Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Posted Jun 30, 2021

This book is overwhelming. Not surprising but still worth saying. I mostly listened to the audio book and borrowed the ebook to save some highlights. I ended up making 123 highlights. The book is just an endless series of interesting facts. Which was good but also too much.

I learned a lot about anti-semitism and the evolution of holy wars and the influence of Islam and Scandinavia's Normans. And the interplay between monarchy and the church. And that 'gospel' means 'good news.' Here are some favorite parts.

An aspect of the virgin birth:

Matthew’s and Luke’s ancestor lists are in their present form pointless. They claim to show that Jesus could be described as the Son of David; in fact Luke goes further, taking Jesus back to Adam, the first man. Yet they do this by tracing David’s line down to Jesus’s father, Joseph. Both then defeat their purpose by implying that Joseph was not actually the father of Jesus. Matthew does it by abruptly ending the genealogical mantra ‘father of’ after the generation of ‘Jacob the father of Joseph’, continuing ‘Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born’. Luke is more directly indecorous by calling Jesus ‘the son (as was supposed) of Joseph’. These rather lame phrases cannot be other than emendations of the rival texts, designed to accommodate the rapidly growing conviction of Christians that Jesus’s mother, Mary, was a virgin in human terms and became with child by the Holy Spirit.


This tangle of preoccupations with Mary’s virginity centres on Matthew’s quotation from a Greek version of words of the prophet Isaiah in the Septuagint (see p. 69): ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’. This alters or refines the meaning of Isaiah’s original Hebrew: where the prophet had talked only of ‘a young woman’ conceiving and bearing a son, the Septuagint projected ‘young woman’ into the Greek word for ‘virgin’ (parthenos).

On the blaming of Jews for killing Jesus:

Most Christians did not want to be enemies of the Roman Empire and they soon sought to play down the role of the Romans in the story. So the Passion narratives shifted the blame on to the Jewish authorities, and the local representative of Roman authority – a coarse-grained soldier called Pontius Pilate – was portrayed as inquisitive and bewildered...

The growth of Christianity in the US:

As Federal government expanded west, Christianity experienced growth as vigorous as any in the nineteenth century. At the time of the Revolution, despite all the bustle of the Great Awakenings, only around 10 per cent of the American population were formal Church members, and a majority had no significant involvement in Church activities. In 1815 active Church membership had grown to around a quarter of the population; by 1914 it was approaching half – this in a country which in the same period through immigration and natural growth had seen its numbers balloon from 8.4 million to 100 million.

This was not a fun read but definitely an interesting one.