Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Church History 1 Post 4
Christian Life beyond the Empire
Generally speaking, most people understand the history of Christianity to be relegated to the borders and boundaries of the Roman Empire. Through important scholarship, historical research has shown that not only were there vibrant Christian communities outside of these boundaries but these communities were active in spreading the gospel, social life, and even scholarly efforts. This essay will focus primarily on the differences these communities had with Roman Christianity. It will outline lives for Christians located in Ethiopia (Africa south of Egypt), Persia, Central Asia, India, and China.
The Ethiopian church began first with the conversion of the King of Axum in the 4th century. Upon his conversion, Frumentius, a freed slave, traveled to Alexandria to tell the Bishop of that time, Athanasius, and to ask for support. Because of this appeal to the already established ecclesial structure, the Ethiopian’s church structure was very similar. As it turned out, Athanasius ordained Frumentius to do the work required in Ethiopia. The kinship between the Ethiopian church and the Coptic Church can be seen even today. “The perspective of the Abyssinian church was catholic, for it looked beyond its own borders to the bishop of Alexandria as its pope (or father) in the faith.”[i] Just as it was in Egypt, monastic life became central to the survival of Christianity in that region. These monastic communities have been credited with opening schools and translating scripture into the Ethiopian language which was Ge’ez. Scripture in the local language is perhaps one of the most distinct attributes the Ethiopian church has apart from the Roman church. Though there were many similarities between these two churches we must remember that “at the same time Christianity in Ethiopia was from its beginnings grounded in national cultural life and thus” is “an example of a distinctive African church.”[ii]
Similar to the Ethiopian church were the churches found in Persia. The Persian church had a strong connection with the city of Constantinople from its conception, but because the church existed outside of the Roman Empire, it could not be protected from persecution. Ties were severed with the western church from the 5th century on. Prior to that time, “the catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was confirmed to be equal in authority to other patriarchs, such as the bishop of Rome, and Alexandria (the two Nicaea had recognized as supreme) and Constantinople (whose authority was recognized at the Council in Constantinople in 381).”[iii] Unlike the Roman church, “Christians were generally found on the margins of Persian life.”[iv] Zorastrianism was the dominant religion of the day which strained relationships between Christians and their neighbors. Zorastrianism disapproved of many Christian practices. Two examples would be celibacy and the burying of the dead. For the Zorastrians, celibacy was seen as an insult and offense punishable by death. They also didn’t like the fact that Christians buried the dead because they believed that it polluted the drinking water. The exclusion of Christians from the mainstream social sphere made the success of monasteries that much more important. The monasteries in Persia were the centers of Christianity. Because of their continued connection with the west and Roman church, the Persian monasteries had access to early Greek medical manuals. These manuals were guarded by the monasteries so much that physicians of that time were almost exclusively Christian. This allowed Christianity to move up through the social ranks and even serve the shah of shah’s as the court physicians. Unlike the churches counterpart in the west and despite the ability to hold company with high officials of the land, Christianity was never adopted or co-opted to be the civil religion of the land. In spite of the social struggles at home in Persia the church was successful with the spread of the gospel to land further east and south, namely India, Central Asia and China. It is to those that we now turn.
Central Asia was known greatly for being the crossroads of the famed Silk Road trade route. “The expansion of the Christian movement east of Persia after the year 600 was primarily the work of East Syrian monks, priests, and merchants who traveled the trade routes across Asia.”[v] Similar to earlier Christian expansion, Christianity was spread through the pluralistic culture of the day. Manichaeanism, Buddhism, Zorastrianism, and Asian Shamanism all played a prominent role in the culture and life of the day. The church in central Asia viewed the “East Syrian patriarch” as “the single most important church leader in the East.”[vi] It was through the help of this patriarch that many of the monasteries were established and many of the monks were commissioned to work as missionaries. It could be said that central Asia was a staging point for further mission expansion into India and China.
Life for Christians in India was much different than those in the west. Oral tradition states that the Apostle Thomas was the first to make a missionary trip to India and establish churches there. It is not known whether these churches actually survived between those first missionary movements and the later migrations of Persians. It is safe to say that the majority of Indian Christians were “immigrants of Persian descent who had settled…over several centuries.”[vii] At some point, Christians were given traditional Indian “caste” status and established communities centered around religious practices just as other Indians did during that time. Church structure was similar to the structure in Persia, and by the 8th century the church had grown to such a substantial size that they elected their own metropolitan who oversaw at least six bishops. Syriac was the official language of the church in the east. Even when the population in India began to speak the indigenous languages, they still continued to use the Syriac language for the church. They did this partly because they believed the language was close or similar to the actual language that Jesus and the disciples spoke, “hence it carried a connection with the land of Israel and Semitic culture that otherwise might have been lost.”[viii] The liturgy of these churches also carried many symbolic connections with Jerusalem and Semitic culture at large. Because of the scarcity or no availability of grape wine or wheat for bread, communion was performed with rice cakes and palm wine. It was these and other distinctly Christian characteristics that prevented the Indian churches from being “absorbed in the Indian religious world, thereby maintaining a distinctive Christian identity.”[ix]
Christianity in China, like most eastern Persian religions, saw little success. Confucianism was eventually deemed the teachings of the Imperial court and thus became “the ruling political ideology of the state.”[x] “East Syrian churches in 635 are the first documented evidence we have of Christians in the Chinese imperial capital.”[xi] Monasteries were built using the funds of the Imperial court and it is believed that Christianity’s acceptance may have been due to its close relations with Buddhism at the time. Dialogue between Christianity and the other religions, being Zorastrianism, Manachaenism, and Buddhism, seemed to be surprisingly civil. In fact there is evidence that monks from both the Buddhist and Christian monasteries collaborated to translate traditional Christian and Buddhist teachings into Chinese. In the year 845, an Imperial decree was issued to remove all religions foreign to the land. It appears that there may have been indigenous Christians at this time but they did not survive after the decree. Christianity in China seemed to be academic in nature and unfortunately never quite took hold with the population at large.
This short study has shown that the Christian message reached much more than the Western Roman Empire. Vibrant Christian communities existed from Persia and even into China. The political structure of the day allowed for the gospel to be spread via prominent trade routes and with relative safety. It seems necessary for us to remember that as western Christians we do not hold the exclusive story of the Christian church.
[i] Dale T. Irvin, Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2001) pg. 216
[ii] HWCM, 216
[iii] HWCM, 199
[iv] HWCM, 201
[v] HWCM, 305
[vi] HWCM, 307
[vii] HWCM, 310
[viii] HWCM, 310
[ix] HWCM, 310
[x] HWCM, 315
[xi] HWCM, 315