Interview with Philip Jenkins on Christian Violence

TODAY, we’ve got news about the history of Christian violence. If that sounds like an alarming idea, then read on to learn why it’s relevant today: Our overall theme this week is “Rediscovering Christianity in the Mess of Christianity.” We’re sharing with readers news from two Philips: Quaker novelist and teacher Philip Gulley and noted historian Philip Jenkins. Here are quick links:

TODAY, we welcome historian Philip Jenkins for an interview about his new book, “Jesus Wars.” We think that these two books could form a fascinating series for readers nationwide: perhaps as a small-group discussion over a period of weeks, or a series of sermons or newsletter columns you might want to encourage. Why are these two books related? Quite simply, Philip Gulley warns that the Christian church is in danger today, because it has allowed feuds over beliefs to obscure Jesus’ core teachings. And, for those readers who think that Gulley’s warning may be unduly shrill, Philip Jenkins writes about a period in Christian history in which feuds over beliefs wound up killing thousands of people!

What is this era of extreme violence? Most likely, you’ve never heard of the explosive church councils Philip Jenkins describes in his new book. (Jump back to Part 2 in our series to read a brief excerpt of his book.) Jenkins is writing about a period roughly 1,500 years ago when Christians were killing each other over the flip side of today’s Christian debates in America. Back then, many powerful Christians believed that Jesus, while he lived on Earth, was purely Divine. Back then, the arguments raged in defense of Jesus’ humanity. Today, millions of Americans tend to think of Jesus as a purely human teacher. Christian arguments tend to rage in defense of Jesus’ divinity.

But, beyond the truth in these arguments, Jenkins reports in his book on how this very dark hour in Christian history unfolded. He describes step by step how things got so terribly out of hand. It’s a cautionary story for us now—about a time when ruthless political and military leaders turned into international thugs. It was a time when great rulers sent religiously inspired armed forces out to spread terror far and wide. That couldn’t happen today … right?

You can order “Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years” from Amazon.

Highlights of Our Interview with
Philip Jenkins on “Jesus Wars”

DAVID: I can’t recall a book like this for general readers!

PHILIP: (Laughs.) I hope that’s not bad!

DAVID: On the contrary, I think it’s great! This is an important, unique book.

PHILIP: I very much appreciate that comment. This is for general readers. What’s different in my work is that I’m aware there are scholars who write about these periods in the past much more widely and in much more depth than I do in my book. The obvious scholar whose name we are only fit to mention respectfully is Peter Brown, the godfather of late ancient history and the man who coined the phrase “late antiquity.” What’s different in my work is that I have much more of a focus on helping general readers understand what’s interesting and useful in these periods for their lives today.

DAVID: One of the most startling things you report in your book is that many Christians have gotten so casual about these issues of defining Jesus Christ, after 2,000 years, that most Christians don’t have a clue what got so many people tortured and killed 1,500 years ago.

PHILIP: That’s right. The definition of Christ that became orthodox through these councils is very complex. In my lifetime, I’ve heard lots of sermons, even from people I respect intellectually and spiritually, but I can tell you this: We often hear things in sermons today that would have gotten the preacher tortured and, at worst, burned alive in centuries gone by. One problem is that these early councils were trying to put together definitions that were more than just theological. They were trying to come up with almost legal definitions that could forcibly close off avenues of belief for people.

DAVID: This is why your book is so important. As a longtime journalist covering religion, I’ve seen faithful groups of people become so obsessed with their legalistic defense of particular beliefs that they wind up committing great violence against others. You write in your book that this violence between Christians in the 5th and 6th centuries was “on a far larger and more systematic scale than anything produced by the Inquisition.” That’s shocking.

PHILIP: Let me step back to something you said a moment ago. I write history for general readers because there’s a lot of historical material out there that’s wrong. I don’t mean that people are stupid or ill informed, but popular media often present history in such a simple way that the truth becomes distorted. Even if you’re an intelligent Christian today, you probably think that what we’ve inherited in Christianity goes back mainly to events in the Middle Ages and Crusades and Reformation. Most Christians don’t think much happened between Jesus’ life and that later period. In fact, the 5th and 6th centuries are very important in shaping Christianity.

And, yes, it’s true that the violence was intense. There were groups of monks in that era who would be perfectly at home today in the world’s most extreme groups. We think about Islamic extremist groups we’ve seen in recent years, but the level of Christian violence in this period, used to try to enforce proper beliefs on people, was just ferocious. People were burned alive. There were full-fledged civil wars. This is shocking to us today, particularly because some of this violence took the form of forcing people to take communion. There were soldiers who would beat an opposing bishop until he was at the verge of death and then the soldiers would force him to take the communion wafer into his mouth. This was a very strange world.

DAVID: Or maybe it wasn’t so strange, if we understand the explosive potential of religious extremism. I’m envisioning this era you describe as almost like a gangland, 1920s-style warfare.

PHILIP: These issues actually became something very important to people in the streets. This wasn’t just a debate among top political leaders and bishops. In this era, it was difficult even to walk the streets and conduct your daily business. Go to buy some vegetables in the local market and you might get involved in a debate on the nature of Christ that could be very dangerous. The only term today that describes this, I think, is “gangs.” These were major factions that formed and often they were armed. There were places you could be killed just for having the wrong belief about Jesus. Have you ever seen, “Gangs of New York”? Well, it was kind of like the gangs in that movie that formed in New York City to defend different groups and different cultures. There were points in the 5th and 6th centuries where these gangs could threaten to bring down the state.

DAVID: Another big surprise for readers is this conclusion you draw: Because of this extreme violence in Christianity in these centuries, the Christian world really set the stage for the reformation that came with the birth of Islam in the 7th century. Do I understand you correctly?

PHILIP: Yes. These wars split the Christian world so irretrievably that they opened the way for Islam. Without these wars and persecutions, I don’t think Islam could have succeeded. In this era, the ancient Christian world almost dies by suicide, by internal conflict as much as by outside forces. And, this is what made Islam so attractive to people. By the standards of the 7th century, Islam was extraordinarily tolerant compared to what people had seen in Christendom.

Emperor Theodosius II, Eastern Roman emperor who convened two Councils of Ephesus, even though the second later was rejected as a “Gangster Synod.”DAVID: People reading this interview, who haven’t yet ordered a copy of your book and read it for themselves, are likely to be thinking: What you’re saying about Christianity sounds crazy! How can Christian religious beliefs lead to such violence?

PHILIP: Today, we often assume there’s a separation of religious and secular issues. That concept would have been absolutely incomprehensible in 450 or 550. If I’m an emperor in that era, I have to decide whether I should tolerate different groups of people. If a group is made up of heretics, I could be committing a religious act that will bring down the condemnation of God on my entire empire. God could take revenge on my empire if I tolerate these heretics. This isn’t a question of whether I should be a nice guy, or not. I actually have to be worried about God sending plagues, drought and defeat in future wars. In a world like that, the scope of acceptable belief shrinks dramatically. It’s no longer enough just to say you’re a Christian. You have to affirm a particular set of beliefs. If you defy God, your people could suffer from all kinds of natural disasters. This idea is very common up until the modern world.

In addition, these people lived in societies in which honor was considered essential. To defend your leaders, to defend your country, you have to maintain your honor and defend that honor against all insults. So, people who dare to deprive God of the correct honors and titles—they can become your deadly enemies. These vendettas can extend for generations. Some of the struggles I describe in the book go on long after the original figures are dead and gone. One patriarchate I describe in the book carried on a vendetta for generations after certain theologians were long gone.

DAVID: On one level, readers could dismiss what we’re talking about here as irrelevant. Couldn’t happen again! But, on a deeper level, I think, you’re describing a real, historical period in which religious violence spiraled way out of control. I think this book explains a lot about some forces we’re seeing in the world today.

PHILIP: Some people say that strict theological questions don’t matter anymore. They say: Can’t we just get back to the love and charity of the early church? Well, I’m pointing out that, when we look back at the early church—we may find eras like this one with a singular lack of love and charity. A lot of our popular ideas about history actually are based on imaginary history. I’m just arguing that, if we are reaching back into history, we should reach back into real history.


In late 2008, we welcomed Philip Jenkins to ReadTheSpirit to talk about his earlier book, “The Lost History of Christianity.”

REMEMBER: You can order “Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years” from Amazon.

(Originally published at

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