Tom Holland’s Dominion recounts the history and impact of Christianity from the crucifixion of Jesus to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”. He describes crucifixion as one of the most terrible deaths one can suffer, which must be true in general but if Jesus really did only spend six hours on the cross, as the New Testament reports, he was luckier than most victims, who thrashed around for days. If you really have to be nailed to a cross, the best thing to do is lose a lot of blood beforehand, so by scourging Jesus the Romans unwittingly helped him on his way.
Holland might also have pointed out that the ancient Romans reserved crucifixion mostly for political rebels. Jesus may not have been a Lenin, but it might have suited the Jewish leaders to persuade Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, that he was. He would certainly have knocked around with Zealots, the anticolonial revolutionaries of the day. A few of his disciples were probably paid-up members of the group, as (probably) were the two so-called thieves between whom he hung on the cross. Pilate wouldn’t have needed much convincing to reach for the hammer and nails. Contrary to the gospels’ portrait of him as a kind of Guardian-reading liberal, reluctant to use his power and bemusedly in search of truth, the historical Pilate was a moral monster who would have crucified his own grandmother, and who was finally dismissed from the imperial service for corruption.
Despite these omissions, Dominion packs an astonishing amount of stuff into its 500 pages on Christianity’s enduring influence. Holland has all the talents of an accomplished novelist: a gift for narrative, a lively sense of drama and a fine ear for the rhythm of a sentence. He also has an intense, sometimes rather grisly feel for the physical: the book is resonant with the cracking of bones, flaying of flesh and shrieks of small children tossed into fires. Some of this was inflicted on Christians, and some of it inflicted by them.
Rather than unpack complex theological debates, the book gives us a series of vivid portraits of some key figures in Christian history: St Paul, St Augustine, Peter Abelard, Catherine of Siena, a former playboy known as Francis of Assisi and a host of more modern luminaries. Yet this is not just a galaxy of Christian superstars. They are all embedded in their historical contexts, as the book moves from Caesar Augustus to the #MeToo movement. There is even a medieval forerunner of feminism in the figure of the Milanese noblewoman Guglielma, who announced that she was the Holy Spirit made flesh for the redemption of women, and with engaging modesty baptised them in the name of the Father, the Son and herself.
Other intriguing details abound. When Notre Dame was being built in medieval Paris, a collective of prostitutes offered to pay for one of its windows and dedicate it to the Virgin Mary. Followers of Satan around the same time were obliged to suck on the tongue of a giant toad and lick the anus of a black cat. Galileo had a craving for celebrity and was an inveterate social climber. Yet, though the book is full of such titbits, there is a seriousness at its heart. Holland argues that all “western” moral and social norms are the product of the Christian revolution. He is haunted by St Paul’s claim that God chose the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the strong, and to drive the point home he might have looked at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. We encounter there an obscure young Jewish woman called Mary who is pregnant with Jesus, and Luke puts into her mouth a cry of praise that some scholars believe is a Zealot chant. It speaks of how you will know who God is when you see the poor coming to power and the rich sent empty away. It is this which must be weighed in the balance against the killing fields of Christendom.
So, too, must the notion of love. This book is full of saints and martyrs selflessly devoted to others. Yet what distinguishes the Judeo-Christian idea of love from the romantic, erotic, touchy-feely sense it has acquired in modern times is that it has nothing to do with feeling. Love for the New Testament is a social practice, not a sentiment. How you feel about the person whose place you take in the queue for the gas chambers is neither here nor there. You don’t even have to know him. Only a love of this ruthlessly impersonal kind, which couldn’t care less about the gender, rank, skin colour or personality of whoever needs your help, could prove equal to what St John darkly calls the powers of this world: Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro and their lackeys.
These men are nationalist bigots, which suggests another sense in which Christianity can be subversive. Holland remarks that the early Christians’ refusal to identify themselves with a homeland was a cause of scandal. They were branded as rootless vagrants who delighted in being alien, and thus made a boast out of what should have been a source of shame. Christianity started life as an eastern, not western phenomenon, but rapidly left its birthplace behind. What held it together was faith, not territory. One was no longer to grovel before the idols of state, tribe, nation and household. And as for household, almost every reference to the family in the New Testament is deeply hostile. Kinship and blood ties no longer matter, and Jesus’s treatment of his mother is by no means always that of a good Jewish boy.
You can, however, make a fetish or idol out of anything, as Freud instructs us. Such false gods fill every chapter of this illuminating study. Yet Holland is surely right to argue that when we condemn the moral obscenities committed in the name of Christ, it is hard to do so without implicitly invoking his own teaching.
• Dominion is published by Little, Brown (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99