Jesus Wars: A Book Review

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Jesus Wars: A Book Review

Did you know that:

  • In the first centuries, the Christian church was organized in four great patriarchates (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople)?
  • These patriarchates were involved in very heated debates regarding the nature of Christ, the Trinity, and the nature of Mary, the mother of Christ?
  • Two of the most important church councils were held at Ephesus in 431 AD and Chalcedon in 451 AD, and had clear winners and losers?
  • The religious debates of the fifth century were literally wars that involved not only frequent expulsion from the church, but also violently-enforced sacramental rituals, massacres, persecutions, and even coups d’etat?
  • If the horse of emperor Theodosius II had not stumbled, Chalcedon might have never happened, and the Catholic Church might not have flourished while the Eastern Church declined? At least according to Philip Jenkins.


Philip Jenkins is a reputed church historian whose books are a pleasure to read. Not because the content is (always) enjoyable, but because Jenkins’s passion for historical detail paints episodes of church history with such crude colors that the good, decent and respectable, no less than the corrupt, depraved, and even ruthless comes through in vibrant shades. Jesus Wars is one such book.

A chronicle of the main influences and events leading up to the major church conflicts during the fifth century, and a narration of the aftermath of these councils and divisive theological formulations, Jesus Wars walks the reader through these times as if she or he was a contemporary eyewitness.

The Problem

As the title suggests, most of the book is dedicated to the so-called Christological debates – the church conflicts related to the nature of Christ. After reviewing the major heresies of early Christianity, Jenkins lays out the theological issues that marked the fifth century: Antioch and Alexandria are in conflict over the nature of Christ.

In Antioch, where historical context informed the interpretation of Scripture, theologians favored a Two Natures Christ. Their emphasis on the historicity of the text brought into relief the humanity of Jesus, and therefore both his divinity and his humanity were upheld as biblical truth. Alexandrian theologians, influenced by the Egyptian culture and the Greek philosophical heritage, read the Bible allegorically, and fought for a One Nature Christ.

Ephesus and Chalcedon were the result of a decades-long war between these two major centers of Christianity.


Theology, however, was not the only, or perhaps not even the primary cause of this war. At work were cultural aspects too. For example, the Egyptians “followed the kind of religious approach that was familiar and customary in their church [….] Rather than thinking through the implications of theology, they followed personalities and names: they were Cyril’s party, or Dioscuros’s.” (p. 66) “Ideological debate became a game of guilt by association.” (p. 67) Theological ideas were often summarized in slogans and simple phrases, such as: “We will not divide Christ! God the Word died! Mary is the Theotokos, the God-Bearer! Christ is God! That, probably, was the level at which the baker and the money changer carried on their debates.” (p. 66)

Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome were the “bounding triangle” of early Christianity; Constantinople, on the other hand, was a Christian community without a pagan past. Graduates of the school in Syria became influential figures in Constantinople, but were regarded with suspicion by the Alexandrians due to their Antiochene roots. This rivalry between Antioch and Alexandria ultimately benefitted Rome, which at the time had more local authority.

In order to affect a much sought-for authority, the church in Alexandria relied on their ancestry, allegedly going back to St. Mark. Aside from their distinguished Christian roots, they boasted of the Egyptian culture—in their view the oldest and most prominent in the world. The Christian patriarchate in Egypt acted almost as a theocracy, asserting its authority over the civil sphere when the latter was seen as contradicting the divine will. They routinely attacked pagan temples, fought against any beliefs and practices suggesting loyalty to multiple gods, and were aggressive towards Christians whom they perceived as compromising the oneness of God (hence their hatred of the Two Natures Christians).

The Egyptians manifested a strong tendency to dismiss anything that Two Natures theologians preached, and if a stereotype was attached to a name, nothing that person preached was perceived as good or theologically correct. Mob actions such as beatings or kidnappings were endorsed by influential figures like Cyril and Athanasius. Their violent tendencies are chronicled at the Second Council of Nicaea: “May those who divide Christ be divided with the sword, may they be hewn in pieces may they be burned alive!” (p. 1) Church historian Socrates writes: “The Alexandrian public is more delighted with tumult than any other people: and if at any time it should find a pretext, breaks forth into the most intolerable excesses; for it never ceases from its turbulence without bloodshed.” (p. 93)

Another factor that shaped the Christological debates was the imperial influence. The church depended financially on the state, and the large sums received, through which they could provide social services (and thus buy the loyalty of the Christians), had not a small impact on the shaping of Christian beliefs.

Theodosius I declared Christianity the official religion of the empire, and enforced religious conformity. He imposed the death penalty for Christians who married Jews, and not only favored Christians, but showed particular religious preference for those adhering to the Nicene creed (as opposed to the heretical teachings of Arianism). The general medieval belief was that “earthly error had cosmic implications.” (p. 127) Thus, a government that tolerated sin and heresy would be punished by God with natural catastrophes, plagues, and defeat in war. Suppressing heresy was crucial if the empire was to prosper.

A vastly influential imperial figure was Pulcheria, the empress of Constantinople (sister of the young emperor Theodosius II). Pulcheria had a mystical fascination with the Virgin Mary. She identified herself with the Theotokos (God-Bearer) mother of Christ, calling herself the Bride of Christ, and acting “almost as matriarch of the church, as well as Augusta. She became leader … of an extravagant cult devoted to Mary, and together with her following of virgins and holy women, she played a visible role in the public liturgies.” (p. 117-118)

First and Second Ephesus

Pulcheria played a significant role in the First Council of Ephesus in 431, which debated the opposing views of Nestorius (bishop of Constantinople) and Cyril (bishop of Alexandria) over the nature of Christ. Nestorius, trained at Antioch, upheld the two natures of Christ (human and divine), which he believed existed in a conjunction (as opposed to a complete union). Due to his views of Christ, he rejected Mary’s title as Theotokos (God-Bearer – which implied the divine nature of Christ), in favor of Chisto-tokos (Christ-Bearer). This brought Nestorius in a direct conflict with Pulcheria, whose devotion to Mary as God-Bearer was unshaken. It didn’t help that Nestorius denounced her for sexual immorality and removed her image from above the altar.

The rivalry between Pulcheria and Nestorius benefitted Cyril of Alexandria, who fiercely defended the Monophysite view that Christ had only one nature—divine. In vain insisted Nestorius, that the Monophysites reduced the humanity of Christ to the point of heresy. Cyril continued to read the Bible allegorically, and insisted on drawing symbolic connections between random passages (for example, he preached the ark of the covenant explained incarnation: “’God the Word was united to the holy Flesh…. For the gold that was spread upon the wood, remained what it was, and the wood was rich in the glory of the gold; yet it ceased not from being wood.’” (p. 145)

Seing that the church laws limited the right of bishops to “operate outside their jurisdictions, and Alexandria had no power over Constantinople[,] It was essential to make Nestorius’s errors as outrageous as possible.” (p. 141) Additionally, finding an ally in empress Pulcheria, who in turn influenced Theodosius’s decisive stance, was critical for the official condemnation of Nestorius as heretic. Nestorius himself was not allowed to attend the council, and was informed of the Council’s decision “by a letter amicably addressed to ‘the new Judas.’” (p. 155) Sent to a monastery in Antioch, Nestorius was shortly after exiled in Egypt until his death.

Although the Council had reached a consensus, the Church was far from attainting unity. The Church of the East, which continued to follow Nestorianism, seceded, and grew in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia (places too far from imperial influence), and later Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, China, and India.

In addition, Alexandria and Antioch were no more theologically united after First Ephesus than before. Some formal unity was achieved in 433, after two years of reconciliatory negotiations. Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch agreed on the “Formula of Reunion, which … marked a major step toward the formula that would eventually win Chalcedon, ‘the unconfused union of two natures.’ Jesus Christ was acknowledged as perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and body, begotten before the ages from the Father in respect of His divinity, but likewise in these last days for us and our salvation from the Virgin Mary in respect of His manhood, consubstantial with the Father in respect of His divinity and at the same time consubstantial with us in respect of His manhood. For the union … of two natures has been accomplished.” (p. 160)

Pope Leo of Rome, through the skilled Tome, provided overwhelming arguments for the two natures of Christ. Ironically, the See of Rome, who participated in dispossessing Nestorius, now favored a Two Natures Christ (granted, in a modified form than Nestorius’s) over the former Alexandrian ally. Nestorius is deemed to have written: “when I found and read this account, I gave thanks to God that the Church of Rome was confessing correctly and without fault, although they were otherwise disposed towards me myself.” While Nestorianism continued to be seen as a heresy, “most of what Nestorius actually viewed now stood an excellent chance of being publicly reaffirmed.” (p. 187)

But Eutyches, Cyril’s successor in Alexandria, saw this reconciliatory formula as too compromising, and insisted again on the divinity of Christ to the exclusion of his humanity: “God is born, God suffered; God was crucified. … [a]fter the union of human and divine, Christ contained no ousia [being] except the divine. (p. 174) The attack on Nestorianism resurrected in a war against Antiochism. In 449 AD Theodosius II summoned The Second Council of Ephesus, which was presided by Dioscuros of Alexandria. The Council ignored Pope Leo’s Tome, reaffirmed the decisions of the First Council of Ephesus and the Monophyiste views on Christ’s nature, and ended with the assassination of Flavian (the archbishop of Constantinople) by Monophysite monks.


In 450, Theodosius II’s horse stumbled and the emperor died shortly from the injury. With no heir to the throne, and a woman being ineligible to rule, Pulcheria married Marcion in order to give the empire a ruler. This move had major implications for the Church, tipping the balance in favor of a Two Natures Christ, which Pulcheria, now holding even more power, favored.

The last major council of the fifth Century, Chalcedon, took place in 451 and was attended by some five hundred bishops. Imperial forces were present to forestall violence. The two main goals of Chalcedon were to repeal Second Ephesus, and repudiate the false teachings of Nestorius (emphasis on two natures but not wholly united) and Eutyches (insistence on Christ’s divinity alone). The times had turned, and “Leo’s representatives made it clear that they would not take their seats if Dioscuros was allowed his.” (p. 204) The Egyptians “literally threw themselves on the ground to plead not to be forced to sign Leo’s Tome [saying:] ‘We shall no longer be able to live in the province…. We shall be killed. Have pity on us!’ They weren’t exaggerating.” (p. 208)

Chalcedon accomplished both goals. It rejected Dioscuros of Alexandria and the One Nature teaching, declared that Jesus had two natures (the hypostatic union of the divine and human), and attributed Mary the title of Mother of Christ (both of the human and divine incarnate Christ, but not of the eternal God).

The debate, however, continued, and by 600 AD the Church had still not achieved unity on the nature of Christ. Instead, the Christian church was theologically and administratively divided into several international churches, each claiming absolute truth. For as long as the Christian church functioned in Egypt, Syria, and Constantinople, unity was never achieved. The Monophysites regained power in the sixth century, with One Nature bishops ruling in Constantinople and even Antioch, where this view had been long opposed! Eastern and Western churches excommunicated each other and forbid shared communion.

By mid-sixth century, the Justinian dynasty reinforced the Chalcedon formulations, and regularly persecuted and discriminated against the Monophysites, who eventually reorganized and seceded from the Church. Egypt’s Coptic (Monophysite) church soon grew in power, however, and from 622 until 661 they ruled, while the Chalcedonian church receded. Eventually, the Muslim population outgrew the Christian communities, who were gradually subjected to discriminatory laws. The Christian Church in Syria, Egypt, and Constantinople, gradually diminished, and eventually but disappeared under Muslim rule. The Church of Rome would be the one to carry Christianity further, and the debates with Alexandria and the East ceased by default.


The history of these church debates shows us that theology is determined by a number of factors, such as culture (which influences not only the hermeneutical approach to biblical interpretation, but also the approach to solving conflict and differences), key influential figures, the interplay of church and state, and historical accident. Jenkins writes: “Try as they might to develop institutions or to determine truth … churches have never found a path that avoids the powerful pressures of individual ambition and political interest.”

For over 1,500 years, the Christian Church (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike), preserved the Two Natures view of Christ as formulated at Chalcedon in 451. Luther “leaned toward an Alexandrian interpretation of Christ’s role [and] taught that Christ’s divine and human natures experienced an interchange of divine and human qualities …which mingled the two natures in a way that Chalcedonians forbade. Calvin, in contrast, was much more Antiochene in insisting on the reality of both natures, human as well as divine.” (p. 272)

Since the sixteenth century, the idea of kenosis (God deliberately relinquishing divine attributes in incarnation), which implied that one of the Persons of the Trinity suffered, has been at the forefront of theology. Earlier suggestions of this sort were generally regarded with suspicion, given the deeply-rooted and long-held belief that God is impassible (cannot suffer). This belief in the impassibility of God (God’s inability to suffer, or experience emotions) is no longer accepted by most Christians today, and thus what was once considered a heresy, “has, in fact, become the new orthodoxy.” (p. 274) The tables have turned more than once in the history of Christian thought, and the twenty first century is yet another major turn: “In the ancient world, the greatest difficulty lay in persuading ordinary believers that Christ might be anything than purely divine. In contrast, many modern believers struggle with contemplating a Jesus who is more than human.” (p. 275)


This book is an eye-opener for Christians who are engaged in church conflict over theological issues. Looking back at how the Christian church dealt with stringent issues is a mirror worth looking into. What we will see in that mirror is ourselves: our innermost thoughts and feelings about those who hold opposing views, our approach to dealing with divisive issues, our prudence in examining and resolving divergent views on what is the Biblical truth, and altogether our dearest beliefs as reflected in our practice. Ultimately, the book calls for a hard look at what unity can mean, at what cost it may be achieved, and for which purposes it is fought for.

I will conclude this review with Jenkins’s last sentence in the book – a statement at once provocative and inspiring: “A religion that is not constantly spawning alternatives and heresies has ceased to think and has achieved only the peace of the grave.” (p. 278)


Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years, by Philip Jenkins (New York, NY: Harper One, 2010)




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About the author


Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.