The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity is a simplistic overview of the inception of Christianity from powerful event of the Pentecost up into the Middle Ages. Robert Wilken’s marvelously lays out this historic depiction of the Christian movement in a manner that is intriguing and insightful. Wiken’s rendition gives the reader valuable insight to the events in Christian history that they can understand in a simple and refreshing language. This book is important as it gives us a historical account of what transpired within the ancient time. Wilken, in my opinion wants to give the reader an understanding of how Christianity formed from a small Jewish cell into a worldwide phenomenon. This movement did not happen overnight, but one that is continuing to this day. Wilken wants to ensure the reader understand how Christianity transcended throughout the ages, amongst different cultures, from new and old civilizations with a widespread geographical representation with the first millennium. Wilken’s book is important to the reader to gain knowledge of how Christianity formed throughout the Middle Ages from its inception. My intentions for this book review is to critical assess the author’s intent and provide feedback of the content and purpose. My hope is to give an overview of this book that will inform a potential reader with its message and its importance within the history of Christianity.
Wilken begins this book with an introduction to explain the developments of Christianity from a global perspective. As he stated, “My aim is to depict the central development in early Christian history with an eye to the form of Christianity that spread around the ancient world and endured into the Middle Ages (Wilken, 5).” With this statement he gives the reader an idea of the span and vast amount of information, history and responsibility that comes with taking on such a monumental task. He vehemently expresses in his introduction that the information covered has been selected, in his judgment to be worthy of remembrance.
The Early Years
Wilken begins the book in Chapters 1 – 3 describing the inception of Christianity beginning in Jerusalem with the Jesus’ birth, life, death, burial and resurrection. He elaborately talks about Jesus that captures the essence for who he was to anyone reading. He describes how Jesus’ disciples were able to go forth and spread Christianity outside of Jerusalem. “A personal encounter with the living Christ gave his followers the confidence and the courage to go forth from Jerusalem to proclaim the gospel (“good news”), that the God of Israel had done an extraordinary new thing in Jesus of Nazareth (Wilken, 16).” Wilken focused on how this spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire whereby Christian communities were taking form. I particular like this part of the book and believe that Wilken was very detailed in the accounts that occurred, leaving the reader with a vivid imagination of how life was for the early Christian.
Division and Persecution
In chapters 4 – 7, I considered this a period of division, disunity and persecution of the Christian community. This was a period of controversy erupting from inside the Christian community that caused a major divide in the faith. Wilken in these chapters gave insight as to how the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection became questionable amongst many. The authenticity of the account and the origin of Scripture were the areas of divide. Wilken’s establishment of the early church fathers and their efforts to validate the faith were detrimental during this particular time. I thought that Wilken’s covering of the early church fathers were great as he described their activity in their time periods that led to persecutions because of theological differences.
Chapters 8 – 16 was a period whereby Wilken covered a span of years where the church and the state began to interact and coexist through empires. Wilkens did a phenomenal job in establishing how the Christian community was able to spread throughout the empire as a formal approved faith by the conversion of Constantine. He was able to capture the intricacies of the empires and the many different contributions each individual brought to strengthen and weaken the Christian community. I really enjoyed how in these chapters he was able to focus on how cultural things such as music, art and genuine concern for the unfortunate was able to keep the Christian movement going through the hearts of a select few people.
Period of Papal Influence
Chapters 17 – 20 marks the period where the papacy was established as the driving force of the church. Wilken’s begins by helping the reader understand how the office of the pope became relevant through the selection of the Bishop of Rome. During this period, Wilken was able to capture the essence of how the office of the pope created much controversy because of their lavish lifestyle and political pursuits over spiritual formation. During these chapters, I found it particularly interesting how Wilken’s displayed some of the prominent figures and people. This gave a greater understanding and insight as to how the church evolved from small beginnings to elaborate and decorated edifices.
Wilken’s in chapters 21 – 28 talks about how Christianity began to spread outside Jerusalem to other parts of the world. In these chapters, Wilken’s discloses the many cultures in which Christianity had influenced. These were countries where Christianity had no history and was not received eagerly. Wilken’s identified how these different countries absorbed Christianity and incorporated this new faith within its cultural context. Within this time frame many countries where able to have the bible translated in their local language for further understanding. In many cases, Christianity began to take a new face through various distinct characteristics of each culture. I thought that Wilken was able to create for the reader how Christianity had begins to become distorted and enhance through these countries. There were moments of great disparity between the different countries and what they deemed as important and necessary within the Christian faith.
The Islamic Impact
Chapters 28 – 36 capture the rise of the Islamic movement and its influence within the Christian community. These chapters identify how through further controversy over the Biblical authenticity the Islamic ideology was birth to be what is considered the biggest threat to the Christian faith. Wilken’s was able to portray how during this period Christianity became a minority faith within Islamic strongholds whereby many Christians were persecuted. “By the middle of the eighth century more than fifty percent of the Christian world had fallen under Muslim rule (Wilken, 307).” Because of this dominance, Christianity was limited in movement and exposure, which weakened the faith. But this didn’t stop the movement itself, Wilken’s closes the book by showing that Christianity was still influential and was spreading to unknown and untouched countries.
Wilken was able to cover The First Thousand Years to demonstrate it’s global impact and it’s cultural adaptability and diversity. He was able to give the reader a glimpse into how it transformed from it’s beginning to being influential within the cultural confounds of each placed it touched. This book was a valuable and delightful read. I was very intrigued by the information, particularly the statistics on where Christianity stands from a global perspective. It gave me a lot of insight as to how the Christian movement evolved from the beginning to where we are today. It gives a clear indication as to the fulfillment of Matthew 28:18-20. Although we have a ways to go, Wilken gives a picture of how far we’ve actually come in the Great Commission.
Dr. Stephone A. Berry is an Associate Minister at Christian Faith Fellowship in Columbia, South Carolina. He graduated with a Master of Divinity in Ministry Studies and earned a Doctorate of Ministerial Leadership from Columbia International University.