Diarmaid MacCulloch and the First 3,000 Years of Christianity

Discover the ground-breaking work of Diarmaid MacCulloch (b. 1951), Oxford University historian, writer, and documentary film-maker in the field of Christian history.

The New York Times describes Professor MacCulloch's work in the field of the history of Christianity as "electrifying scholarship."

Diarmaid Ninian John MacCulloch grew up in a country parish in Suffolk in England's East Anglia. He earned his bachelor's, master's degrees from Churchill College at Cambridge University and completed his Ph.D. at Churchill is 1977. In 2001 he received a Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) from Oxford University. In 2003 he was awarded an honorary DLitt degree by the University of East Anglia. MacCulloch serves as Professor of the History of the Church at the Oxford University and is a fellow of St. Cross College, Oxford.

Above: Diarmaid MacCulloch at the 8th century Christian monastery Da Qin, near Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China.

In 1987 Dr. MacCulloch was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England and he served as an unpaid minister at All Saints' Clifton with St John's in the Diocese of Bristol. However, he subsequently declined ordination to the priesthood because of his disagreement with a motion put before the General Synod in 1987 by the Rev. Tony Higton regarding the sexuality of clergy. Two decades later Rev. Dr. MacCulloch described his spiritual journey:

"I was brought up in the presence of the Bible, and I remember with affection what it was like to hold a dogmatic position on the statements of Christian belief. I would now describe myself as a candid friend of Christianity."

Diarmaid MacCulloch approached the history of Christianity both as an objective scholar and as a sympathetic commentator, but not as a preacher or specifically Christian teacher seeking to prove his point. For this reason his approach is all the more balanced, critical, and rewarding to the student.

“Christianity’s claim to truth," he writes, "is absolutely central to it over much of the past two thousand years, and much of this history is dedicated to tracing the varieties of this claim and the competition between them. But historians do not possess a prerogative to pronounce on the truth of the existence of God itself… There is, however, an important aspect of Christianity on which it is the occupation of the historian to speak: the story of Christianity is undeniably true, in that it is part of the human story.”

For this reason out of the many excellent texts on Christian history available, I chose MacCulloch's work for the set text in by History of Christianity classes first taught at Columbus State University and then at colleges and in churches in various parts of the United States.


Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

In Christianity: The First 3,000 Years Diarmaid MacCulloch conceives the overall structure of Christian history differently from many of its predecessors.

When I was in graduate school we used the classic texts by the great Yale historians Williston Walker and Kenneth Scott Latourette. Both of this outstanding histories have been up-dated by more recent scholarship and are still worthy of a place on the book shelf of every serious student of the Bible. These earlier scholars acknowledged the importance of both the Hebraic and Greco-Roman backgrounds to the world that gave rise to the New Testament and the emergence of the early church.

For MacCulloch the cluster of beliefs making up the Christian faith are not simply the pristine, innovative teachings of Jesus. Rather they draw of the more ancient cultural traditions of Israel and Greece.

Diarmaid MacCulloch insists: "The story must...begin more than a millennium before Jesus, among the ancient Greeks and the Jews, two races which alike thought that they had a uniquely privileged place in the world's history."

The first generation of Christians were Jews living in a world shaped by Greek culture. MacCulloch describes their efforts to fit together two irreconcilable views of God: the intensely personal deity of Judaism with the all-perfect, and therefore immune to change and devoid of passion deity of Greek philosophy.

After the period of Jesus's life and its immediate aftermath, MacCulloch contends that the history of Christianity can only be treated as a unified narrative for around 300 or 400 years, after which it divided in three distinct streams with little overlap until around 1700.

First is the Christianity which in the early centuries one would have expected to become dominant, that of the Middle Eastern homeland of Jesus.

The second story is that of the Western, Latin-speaking Church, which emerged out of the ruins of the western half of the Roman Empire and which came to look to the Bishop of Rome.

The third story is of Orthodoxy, which likewise is an heir of the Roman Empire. But the Greek-speaking Eastern Church was shaped by the continuing reign of the Eastern emperors.

MacCulloch's narrative captures the major turning points in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox from medieval times into the modern and postmodern eras. He give vivid accounts of conversion and confrontation in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. He introduces us to monks and crusaders, heretics and reformers, popes and abolitionists. He uncovers the roots of the faith that galvanized America, charting the surprising beliefs of the founding fathers, the rise of the Evangelical movement and of Pentecostalism, and the recent crises within the Catholic Church.

This impressive text by Diarmaid MacCulloch will help you discover Christianity's essential role in shaping human history and the intimate lives of men and women.


Diarmaid MacCulloch: Film-Maker

The six-hour BBC adaptation filmed in high-definition is the essential companion to MacCulloch's 1,200 page history of Christianity.

The series is hosted by Diarmaid MacCulloch himself as he follows the path of Christianity through the ages and around the globe. This series provides viewers an enlightening and often entertaining survey that mixes keen observation with beautiful on-location footage shot in some of the world's most impressive places of Christian worship, both historical and contemporary.

Programs in the series:

Program 1: The First Christianity
Program 2: Catholicism: The Unpredictable Rise of Rome
Program 3: Orthodoxy: From Empire to Empire
Program 4: Reformation: The Individual Before God
Program 5: Protestantism: The Evangelical Explosion
Program 6: God in Dock

This series will make an enlightening and entertaining 6-part series for your Bible study or Sunday School group!


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