A Review of Robert J. Hutchinson’s “The Dawn of Christianity”
Revealing the Mysteries, Partially
If you’re looking for an overview on how the early Christian church got its start, Robert J. Hutchinson’s The Dawn of Christianity may fill in a few gaps. The book has the monumental task of charting the course of Christianity through Jesus’ ministry, His death and resurrection, onward to the Council of Jerusalem. The book’s subtitle (How God Used Simple Fishermen, Soldiers, and Prostitutes to Transform the World) is a bit of a misnomer, though. You don’t learn too much about the prostitutes for instance, and the book focuses on the Gospels and Acts interspersed with some Roman history and recent archeological findings in an attempt to prove that the Bible is true.
It’s as though Hutchinson was writing this book to the skeptics, but, in the book’s introduction, he admits that he cast a pretty wide swath as to not offend anyone from no matter what church or denomination they belong to — from Anglican right over to evangelicals. I’m on the fence about this approach. While it’s great that Hutchinson kind of plays impartially, and concedes at times that we really don’t know what’s historically true or not, he clearly believes in certain things, such as the resurrection. Now, I’m of the view that the resurrection of Jesus is more metaphorical than anything, a view that the late Marcus Borg seemingly took, so it’s odd that in bibliography section, Hutchinson admits to using two of Borg’s books for reference!
Thus, what you get with The Dawn of Christianity is a real smorgasbord of information from various sources, all filtered through the eyes of the author. I learned a great deal from it, and enjoyed reading this book over Holy Week, which filled in a few details not covered in church service relating to what version of events was likely to be historically accurate. (The book of John, for instance, has a great deal of detail about Jesus’ trial at the hands of Pontius Pilate, but it would be impossible to be as exact as it describes as the author of John wasn’t an eyewitness.)
So the book is informative and brings color to the otherwise staid account in some of the Gospels. (I hope I don’t get struck down for saying that.) Hutchinson also includes photographs — I got my copy for the Kindle, so they were in monotone colours — of various archeological sites that are interesting to look at. My only beef with the photos is that some were credited with coming from Wikipedia. I appreciate the honesty, and the written materials all seem — according to the end notes — to come from reliable book sources, but it did leave me wondering what else was snatched from Wikipedia. Not quite the feeling you want to get when reading a non-fiction book.
The book, though, is pretty exhaustive. The appendices and reference materials take up two fifths of The Dawn of Christianity’s page count. And what is there in the rest of the book is pretty interesting, even though that the whole point of the book seems to be to convince non-believers that what is said in the Gospels and Acts is all true. Hutchinson refers to the Bible and then uses the recent archeological findings to back up the claim that the Word of God is pretty much infallible. I, of course, don’t take this view, seeing that man wrote those words, not God Himself. And man is prone to errors and embellishments. We all know that the authors of the Gospels were writing for specific audiences, so biases exist. Thus, this is my one real sore point with the book. I wish it were more of an objective history lesson rather than a tool to proselytize.
Indeed, the book is at its most interesting when Hutchinson steps off his soapbox and just starts talking about the historical context of the events recorded in the New Testament. Some of it is confusing, but that’s because Roman and Greek history can be pretty confusing at time with all of the various coming and goings of emperors and religious leaders. The book might have benefitted less from pretty pictures of ruins to perhaps paintings of these figures, or more real estate being fleshed out on the roles and responsibilities they had. A lot of the history is kind of paint-by-numbers-ish, but, in the context of the book, things work because the whole point is to bring everything back to Biblical writings and show how true they are.
If it sounds like I’m being hard on this book and/or Hutchinson, it’s because I really thought there would be a lot more substance to it. Still, I appreciate the tone the book does take to a degree, with Hutchinson playing a kind of neutral observer who doesn’t agree or disagree with one’s faith unless it rubs against what the Bible actually says — so, yeah, he really goes after the atheists more often than not, which is kind of pointless because I doubt that many atheists would be interested in this kind of book. Therefore, I really wondered about The Dawn of Christianity in the context of who it was really written for.
What’s missing, too, is the social history to some extent. For instance, while Hutchinson does mention the prostitutes, he steers clear of how social systems involving the sex trade actually worked in the first century of the Common Era. Similarly, he doesn’t go into much detail about how fishermen made their living. Rather, the focus is more on the religious figures and political figures of the era. Perhaps that was what he had to go on, but the book was crying out for more detail that would paint a clearer picture of the backdrop of how Christianity was allowed to take hold and emerge. (To be fair, Hutchinson does point out that the reason that Christianity took root was because of its inclusiveness towards Gentiles, but we don’t get too much information on Gentile customs and such.)
Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe we don’t know fully the whole backdrop of history. Maybe I’m asking the author to pen a 10-volume series. In the end, what we’re left with in The Dawn of Christianity is NOT terrible. It largely kept my interest, and fleshed out the Bible a little more than what I would have gotten in a Bible study, I would imagine. However, the book is a mere teaser for those wanting to know more. I suppose I’ll need to hit up the Suggestions of Further Reading list at the back of the book to get that. In short, The Dawn of Christianity does satisfy, but not wholly. In audience and in its missing details, the book does feel like it’s a bit of a missed opportunity, which is a shame because it whets the appetite for more, more, more. Perhaps other books delve into the full course meal, and this is merely meant to be a taster. If so, and if you’re interested in church history, this is a decent enough place to start.
Robert J. Hutchinson’s The Dawn of Christianity: How God Used Simple Fishermen, Soldiers, and Prostitutes to Transform the World was published by Thomas Nelson on March 14, 2017.
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