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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.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM][{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

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.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

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.

Origin and Expansion of the Church of the East

Strangely, the church which spread throughout most of Asia bears the appellation “Nestorian,”after the fifth century patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, who was condemned by Rome as a heretic in A.D. 430. The name is actually a misnomer which became current in the West; the Roman See had sought to discredit this church, which had renounced Rome's primacy for geographical, political, linguistic, and doctrinal reasons. Nestorian was not the name by which the church knew itself., nor was it so commonly designated in Asian lands. It was rather known as the Church of the East, or Easterns, to distinguish it from the Greek and Latin churches in the West which were divided by subtle theological controversies little appreciated by the Eastern Christians. It also came to be known as the Assyrian church because of the location of its successive headquarters, and also as the Luminous Religion, especially in China.

This ancient church claimed a first-century origin and developed almost wholly apart from the Greek and Roman churches. It did not embrace the heresy of which Nestorius was accused, though it endorsed his opposition to the Roman doctrines of purgatory and Mariolatry, especially her title as “Mother of God” and or Theotokos. For at least twelve hundred years the church of the Easterns was noted for its missionary zeal, its high degree of lay participation, its superior educational standards and cultural contributions in less developed countries, and its fortitude in the face of persecution.

Parthian and Persian Empires

The Church of the East had its inception at a very early date in the buffer zone between the Parthian and Roman Empires in Upper Mesopotamia. The vicissitudes of its later growth were rooted in its minority status in a situation of international tension. The rulers of the Parthian empire (250 BC - AD 226) were on the whole tolerant in spirit, and with the older faiths of Babylonia and Assyria in a state of decay, the time was ripe for a new and vital faith. The rulers of the Second Persian empire (226-640) also followed a policy of religious toleration to begin with, though later they gave Christians the same status as a subject race. However, these rulers also encouraged the revival of the ancient Persian dualistic faith of Zoroastrianism and established it as the state religion, with the result that the Christians were increasingly subjected to repressive measures. Nevertheless, it was not until Christianity became the state religion in the West that enmity toward Rome was focused on the Eastern Christians. After the Mohammedan conquest in the seventh century, the caliphate tolerated other faiths but forbade proselytism and subjected Christians to heavy taxation.

Edessa (now Şanlıurfa) in northwestern Mesopotamia was from apostolic times the principal center of Syriac-speaking Christianity. it was the capital of an independent kingdom from 132 BC to A.D. 216, when it became tributary to Rome. Celebrated as an important centre of Greco-Syrian culture, Edessa was also noted for its Jewish community., with proselytes in the royal family. Strategically located on the main trade routes of the Fertile Crescent, it was easily accessible from Antioch, where the mission to the Gentiles was inaugurated. When early Christians were scattered abroad because of persecution, some found refuge at Edessa. thus the Edessan church traced its origin to the apostolic age. (which may account for its rapid growth), and Christianity even became the state religion for a time.

An ancient legend recorded by Eusebius (A.D. 260-340) and also found in the Doctrine of Addai (c. A.D. 400) (from information in the royal archives of Edessa) describes how King Abgar V of Edessa communicated with Jesus, requesting Him to come and heal him, to which appeal he received a reply. After the resurrection, the Apostle Thomas sent one of the seventy (Luke 10:1), Addai or Thaddaeus, to preach the gospel and heal the king, with the result that the city was won to the Christian faith. In this mission he was accompanied by a disciple, Mari, and the two are regarded as cofounders of the church, according to the Liturgy of Addai and Mari (c. A.D. 200), which is still the normal liturgy of the Assyrian church. The Doctrine of Addai further states that Thomas was regarded as an apostle of the church, which long treasured a letter written by him from India.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM][{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

Thus it was from Edessa that a missionary movement began which gradually spread throughout Mesopotamia, Persia, Central Asia and China. According to another ancient tradition, Mari was sent as a missionary to Seleucia (on the Tigris River near Baghdad), which, with its twin city of Ctesiphon across the river, became another canter of missionary outreach. Mari was also regarded as the pioneer evangelist in the whole region of Adiabene to the north, of which Arbela (now Erbil) was the capital.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] By the latter half of the second century, Christianity had spread east throughout Media, Persia, Parthia, and Bactria. The twenty bishops and many presbyters were more of the order of itinerant missionaries, passing from place to place as Paul did and supplying their needs with such occupations as merchant or craftsman. By A.D. 280 the metropolis of Seleucia assumed the title of “Catholicos,”and in A.D. 424 a council of the church at Seleucia elected the first patriarch to have jurisdiction over the whole church of the East, including India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The seat of the Patriarchate was fixed at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, since this was an important point on the East-West trade routes which extended both to India and China, Java and Japan. Thus the shift of ecclesiastical authority was away from Edessa, which in A.D. 216 had become tributary to Rome. the establishment of an independent patriarchate with nine subordinate metropoli contributed to a more favourable attitude by the Persian government, which no longer had to fear an ecclesiastical alliance with the common enemy, Rome.

The Great Persecution

The great persecution fell upon the Christians in Persia about the year 340. Though the religious motives were never unrelated, the primary cause of the persecution was political. When Rome became Christian, its old enemy turned anti-Christian.

Up to then the situation had been reversed. For the first 300s after Christ it was in the West that Christians were persecuted. For two hundred and fifty years Persia had been a refuge from Roman persecution. The Parthians were too religiously tolerant to persecute, and their less tolerant Sassanian successors on the throne were too busy fighting Rome, Persian emperors were inclined to regard them as friends of Persia.

It was about 315 that an ill-advised letter from the Christian emperor Constantine to his Persian counterpart Shapur II probably triggered the beginnings of an ominous change in the Persian attitude toward Christians. Constantine believed he was writing to help his fellow believers in Persia but succeeded only in exposing them. He wrote to the young shah:

"I rejoice to hear 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[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]".

It was enough to make any Persian ruler conditioned by 300 years of war with Rome suspicious of the emergence of a fifth column. Any lingering doubts must have been dispelled when about twenty years later when Constantine began to gather his forces for war in the East. Eusebius records that Roman bishops were prepared to accompany their emperor to "battle with him and for him by prayers to God whom all victory proceeds".[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] And across the border in Persian territory the forthright Persian preacher Aphrahat recklessly predicted on the basis of his reading of Old testament prophecy that Rome would defeat Persia.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

It is little wonder then, that when the persecutions began shortly thereafter, the first accusation brought against the Christians was that they were aiding the Roman enemy. The shah Shapur II's response was to order a double taxation on Christians and to hold the bishop responsible for collecting it. He knew they were poor and that the bishop would be hard-pressed to find the money. Bishop Simon refused to be intimidated. He branded the tax as unjust and declared, "I am no tax collector but a shepherd of the Lord's flock." Then the killings began.

A second decree ordered the destruction of churches and the execution of clergy who refused to participate in the national worship of the sun. Bishop simon was seized and brought before the shah and was offered gifts to make a token obeisance to the sun, and when he refused, they cunningly tempted him with the promise that if he alone would apostasize his people would not be harmed, but that if he refused he would be condemning not just the church leaders but all Christians to destruction. At that, the Christians themselves rose up and refused to accept such a deliverance as shameful. So according to the tradition in the year 344, he was led outside the city of Susa along with a large number of Christian clergy. Five bishops and one hundred priests were beheaded before his eyes, and last of all he himself was put to death.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

For the next two decades and more, Christians were tracked down and hunted from one end of the empire to the other. At times the pattern was general massacre. More often, as Shapur decreed, it was intensive organized elimination of the leadership of the church, the clergy. A third category of suppression was the search for that part of the Christian community that was most vulnerable to persecution, Persians who had been converted from the national religion, Zoroastrianism. As we have already seen, the faith had spread first among non-Persian elements in the population, Jews and Syrians. But by the beginning of the fourth century, Iranians in increasing numbers were attracted to the Christian faith. For such converts, church membership could mean the loss of everything - family, property rights, and life itself. Converts from the "national faith" had no rights and, in the darker years of the persecution, were often put to death. The major agents in the slaughter were Zoroastrian clergy, but sometimes Christians suspected the Jews and accused them of acting as informers.

The martyrdom of Simon and the years of persecution that followed wiped out the beginnings of the central national organization the Persian church had only so recently achieved. As fast as the Christians of the capital elected a new bishop after Simon, the man was seized and killed. Inflaming the anti-Roman political motivation of the government's role in the persecutions was a deep undercurrent of Zoroastrian fanaticism and hatred of other religions.

Sometime before the death of Shapur II in 379, the intensity of the persecution slackened. Tradition calls it a forty-year persecution, lasting from 339-379 and ending only with Shapur's death.

When at last the years of suffering ended around the year 401, the historian Sozomen, who lived near enough to that time of tribulation to remember the tales of those who experienced it, wrote that the multitude of martyrs had been "beyond enumeration".[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] One estimate is that as many as 190,000 Persian Christians died in the terror. It was worse than any suffering in the West under Rome.

Conditioning Factors of Missionary Expansion

Several important factors help to explain the extensive growth in the Church of the East during the first twelve hundred years of the Christian era. Geographically, and possibly even numerically, the expansion of this church outstripped that of the church in the West in the early centuries. The outstanding key to understanding this expansion is the active participation of the laymen - the involvement of a large percentage of the church's believers in missionary evangelism.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] The following significant factors inducing that church growth are all based largely on the fact that it was a lay as well as a clerical movement.

1) The church promoted an effective system of popular education, producing a literate Christian community, knowledgeable in the Scriptures. This training was based on use of the Syriac Old Testament and had available the canonical gospels before the end of the first century, though the Harmony of the Four, a life of Christ compiled by Tatian (c. A.D. 160), an Assyrian Christian, was the most popular Scripture portion for several centuries. Traveling Christians carried with them everywhere these portions of the Scripture, usually a gospel or the Harmony and parts of the Old Testament.

2) The Church backed specialized training programmes for youth, monastic Bible schools for laymen, theological schools for clergy, etc. As they travelled, the Christians introduced Syriac learning to the illiterate Turks, Uyghurs, Mongols, and Manchus, whose alphabets as a result are largely derived from the Syriac writing system. the first monastic schools at Edessa, later moved to Nisibis in 489, had eight hundred students enrolled. the church trained deaconesses, medical students in church hospitals, and musicians in church music schools, which stimulated an indigenous hymnody of the church of the East. Thus from scores of such schools a constant stream of well-trained Christians, clergy and lay, travelled throughout Asia, self-supporting and often enthusiastically witnessing - a strategy of mission which was not achieved in the West for hundreds of years.

3) Persecution strengthened and spread the Christian movement in the East. A great influx of Christian refugees from the Roman persecutions of the first two centuries gave vigour to the Mesopotamian church And persecution within the Persian empire saw thousands slain for the faith (at least sixteen thousand under the reign of Sapor II, A.D. 307-379) and numberless thousands more reported or fleeing as refugees to witness as far as Arabia, India, and other Central Asian countries. Following a period of relative quiet in the empire under Bahram V (420-38), more terrible persecution broke out, culminating in the massacre of ten bishops and 153,000 Christians within a few days.

Early Muslim conquest of these lands in the seventh and eighth centuries did not introduce direct persecution. However, Muslim apostasy was curbed by threat of death, and many nominal Christians began to gradually defect to Islam to avoid discrimination and heavy taxation. This type of subtle oppression stifled Christian growth, backed the church into ghetto communities, and discouraged evangelism. Muslim governments eventually gained control of the great trade routes, and the Islamic world became virtually closed to the proclamation of the gospel.

Arabian Peninsula

In our consideration of the penetration of the Arabian peninsula by the gospel, it is necessary to distinguish between the marauding Bedouin nomads of the interior, who were chiefly herdsmen and unreceptive to foreign influence, and the inhabitants of the settled communities of the coastal areas and oases, who were either middlemen traders or farmers and were receptive to influences from abroad. Christianity apparently gained its strongest foothold in the ancient center of Semitic civilisation in South-west Arabia or Yemen, (sometimes known as Seba or Sheba), whose queen visited Solomon. Because of geographic proximity, acculturation with Ethiopia was always strong, and the royal family traces its ancestry to this queen.

The presence of Arabians at Pentecost and Paul's three-year sojourn in Arabia suggest a very early gospel witness. A fourth-century church history, states that the apostle Bartholomew preached in Arabia and that Himyarites were among his converts.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] Arabia's close relations with Ethiopia give significance to the conversion of the treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia, not to mention the tradition that the Apostle Matthew was assigned to this land.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] Eusebius says that “one Pantaneous (c. A.D. 190) was sent from Alexandria as a missionary to the nations of the East,[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM],”including southwest Arabia, on his way to India.

Cosmas Indicopleustes, navigator and geographer of the sixth century, wrote about Christians, bishops, monks, and martyrs in Yemen and among the Himyarites.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] In the fifth century a merchant from Yemen was converted in Hira, in the northeast, and upon his return led many to Christ.

During the early centuries Christianity also penetrated Arabia from numerous points on its periphery. The kingdom of Hira in northeastern Arabia and near the border of Mesopotamia flourished from the end of the third to the end of the sixth century and was apparently evangelized by Christians from the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in the Fourth Century. The kingdom of Ghassan on the northwest frontier was also a sphere of missionary activity. In fact, by A.D. 500 many churches were also in existence along the Arabian shore of the Persian Gulf and in Oman, with all connected with the Church of the East in the Persian Empire. Arabian bishops were found among those in attendance at important church councils in Mesopotamia. in the Seventh century, however, with the rise of Islam seriously inhibited the growth of the church in Arabia. The regulations imposed throughout Persian and Arab territories upon non-Muslims however, progressively reduced both the numbers and public roles of Christians. Yet it was only in the wake of the Crusades that the antagonism between Christian and Muslim become sharp enough to bring comprehensive discrimination and the consequent dismantling of Christian influence. Existing churches were gradually eliminated by Muslim oppression. Many of the remaining Christians fled the country and found refuge in Mesopotamia.


File:Nasrani Evolution.jpg

Relationship of the Nasrani (Saint Thomas Christian) groups

According to Eusebius' record, Thomas and Bartholomew were assigned to Parthia and India. The Didache (dating from the end of the first century) states, “India and all countries condering it, even to the farthest seas...received the apostolic ordinances from Judas Thomas, who was a guide and ruler in the church which he built.”Moreover, there is a wealth of confirmatory information in the Syriac writings, liturgical books, and calendars of the Church of the East, not to mention the writings of the Fathers, the calendars, the sacramentaries, and the martyrologies of the Roman, Greek and Ethiopian churches.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] Since trade routes from the East were wide open at the time and were used by early missionaries, there are no circumstantial reasons why Thomas could not have visited India in the first century. And his visit is the most plausible explanation for the early appearance of the church there.

An early third-century Syriac work known as the Acts of Thomas[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] connects the apostle's Indian ministry with two kings, one in the north and the other in the south. According to one of the legends in the Acts, Thomas was at first reluctant to accept this mission, but the Lord appeared to him in a night vision and said, “Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you.”But the Apostle still demurred, do the Lord overruled the stubborn disciple by ordering circumstances so compelling that he was forced to accompany an Indian merchant, Abbanes, to his native place in northwest India, where he found himself in the service of the Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares. The apostle's ministry resulted in many conversions throughout the kingdom, including the king and his brother.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

Critical historians treated this legend as an idle tale and denied the historicity of King Gundaphorus until modern archeology established him as an important figure in North India in the latter half of the first century. many coins of his reign have turned up in Afghanistan, the Punjab, and the Indus Valley. Remains of some of his buildings, influenced by Greek architecture, indicate that he was a great builder. Interestingly enough, according to the legend, Thomas was a skilled carpenter and was bidden to build a palace for the king. However, the Apostle decided to teach the king a lesson by devoting the royal grant to acts of charity and thereby laying up treasure for the heavenly abode. Although little is known of the immediate growth of the church, Bar-Daisan (A.D. 154-223) reports that in his time there were Christian tribes in North India which claimed to have been converted by Thomas and to have books and relics to prove it.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] But at least by the time of the establishment of the Second Persian Empire (A.D. 226), there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India, Afghanistan and Baluchistan, with laymen and clergy alike engaging in missionary activity.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

The Acts of Thomas identifies his second mission in India with a kingdom ruled by King Mahadwa, one of the rulers of a first-century dynasty in southern India. It is most significant that, aside from a small remnant of the Church of the East in Kurdistan, the only other church to maintain a distinctive identity is the Mar Thoma or “Church of Thomas” congregations along the Malabar Coast of Kerala State in southwest India. According to the most ancient tradition of this church, Thomas evangelized this area and then crossed to the Coromandel Coast of southeast India, where, after carrying out a second mission, he suffered martyrdom near Madras. Throughout the period under review, the church in India was under the jurisdiction of Edessa, which was then under the Mesopotamian patriarchate at Seleucia-Ctesiphon and later at Baghdad and Mosul. Historian Vincent A. Smith says, “It must be admitted that a personal visit of the Apostle Thomas to South India was easily feasible in the traditional belief that he came by way of Socotra, where an ancient Christian settlement undoubtedly existed. I am now satisfied that the Christian church of South India is extremely ancient... ”.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

Although there was a lively trade between the Near East and India via Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, the most direct route to India in the first century was via Alexandria and the Red Sea, taking advantage of the Monsoon winds, which could carry ships directly to and from the Malabar coast. The discovery of large hoards of Roman coins of first-century Caesars and the remains of Roman trading posts testify to the frequency of that trade. in addition, thriving Jewish colonies were to be found at the various trading centers, thereby furnishing obvious bases for the apostolic witness.

Piecing together the various traditions, one may conclude that Thomas left northwest India when invasion threatened and traveled by vessel to the Malabar coast, possibly visiting southeast Arabia and Socotra enroute and landing at the former flourishing port of Muziris on an island near Cochin (c. A.D. 51-52). From there he is said to have preached the gospel throughout the Malabar coast, though the various churches he founded were located mainly on the Periyar River and its tributaries and along the coast, where there were Jewish colonies. He reputedly preached to all classes of people and had about seventeen thousand converts, including members of the four principal castes. Later, stone crosses were erected at the places where churches were founded, and they became pilgrimage centres. In accordance with apostolic custom thomas ordained teachers and leaders or elders, who were reported to be the earliest ministry of the Malabar church.

Thomas next proceeded overland to the Coromandel coast and ministered in what is now the Madras area, where a local king and many people were converted. One tradition related that he went from there to China via Malacca and, after spending some time there, returned to the Madras area (Breviary of the Mar Thoma Church in Malabar). Apparently his renewed ministry outraged the Brahmins, who were fearful lest Christianity undermined their social structure, based on the caste system. So according to the Syriac version of the Acts of Thomas, Masdai, the local king at Mylapore, after questioning the apostle condemned him to death about the year A.D. 72. Anxious to avoid popular excitement, “for many had believed in our Lord, including some of the nobles,”the king ordered Thomas conducted to a nearby mountain, where, after being allowed to pray, he was then stoned and stabbed to death with a lance wielded by an angry Brahmin. A number of Christians were also persecuted at the same time; when they refused to apostatize, their property was confiscated, so some sixty-four families eventually fled to malabar and joined that Christian community.[1][{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

The Expansion of Christianity in Central Asia

the agents of missionary expansion in central Asia and the far east were not only monks and clergy trained in the mesopotamian monastic schools, but also in many cases Christian merchants and artisans, often with considerable biblical training. They frequently found employment among people less advanced in education, serving in government offices and as teachers and secretaries and more advanced medical care. they also helped to solve the problem of illiteracy in backward lands by inventing simplified alphabets based on the Syriac language.[2]

Persecution often thrust them forth into new and unevangelized lands to find refuge. The dissemination of the gospel by largely Syriac-using people had its advantages, but it was also a hindrance to indigenizing the church in the new areas. Because Syriac never became dominant, competition from ethnic religions was always a serious problem. For these reasons of political vicissitude, in later centuries Christianity suffered an almost total eclipse in Asia until the modern period. The golden age of early missions in central Asia extended from the end of the fourth to the latter part of the ninth century, although in the Far East Christianity again became resurgent in the latter half of the thirteenth century. An important factor which finally inhibited the permanent establishment of the Church of the East in central Asia and the far East was the expansion of Islam and Mahayana Buddhism.

Christianity had an early and extensive dissemination throughout the vast territory north of Persia and west and East of the Oxus River. As early as the fourth century cities like Merv, Herat and Samarkand had bishops and later became metropolitanates. Christians were found among the Hephthalite Huns from the fifth century, and the Mesopotamian patriarch assigned two bishops (John of Resh-aina and Thomas the Tanner) to both peoples, with the result that many were baptized. They also devised and taught a written language for the Huns and with the help of an Armenian bishop, taught also agricultural methods and skills.

In 644, Abdisho, the metropolitan, had succeeded in drawing a large number of Turks, beyond the Oxus River, into the Church of the East. Colleges were established in Merv and a further monastery was founded there in the eighth century. In fact, so successful were the missionary efforts that it appeared that Christianity might become the dominant faith in the whole region between the Caspian Sea and Xinjiang in Northwest China. The largely animistic and polytheistic religions there offered little or no effective resistance to the higher faith. Moreover, Islam at first made little headway in that area, and the dualistic faith of Manichaeism also had scant appeal. Christian Turks visiting Ctesiphon in connection with the election of a new metropolitan about this time were described as people of clean habits and orthodox beliefs and as readers of the Scriptures in both Syriac and their own language. Though there was a mass conversion of Turks to Islam in the ninth century, the Moslems did not dominate the area until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Once the Christian faith had been established in the valleys of the Oxus and Jaxartes Rivers, it was easily carried further east into the basin of the Tarim River, then into the area north of the Tien Shan Mountains, and finally down into far northwest China, above Tibet. This was the principal caravan route, and with so many Christians engaged in the trade it was natural that the gospel was early planted in the towns and cities which were caravan centers. The Mesopotamian patriarch in the eighth century wrote that he was appointing a metropolitan for Tibet, implying that their churches were numerous enough to require bishops and lesser clergy. Thus Christians were to be found in Xinjiang, and possibly in Tibet, as early as the ninth century. But it was not until the beginning of the eleventh century that the faith spread among the nomadic peoples of this and other central Asian regions. These Christians were chiefly Turko-Tatar peoples, including the Keraits, Onguts, Uyghurs, Naimans, Merkits, and Mongols.


It is unclear exactly when Christianity reached Tibet, but it seems likely that it had arrived there by the sixth century. The ancient territory of the Tibetans stretched farther west and north than the present-day Tibet, and they had many links with the Turkic and Mongolian tribes of Central Asia. It seems likely that Christianity entered the Tibetan world around 549, the time of a remarkable conversion of the White Huns. A strong church existed in Tibet by the eighth century. The Assyrian patriarch Timothy I (780-823) wrote from Baghdad c.794 of the need to appoint another bishop for Tibet (Syriac: Beth Tuptaye), and in a letter of 782 he mentioned the Tibetans as one of the significant Christian communities of the Assyrian Church[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]. The seat of the Assyrian bishops of Tibet was probably at Lhasa, and Assyrian Christians are likely to have been active in Tibet as late as the thirteenth century, prior to the popular extension of Buddhism.

Carved into a large boulder at Tankse, Ladakh, once part of Tibet but now in India, are three crosses and some inscriptions. The rock dominates the entrance to the pass at Drangste, one of the main ancient trade routes between Lhasa and Bactria. The crosses are clearly of the Church of the East, and one of the words, written in Sogdian, appears to be "Jesus". Another inscription in Sogdian reads, "In the year 210 came Nosfarn from Samarkhand as emissary to the Khan of Tibet".[3] It is possible that the inscriptions were not related to the crosses, but even on their own the crosses bear testimony to the power and influence of Christianity in that area. Christianity was sufficiently accepted in the region to warrant carving the Christian symbol to protect travellers.

The Introduction of the "Luminous Religion" to China

When Christianity was first introduced to China three major religious systems, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, were already popular there, woven into the ancient traditions and customs of the people. The average Chinese did not regard himself as an exclusive adherent of any one of the three, but rather as a follower of a general Chinese religion made up of both animistic and polytheistic elements which represented a syncretistic conglomeration of ideas. Thus the Church of the East encountered grave difficulties as it sought to introduce the “Luminous Religion” to China. Only in the periods of the Tang (A.D. 618-906) and Yuan (A.D. 1206-1368) dynasties did the gospel enterprise have any considerable degree of success.

It is difficult to determine the exact time when the Christian gospel first reached China. The ancient Breviary of the Syrian church of Malabar (India) states that “By the means of St. Thomas the Chinese...were converted to the truth...By means of St. Thomas the kingdom of heaven flew and entered into China...The Chinese in commemoration of St. Thomas do offer their adoration unto Thy most Holy Name, O God.” Some authors have claimed to have found in a very ancient Taoist writing evidence of a spiritual awakening in China in the latter part of the first century.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

Arthur Lloyd relates the story of the Han emperor, Ming-Ti, who in A.D. 64 supposedly had a dream on several successive nights of a man in golden raiment who held in his hand a bow and arrows and pointed the emperor to the West. The emperor was much impressed and resolved to send an embassy to the West to seek out “the true man” of his vision. En route they met two monks from the West leading a white horse laden with Scriptures. They returned with them to China, where the monks gave their message. They died in A.D. 70 but left some writings, out of which developed the “Sutra of the Forty-Two Sections,” a collection of logia containing short, pithy sayings of “the Master” which closely resembled Christian teachings.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] It has been conjectured that the two monks were actually Christians, disciples of Thomas from India.

Active trade for centuries between China and the West could have brought Christian missionaries at an early date. But aside from one rather obscure reference in the Adversus Gentes by Arnobius (A.D. 303) to “the Chinese as among those united in the faith of Christ,[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] “there is little or no evidence of Christians in China before the Seventh Century. But from then on the evidence of Christianity in China during the T’ang Era (A.D. 618-906) are numerous, including references in Chinese writings, imperial edicts, and in particular the famous inscriptions on the so-called “Nestorian Monument”. During the Táng period conditions were favorable for the introduction of foreign faiths: the lines of international communication were wide open; foreign trade flourished; the government was tolerant toward all faiths; all foreigners were welcome in various capacities. It was in this T’ang Era that the Christianity of the Church of the East first came to be known as the “Luminous Religion” (Jǐng Jiào, 景教).

The “Nestorian Monument”[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] was erected in A.D. 781 near the capital city of Cháng-ān, or Hsianfu (where it was discovered in 1625), to commemorate the charitable acts of a Bactrian Christian who had become noted for his gifts to the poor and his funds for restoring and building churches and monasteries. The top of the monument is adorned not only with a cross but also with the Buddhist emblem of the lotus and the Taoist symbol of the cloud. The writer of the inscription was one Adam, a leader of the “Luminous Religion,” and the calligraphist was one Lu Hsiu-yen (two who later collaborated in some Buddhist writing).

The earlier part of the inscription is in Chinese, with certain Buddhist terms used to express Christian ideas, probably indicating that a distinctly Christian vocabulary had not yet developed in China. The doctrinal statement mentions the triune of God, the Creator of all things, the fall of mankind, the incarnation and virgin birth, the holy life and ascension of Christ, the rite of Baptism, and certain scriptures, but no mention is made of Christ's redemptive death for sin. Following this is an account of how Alopen of Dà-chín (the Near East, especially Syria or Persia) arrived in Ch’angan in 635 bearing the Scriptures. He was welcomed by the emperor T’ai Tsung, the founder of the Tang Dynasty and one of the most famous of Chinese rulers. The emperor, having examined the sacred writings, ordered their translation and the preaching of their message. He also directed the building of a Christian monastery in his capital. According to the inscription, his successor, the emperor Kao Tsung, also encouraged Christianity and ordered the building of a monastery in each province of his domain.

The second part of the monument was written in Syriac and listed some sixty-seven names: one bishop, twenty-eight presbyters, and thirty-eight monks. Some of these have been verified from Assyrian church records. The inscription displays considerable grace of literary style, and the allusions and phraseology reveal competence in both Chinese and Syriac and familiarity with both Buddhism and Taoism. Ancient Christian manuscripts were also discovered at Dunhuang from about the same period and are written in the literary style of the Monument. These include a “Hymn to the Trinity” and refer to at least thirty Christian books, indicating that considerable Christian literature was in circulation.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

The 250-year span of the Christian movement in the T’ang period was characterized by vicissitudes of imperial favor and prosperity, persecution and decline. Christianity fared badly during the reign of the infamous Dowager Wu (689-699), who was an ardent Buddhist. However, several succeeding emperors were favorable, and the missionary forces were reinforced from time to time. Furthermore, a number of Christians served in high official positions. By the end of the eighth century a metropolitan had been consecrated and assigned by the Mesopotamian patriarch. About the middle of the ninth century the ardent Taoist emperor Wu Tsung proscribed Buddhism and ordered all monks and nuns to return to private life; he included all the Christians in this interdiction. It was probably in connection with this persecution that the Nestorian Monument was buried or hidden and did not come to light until modern times. The Christian church apparently continued in a feeble state for some time, though isolated Christian remnants survived. The resurgence of the Christian faith had to await the Mongol conquest and the rise of the Yuan Dynasty in the thirteenth century.

Northeast Asia

The trade routes of the ‘Silk Road’ are also known to have reached Korea, Japan, and what is today eastern Russia by this time, contributing to these exchanges. Against this background it is from China, in particular from Chang-an during the Tang Dynasty, that Christianity also first came to Korea and Japan. In the case of Korea, where Christianity seems to have been present, evidence has been found in the Korean Chronicles Sanguk Yusa and Sanguksa, for the presence of ‘Nestorian’ Christianity during the united Silla Dynasty (661-935).[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM] This is not unexpected in the light of the known presence of Koreans at the Tang capital, Chang-an, in the seventh to ninth centuries.

The later inclusion of present-day Korea within the Mongol Empire (from 1236) opened the peninsula to Nestorian missionaries who enjoyed full acceptance from the early khans, throughout their territories. In the fourteenth century, when the Koryo state remained under Mongol control, Koryo crown princes were held hostage in Khanbaliq and often forced to marry Mongol princesses. Some of these were Nestorian Christians.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_AFM]

South East Asia: The Philippines

There has been a continuous Orthodox presence in the Philippines for at least 200 years with the arrival of Greek settlers in Manila as early as the 17th century.[4]

An influx of Russian émigrés fleeing the Soviet Union occurred during the American colonial period.[4] In 1935, a Russian parish was established in Manila, and the Episcopal Church then permitted the use the north transept of their cathedral for worship.[4] It is said that in 1937, the first Orthodox church was built, which also housed the first Orthodox altar in the Philippines.[4] Later, both the Episcopal cathedral and the Orthodox church in Manila were destroyed during the Second World War.[4]

In 1949, 5,500 Russian Orthodox from China, including then-Archbishop John Maximovitch, were relocated to the island of Tubabao in the south-central Philippines by the International Refugee Organization and with the permission of the newly independent Republic of the Philippines.[4] Maximovitch then established a makeshift wooden church, orphanage, and other buildings in Tubabao exclusively for the Russian refugees.[4] Tubabao, however, was (and still is) an underdeveloped island which is humid (typical of the Philippine climate), prone to typhoons, and at times inaccessible due to the ocean conditions. When a Russian refugee commented to the locals on their fear that a typhoon would destroy their camp, they replied that there was nothing to worry about because “your holy man blesses your camp from four directions every night,” and indeed, there were no typhoons or floods while Maximovitch was there.[4] Maximovitch did not preach the Orthodox faith to the natives: no Filipino was baptized, chrismated, ordained, or consecrated by him during his stay in the country.[4] Through the persistent lobbying of Maximovitch to the United States Congress, the refugees were eventually allowed in 1951 to settle in the United States and Australia.[4]

In 1996, the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia [1] was created for the needs of the faithful in Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and India.

Today, there are some 560 Orthodox in the Philippines[5] under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.


  2. and also, in a lesser extent, in Sogdian language . See Li M'Ha Ong
  3. Nicholas Sims-Williams, "The Sogdian Inscriptions of Ladakh", in Karl Jettmar et al. (eds.), Antiquities of Northern Pakistan. Reports and Studies, II, (Mainz: von Zabern, 1993), 151-163, pl. 1-16.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9 "Orthodoxy in the Philippines". OrthodoxWiki. Retrieved 2007-07-28. 
  5. History Of The Church In The Philippines

See also

References and Further reading

  • ^  Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, book 1, chp.19
  • ^  Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, book 3, chp. 1
  • ^  Eusebius, History, book 5, chp 10.

Parthia and Persia:

  • ^  Ibid, book 1, chp. 13, book.2, chp 1.
  • ^  The Ante-Nicene Fathers Down to A.D. 325.
  • ^  Mingana, The Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia and the Far East, pp.300.

The Great Persecution:

  • ^  Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 1
  • ^  Eusebius, Life of Constantine 4:56
  • ^  Aphrahat, Demonstrations 5
  • ^  Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 2, 9-10
  • ^  Didache, 11:3

Arabian peninsula:

  • ^  Philostorgius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:1067.
  • ^  Socrates, book 1, chp.19.
  • ^  Eusebius, History, book 5, chp 10.
  • ^  Cosmos Indicopleustes, Christian Topography, book 3.


  • ^  A.E. Medlycott, India and The Apostle Thomas, pp.18-71
  • ^  M.R. James, Apocryphal New Testament, pp.364-436
  • ^  A.E. Medlycott, India and The Apostle Thomas, pp.1-17, 213-97
  • ^  Eusebius, History, chapter 4:30
  • ^  J.N. Farquhar, The Apostle Thomas in North India, chapter 4:30
  • ^  V.A. Smith, Early History of India, p.235
  • ^  L.W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas, p.49-59


  • ^  A.C. Moule, Christians in China Before The year 1550, pp.19-26
  • ^  Arthur Lloyd, The Creed of Half Japan, pp.76-84
  • ^  Catholic Encyclopedia, 3:667
  • ^  A.C. Moule, pp.27-52
  • ^  P.Y. Saeki, The Nestorian Documents and Relics in China and The Nestorian Monument in China, pp.27-52

Korea and Japan:

  • ^  Saeki 1951; Atiya 1968.
  • ^  Huk 1857; I318.