The First Thousand Years

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A Global History of Christianity

Robert Louis Wilken

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An authoritative and poignant account of the first millennium of Christian history

How did a community that was largely invisible in the first two centuries of its existence go on to remake the civilizations it inhabited, culturally, politically, and intellectually? Beginning with the life of Jesus, Robert Louis Wilken narrates the dramatic spread and development of Christianity over the first thousand years of its history. Moving through the formation of early institutions, practices, and beliefs to the transformations of the Roman world after the conversion of Constantine, he sheds new light on the subsequent stories of Christianity in the Latin West, the Byzantine and Slavic East, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Through a selected narration of particularly noteworthy persons and events, Wilken demonstrates how the coming of Christianity set in motion one of the most profound revolutions the world has known. This is not a story limited to the West; rather, Christian communities in Ethiopia, Nubia, Armenia, Georgia, Persia, Central Asia, India, and China shaped the course of Christian history. The rise and spread of Islam had a lasting impact on the future of Christianity, and several chapters are devoted to the early experiences of Christians under Muslim rule. Wilken reminds us that the career of Christianity is characterized by decline and attrition as well as by growth and expansion. 

Ten years in the making and the result of a lifetime of study, this is Robert Louis Wilken’s summa, a moving, reflective, and commanding account from a scholar at the height of his powers.


Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus, University of Virginia. He lives in Washington, D.C.

"Compelling. . . . An outstanding achievement."—Maria E. Doerfler, Commonweal

Praise for The Spirit of Early Christian Thought:
"Magnificently learned [and] deeply felt. . . . An attentive reader of Wilken, whether believer or nonbeliever, will be touched anew by his survey of Christian intellectual life."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

"Brilliant . . . a riveting story."—Publishers Weekly

"Ambitious and wide-ranging . . . [This] highly accessible volume abounds with lively tales and fascinating connections, and the color illustrations are a delight. Wilken’s recent scholarship has also given him a global perspective of impressive sweep."—Philip Jenkins, Christian Century

"Elegantly written [and] highly readable."—First Things

"Robert Wilken has written the best kind of authoritative historical survey. Its treatment is learned, thorough, but also accessible for all aspects of early Christian history, and especially for the great significance of Islam to the entire Christian world from the seventh century forward."—Mark Noll, author of The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys

"A marvelous and unique survey, learned and authoritative, yet also a perfect introduction to the early history of Christianity. Robert Wilken redraws many boundaries, expanding horizons, summarizing and analyzing with consummate skill. This beautifully written book sets new standards on multiple levels, and should stand for a long time as the benchmark by which all other surveys are measured."—Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy

"This is a rich and wonderful book, not only because of Robert Wilken's narrative gifts, but because of his immense scholarly range and sympathies. His is one of the few treatments of Christianity's first millennium for Anglophone readers that embraces the faith's whole history, cultural and geographical, Eastern and Western, Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian, European, Asian, and African. It is a pure joy to read."—David Hart, author of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

"Robert Wilken reminds us that our association of 'global' developments in culture, communications and economics with the beginning of the Third Millennium forgets the world of the First Millennium, which was integrated by a universal faith. This book is both unique and timely, the fruit of broad erudition and deep reflection."—Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., Archbishop of Chicago

"Christianity is a historical religion, yet much of its actual life from the New Testament until early modern times remains largely unknown. Robert Wilken, one of our best historians, provides here a fascinating account of Christianity’s first millennium, the undivided church which is the patrimony of all Christians. Written with elegance, grace, and insight."—Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School

"Compelling. . . . An outstanding achievement."—Maria E. Doerfler, Commonweal

"I’ve been a fan of Robert Wilken for decades, but even he outdid himself on this one, a remarkable blend of scholarly precision and attractive readability. It’s even more: I found it also spiritual reading, from a professor who detects something beyond the worldly at work in one of the most colorful institutions around."—Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York

"A lively, engaging, and highly enjoyable tour of the church’s first millennia."—Jacob Sweeney, Semper Reformanda (blog)
"Readable and reliable."—Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, Catholic Books Review

"[A] masterly and generous-spirited account . . . [that] brings new freshness and clarity."—Eamon Duffy, New York Review of Books

"[W]ilken's book would make a nice addition to the library of a pastor or seminary student seeking an up-to-date overview of the first millennium of Christian history. His writing style makes it easy and interesting to read. . . . His emphasis on the spread of Christianity beyond the Roman empire shows that the gospel has had a global reach from the very beginning of the church's history."—Joel Otto, Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly

"[An] extraordinary achievement. . . . [The First Thousand Years] is a perfect introductory text: it has a clear storyline that incorporates more people and places than any comparable book on the market."—Daryl R. Ireland, Fides et Historia

The First Thousand Years is a remarkable achievement, above all for its consistent wisdom and judicious perspective both in particulars and overall. Title and subtitle capture its considerable chronological scope and its innovative geographical compass.Necessarily that range required selectivity and brevity, and it is the skill and judgment evident in that process that is so impressive, along with readability, clarity, and impressive scholarship.”—Frances Young, Journal of Religion
ISBN: 9780300198386
Publication Date: November 12, 2013
416 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
28 b/w illus.
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