Saturday, February 23, 2013

Three on the Fourth Century

I recently finished three books that happened to deal with Christianity in the Fourth Century.

Ramsay MacMullen, The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), is one of those books that completely changes the way you think about a subject. He examines the archaeological and architectural evidence for Christianity in the third and fourth centuries. This leads him to a number of worthwhile observations, some of which bear on the issue of the growth of Christianity. His arguments seem to show that Rodney Stark has grossly overestimated the number of Christians at the end of the fourth century.

Philip Jenkins, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2010), is an examination of how the Council of Chalcedon came about. Jenkins accepts Chalcedon and views the situation of how the council arrived at the conclusions it did and how they stuck as providential. But all the palace intrigues and dirty dealing that he recounts about how things arrived where they did, make it hard to see how most of it was related in any way to the workings of the Holy Spirit. In Jenkins' telling, most of those involved in deciding the creeds were more corrupt than Christian.

Adam C. English, The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012) is a hagiography of Nicolas of Myra from an evangelical perspective. Drawing on late Catholic and Orthodox hagiographies, English wants to make Nicolas into a good modern evangelical saint. He recounts most of the legends, accepting those that make Nicolas look like a good evangelical and rejecting those that do not. He also tries to situate them into a fourth century context (though some of what he says is contradicted in MacMullen). Along the line, English drops occasional tidbits of information that show that even the earliest of the legends about Nicolas are late and probably invented, and that Nicolas was probably never at the Council of Nicea (he is not on any list of participants), so alas, he probably did not punch anyone in the face at the council.