Deciding Who Jesus Was


H. Wayne House

Article ID:



Apr 12, 2023


Jun 16, 2013
A review of
JESUS WARS: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors
Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years

by John Philip Jenkins
(HarperOne, 2010)

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 01 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to:

Solomon’s dictum that there was no end to the making of books is certainly evidenced in books about Jesus, this reviewer being a culprit in his The Jesus Who Never Lived. When I was writing my book, I made a herculean effort to distinguish what I wrote from so many other books that have appeared over the past several years. This is a difficult task, but one that Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Religious Studies at Baylor University, and the Edwin Erie Sparks Professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, in Jesus Wars, has done very well. As the reader of this review will discover, this does not mean that I agree with many interpretations and arguments that Jenkins has made, but the new approach is refreshing, albeit not entirely convincing.

Jenkins begins his book in a section called “Terms and Definitions” with a nod to liberal revisionist history that seems utterly unnecessary and tedious. He offers an apologetic for why he uses terms that most scholars would have no issue with, such as calling those who acknowledge only one nature in Jesus as Monophysites. He says that despite the term “orthodox” being used by those theologically opposite one another, “with some reluctance” he will use it “on occasion” as the “counterpart of Monophysite” (p. xvii). In fact, he ends up using “Monophysite” and “orthodox” often enough for one to doubt the sincerity of his reluctance. On the other hand, Jenkins says he also will use the terms “One Nature” and “Two Nature” to describe the two sides in the debates around which the book is centered. Judging from the audience to whom Jesus Wars seems to be aimed, these terms are quite helpful in keeping all the participants and their views straight. Jenkins defines these two terms over the course of the book, rather than offering a definition here.

After that section are two maps showing the “Near Eastern Christian World” and “The Wider Roman World.” These are a helpful inclusion, especially for readers who are unfamiliar with the geography involved and the tremendous impact geography had on church conflicts. Another helpful feature of Jesus Wars is appendixes at the end of many of the chapters presenting information relating to the material in the previous section.

The first chapter is a summation of the immediate history leading up to AD 451 and the Council of Chalcedon. It seems written for an audience largely ignorant of non-European church history, as well as the political situation of the Roman Empire in the fourth through fifth centuries. Jenkins provides a brief explanation of previous controversies, such as the Arian crisis and the crushing of Nestorius at Ephesus in 425, and introduces the reader to the idea that these conflicts often resorted to violence, even going so far as to compare this period of Christian history to modern Islam in its intolerance of “infidels.” Although better than the “Terms and Definitions” section, Chapter 1 seems written to placate modern liberal scholarship, rather than provide a simple introduction to the material covered in Jesus Wars. Although theological conflict did result in violence and even oppression, the argument that Christianity in the fifth century was akin to modern Islam is, at best, a stretch. One could make a convincing argument that while the church struggled over legitimate concerns about the very being and person of Jesus, the coupling of religion and state, as well as the manner in which the church engaged in suppressing heretical views, was not biblical. On the other hand, a strong argument could be made that the violence the world has suffered at the hands of Islam is a result of Muslims adhering to the Qu’ran, rather than straying away from it.

Chapter 2 begins a brief introduction to the debates about Christ’s nature from the first through fourth centuries, including Adoptionism, Sabellianism, and the teachings of Paul of Samosata. Jenkins then moves to a discussion of the debates immediately prior to Chalcedon (Arianism and Apollinarianism). Although the book is focused on that general council and the main disagreement that led to it (one nature vs. two), Jenkins nevertheless seems to downplay the significance of the Arian crisis to the church. He does not mention how Arianism (which was arguably a greater threat to orthodoxy than monophysitism) was at one time held by a large majority, and almost won out as the official position of the church. It is the reviewer’s opinion that much of the fervor surrounding the debates leading to Chalcedon was a result of church leaders fearing the same kind of takeover that Arianism had accomplished. After this discussion, the book includes a helpful table defining some of the terms involved in the debate, in Greek (transcribed), Latin, and English, such as “ousia” (being), “natura” (nature), and “prosopon” (person). Chapter 2 ends with an introduction to the two major theological schools of the fifth century: Alexandria and Antioch. It was these two schools that drove the One Nature/Two Nature debate, with Alexandria supporting the One Nature, and Antioch the Two.

Chapter 3 discusses the “Four Patriarchs” of Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople (and apparently Antioch—see below), and why Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople held vast political influence within the church. Jenkins argues that Alexandria and Rome both had ancient traditions and claims of apostolic foundations that garnered a great respect throughout Christianity. They were also cultural centers of the Roman world. Jenkins says that Constantinople was important for the opposite reason. It was the brand new capital of the eastern half of the empire, and every important faction was vying for control of its ecclesiastical hierarchy. Alexandria exerted political clout in Constantinople, and opposed any competing theological position that attempted to exert itself in the city, especially the Antiochenes. Frustratingly, Jenkins seems to leave out Antioch here. Although the student of ancient church history knows that Antioch was the earliest and most important center of Christianity outside Jerusalem, the lay reader may be left confused over why Antioch was important in the theological debates.

Chapter 4 focuses on the political climate of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. It was a time of tremendous upheaval and unrest because of barbarian invasion and the erosion of social structures within the empire. This led to people turning to the church, which in turn led to the church gaining immense importance, as well as the melding of the roles of church and state. The state took on the task of enforcing church dicta, while the church took on the task of social welfare and influence. Jenkins continues with a discussion of the important role of royal women in church issues, and the Theodosian dynasty. He argues that it was Theodosius II (under the influence of his crusading sister Pulcheria) who most forcefully moved the church from toleration to persecution of aberrant theological views. Jenkins posits that the rise of intolerance stems from the belief that those holding deviant views “entered the service of the devil, and surely society should not tolerate Satan’s wiles?” (125). He says that people feared tolerating heresy would bring God’s wrath. Conversely, upholding “the truth” would bring victory over the enemies of the empire.

Chapters 5–9 form Part Two of Jesus Wars and move from background issues to the immediate events leading to the Council of Chalcedon, Chalcedon itself, and the aftermath of the Council. Chapter 5 discusses the great debate between Nestorius and the Antiochenes versus Cyril and the Alexandrians. It is here that Jesus Wars finally overcomes the shortcomings of the previous chapters. Jenkins does a masterful job humanizing the figures and explaining in detail the events of the summer of 431 during the Council of Ephesus. He presents a balanced view of Nestorius and his position, avoiding the common pitfall of describing Nestorius through the views of his much later followers—who seem to have perverted Nestorius’s actual teachings.

Jenkins describes the aftermath of Ephesus in Chapter 6, arguing that 449 was the “high water mark” for Alexandria, which exerted huge influence in Constantinople. It was in this favorable climate that Eutyches emerged. Jenkins argues that his extreme Monophysitism and the crisis that his rise to prominence created led to Leo of Rome issuing his now famous “Tome.” One Nature adherents in turn reacted to the push against Eutyches with another council in Ephesus. They ignored Leo and vindicated Eutyches.

Jenkins introduces Chapter 7 with what ultimately stopped the Monophysite takeover of the church: “the emperor died.” Theodosius II, the powerful ally of Alexandria, was thrown from his horse in 450. The new emperor Marcian (a general who married Pulcheria) was a supporter of the Two Nature side, and called a new council, to be held not in Ephesus, but near Constantinople at Chalcedon. Jenkins says this council was much more civil than the previous one had been. Monks and laymen were excluded from the proceedings, thereby avoiding the violence that had erupted at other councils. The minutes were read from the council of 449 and most realized how “intimidation and distortions…had gone into the making of that record.” Alexandrian bishop Discorus was accused with a “catalogue of atrocities” that resembled the “megalomania of a Hellenistic god-king rather than a Christian pastor” (204–5). Jenkins argues the council was the most balanced ever, simultaneously condemning Eutyches and Nestorius. They rejected Discorus but venerated his predecessor Cyril. Jenkins says that although the council ended with jubilee, it caused deep division in the Middle East, and especially Egypt. Again, Jenkins’s easy reading style and personalization of the figures involved make Chalcedon much more understandable.

In Chapter 8 Jenkins gives his argument for how division within the church helped finally destroy the Roman Empire. Chalcedon ultimately failed to end debate, and even led in some cases to open riot. He says in the past the empire had the power and resources to squelch heresy, but as external pressure and internal corruption weakened it, the empire could no longer keep up with the spread of heretical teaching. Entire areas succumbed to heresy. Moreover, many of the invading barbarians were “proudly Arian and stood aloof from either the Roman state or the Catholic Church” (238). As the Roman Empire fractured, so did the church. Egypt became mostly independent. The Antiochene school was pushed east, and came under the Persian empire, where it was tolerated. Jacobus Baradaeus (Jenkins calls him Hobo Jake) spread monophysitism all over the east as well. Then, in the seventh century, Islam violently crashed onto the scene, even assaulting Constantinople from 674–78. Jenkins argues that the divisions, as well as the Islamic conquest of the East, ensured that “the future of

Christianity lay elsewhere” (265). In what was left of the Roman Empire in the West, there was no need to “conciliate the opinions of an Egypt or Syria that it no longer tried to control.” He says the “Christian future would be in those regions of Western Europe

that never defied Chalcedon. Chalcedonian ideas triumphed not because of the force of their logic, but because the world that opposed them perished” (265). Jenkins does not include the vast areas of northeastern Europe that were neither conquered, nor struggled with Chalcedon, but were not under the control of the Roman Church.

Chapter 9 of Jesus Wars is a summation Jenkins calls “What Was Saved?” He says that Chalcedon and its aftermath showed “that experience argues strongly for being tolerant about diversity of nonessential expressions of faith” (269). Interestingly, after asserting that Chalcedonian ideas triumphed due to the lack of opposition in the previous chapter, Jenkins states here that those at Chalcedon did not succumb to political pressures but “struggled…until they established what they believed to be truth” (269). Jenkins ends Jesus Wars with the appeal to modern Christians to tolerate “alternatives and heresies” since a religion that has ceased to do so has “ceased to think and has achieved only the peace of the grave” (278). Jenkins unfortunately ends a great work with a disappointing conclusion. If anything, Chalcedon (indeed the history of the church) showed the passion of belief within the ancient church. We may disagree with their tactics, but even Jenkins acknowledges their conviction. Rather than toleration, Christians should take inspiration from Chalcedon and “earnestly contend for the faith” against heretics.

The title Jesus Wars seems inappropriate for this enjoyable, informative work. Aside from the first chapter and a few passing references to violence, Jenkins’s book instead offers a very humanized look at the debates and disagreements surrounding the Council of Chalcedon. For the lay reader, his easy-to-follow style will help illuminate the often-confusing history of the church during the fifth century. Jenkins rarely reveals his personal beliefs, and for the most part objectively and accurately portrays the events as they happened. Jesus Wars is no apology, but neither is it a critique. With the exception of the few problems described above, overall, this reviewer recommends Jesus Wars.

—H. Wayne House

H. Wayne House is Distinguished Research Professor of Theology, Law, and Culture at Faith Evangelical College and Seminary

Share This