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Judging from the New Testament account of the rise and expansion of the early church, during the first few centuries of Christianity, the most extensive dissemination of the gospel was not in the West but in the East. In fact, conditions in the Parthian empire (250 BC - A.D. 226), which stretched from the Euphrates to the Indus rivers and the Caspian to the Arabian seas, were in some ways more favourable for the growth of the church than in the Roman world. And though opposition to Christianity increasingly mounted under successive Persian and Islamic rulers, Christian communities were eventually established in the vast territory which stretches from the Near to the Far East possibly as early as the first century of the church.

Easterners at Pentecost

Luke states in Acts 2:5-11 that there were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost “devout men from every nation under heaven.” Among these were “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia...and Arabians”. Moreover, these pilgrims included “both Jews and proselytes,”alike in their familiarity with the culture of their respective countries and the revelation of the Old testament Scriptures. The most plausible explanation of the early appearance of Christian communities in these lands is that some of these pilgrims were converted and returned to the East as spirit-filled missionaries. Furthermore, the question immediately arises as to whether any of the apostles had a part in this eastern mission. According to two historians, Eusebius of Caesarea and Socrates, the twelve apostles parceled among themselves missionary responsibility for the known world. Thomas was assigned to the Parthian Empire and India, with Bartholomew sharing in the latter rea of mission.

The many Jews who lived in the vast territories of the Middle East were the descendants of those who were exiled at the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities and later deportations. Most settled down in the comparatively stable and tolerant society of the East, and many prospered and became influential. Their biblically-inspired Messianic hope was doubtless a contributing factor to the widespread expectation of the coming King, so vividly portrayed in the coming of the magi (Matt. 2:1-2). It is not without significance that this visit is only recorded in Matthew, the gospel which had wide circulation in the East, including India, from the first century.

The spoken language of the dispersion was Aramaic, and the Syriac version of the Old Testament was in common use. Syriac or Aramaic was destined to become the religious language of the Eastern or Assyrian Church, commonly known as Nestorian.

many of the early churches grew out of the Jewish synagogues of the dispersion, with these often serving as a kind of bridge between Israel and the Gentiles. Though the early establishment of churches in the vast and populous countries of the East cannot be questioned, there is a scarcity of original sources of information. Thus we are often almost completely dependent upon traditional material, which is difficult to verify with absolute certainty. With few exceptions, the Christian community never became a dominant element in the population, nor did Christianity become the state religion. moreover, the church usually found itself confronted by long-established ethnic religions of eclectic character, which were resistant to the exclusive claims of the gospel. Thus, from the third century there were long periods of persecution which involved the ruthless destruction of churches and monastic institutions and other depositories of invaluable historical documents.