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Book review: Heresy: Jesus Christ and the other Sons of God by Catherine Nixey

05 April 2024

Henry Wansbrough reads an indictment of Christian intolerance

THIS delightfully written and witty attack on Christianity has all the verve, vigour, and breadth that one might expect from a Cambridge classicist turned journalist: ancient religion was little more than healthcare with a halo; a skewed analysis produces the same feeling as putting a shoe on the wrong foot.

The central theme of the book is the brutal intransigence of Christianity in the suppression of difference. “Heresy” basically means “choice”, a vital element in the pursuit of truth, whereas Christianity treats it as a deviation. The overall picture of second-century Christianity is of a field of competing saplings rather than a central tree surrounded by deviant offshoots.

All too soon, the “Catholic” Church (this must mean “universal” rather than “Roman Catholic”) set about chopping down the rich variety of saplings and insisting on a single truth, with torture, beatings, and burnings, until we reach the final horror of the burning of books to stop the seeker after truth from even knowing that there are alternative views of the truth about God.

There can be no doubt that the relentless pursuit of truth and the protection of the faithful from error have been carried on in the universal Church with a brutality that must strike the modern Christian with horror and occasionally shame.

In the course of the book, there are some brilliant and memorable vignettes, such as the evocation of the foetid smells of Rome contrasting with the freshness of ancient Alexandria, the horror of the crusading massacre at Béziers, the amusing ancient discussion about Antipodean weightlessness if the world is spherical.

The book would have been far richer if the author’s Catholic education had included the Old Testament, whose stories must play a part in any discussion of the historicity of the miracles of Jesus. And, yes, the ox and the ass at his crib do occur in the Bible (Isaiah 1.3). A much more important criticism is that the picture of first-century Christology is wholly inadequate: it is as though St Paul had never written. Furthermore, the third-century picture of Apollonius of Tyana is no valid rival to the first-century depiction of Jesus.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a former member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Heresy: Jesus Christ and the other Sons of God
Catherine Nixey
Picador £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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