Christian History for the Non-Christian
March 4, 2011 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Looking for good dispassionate history of the Christian church. I love to read history, and would like to go on a tangent.

I'm interested in reading some good, accessible-to-the-layman history on aspects of Christian history. Subjects might include: Historical speculation about the life and times of Christ. The apostles, especially relating to the writing of the gospels. The early history of the bible - in particular apocrypha like Thomas, Judas, Mary, etc. and how the early church determined what was considered apocryphal vs. canonical. The various ecumenical councils, like Nicaea, etc. The major schisms, like the split between orthodoxy and Catholicism. Also, the Coptic church has sort of piqued my curiosity of late.

I don't much care for historical fiction, though I did sort of enjoy Lamb by Christopher Moore, which is partly where this nascent tangent started. Not interested in spiritual journeys - I'm already on one. Just real history.

Recommend me some books.
posted by Devils Rancher to Education (25 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend A History of the Christian Church by Walker.

The Oxford of course is pretty standard.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:11 AM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: One book that may start a little bit after the era you're interested in (starts in late antiquity) but is nevertheless quite good is Judith Herrin's The Formation of Christendom.
posted by deanc at 11:11 AM on March 4, 2011

Constantine's Sword.
posted by glibhamdreck at 11:13 AM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: Have you read any Bart Ehrman? He's gotten a bit polemical in his later book but Misquoting Jesus sounds like a primer on what you're looking for. He's also done a few audio courses for the Teaching Company which I think were better than any of his books, particularly his history of the New Testament, From Jesus To Constantine.
posted by skewed at 11:13 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Diarmaid MacCulloch's History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (published in North America as Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years), which won this year's Cundill Prize in History, would be a great place to start. MacCulloch's The Reformation is also top-notch. W. H. C. Frend's Rise of Christianity is older and drier but still useful. I'll also second the recommendation of Judith Herrin's Formation of Christendom.

If you want to get into more specific topics, look for Geza Vermes and Paula Fredriksen on the Jesus movement and the beginnings of Christianity; Elaine Pagels (popular but controversial) on Gnosticism; Hubert Jedin on the history of church councils. Ramsey MacMullen and Robin Lane Fox are good on the transition from the pagan to the Christian world in late antiquity. Peter Brown's biography of Augustine is indispensable, though James O'Donnell's work is also worth a look; Brown's other books (e.g. The Cult of the Saints and The Body and Society) have also been influential. The notes and bibliography in MacCulloch will take you in almost any direction you want to go.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:27 AM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity. Very readable, with good colored sidebars about additional topics of interest (biographies, etc.).
posted by Melismata at 11:36 AM on March 4, 2011

The Pelican History of the Church is very well done and explains finer points of doctrine in a neutral way. Of the series I especially recommend RW Southern's Church and Society in the Middle Ages.
posted by orrnyereg at 11:38 AM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: Justo Gonzales's "The Story of Christianity" in two volumes (link is to volume 1) is very popular, very readable, and widely used in graduate-level survey courses. (The author is a Cuban-American Methodist, if that matters; he's a very well-respected scholar. I also met him once and he's a very nice dude.) He's into history and history of theology; he's not presenting his theological POV in his textbook.

For your specifically Biblical questions you might like Stephen L. Harris's "Understanding the Bible," which is widely used in undergraduate Bible courses. Again, scholarly but very readable. I believe Harris himself is an atheist and he presents a very even-handed survey of Biblical scholarship and history.

Both of these were the sorts of textbooks where I kept getting so wrapped up in the narrative and the interestingness that I kept reading ahead and having to stop myself so I could focus on studying the unit I was actually going to be tested on!

Since both of these books are so widely used in universities, you should be able to pick up copies (especially of the edition just prior) pretty cheaply!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:00 PM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: I found Jonathan Hill's History of Christian Thought to be a very readable history of the evolution of Christian theology and the history involved--interesting biographies in there as well.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 12:12 PM on March 4, 2011

Response by poster: These are all "best answers!" I'm making a list for half-price.

Additionally, recommend good stuff on the rise of protestantism? I've picked up a fair amount of that in general European history reading, but am open to more.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:15 PM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: On Protestantism, besides MacCulloch's The Reformation, which I mentioned before and which is where I would start, some useful books are:

Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550, which is good on the long history of attempts to reform the western Church and how the Protestant Reformation fits in. Ozment's book Protestants, written for a popular audience, is OK but lacks the scope of the earlier work.

John Bossy, Christianity in the West, 1400-1700, which treats the Reformation as part of a more general process of transformation. This book is short but extremely dense; Bossy doesn't waste a single word. It's best read as an interpretive essay after you've already gotten a grip on the main line of events.

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1850, examines the persistence of traditional beliefs and rituals in the face of attempts to reform the Church; it's a response to the interpretation of A. G. Dickens and others who saw Protestantism as being enthusiastically accepted by the English people. MacCulloch's Later Reformation in England sets out the context.

A. G. Dickens et al., The Reformation in Historical Thought, is a useful overview of how historians' interpretations have changed, and how different historical schools have taken a position in Reformation debates.

Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image, examines the role of religious imagery in Protestantism. Though the subject is more specialized, it's a useful way to approach the Reformation because of the central place that "idolatry" had in the Reformers' thought. (Not that they took the same position on it, mind you.)

Susan Karant-Nunn, The Reformation of Ritual, examines the Reformation through its effects on liturgy and other religious rituals.

And finally, not so much on Protestantism by itself as on its effects on the religious world of early modern Europe, it's worth looking at Benjamin J. Kaplan, Divided by Faith: Religious conflict and the practice of toleration in early modern Europe.

Again, the bibliographies in these books, especially MacCulloch's Reformation, are great for further reading.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:37 PM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've heard good things about Jaroslav Pelikan's books.
posted by flod logic at 12:39 PM on March 4, 2011

Justo Gonzales's two-volume set "breaks" at the Reformation and covers a lot of that ground.

Somewhere I have this really fantastic book that looks at the rise of the Reformation via the personal stories of the various reformers themselves, but I can't for the life of me remember the title, I'll look. (I also do particularly like the MacCulloch and the Koerner that brianogilvie mention ... but I studied liturgy so that Koerner book is in my wheelhouse; it's probably not as interesting for everyone.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:50 PM on March 4, 2011

It's not specifically Christian history, but I found (and continue to find) Robin Lane Fox's The Unauthorized Version: Truth And Fiction In The Bible to be really informative. Actually, it was reading that which helped me break out of the Jesus phase which dominated my youth.
posted by hippybear at 1:07 PM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: If you want to know how a million different christian cults duked it out to become Christianity, Ehrman's Lost Christianities is also a great book.
posted by absalom at 1:41 PM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: Hello! I'm an MA student who is focusing, in part, on Christianity in late antiquity.

Bert Ehrman is generally very readable but not terribly well-known for being dispassionate or, uh, necessarily agreed with. Ditto with Pagels.

If you are interesting in the New Testament, the Harris book suggested above is quite good.

Peter Brown is generally someone you bow down to in the field. His Rise of Western Christendom is excellent.

Instead of Ehrman or Pagels, I would recommend Chadwick's The Church in Ancient Society (2002), which includes much of the major trends in research today.

If you want to go before year 200, you're looking at biographies of the historical Jesus and of Paul, with discussions of the communities of Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark (and sometimes Thomas, depending who you ask). For the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, I suggest Harris' book. I suggest Chilton's Rabbi Paul, which is IMMENSELY readable, for Paul as a man. For the historical Jesus, I will have to get back to you--I was generally discontent when going through that portion of my lit review and basically railed on the entire exercise. So, uh, I can tell you what books to avoid. (Anything reprinted from before 1960, for instance. Anything translated from German. Anything fitting those criteria will bore you, mislead you, or confuse you.) I think Dominic Crossan's biography of Jesus is great and easy-to-read, though.

I focus on apocrypha and even I don't know a good introduction to Christian apocrypha. Ehrman's Lost Christianities might be the best. I know I like April De Conick's work on Thomas best, but it may not be the most approachable for someone not in the field. Her website and blog are excellent, thought, along with Tony Burke's stuff. They might be fun to peruse.

The Gospel of Judas stuff is currently very fraught with controversy. Long story short: the holder of the manuscript, Tchacos, couldn't sell it. So instead, she sold the rights to publishing about it to National Geographic, which ran with the Judas-as-hero stuff. Once scholars actually had access to the manuscript, you have two polarized camps, Judas-as-hero and Judas-as-villain. We're still in the infancy of this stuff, and if you read one book, seek out someone holding the opposite opinion--no one knows what is going on yet.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 1:49 PM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: OK, for Judas-as-evil, April DeConick's book is fabulous and easy to read. (The preface is only of interest to academics). For Judas-as-hero, see the Ehrman text. The National Geographic translation (ed. Kasser et al.) is better in the second edition, if you want it.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 2:00 PM on March 4, 2011

Just want to third MacCulloch's Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. I am about 150 pages or so from finishing the massive thing and have thoroughly enjoyed it. MacCulloch has a very easy writing style which makes for a great reading experience. I couldn't perceive any noticeable bias in the writing, either. As a primer for the Reformation, this book serves as a good basis too. His stand alone book on the Reformation is also great.

In sum, I think MacCulloch's book serves as a great launch point to turn toward other topics in greater detail. In the effort to squeeze as much as he can about around 3,000 years of history into around a 1,000 page book, he sometimes can't go into a lot of detail on every topic. There's enough where you feel you can walk away knowledgeable about the topic, but also enough to make you thirst for more.

In warning, though, it comes with a hefty price tag. I think the hard cover is generally runs around $45 US.
posted by Atreides at 2:13 PM on March 4, 2011

Response by poster: More best answers. This is awesome.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:24 PM on March 4, 2011

The Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant covers this subject in detail. It's a long read.
posted by ovvl at 4:36 PM on March 4, 2011

Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley is bar-none the best book on church history that I've read. It is, as the name implies, very approachable. It isn't as technical as other options, but it's the best if you want a solid, broad understanding of church history as a whole.
posted by kraigory at 4:59 PM on March 4, 2011

One summer I read Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Bible concurrently with the Bible itself. It was fascinating to get a much clearer historical and cultural background of the Bible. I sat one book on each knee and read back and forth through both the old and new testament.

I am still an atheist.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 8:27 PM on March 4, 2011

Response by poster: We seem to have covered broad church and bible history pretty well - -any strong books out there about specific individuals or significant events?
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:14 PM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: I've heard good things about Anthony Arthur's The Tailor-King, about an anabaptist rebellion that resulted in Munster becoming a polygamous commune for a bit, rather early on in the Reformation (mid 1530s). It is one of my favourite historical blips (polygamist anabaptists, oh my!), and Arthur writes well.

Millenial Fever and the End of the World is a great little study on the origins of Adventism and the circumstances of the Great Disappointment, or, when the end of the world did not happen as planned. This is all part of the Second Great Awakening (1800s). I don't know if you would be interested in that, since your question seems to focus on the first 1.5 millennia.

I have yet to read a good book about the rise of Pentecostalism (early 1900s) and the spread of "fundamentalism" (especially found in the 1920s).
posted by flibbertigibbet at 1:59 PM on March 6, 2011

A personal reminiscence: I studied theology at university, and Eamon Duffy was my director of studies. I got to read some of the draft for The Stripping of the Altars. I remember him telling me that the publisher really liked the title - the word Stripping would double sales.
posted by HastyDave at 2:49 PM on March 6, 2011

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