This blogpost is intended to bring together some critical reactions to and reviews of a recent book of journalist Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age (Dutch: Eeuwen van duisternis). This provocative book claims that Christianity in Antiquity did very much look like ISIS. Although I certainly won’t defend a naive, innocent picture of ancient Christianity, I think this kind of sensationalist writing should not be confused with historical analysis.
6 November 2017: Dame Averil Cameron (University of Oxford) calls the book a “travesty” and refers to her review in The Tablet (Averil Cameron, ‘Blame the Christians’, The Tablet 271.9218 [23 September 2017] 20). She writes that Nixey has “bought into the old ‘blame the Christians’ model.” “Hearts will sink among historians of early Christianity and late antiquity, as well as medievalists and, needless to say, Byzantinists, when they see the title of this pugnacious and energetically written book. The words ‘darkening age’ evoke everything they have been trying for years to overturn”. Besides using an old, outdated historiographical paradigm, Cameron points out that Nixey’s story is extremely one-sided, and based on a very small selection of secondary literature. Cameron concludes that Nixey’s book is a dramatic over-reaction to her religious upbringing.
3 November 2017: Levi Roach (University of Exeter) reviews: ‘At Cross Purposes’, Literary Review 459 (November 2017) 16-17. The book “does not seek to present a balanced picture […] this is a book of generalisations. […] Nixey […] is unwilling to see shades of grey.”
26 October 2017 (Dutch): Enne Koops recenseert het boek, dat volgens hem “interessant genoeg” is, maar ook erg subjectief en te weinig vanuit historisch en historiografisch perspectief geschreven. Hij verwijst ook naar een interessant artikel van de godsdienstwetenschapper Jan N. Bremmer op Lucepedia over religieus geweld in de vroege kerk.
21 October 2017: Roger Pearse, Hunting the wild misquotation again: the perils for the author of not verifying your quotations investigates a quotation offered by Nixey, who appears to have not read the primary sources and to have twisted this quotation. After being confronted with this, Catherine Nixey deleted her Twitter account!
8 October 2017: Tim O’Neill, The Lost Books of Photios’ Bibliotheca evaluates the supposed Christian destruction of Greek and Roman learning on the basis of which writings survives of Photios’ library. It turns out that in fact a slightly higher percentage of Christian writings got lost. Explanation: the loss of a book should be expected in Antiquity, preserving it demands effort.
7 October 2017: Sarah Bond (University of Iowa), Were Pagan Temples All Smashed Or Just Converted Into Christian Ones? is not directly related to Nixey’s book, but addresses the same subject, based on recent scholarship:
[A]rchaeologist and art historian Friedrich Wilhelm Deichmann, […] in 1939 cast temple destruction as aimed at showing the “triumphing” of Christianity over Greco-Roman paganism. However, archaeologists in Rome and elsewhere have now begun to adopt a more pragmatic view of Christian treatment of pagan temples; demonstrating that many were renovated, consecrated and then reused as churches rather than smashed to bits.
17 September 2017: Peter Thonemann reviews the book for The Sunday Times. He notes that “the argument depends on quite a bit of nifty footwork” because of the generalizations on the basis of very limited evidence. Regarding the destruction of temples, he comments that “the truth is more complex. Common enough in triumphalist Christian hagiography, temple-destruction seems to have been exceptionally rare in real life.”