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Historical Geography Unit Two


Historical Geography

Origins of the Christian Faith

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Historical Geography

Origins of the Christian Faith

                                                  Lecture One


                                East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia




It is one of the ironies of history that Christianity, which was born in Asia, has become ‘alien’ in its own home. The Christians in China, for example, were persecuted in the ninth and fifteenth centuries because Christianity was considered to be a ‘foreign’ religion. One important reason for the ‘alieness’ of Christianity is that the history of Christianity in Asia is either forgotten or ignored even by the Asian Christians themselves. Having lost a sense of history, and thus their own identity, Christians were not able to participate fully in the historical process in the continent.

In recent years there has been a revival of interest in the study of history of Christianity in Asia, among the Asians as well as among historians abroad. In 1993, an American missionary in Asia, S.H. Moffett published a book: A History of Christianity in Asia. John C. England from New Zealand, in several of his articles, has drawn our attention to the vast resources now available for the study of Asian church history. The programme on Theology and Culture in Asia encourages young theologians and historians to study Asian Christianity and to write theology using Asian resources.

When we speak of Asian Christianity, we mean that manifestation of Christianity that spread outside the Roman empire and east of it. The territory of the Roman empire lay mainly in Europe and in those parts of Asia to the west of the Euphrates. But to the east of Euphrates, at the time when Rome was at the zenith of its power, there existed also the Persian empire, which extended to and included part of North India. In this vast empire and beyond it up to China, Christianity spread rapidly. There were Christian communities in Persia, Central Asia, Tibet, China, Arabia, India and Ceylon in the early centuries. Before the sixteenth century, there were Christians in several of the South East and East Asian countries. In most of these countries, Christianity was present before the arrival of western missionaries, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. St. Thomas was the great Apostle of the East as St. Paul was of the West.

Christianity came to Asia in the first century itself, not through the missionary activities of Antioch and not ecclesiastically dependent upon Antioch. Addai, one of the seventy and a disciple of St. Thomas brought Christianity to Edessa, Aggai and Mari to Persia and St. Thomas to India. It was the Judaistic Christianity which originally spread to Asia, first among the Jewish settlers. Asian Christianity shared in the general characteristics of Jewish Christianity.

The Persian (East Syrian) Church by the beginning of the fifth century had developed a national organization with the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon as Catholicos and Primate of the church. When the Roman empire started to persecute the Nestorians, many of them found refuge in Persia and the Nestorian teaching spread rapidly there. Indeed, at a synod held in 486, the Persian church officially accepted the Nestorian position. The two important theological schools of the East Syrian Church were those at Edessa and Nisibis. The most important theologians were Ephrem, Aphrahat, and Narsai. From the fifth century onwards, the church was greatly influenced by the theology of Antiochen theologian, Theodore of Mopsuestia. For the Persian church, he was the doctor of doctors. In the teachings of these schools and in the writings of these theologians we see a distinctive Asian theology emerging which was in contrast to Latin theology. These theologians are the ‘Fathers’ of the Asian church.

One of the most important and fascinating aspects of the life of the East Syrian church was its missionary dynamism. When the western church in the Roman empire was busily engaged in theological controversies, the East Syrian church was busy preaching the Gospel to the Persians, Arabs, Indians, Turks and the Chinese. The whole life of the Christian community was permeated with missionary spirit. Whether clergy or laity, traders or refugees, wherever they went, they tried to be ambassadors for Christ.

In the missionary outreach of the Church, Monasticism played a very important part. The monastic movement reached the zenith of its prosperity by the middle of the seventh century. From hundreds of monasteries all over Persia, there poured forth a constant stream of ascetics who went forth in obedience to the Lord’s command, seeking to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In the Egyptian monasticism, the saints ignored the world, retreated to the desert into caves and cells. By contrast, Syrian ascetics became wandering missionaries, healing the sick, feeding the poor and preaching the Gospel. Their mission is not described as withdrawal, but an advance against the forces of error and darkness. They were wanderers for God. Apostle Thomas in India gives thanks to God that he has become an ascetic and a pauper and a wanderer for God. Addai refuses to receive silver and gold from the king of Edessa saying that he has forsaken the riches of the world "because without purses and without scrips, bearing the cross on our shoulders, we are commanded to preach the Gospel to the whole creation." In the eighth century, Patriarch Timothy I wrote that in his time many monks crossed the sea and went only with staff and scrip to the Indians and the Chinese.

In less than two hundred years after Christ’s death, therefore, there was extensive Christian penetration in Asia and the East Syrians were beginning to carry the Gospel not only in Persia but also towards Arabia and Central Asia. The discovery of the Nestorian Tablet in China attests that Christianity came to China in the seventh century through the efforts of the Nestorian missionaries. It found favour with the Mongol rulers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and spread widely in China. Efforts were made to adjust itself to the Chinese culture and religious traditions. Adam, one of the Nestorian missionaries in China, was considered by the Buddhists as dangerous not because he was making Christianity too Buddhist but because he was trying to make Buddhism look too Christian.

Christianity came to India in the first century through the apostolic activity of St. Thomas both in North and South India. St. Bartholomew, a companion of St. Thomas, also visited India. By the end of the third century or early fourth century, the Indian church entered into some sort of ecclesiastical relationship with the Persian church. Apart from this ecclesiastical relationship, there were at least two important waves of emigration of groups of Persian Christians to South India, one in the fourth century and the other in the ninth century, which reinforced and strengthened the existing St. Thomas Christian community. Because of such contacts, the St. Thomas Christians were greatly influenced by the ecclesiastical and liturgical practices of the Persian church.

It will be a great mistake to think that the Christian communities were founded only in South India in the early period. There is no doubt that there were small Christian communities scattered throughout India and some of them continued to exist in North India in the medieval period. It must be noted that these were not communities of Persian Christians but of Indians by blood and ancestry brought to Christian faith by the missionary activities of Indian Christians as well of Persian missionaries.

In South India, the St. Thomas Christians were socially integrated with the wider Indian society and shared many things in common with their Hindu neighbours. They were employed as farmers and traders and in military service. A number of witnesses in the fifteenth century mention that they were a strong and well organized community, commanding respect among the Hindus and enjoying certain privileges in the society like that of higher castes among the Hindus.

The evidence for the presence of Christianity in South East and East Asia is scanty and fragmentary. Yet, there is sufficient evidence to show that Christianity was present in Ceylon, Burma, Tibet, Indonesia and Korea before the arrival of European missionaries.

A church which once exercised ecclesiastical authority over more of the earth than any other church in the world, lay in ruin by the end of the fifteenth century. What were the reasons?

What is attempted in this book is to present a general and brief introduction to the exciting and fascinating story of the movement of the Christian Gospel in Asian lands. It is much indebted to the findings, and writings on the subject, of a large number of historians and scholars. The book is written in the hope that it will, in a small way, contribute to the Asian Christian community’s search for its historical roots and identity. I am grateful to Dr. Han Spykerboer and Rev. Douglas Galbraith for reading the manuscript and making useful suggestions, and also to Rev. Ashish Amos of ISPCK and Rev. Dr. T.M. Philip of CSS for publishing the book.

T.V. Philip
Christmas 1997

Chapter 1: Asia: The Cradle of Christianity


A History Ignored

In an address on Asia’s message to Europe, delivered in Calcutta in 1883, Keshub Chandra Sen, the great Brahma Samaj leader in Bengal observed:

Is not Asia the birth place of great prophets and saints? Is it not preeminently a holy place of pilgrimage to the rest of the world? Yes upon Asia’s soil have flourished and prospered those at whose feet the world should prostrate. The great religions which have given life and salvation to millions of men owe their origin in Asia...But Asia is not only holy ground, but it is a catholic ground also. In this one place you could count all leading prophets and all the great religious geniuses of the world. No great prophet was born outside the boundaries of Asia.(Keshub Chandra Sen, Asia’s Message to Europe, Calcutta, 1919.)

It is in Asia, the great land mass which extends from the Mediterranean eastwards to the Pacific, that about three quarters of the world’s present population is found. It is in Asia the roots of the present great civilizations are to be found. Here, the major religions and philosophical traditions of the world had their origin: Hindu, Buddhist, Confucius, Jewish, Christian and Islamic.

In another address on the subject: Who is: Jesus Christ?, Chandra Sen told the Indians, "Gentlemen, go to the rising sun of the East, not to the setting sun of the West, if you wish to see Christ in the plenitude of his glory and in the fullness and freshness of his divine life." He told them to recall the true Asiatic Christ. "Behold he comes to us in his loose flowing garments, his dress and features altogether oriental, a perfect Asiatic in everything." (Keshub Chandra Sen. Who Is Jesus Christ?. Calcutta, 1919.) The complaint of Sen was that Jesus Christ was presented to the Asians as a western Christ and the history of the Asiatic Christ in Asian soil had been replaced by the history of western missionary organizations in Asia.

Speaking of The hidden history of Christianity in Asia, John C. England, a church historian from New Zealand, rightly points out that unfortunately only a few churches in the region have retained a strong sense that their history began in the early century of Christian era. Then he says:

Christianity can then be taken as an ancient Asian religion not just because of its origins in west Asian cultures and in the life of a Palestinian Jew, nor because of the Asian form of its foundation scriptures, but also because of this long and diverse presence through out central , south, southeast and north-east Asian countries. (John C. England and Archee Lee (ed); Doing Theology with Asian Resources, N Z, Pace Publishing, 1993, p. 129).

Like Chandra Sen, John England also complains that such a long and diverse presence of Christianity in Asian history has been so long hidden. "Clearly such a history has not been widely recognized -- and our understanding of Christian presence and identity within the particular histories and cultures of the region has been massively distorted -- often for doctrinal or ideological reasons." (Ibid., p. 129.)

While we have a good deal of information about the history of the expansion of Christianity to the west of Palestine, we know very little of its expansion to the regions east of it. The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament does not give us a comprehensive and accurate account of Christianity and its spread in the early period. Its presentation is very selective and partial. A number of New Testament scholars have questioned the reliability of Luke as a historian. Howard Marshall points out that Luke has idealized and simplified the story of the development of the early church. He has selected one strand in the history of the church that leads from Jerusalem to Rome and from the Jewish mission to Gentile mission, and he has left us in ignorance of many matters about which we would gladly be better informed. "To this extent, he has simplified the movement of church history and we do well to remember that he has not told us the whole story." (Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, Zondervan, 1970, p.73.)

What about the other strands in the history of Christian expansion? There are references in the later Christian writings to a tradition that the disciples after the ascension of Jesus assigned to themselves different regions of the world for missionary work. Whether this is true or not, the New Testament writings reflect unambiguously the conviction of the early church that it was a missionary community. But we have no contemporary records to know about the work of the different apostles. The Acts of the Apostles deals only with that of Peter to a certain extent but mainly with that of Paul. Moreover there is ample evidence to show that there were groups, and parties in the early church. Michel Goulder, an English New Testament scholar points out that there were two missions: one run from Jerusalem by the Jewish Christians under the leadership of Peter, James (brother of Jesus), other members of Jesus’ family; the other run by Paul and his party from various centres. Luke’s concern was with the Pauline party. (Michel Goulder, A Tale of Two Missions, London: SCM Press. 1994.)

While Paul and other Christian missionaries were converting Greeks, Romans and the barbarian tribes in the west, there was equally a great movement of Christianity to the east -- Edessa, Persia, Arabia, Central Asia, China and India. The territory of the Roman Empire lay mainly in Europe and in that part of Asia to the west of Euphrates. But to the east of Euphrates, at the time when Rome was at the zenith of its power, there existed the Persian empire which extended to and included part of northern India. In this vast empire Christianity spread very rapidly. Beyond the borders of the Persian empire, there were Christian communities in Central Asia, China, Arabia, and India. As John Stewart observes:

It is a surprise to most people to learn that there was a large and widespread Christian community throughout the whole of Central Asia in the first centuries of the present era and that such countries as Afghanistan and Tibet which are spoken of today as lands still closed to the Gospel message, were centres of Christian activity long before Muhammad was born. (John Stewart, Nestorian Missionary Enterprise, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1928, p.xxix.)

This was a Christianity that looked neither to Rome nor Constantinople as its centre and which remained for centuries proudly Asian. After saying that the church began in Asia, S.M.Moffett writes:

Its earliest history, its first centres were Asian. Asia produced the first known church building, the first New Testament translation, perhaps the first Christian king, the first Christian poets, and even arguably the first Christian state. Asian Christians endured the greatest persecutions. They mounted global ventures in missionary expansion the West could not match until after the thirteenth century. But then the Nestorian church (as most of the early Asian Christian communities came to be called) exercised ecclesiastical authority over more of the earth than either Rome or Constantinople.(Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Harper, San Francisco, 1992, p. xiii [see also Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity. P. 2])

It is this story of the movement of God’s spirit in Asian history that had been left out by Luke and ignored by later church historians. According to John Stewart, "This may be due partly to the mistaken impression that the Roman empire dominated the whole world and that outside the range of its operations there was nothing of any importance to record." (John Stewart, op.cit., p. xxx.) Moffett says that one of the reasons for the neglect of the Asian dimension in church history is the comparative paucity of available source materials on eastern roots of Christianity outside the Roman empire. (Moffett, op.cit., p. xiii.) One might also look for doctrinal and ideological reasons for such a neglect.

It is one of the ironies of history that Christianity, which was born in Asia, has become alien in its place of birth. There is no one to be blamed for this tragedy except the Christians themselves. It is very unfortunate that only a few Christian churches in the region have retained a strong sense that their history goes back to the early centuries of the Christian era. Nelson Mandela, president of South Africa, in his autobiography: Long walk to Freedom, speaks of his life in a South African prison. With Time-pieces of any kind barred from prison, one of the first things he did was to make a calendar on the wall of his cell. "Losing a sense of time is an easy way to lose one’s grip and even one’s sanity" he says. Christians in Asia appear to have lost a sense of history and thus also lost their grip on Asian realities.

Jewish Christianity and Its Characteristics

It is now generally accepted that Christianity which spread to the regions east of Palestine was Judeo-Christianity. Christianity in its origin belonged to the Jewish world. Roman writers such as Suetonius and Tacitus took Christianity as a Jewish sect. However, as Jean Danielou points out, the official documents which tell us about the origins of Christianity, namely, the writings of the New Testament, were written for, and were connected with, Hellenistic Christianity. This has been, for a long time, a serious obstacle to the recognition that Christianity arose in a Jewish milieu and was, to start with, deeply involved theologically and culturally in the Jewish world. (J. Danielou, "Christianity as a Jewish Sect", in Arnold Toynbee [ed], The Crucible of Christianity, p. 275.) The man who wrote the Acts of the Apostles, the chief documentary evidence for the first decades of the church, was a Greek and wrote it for the Greeks. He took little interest in the history of the Aramaic speaking Christians and was hostile to Judeo Christianity. (Ibid., p. 275) It is quite clear, however, that the earliest Christianity used Aramaic language and the primitive church for a long time remained in Jewish society. When it spread, it spread not only to the west but also to the east of Palestine and beyond the borders of the Roman empire, and not only Paul but other apostles were also involved in the preaching of the Gospel.

A number of discoveries made in recent years make it possible to get a better picture of Jewish community. The Dead Sea scrolls reveal in greater detail the Jewish culture of the period and the Jewish religious framework within which Christianity arose. The discoveries at Nag Hammadi particularly that of The Gospel of Thomas, perhaps put us in touch with an Aramean tradition of the logia of Jesus. The Judeo Christian writings -- The Didache, The Ascension of Isaiah, The Tradition of the Presbyters -- help us, to discover prior to or contemporary with the writings of the New Testament, an oral tradition which is a direct echo of the Judeo Christian community. In addition, there are a number of Judeo Christian inscriptions discovered in Jerusalem and Nazareth which throw further light on the life of the community. There are also references to Jewish Christianity in the Jewish literature of the period. (H.J. Schonfield. The History of Jewish Christianity, London: Duckworth, 1936, p. 277.)

In analysing the Jewish tradition of the time, we notice that there were different groups or sects or parties within Judaism with their different understanding of monotheism, covenant, Torah and the Temple; and there never was a normative Judaism in the first century. "In reading the Acts of the Apostles there is a danger that we may fail to appreciate how important it was for early Christianity to belong to an extremely lively and varied Jewish milieu." (Ibid., p. 277)

Jerusalem was the centre of the primitive Church and the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem community till A.D.62 was James, the brother of Jesus. It was James’s party and the Judeo Christian church in Jerusalem which exercised the dominant influence in the first decades of the church. As regards James himself, the epistle to the Galatians makes clear his importance. Later non-canonical documents from Judeo Christian circles throw further light on James. In the Gospel of the Hebrews, which appears to be linked with a Judeo Christian community in Egypt in the beginning of the second century, it is to James the risen Christ first appeared. The Clementine Recognitions, The Second Apocalypse of James, The Gospel of Thomas -- all agree in making James the founding figure in the Judeo Christian church. In The Gospel of Thomas, Jesus commits his church to James, and it is to James the disciples should go after the ascension. In Clementine Recognitions it is said that no teacher is to be believed unless he brings from Jerusalem the testimonial of James, the Lord’s brother. One of the most conspicuous features of the church in Jerusalem was the position that was occupied by Jesus’ family, very much in line with the semitic tradition.

The Jewish Christians were called Nazarenes (Nazoraioi) by their Jewish opponents. Ray A. Pritz in his study of Nazarene Jewish community. (Ray A Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity, Leiden, E.J. Brill. 1988.) points out that Nazarene was the earliest name applied to Christians by their Jewish opponents. At first it did not denote a sectarian stigma as the name was applied to the entire church. The first reference to the name in the New Testament is in Acts 24:5, where Tertullus the lawyer, during the time of Paul’s trial before the Governor Felix, accused Paul as a ring leader of the Nazarene sect. The reference here is not to a particular sect among the Christians but to the entire church. The name ‘Christian’ was at first applied by non-Christians in Antioch to designate the believers among the gentiles. Only when the gentile Church took over and overshadowed the Jewish church, could there be any possibility of sectarian stigma attaching to the name ‘Nazarene’ within the church itself. Even then the name Nazarene was used for Christians in Syria as a whole for a long time and it continued to be used in India till very recently.

The Jewish Christians had a gospel written in Aramaic (Hebrew), the existence of which was attested by Hegesippus, Eusebius, Epiphanius and Jerome. Both Epiphanius and Jerome believed that The Gospel of Nazarene was the Aramaic original of the New Testament Matthew. This may not be a true statement but the text bears some relation to Matthew, though not an exact copy. Jerome says that Matthew in Judea was the first to compose the Gospel of Christ in the Hebrew character and speech for the sake of those who came over to the faith from Judaism. H.J.Schonfield observes that a prejudice existed in Jewish minds against committing the scriptures to writing in any other than the sacred tongue. The day on which the Old Testament was rendered into Greek was said to be as evil as that on which the golden calf was made. Pantaenus, visiting India late in the second century, reported that "he found on his own arrival anticipated by some ... to whom Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached, and had left them the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew." (Eusebius quoted by Schonfield, op.cit. p. 66.) This Gospel of the Nazarenes needs to be distinguished from two other Jewish gospels, that is, from the Gospel of Ebionites and from the Gospel of Hebrews. (For a discussion of this see R. Mel Wilson, New Testament Apocrypha, James Clark and Co., 1991, vol.1.) J. Danielou is certain that the environment with which the Gospel of the Nazarenes should be associated is that of the Jewish Christians in Syria who spoke Aramaic and who were the most direct heirs of the Palestinian Jewish Christian community and from whom they received certain traditions. (J. Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1964. pp. 21-22.)

The Nazarenes were distinct from the Ebonites and prior to them. Pritz suggests the possibility of a split occurring among the Nazarene ranks about the turn of the first century, and the Ebonites emerging out of this split, differing from the Nazarenes by their Christology.

There are a number of references to the activities of the Jewish Christians in the Jewish Talmud. (See Schonfield, op.cit, ch. IV.) There were a number of groups among Jewish Christians, and they differed among themselves in various ways. The name ‘Jewish Christians’ is sometimes used to refer to the Christians who remained faithful to the Jewish observances -- sabbath, circumcision and worship in the Temple, as the Jerusalem community did. But from a very early date the observances of the Jewish customs came to be regarded, even in some semitic circles, as incompatible with the Christian faith. Judeo Christianity that remained faithful to Jewish rituals did survive for a long time among small groups, but very soon it became marginal to the main body of the church. (Danielou, "Christianity as a Jewish Sect", op.cit, p.277.) Sometimes Judeo Christianity is equated with Aramaic or Syriac speaking Christianity. The Christianity which developed in Edessa or in Persia was the result of Judeo Christian mission and referred to as Judeo Christianity. The name Judeo Christianity is also used for a form of Christianity where liturgical, theological and ascetic structure has been borrowed from the Jewish milieu in which Christianity first appeared.

According to Danielou, the most characteristic feature of Judeo Christian culture was its concern with apocalypse. The apocalyptic frame work, which Judeo Christianity shared with contemporary Judaism, was the setting for Judeo Christian theology. Jewish apocalypse is made up of information about the hidden realities of the heavenly world and the ultimate secrets of the future. In apocalypse angelology plays an important part. Another aspect of Jewish Christianity was the stress on the ideal of encratism which involved abstention from wine and meat, and exalting of virginity. The virgins had a privileged position in the community.

It was not only in Jerusalem and in Palestine that Judeo Christianity was dominant during the first century of the church. Every where the Judeo Christian mission seems to have developed before the Pauline mission; this may be the explanation of the repeated references to the conflicts in Paul’s epistles. The regions east of Palestine were a preserve of Judeo Christian missions and had not been touched by the mission of Paul. The Judeo Christian origin of the church in the eastern region of the Roman empire and beyond it to Edessa is all the more certain because the local language in general use in the region was Aramaic, the language of Judeo Christians in Jerusalem.

St. Thomas: The Apostle of The East

It was the story of the church’s expansion to the west which had been told by Luke and taken up by the western historians. No contemporary historian has recorded the Gospel’s eastward march, but there is no doubt that the Gospel did move east even while Paul was opening his mission in Europe. In this eastward movement, St. Thomas was the central figure. "And however Western scholars may write their histories of the church, from time immemorial Asia has linked the church’s expansion eastward to the missionary travels of the apostle Thomas. (Moffett, op.cit., p.25)

Thomas was one of the twelve disciples. (Moffett, op.cit., p.25) The name Thomas is the Greek form of the Aramaic name Thoma. In St. John’s Gospel, he is called Didymus (twin). The later tradition speaks of him as the twin brother of Jesus. Nearly all what we know of Thomas comes from St. John’s Gospel (John 11:16; 14:5; 20:24; 21:2.) in which he plays a fairly prominent part. While other disciples tried to prevent Jesus from going to Judea fearing trouble from the Jews, Thomas told them, "let us go that we may die with him." When Jesus had told his disciples that they knew the way he was going, Thomas asked how they could know the way since they did not know where he was going. Thomas was one of the seven who participated in the extraordinary catch of fish and to whom Jesus appeared on the shores of the sea of Tiberius. Thomas is best remembered for the event recorded in John 20:24-29. Jesus’ statement, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" has influenced the later tradition of unfairly referring to Thomas as ‘doubting Thomas’. In the fourth Gospel he displays a mature and strong leadership and his confession of the risen Jesus Christ as "My Lord and my God" is the greatest confession ever made, perhaps greater than that of Peter at Caesarea Philippi. Is not on this confession that the church is being built?

Among early Christian literature there are a number of non-canonical books associated with the name of Thomas. Of these, the most important ones are The Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Judas Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas is one of the apocryphal gospels found among the writings discovered in Nag-Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. It consists of 114 sayings or logia of Jesus stated in question and answer forms. In the prologue to the gospel it is mentioned that the sayings are the secret words spoken by the living Jesus and which Judas Didymus Thomas wrote down. It is to Thomas that Jesus entrusted his secret sayings. In Logia 13 it reads as follows: "Jesus said to his disciples: compare me, tell me whom I am like. Simon Peter said to him: you are like a righteous angel. Matthew said to him: you are like a wise philosopher. Thomas said to him: Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like. Jesus said: I am your master, for you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling spring which I have caused to gush forth. And he took him, withdrew and spoke to him three words. Now when Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him: What did Jesus say to you? Thomas said to them: If I tell you one of the words he said to me, you will take up stones and throw them at me; and the fire will come out of the stones and burn you up."

In the Acts of Thomas, which show on many points a remarkable affinity with the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas is addressed in the following terms: Thou twin of Christ, apostle of the most High and initiate in the hidden word of Christ, who receivest his secret orders, fellow worker with the Son of God. (chapter 39) In the Syrian tradition in which the Gospel of Thomas is written, apostle Thomas is the one who is particularly trusted and is the bearer of Jesus’ secret teaching. (A.F.J. Klijn. Jewish Christian Gospel Tradition, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992, p. 97.)

Several early traditions of the East centre around Judas Thomas. F.C. Burkitt has found the following passages in a Syriac Breviary.

By S. Thomas has been abolished the error of idolatry from the Indians

By S. Thomas the Chinese also with the Ethiopians have turned to the truth.

By S. Thomas have shone the beams of doctrine of life in all India.

By S. Thomas has flown and gone up the kingdom of the Height among the Chinese.

A second passage reads, "Indians and Chinese and Persians and other outlanders and those in Syria and Armenia and Ionia and Romania bringing worship in commemoration of Thomas to thy Name, our saviour." These passages do not say that St. Thomas went to all these places or founded churches there by himself. The important thing is to note that a number of places in the East are associated with the name of Thomas. A.C. Moule points out a number of references where the names of Bartholomew , Addaeus, Aggai and Man are mentioned as companions or disciples of Thomas. A thirteenth century Syriac writer, Ebed Jesus writes: "The holy Apostles, masters of eastern shore, Thomas and Bartholomew of the number of the twelve and Addacus and Man of the seventy, bore the sacred leaven which they had kept to all the churches of the east for the accomplishment of the mystery of the Body of the Lord until his coming." (Quoted in AC. Moule, Christians in China before 1550, SPCK, 1930, p.24. See also p. 19.) Whether it was Thomas personally who went to all these places associated with his name, or whether it was his disciples, Thomas is considered as the great Apostle of the East just as Paul is the great Apostle of the West.


Chapter 2: Christianity in Edessa


In the VERY early centuries of the Christian era, Rome was also an Asian Power. (One region of Asia, west of Euphrates was under the Roman rule.) Roman Syria extended from the Mediterranean up to Euphrates in western Mesopotamia. In AD. 194, the Roman emperor Septimus Severus divided this enormous territory into two -- Syria Coele in the north and Syria Phoenicia in the south. Christians in this area were predominantly Greek speaking.

Beyond the borders of the Roman empire was the Parthian (Persian) empire. The Parthians were Iranians who originally came from the steppes of Central Asia. They made themselves independent of Greek Selucids in about 250 BC. and founded an independent kingdom in Parthia under the Arsaces dynasty. In the second century BC it expanded its borders to the west all the way to Euphrates and to the east to Punjab in India. The capital of Parthia was Ctesipbon on Tigris. There were a number of buffer states such as Armenia and Edessa between the Roman and Parthian Empires. There were constant wars between Rome and Parthia for the control of border areas.

Christianity as it grew in the Iranian region came to be known by different names -- Assyrian Church, Persian Church, East Syrian Church or the Church of the East. For the sake of clarity, we shall first deal with the Church in Edessa and its neighbourhood (Western Mesopotamia) and then the church in Persia proper.

The expansion of Christianity in ‘Asian’ Asia is a very fascinating story. About this Moffett writes:

Before the end of the first century the Christian faith broke out across the borders of Rome into ‘Asian’ Asia. Its roots may have been as far away as India or as near as Edessa in the tiny semi-independent principality of Osrhoene just across the Euphrates. From Edessa, according to tradition, the faith spread to another small kingdom three hundred miles further east across the Tigris River, the Kingdom of Adiabene, with its capital at Arbela, near ancient Nineveh. By the end of the second century, missionary expansion had carried the church as far east as Bactria, what is now northern Afghanistan, and mass conversions of Huns and Turks in Central Asia were reported from the fifth century onward. By the end of the seventh century, Persian missionaries had reached the ‘end of the world’, the capital of T’ang dynasty in China. (Moffett op cit., pp xiv-xv.)

Three earliest centres of Christianity in the East were Osrhoene with its capital Edessa; Adiabene with its capital Arbela, and India. Whether Christianity came to these places independent of one another and which one of them was the first evangelised are difficult questions for the Asian church historians to decide.

Origins of Christianity in Edessa

Osrhoene was a buffer State between the Roman and Parthian empires till AD. 216 when it became a Roman colony. When did Christianity come to Edessa and who brought it? There is an Assyrian tradition that the wise men who came from the East to visit infant Jesus were from Edessa and that they went to Bethlehem in fulfillment of a prophecy made by Zoroaster in the seventh century BC. On their return to Edessa they had told of the wonderful things they had seen and heard and this prepared the minds of the Edessians for the reception of the Gospel.

Eusebius of Caesarea (Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History 1.13.), the church historian of the fourth century tells of another tradition about the coming of the gospel to Edessa. It tells of an invitation sent by King Abgar V (Ukkoma, the Black) of Edessa to Jesus himself to visit Edessa and cure him of leprosy. In Jesus’ reply to the king, he promised that after his ascension, he would send one of his disciples to cure the king of the disease. The tradition is that according to the promise made by Jesus, the apostle Thomas (Didymus) sent Thaddeus (Addai), one of the seventy, to Edessa. Addai on coming to Edessa first preached to the Jews there and thus began the church in Edessa. The king was healed and he became a Christian. (The tradition of Addai’s mission is narrated in great detail in a Syriac document called Doctrine of Addai. According to this Addai’s mission took place in AD. 29. See W.Cureton, Ancient Syriac Documents.) There are considerable differences of opinion among the historians as to the historicity of this tradition. Several of them have pointed out that the tradition concerning the correspondence between King Abgar and Jesus is only apocryphal and hence spurious and that the king who became Christian in Edessa was not Abgar V but Abgar VIII (called the Great) who came to the throne in AD. 177. They also reject the claim made by Eusebius and others that Christianity came to Edessa in the first century. Today, however, on the basis of new historical evidences available, it is possible to establish the fact that there was indeed a Christian church in Edessa in the first century; not only in Edessa but also in other places in Mesopotamia. J. Danielou writes:

The Christianity which developed in Osrhoene and Adiabene was certainly a product of the Judeo Christian mission. Though the legend, reported by Eusebius, that Christ himself has sent missionaries to King Abgar of Edessa is based in reality on the conversion of a different Abgar at the end of the second century, it is nonetheless true that the region of Edessa had been evangelised by the Apostle Thomas has some foundation of historical fact. The earliest documents we have on Edessean Christianity -- namely the Gospel of Thomas, and the Odes of Solomon -- go back in part, to the end of the first century and display the characteristic features of Judeo Christianity. (Danielou. "Christianity as a Jewish Sect", op.cit.. p. 277.)

S. H. Moffett comes to the conclusion that it is not unlikely that Edessa was evangelised by Addai. Moffett points out that the Addai traditions were as persistent in the early Church of Mesopotamia as the Thomas traditions were in India. He says that the fact that so strong a centre as Edessa was content with one of the lesser known seventy rather than with one of the original twelve, supports the view that the history of Addai’s mission was too well known to be easily set aside. (Moffett, op.cit., p. 50) The church in Edessa believes that Christianity was brought to Edessa by Addai who is said to have been sent there by St. Thomas. For this reason, among others, the Edessians believed that their church stood in a peculiarly close relationship to St. Thomas. Judas Thomas, as he is called in the Doctrine of Addai, was looked upon in a special sense as their own apostle. One of the treasures of the Edessian church, according to the Doctrine of the Apostles, was a letter said to have been received by them from St. Thomas from India.

Arthur Voobus, the famous Syriac scholar and historian also upholds the Addai tradition. He points out that the Christian mission in Mesopotamia was the work of Jewish Christians and the Jewish settlers in Mesopotamia were a great help in the spread of Christianity. When Addai came to Edessa, he contacted at first the Jewish community there thus establishing the first Christian nucleus before the end of the first century. (Arthur Voobus, History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient, Louvian, 1958, pp. 3-10. The Doctrine of Addai, a Syriac document written between 390-430 tells how Addai came to Edessa and as in the case of other apostles sought our the Jewish community. Having heard of his arrival, the king assembled all his people to hear Addai and all the city rejoiced in the doctrine and the king also believed. The Doctrine of Addai states, "After Jesus was ascended, Judas Thomas sent to him [Abgar] Thaddaeus, the apostle. one of seventy, and, when he was come, he lodged with Tobias, son of Tobias.")

According to Voobus we should discard the view that the beginning of Christianity in Mesopotamia was due to a process of the early expansion of Christendom developed in the general framework of Hellenistic Christendom. "The information that Antioch became a part of the scene so early is a free fabrication." (Arthur Voobus, History of Asceticism, p.6.) On the basis of information in the Chronicle of Arbel, he paints out that by the year AD 100, the Christian faith spread not only in Arbel in Mesopotamia but also in the villages near by on the mountains, lie concludes: "If, by the beginning of the second century, the Christian faith had already won converts among the inhabitants of the mountain village in Hadiab, then there can be no doubt that the Christian faith had been established before the end of the first century in Edessa and also in Osrhoene, which were on the high way connecting Arbel with Palestine and Syria." (Ibid., p.7.)

Voobus states that the origin of the Christian message in Mesopotamia must have been related to Aramaen Christianity in Palestine. "This appears quite natural when we consider the fact that in other eastern countries the Jewish community appears to be the channel through which the first seed of the Christian Kerygma was transplanted, even where Christian community was not particularly strong. (Ibid., p.8.) With regard to the Christian community in the mountains near Arbel, Voobus says that the earliest Christian mission here was of Jewish Christian provenance and the earliest figures of primitive Christianity in this mountainous area, "however dimly they appear, were Christian Jews who held close to the areas where there were Jewish communities." Further Voobus points out that it was neither the Greek Old Testament which became scriptural authority for Hellenistic Christianity nor the Hebrew original text which was translated into Syriac but the scriptures of the Palestinian synagogue, namely, the ancient Palestinian Targumim which came to be used among the Jewish Christians. Also the tradition of scriptural interpretation in the ancient Syrian church bears the mark of Jewish interpretation. Moreover, the ancient Christian art bears close resemblance to the Jewish art. All these point to the real nature of the Christian beginnings in the lands of Euphrates and Tigris.

Thus the pioneer work in the expansion of the Christian faith in the lands of the Euphrates and Tigris was carried out not by the Greek speaking Hellenistic Christians from Antioch but by Aramaic speaking Christians who possessed the lingua franca of the contemporary Orient. In this, important Jewish communities in Mesopotamia, must have performed a significant function in the processes of initiating the Christian faith in the Syrian Orient.

Characteristics of Early East Syrian Christianity

When Christianity came to the east, Edessa was the capital of an independent state of Osrhoene in western Mesopotamia, a buffer between the Roman and Persian empires. Though an independent buffer state it was under the Parthian influence till the end of the second century when Septimus Severus, the Roman emperor, conquered it in AD 199 and made it a tributary of Rome . In AD 216 it became a Roman colony. It was the first Christian city in the world, Christianity having been brought there by Addai, a disciple of St. Thomas. Christianity flourished in Edessa and became the centre of Syriac speaking Christians for a time. In the year AD 363, after the death of emperor Julian, the frontier between the Roman empire and the Persian empire came to be clearly marked. Edessa was the principal city in the western or Roman Mesopotamia as Nisibis was in the eastern or Persian Mesopotamia. Though Edessa was politically Roman, its cultural and religious ties were with the Syriac speaking peoples of Persian Mesopotamia and not with the Greek speaking centres in the Roman empire.

Constant wars between Rome and Parthia made the expansion of Christianity in this area very difficult. (W.Stewart McCullough, A Short History of Syriac Christianity to the Rise of Islam, Chicago, Scholars Press, 1982, p.53.) It is also probable that the Christians in Edessa and elsewhere in Roman Mesopotamia suffered under the persecution of Decius (Al) 249-56). Yet Christianity was making progress in this area though paganism remained as a force till the end of the sixth century.

Dura Europus was a fortress town located on the Euphrates more or less due east of Palmyra. It was taken by Rome from the Parthians in AD 165, and? but after ninety years of Roman rule, the Sassanian Persians overran and, destroyed it in AD 256. From the excavations in Dura, it is now known that there was a Christian community there and that some time between AD 232 and AD 256 these Christians acquired a primitive house and converted it into a place of worship The partition between two rooms was removed and converted into a meeting hall. The hall could accommodate about 65-75 people. On the other side of the house, a smaller room was made into a baptistery. A striking feature of the latter was that its ceilings and walls had painted decorations, the walls displaying pictorial compositions inspired by stories from the scriptures. (Ibid., p.54.) This is one of the earliest church buildings discovered so far. Whether Edessa had some part in founding the church in Dura Europus, we do not know. From the coins discovered in the place, it seems that there were economic links between Edessa and Nisibis in the north and Dura Europus in the south.

It was Judeo Christianity which spread to east Syria and it shared in the general characteristics of the Jewish Christianity in Palestine. The Doctrine of Addai, the Odes of Solomon, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Judas Thomas, the Writings of Tatian and Bardaisan of Edessa and Didascalia Apostolorum are some of the important sources which help us to have an understanding of the early East Syrian church.

The Odes of Solomon, (J. H. Charlesworth, The Odes of Solomon: The Syriac Texts edited with Translations and Notes, Oxford. Clarendon, 1973 H.J.W. Drijvers dates it to the third century as he feels that the Odes reflect the ideas of Tatian of the second century. See also H.J.W. Drijvers, East of Antioch, London 1984, pp. 7-8. On the other hand, Tatian could have been influenced by the teachings already present in Edessa.) an earliest Christian hymn written in Syriac in the region of Edessa in the first century gives us some knowledge of the early Syrian community. The Odes of Solomon itself is a testimony to the presence of Christians in Edessa in the first century. The expressions and ideas In the Odes clearly show that they belong to a period prior to any systematic development of Christian doctrine and practice and they were the first attempt by a Christian community to express its new found faith. The strange way the Odes try to express its trinitarian faith is a good example of this.

A cup of milk was offered to me, I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
The Son is the cup, and the Father is he who was milked;
and the Holy Spirit is she who milked.(Ode 19)

The Odes claim Christ as God’s promise of salvation to Israel. They speak of salvation in terms of circumcising by the Holy Spirit.

For the Most High circumcised me by the Holy Spirit,
then he uncovered my inward being toward him,
and filled me with his love. (Ode 11)

Like the fourth Gospel, the central emphasis of Odes is the final victory that has been won by Christ over death and evil. In Christ, light shines casting out darkness and the believer experiences eternal life here and now. The believers are like fruit bearing trees that have been planted by the Lord in the paradise.

Their branches were flourishing
and their fruits were shining,
their roots were from an immortal land
And a river of gladness irrigating them,
and the region round about them in the land of eternal life. (Ode 11)

Out of their confidence in eternal life came their missionary spirit. The East Syrian church was a missionary church from the very beginning.

The Lord has multiplied his knowledge,
and he was zealous that those things should be known which through his grace have been given to us.
For there went forth a stream,
and it became a river great and broad,
indeed it carried away everything ...
For it spread over the face of all the earth
and it filled everything
Then all the thirsty upon the earth drank
and the thirst was relieved and quenched. (Ode 6)

According to the Odist, blessed are the ministers who carry the life-giving water to the dying.

Blessed, therefore, are the ministers of that drink,
who have been entrusted with this water.
They have pleased the parched lips,
and have restored the paralysed will.
Even the lives who were about to expire,
they have seized from death.
And the members which had fallen,
they have restored and set up.
They gave power for their coming
and light for their eyes.
Because everyone recognized them as the Lord’s
and lived by the living water of eternity. (Ode 6:13.18)

This is a remarkable picture of the ministers of the Gospel. The early Christian community was indeed a missionary community and the East Syrian church in particular was a church on fire with missionary zeal.

The Doctrine of Addai which speaks of the work of Addai in Edessa leaves us in no doubt that Edessian Christianity was ascetically oriented. When Addeus was dying, king Abgar sent to him a noble and excellent apparel, that he might be buried in it. Addeus refused it saying: In my life time I have not taken anything from thee, nor will I frustrate the word of Christ which spake to us: Accept not anything from any man, and possess not anything in this world. (Cureton, The Doctrine of Addai). The same attitude to worldly things is also reported of Aggacus. It is said of Addai that instead of receiving gold and silver, he himself enriched the church of Christ with the souls of believers. With regard to the lives of Christians, the Doctrine of Addai says that they were chaste, circumspect, holy and pure, since they lived like anchorites and chastity without spot. (Ibid., The reference is to the purity of life (virginity) and not that they lived in seclusion.)

Tatian (Ca 110-180) was born of Syriac speaking parents in Assyria. He went to Rome in search of knowledge and became a pupil of Justin Martyr. He found what he was searching for in studying the writings of the Christians. "My soul was instructed by God, and I recognised that the teachings of the Greeks lead to condemnation, but their barbarian teachings dissolve slavery that is in the world and rescue us from many lords and myriads of tyrants." (Quoted by Arthur Voobus in History of Asceticism, op. cit., pp. 32-35.) As a result, he gave himself to the cause of Christ entirely and unconditionally. Tatian was dissatisfied with what he saw in the Roman church; it lacked vigour and enthusiasm. After the death of Justin Martyr, he returned to Assyria in AD 172. There he made his contribution, and his two important works were Apology and Oration. He was a remarkable biblical scholar, linguist and ascetic. He asserted that pagan philosophy only enslaves us to the world and it is the Christian gospel which liberates us to freedom. Such a liberation is possible only when we become a dwelling place of God. This means that a Christian must take a radical stand against the world. The way of asceticism is the only form of life which is in accord with Christian life. This would mean abandonment of possessions and an entirely negative attitude towards all earthly goods. "If you are superior to the passions, you will despise all things in the world," he wrote. Restraint must also be put on the needs and desires of the human body. Particularly the use of meat was prohibited. Another state of life which was considered corrupt was marriage with its carnal union. A person who enters into union with a woman will reap perdition from the flesh. Tatian called marriage fornication. (Ibid., p. 36)

Tatian’s encratic views (The word encratic literally means self-control) are also expressed in Hannony of the Gospel’ (Diatessaron). Tatian took sections out of each gospel and combined them into a more or less chronological whole. It was composed originally in Syriac. It was the gospel of the Syriac speaking communities and continued to be used for several generations, serving the ecclesiastical and missionary needs of Syrian Christianity. (Voobus, op. cit., p. 39) Tatian was able to weave into the gospel his encratite views. He modified several of the sayings of Jesus in the canonical texts to suit his purpose. His Gospel of Harmony makes it clear that eternal life demands a radical renunciation of possessions, family life and marriage, i.e., the prize demands a life in abstinence and virginity. Tatian also emphasized the fact that Christian life is one of suffering. The Harmony of the Gospels unveils the real extent of the penetration and permeation of Tatian’s encratite views in the Syrian Orient in the first Christian generation. "Together with the word of salvation a message was heralded that Christian faith finds its realization only in rigid asceticism, which unites all those who bear the cross on their shoulders and follow their Master on their via dolorosa" (Ibid. p. 44.)

Because of the radical views of Tatian, the church Fathers in the west portrayed him as the epitome of heretics. But the east Syrians had their own opinions about him. They did not include him among the heretics in the company of Marcion, Bardaisan, Mani, Valentinus and others. The east Syrians knew him as the disciple of Justin Martyr and the author of the Gospel of Harmony. What seemed repulsive to the western mind seemed normal to the oriental mind

There were others who influenced the character of East Syrian Christianity. The Chronicle of Edessa mentions the names of Marcion, Mani, and Bardaisan as men closely connected with the spiritual past of Christianity in Edessa. (Ibid., p. 38) The Marcionite church with its emphasis on radical asceticism found a fertile ground among the Syriac speaking Christians in Mesopotamia in the second century. Radical asceticism characterized the life of Marcionite Christianity with its deep hatred against everything that is of the world. Church life was shaped accordingly. All those who are not ready for the consequences of the Christian faith had to remain in the status of catechumen. Only the ascetics were admitted to the congregation as full members. These members were celibates, and married persons who avoided carnal intercourse. Only those categories of persons deserved to be baptized. With regard to marriage, Marcion demanded absolute continence. He also emphasized severe fasting.

Bardaisan, born about AD 154 in Edessa and converted to Christianity in about AD 175, was a poet and philosopher and a great original thinker. Western church fathers condemned him as a gnostic, but he was not a gnostic except in that he thought that matter was evil. He wrote strongly against Marcion who taught that the God of Creation is not good but evil. He also influenced the East Syrian Christianity.

The Acts of Judas Thomas originally written in Syriac in the first half of the third century gives us a picture of asceticism in the East Syrian church. It tells us clearly that the fundamental conception around which Christian belief centered was the doctrine that Christian life is unthinkable outside the bounds of virginity. The Acts of Thomas offers us many illuminating arguments in favour of virginity. In it the intercourse in marriage is called ‘the deed of shame’, the ‘deed of corruption’, ‘dirty and polluted pleasures’, and ‘filthy intercourse’. It is a union which is not of divine will and origin but founded upon earth and therefore is the ‘veil of corruption’ The body must be cleansed, ‘the veil of corruption’ must be taken away, before the divine life can enter as the spirit enters the temple. "Blessed are the bodies of the holy ones, which are worthy to become clean temples in which the Messiah shall live." According to Acts of Thomas, the sexual phenomenon is an obstacle to the higher level of life, and only its removal opens the way to eternal life. It declares that to have children means to have heavy cares that end in bitter sorrow. Over against a married life, Acts of Thomas speaks of the heavenly wedding.

In the Acts of Thomas, virginity is a theme which runs through the whole document. For those who are married, it means continence or sometimes giving up marriage. Voobus points out that the word qaddis (holy) in archaic Syriac terminology refers to sexual continence so that holy is used as a synonym for chastity or purity. This term is distinctly separated from virginity, which expression is reserved to those women and men who have kept their virginity and have not married. The term ‘holiness’ then refers to married couples who have not preserved their virginity but practice continence. (Ibid., p. 72) There are a number of references in the Acts of Thomas which suggest that after receiving the Christian message, those who were engaged to be married decided not to marry and those who were already married decided to live in continence and separation.

In another Syriac source it is said that Christ the true bridegroom came for the purpose of gathering and elevating only those who followed his call with a vow of virginity. The true believers are betrothed to the celestial bridegroom and they will inherit the bridal chamber. The document pictures the joy of the virgins before the presence of Christ. "The virgins, clad in garments of immortality, sing the triumphal hymn of virginity, wear the crown of everlasting life and dance in the presence of Christ being accompanied by the angels, and enjoy heavenly bliss." But the married women, regardless of their repentence in this life and the next, experience humiliation. (Ibid., p. 73.)

There were other facets of early Syrian Christianity. Voobus speaks of the covenant consciousness of the community. (Ibid., p. 73.) Christian faith is conceived as a new covenant, which moulds all the theology, ethics and organization of the community. Christians are the sons and daughters of the covenant. In the new relationship the covenant has placed them, they are called to struggle not only against evil but also against the physical-natural conditions of this world. It results in asceticism. Possessions, marriage as well as any link with the world, are sacrificed for the sake of the new covenant which God has established with His elect. As R. Murray observes the early Syriac literature is stamped with the individualistic piety of the primitive ‘sons of the covenant.’ The essence of their spirituality was the sense of being personally ‘married’ to Christ in consecrated virginity. The church in general hopes for, and journeys towards, fulfillment in the kingdom or paradise, but for many the hope was precarious unless they undertook consecrated celibacy. For several of the early Syrian writers, the visible church on earth is the foreshadowing of the church in heaven. Within the visible church each member is called a ‘temple of the spirit’ and those who follow the way of self-consecration establish in themselves a ‘hidden church’ or church of the heart, which stands in a special, almost guaranteed relationship with the church in heaven. The ‘just’ (ordinary good church members) will get to heaven, but those who cultivate the ‘church of the heart’ are the ‘perfect’.

Such an understanding of Christian life is best reflected in the military terminology they employed. Their theology was expressed in terms of ‘struggle’, ‘fight’, ‘battle’, and ‘war’. These requirements were not meant for the ‘elites’ only but also for the ordinary members of the Syrian church. Only those who were ready for this radical manner of living were worthy of sacramental life, and they alone could become the covenanters, as the full members of the Church. The candidates for the status of covenanters were exhorted to search their hearts as to whether they had the strength to leave possessions behind, to renounce marriage for ever, and to accept the ascetic life. The covenant conception in the context of asceticism is related to the sacred militia which determines the entire thought-world. The covenanters are fighters in the army of God. The function of the priests is to blow their trumpets signaling the engagement in the battle with the enemy.

Thus there is considerable evidence pointing to the role of abstinence in the lives of the East Syrian Christians. Its role was so strong that the writers of the period portrayed the great biblical figures such as Peter, James, Thomas or Jesus himself as paradigms of asceticism. In pseudo-Clementine literature Peter is depicted as a vegetarian who ate only bread and olives or Jesus as a confirmed vegetarian.

In the East Syrian church, asceticism had influence on the concept of the church. For if the ascetic way of life was the only reason for which Jesus came into the world, then only those who are ready to follow this rigorous way in ‘his fellowship in incorruption’ and ‘the form of a new person’ constitute the church. Such a concept of the church naturally meant that the sacraments were the privilege Of the assembly of the ascetics. Baptism became the prerogative of the ascetic elite only. It was the sign of those who had courage to turn their back on the world and walk in conformity with asceticism. In the baptismal liturgy, baptism is called ‘the water of proof’. ie., the baptism will prove those who are selected and fit for combat. The act of baptism was followed by the Eucharist which was also limited to ascetic Christians. The lay people are associated with the church as catechumens or penitents or companions.

But such a rigid view of Christian life did not commend itself to all, nor did it last too long. The Syriac church order of the third century, Didascalia did not support such a view. Ephrem and Aphrahat, two great fathers of the fourth century did not limit church membership to such ascetics. By the fifth century, the synods of the Persian church decided that even the clergy could marry. From where did East Syrian Christianity inherit this ascetic tendency? Arthur Voobus notes that at first glance the asceticism of primitive Syrian Christianity flatly contradicts everything we know of the Judaism of the time Judaism was not interested in asceticism. But Judaism of the first century was very complex and there were radical groups in Judaism who withdrew from the world and practiced asceticism. Recent discoveries and studies have brought this out very clearly. For example, the Essenes lived in poverty and surrendered their possessions to the ascetic community which they entered. Concerning the Essenes, Josephus tells that they hated riches and held a common treasury. The ascetic ethos manifested itself also in fasting and in the reduction of sleeping time in order to study the scriptures and meditate at the expense of nightly rest.

Judaism had a very positive view of marriage. But some ascetic groups among them viewed marriage with certain suspicion. In certain groups, virginity was made the norm. Josephus writes about Essenes who adopted a life in virginity. These groups thought of themselves as covenanted community, the true Israel as distinct from the rest of the Jews. A military terminology permeated all aspects of their thought and life. The features of both movements, those of the covenanters in the primitive Syrian Christianity and those of the covenanters in the new movements in Judaism are very similar so that one could assume that they stand in a casual relation to each other. Such Jewish sectarian groups seemed to have influenced Jewish Christian communities all over the East, not least in Adiabene where sectarian Judaism might well have taken root even before Christianity arose. Voobus suggests the possibility that the same ascetic groups on the periphery of Palestinian Judaism also in turn were influenced by the Christian message and they contributed to the formation of a distinct group in the Palestinian Aramean Christianity. (Ibid., p. 25) There is no doubt that there was an ascetic stream among other streams in the primitive Christianity in Jerusalem. It must be remembered that what we possess of the Aramean Christian literature is very fragmentary. New Testament sources do not give us a full picture of the character of Aramean Christianity in Palestine. We should look to Palestinian Aramean Christianity as the source or the first influence on the East Syrian church for the development of its ascetic character.

Church Life in The Third Century

Didascalia Apostolorum (The Teaching of the Apostles) ( R. H. Connolly, Didascalia Apostolorum Oxford, Clarendon, 1929.) a Syriac document written in the first half of the third century gives a detailed description of the Christians in the East Syrian Church. It was written by a bishop on the Roman side of Syria. It was also widely used in Persia. Its purpose was to give instructions to church officers and members on Christian conduct and worship. Its claim of direct apostolic authorship cannot be accepted but it helps us to get a picture of Christian life in the third century. Its theology conforms to the New Testament teachings, though there is an overemphasis on the efficacy of baptism. It also makes a distinction between greater and lesser sins committed after baptism. Some Christians unable or unwilling to give up all their old habits and sins at once rationalized themselves into thinking that they could wash away the stain of each sin after it was committed by being baptized again. Against this Didascalia pointed out that there can only be one baptism. Willful sins, it said, are not washed away by the repetition of baptism, though the unrepentant sinner should "bathe in all the seas and oceans and be baptized in all the rivers, still he cannot be made clean." Repentance remains the condition for the forgiveness of sins.

Contrary to the encratic teachings that were spreading in the church at that time, Didascalia blesses marriage and approves of the grateful use of all God’s material creation. The author was very much concerned with the Judaizing tendency in the church and sharply distinguishes between the ceremonial law and the Law given through Moses. He condemns severely the ceremonial law with its purifications, sprinklings, baptisms and dietary rules and regulations. For him, "the circumcision of the heart is sufficient." He exhorts Christians to assemble on Sunday, the first day of the week, without fail for worship. If they are not there, by their absence they would ‘rend and scatter’ Christ’s body. The bishop who sits on the throne at the eastern end of the sanctuary is pastor, preacher and judge, and at his side sit the presbyters (elders). A deacon acts as usher, showing each believer to his or her place, men in the front, the women behind them, and the young on the side if there is room. If not, they stand. Young women with children have a separate place along with the aged women and widows. The deacons are also charged with keeping order. The bishop is told how to treat the visitors. If a rich man or high official enters the church, the bishop is told to take no notice of him but to go on with his preaching, offering the visitor no special seat in the congregation unless in Christian love one of the brethren wishes to offer him his seat. "But if a poor man or woman comes ... and especially they are stricken in years, and there be no place for such, do thou, O bishop, with all thy heart provide a place for them even if thou have to sit upon the ground." (Ibid. pp. 122-124)

The Didascalia gives great attention to Christian family life. It was more disciplined and serious in those days. Like other early church fathers, the author warns Christians against overemphasis on dress or cosmetics. The men did not shave and the women wore veils in public. Marriage demanded complete fidelity from both the partners. If a spouse died, second marriage might be allowed but a third marriage was considered a shame. As to the children, the author advises the parents to be very strict with them, they should be taught a craft to keep them from idleness and debauchery and they should be married early to save them from "the temptations and fierce heats of youth." (Ibid.. pp. 122-124)

The life of the Christian community as it is reflected in the Didascalia is a very disciplined one. It accepted with gladness God’s gifts of creation such as food, work and conjugal love. This is in sharp contrast to some of the ascetic tendencies we have discussed earlier. The Christian community of Didascalia was aware of the needs of the poor and the imprisoned, the orphaned and the widows. They shared what they had, whether much or little, with those who had less. As Moffett notes, through all its righteous denunciations of sin there runs like a counter melody the sweet note of God’s forgiving love. (Moffett, op. cit., p.97.) It says: "Judge strictly (but) afterward receive the sinner with mercy and compassion when he promises to repent. Do not listen to those who desire (to put to death) death, and hate their brethren and love accusations. ... But help them that are more sick and exposed to danger and are sinning ... How abundant are the mercies of the Lord ... Even sinners He calls to repentence and gives them life." (Connolly, op.cit., ch.6.)

East Syrian Church and Monasticism

It has often been held that the monastic movement in Mesopotamia originated as part of the general movement which started in Egypt under the influence of Anthony and Pachomius. Today historians are inclined to believe that monasticism in East Syria is independent of and prior to the Egyptian movement. The primitive Christian movement in Mesopotamia and Persia found itself in the midst of a number of movements and groups such as the Marcionites, Valentinians, Manicheans, which were very congenial to asceticism. All these movements displayed a uniform hatred toward the world and the body. Mesopotamia was a playground for such radical ideologies and groups which evoked mutual competition. These movements had great impact on Christianity producing various interpretations and sects within Christianity itself. According to Voobus, during the third and fourth centuries, real spiritual and religious strength was found precisely in these movements and the demarcation between orthodoxy and heresy in this situation was very thin and fluid. It was also true that numerical strength lay with such groups. Ecclesiastically organized Christianity was a mere minority in comparison. (Arthur Voobus, op.cit., p.161. ) . This was true in Edessa as well as in several other places. One writer described the situation thus. "A single ear of wheat on a huge field full of weeds which the Devil has sown full of heretics….(Ibid., p.161.)

Such ideologies and movements also influenced the shape and development of Christian monasticism. The question is, to what extent they influenced Christian monasticism? Voobus points out that Christian ascetics had a thirst after mortification and self annihilation. Not only did they persist in severe fasting and extreme self-deprivation, they actually went so far as to despise life itself. Voobus thinks such an extreme form of asceticism developed due to the influence of Manicheism. Manicheism also brought Mesopotamian monasticism into contact with various forms and manners of Indian asceticism. The recent excavations have shown that Buddhist colonies were in existence in eastern Persia. It is also probable that Mani himself went to India and thus Manichean monasticism was greatly influenced by certain extreme forms of Indian asceticism, which in turn, influenced Christian monasticism as it developed in east Syria.

While admitting that there might have been some extreme form of asceticism practiced by some Christian groups, the question has been asked whether we can speak of the whole of the Christian monastic movement as similar to that of Manichean monasticism. Was it greatly influenced by the strong anti-worldly and anti-bodily Manichean dualism? H.J.W. Drijvers (H.J.W. Drijvers. East of Antioch, p.301.) disagrees with the conclusion of Voobus. He asks: Is the Christian ascetic practice an expression of contempt for the human condition and hatred of the body? He says that the social role of Christian holy men is in flagrant contradiction to such an explanation. The Manichean ascetics are a religious elite who never interfere with the body-social but always live at a safe distance from the cares and worries of daily life. We never hear about their social activities. Contrary to Christianity it never became a social movement, its ideology leads away from the trivial and material aspects of human life. Christian holy men are always ready to participate in the daily life of the common people in order to protect and integrate that life. They may cherish the ideal of virginity, but when necessary, they repair a marriage and they pray for the barren women.

Drijvers points out that the life style of the Christian saint is an exact replica of the essential-elements in early Syrian christology. Anthropology is part of christology. The literary heritage of the early Syriac speaking Church is reflected in the Acts of Thomas, Odes of Solomon and in Tatian’s Diatesseron. In all these, Christ is considered God’s eternal thought and will incarnate in the human body in order that human beings might return to the original state in which he or she was created according to God’s thought and will. Christ manifests the divine will by his obedience unto death, which means by denouncing human passions and strivings, revealing in this way God’s eternal thought concerning the salvation of humankind. The life style of the holy man or woman is an imitation of Christ’s passion, a training of his or her will in dominating his or her passions and human strivings. He or she shows a certain Christ conformity. Virginity is the ideal of the holy person not because he or she is filled with a deep hatred of the human body, but because Christ was ihidaya meaning that Christ had singleness of purpose to be the instrument of God’s will and thought. The doctrine of free will of the human being by which he or she can control all passions and guide his or her body is an essential part of Syriac theology. In the hard exercise of his or her will, the holy person gains insight into God’s saving thought. Asceticism and acquisition of wisdom are two sides of the same Imitatio Christi. The Acts of Thomas illustrate this. The holy person displays this insight of wisdom in his or her acts of power, which always aims at salvation of people. The Syrian holy person is the image of Christ and the continuation of incarnation so that, the divine is manifested in human shape by transforming that shape, into an instrument of God’s thought and will. The central aspect of the main line east Syrian monasticism is not the fleeing from the world or despising the human body, but the exercise of self-discipline by the use of the human will and acquisition of wisdom to be used for the salvation of people.

The monks were popular with the masses. In the prayers of these spiritual men, the masses saw expiatory acts in the interest of the whole nation. The masses knew that the monks had particular compassion for those who suffered and they were never tired of hearing the complaints and worries of the people. They were always willing to help the people spiritually as well as materially. The monasteries became the congregating centres of the poor and those who suffered. There was competition between monks and regular clergy. The general masses believed that the monks’ explanation of the scripture was more accurate, their teachings more powerful and their prayers more effective. Large number of believers made pilgrimages to the monasteries even on Sundays. As a result the church was forced to make a rule that the people should go to churches on Sunday and they should visit the monks only on weekdays.

Several of the monks entered the ministry of the church and became priests, bishops, metropolitans and even Catholicos. One important activity of the monks was the education of children and youth. The monasteries were also a sort of Bible training schools.

In the fifth century, the spread of the monastic movement throughout Persia was very rapid and a large number of monasteries were founded both inside Persia and outside where the Persian church undertook missionary work. The monastic movement reached the zenith of its prosperity by the middle of the seventh century, but started declining afterwards. From hundreds of monasteries all over Persia and central and eastern Asia, there poured forth a constant stream of ascetics who had completed their training and went forth, in obedience to the Lord’s command, seeking to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. They introduced letters and learning among peoples who were previously illiterate, such as Turks, Uighurs and Mongols, all of them are said to have derived their alphabet from Syriac. About these monks it is said that they were people of great faith, well versed in the Scriptures, large portions of which they knew by heart, fervent in prayer, gentle and humble in manner, full of the love of God on the one hand, and love to their neighbour and all humankind on the other.

Hence there was a missionary dynamics involved in east Syrian asceticism. In the Egyptian monasticism the saints ignored the world and retreated to the desert into caves and cells. On the contrary, Syrian ascetics became wandering missionaries, healing the sick, feeding the poor, and preaching the gospel. They moved from place to place. (Moffett, op.cit., p. 77.) R. Murray describes them as "homeless followers of the homeless Jesus on ... ceaseless pilgrimage through the world." (R. Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: a Study in early Syrian Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p.29.) A. Gerd Thessen, a German sociologist and New Testament scholar speaks of the first followers of Jesus as ‘wandering charismatics’. In the traditions of the first missionaries of the East, there is the same note of wandering mission, moving out across the world for Christ. Thomas in India gives thanks that he has become an ascetic and a pauper and a wanderer for God. (Acts of Thomas 6:60-61; 12:139, 145) (Moffett, op.cit., p. 78.) Addai refuses to receive silver and gold from the king of Edessa, saying that he has forsaken the riches of this world "because without purses and without scrips, bearing the cross on our shoulders, we are commanded to preach the gospel in the whole creation." The Gospel of Thomas exhorts the faithful to "become wanderers" perhaps as a call to mission. It says that travelling and healing are higher callings than fasting, praying and giving alms. And it quotes the Lord’s call to mission- "The harvest is great but the labourers are few." (Ibid., p. 78.)

The East Syrian church was a great missionary church. It was a church on fire. The Monastic movement played a very important role in the missionary enterprise of the church.

Ephrem the Syrian

Ephrem is the most widely celebrated figure in the Syrian church. The tradition is that he was born of Christian parents in AD 306 in or near Nisibis. In AD 363 when Nisibis was handed over to the Persians by Jovian, many Christians including Ephrem from Nisibis and the neighbourhood migrated to Edessa because of the persecution of Christians in Persia under Shapur II. It was in the city of Edessa, which housed the great church of St.Thomas the Apostle, that Ephrem spent the remaining ten years of his life, mostly in a cell. Here he continued the writing he had been engaged in Nisibis. R. Murray speaks of him "as the greatest poet of the patristic age perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante." (R. Murray, op.cit., p.31.) An anonymous Life of Ephrem tells how he wrote his hymns and sang them to the harp, teaching them to the ‘Daughters of the covenant’. Singing was that age’s effective means of propaganda as Arius had found in Alexandria and Bardaisan in Edessa. (Ibid., p, 30.)

Ephrem’s authentic writings are all in Syriac or preserved in Armenian versions. His works fall into three groups: biblical commentaries, homilies including controversial writings, and hymns and odes. Ephrem wrote against the heretics of his day -- Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan. In one of his sermons he said "He who prays with the Manichees prays with Satan, and he who prays with the Marcionites prays with Legion, and he who prays with Bardaisans prays with Beelzebub, and he who prays with the Jews prays with Barabbas, the robber." (Quoted in McCullough, op.cit., p. 59.) The popularity of his poems and sermons, and the careful elucidation of the text displayed in the biblical commentaries, ensured Ephrem of a permanent place among the great figures of the Syriac church! (Ibid., p.60)

The School of Edessa

The East Syrian church had a number of famous theological schools and centres such as those at Edessa, Nisibis, Seleucia and Arbela. Of those the most important ones were those at Edessa and Nisibis. Edessa was in western Mesopotamia and since the fourth century directly administered by Rome. It was the centre of Syriac Christianity. The beginnings of its celebrated theological school are obscure. The Edessean population gave the school the name, ‘the school of the Persians or the Christian Didascalion for the Persians.’ From this Arthur Voobus and several others mention the possibility of the school being founded by the Christian refugees from Persia. (" See Arthur Voobus, History of the School of Nisibis, Louvain, 1965.) When Nisibis was transferred to Persian control in AD 363, many Christians from Nisibis moved westwards to the Roman territory where their Christian faith could be easily practised. What is proposed by Voobus and others is that it was these Persian Christians who later in the fourth century founded the school in Edessa to train the clergy. There can hardly be any doubt that there were teachers among the refugees from Persia. Ephrem, the -- great Christian poet was one of them. There is a tradition that he founded the school but it is doubtful if he had much to do with the founding of the school. The most famous of the teachers who came from Persia was Narsai. He was the director of the school at Edessa from AD 451 to 471 and under his’ direction the school made great advancement.

Here as in other schools of Syrian tradition, the students began their course with the reading of the psalter. The art of reading required for liturgical usage was considered an integral part of the course. The study included the study of New Testament and Old Testament books and the original writings of Syrian Fathers. At first the commentaries of Ephrem were the principal aids to scriptural studies, but later the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (AD 392-428) came into use. Theodore’s works were translated into Syriac. The name of Hiba (Ibas), the great translator is associated with the translation of the works of Theodore and other Antiochean fathers. Instructions and study were saturated with the Antiochean biblical exegesis and theology especially those of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore

The school also was caught up in the christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries which engulfed eastern Christianity. The school became a centre of the Diophysite (Over against monophysite) movement. The bishop of Edessa at that time, Rabbula was in favour of the Diophysite movement at first, but by AD 352 he changed his position and turned against his friends in the school of Edessa as well as the Antiochean theologians as a whole. By AD 353 the Christian community in Edessa was divided by the rift between the bishop and his adherents on the one hand and the school of Edessa and the majority of the Christians on the other. Rabbula wanted to wipe out the Antiochean influence completely from Edessa. It was reported that he had all the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia burned. Rabbula introduced, the writings of Cyril of Alexandria to Edessa. Thus the Monophysite movement began to grow. It already permeated Egypt, Palestine and western Syria. It soon engulfed the rest of Syria and Osrhoene.

During the struggle, the school of Edessa had increasingly become the centre of operations for the Antiochean theology. As such it had become the target for its adversaries. The position of the teachers became precarious and finally in AD 489 the emperor Zeno expelled them. On the spot the school had occupied, a church dedicated to Mary was erected.


Chapter 3: Christianity in Persia


Origins of Christianity in Persia

The earliest centres of Christianity in the East were: Edessa, Arbela in Parthia, and India. While some early traditions speak of Aggai, a disciple of Addai as the missionary to Parthia, there are other traditions which speak of both Aggai and Mari (another disciple of Addai) as those who brought the gospel first to Parthia. In some other traditions, Addai, Aggai and Mari are mentioned as missionaries to Parthia.

The Teaching of the Apostles in describing the work of various apostles says:

Edessa and the countries round about it which were on all sides of it, and Zoba (Nisibis) and Arabia, and all the north, and the regions round about it, and the south and all the regions on the borders of Mesopotamia, received apostles’ ordination to the priesthood from Addaeus the apostle, one of the seventy-two apostles. (Cureton, W. Ancient Syriac Documents, Ante-Nicene, Christian Library, Vol XX, T&T Clark: Edinburgh 1871, p.48. (see also Cureton, W. Ancient Syriac Documents Amsterdam, Oriental Press 1967 p.24). These Syriac Documents are sometimes referred to as The Doctrine of the Apostles, Doctrine of Addai etc.)

The document goes on to say:

The whole of Persia, of the Assyrians. of the Armenians, and of the Medians, and of the countries round about Babylon, the Huzites and the Gelai, as far as the borders of the Indians. and as far as the land of Gog and Magog. and moreover all the countries on all sides, received the apostles’ ordination to the priesthood from Aggaeus, a maker of silk, the disciple of Addaeus the Apostle. (Ibid.)

According to another tradition, it was Mari, another disciple of Addai who evangelised Persia. There is no need to see any contradiction in these traditions. There was always a possibility that more than one apostle went to a particular country. Perhaps all the three were missionaries to Parthia. In the document, Teaching of Addaeus, The Apostle it is specially mentioned that Addaeus associated others with his ministry. "Aggaeus, moreover, who made the silks and headbands of the king, and Palut, Barshelma and Barsamya, together with the others, their companions came to Addaeus the apostle; and he received them, and associated with him in the ministry." (Ibid.)

According to Moffett, there is something appealingly believable about the story of Mari. In the tradition, Man who was a disciple of Addai, who in turn was a disciple of Thomas, like the doubting Thomas himself was a reluctant missionary. He was sent out to Persia from Edessa, but he begged the home church to allow him to return; but the church in Edessa asked him to continue his work. Grudgingly he set himself to the evangelization of Parthia and undertook difficult missionary journeys that brought him almost to India, "there", he said, "when he smelt the smell of the apostle Thomas", he felt at last he had done his duty and had gone far enough. (Moffett, op. Cit., pp. 78-79)

One of the earliest centres of Christianity in Persia is said to be Arbel the capital of Adiabene. It was a small Persian border kingdom. Its capital Arbela was about fifty miles east of river Tigris. There is no doubt that the early advance of Christianity in eastern Mesopotamia, as was the case in western Mesopotamia, was upon the ground prepared by the Jews. There was a large concentration of Jews in Arbela and in Nisibis in eastern Mesopotamia. Nisibis which was situated west of Tigris was the seat of a Jewish Academy of learning whose fame was acknowledged in the first century even by the Rabbis in Palestine. Christianity spread in these areas in the first century itself. It is of importance that the Christian faith spread not only in bigger cities but also in the villages on the mountains round about Adiabene. By the end of the Parthian dynasty (AD 225), Christian communities were seen all the way from Edessa to Afghanistan. The Edessian philosopher, Bardaisan in his book:

Book of the Laws of Countries written about AD 196, speaks of Christians living as far as Bactria (Northern Afghanistan).

Looking at the expansion of Christianity in the Parthian empire in such an early period, historians have raised the possibility that Arbela, the capital of Adiabene, if not prior to Edessa, could have been an independent focus, independent of Edessa, for missionary work throughout the Persian empire. In fact there is a theory that Christianity first came to Arbela and from there to Edessa. We have no historical evidence for such a theory. The first century Jewish historian, Josephus mentions that a king of Adiabene accepted Judaism about AD 36. Such a conversion could have made Arbela a natural centre for Jewish Christian mission at a very early date.

Robert Murray is also of the opinion that the first Christians in Adiabene were the Jews. According to him Adiabene which was the neighbouring state to Osrhoene had a flourishing Jewish community which made effective converts, the movement culminating in the conversion of the royal household itself in the first century. "Whatever is the truth about Christian origins elsewhere in the Syriac speaking area, the Christianity of Aphrahat and Ephrem is best accountable for a break away movement among the Jewish community in Adiabene. The latter did have historic links with Palestine…" (R. Murray, op.cit., p.8. See also Asahel Grant, The Nestorians or The Lost Tribes of Israel, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1841.)

Who were the Jews in Persia? Were they descendants of the ‘Lost tribes of Israel’? There is a tradition among the Nestorian Christians in Persia that they are the descendants of Israel. But this does not mean that all Christians in Persia were of Jewish origin. Though the initial response was from the Jews, Christianity spread among the Persians. By the third century, according to Mingana, the majority of the inhabitants of Adiabene were Christians, and the majority of these and of the Christians in Persia generally were of Persian and not of semitic or Aramean birth and extraction. (Ibid.. p.8.)

According to Stewart McCullogh there is no evidence of large numbers of Jews turning to Christianity and that most of the converts must have come from the ranks of either pagans or Zoroastrians. (John Stewart, op. cit.. p.5.) However, by the end of the second century, Christians were found as far as northern Afghanistan. The Chronicle of Arbela reports that by this time there were already more than twenty bishops in Persia. In less than two hundred years after Christ’s death, there was extensive Christian penetration in Asia and the Syrian Christians were beginning to carry the faith not across the Roman Asia only, not in Persia alone, but also towards Arabia and Central Asia.

Church and the Persian State

In the third century, while the Persians had considerable success in their constant struggles against the Romans, there developed an internal rebellion within the. Persian empire which resulted in the overthrow of the Parthian dynasty by the Sassanian dynasty in AD 226. The Sassanians ruled Persia for the next four centuries till the coming of Islam. The policies of the Sassanians had considerable effect on the life of the Christian community in Persia.

The Sassanians organized their government on new lines. The first Sassanian king Ardashir began emphasising the close co-operation of the throne and Zoroastrian priesthood. Ardashir founded his power on a combination of religion and state. For him, religion may exist without a state, but a state cannot exist without religion; and it is by holy laws that a political association can alone be bound. He used the Zoroastrian clergy to legitimize his rule and in turn granted them special privileges. Thus the position of the king in Sassanied Persia was made far more stronger than it had been in Parthian times because of the close working alliance between the king and the priesthood formed by Ardashir I. In Sassanied period, Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the state which led, from time to time, to the severe persecutions of religious minorities. There were persecutions of Christians under Shapur II in the fourth century and under Bahram V and Yezdegerd II in the fifth century.

Although certain Sassanian kings were tolerant towards Christianity, the Zoroastrian hierarchy on the whole remained consistently opposed to all non-Zoroastrian religions. However, during the first hundred years of Sassanian rule there was more or less religious toleration.

For the first three hundred years of Christianity, it was in the Roman empire that the Christians were persecuted. The Persians, especially the Parthians were tolerant of minority groups and the Sassanids at the beginning were too busy fighting the Romans. Moreover, as long as the Roman emperors considered the Christians as enemies of Rome, the Persian emperors were inclined to consider them as friends of Persia. By the time of Shapur II who came to the throne in AD 309, Christianity became the favoured religion of the Roman emperors. Constantine the Great even claimed a protectorate over all Christians everywhere and in AD 315 wrote to Shapur II asking protection and favour for the Christians. "I rejoice to bear that the fairest provinces of Persia are adorned with ... Christians ... Since you are so powerful and pious, I commend them to your care, and leave them in your protection." (Ibid., p. 110)

The two empires being almost constantly at war, it was only natural that such a letter made Shapur II suspicious of Christians as an ally of the Romans. The fact that the Christians, including those who spoke Persian, used Syriac in their church services tended to foster the suspicion. Moreover, the hatred of the Zoroastrian clergy towards Christians was an additional factor. One cause of offence was that the Christians differed from Zoroastrians in their habits and customs. For example, the Christian custom of burial of the dead, and their tendency to look upon celibacy as a superior form of living, were repugnant to Zoroastrian clergy. The Persians considered the Christians as a threat to national security as well as to national religion.

It was not until after Constantine’s death in AD 337 that Shapur II began a persecution of the Christians which lasted for most of his reign. The taxes to be paid by the Christians were doubled and the bishops were asked to collect the taxes for the government. Bishop Simon of Seleucia who protested saying, "I am no tax collector but a shepherd of the Lord’s flock," was put to death on a Good Friday along with a large number of clergy. As time went on, the persecution was intensified. The churches were destroyed, the clergy who refused to participate in Sun worship were executed. The severity of anti-Christian measures varied from one locality to another and seems to have depended on the whims of the local authorities. The Persians who were converted to Christianity were especially persecuted. At first the Christian faith had spread among the Jews and the Syrians. But by the beginning of the fourth century, Persians in increasing numbers were attracted to Christianity. For such converts, even during peaceful times, membership in the church meant loss of family and property and other civil rights. During the time of persecution, many of them were put to death. It was to the great credit of the Persian Christians that they remained faithful to Jesus Christ without floundering.

In AD 363 Jovian, the Roman emperor, concluded a treaty with Shapur II. By this treaty, Mesopotamia and Armenia came under the control of Persia. There was temporary peace between Rome and Persia. In AD 409, the Persian king Yazdegard, by an edict of toleration brought an end, for the time being, to the persecution of Christians. The peace brought about by the edict helped the Christian community to re-organize its life.

The Re-Organization of the Persian Church

From the beginning of. the fourth century, under the leadership of bishop Papa bar Aggai of Seleucia, there were efforts made to shape a national organization for the Persian church. Papa was fully aware of the need for a strongly centralized Persian church. However, it was only at the beginning of the fifth century, as a result of deliberations by a number of synods, that the re-organization of the Persian church came into effect.

The Synod of Seleucia (The Synod of Mar Isaac) met in AD 410. (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, quoted by Moffett, op.cit.., p.138.) under the presidency of Mar Isaac, the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The most important decision of the Synod which had a very far reaching effect on the life of the church, was to declare the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon as the primate of the Persian church; and in recognition of this preeminence he was given the title ‘Catholicos’. The Synod confirmed Mar Isaac as Catholicos and Archbishop of all the Orient. The Synod also declared its adherence to the decision of the Council of Nicea and subscribed to the Nicene Creed. It laid down that there should only be one bishop to each See and that the ordination of bishops should be by three bishops. It laid down rules regarding the holding of biennial synods, hospices associated with the churches, the requirements for ordination, the duties of archdeacons, the precedence, dignity and duties of metropolitans, the honour and obedience due to Catholicos and on other such matters. The minutes of the Synod mentions bishops from more distant places-in Persia, on the islands of the Persian Gulf, in Media and even in Khursan.

The Canons of the Synod leave no doubt as to the authority of the great Metropolitan, the Catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Without his approval, no election of bishop would be valid.

The king Yazdegard himself approved of the organization of the Persian church on this basis and issued a firman (edict) giving recognition to the Catholicos as the head of the Persian church. Thus the Christians in Persia received a definite standing among the population, with freedom to manage their own affairs, but answerable to the state authorities through the Catholicos. In this way, the Catholicos became a civil as well as a religious head. The chief defect of the system was that in future, the election of a Catholicos had to be approved by the king of Persia, which in practice meant that the office could only be filled by his nominee.

Following the synod of Isaac, there were other synods. The most important of them was the Synod of Dadyeshu. Towards the end of the reign of Yazdegard, the Christians were again persecuted in AD 420. Dadyeshu was elected Catholicos in AD 421 and himself suffered during the persecution and was imprisoned. It was also a troubled time for the church due to internal divisions and parties. It was in such a situation the third synod of the church met.

The Synod of Dadyeshu met in AD 424 in Markabata of the Arabs under the presidency of Mar Dadyeshu. It proved to be one of the most significant of all Persian synods. The first synod of Isaac in AD 410 had decided that the Catholicos of Seleucia Ctesiphon be supreme among the bishops of the East. The Synod of Dadyeshu decided that the Catholicos should be the sole head of the Persian church and that no ecclesiastical authority should be acknowledged above him. In particular it was laid down that "easterners shall not complain of their Patriarch to the western Patriarchs; every case that cannot be settled by him shall await the tribunal of Christ." For the first time, this synod referred to the Catholicos as Patriarch and that their Catholicos was answerable to God alone.

The Synod declared:

By the word of God we define: The Easterners cannot complain against the Patriarch to western Patriarchs; that every case that cannot be settled in his presence must await the judgement of Christ...(and) on no grounds whatever one can think or say that the Catholicos of the East can be judged by those who are below him, or by a Patriarch equal to him he himself must be the judge of all those beneath him, and he can be judged only by Christ who has chosen him, elevated him and placed him at the head of his church. (In the early Catholicate of Timothy I (780-823). the canons of various Nestorian synods were collected into one volume known to us as Synodicon Orientale. The Synodicon Orientale begins with the Synod of Mar Isaac in AD 410, though it is probable that there were gatherings of Persian bishops prior to AD 410. It is an important historical source for the history of the Persian church.)

The assembled bishops- six metropolitans and thirty conventional bishops from all over Persia- threw themselves at the feet of the reluctant Dadyeshu and vowed him allegiance in terms that unequivocally set apart the church in Asia as free in Christ under its own head the Catholicos, not opposed to the west but equal in rank and authority to any western Patriarchate. This was not an act of schism as some Roman Catholics have interpreted it. (Chabot, Synodicon Orientale, p.296.)

What distinguishes the Synod of Dadyeshu from the previous Persian synods is that it claimed for the church of the East all the rights of a Patriarchate. Clearly specified among these rights was the privilege of independent administration- not of heresy, or of separation, but of freedom from outside jurisdiction. Moffett is right when he says that there is no reliable evidence of the church outside the Roman empire in Asia ever acknowledging the supremacy of Antioch, much less of Rome or any other western patriarch. The Synod of Dadyeshu thus merely made explicit what had long been recognized in practice. To the Persian bishops in the Synod of AD 424, Christians of the west were brothers and sisters in Christ, not separated brethren and sisters. But their jurisdiction as ecclesiastics ended at the Persian border. Persian Asia was beyond western control not by schism, but as a matter of patriarchal privilege. (" See Fortescue, Lesser Eastern Churches, p. 5l -- "From 424 we must date the independence of Persia from Edessa and Antioch. This involves, of course, independence from Antioch’s superior at Rome. So, from the Catholic point of view, it seems that we must date the Persian Church as schismatical since the Synod of Markabta." This is a curious way of argument by a Roman Catholic.)

The affirmation of the independence of the Persian church from ecclesiastical control or interference from outside had important political consequences for the church’s existence in Persia which was in constant war with the Roman empire. Persian Christians could no longer be suspected as an ally of the Roman government.

At the Synod of Mar Acacius (486) a revolutionary canon was adopted with regard to marriage of clergy. Metropolitan Harsauma of Nisibis was advocating the marriage of clergy including the bishops for some time. He himself married a nun. It was in the Synod of AD 486 the church made an official decision which went against the radical ascetic tendency of the East and against the canon laws of the West. The canon specifically affirmed the rights of all Christians to marry, whether they be layperson, ordained priests or even bishops. It enjoined that bishops must not put obstacles in the way of marriage within their dioceses. In the text of the Canon, it is prescribed. (a) that bishops can bestow ordination for the diaconate only on married men, and it is implicit, following 1 Timothy 3:1-5, that bishops should be married; (b) that those who voluntarily choose not to marry, must live in a monastry in purity and continence; (c) that a bishop cannot oppose the wish of an unmarried priest to marry, or if a priest is widowed, to marry again. In short, the choice for Christian clerics is either the perfection of celibacy, or marriage adorned by the procreation of children. Penalties are set forth for those who disregard the rules. (Moffett, op.cit., pp.197-199.)

In the next synod, the Synod of Mar Babai (497), the decision of the synod of AD 486 on clerical marriage was reaffirmed and it was publically stated that any Christian cleric, from the Catholicos (Patriarch) down, can openly contract a marriage.

A number of reasons were given for such a decision: scriptural (1 Timothy 3:1-2), moral and cultural. It was conceded that the application of so strict a rule as celibacy to those not called to a life of asceticism but ordained to the diaconate in preparation for ministry in the church had led to widespread abuse and immorality. It is better to marry than to burn (I Cor.7:9). Moreover, the Zoroastrians held the unmarried clergy in derision. Persians considered celibacy as a cause of weakness in the empire. The virtue of virginity irritated them. The state also pressured the church to change its stand on celibate clergy.

The Persian Church and Nestorianism

In the Roman empire, the fourth and fifth centuries were centuries of theological controversies and ecumenical councils. In the early fourth century. the question was raised: If God is one, how could Jesus Christ be God? The controversy that followed was between those who wanted to maintain the oneness and unity of God and those who wanted to uphold the deity of Christ. The Council of Nicea (325) and the Council of Constantinople (381) were convened with this issue and came to define a Trinitarian faith.

The next controversy was on two natures in Christ. The church always believed that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. But the difficulty was to explain how one person can at the same time be fully God and fully man without appearing to be two persons. The question was how the two natures can be united in one person and at the same time be distinguished clearly. The two opposing schools of theology in this controversy were those of Alexandria and Antioch. While the Alexandrians wanted to safeguard the divine nature of Christ, the Antiocheans wanted to stress the human nature of Christ. To the Antiocheans, the teaching of Alexandrians seemed to weaken the humanity of Christ and failed to distinguish the two natures properly in one person. Their incarnate Christ seemed to have only one nature, namely, the divine nature. They were known as Monophysites. To the Alexandrians, the Antiocheans seemed to have minimized the divinity of Christ and to have distinguished the two natures in such a way that Christ seemed to be two persons. In the incarnate Christ two natures are not properly united to form one person. They were called Diophysites.

The great theologian of the Antiochean school was Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428). Nestorius was his pupil. Nestorius became the leading figure in this controversy. At that time he was the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Council of Ephesus in AD 431 condemned the teaching of Nestorius and he was excommunicated. He was banished to Egypt and, emperor Theodosius issued an edict ordering all his writings to be destroyed. The Antiocheans were forced by the state to make peace with the Alexandrians who were very strong in Egypt.

The church of the East did not accept the Council of Ephesus. Though the influence of Nestorius ended in Antioch which formerly supported him, his influence did not die out in the East. Edessa became a centre of Nestorianism. Many of the teachers in the theological school at Edessa were still attached to the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia and approved neither the decisions of Ephesus nor the way the emperor tried to impose peace. The attitude of the School at Edessa was important because it was there that most of the clergy of the Persian church were trained. Here the students were given a good understanding of Nestorian views and when they returned to Persia, they became strong supporters of Nestorianism. Thus the controversy divided the Syrian church into two camps. While the west Syrian Christians living under Byzantine rule made peace with Alexandria and tended to accept Monophysitism, the East Syrians under Persian rule became Nestorians.

At the time of the Nestorian controversy Rabbula was the bishop of Edessa. At first he was a strong supporter of Nestorius. But when Antioch came to terms with Alexandria, Rabbula also changed side. He forsook Nestorius for the sake of peace with Alexandria. He burned the works of Theodore and called him the father of Nestorian heresy. Ibas, the head of the school remained faithful to Nestorian teaching. When Rabbula died in AD 435, Ibas was elected the bishop of Edessa. But it was very difficult for Edessa to remain a centre of Nestorianism in an empire where Nestorianism was condemned. In AD 489 the school was closed by the order of the emperor Zeno. Many of the teachers and students migrated to Persia.

While Nestorianism was declining in the Roman empire, it was in ascendancy in Persia. The majority of the Persian clergy who had studied at Edessa and who were Nestorians in their theology came into prominence in the Persian church and through their influence, the Nestorian views were widespread. One such former student of Edessa was Barsauma who became the bishop of Nisibis. He made Nisibis the chief Nestorian centre in Mesopotamia. It is said of him that Nestorianism owed more to Barsauma for its spread in Persia than to any one else.

As a theological opinion, Nestorianism had therefore been long in evidence in Persia. But there was also a political factor in the spread of Nestorianism. The Persian government had opposed Christianity partly because it was the religion of their national enemy, the Romans. But now Nestorians had been condemned in the Roman empire and they were seeking refuge in Persia, there was no longer any danger that such a form of Christianity would be a link with an alien power. On the contrary, it would be politically wise to encourage Nestorianism among the Persian Christians so as to alienate them from Christians in the Roman empire. King Peroz (457-487) gave up persecuting the church, except for a persecution in AD 465 which was directed against those who wished to remain in communion with the church of the Roman empire. Thus the attitude of the Persian government and the influx of Christians from Edessa helped the rapid spread of Nestorianism in Persia.

It was in the Synod of Acacius in AD 486, which met in Seleucia, the church officially accepted Nestorian teaching. The first action of the Synod was to draw up a ‘true apostolic and orthodox’ confession of faith which repudiated both Monophysitism and Chalcedonian orthodoxy of the West. The Synod defined its doctrine of the Trinity. It confessed, "one divine nature, in three perfect persons, one Trinity, true and eternal father, son and Holy Spirit

It was explicitly Nestorian in its statement on incarnation and the nature of Christ. (Ibid. p. 198) A second canon guarded against Monosophysite schism by re-asserting the authority of the bishops over monks and hermits who, it was feared, showed some tendency towards the heresy. It forbade those ascetics to wander indiscriminately through the villages. (Ibid. p. 198)

Acacius was succeeded by Patriarch Babai. In his synods in AD 498 and in AD 499, Nestorian teachings were re-affirmed and it became the official teaching of the church. Though the West condemned Nestorius as a heretic, the east never did. For them the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius were orthodox. Recent scholarship has vindicated their position. It is now seen that Nestorius never taught what he was accused of teaching by his opponents. He was more ‘orthodox’ than many of his adversaries.

Aphrahat, the Persian Sage

Like Ephrem in Edessa. Aphrahat was the greatest theologian in Persia in the fourth century. We know very little of his life. Some say that he was a convert from Zoroastrianism, but there are others who maintain that he was a Jewish convert. He was an Assyrian born in northern Mesopotamia in the region of Adiabene and was a monk, probably a bishop. His only surviving work Demonstration contains 23 treatises which he wrote between AD 337 and AD 345. The first ten chapters of Demonstrations deal with ten specific aspects of Christian life and doctrine such as faith, fasting, prayer and humility. In this he displays a very simple faith, firmly centered on the Scriptures. His basic theological position is a simple one:

One Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of all our faith. In treatise xix, we have what may be called Aphrahat’s credo.

Now that is faith: when a man believes in God, the Lord of all, who made heaven and earth, and the seas and all that is in them; he made Adam in his image; he gave the Law to Moses; he sent his spirit upon the prophets. He sent, moreover, his Christ into the world. Further more, that a man should-believe in the resurrection of the dead; should further more also believe in the sacrament of baptism. This is the faith of the Church of God.

For Aphrahat, Christians are in the service of Christ. So he exhorts them to take heed what is needed for the service of Christ: pure fasting, pure prayer, love, meekness, virginity and holiness. In his instruction to the monks (covenanters), he reminds them that their life must be a life of unrelenting warfare between believers and the devil. Satan will tempt them with all the enticements of world’s luxuries and pleasures. The most dangerous instrument of satanic temptation has always been women; the safest path for man, therefore, is to renounce the love of a woman, and live alone for Christ. As for women, their highest calling is to espouse virginity and thus rob the devil of his tool for temptation. But Aphrahat recognised that this will not be possible for all Christians. He acknowledged the fact that marriage is instituted by God and therefore is good. So Christians may marry. But if they do, it might be best to many before baptism. It is interesting to note that Aphrahat in his address to the monks mentions that if a monk desires that a woman bound by celibacy, should dwell with him, it would be better for both parties to marry and live openly together. (Demonstrations VI.4, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [second series]. vol. XIII, p. 306.) About Aphrahat and Ephrem, R. Murray writes, "They definitely affirm the lawfulness of marriage, but their enthusiasm is all for the state to which without any doubt they both were committed, namely, a life of consecration to Christ as a virgin." (Ibid. p. 116.)

The resurrection of the dead was part of Aphrahat’s credo. Against those who hold that the resurrected will have a heavenly body, he pointed out that resurrection means initially the resurrection of the body laid in the earth. "In the day of resurrection, your body will arise in its entirety." Like Ephrem, a notable feature of Aphrahat’s writings is his interest in Jews and Jewish practices. Both Aphrahat and Ephrem emphasized the fact that the chosen people of God (Jews) were replaced by a new people, the Church of the Gentiles, which they called, ‘the nation from the nations.’ In developing the theme of election of Gentiles in the place of former Israel, they used two traditional techniques or literary forms: typo-logical parallels and lists of testimonia.

For Aphrahat, the election of Israel needs to be understood in the light of God’s plan of universal salvation. The privileges of the chosen one are to be extended to all nations; all Israel’s rites were types seeking fulfillment in the church. The significance of Abraham is, first, that God in fact promised to extend his salvation through Abraham to all nations, and second, that the story of Abraham reveals not only the temporary sign of the covenant (circumcision), but also the means (faith) by which a person of any nation can come and share in the promised blessing. (R. Murray, op.cit, p.12.)

While Marcion rejected Christianity’s Hebrew past, the Syriac fathers did not reject it. For Aphrahat, the Christian church is the authentic fulfillment of the former nation and its heroes are simply our fathers.’ He shows a devotion to the Old Testament saints. Israel is essentially the carrier of future blessings, the cradle of the coming Messiah. God’s choice of Israel, therefore, is not complete in itself but it is a movement in history, pointing to fulfillment; and this is true of all institutions -- circumcision, covenant, passover, priesthood and its sacrifice, kingship, assembly or synagogue. The church is for all, and there is no further need of distinctions. Circumcision was a type which is fulfilled in baptism. For God is faithful and his covenants are exceedingly trustworthy and every covenant in its time was sure and found true. (Ibid. p. 44.)

In Christ all the covenants are fulfilled. "For those who are circumcised in their hearts have life and are circumcised a second time by the true Jordan, the baptism of remission of sins." For Aphrahat, whatever might have been the meaning of sacrifices in former times, it is fulfilled by and in Christ.

The purposes of the Law were brought to an end by the coming of our Life giver, who offered himself in place of the sacrifices in the Law, and was led like a lamb to the slaughter in place of the lamb of propitiation ... He gave his blood for all mankind, so that the blood of animals should not be required of us. (Ibid. pp. 50-51)

Since the Syriac fathers see the old order of sacrifices as having lost its former value, it is curious how firmly both Aphrahat and Ephrem held a tradition which is strange to the New Testament, namely, that Christ as High Priest ‘according to the order of Melchizedek’, actually received the Aaronic priesthood by unbroken succession of imposition of hands through John the Baptist, who was of priestly family; when the former priesthood was repudiated, the power continued in Christ and he passed it on to the Apostles. (Demonstrationss 11. 57. 13-20. Quoted in R. Murray, p. 55.)

For Aphrahat, as for Ephrem, it was at his baptism that Jesus received the priesthood from John. Ephrem says:

The Most High descended on Mount Sinai
and stretched forth his hand over Moses.
Moses laid it on Aaron,
and so it continued till John.
Therefore did our Lord say to him
‘It is right that I be baptized by you,
that the Order may not perish’
Our Lord gave it to the Apostles,
and behold, in our Church is its handing on,
Blessed be he who gave us his Order.

Elsewhere, Ephrem says that it is the old man Simeon in the temple (Luke 2:25-32), regarded as a priest, who communicated to Christ the Priesthood that came from Moses. At another place, Ephrem says that Christ’s priesthood came from Melchizedek. (Murray, pp. 55, 179)

Though Aphrahat wrote against the Jews, he showed great respect for the Jewish believer. If so, why did Aphrahat devote so much of his Demonstrations to the problem of Jewish-Christian relationship? From very early times Adiabene in the northeast, along with Edessa and Nisibis in the north west and around Seleucia-Ctesiphon in the south, had been major centres for the Jews in the East. At first it was in these Jewish communities that Christian expansion in Persia took place. Jewish Christians in turn began to evangelize the Gentiles. Yet the Jewish and Christian communities must have remained socially connected, especially in a milieu which was largely pagan or Zoroastrian. The relation between Christian faith and Judaism must have been a difficult issue in Persia and the Church fathers might have felt the need for Christian apologetics against the Jews. Moreover, during the time of persecution (Jews were not persecuted) there was a danger of Jewish Christians reverting back to Judaism. As Stewart McCullough pointed out, "It is difficult to determine the purpose of those particular treatises. Some may have been useful in persuading Jews to enter the church. Others may have been intended to guard Jewish Christians from slipping back into Jewish ways. This may have been a real danger, for the evidence indicates that Shapur’s persecution of non-conformists did not extend to the synagogue."

In his day, the church of Persia suffered severe persecution under Shapur II and Varuhara IV. In his treatise on persecution, Aphrahat told his fellow believers that they are the followers of a persecuted Jesus and that God in his mercy will bring good out of evil.

The School of Nisibis

For generations Persian Christians came to Edessa for their theological education. Edessa was the great theological centre for the East. But, as we have seen, christological controversies in the Roman empire affected Edessa also and as the Monophysite influence spread strong in Edessa, the school was closed down and teachers were expelled.

In the peace treaty which emperor Jovian concluded with Shapur II in AD 363, Nisibis was reverted to Persian control. Nisibis remained under Persian control till it fell to the Arabs in AD 640-41, and it was a leading city in the western part of the Persian kingdom. As we stated earlier, when Nisibis came under Persian control, many Christians left for Edessa. Now many of them returned to Nisibis. The bishop in Nisibis at that time was bishop Harsauma, a great champion of the Dyophysite (Nestorian) group. He welcomed Narsai and other teachers from Edessa to Persia. It was with the initiative of Barsauma and under the leadership of Narsai, the school was restarted in Nisibis.

While the date of the actual founding of the school of Nisibis is not known, it was started after AD 489, with the closing down of the school in Edessa. As McCullough observed, "whatever the date may be, the school of Nisibis was in fact the continuation of the one at Edessa and the heir of its scholastic traditions." (McCullough, p. 115)

Narsai enjoyed immense reputation. Among his contemporaries, no one was equal in this respect. He was the mepasqana (interpreter or exegete of the scriptures) in the school. He was a great poet. He wrote a large number of memre and most of his literary creation grew out of the world of the Bible. The memre were on biblical figures -- Joseph, Samuel, Solomon, Job, John the Baptist, Paul, Mary and others; on New Testament events such as the birth of Jesus, temptations etc, and on the events in the history of salvation: Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.

Narsai’s gift for language made him a master of the Syriac idioms. With his poetic gifts he charmed his hearers. He also knew how to make his poetry popular. He put his theology into memre with pleasant melodies. The immense renown he had secured for himself is echoed in the epithets by which tradition has immortalized him. Abdiso spoke of him as the harp of the Holy Spirit. It was a time when the foundations of the Persian church were being laid. His scholarship helped the church to be built on strong biblical and theological foundations. He was a great teacher. His learning and knowledge were esteemed so singular that his grateful admirers, in their amazement and veneration, believed that they saw angels hovering around his chair when he taught. In the tradition Narsai lives on as ‘the doctor and the tongue of the Orient’ or as the ‘admirable doctor’. The church has bestowed on him the honour, Rabban the Great’. (Ibid., p.128.)

A. Voobus points out that another source of Narsai’s reputation lies in the sanctity of his life. His asceticism spoke to the simpleminded much louder than his scholarship. He chastised his bodily needs. "In him the figure of the athlete emerges among the leading spirits." The only possession he had were his books. (A. Voobus. History of the School of Nisibis. p.82.)

The central aspect of the school was its spiritual discipline and Bible study. Scripture was the heart and centre of curriculum. Within the frame work of the general biblical knowledge, students were given systematic training in the exegesis of the biblical passages after the manner of ‘the Great Interpreter’, Theodore of Mopsuestia, whose sober, literal textual interpretations were always the Nestorian model. (Ibid.) Narsai pays tribute to Theodore thus:

It is proper to call him doctor of doctors, the agility of the spirit without which there would be no doctor who could give good instruction; through the treasury of his writings they have enriched all they have gained; and through his commentaries they have acquired the ability to interpret; from him I have learned the habit of meditation of the divine word; his meditation became for me the guide towards scripture; and he has elevated me towards the understanding of the books of the spirit. (A. Voobus, op.cit., p. l06.)

Homiletics was not neglected in the school, but it was based on a careful interpretation of the text. Theodore’s sense of history and disciplined thinking had compelled him to reject the allegorical method of the Alexandrians. "They (the Alexandrians), indeed, turn everything backward," writes Theodore, "since they wish to make no distinction between what the text says (historical) and dreams in the night." (Ibid.)

The school of Nisibis was a confessional institution and the Nestorian faith was the precondition for admission. But it was more than a school of the Bible or confessional institute. It was a school of spiritual discipline. A good many of the rules were related to the internal discipline of the school. It was a close knit community and resembled a monastery rather than a school. It was expected that the students leave the world and take the vows of chastity as long as they are enrolled in the school. The students roomed together in small cells in groups of three or more. A student’s life was a rigorous one. While in school he was up at cocks crow, and spend the day reading, hearing lectures, copying manuscripts and practising the recitations of the liturgy (canons 8 & 9). Tuition was free but the students were to pay for their meals. At Nisibis, during long vacation (August to October) they were sent out to labour and earn their keep. Discipline was very strict. A long list of prohibitions governed student conduct. Witchcraft, heresy, theft, falsehood, and immorality were forbidden along with causing ‘confusion in the school.’ The penalty for such offences was immediate expulsion from the school. Like some monasteries, the school enjoyed independence even from the jurisdiction of the bishops. One rule is particularly significant. Students were forbidden to cross the border into Byzantine (Roman) territory both for theological and political reasons (canon 4). Byzantium was in the hands of the Monophysites. There was also a political factor. It could give the appearance of collaboration with Persia’s old enemy, the Romans. We need to remember that the Persian church always lived under the shadow of political suspicion. (Moffett, p. 202.)

The school was not only a school of spiritual discipline based on the study of the Bible, its theology was also a missionary theology. This explains to a large extent the astounding way the church expanded. The roots of this missionary theology arises from Narsai’s theology, the first great teacher in Nisibis. His theology effectively combined doctrines of creation, salvation and a universal mission patterned after two biblical models, Peter to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. But the ultimate mandate for mission comes from neither Peter nor Paul, but from Jesus himself, who, as Narsai paraphrases him, told his disciples:

Your (task) is this: to complete the mystery of preaching! You shall be witnesses of the new way which I have opened up in my person ...You, I send as messengers to the four quarters (of the earth) to convert the Gentiles to kinship with the House of Abraham ... By you as light I will banish the darkness of error, and by your flames I will enlighten the blind world. ...Go forth! Give gratis the freedom of life to immortality. (F. G. McLeod, Narsai‘s Metrical on the Nativity, Epiphany and Ascension (19879 [sic.]). Quoted in Moffett, op.cit., p. 202.)

Narsai died about AD 503. He was succeeded by Elisa Bar Quzbaie and after him by Abraham De-Bet Rabban. During Abraham’s time the school reached its peak and enrolment climbed to more than thousand students. Henana of Adiabene who became the director of the school in AD 570-571 was a gifted teacher, especially in the exegesis of the scriptures. But theologically he was inclined to the monophysite side and he preferred John Chrysostom to Theodore of Mopsuestia. The Nestorian church repudiated his leadership but he remained in the school with the support of the state. The result was that the majority of the teachers and students left the school and went to the monastery of Mar Abraham in Mount IzIa which was also an important theological centre; and to other theological institutions in Persia. One such institution was the school of Seleucia. The fame of Nisibis as a teaching centre and as a stimulus to scholarly writing came to an end. We do not know when exactly the school of Seleucia was founded. As long as the school of Nisibis flourished, it remained in the shadow of Nisibis. When Nisibis declined, the school-of Seleucia gained in prominence.

Henana, at one time was a real threat to the Nestorian church. He won the support of the state and that too at a time when the state was inclined to favour the Monophysites. During the controversy that followed, the Nestorian church was forced to define its theological position over against the Monophysites on the one hand and the Chalcedonians on the other. In this crisis situation, the great mouthpiece of the church was Mar Babai the Great (not the patriarch Babai II). He was the abbot of the monastery of Mount IzIa (569-628) and was a theologian of considerable merit. His Book of Union appears to have settled the final version of the Nestorian beliefs. He taught, "One is Christ the Son of God, worshipped by all in two natures. In his godhead begotten of the Father without beginning before all time; in his manhood born of Mary, in the fullness of time, in a united body. Neither his godhead was of the nature of the mother, nor his manhood of the nature of the Father. The natures are preserved in their qnume, (qnume : It is the essence of a given nature in concrete, realized form. The word is used for the discussions of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in credal affirmation. Nature is general and descriptive; qnume is specific and exemplary. When Babai speaks of Christ as "God and man" he insists on specificity: a divine qnume [not the Holy Trinity] and a human qnume [not mankind in general]. It is a singular essence. It is distinctive among its fellow qnume [only] by reason of any unique property. It is because of this distinctiveness, Paul is not Peter.) in one person of one sonship. (Aziz Atiya, A History of Eastern Christianity, London. Methuen & Co Ltd. p. 254.)

Theodore of Mopsuestia and the East Syrian Church

From the fifth century onwards, Theodore of Mopsuestia was the greatest theological influence in the life of the East Syrian Church. Theodore was the doctor of doctors in the church. When Henana of Adiabene, the director of the school at Nisibis (570-71) preferred John Chrysostom to Theodore, the Persian church repudiated his leadership and the majority of teachers and students left the school. Such was the popularity of the theology of Theodore in the Persian church.

"The bishop of Mopsuestia is a mysterious and intriguing figure", writes Robert De Vriesse. "Highly esteemed by his contemporaries, he was condemned as a heretic 125 years after his death. His works, as those of a heretic, have mostly perished, he has borne the reputation, for 1400 years, of the father of Nestorianism, the Patron of Pelagianism, and the first rationalist interpreter of the Bible." (John L. McKenzie, " A New Study of Theodore of Mopsuestia". Theological Studies. vol. 10,1949, p. 394. Theodore was condemned as a heretic in the fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in AD 553.)

Theodore’s life (350-428) almost coincided with the golden age of the Patristic literature. He was fellow student and friend of John Chrysostom and the teacher of Nestorius. He was the contemporary of Cyril of Alexandria, the Cappadocians, Augustine and Jerome. As bishop of Mopsuestia, Theodore’s influence extended far beyond his bishopric. As an exegete, Theodore was supreme among the scholars of-his day. It is said that he was the greatest exegete before the Reformation. So great was his reputation as an exponent of the Scripture and as a leader of Christian thought that his contemporaries used to say, "we believe as Theodore believes, long live the faith of Theodore." His was a voice and not an echo among echoes. Even distant churches received instructions from him. After his death, his was the leading theology in the East Syrian Church. True to the tradition of the Antiochene Church, he was an enthusiast for missionary work. One of his books, which is now lost, was on missionary work. Bethune Baker writes: He died in the peace of the church and in the height of a great reputation, retaining to the last the warmest affection of Christendom and the highest regard of the Emperor. An excellent scholar, far-famed in his day as a pillar of the truth and a commentator, he may thus be taken as a good representative of the theological thought of the eastern Church at the end of the fourth century. (Bethune Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of the Christian Doctrine. London, Methuen & Co Ltd. 1903 (reprinted 1954), p. 225.)

The school of Antioch, of which Theodore was the most outstanding and influential theologian, was not so much a recognized institution with regularly appointed teachers but as a succession of brilliant scholars and thinkers in and around Antioch. They were not all professional teachers but most of them had many followers and disciples. There were marked differences between the scholars of Alexandria and that of Antioch. The Alexandrian school was speculative and mystical in its tendencies, while the Antiochene school had a strong bent towards the scientific and rational. Consequently there was much room for misunderstanding between the scholars of the two schools. In the Christological controversies of the fifth century, they were on opposite sides. However, the theologians of the Antiochene school were very much impressed and influenced by the thoroughness of scholarship and spirit of enquiry of Origen of Alexandria. Diodorus of Tarsus in the 4th century is said to have initiated the theological tradition of Antioch. Recent discoveries of the works of Theodore: Commentary on the Gospel of John, fragments of commentaries on the Psalms and Genesis, and Catechetical homilies, help us to get some understanding of the Antiochene theology in general, and Theodore’s theology and scholarship in particular. The distinctive features of Antiochenes were in their interpretation of the scriptures, in their Christology and in their reflections on human nature.

The Antiochene theologians were biblical scholars. The exegesis of Antiochenes was based -on sound commonsense principles, being opposed on the one hand to the allegorical interpretation of Alexandria and on the other to crude literalism. They were convinced that the wholesale allegorizing undermined the historical truth of the Scriptures. They aimed primarily at finding out what the inspired writers originally meant to say. Although they held strongly to the inspiration of the Bible, they believed that the best way to arrive at their true meaning was to treat them as human documents. Inspiration to them was ethical and not pathological and consisted in a divine enrichment and ennoblement of the personalities of the sacred writers which enabled them to grasp something of the truth of God and understand something of His character and purpose. Though they recognized the Bible as the word of God, they also recognized the human elements in it. They searched the Scriptures not to see what could be read into them but to discover what was actually there. To this end they used all the aids at their disposal derived from grammar, philology and history. Instead of teaching the Bible as a collection of isolated texts, each to be interpreted literally, they endeavored to treat each book in the Bible as a whole. The contexts of passages were specially noted, the authorship, date, and circumstances of writing were carefully studied. The personality of the writers where it could be discovered and the peculiarities of their language and thought were investigated and taken into account. Difficulties were treated with intellectual courtesy and fairness and not opportunities for ingenuous explaining away as the allegorist did.

It is generally accepted that Theodore was a pioneer in textual criticism. He was the first to apply literary criticism to the solution of textual problems. He was a defender of the primacy of the literal sense and was strongly opposed to the Alexandrian school and its methods. He applied his critical tools to the study of the Psalms. Theodore was the first interpreter to insist that the Psalm must be read against its historical background. He pointed out that many of the Psalms are not from the time of David and several of them reflect the Maccabean period; while only three or four Psalms refer directly to the Messiah and His times.

The Antiocheanes were certainly before their time. They were undoubtedly the true forerunners of the biblical scholars of today. As John McKenzie points out, "if modern exegesis is to be classified in one of the Patristic schools, it is certainly Antiochean rather than Alexandrian" (John L. McKenzie, op.cit., p. 394.)

As to Christology, both the Alexandrians and the Antiocheanes taught that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. It was in explaining the way in which full divinity and full humanity are united in one Person that they accused each other of heresy. While confessing two natures, the Alexandrians wanted to emphasize the unity of two natures in one person. The Antiocheans, while confessing the unity wanted to distinguish the two natures in one person.

The Antiocheans had a real, appreciation of the glory and the value of human life of Jesus without minimizing his divinity. To them, Jesus Christ represented the humanhood at its highest, holiest and fullest. One of the essential elements in human nature, according to them, is free will and the capacity for choosing either good or evil. As a human being Jesus possessed this free will. It was this which made them oppose Apollinarius who denied ‘human soul’ in Jesus. They recognized in the synoptic Gospels a certain process of growth, development and progress in the inner life of Jesus. They saw in Jesus a progressive development by means of conflict and trial by the exercise of free will. For them, the reality of human life of Jesus is necessary for the complete work of redemption.

Alexandrian theologians such as Origen and Athanasius, under the influence of Platonic ideas, believed that the human soul is immortal. So redemption for them means the fallen soul returning to the place of origin. Athanasius explains "For he was made man that we might be made God." Here the distinction between the creator and the creation vanishes. Further the redemption of the body, of the creation itself, is in no sense required by this platonic soteriology. It was Theodore’s greatest insight to realize the difficulties involved in this notion of redemption as divinization. (Rowan Greer, Theology of Mopsuestia, pp. 14-18.)

According to Theodore, salvation of the human being is not to be described as divinization but rather as the fulfillment of the community of human being and God, which belongs to the human being by virtue of his or her creation. We are created in the image of God. This fulfillment is perfectly brought about in the life of Jesus. Jesus Christ is fully human and such is the perfect expression of the image of God. By union with Jesus we are restored to community with God.

For Theodore the human being is the crowning work of creation. A most important aspect in human nature is the free will and the capacity to choose either good or evil. "The present life is a wholesome discipline, affording room for the exercise of free will and the attainment of goodness, which without our effort would be destitute of moral worth." But he recognizes the need for help. Although human-nature is free and we have a responsibility in conquering evil, it is insufficient to conquer the forces of evil and attain perfect virtue without supernatural aids. The mission of Christ is primarily to restore the shattered unity of the cosmos, and gather-up all things to himself by realizing in his person the position of the human being as the visible image of God and the head of all creation, and to restore humankind by union with himself. To fulfill this mission it was necessary that God the word should become perfect human being in possessing a rational soul capable of exercising a real choice between good and evil and entering into conflict with the passions of the human soul. This is how Theodore explains Incarnation and Redemption.

Many of the church fathers saw redemption as divinization, that is, going back to the original state. Human being is created perfect and the fall represents the fall from perfection. Death is the punishment for sin. For Theodore, on the contrary, Adam was created mortal, death was not a punishment for sin but natural, and concupiscence already lived in Adam as in a mortal being. But the human being is created with freedom to choose his or her destiny -- either the image of God or the image of the devil. The fall then is not a fall from perfection but a falling short or failure to obey the call of destiny." (Rowan Greer, op.cit.. p.24.) With the help of Christ. the human being is gradually brought to perfection, that is, community with God. In this process, the freedom of will to make choices plays an important role. Theodore explains this process thus: "God separated history into two ages that man might be led from mortality and mutability to immortality and immutability in the new age." (Ibid. p. 18.) According to Theodore, if God had made the human being as immortal and immutable to begin with, we would be differentiated in no way from the irrational creation, since we would have no knowledge of our own good. Theodore considers the human being as a creature. The human being has fallen in the sense that he chose the way to sin that was open to him. This choice and the knowledge of good and evil were necessary if human beings were to be rational. The destiny and the highest faculty of the human being is dependent upon his or her being mutable and responsible. The destiny of immortality-in the second stage is possible only through the rational functioning of the human being in this age. Our life in this age becomes a training to prepare us for the perfect obedience and immutability of the age to come. This is possible if only human beings are given the freedom of choice. For Theodore, sin has nothing to do with human nature. However powerful are the effects of Adam’s fall in intensifying the inclination for concupiscence and sinning, the free will and the moral ability to make decisions between good and evil are not impaired.

In the fifth century Theodore found a very favourable hearing in the East Syrian Church as his teachings were very congenial to those who were reared in the ancient traditions of Ephrem and Aphrahat. When the school of Nisibis introduced the teaching of Theodore, there was a continuity with the existing theological tradition.

Ephrem represents the ancient Syrian-thought world. Ephrem does not accept original sin. Sin for him is a matter of freedom and its roots are in the will. He defines sin thus, "Sin is this, a nature (furnished) with will and a being (furnished) with freedom becomes guilty." Sin cannot be located in human nature. Therefore one cannot say that human nature has been fundamentally affected by sin or transformed into evil. Thus Ephrem can speak of the innocence of children, and the righteousness and perfection of those in biblical history. He regards life lived in virginity as an angel like form of existence. (Arthur Voobus, "Theological Reflections on Human Nature in Ancient Syrian Traditions," in E. Ferguson (ed). Studies in Early Christianity, vol. x, Garland Publishing Inc. London, 1993, p. 40.) According to Ephrem, since Adam’s fall, outward conditions have experienced catastrophic changes, but neither human nature nor the spiritual-ethical level in human existence has been affected. Human being’s moral power and ethical strength have received a blow from Adam’s example; in themselves, however, they have not been seriously endangered. Indeed, it is intact. This is so because human being’s freedom has not been seriously affected. "If our created nature is ugly, the reproach falls on our creator; but if our freedom is evil, the reproach accumulates itself on us."(Ibid., p. 40.) As human freedom, so also the will has remained intact (Nisbene Hymns xxi, 5). Thereby human beings are furnished with qualities which make them capable of co-operation with the saving work of Christ, being able through their ethical strength and will to take on themselves the consequences of their calling. (Hymn of Faith xxxi, 5)

Voobus points out that statements emerge again and again which reveal Ephrem’s keen interest in and his vigorous stand for the human being’s freedom. "The Master of Edessa is confident that the reigns of the will are laid in the hands of man," writes Voobus. The will ‘born’ free is the power that frees from sin. Through free will, sin falls. Although human power is weak, the will guarantees victory. What Ephrem stresses is the responsibilities and obligations of the Christian faith. Although Ephrem seldom speaks of grace, it is his religion. His concern was how human beings could and should react to God’s gracious invitation. He saw grace in all what God has done in and through the ministry of Jesus Christ. That provides the context for human action. It is in this sense that he speaks of co-operation between God and human being. He also says that by grace, human will receives strength from God.

Just as in the case of Ephrem, Aphrahat also does not accept original sin. Human nature is not subjected to corruption and depravity through the fall of Adam, as if Adam’s fall has made humankind a mass of sinners. But he takes seriously the devastation released by the example set by Adam’s disobedience and fall. Adam’s bad example is an instigation which others emulate. For Aphrahat, Grace is understood in terms of the indwelling of Christ’s Spirit in the believer. In baptism, the Spirit descends and takes a place in the believer’s life. However, this spirit is envisaged as one which enhances ethical sensitivity, thus moving the believer to strive for sanctity of life.

What we see in the Syrian tradition is a Christianity which in its understanding of human nature was eager to preserve the freedom of the human being and a certain degree of self-reliance, thereby laying strong emphasis on ethical power and the sense of responsibility.

Theodore’s theology was very congenial to the East Syrians who were brought up in the theological tradition of Ephrem and Aphrahat. From the fifth century on the impact of Theodore’s theology and approach on East Syrian theology was immense and the most important disciple of Theodore in Persia was Narsai, the head of the theological school in Nisibis. Voobus notes that Narsai simply absorbed Theodore’s theology -- that death was natural and therefore not a punishment for Adam’s sin carried over to humankind." (Ibid., p. 43.) The school of Nisibis, where Narsai was the great master, became a centre for spiritual renewal for the Persian Church. The authority of Theodore, along with Diodore and Nestorius, was established as normative for hermeneutics as well as for theology. "Thus Theodore’s theological heritage found a safe repository where it was guarded and cherished by faithful hands and thus became the very heart in the body of the Nestorian church." (Ibid., p. 46.)

It is in their reflections on human nature, sin and grace, that Western and Eastern theologians parted company. From Augustine onwards, Western emphasis on original sin, the bondage of the will, and the irresistibility of grace have resulted in the doctrine of double pre-destination. But in contrast, as Voobus points out, that the East "with their emphasis on freedom, the ethical strength and the moral responsibility of man preserves something of that which, in its deeper layers, rests in the Gospel tradition itself." (Ibid., p. 49) The Theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia stands as a strong critique to that of Augustine. Wherever Nestorian missionaries went, the theology of Theodore also went.


Chapter 4: Christianity in Arabia and Central Asia Christianity Among the Arabs


Christianity Among the Arabs

J. Spencer Trimingham (J. Spencer Trimingham, Christianity Among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times, London, Longman, 1979) points out that we should discard the notion that until the Muslim Arab expansion in the seventh century, the Arabs lived mainly in the Arabian Peninsula and that the term Arab meant camel nomads. Even before the emergence of Islam, the Arabs were found in all the regions beyond the northern border in Syria and Palestine, Mesopotamia and Babylon, and even in western Persia. They intermingled with the Aramaic speaking peoples of the region and spoke Aramaic. Some were cultivators of the land and some were nomads, while some lived in cities. When Christianity spread to Syria and Persia, there is no doubt that some of the Arabs also became Christians. Unlike the Greeks, the Aramean Christians showed no interest in metaphysics as an end in itself. They were concerned with a joyful transformation of life within the world accomplished through the possession of the Holy Spirit. For them the Lord is a spirit and salvation in Christ meant victory over the powers of the evil spirits. The deserts were the abode of such demonic spirits. Trimingham says that the conversions of many Arab leaders came about through their deliverance from the possessive spirits or the cure of maladies caused by the spirits. For example, a number of nomad Arabs in the valley of the Euphrates accepted Christianity because they were attracted to the Christian faith by the power which the Christian monks and hermits exercised over the evil spirits in the name of Jesus." (Ibid., p. 128.)

There were a number of small independent buffer States between Rome and Parthia and several of them were of Arab tribes. There were Christians among them. According to Trimingham, the ruler of Edessa, king Abgar who became a Christian, was of Arab origin. Two of the important Arab tribes which lived between Persia and the Roman empire with whom the great powers maintained relationships were Banu Ghasan on the Syrian frontier and Banu Hira on the Persian frontier. In course of time Banu Ghasan became a strong Monophysite stronghold. Not all Banu Hira were Christians but several clans among them were Nestorian Christians.

It is very difficult to say when and how exactly Christianity came to peninsular Arabia; through Arab Christians from the north or through Persian missionaries or through Christian traders from Persia or through Christian immigrants. It might have been through all these means. There were three important trade routes to Arabia connecting it to Persia, Syria and Egypt. It is important to note that it was along these trade routes that Christian centres developed. Several historians have suggested that the most important mode of entrance had been by emigration of Christians from Persia at the time of persecution, particularly in the latter part of the reign of Shapur II (310-379) who persecuted the Christians severely from AD 339 onwards. These immigrants must have mostly gone either by land through the semi independent Arab state of Hira or across the Persian Gulf to the coast of Oman, and from there southwards to Yemen. The Chronicle Seert mentions that one Abdisho built a monastery on the island of Baharin, perhaps about AD 390. However, one should consider the possibility of Christianity being present in Arabia even before the persecution of Shapur II. As we mentioned earlier, there were Arab Christians throughout the eastern part of the Roman empire as well as in Persia, and a church with a great missionary spirit might have taken the Gospel to Arabia at an earlier date, probably by the end of the second or early third century.

The main centre of Christianity in Arabia proper was in Yemen and in Najran in South Arabia. The Book of Himyarites, (A. Moberg, The Book of Himyarites, London: Oxford University Press, 1924.) fragments of a Syriac work written in AD 932, gives us some information about Christianity in South Arabia. There is a tradition which says that during the reign of Yazdegerd I (399-420) in Persia, a merchant named Hayyan, from Yemen of the Himyarites kingdom, went to Constantinople. On his return he stopped at the Arab tributary kingdom of Hirta on the Persian border east of Euphrates. While there he frequented the company of Nestorian Christians and was converted to Christian faith. On his return to Yemen, he proclaimed the Gospel in Yemen as well as in the neighbouring places. In Yemen, the Jews were numerous and they persecuted the Christians.

There is another tradition about the introduction of Christianity to this area. About AD 354, the Roman emperor Constantius, son of Constantine the Great, sent Theophilus "the Indian" to lead an embassy to southern Asia. On his way, the embassy visited the southwest corner of Arabia. There Theophilus, who was a deacon in the church preached the Gospel. As a result the Himyarite king was converted and three or four churches were built -- in Zafar, the capital of the Himyarite kingdom, in Aden, in Sana (a place half way between Nairam and Aden) and at Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. By about AD 500, Nairam was a great centre of Christians, Christians being numerous in that region. In the list of bishops consecrated by Catholicos Timothy I (780-820), there is the mention of bishops of Yemen and Sana.

Christianity in Central Asia

From its very beginning, the East Syrian church expressed its faith through missionary efforts. When the western church was busily engaged in theological controversies, the East Syrian church was busy preaching the Gospel to the Persians, the Arabs, the Indians, the Turks and the Chinese. The existence of trade routes connecting Syria with China, India and Tibet offered great opportunities. Marco Polo tells us that in his day the trade route from Baghdad to Peking was lined with Nestorian churches.

By the end of the fifth century, Persian missionaries were making converts among the Huns and the Turks in Central Asia." (Huns and Turks occupied the steppes in central Asia. They were a nomadic people. Sometimes the word ‘Turks’ is used to designate a group of people all of whom used one form or other of a Turkish family of languages. The Turks of Central Asia in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries occupied a strategic situation. Economically they were important because of their control of the land routes from east to west. Politically they held a key position in a power struggle involving China, Turks in Mongolia, Tibetans and the Muslim Caliphate. They felt the cultural influences of all these groups.) When the Persian king Kavadh I had to flee his country to Central Asia in AD 499, he met on the way a group of Christian missionaries -- a bishop, four presbyters and four laymen -- going to Central Asia to preach to the Turks. Their mission was successful and many Turks became Christians. In addition to the work of Christian missionaries, Christian influence was making its way through the agency of Christian doctors, scribes and artisans who were readily able to find employment among the Turks and Huns. It needs to be noted that the Christians in the Sassanian kingdom were chiefly from the Syriac speaking population of the empire. In Mesopotamia most physicians, the larger portion of the mercantile and artisan classes and many members of the civil bureaucracy appeared to have been Christians. In the middle of the sixth century, a priest of the Hephthalite Huns was consecrated as bishop for his people by the Nestorian Catholicos. (R. Aubrey Vine, The Nestorian Churches: A Concise History of Nestorian Christianity in Asia from the Persian Schism to the Modern Assyrians. London. Independent Press, 1937, p.62.)

From the fourth to the seventh century, Merv was an important missionary base from which mission was undertaken to Central Asia. From Men’, the urban centres of Bukhara and Samarquand in Transoxiana were reached with the Gospel. Mingana speaks of a large number of converts beyond the Oxus river as a result of missionary work undertaken by Elliya, the metropolitan of Men’ in the seventh century. (Lawrence E. Browne, The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1933.) In due course Samarquand became an important Christian centre and a base for missionary expansion further eastwards. About the Christian community in Samarquand, Wilfred Blunt writes:

The Christian community there, like that found in many Central Asian countries, included at different times Jacobite (Syriac Christians of the Syrian Orthodox Church), Melkites (Syriac Christians of the Greek rites) and Armenians (of the Armenian Apostolic Church). But as early as the fifth century, it was an important ‘Nestorian centre’, and by the eighth century, continuing until the fifteenth century, had its own metropolitan. (Wilfred Blunt, The Golden Road to Samarkund, London, Hamish Hamilton. 1973. Quoted in John C. England, op. cit., p.137.)

Many members of this church of the East lived often in village settlements, and remains of Nestorian Christian villages north of Samarquand date from at least as early as the ninth century. They were active in trade, education, and medical occupations, and drew freely on the scholarship and traditions of the East Syrian Church with which they appear to have been in regular contact.

Like other communities also, Samarquand retained its churches, schools and monastic cells under a succession of Arab and Turkish rulers for almost 1000 years, the Samarquand Churches surviving even the Mongol invasion of 1220. In 1248, an Armenian visitor to Samarquand attended worship there and Marco Polo estimated one in every ten to be Christians at the time of his visit (c 1265). In the mid-thirteenth century also, church buildings were restored and used, new churches were built, one of circular structure, dedicated to John the Baptist, and 200 years later Lopez de Clavijo reported the presence there of many Christians. (Ibid., p. 139.)

Timothy I was one of the energetic patriarchs of the Persian church. He had sent more than eighty monks for mission work in Turkestan (a region in Central Asia extending approximately from the Caspian Sea to Lake Baikal). In the 8th century, the number of Turkish Christians had increased so much that Patriarch Timothy, in about AD 781, consecrated a metropolitan for them. It is also mentioned incidentally in one of his letters that he was about to consecrate a metropolitan for Tibet. Browne comments that these references are tantalizing because they show that there must have been great missions of which we have no record. (Lawrence Browne, op. cit., p.95.)

There were Nestorian missionary activities further to the northeast, toward Lake Baikal. During the 10th and 11th centuries, several Tartar tribes were entirely or to a great extent Christian, notably the Keraits, Uighurs, Naimans and Merkits.

Keraits were a Turko-Mongolian tribe. The Kerait capital at this time was Karakoram, where Marco Polo found a church. They were a cluster of hunting tribes east and south of Lake Baikal. The principal tribes evangelized there by the Nestorians were the Naiman, the Merkit and the Kerait. It seems that the Gospel was taken to those tribes by Christian merchants. An account of the conversion of the Keraits is given by the thirteenth century Jacobite historian Gregory Bar Hebraeus. According to Hebraeus, at the beginning of the eleventh century, a king of the Keraits lost his way while hunting in the high mountains. When he had abandoned all hope, a saint appeared in a vision and said, "If you will believe in Christ I will lead you lest you perish." He returned home safely. He remembered the vision when he met some Christian merchants. He inquired of them of their faith. At their suggestion he sent a message to the Metropolitan of Merv for priests and deacons to baptize him and his tribe. As a result of the mission that followed, the Kerait prince and two hundred thousand of his people accepted baptism. (R. Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1970, p. 191. See also Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia pp. 400-401.)

Mosheim writes, "It is placed beyond controversy that the kings of the people called Carth, living on the borders of Cathai, whom some denominate tribe of the Turks, and others of Tartars, constituting a considerable portion of the Mongols, did profess Christianity from this time [tenth century] onward, and that no inconsiderable part of Tartary or Asiatic Scythia lived under bishops sent among them by the Pontiff of the Nestorians. (Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History; Vol. 11, p. 123. He places the conversion of the Keraits at the end of the tenth century.)

The historical basis of the Pester John legend may well have been connected with a Christian ruler of the Keraits. "The history of this race of Christian kings, afterward so celebrated in Europe under the name of Pester John, is properly referable to the two succeeding centuries." (Asahel Grant, op. cit., p. 376.)

The Keraits organized themselves into a confederation and thus influenced the political organization among the later Mongols. It was the Keraits who patronized and helped the growth of Temujin who later became the Chengis Khan (1162-1227) of the Mongols. The Keraits also had religious influence over the Mongols through royal marriage. Chengis Khan’s eldest daughter-in-law was a Nestorian Kerait princess called Sorkaktani -beki (or Sorghaghtani). She became the Christian mother of three imperial sons, an emperor (Great Khan) of the Mongols, an emperor of China and an emperor (ilkhan) of Persia. To the south of the Keraits were the Uighurs and there were Christians among them. The Uighur script had been created for them by the Syrian Nestorians. It was this script which was passed on to Mongols who still had no written language.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Nestorian missionaries were very active in Central Asia.

In the Tartary and the adjacent regions, the activity of the Nestorians continued daily to gain over more people to the side of Christianity; and such is the mass testimony at the present day, that we cannot doubt but that bishops of the highest order, or metropolitans, with many inferior bishops subject to them, were established at that period in the provinces of Cashgar. Naucheta, Turkistan, Genda, Tangut and others, whence it will be manifested that there were a vast multitude of Christians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in those countries, which are now devoted to Mohammadanism or the worship of imaginary gods. That all these Christians followed the Nestorian creed, and were subject to the superior pontiff of the Nestorians residing in Chaldea, is so certain as to be beyond controversy. (Mosheim, op.cit., p. 161.)

The rise of Mongols into an Asian power in the thirteenth century affected the whole history of Asia in various ways. Chengis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire was born in Mongolia, probably in AD 1167. In his war against his enemies, he was greatly helped at first by Toghril, chief of the Nestorian Christian Kerait tribe. Chengis was a man of extraordinary stamina and resourcefulness. lie eliminated his rivals one by one and brought all the Mongol tribes under his control, including Naimans, Merkit and the Keraits. He was elected Khan of all Mongols. That was the starting point of a series of conquests which led to the creation of the greatest empire the world has ever known. The conquest of the whole of China was not achieved during his life time, but a large part of northern China was under his control. The Mongol presence in China continued under his successors. Chengis’ grandson, Kublai Khan (1259-1294) subdued the whole of China in AD 1279 and the Mongol rule over China lasted until AD 1386. Under the two successors of Chengis Khan, the seat of Mongol power remained in Karakoram. It was only under the reign of Kublai Khan that he moved his winter capital to Peking.

The conquest of China brought the Mongols to the threshold of South East Asia. The Mongols made several campaigns in South East Asia and the old empires of Burma and Vietnam came under their control. It was the destruction by the Mongols of the power of the kingdom of Mien (Burma) in the eleventh century that secured the independence of Thailand and saw the establishment of the first independent Thai kingdom centered in Sukhodya.

About the Mongol empire Denis Sinor points out that there was a sudden widening of the geographical horizon of the peoples within the boundaries of the Mongol sphere of influence. It was an epoch when, "all the territory within the four seas had become the domain of a single family; civilization had spread throughout, and all barriers were removed. Fraternity among the races had reached a new zenith. (Denis Sinor, Inner Asia, Indiana University Publication, 1969, p. l63.)

Though Christianity made great success in Central Asia, it did not mean Christianity was the predominant religion there. Except among certain tribes such as Keraits, Naimans, Merkits and Uighers (partially Christian), Christianity was only a small minority among the Central Asian people. From the beginning of the Christian era, Buddhism from India was widespread among the Turks. The famous Indian monk Jnana Gupta spent ten years (575-585) in the court of one of the Turkish Khans, T’o-Po, and organized a centre for translation and cataloging of Buddhist books. In the 16th century, it was Lamaism, the Tibetan Buddhism, which spread rapidly in central Asia.

Islam which originated in Arabia in the seventh century was a great missionary religion. Islam slowly began to penetrate into central Asia and by the 13th century, Islam became the predominant faith among the Turks in central Asia. Yet numerous bodies of the Nestorian Christians were still scattered over all Central Asia.


Trinity College of Biblical Studies

A study of selected biblical episodes which are enriched when understood in the context of Near, and Far  Eastern history along with Palestinian geography

Historical Geography