Interview: The story that changed everything
Historian Tom Holland talks to Stephen Tomkins about the Christian story
Tom Holland’s home ground as a historian is the classical world of Rome, Greece and Persia. He wrote his deservedly bestselling Dominion: The making of the western mind (Little Brown, 2019), a history of Christianity, in an attempt to get to the bottom of how that faith has transformed the way everyone in the west thinks and acts. In the process, he found himself somewhat changed.
He has followed that up by editing Revolutionary: Who was Jesus? Why does he still matter? (SPCK, 2020), a collection of essays interpreting Jesus from very different perspectives.
In Dominion, we meet Paul first, and Jesus comes later as a slightly shadowy figure that we only access through the Gospels.
I actually begin with the crucifixion, but it’s true that I sidestep the issue of the historicity of Jesus because I was looking at the origins of Christianity as a historical phenomenon. And obviously the first texts that we have are Paul’s letters rather than the Gospels. But with Revolutionary, Jesus is situated squarely at the centre of it. What interested me about that was that there’s such a multiplicity of voices; I’m just the ringmaster. I’m nervously aware that, in writing Dominion, such a panoramic history requires you to often skate on quite thin ice, and of all the deep ponds that one might go crashing through the ice into, the question of who Jesus was is the deepest of all. You have to spend a lifetime studying it, and even then there is no consensus.
For the various writers in Revolutionary, Jesus was a political rebel, a moralist, a figment of imagination, an Islamic prophet. Is there anything definite there, or is Jesus this infinitely malleable figure?
I have studied the figure of Muhammad, who became associated with particular commandments. He is the voice of the law for Islam, but Jesus is a very different figure. The few Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages who read the Gospels were bewildered by them because they found no moral prescripts, just a collection of stories. And I think that that’s the source of the incredible power of the figure of Christ: you can never pin him down. You think he wants you to be a religious person, and then you find that he compares people like that to whited sepulchres. Or that I should give my money to the poor, and then suddenly he’s having very expensive lotion applied to his feet. There’s a constant unsettling of certainty. So even if you imagine that he’s a completely fictional character, he’s the most remarkable creation in the history of literature. The portrayal of Jesus in those four canonical Gospels has enabled people for 2,000 years and across the entire span of the globe to feel that this person was in some way divine and provides the model for how to live….
This is an extract from an interview published in the November 2020 edition of Reform