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Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three…
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Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided…

by John Philip Jenkins

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This book is a brisk review of the religious controversies that racked Christianity from the Council of Nicea in the early fourth century until the Council of Chalcedon in the middle of the fifth century -- and for some time thereafter. The controversies were about theological issues centered on the nature of Christ, but the way in which they played out was very, very political. The author contends that eventual triumph of orthodox Christianity (the root of both Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Christianity) was in large part a matter of chance -- who was doing what to whom at what moment in time. He also contends that these issues still have impact today; as an agnostic, I find that less convincing. What is fascinating (and well described) is the passion and violence with which groups of people acted to dominate other groups of people, even when the issue seems arcane to a modern reader. The issues may change, but human nature, it appears, remains the same. ( )
  annbury | Nov 2, 2012 |
Jesus Wars reveals how official, orthodox teaching about Jesus was the product of political maneuvers by a handful of key characters in the fifth century. Jenkins argues that were it not for these controversies, the papacy as we know it would never have come into existence and that today’s church could be teaching some-thing very different about Jesus. It is only an accident of history that one group of Roman emperors and militia-wielding bishops defeated another faction. --from publisher description
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1 vote | Lake_O_UCC | Oct 16, 2011 |
I don’t claim to know if everything Jenkins has written in this book is accurate, there are some who claim it isn’t. What I can claim is that much of the big ideas discussed resonate with what I learned growing up Episcopalian and are things I still ponder.

What, exactly, is the nature of Jesus? Who decided what should become orthodoxy and when? And the one that drew me into this book, the most fascinating, what part did politics play in deciding what Christian belief should be?

Read any news source and one finds politics still playing a large part in religion. These struggles aren’t new, and Jenkins’ book reveals just how old, and complex, the role of religion plays in politics and vice versa.

This is not light reading, but if one is inclined to explore the roots of Christian thought and belief, beyond the merely theological, this is a good book to read. It is not definitive, but it does add positively to the existing canon of work on this topic. ( )
  AuntieClio | Feb 27, 2011 |
In Jesus Wars, by Philip Jenkins (history professor, University of Philadelphia) we see how the Great Church Councils were unable to distill the revelation of God into a concise creed, so they convened yet more councils to try again. The end product we know today as “Traditional Christianity” or “Historic Christianity,” but Jenkins appropriately titled it “Jesus Wars”, because what emerged was not a pretty picture.

Jesus Wars provides solid, historical reasons to hold the traditions developed through church history at an arm’s length, while holding your nose.

Even so, there are significant oversights in Jenkins' depiction of the spread of Islam, there are some great primary sources he provides, as quoted in the review on my blog (see Want Some Jesus Wars? for details). ( )
  kxmccallum | Jan 4, 2011 |
The author of Jesus Wars, Peter Jenkins, who is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Distinguished Senior Fellow, Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, argues that the official orthodoxy of Christianity today was forged by the political machinations of certain key political players of the fifth century.

Who was Jesus Christ? Was he God? Was he a man? Was he the Son of God? If God, had he existed from all eternity, or was he born around the year One? Was he the equal of or subordinate to the creator? Was he both God and man? Was he the mysterious Son of Man referred in the gospels? Did he have two natures or one? Did he have a single will? Was he an ordinary (if virtuous) man until his baptism, and then became infused with the nature of God? Could he suffer? Could he foresee his own passion and death? Was Mary the mother of God?

Those questions are not easily answerable from a reading of the New Testament. The gospels are both ambiguous and inconsistent. Even a believer in the inerrancy of the Bible could find solid arguments in the gospels for either a yes or a no answer to each question formulated above (except for the first one, which does not call for a yes/no answer). In fact, in the Gospel of Mathew, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They answered that stories circulated that he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet come back to earth. Jesus then asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Although Jesus agrees with Peter’s answer, he does not explain or elaborate on what those terms mean. He further “sternly ordered” the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

For the first four centuries of Christianity, believers tried to resolve those questions through logic and a close reading of scripture. Many early Christians virtually ignored Christ’s humanity, thinking of him only as divine. On the other hand, the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus, became uniformly adopted by some of the Germanic tribes. Surprisingly to modern Christians, the theological disputes often led to violence. Several Church councils attempted to resolve the issues, but it was not until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that the definitions to which most modern Christian churches adhere were formulated. There, the Council concluded that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. Even Chalcedon did not settle the matter, since various heresies persisted for hundreds of years thereafter.

In Jesus Wars, Philip Jenkins tells the stories of the personalities and the politics that led up to and shaped the theological and Christological debates and their attempted resolutions. Jenkins’s narrative is labyrinthine and complex, as were the events he describes. At times it is difficult to distinguish the distinct theological positions of the combatants. What is clear is their geographical provenance of the conflicting isms. Jenkins concludes that the resolution of the controversies was not a matter of one side having better arguments than the other, but “what mattered were the interests and obsessions of rival emperors and queens….To oversimplify, the fate of Christian doctrine was deeply influenced by just how well or badly the empire was doing fighting Attila the Hun.” In the end, the Roman Church became “right” because it survived.

Evaluation: This is an important book with continuing relevance, since, as Jenkins observes, "In modern times, too, ancient debates and creeds are much in evidence, despite the official victory of Chalcedon." The emphasis has changed somewhat however: whereas in ancient times, believers had trouble accepting that Christ could be anything less than wholly divine, "many modern believers struggle with contemplating a Jesus who is more than human." Contemporary readers who struggle with this issue will appreciate the discussion of the debates that have tested Christianity from the beginning. ( )
3 vote nbmars | Jun 13, 2010 |
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Jesus Wars reveals how official, orthodox teaching about Jesus was the product of political maneuvers by a handful of key characters in the fifth century. Jenkins argues that were it not for these controversies, the papacy as we know it would never have come into existence and that today's church could be teaching some-thing very different about Jesus. It is only an accident of history that one group of Roman emperors and militia-wielding bishops defeated another faction. --from publisher description… (more)

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