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The Assyrian Church of the East and the Religion of Light in China

For many people today the history of Christianity doesn’t seem to begin until the Protestant Reformation, while for others the Church’s history consists primarily of the rise of the Roman Church and Papacy, and for still others, the history of Christianity is viewed through an Orthodox lens, focused upon Constantinople and later, Moscow. All of these views of the history of Christianity depend primarily upon the position of the individual geographically and theologically. The variety of foci available to those studying the history of Christianity is evidence of Christianity’s success: the religion became so widespread and so diverse that it is now hard for people to follow the entire history of the “Church.” Because of this, this paper will deal with the history of one portion of the Church Universal, the Assyrian Church of the East, and attempt to bring some perspective concerning the Oriental Orthodox Churches in general, and the Assyrian Church in particular, to people whose exposure to Christian History has been limited in scope to Rome and/or Constantinople.

The Fourth Century was a time of great theological controversy and conflict wracked the eastern portion of the Church. From the time of the First Ecumenical council at Nicea in 325 A.D., when the Church dealt with the first major “heresy,” that of Arius and his followers, there continued to be controversy as Christianity, first a legal then an established religion, sought to clarify its doctrinal views so as to better perform its political function of bringing unity to a fragmenting empire. Although the proto-Orthodox were able to consolidate their hold on the empire, relegating the Arians to missions among the barbarian tribes it was only a century after Nicea that disputes again reached fever pitch within the Church. In 428 a Synod held at Rome formally condemned the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius upon several charges, only one of which was true. The correct charge was that Nestorius refused to call Mary the mother of Jesus “Mother of God” or Theotokos. The reason for this dispute arising was because Nestorius had interceded in a dispute among Christians, some of whom claimed that Mary should be referred to as Theotokos while others believed she should be called Mother of Jesus. Following the Antiochian tradition of compromise, Nestorius suggested that they instead use the term Christotokos. In response to this an anathema was passed against “the man-worshipper Nestorius” in 431 at the council of Ephesus.1

Power politics were important in this situation as Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria had his eyes set on possibly being appointed the Patriarch of Constantinople as well as Alexandria; in the very least he wished to make Alexandria the premier See in the East. In order to accomplish this, Cyril struck up an alliance with Pope Leo in Rome who preferred a weak Constantinople. The conflict between the orthodox and the Nestorians continued with the Antiochians denying the authority of the Council of Ephesus and subsequent Synods that condemned Nestorius. Eventually however, the Council of Chalcedon became the straw that broke the camel’s back. After the council the road the Church had been traveling on began to diverge even more than had previously been the case:

Ever since 433 when the patriarch of Antioch, John, had reluctantly accepted the condemnation of Nestorius as the price of communion with his fellow patriarchs in Rome and Alexandria, the Syrian Christian community had become more and more confused and divided. They were emotionally supportive of their own Nestorius but felt compelled by political pressures and by theological arguments that sounded almost Monophysite to renounce Nestorius and stand loyally with the orthodox center. The Syrians were in the center of the storm. . . .The Council of Chalcedon only made the situation worse. A.S. Atiya has remarked that the compromise worked out at Chalcedon was a paradox. “It praised Cyril though it denounced his theology, whereas it condemned Nestorius while supporting Diophysitism2

All these conflicts occurred within the political hegemony of the Roman Empire for the simple reason that Christians now had time to debate the finer points of doctrine while before they were worried about survival from day to day. During the periods of Roman persecution during the first 300 years of Christianity many Christians fled east into the Parthian and later, the Sassanian Empire where they were tolerated, unlike the Roman West. By the time the Nestorian conflict was raging in the West the Church of the East had enough de facto independence that they could go their own way, which they eventually did, not having experienced the political pressure that Antioch had to conform.

Originally in Persia the Christians flourished as the Parthians were too religiously tolerant and the Sassanids too busy with war to persecute them. All this changed however, when Rome began to tolerate Christians, then the Persians became anti-Christian.3 The edict of toleration signed by Constantine, Galerius and Licinius, while cause for great celebration for the Christians within Roman borders, signaled the start of a chain of events that led to great persecution of the Church of the East.

In 315, after hearing about scattered abuses of Christians in Persia and in search of a good reason for an invasion, Constantine sent the following letter to the Persian Shah:

I am led to expect future happiness and security whenever God in His goodness unites all men in the exercise of the one pure and true religion. You may therefore well understand how exceedingly I rejoice to hear that the finest provinces of Persia are adorned abundantly with men of this class; I mean Christians; for it is of them I am speaking. . . . Since then you are so mighty and so pious, I commend the Christians to your care, and leave them in your protection. Treat them, I beseech you, with the affection that befits your goodness. Your fidelity in this respect will confer on yourself and on us inexpressible benefits.4

This letter infuriated Shappur II, the most powerful Shah in years and the longest reigning, before or since. Ascending the Throne in 309 at the age of 16, Shappur II had been coronated in utero after his weak father was deposed and imprisoned. Shappur II reigned for seventy years; during that time he took Sassanid Persia from the period of its greatest weakness to one of its highest points. The letter of Constantine concerning the Christians only heightened Shappur’s sense that the Christians represented a fifth column within his empire. When Constantine died and Shappur’s resulting invasion failed, the Shah levied a double tax upon the Christians, requiring that their Bishops collect it. Shappur understood that the Christians were poor and that they would be hard-pressed to collect the tax. The following is the order issued by Shappur concerning the payment of taxes by Christians or Nazarenes, as they were known in Persia:

When you receive this order of our godhead, which is contained in the enclosure herein dispatched, you will arrest Simon, the chief of the Nazarenes. You will not release him until he has signed this document and agreed to collect the payment to us of a double-tax and a double tribute for all the people of the Nazarenes who are found in the country of our godhead and who inhabit our territory. For our godhead has only the weariness of war while they have nothing but repose and pleasure. They live in our territory [but] share the sentiments of Caesar our enemy.5

This last statement reveals just how politically motivated persecutions were. Simon, Bishop of the Church of the East refused to collect or pay the tax and responded to the Shah’s letter by saying “I am no tax collector but a shepherd of the Lord’s Flock,” at which point persecution heated up and Christians began to be killed in great numbers.6 Near the end of the Great Persecution in the beginning of the Fifth century when Qayuma, an old man of eighty years, was appointed Bishop he is said to have responded with the following statement: “I am going to die soon anyway, and I had rather die a martyr than of old age.” By the time the Great Persecution ended it is estimated that as many as 190,000 Christians died, “it was worse than anything suffered in the West under Rome, yet the number of apostasies seemed to be fewer in Persia than in the West, which is a remarkable tribute to the steady courage of Asia’s early Christians.”7

As the Church in the East emerged from the era of persecution it found it necessary to reconstruct some semblance of governance. In the year 410 the new Bishop of the Church of the East, Isaac called a council which is known to history as the Council of Isaac. At this council and the subsequent Synods of Yaballaha in 420 and Dadyeshu in 424, the Church of the East restructured itself and made its break with its mother Church of Antioch officially. “Three sometimes competing, sometimes complementary interests dominated the process of organization . . . the achievement of a consensus among the Persian Bishops . . .the long arm of the Persian government and. . .the distant but watchful concern of the patriarch of Antioch representing the Western Church.”8 At the Council of Isaac cooperation between the Eastern and Western Church as well as the support of the Persian Shah, Yazdegerd I led to the adoption and affirmation of the Nicean Creed by the Church of the East for the first time. The Synod of Yaballaha saw the recognition of five more Western Councils by the Church of the east and the final of the organizational Synods, the Synod of Dadyeshu built upon the statements of the previous councils, which had declared that the catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was “supreme among the bishops of the East, the equal of any patriarch East or West and subject to none,” by stating that the Church in Asia was free “in Christ” under its head, the Catholicos; not opposed to, but equal to the West and her Patriarchs.

Despite continued persecution the Church of the East continued to organize and consolidate power, eventually bringing the Mar Thoma Churches of India under its auspices. In addition to establishing connections with the already established churches in India the Church of the East engaged in evangelism, sending missions across Asia. Nestorian Christianity, having already spread through Sassanid Iran—threatening to supplant Zoroastrianism as the State religion before the Muslim conquest—spread as far as Harat and Balkh in modern Afghanistan, Samarkand and the western oases of modern Sinkiang province China by the late sixth century.9 In the mid sixth century a momentous event occurred in the history of the Church of the East, the White Huns converted to Christianity. In the year 549 the White Huns sent a delegation to the Catholicos asking for a Bishop since they had been converted. No one knows for sure who converted them, or what caused the conversion, but the White Huns remained some of the most loyal Christians for centuries.10 The importance of the conversion of the Huns lies not only in their power, but also in the connections they maintained. The White Huns had many connections with Tibet and by the eighth century there existed a church of sufficient size to warrant the Catholicos Timothy I referring to it as a significant Christian community. In 782 and in a letter from Baghdad in 794 he mentions the need to appoint another Bishop to the Tibetans.11 One thing that must be remembered about this expansion and consolidation is that the Church of the East was never able, nor did it seem interested in, establishing a centralized authority to dictate doctrine to the other churches. The Churches founded by the missionaries and the Indian Church brought into communion were very independent owing only nominal allegiance to the Catholicos in Persia. There may be a few reasons for this, it could be the Churches own history of persecution led them to be reluctant to persecute others or it could simply be that they were never able, because of political pressures, to ever exert that kind of control over the other churches. The result of this situation was a great deal of diversity which allowed Christianity to take on forms that would seem almost alien to the West.

During this period of expansion, a missionary Bishop was sent from the Church of the East to T’ang dynasty China. In the year 631 Bishop Alopen brought the Assyrian scriptures to China. By 638 the preaching of the gospels and the building of churches had been authorized by the T’ang court.12 The spread of Christianity into China was part of a much larger cultural exchange that saw the introduction of several Iranian religions as well as artistic techniques, the influence of which is perceptible in Chinese art and crafts from the seventh and eighth centuries. 13

Christianity in China was known by several different names, including: “the religion of the sacred texts of Persia,” “The religion of the great Ch’in’” and the title under which the religion received its imperial charter, “the religion of light.”14 Although Alopen was probably not the first Christian in China, he was the first missionary of which there is any record. The Nestorian Stone recounts the mission of Alopen in this way:

When the accomplished Emperor T’ai-tsung began his magnificent career in the glory and splendour . . . behold there was a highly virtuous man named Alopen in the Kingdom of Ta-Ch’in. Auguring from the azure sky he decided to carry the true Sutras with him, and observing the course of the winds, he made his way through difficulties and perils. . . .The Sutras were translated into the Imperial Library. [His Majesty] investigated “the Way” in his own forbidden apartments, and being deeply convinced of its correctness and truth, he gave special orders for its propagation.15

Although this monument’s bias is clear, it does provide information about when Alopen’s mission arrived in China, as well as how it was welcomed. While the Emperor T’ai-tsung and his son and successor Kao-tsung were both pro-Christian, one of their concubines was not, and this was destined to cause horrible problems for the Church in China. In 649 T’ai-tsung died and was succeeded by his son Kao-tsung, who maintained and expanded upon his father’s pro-Christian attitudes, even granting Alopen the title “great patron and spiritual lord of the empire.”16 Despite his tolerant and generous policies however, Kao-tsung had horrible taste in women. After the old emperor T’ai-tsung had died, his concubines had been forced into retirement at Buddhist monasteries. One of these former concubines, Wu Chou (or Tse-t’ien), evidently as beautiful as she was power hungry, caught the eye of the new Emperor when he happened to visit her monastery. Despite the fact that his actions violated moral precepts of Buddhism, Confucianism and Christian ethics Kao-tsung took his fathers former concubine as his own. Through a set of schemes that involved killing her own baby Wu Chou was able to become empress and eventually, once her husband and children were dead, the sole ruler of the Empire. Once this happened Wu Chou used her authority to establish Buddhism as the state religion in 691 and began to encourage opposition to Christianity in private at the same time.17 Eventually Wu Chou died, to the great relief of her subjects, and was succeeded in 712 by Hsuan-tsung who once again granted imperial protection to the church.18 During the next hundred years, until the great proscription of foreign religions in 842-45 (which basically destroyed the Church), the Church in China became more and more acculturated, especially after the fall of the Sassanid Empire to Islam, which, with the exception of the Umayyad Caliphs, persecuted Christians to an extent that made it impossible for the Church to govern extra-national affairs. During this period the Church of the East in China began engaging in particularly interesting dialogues with Taoist and Buddhist scholars.

During the later part of this golden age of the Church in China, the power of the T’ang dynasty was failing and with it the fortunes of the Church were likely to falter. Luckily the Church was able to gain the patronage of one of the most feared and respected men in China at the time, and one of China’s most well known military leaders of all time, Duke Kuo Tzu-i. The Duke “has been called by historians ‘one of the finest characters in all Chinese history,’” because of his military skill and success at putting down rebellion.19 One reason that the Duke supported the Christians was probably because one of his most trusted generals, Issu, was also a Nestorian Priest. At this time period it was not uncommon for Priests to serve in the army, whether Buddhist or Christian. Issu was very successful with his military career and earned various titles including:

“Warden of the Palace Gate, Vice-General of the Northern Marches, Joint Probationary Imperial Chamberlain,” “claw and tusk” to the duke, and “ear and eye” to the army. 20

In addition to the military success of Issu, the success of a Nestorian scholar known as Ching-Ching was also a source of prestige and stability for the Church as the dynasty weakened. Ching-Ching (or Adam as was his Christian name) was such a scholar of language that a Buddhist priest from India who:

“Because at that time [he] was not familiar with the Hu (Uighur) language nor understood the Chinese language,” […] asked “Ching-Ching, a Persian Priest of the monastery of Ta-ts’in” to help with the translation, and the two missionaries, one Buddhist and the other Nestorian, translated seven volumes.21

In addition to these types of scholarly endeavors which show conscious collaboration on the part of different faiths, there is also a large amount of Christian work that shows the influence of Taoist and Buddhist thought. Some examples of this are in symbology, where one finds Christian symbols in China intermixed with Buddhist and Taoist symbols. There are several examples of this, for instance: Crosses that appear to rise out of the Lotus flower—a Buddhist symbol—while surrounded by clouds—a Taoist symbol.22 There are also examples of Orthodox-style nativity scenes carved into representations of the five sacred mountains of Taoism.

The most stunning physical and artistic examples of this cultural exchange are located near an area known as Lou Guan Tai, once the most famous Taoist center in China. During the T’ang dynasty this area was home to the Emperor’s temple complex. Recently discovered in this complex are the remains of a Christian Church, a pagoda known as Da Qin. From the outside, the only defining feature that marks this particular pagoda out from any other ancient Chinese pagoda in the area is the direction the terrace upon which the Da Qin pagoda stands, which was cut into the mountain to run east-west rather than the traditional Chinese direction of North-South.23 Despite the surprise felt by many westerners over the discovery, the oral history in that region of China seems to have kept the legend of the Christians who once owned the pagoda alive.24

Although the artwork of the Chinese Church stands as a testament to the amount of interchange that occurred during the centuries they prospered in China, the greatest evidence of influence and exchange is in a series of writings collectively known as the Jesus Sutras, some of which seem to have been composed in India and brought to China where they were translated, others of which seem to have been written in Chinese originally. These scrolls were discovered by a Taoist priest, in the midst of a sealed library that contained Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian works as well as art. The library was in a remote mountain range and the room had evidently been sealed in 1005. The discovery came near the end of the 19th century and the Jesus Sutras are now scattered from Paris to Japan and have only been translated in full three times, once in 1930, once in 1937 and once in 2001.25 The Fourth Sutra or the Sutra of Jesus Christ provides clear evidence of Buddhist influence:

At this time the Messiah taught the laws of God, of Yahweh. He said: There are many different views as to the real meaning of the Sutras, and on where God is, and what God is, and how God was revealed.

The Messiah was orbited by the Buddhas and the arhats. Looking down he saw the suffering of all that is born, and so he began to teach.26

Many of the Sutras reveal Taoist influences in addition to the Buddhist flavor the selection above exhibits. Although these Sutras seemed somewhat alien the first time I glanced at them, upon closer study it became clear how it is the associations made by these Chinese Christians between their scriptures and beliefs with those of Taoists and Buddhists, are natural ways of explaining and expanding upon the message of Jesus within their cultural milieu. If we think their Sutras are strange, one wonders what they would think of the Dream of the Rood or Beowulf.

It seems clear that the history of the Church of the East is a topic that deserves a greater amount of research, and that the Jesus Sutras deserve a more in-depth treatment than this paper could provide. Hopefully research will continue to be done on this topic and perhaps more documents from and buildings of the Church of the East will be found and studied in the future.

Works Cited

Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Cambridge University

Press, 1996

Moffett, Samuel Hugh. A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume I: Beginnings to 1500.

New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992

Palmer, Martin. The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity.

New York: Ballantine Wellspring, 2001

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700). Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1974

Theodoret. Ecclesiastical History

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  1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974, 39 []
  2. .Samuel Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia: Beginnings to 1500 New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 1992, 191 []
  3. ibid, 137 []
  4. Theodoret, The Ecclesiastical History, available at []
  5. Moffett, 140 []
  6. ibid []
  7. ibid, 145 []
  8. ibid 152 []
  9. Jacques Gernet. A History of Chinese Civilization New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 283 []
  10. Palmer. The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity. New York: Ballantine Wellspring, 2001, 113 []
  11. ibid, 114 []
  12. Gernet, 283 []
  13. ibid, 283 []
  14. ibid, 283-284 []
  15. Moffett, 291 []
  16. ibid, 294 []
  17. Moffett, 295 []
  18. Gernet, 283 []
  19. Moffett, 299 []
  20. ibid, 300 []
  21. ibid, 302 []
  22. Palmer, 9 []
  23. ibid, 32 []
  24. ibid, 18 []
  25. Palmer, xiii, 1-2 []
  26. ibid, 159 []