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Book Review: “A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity” by Vince L. Bantu

Christianity has always been a global religion, but awareness of those global roots and the impact across the world is not high. Vince L. Bantu, in A Multitude of All Peoples, demonstrates the eclectic, beautiful, global vision of Christianity across the world.

After an introduction looking at Christianity as a global religion, Bantu examines the “roots of Western Christianity Identity Politics. Here, Bantu argues that Christianity as a Hellenistic Latin/Greek religion has its origins in the 3rd/4th century with the rise of Constantine and the sometimes rewriting of church history. With the enshrinement of Christianity as state religion, it became all too easy to see the faith indelibly tied to the state, and specifically the construct of the “West.” This view didn’t entirely come from “Western” sources, either. Bantu shows that Persian Christians, for example, saw the ties of Christianity and Rome and viewed it with some suspicion, seeing the ties of church and state as making Christians loyal to the nation rather than God (21-22). The Hellenization of theology occurred in this period too, despite some of the most important Christian thinking happening outside of the global West. The Council of Chalcedon, long seen as a standard of Orthodoxy, itself used Hellenistic terminology and ended up causing division in the church. Such divisions were exacerbated by political schisms as borders changed (31-33). Bantu traces the history of these through more serious schisms and Christianity’s earliest encounters with Islam.

The next chapter gives an overview of Christianity’s roots in Africa. Egypt was a major part of the growth of Christianity and Christians there trace their lineage through St. Mark. The religious roots of Egypt itself shaped Christianity there, as Bantu argues Cyril explicitly developed Christian theology as a counter to worship of Isis and Horus. Nubia is another major area of growth in Africa, and the conflict between Christianity and Islam there ultimately led to a peace that lasted for centuries. Due to this peace, Nubian Christianity was able to thrive and encounter other cultures that it integrated into Nubian identity (90-93). Ethiopia was noher place of significant growth and development of early Christianity. King Ezana helped integrate Christianity into the area of his domain, and he continued some of his pre-Christian religion as well, forming a kind of syncretism that in some ways lasted for centuries afterwards (100-102). Ethiopian Christianity would go on to influence global Christianity to the extent that seeing Christianity as solely “white man’s religion” instead of a part of African culture is an untenable description (103). North African Christianity also made contributions to global faith and practice, which Bantu traces through Carthage and many other places.

The Middle East also experienced massive growth of Christianity and cannot be ignored when it comes to historical Christianity or the history of the church. Syria was a huge part of this global growth as Antioch became a center of Christianity. Syriac theology and poetry has been formative for Christianity since the outset, though that influence was downplayed throughout long periods of time. Thankfully, a recovery of Syrian Christian traditions and theology is continuing into today (124ff). Lebanon, Arabia, and Armenia also had massive surges of Christanity as it spread across the globe. In Armenia, Christianity confronted Zoroastrianism in complex ways (148ff). The Armenian church continues into today as one of the ancient traditions of Christianity. In Georgia, we find another ancient Christian tradition that reaches back into the fourth century CE. Georgian Christianity continues into today with an identity that is at least “synonymous with the Georgian identity that began in Late Antiquity” (164).

The Silk Road provided a fertile missions field for early Christians as well, and Bantu traces the spread of Christianity through Asia. Persia’s first Christians were largely identified with the Jewish community that had lived there since the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century BCE. Persian Christians, however, had to encounter a kind of ancient identity politics that demanded they become servants of Caesar in order to be truly Christian. Bantu draws some parallels to today’s own challenges for non-white/non-Western people and Christianity from this (169-170). The origins of Christianity in India have been commonly attributed to the work of the Apostle Judas Thomas, and some interesting historical (and ahistorical) debate over the apocryphal Acts of Thomas and stories therein do not take away from the broader fact that Christianity came to India at a fairly early time (180ff). Christianity also spread across central Asia. Some of this spread was through areas controled by the Mongolian civilization which was generally tolerant for Christianity. China encountered Christianity during the Tang dynasty (618-907CE) and the opening of trade that accompanied it. Contextualization was central to the Christian faith in China, and various symbols were adopted (204ff). Christianity flourised under a tolerant rule of the Mongolians in china but later declined due to persecution and direct anti-Christian campaigns in China and elsewhere (215-217).

A Multitude of Peoples is a necessary read for anyone interested in global Christianity, and, in particular, interested in Christianity beyond what has been called the “West.” It’s an exciting book that makes readers think about the ancient roots of Christian faith even while tracing the successes and failures of the same. Bantu demonstrates unquestionably that Christianity, from its earliest periods, reached across the globe and shaped–and was shaped by–cultures across the world. May it ever be so.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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