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A History of Christianity in Asia, vol. 1, Beginnings to 1500.

By Samuel Hugh Moffett. San Francisco: Harper, 1992. Pp. xxvi, 560. $45.

Emeritus professor of ecumenics and missions at Princeton Theological Seminary, Moffett emphasizes that church historiography in the West accentuates the expansion of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome but commonly overlooks the Christians in Asia--i.e. in the ancient kingdoms east of the Euphrates River, including the territories along the Silk Road from Persia to China and the water routes from the Red Sea around Arabia to India. By the 13th century the Church of the East (or the Nestorian Church as "most of the early Asian Christian communities came to be called") had "ecclesiastical authority over more of the earth than either Rome or Constantinople."

The tradition about Saint Thomas the Apostle as a missionary in India is discussed along with the visit of Pantaenus of Egypt there and the references to India in the writings of Origen and Clement of Alexandria. Christians, persecuted in the Roman Empire before the time of Constantine, found refuge in Persia. Intent on retrieving past territory, the Persian government later viewed them as a fifth column, so that perhaps as many as 190,000 Christians died as martyrs.

In 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned Nestorius as a heretic, but the Persian Church hailed him as a hero and martyr. Theodore of Mopsuestia, "the pioneer of Nestorian orthodoxy," also was a heretic, according to the Council of Constantinople in 553 which led to the split of Western and Eastern Christianity. After stabilizing the Church's relations with the Persian government, the patriach Yeshuyab II (628-643) led a peace delegation to Constantinople, where he and his fellow bishops satisfied the Eastern Roman emperor about the orthodoxy of the Persian Church. Among his other accomplishments were the creation of the Nestorian hierarchy of India independent of a Persian bishop and the sending of Persian missionaries to Chang'an, the capital of the Tang dynasty (618-907) in China, where they arrived in 635. In turn they began converting the migrating Turkish tribes of Central Asia.

The rapid spread of Islam meant that the caliphs did not distinguish among the three major branches of the Church in Asia, i.e. Nestorians in Mesopotamia and Persia, Monophysite Jacobites mostly in Syria, and Melkites (Chalcedonian orthodox) throughout the conquered Byzantine provinces. Arab rule in Persia legalized the position of the Nestorians and the Monophysites, but when the Arabs moved their center of government from Damascus to Baghdad in 762, they allowed only the Nestorians to establish their patriarchate there. From the middle of the eighth century, social restrictions imposed on the Christians led many to accept the Muslim creed and weakened the Church. By then the Abbasid caliphate faced severe setbacks from the rivalries of Sunnites and Shiites. The Turks overtook Persia and western Asia, but the Latin Crusades against the Turks (1095-1291) did not free the Holy Land from their control.

In 1258 the Mongols seized Baghdad, an extension of "a short-lived but immensely powerful trans-Eurasian empire," whose foundation was laid by Genghis Khan (d. 1227). His grandsons, Hulegu and Kublai Khan, were at the vanguard of the Mongol conquest of Muslim Persia and of China respectively. After 1245, several popes sent Franciscan and Dominican missionaries to Mongolia and to Cambaluc (Peking), where the first Roman Catholic church was erected in 1299. Less known is the journey of Mark and Sauma, two young Mongol Nestorian monks, who left Cambaluc on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which they could not reach due to the war between Persia and Egypt. Mark later was enthroned as a patriarch near Baghdad in 1281. Sauma became the envoy of Kublai Khan to European rulers and to Pope Nicholas IV, who granted him permission to offer Mass in Rome in a different language, although the rite was the same. Kublai Khan, whom Macro Polo and his father served, tolerated all religions, and even employed Nestorians in his court. After the Chinese overthrew the Mongols and set up the Ming dynasty in 1368, no traces of Christianity apparently existed. Nor could any surviving Nestorians in Central Asia find refuge in Baghdad since the Muslim Chagatai Turk, Tamerlane, captured it in 1401. Most of his empire crumbled, but not until 1500 did the Uzbeks overrun Samarkand, headed by the last Asiatic ruler descended from him. By then the Nestorian Church had no effective administration east of the Euphrates.

The turbulence of Asian church history, M. succinctly argues, was due to geographical isolation, chronic numerical weakness, persecution, encounters with formidable Asian religions, ethnic introversion, dependence upon the state, and the Church's own internal divisions. M.'s clear, balanced narrative enables the general reader to understand why Christianity failed to create stable roots in Asia before 1500. Thereafter Christians entered Asia by different routes--with results yet to be explored in a subsequent volume.
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Author:Witek, John W.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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