Thursday, May 11, 2023

Loss…and a Remnant

Religions die. …For a thousand years, India was mainly Buddhist, a faith that now enjoys only marginal status in that land.  Once Persia was Zoroastrian; Spain, Muslim.

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

This story is about none of these.  It is the story of a Christianity that has almost completely disappeared, a Christianity in the east – east of Byzantium, outside of Eastern Orthodoxy.  Many of us are reasonably familiar with the Christianity that was lost to Islam in North Africa and the Middle East – and, for a time, Spain.

These weren’t wholly voluntary conversions – these were the result of wars and slavery.  Yes, some also converted to save their lives.  This wasn’t the case for Europe, the history we know best – at least the history I know best (relatively).

Europe was the continent where [Christianity] was not destroyed.

Which leads, once again, to the real dilemma: Christians and violence.  Love you enemy…but what if this comes in conflict with loving your neighbor?

Christianity wasn’t destroyed in Europe because the Christians in Europe fought to save it – and, at times, in very non-Christian ways (and pacifist Christians would say, at all times in non-Christian ways).  See, for example, Charles Martel in 732, Otto I in 955, and John III Sobieski in 1683.  What would Christianity look like today without such men?  (Hint: we are seeing what it will look like because today we do not have such men.)

Much of what is today the Islamic world was once Christian.  Christianity spread as far east as Western China, and also throughout North Africa.  As late as the eleventh century, about one-third of the world’s Christians lived in Asia; about ten percent in Africa (a figure only again achieved in the 1960s). 

There was the Christian world centered on Rome; another centered on Constantinople.  But there was a third, stretching deep into Asia.  And it is this third center that is the subject of Jenkins’ book.

About 780, the bishop Timothy became patriarch, or catholicos, of the Church of the East, which was then based at the ancient Mesopotamian city of Seleucia.

This Church, as a distinct Church, has its roots in a split after the Council of Ephesus in 431.  It had to do with the condemning of Nestorius and the Christological controversies of the time (of which I have written here). 

Timothy was arguably the most significant Christian spiritual leader of his day, much more influential than the Western pope, in Rome, and on a par with the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople.  Perhaps a quarter of the world’s Christians looked to Timothy as both spiritual and political head.

And he could claim apostolic succession with the best of them – tradition has it from the apostle Thomas.  Yes, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox consider these churches heretical, but locally they were considered Christian – and as apostolic as the rest.  In terms of scholarship, they achieved by around 800 what Latin Europe would not achieve until five centuries later.

The East still thought and spoke in Syriac, an Aramaic dialect.  For centuries they referred to themselves as Nasraye – Nazarenes – a form preserving the Aramaic term used by the apostles.  Jesus was Yeshua. 

And then there is this claim by Jenkins:

If we are ever tempted to speculate on what the early church might have looked like if it had developed independently, avoiding the mixed blessing of its alliance with Roman state power, we have but to look east.

Keeping in mind that Roman state power included both Rome and Constantinople – the New Rome.

Timothy’s churches had access to texts long forgotten in the West – alternative scriptures and readings.  Geographically, culturally, and linguistically, this farther-eastern church was far more aligned with Jerusalem than was Rome.

In 800, Timothy would hear of a large hoard of ancient manuscripts discovered in a cave near Jericho.  He was delighted to learn that these texts included passages referred to in the New Testament but not to be found in the then-approved and existing Old Testament canon.  For example, there were more than two hundred Psalms of David.

For another comparison, consider that England at the time had two metropolitans – York and Canterbury.  Timothy presided over nineteen metropolitans, and eighty-five bishops – stretching to Turkestan and central Asia.  The church operated in several languages: Syriac, Persian, Turkish, Soghdian, and Chinese. 

Before Saint Benedict formed his first monastery…Nestorian sees existed at Nishapur and Tus in Kurasan, in northeastern Persia, and at Rai.  Before England had its first archbishop at Canterbury … the Nestorian church already had metropolitans at Merv and Herat.

This would be in today’s Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.  The list continues by Jenkins – growth in the east while very little existed in the west. 

Our common mental maps of Christian history omit a thousand years of that story, and several million square miles of territory. 

While it is well-known and understood that medieval Arab societies were far advanced of those in western Europe through the early Middle Ages, it must be noted that it was usually due to efforts of Christians and Jews, not Arabs, that this was so.  Nestorians, Jacobites, and Orthodox all contributed to advances in science, philosophy and medicine.  It was a Christian Arab who translated the Greek classics into Arabic.  Reportedly, he was paid by the caliph in gold – the weight of which was determined by the weight of the translations.

Timothy died in 823.  he held great hope for Christianity in the east, at a time when Charlemagne’s empire was fragmenting, pagans from the north of Europe were advancing, and Muslim Saracens were making their progress against the Latin Church along many fronts.  It could be reasonably thought at the time that Baghdad would grow to be a center for Christianity in the wake of Rome’s demise.


Yet, it is true that the scope of the decline and devastation of this Church is a reality.  During the Middle Ages, and especially the fourteenth century, the losses were staggering: church hierarchies destroyed, priests and monks killed.  The destruction of monasteries and cathedrals. 

Asia Minor was almost completely Christian.  Still in 1050, there were 373 bishoprics; within four hundred years, the percentage of Christians was reduced to perhaps ten or fifteen percent with, perhaps, three bishops.  The number of Asian Christians would fall from 21 million to about 3.5 million.

And what of the Nestorians.  While there are several million Christians in India, today they fall under either the Catholic or Orthodox Church.  Meanwhile, Timothy’s successor is not in Baghdad, but in Chicago. 

Some Christians remained, however, to this day.  The Copts in Egypt despite Muslim all around, the Armenians despite invasions by Mongols and genocides by Turks, the Ethiopian Church, and a handful of others.  The story will be as much about those that survived as those that perished. 


  1. The ones that survived had to either have cultural legitimacy/respect or had to employ violence for survival. I don't know the history of this area well but I do know that the Armenian churched defended themselves with war. Several Protestant sects had to do the same. I am still working through the best application of 2 kingdoms theology but in America this is becoming a very important topic. So much so that I have started reading John Knox and Samuel Rutherford. Just finished a podcast on Pierre Viret. Much of it overlaps with what I wrote on Romans 13 several years ago, but my thoughts are still developing. The church needs to figure out the proper role of authority inside and outside of it, and Christians should participate.

  2. We do have men like John Sobieski. Some even in America. But they aren't running the government, of course. That's because the government is worthless, not the men.

    1. If we have such men, they would be standing in defiance of the government. Yes, we have a few of these, but not nearly enough - and not at all enough willing to follow such men.

  3. "Yet, it is true that the scope of the decline and devastation of this Church is a reality."

    I've read that the Nestorian Church in China was destroyed because of a political power shift, and because Nestorianism did not take much root in the common people of China, but only in the intellectual and political classes. But why did it die out in other areas of the Near East? Was it the advance of Islam? Maybe this will be the subject of later posts.

    1. ATL, I am hoping it will be covered well in the book. We will see.

  4. Nice article. My only real familiarity with the Nestorians is from Philip Schaff and his scholarship is I think 125 years old now but mostly seems to serve me well. From what I can tell, the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils were sort of a tragic mistake. I hate to say it, and believe me I appreciate the absolute importance of Christology, but these councils, debating the exact mode of the incarnation, seem like mere wars of words, largely a power struggle between allegorical exegesis and historico-grammaticism and between the Alexandrian and Antiochian churches that championed them. Nestorius and Eutychius seem to have mostly been scapegoats, pawns in this game between bishops. The world and the church had not yet learned not to trust Christian bishops, but when the Persecuted Church gave way to the Establishment Church, the bishop went from a man prepared to uphold the truth before Roman magistrates to the first in line at the dinner table. We may hope that the change now happening in reverse may reverse the degeneracy of the prelacy.

    Just war, or even more Christian war, is a tough nut to crack. Much of the decline of the Nestorians, maybe all of it, is due to the First and Second Jihad, the two great periods of violent expansion of Islam. And to the extent that the First Crusade or the Spanish Reconquista were responses to the Second Jihad they seem justifiable. A Christian has not merely a right but a duty to defend his home, and a Chrstian magistrate has the duty to use the power of the state to defend all of Christendom.

    The modern age may well be defined as the period where the church has abdicated the duty to use her God-given authority. Mostly she has abdicated to the State or the Academy, and they have pretty much just made asses of themselves using authority that rightly falls outside of their sphere. I think you guys are mostly 'two sword' guys so none of that will be controversial around here.

    1. "...the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils were sort of a tragic mistake."

      I have certainly concluded that about Chalcedon, after reading (and writing extensively) via Samuel's book.

      If it was so important to our Christian faith and life to understand the precise way Jesus was both divine and human, I suspect God would have explained it plainly (as if we would have been capable to understand it anyway).

    2. I think so. I suspect that the same could be said of the Monothelite Controversy, only more so.(the question of whether Christ as defined by Chalcedon has a divine will and a human will or one divine-human will which if I remember correctly occupied the less reputable 5th and 6th Councils, but I last read History of the Christian Church before I had kids so my memory should not be considered trustworthy) update: looks like I was basically right based on Wikipedia, they say that the controversy had a lot to do with Byzantine politics, which while they are generally garbage that seems probable