In the 1970's one of the daily spectacles at the University of Glasgow was academics wandering around, at times rushing around, wearing black academic gowns. In the West of Scotland during September to May the worst of the weather played havoc with these least practical of uniforms. A regular sight around Trinity College and the Gilmorehill campus was Professor W H C Frend, Professor of Ecclesiastical History, that glad mixture of occasional eccentricity, acknowledged intellectual brilliance, and great enthusiasms about things few people knew much about, but of which he was impressively expert. Early Christian martyrdom and the catacombs, the Donatists and the Monophysites, Apollinaris and Theodore of Mopsuestia are not areas of intellectual enquiry over-populated by students, unless they happened to be in Frend's lecture rooms.
Frend's magnum opus, The Rise of Christianity was published in 1980. It is a comprehensive history of the first centuries of the Christian Church, explores the nature and origins of Christian civilisation, and of particular interest refuses to suppress the divergence of traditions and different tributaries which flow into the great stream of Christian history. One reviewer explains why this book is a great read - " how thoughtful its attention to both large historical currents and the little people and details that form the bed and force the eddying, of history's great stream."
I was asked recently about resources that support the historicity of the existence of Jesus. There remains a debate with more radical sceptics about whether Jesus ever lived at all, or whether he is a mythologised figure imposed on history. Sure there are apologetic works that show the obvious historical footprints of Jesus inside and outside the New Testament. But by far the most overwhelming evidence is provided in a book like this, written by a historian whose disciplined attention to facts combines with restrained and precise weighing of the evidence that enables the best probabilities of interpretation. Now of course it would be possible to claim still, that a Christian is hardly the most objective and sceptical of investigators into historical verisimilitude. But it would be a claim hard to substantiate.
First, Frend is an archaeologist, and this history is thoroughly sprinkled with archaeological evidence, from papyri to graffitti, and statues to mosaics, and ruins to maps, and receipts to manumission certificates. He was for a time Associate Director of the Egypt Exploration Society. Second, during the Second World War Frend served as Assistant Principal to the War Office, was on the liaison committee with the Free French and the Polish Resistance, worked in the Psychological Warfare Section, and later stood as a candidate for the Liberal Party. None of this guarantees a man is trustworthy, but it does demolish the assumption he was a clerical academic in an ivory tower. Third, the sweep and range of this book, its detailed nailing down of historical data and interpretive caution, make this a fascinating education in the power of a cumulative argument.
We need humungous books, and need to read them - well, how about one a year, just choose them carefully. In the history of Christian origins there are four one volume attempts which immediately come to mind. Henry Chadwick, The Church in Ancient Society is by the doyen of early Christian history - his small volume, The Early Church, in the Pelican History of the Church is an elegant gem of a book. Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom is a massive and erudite narrative from the leading historian of ancient Mediterranean history - his biography of Augustine is still the volume of choice on that infuriatingly complex theologian. R P C Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God is more historical theology, but it is theological development tightly woven with historical context, and is both authoritative and provocative.
Then there is Frend's book. No shortage of options, and if you can read only one, and want to read one, then my vote would be for Frend as readable, affordable, and well worth a long slow read - 10 pages a day for 3 months would do it :)