I have combined my university career with a personal study of the origins and development of the Christian churches, beginning with the question, What does it take to be an orthodox Christian? If it means to attend to the teachings of Jesus Christ as he and his New Testament interpreters proposed them, a knowledge of the history of the transmission of these teachings down through the many centuries and across the globe would seem to be a major guarantee of orthodoxy. However, the two largest Christian churches, Catholic and Orthodox, the varieties of non-Catholic western communities (that is, the post-Reformation protestant groups), and the varieties of non-Orthodox oriental communities (such as the Copts of Egypt and the Armenians), cannot fully agree on historical developments. For many decades, especially in America, Christian fundamentalism has dispensed with the history of Christianity altogether, assuming that an ahistorical, interpretation-free encounter with a homogenized, translated set of biblical texts is all there is. Some of these cases are hopeless, but, fortunately, the mainline Christian churches all have intellectual traditions that require reference to history--to sure data and to ultimately reliable narrations.
As historians push back to the origins of Christianity, they are forced to deal with less and less reliability. As the late New Testament historian Norman Perrin once wrote, "The New Testament represents the whole spectrum of possibilities of what it means to be Christian in the world, and either anticipates or inspires every subsequent development within the Christian churches. The Roman Catholic and the Lutheran, the liberal Protestant and the fundamentalist, the contemplative mystic and the apocalyptic visionary, all find themselves at home in one part or another of this collection from the literature of earliest Christianity." [Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: An Introduction, Robert Ferm, ed. (New York, 1982), 45-46.]
I ponder the story of Christianity, a diverse collection of stories in fact, as a historian of modern Europe. This means that what counts as data for historians of early epochs seems to me to be mostly conjecture! Experts are those who, having put in the greater amount of time on language and archeology have the primary right to guess. But they have no other choice, whereas I and my colleagues who work on (among other things) the French Revolution have at our disposal the reliable parliamentary archives, other government documents, and newspapers from the era. Moving back in European history to the era called the Middle Ages (by Renaissance writers), we see that, there too, the case can be made for the accuracy of certain court, legal, and commercial records. Medieval art and architecture of hundreds of years contains clear indications of the teaching points of church leaders in Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Back further to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the middle 300s and we find that most sources can be interpreted so diversely that all talk of inscriptions and narratives involves extensive conjecture. As for the New Testament era, we have near total conjecture about stories contained in texts that are available only in papyri and parchments from the year 200 on.
The nineteenth-century German invention of scientific history, with its pretenses of total realism, and its search for the historical Jesus (to use the popular expression) yielded dramatically limited results. At first, historians considered the New Testament a totally fabricated believers story; then, the mythologizing of a few facts that dated from a period more than one hundred years after the death of Christ, and finally as a historically acceptable document from the first century, taken seriously as a record of what the first Christians believed to have happened to Jesus out of a repertoire of embellished but actual stories. In the twentieth century, with comparative literary strategies, scholars have attempted to sort out the phases of historical expression conserved in the New Testament text: Palestinian Christianity, Hellenistic Jewish Mission Christianity, Gentile Christianity, Pauline and Johannine Christianity. [I have developed a simple pedagogical presentation of these phases in "Christianity," The Religious World: Communities of Faith, 3rd ed. (New York and Toronto, 1993): 305-310, based on Perrin and Duling, Introduction, 73-91. Other scholars present a temple-centered Christ who proclaimed a coming a messianic age centered in Jerusalem (E. P. Sanders), a teacher/philosophy/gadfly who was a wisdom teacher operating in private, especially meal, settings (Burton Mack), the founder of a socially radical Jewish renewal movement (Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza), a reorganizer of a village society with emphasis on the covenant with the poor and simple (Richard Horsley), more precisely a Jewish Cynic peasant with an alternative social vision involving free healing, magic, and table fellowship. See the summary of this material in Marcus J. Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Harrisburg, Penn., 1994), 55-57.] The historical Jesus was transformed into the Christ of faith. Again, Norman Perrin: "[Christian faith] is faith in something, a believer believes in something, and in so far as that, something is Jesus, historical knowledge can help provide the content, without thereby becoming the main source of that content. Still and all, for Perrin, "the true kerygmatic Christ, the justifiable faith-image, is that consistent with the historical Jesus." [Quoted in Borg, Contemporary Scholarship, 55-57, 89-90] Jesus of Nazareth entered into the memories, the image-making functions of the human mind, and finally historical memory. Historical evidence does not compel Christian faith, but rather Christian believers have transformed the data, the stories of history (communicated by oral and written tradition) into a lived relationship with the memorial image functioning within them.
The Christianity of history is the same for both believers and non-believers: both groups access the same biblical texts, the same archeological data, the same extra-biblical literature, and the same range of possible interpretations. There is evidence for both the Christ of early orthodoxy and of early heresy (say, Gnosticism or Arianism); evidence also for the Christ of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, post-Protestant generic Christianities, and the sometimes opposed interpretations within these traditions. There is also plausible evidence to support those who reject many of the claims of believing Christians. But a common-denominator synthesis of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, latterly called Messiah or Christ, begins with the life and preaching of this Jesus, who was born in Palestine, probably around the year 6 B.C.E., and preached a message of salvation that was founded on the Jewish scriptures and traditions, but which bore the imprint of his own mind and emotions, personality and experience. He believed that he possessed a unique relationship with a fathering God, whose kingdom he proclaimed by requiring a radical behavior change in order to transform the earth. More problematic are the subsequent assertions that he survived death in some perceptible way, that Paul allowed for two ways to God--a purely Jewish way and a specifically Christian way (this, in turn, different for Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians), that Arian Christians of the fourth century were wrong to interpret Christ's reality as less than divine, that the claims to priority on the part of the bishop of Rome are supported by evidence from the late Roman imperial period, and that the superiority of an international gathering of Christian leaders (called an ecumenical council) is a foundation truth.
Historians have their own fundamental choices to make, and within the past generation no one has better laid out the research and writing choices of historians across the centuries than the English historian John Burrow in A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century (New York, 2007). He writes, "History the elaborated, secular, prose narrative (all these qualifications are necessary) of public events, based on inquiry was born, we can claim with confidence, in Greece between roughly 450 and 430 BC." [John Burrow, A History of Histories, 3] "A Inquiry," in fact, is our best translation of Herodotus' term historia. Given the broad simplicity of the earliest efforts it may be surprising that so much of ancient through medieval history is unclear or problematic today. A rapid tour of some of the principal texts, esteemed in their own times, begins with the great Greeks of Burrow's subtitle, moves through the annals and chronicles of both religious and political writers and then through the powerful narrative historians of the past few hundred years to the world historical and micro-historical perspectives of today. Fortunately or unfortunately, there are now among twentieth- and twenty-first-century historians--who try to apply the demanding historical standards for evidence and unified narrative set up in the nineteenth-century German academic revivals--even more basic disagreements about historical truth and historical objectivity. Within the past generation, no one has better presented these arguments than the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur in Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris, 2000). In Ricoeur's take on historical knowledge, "A memory" is informed and enlightened by historiography. In fact, the declining memory is reanimated, reactualized, and rendered effective by the historians' work. Shared memory, then, passes through collective memory as it is consciously shaped across space and time. The recorded memories of individuals and groups, the traces that they wish to leave, are then placed in archives, of which the historian is a reader and interpreter. In the history of Christianity, as with any other kind of history, we are dealing with the truth claims that can be made for memories as they are transmitted by historians who are themselves part of history. We are all subject to our own limitations and must make the case that these limitations do not pull us off the good path toward a truthful understanding and telling of the historical record. [Paul Ricoeur, Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris: 2000). The problem of truth in history belongs to the much broader field of epistemology. For introductions to the problem of attaining truth in any form, see the works of Robert Nozick, Bernard Williams, and Simon Blackburn.]
I look at the history of Christian organizations and societies as they have agreed and competed. I judge them both in the light of the historical evidence available in their own day and the historical evidence available to us today. The success stories came to be called "Orthodoxy," and the failures "Heresy," even though all groups believed that they embodied a "rule of truth" or "rule of faith," claiming apostolic authority, ritual continuity, and the right to establish an official list of scriptural texts. Alain Le Boulluec says that "using a non-theological view of history, we should note that orthodoxy impresses itself upon the church, not as a sign of greater purity, fidelity or worthiness, but as an index of its effectiveness, its capacity to unite and reconcile collective and individual aspirations: all conducive to the "birth of a Christianity." [Alain Le Boulluec, "Remarques sur les notions d'hérésie et d'orthodoxie," in Jean-Marie Mayer et al., eds. Histoire du christianisme, vol. 1: Le Nouveau peuple (Paris, 2000), 271-272. Le Boulluec does not want to call the success stories "Orthodoxy" because of the later absolutist uses of the term, but I prefer its use for just those qualities that he cites. See also Alain Le Boulluec, La Notion d'hérésie dans la littérature grec, IIe-IIIe siècles, 2 vols. (Paris: 1985), with the categories "réprésentations hérésiologiques," "hérésie," "orthodoxie," "hétérodoxie," and highlighting Justin, Hegesipus, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.] At issue are the varieties of anxiety and antagonisms between groups and movements, i.e. issues that caused dissension and confusion, thereby distancing believers from what the established authors considered true teaching. In accordance with these standards, I try to test the history of Christianity at several key points in order to review the reliability of our information.
Within the last twenty years, two great histories of Christianity have appeared: the fourteen-volume Histoire du Christianisme, under the direction of Jean-Marie Mayeur, Charles et Luce Pietri, André Vauchez, and Marc Venard (Paris, 1990-2001), and the nine-volume Cambridge History of Christianity, each volume with its own editor (New York, 2006-). With these extraordinary collaborative efforts at my disposal, I have been able to further explore and confirm my original source and narrative options. I try to sort out the forms and traditions that make up what can be properly called "Orthodoxy" according to the historical record and what cannot. Of course, I cannot claim for myself an objectivity that I do not unqualifiedly grant to my fellow historians. So as to judge for themselves, readers should know that I am an Orthodox Catholic Christian. I find that the Protestant Reformation and the philosophy of the so-called Enlightenment era of European history (across the seventeenth and eighteenth century) have freed both religious seekers and historical scholars to find paths, at once more human and more secure, to authentic Christian tradition and experience. Ultimately there is no master narrative, no single Christianity of history, but I would lay out the available representative data and the principal narratives, testing the reliability of both to the extent possible in ten steps.
1. Life and Mission of Jesus of Nazareth (circa 33-200): from the beginnings to the death of Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon.
2. Roman Imperium and its Christianization (200-451): from the death of Irenaeus to the Council of Chalcedon.
3. Imperial Christianity and the Barbarian Challenge (451-565): from Chalcedon to the death of the Emperor Justinian.
4. Muslim Power in the East and Barbarian Integration in the West (565-800): from the death of Justinian to the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor.
5. The Axis of Rome and Constantinople I (800-1054): from Charlemagne to the first formalities of the Western/Eastern Christian schism.
6. The Axis of Rome and Constantinople II (1054-1439): from the schism to the unification attempts of the Council of Florence.
7. Reformation and Counter Reformation in Western Europe (1439-1632): from the Council of Florence to the birth of Spinoza.
8. Rise of Moscow in Eastern Europe (1439-1917): from the Council of Florence to the Russian Revolution.
9. Enlightenment and Revolution (1632-1917): from the birth of Spinoza to the Russian Revolution.
10. Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Twentieth Century (1917-2000): from the Russian Revolution to the turn of the millennium.
Each step of the way we need to examine the geography of the Christian communities and their activity, the principal historians and historical sources of the period, all leading to a combination of social history of the Christian communities and an intellectual history of the ideas and controversies that animated the leaders of those communities. And, also each step of the way, we need to link this social and intellectual history to a presentation of the appropriate liturgies, thereby placing in highest relief the successive and varied expressions of Orthodox worship in the Christianity of history.