Our most recent reading in the Great Books of the Western World reading project is Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon’s treatment of early Christianity. While dripping with sarcasm, Gibbon’s treatment of the first three centuries of the Christian Church is perhaps the best treatment of the subject by any historian, ancient or modern, and a must-read for anyone with even a minor interest in the history of Christianity.
The aspects of this reading that make it the best treatment of early Christianity that I have read are the same that make it important enough to be included among the Great Books of the Western World. Gibbon’s attempt to chronicle and understand the rise of Christianity from obscurity to the religion of the greatest empire the world had yet seen is the first of its kind in a number of ways, the most important of which is its unflinching honesty. Earlier writings on early Christianity, Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History being the most celebrated and significant example, were largely pious and fairly superstitious attempts to prove the superiority of the Christian faith over its pagan predecessors. Gibbon, however, departs from this model in favor of one that seeks to examine the merely human motives and activities behind the rise of Christianity. For this attempt to paint an accurate picture of the human activity behind the rise of the most important religion in the history of the world, Gibbon’s treatment deserves a sympathetic and attentive reading.