Thoughts on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s ‘A History of Christianity’ — Episode 1

Emperor Constantine and Empress Helena. Mosaic in Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia
Emperor Constantine and Empress Helena. Mosaic in Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Grace Dalton reflects on Episode 1 of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s ‘A History of Christianity,’ which was recently re-aired on the BBC.

10 years ago, the BBC aired A History of Christianity, and recently recycled it. More specifically, it’s Diarmaid MacCulloch’s ‘A History of Christianity’; and the crucial question is to what extent the programmes are an accurate summary of Christianity, or are primarily MacCulloch’s personal opinion. Broadly speaking, he addresses and narrates to us with a lack of nuance; his interpretation is presented as fact, whilst little time is afforded to Christians to describe their own beliefs and experiences. But what proportion of viewers will be cognisant of the convolution and intricacy of history, and that differing historical artefacts, and differing interpretations of them, render history an inexact science in which scholars regularly have varying views of what took place?

“Somehow, the followers of Jesus became convinced that he rose from here to new life.”

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s ‘A History of Christianity,’ Episode 1

It would be preferable for the series to highlight some of the most consequential differences of opinion among respected historians, and the evidence supporting statements made, rather than MacCulloch presumptuously expecting viewers to fully trust his interpretation.

“We’ve all heard something of the Christian story. Jesus, the wandering Jewish teacher crucified by the Romans. Paul, who had hunted down Christians until, on the road to Damascus, he experienced a blinding vision of Jesus Christ, resurrected from the dead. Paul’s new-found zeal focused on people beyond the Jews, Gentiles. It took him far from Jerusalem to Rome, and it reshaped not just the faith of Christ but in the end, all Western civilisation.” Does he truly think that “we’ve all heard” those points? I suspect, given how unfamiliar most of Britain is with the Bible, that only a minority know of Saul’s Damascene conversion. Yet no explanation is offered — leaving the audience without a significant piece of the rationale for trusting Christianity. That a zealous antagonist of Christianity, passionately committed to destroying it, would become its most influential exponent is too remarkable simply to mention in passing. It demands an explanation. The New Testament tells us that Saul was overwhelmed by a supernatural experience of Jesus. We can infer that MacCulloch rejects that this truly took place, but it is negligent that he does not mention it as a component of Christians’ rationale for belief.

“Somehow, the followers of Jesus became convinced that he rose from here to new life,” MacCulloch declares — failing to offer any further explanation whatsoever in the entirety of his programme. This is, undoubtedly, the biggest problem of the whole series. My personal experience is of having gone from disbelieving to believing in the resurrection through consuming the work of Christian historians, who expound the case for concluding that the resurrection was an historical event. Offering viewers no insight whatsoever into the basis for Christians’ conclusions regarding the resurrection prevents the audience from comprehending the mindset behind the movement he spends six hours documenting. It also demonstrates that he’s not grasped what Christianity is — it is not merely a cultural institution.

Amidst a montage of evocative images, MacCulloch opines that “The belief that Jesus can overcome death is the most difficult and troubling affirmation of the Christian faith. Over twenty centuries it’s made Christians act in heroic, joyful, beautiful, terrible ways.” How, exactly, has he concluded that Jesus overcoming death is “difficult and troubling” — let alone “the most difficult and troubling”?

“You see, at heart, Christianity is a personality cult.”

‘A History of Christianity,’ Episode 1

Why are not the existence of hell; the doctrine that we are each flawed and sinful; or Jesus’ warning that we will face persecution, more troubling? Is it legitimate to attribute to belief in Christ overcoming death the “terrible ways” in which some throughout history have behaved?

Next, he asserts: “You see, at heart, Christianity is a personality cult,” which comes across as sheer opinionated denigration. The Gospels tell us of Christ’s teaching, miracles and mercy, and it is because of the implications that these have for us that we follow Him; not because we croon over His charisma. MacCulloch is presenting his interpretation as fact, whilst withholding from viewers crucial arguments to weigh up so that they might make their own evaluation.

After a brief wander through diverse chapels surrounding the Holy Sepulchre — such as the Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac — he states, “The main character here is not Jesus or the Gospels. It is, in fact, the Church, the institution of Christian faith that has fought its way through history.” But he has not called his series “The History of the Church.” How can he justify trivialising Christ in “The History of Christianity”? This reinforces a fatal misunderstanding that’s ubiquitous in our culture — “Christianity,” perceived as a single amalgam. But in truth, Christ is of paramount importance: He surpasses, and is not defined by, the Church.

Explaining that a Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 prompted the first Christians to flee, MacCulloch asks, “Where would Gentile Christians look now?”, and again presuming his audience to be acquainted with the New Testament, he remarks, “You might think obviously west to Rome, because that’s where Paul had gone. But at the time it would not have seemed obvious at all.” But is this not a false dichotomy? At this point in history, churches had already been established in the cities to which Paul wrote his epistles. Why would devastation in Jerusalem terminate them? And why does MacCulloch ignore them?

“What if you take the other road out of Jerusalem, east? — southeast Turkey. In the first century it was called Edessa… special because its ruler, King Abgar set an important precedent here… by adopting Christianity as the kingdom’s official state religion… For the last 17 centuries, Christianity has been repeatedly linked with the state. So, in the United Kingdom, the monarch is still supreme governor of the Church of England… It all started in the ancient Eastern Christian kingdom of Edessa. And Edessa pioneered… Church music.” Here MacCulloch appears to perpetrate historical fallacy. In his eagerness to ascribe aspects of our culture to the East, he’s making an assertion in which I can’t see the logic. How would the tradition of monarchy being linked to the Church have arrived in Britain given that Christianity was not brought here from the East? Have not many civilisations throughout history joined together rulers and priests? We know full well that a monarch took over the Church in England to take power from the Pope, not because he — I mean, of course, Henry VIII — sought to emulate Edessa.

“Singing would have been the last thing on the minds of Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire.”

‘A History of Christianity,’ Episode 1

Church music, also, cannot simply be attributed to Edessa on the basis that it existed there at an early point. The Bible recounts singing praise to God, not least by David, whose songs still play out in our churches. Prior to that, Exodus 15 records the Song of Moses and Miriam; and Judges 5 the Song of Deborah and Barak. Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 is one of the most recited passages of the Bible; and Paul apparently recycles early Christian songs, or fragments thereof, in Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16; Ephesians 5:14; Colossians 1:15-20. In his letter to the Emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61 – c. 113) describes how the first Christians “were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang an anthem to Christ as God”[1]; Church father Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150–215) is also recorded as having written a hymn.[2]

Thus, MacCulloch’s assertion that, “Latin Gregorian chant, Johann Sebastian Bach, even the tambourines and guitars of the Pentecostals: all come from [Edessa],” seems untenable.

He tells us that, “singing would have been the last thing on the minds of Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire,” owing to the severe persecution by Roman Emperors — but there’s a curious failure to acknowledge the significance of the first Christians’ persistence in singing in spite of their (often physical) torment. If Christ’s resurrection was not known to be fact within the society surrounding the event, would a large following have willingly suffered martyrdom as they did? But MacCulloch has no intention of considering points that support the historicity of the resurrection.

“Jesus had told people to abandon wealth, not to ally with the rich and powerful.”

‘A History of Christianity,’ Episode 1

“But then something completely unexpected happened in the West. A new Roman Emperor, Constantine, made Christianity his own.” No mention is made of the accounts of Constantine having been converted by a revelatory dream. Yet again, MacCulloch evades arguments which favour of the historical reality of Christianity. Constantine’s move both to make Christianity an officially sanctioned religion, and to promote it financially, “brought power and wealth [to Christianity],” we are told. This is true; but in the absence of discussion of the reasoning that people had to follow Christ, it makes Christianity sound like an essentially selfish entity.

Constantine and Helena. Mosaic in Saint Isaac's Cathedral.jpg“But in the East, many Christians were unimpressed… Jesus had told people to abandon wealth, not to ally with the rich and powerful. Remember his joke about a rich man wanting to enter the kingdom of heaven was like a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle?” I’m grateful that, at last, mention is made of Jesus’ words here — the series is seriously sparse on scripture — though I wonder if MacCulloch might be overestimating the extent of the public’s Bible literacy. I suspect that, contrary to the assumption presented by the rhetorical question, some viewers won’t be familiar with the camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle. It’s right to chastise prioritising of power over adherence to Christ’s teaching, but MacCulloch’s distinction between East and West is grossly oversimplified. Given that those outside of the Church tend to have generalising presuppositions about Christianity anyway, I wonder if MacCulloch’s narration here might give some the impression that all Western Christians were suddenly primarily interested in power. In reality, each Church will have members with differing ideas. Furthermore, in presenting Christianity merely as being East and West, MacCulloch is at this point overlooking the spread of Christianity into Africa — a place where, in the early centuries of Christianity, it was in some ways at its most vigorous and lively.

He goes on to summarise divisions of belief, as concepts beyond the human mind were debated in the young Christendom. MacCulloch admirably endeavours to explain complex questions — but it’s regrettable that again, the audience is deprived of Biblical exposition. He explains the Arian controversy, followed by the Nicene Creed: “It states that God is equally the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are three in one. The Trinity. The Emperor must have breathed a sigh of relief.” Whilst this is true, to present the Trinity primarily as a scheme for imperial unity by the Emperor is unfairly cynical.

“The Council of Chalcedon met… recognised [Christ] in two natures, without confusion, without change… without division, without separation.”

‘A History of Christianity,’ Episode 1

MacCulloch next presents the contrasting claims of Nestorius and of Cyril of Alexandria, creatively employing the visual aids of a glass of water and oil — which don’t mix — and a glass of water and wine, which do. Skipping over naming the councils of Constantinople and of Ephesus, he explains that,

“The Council of Chalcedon met… recognised [Christ] in two natures, without confusion, without change… without division, without separation. And that compromise is how the Churches which descend from the Emperor’s Christianity, the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox have understood the mystery of Jesus ever since. But frankly it… left plenty of people unhappy.”

Elucidating that this was the catalyst for schism between East and West, he says, “It was a watershed. Imperial and non-imperial Christianity would never be reconciled.” He’s not wrong, but again this seems somewhat to be an oversimplification with overemphasis on imperialism. In a programme ostenisibly about Christianity, rather than about the Roman Empire, might it not have been more relevant to have briefly mentioned Augustine at this point?

He proceeds to describe “a new Eastern church… the Syriac Orthodox Church… The seminary offers a glimpse of what imperial Western Christianity might have looked like,” and meets Father Fady, who claims that, “the liturgy in the East [is] much richer in symbolism. The way people communicate is not only through words but through gestures,… [through] his body, voice, or tune.” But might the differences in style between Western and Eastern Churches today might not be more attributed to their differing cultural milieux than to Chalcedon? Why endorse the suggestion that the Eastern Church has a monopoly on symbolism, gestures, voice and tune? All of these feature in some Western Churches. In stating that all Western theologians are philosophers, and all Eastern philosophers are poets or icon drawers, Father Fady presses a false dichotomy that goes unchallenged.

Father Fady also argues that, “if you want to read the spirituality of the church, you really need Syriac” — that is to say, a language that is a defining feature of his Church and is related to Christ’s native tongue of Aramaic. Yet surely, whilst understanding of Syriac would certainly be an asset, it can hardly be essential given that the New Testament was not written in Syriac, nor Aramaic? Only if it could be proven that New Testament manuscripts were preceded in date and superseded in reliability by Syriac manuscripts would this claim to superiority be justified. In Acts, disciples are enabled to communicate God’s message through new languages — so might not the Holy Spirit have guided the New Testament’s authors to write God’s word, irrespective of whether that were in the same language which Christ spoke?

“Christianity is at heart a missionary faith.”

‘A History of Christianity,’ Episode 1

MacCulloch proceeds to recount the threat of “a rival new militant faith, Islam… [which] brought huge damage to imperial Christianity. As it travelled west, it wiped out much of the southern provinces of the old Roman Empire [i.e., North Africa].” However, he then goes on to say that on its Eastern front, Christendom’s experience with Islam was “more of an encounter of civilisations,” in which, “in fact, they did deals with local leaders.” His description endeavours to portray harmony, but the ‘deal’ to which he refers, the Pact of Umar, is eerily oppressive; prohibiting the construction of any new churches, or the rebuilding of those which have been destroyed; prohibition of disclosing one’s Christianity in public, trying to convert a Muslim, or trying to prevent a Muslim attempting to convert others to Islam; banning of Palm Sunday and Easter parades, and of hanging crosses on churches. The pact also obliged deference toward Muslims; specific hair styling and attire; and payment of the jizya tax.[3]

Many historians describe Islam’s barbaric expansion.[4] Crucially, Muhammad’s words inspired conflict; such as in the Sahih al-Bukhari hadith 2.24, “I have been ordered by Allah to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s [Messenger]… then [will] they save their lives and property from me.” And in Surah 9:29 of the Qur’an: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book [i.e., Jews and Christians], until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” However, MacCulloch simply mentions this in passing, and pursues in detail only amiable aspects, claiming that the two faiths aided each other. He appears to put political correctness before accurate balance. An Imam with whom he meets suggests that Islam’s custom of praying five times daily derives from Christianity, though no evidence is offered for this (and no Bible verses command it).

He gushes praise over his perceived synergy of Islam and Christianity in Syria and Central Asia — but is his characterisation an accurate representation?

He continues, “Christianity is at heart a missionary faith.” I feel frustrated by the absence of any of the Bible verses that underscore this truth. “In the Abbasid Empire, conversion from Islam was forbidden. So the Church of the Middle East decided to spread to the Far East.” In reality, conversion from Islam is banned in many Islamic countries even today, not merely in specific empires. Is MacCulloch again deliberately concealing the severity of “the religion of peace”? Furthermore, there are suggestions that Christianity spread far eastwards prior to the impact of Islam; Arnobius, a Christian apologist who died c. 330 A.D. wrote that, “the deeds can be reckoned up and numbered which have been done in India, among the Seres [a Roman name for China], Persians, and Medes… they have… hastened to give up their fathers’ mode of life, and attach themselves to Christian truth.”[5] Christianity is also known to have spread to India, potentially as early as A.D. 52 via the apostle Thomas, from where several monks took Christianity to China when they traded silk.[6] Thus, though the Church did spread East as MacCulloch asserts, it’s misleading of him to imply that Islam served to help Christianity to grow. He meets with Martin Palmer, who is slated by the review of the programme from the Telegraph, where the writer says that “warning bells sounded, for me, when he wheeled out his first expert — veteran multiculturalist Martin Palmer.” Sadly, he is the first and only expert in this episode — might not the BBC have included at least a second independent historian to offer their interpretation of these first centuries of Christian history? Martin Palmer proudly presents a Buddhist temple, the Daqin Pagoda, which he excitedly describes having discovered to be a past Christian church. His conclusion was based on the direction in which the temple was facing, and the words of an elderly Buddhist nun (presumably through a translator?), but his theory is disputed.[7]

The two of them attempt to explore the pagoda, but are prevented from entering by locals, with whom MacCulloch narrates that he can sympathise, given Western imposition for centuries. But no mention is made of the fact that today in China, it’s Christians who are brutally persecuted.

“Maybe the Christianity we know needs to regain its ancient ability to listen.”

‘A History of Christianity,’ Episode 1

As he draws his first episode to a close, MacCulloch reflects that “maybe the Christianity we know needs to regain its ancient ability to listen.” It seems ironic in that, today, the Church is not listened to. He’s quite right that the Church should listen; but to what extent is he aware of Churches attempts to do so? Is he conveying the message to non-Christian viewers that they won’t be listened to if they explore churches? Is he alluding to churches’ continuity in teachings on issues such as sexuality, presuming that Christianity ought to prioritise cultural assimilation over adherence to scripture? The five further episodes may help us better to understand whether MacCulloch’s drift away from Christian heritage is attributable to the Church — and perhaps the public’s drift away also.



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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[1] See




[5] Arnobius, Against the Heathen, 2.12.



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