesus’ birth in 4 BCE, for Jesus is said to have been born during the reign of King Herod, and Herod died in 4 BCE. MacCulloch states many other facts that will bother many Christians.
He notes, for example, that only two of the Gospels have the birth narrative. These tales tell that that he was born in Bethlehem, but all other New Testament books contend that he came from the village of Nazareth in the northern area of Galilee. Luke’s birth story says that his parents traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to participate in the imperial census for tax purposes. MacCulloch objects that this "does not ring true: the idea is based on Luke’s ancestor list for Jesus (which differs radically from Matthew’s list in the other birth story), designed to show that he was linked to King David a thousand years before, which was a matter of no concern whatsoever to Roman bureaucrats." Why would the Romans insist that people go to the home of an ancestor who lived a thousand years earlier to be counted in the tax census? Besides, MacCulloch continues, there is no historical record that such a census was ever taken, and we have records of all censuses. "We must conclude that beside the likelihood that Christmas did not happen at Christmas, it did not happen in Bethlehem." The Bethlehem birth account was prompted by the desire to conform Jesus’ birth to the prophecy of Micah who foretold that the Jewish messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
MacCulloch notes that many people suppose that the phrase "son of man" suggests that Jesus was someone special. However, the words themselves clearly indicate that he was only a common man, the phrase meant "a person" in the Aramaic and Hebrew of the time, and there is no suggestion anywhere that "son of man" had a lofty connotation during this period. Curiously Jesus calls himself son of man and not son of God, except in John, which is the latest Gospel, written during a period when Christianity was changing.
MacCulloch points out that Jesus primary message that the kingdom of God was about to appear and God would change the world never materialized, and "within decades of Jesus’ death the Church began to have second thoughts on just how imminent it might be."
He notes that the Gospels tell tales of miracles "though for three centuries they have increasingly aroused unease or intellectual conflict for Christians formed by the Enlightenment of the West." He could have pointed to the rewritten Gospels of Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy who removed the miracles from their versions of the New Testament.
There are three Passion narratives in three Gospels, which differ from one another, with the Gospel of John, for instance, stating that the death of Jesus occurred on a day other than the one recorded in the other two versions. Contrary to historical facts, the book of John states that the Jews were forced by Roman law to hand Jesus over to the Romans for execution. "This is implausible, considering that three decades later the Jerusalem High Priest was directly responsible for the execution of Jesus’ brother James." Inconsistencies and impossibilities aside, the Gospel of Matthews shifts blame for Jesus’ death to the Jewish crowd who "roared out, ‘His blood be on us, and on our children!’ The Christian Church has drawn much out of Matthew’s literary decision. It would have been better for the moral health of Christianity if the blame had stayed with Pilate."
These are some of the items associated with the beginning of Christianity. MacCulloch continues by discussing how Paul altered Jesus’ message and took Christianity into a "new direction." MacCulloch’s subsequent history, written in easy to read language, will inform and delight many, while bothering some more conservative readers.
For example, he discusses how in 1945 ancient Gospels were found, which were dated in the second and third century, that offer an entirely different version of the origin and message of Christianity. These include a Gospel indicating that Mary Magdalene was a beloved disciple of Jesus and another which states that Jesus told Judas to hand him over to the Romans and that Judas is a hero and not a traitor.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.