Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Go East Young Man

No one has been sent to us Orientals by the Pope.  The holy apostles aforesaid taught us and we still hold today what they handed  down to us.

-          Rabban Bar Sauma, c. 1290 (from the Nestorian Church of the East in China)

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

Merv, today a dead city but at one time a major city in what is now Turkmenistan and a center of trade along the Silk Road, was, in the twelfth century, one of the largest cities in the world.  By the 420s, it had a bishop, and in the first half of the sixth century it became a metropolitan see of the Eastern (Nestorian) Church.

Around the year 500, it was already translating major works from Greek and Syriac sources into the languages of central and eastern Asia.  This rich intellectual life continued until the thirteenth century – and could compete with intellectual life anywhere in the Christian world until the establishment of universities in western Europe in the twelfth century.

This under Muslim rule, with Christians a minority, yet it survived and even thrived – a Christian world completely outside of any European context.  At a time when Rome was an outlier (even taking many of its earliest popes from Syria) – the only one of the five great patriarchates in Europe, with the others all in Asia – Merv was already established as an important center.

I found the following fascinating, and by citing the author I do not intend to mean that I agree or have otherwise researched the claim.  But, here goes:

Repeatedly, we find that what we think of as the customs or practices of the Western churches were rooted in Syria or Mesopotamia.  Eastern churches, for instance, had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, derived partly from popular apocryphal Gospels.

This devotion gave rise to new feasts: the Purification, the Annunciation, as well as commemorations of her birth and passing.  By the end of the seventh century, these were all popularized by Pope Sergius – whose family was from Antioch.

Now…this brings me to a side note, one that I must make for clarification because the lines are blurred – perhaps out of historical reality – by Jenkins.  It has always been easy for me to understand Rome / Latin as compared to Constantinople / Eastern Orthodox / Greek.  I have also distinguished what we today call Oriental Orthodox, such as the Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian Churches – those that split off after Chalcedon.

Through this book, the examination is of another – call it a third – Eastern Church, sometimes referred to by Jenkins as Nestorian, Syriac…or even “Eastern.”  Jenkins sometimes blends these various Eastern churches, but perhaps there is little choice.  Where does one draw the lines when belief is not limited to or clearly defined by a political or geographic border?

Sure, the Christianity in China was different than the Christianity in Constantinople.  But what of the areas in between, where both could be found, or where beliefs were not so clearly distinguishable?

Where I am comfortable, I will attempt to clarify the lines.  However, I am coming to accept that there will be fluidity – and perhaps necessarily so.  For example, as much as any other reason, Christianity spread far to the east due to the fluidity of trade – the Silk Roads, running from the Mediterranean to the heart of China. 

In any case, Jerusalem is closer to central Asia than it is to France:

If early Christians could reach Ireland, there was no logical reason why they should not find their way to Sri Lanka.

Christianity spread along protected trade routes (far more developed in Asia than in the Europe outside of the Mediterranean world), with Christian traders using language familiar to the elites.  The borders, fluid and changing, mattered little to trade – hence to the progress of Christianity.

In Africa, Nubia survived as a Christian kingdom from the sixth century to the fifteenth.  Its churches and cathedrals were decorated in the best Byzantine style.  Its main cathedral, at Faras, was adorned with hundreds of paintings – kings, bishops, and saints.  It lay forgotten under the sand until the 1960s.

Meanwhile, the church in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) continues until today.  Aksum is the reputed home of the Ark of the Covenant; the medieval ruling dynasty claimed descent from Solomon and the queen of Sheba.  Ethiopia – the true Israel?

To the east, Constantine would be seen as a mixed blessing.  While Christians in Persia were tolerated and even thrived prior to Roman acceptance of Christianity, once Christianity was officially tied to the Roman Empire, the bishops and priests in Persia were considered potential enemies.  Hundreds were executed – along with reportedly sixteen thousand believers.

Eventually, though, these “heretical” Jacobite and Nestorian sects would find that living as a minority in Persia and further east was better than living as a heretical faction under Rome.  Yet, Orthodox supporters of Chalcedon were in the minority in these far eastern regions – they were known dismissively as Melkites, “the emperor’s men.”

To the Persians, and later, to the Muslims (at least for a time), eventually they would find value in these Christians – those disaffected from Roman rule.  They were taxpayers and tributaries, and despite being Christian, were not seen as a fifth column in the service of Rome.  Better second-class citizens in the East than heretics in the West.

By the seventh century, Nestorians had an elaborate network of provinces and dioceses throughout Persia and neighboring lands.  They would look north and east, as the Persian empire spread into what is now western China.  Scripture was translated in the local vernacular – even in the language of the Huns. 

Christian missionaries spread among the peoples of central Asia – the Turks, Uygurs, and Soghdians, and later the Mongols and Tatars

By the mid-seventh century, the Church of the East had two metropolitans beyond the Oxus River (the Amu Darya) in central Asia, along with perhaps twenty bishops.  Soghdian merchants would spread the faith. 

How long ago were the first monks in China?  When did the first Christians see the Pacific?  Already by 550, monks smuggled silkworms back to the Byzantine Empire – an event of revolutionary economic significance, certainly.  The earliest formal mission can be dated to 635, in the Chinese imperial capital of Ch’ang-an, a mission that endured for two-hundred years. The remains of one monastery can still be seen in Shaanxi Province.

In the mid-ninth century, the Taoist emperor Wuzong condemned and expelled foreign religions.  Not only Christianity, as Buddhism was also cast out.  For perhaps three-hundred years, there was no official Christian presence. 

When the Mongols conquered China, rulers such as Kublai Khan were happy to tolerate Christians and Buddhists.  Marco Polo reported finding Christian communities.  Thereafter, building on Nestorian efforts, Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the thirteenth century.

Not to be left out, there was a Christian presence in India as early as the second century, the roots of which are claimed to be in the apostle Thomas.  In 550, there is a report of a church in Sri Lanka. A clergy and body of believers.  Also, in Malabar.  There is speculation of Nestorian ventures into Burma, Vietnam, and even Korea.

Maybe there wasn’t a real Prester John.  But there certainly was a historical one – as long as one does not get too hung up on the too-bright-line that falsely divides history and myth.


The advancement in Europe, in many ways, pales in comparison – at least if areas outside of the immediate Mediterranean world are considered.  With that said, Christianity had its longest staying power in Europe, and its longest political power in Western Europe.


The world’s first Christian kingdom was Osrhoene, beyond the eastern borders of the Roman Empire, with its capital at Edessa: its king accepted Christianity around 200.  That regime did not last long, but neighboring Armenia made this the official religion around the year 300 and retains the faith until the present day.

There is some meaningful doubt as to whether this narrative regarding Osrhoene is true; the Armenian Christian time of origin is well-accepted.  It may be worth one day understanding how this tiny, land-locked country, fought over, divided between powers, almost always subservient, always changing hands, has managed to retain the faith.  Not so the Europeans.

Perhaps another story and another book for another time….


  1. Very interesting! Especially regarding Nubia. A Christian Kingdom that lasted a 1000 years between Ethiopia and Egypt? Would love to know more about this history.

  2. It may be worth one day understanding how this tiny, land-locked country, fought over, divided between powers, almost always subservient, always changing hands, has managed to retain the faith.

    The answer is that Armenian Christians are socially and culturally very similar to Jews, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense.

    Christianity is part of Armenian ancestral and cultural identity through an inter-generational procession of baptisms, weddings and funerals and scrupulously not marrying their non-Armenian, Muslim neighbors. Christianity endures in Armenia because Armenia is a Christendom, with the ability to propogate and pass on a group-consciousness.

    Christianity in the West, by contrast, rejects the cultural and earthy as corrupt heresies. Western Christians pride themselves on hair-splitting theological analysis and handwringing over the culture wars (which they've lost). They are sectarian down to the individual level, millions of unaffiliated protestants and their KJV Bibles. This atomization is embraced as proof of saintliness: the last true Christian, preaching truth to Herod Agrippa. Consequently, Western Christianity is unable to form a group-consciousness. It is no longer a religious faith but an individual, ideological affectation.

    1. There is a lot of truth in this, at least in today's Western world. This is in part why I joined the Roman Catholic Church, even considering the abysmal state of its hierarchy. The world needs an international social and religious authority like the RCC in order to combat the modern political disease afflicting the globe.

      There is a nuanced line to walk between the catholic or universal truths of Christianity and the love, preference, and preservation of distinct cultures, ethnicities, and races of people. Both are true, good, and beautiful, but both inclinations are prone to disorder if the inclination becomes more important than God in one's life.

  3. Armenians avoided the thing that destroyed Christianity in the West. The Enlightenment. French and German atheists were the worst.

    The Ethics Of Liberty: Knowledge, True and False -