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The missionary impulse in the early Asian Christian traditions.

Asia: the cradle of Christianity

In an address on Asia's Message to Europe, delivered in Calcutta in 1883, Keshub Chunder Sen, the great Brahmo Samaj leader in Bengal, observed:

Is not Asia the birthplace of great prophets and saints? Is it not pre-eminently a holy place of pilgrimage to the rest of the world! Yes, upon Asia's soil have flourished and prospered those at whose feet the world should prostrate. The great religions which have given life and salvation to millions of men owe their origin in Asia. . . . But Asia is not only holy ground, but it is a catholic ground also. In this one place you could count all the leading prophets and all the great religious geniuses of the world. No great prophet was born outside the boundaries of Asia.(1)

It is in Asia, the great land mass that extends from the Atlantic eastwards to the Pacific, that about three quarters of the world's present population is found. It is in Asia that the roots of the present great civilizations are to be found. Here the major religions and philosophical traditions of the world had their origins. In another address, Chunder Sen exhorted the Indians to "go to the rising Sun of the East, not to the setting Sun of the West, if you want to see Christ in the plenitude of his glory and in the fulness and freshness of his divine life."(2) Chunder Sen complained that Jesus Christ was presented to the Asians as a western Christ and the history of the Asiatic Christ in Asian soil had been replaced by the history of western missionary organizations in Asia.

Speaking of The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia, John C. England, a church historian from New Zealand, rightly points out that unfortunately only a few churches in the region have retained a strong sense that their history began in the early centuries of the Christian era. He writes:

Christianity can be taken as an ancient Asian religion not just because of its origins in west Asian cultures and in the life of a Palestinian Jew, nor because of the Asian form of its foundation scriptures, but also because of this long and diverse presence throughout central, south, south east, and north east Asian countries.(3)

Like Chunder Sen, John England also complains that such a long and diverse presence of Christianity in Asian history has been so long hidden.

Clearly such a history has not been widely recognised - and our understanding of Christian presence and identity within the particular histories and cultures of the region has been massively distorted - often for doctrinal or ideological reasons.(4)

While we have a great deal of information about western Christianity and its missionary expansion, we know very little of Asian Christianity and its missionary outreach. The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament does not give us a comprehensive and accurate account of Christianity and its spread in the early period. Its presentation is very selective and partial. Howard Marshall, a New Testament scholar, points out that Luke has idealized and simplified the story of the developments in the early church. He has selected one strand in the history of the church that leads from Jerusalem to Rome and from Jewish mission to Gentile mission, and he has left us in ignorance of many matters about which we would gladly be better informed. "To this extent, he has simplified the movement of church history and we do well to remember that he has not told us the whole story."(5)

While Paul and other Christian missionaries were converting Greeks, Romans and the barbarian tribes in the west, there was equally a great movement of Christianity to the east - Edessa, Persia, Arabia, Central Asia, China and India. The territory of the Roman empire lay mainly in Europe and in that part of Asia to the west of the Euphrates. But to the east of the Euphrates, at the time when Rome was at the zenith of its power, there existed the Persian empire, which extended to and included parts of northern India. In this vast empire, Christianity spread very rapidly. Beyond the borders of the Roman empire, there were Christian communities in Persia, Central Asia, China, Arabia and India. John Stewart writes:

It is a surprise to most people to learn that there was a large and widespread Christian community throughout the whole of central Asia in the first centuries of the present era and that such countries as Afghanistan and Tibet, which are spoken of today as lands closed to the Gospel message, were centres of Christian activity long before Muhammed was born.(6)

It is this story of the movement of God's Spirit in Asian history that had been left out by Luke and ignored by later church historians. It is one of the ironies of history that Christianity, which was born in Asia, has become alien in its place of birth. There is no one to blame for this tragedy except the Asian Christians themselves. As John England observed, it is very unfortunate that only a few Christian churches in the region have retained a strong sense of their history going back to the early centuries of the Christian era. Asian Christians have lost a sense of history and remained so long in Asia without being part of the historical process in Asia. The churches in Asia are set in the "Asian world" and we need to see our identity and mission in relation to the historical process in Asia. To lose our sense of history is to lose our sense of identity and mission, and our sense of security and creativity. Nelson Mandela, the president of the Republic of South Africa, in his autobiography, Long March to Freedom, speaks of his life in a South African prison. With timepieces of any kind banned, one of the first things he did was to make a calendar on the wall of his cell. "Losing a sense of time is an easy way to lose one's grip and even one's sanity," he says. Christians in Asia have lost a sense of history and also lost their grip on Asian realities.

Jewish Christianity

It is now generally accepted that the Christianity that spread to the east of Palestine was Jewish Christianity, in contrast to Gentile or Hellenistic Christianity. Christianity in its origin belonged to the Jewish world. However, as Danielou points out, the official documents that tell us about the origins of Christianity, namely the writings of the New Testament, were written for and connected with Hellenistic Christianity.(7) The man who wrote the Acts of the Apostles, the chief documentary evidence of the first decades of the church, was a Greek, who wrote it for the Greeks. He took little interest in the history of the Aramaic-speaking Christians and was hostile to Judeo-Christianity.(8) It is quite clear, however, that the earliest Christianity used Aramaic language, and the primitive church for a long time remained in Jewish society. When it spread, it spread not only to the west but also to the east of Palestine and beyond the borders of the Roman empire; not only Paul but other apostles were also involved in the preaching of the gospel. The region east of Palestine was a preserve of Judeo-Christian missionaries and had not been touched by the mission of Paul. The Judeo-Christian origin of the church in the eastern region of the Roman empire and beyond it to Edessa is all the more certain because the local language in general use in the region was Aramaic, the language of Judeo-Christians in Jerusalem.

A number of discoveries made in recent years makes it possible to get a better picture of Jewish Christianity. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal in great detail the Jewish culture of the period and the Jewish religious framework in which Christianity arose. The discoveries of Nag Hammadi, particularly the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps gives an Aramean tradition of the logia of Jesus. The Judeo-Christian writings - the Didache, the Ascension of Israel, Odes of Solomon, the Tradition of the Presbyters - help us to discover prior to or contemporary with the writings of the New Testament, an oral tradition that is a direct echo of the Judeo-Christian community.

There are a number of places in the east that are associated with the missionary work of St Thomas. Whether Thomas personally went to all those places associated with his name, or his disciples or companions went, Thomas is considered as the great apostle of the east just as Paul is the great apostle of the west. About this S.H. Moffett writes, "And however western scholars may write their histories of the church, from time immemorial Asia had linked the church's expansion east to the missionary travels of the Apostle Thomas."(9)

Early spread of Christianity in Asia

After mentioning that the Christian faith moved east across Asia as early as it moved west into Europe, S.H. Moffett notes:

Its earliest history, its first centres were Asian. Asia produced the first known church building, the first New Testament translation, perhaps the first Christian king, the first Christian poets, and even arguably the first Christian state. Asian Christians endured the greatest persecutions. They mounted global ventures in missionary expansions the west could not match until after the thirteenth century. By then the Nestorian church (as most of the early Asian Christian communities came to be called) exercised ecclesiastical authority over more of the earth than either Rome or Constantinople.(10)

According to Moffett this Asian Christianity looked neither to Rome nor to Constantinople as its centre. "It was a Christianity that has for centuries remained unashamedly Asian."(11)

The spread of Christianity in Asia is a fascinating story. As Moffett observed, the Asian Christians mounted global ventures in missionary expansion the west could not match until after the thirteenth century.

Osrhoene in western Mesopotamia, with its capital Edessa, was a buffer state between the Roman and the Parthian empires. Edessa is reported to be the first Christian city in the world, Christianity having been brought there in the first century by Addai, a disciple of St Thomas. Christianity flourished in Edessa and became the centre of Syriac-speaking Christianity for a time. Though Edessa became a Roman colony in the third century, its religious and cultural ties were with the Syriac-speaking peoples of the Persian Mesopotamia and not with the Greek-speaking cities in the Roman empire. Edessa was the home of the famous theological school founded in the fourth century. The great Christian poet of the fourth century, St Ephrem, lived in Edessa. The most famous of the theological teachers was Narsai.

Aggai and Mari (the disciples of Addai) are mentioned as the first missionaries to Persia and the first great centre of Christianity in Persia was Arbel, the capital of Adiabene, about fifty miles east of the Tigris. Historians differ as to whether Christianity came to Arbel independent of Edessa and prior to it or not. There was a large concentration of Jews in Arbel and in Nisibis in northern Mesopotamia (Persia) and there is no doubt that the early advance of Christianity in Persia was on the ground prepared by the Jews. The Christian faith spread not only in bigger cities but also in the villages on the mountains. By the end of the second century, Christian communities were seen all the way from Edessa to Afghanistan. The Chronicle of Arbela reports that by this time there were already more than twenty bishoprics in Persia. In less than two hundred years after Christ's death there was extensive Christian penetration in Asia, and the Syrian Christians were beginning to carry the faith not across Roman Asia only, not in Persia alone but also towards Arabia and Central Asia.

Even before the emergence of Islam, the Arabs were found beyond the Arabian Peninsula in Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Babylonia and Persia. They intermingled with the Aramaic-speaking people of the region and spoke Aramaic. When Christianity spread to Syria and Persia, there is no doubt that some of the Arabs became Christians. Unlike the Greeks, the Aramean Christians shared no interest in metaphysics as an end in itself. For them the Lord is a spirit and the salvation in Christ meant victory over the powers of evil spirits. The deserts were the abode of such evil spirits. J. Spencer Trimingham points out that the conversions of many Arab leaders came about through their deliverance from possessive spirits or the cure of maladies caused by the spirits. For example, the number of nomad Arabs in the valley of the Euphrates owed allegiance to Christianity; "Christianity commended itself to them through the power of the monks and hermits exercised over the evil spirits in the name of Jesus."(12) There were Arab Christians throughout the eastern part of the Roman empire as well as in Persia in the second century, and the gospel might have been preached in the Arabian peninsula by the end of the second century or early third century. At the time of the persecution of Christians in Persia by Shapur II in the fourth century, a number of Christians had migrated to Arabia either by land or by sea across the Persian Gulf to the coast of Oman and there to Yemen. The main centres of Christianity in Arabia proper were Yemen and Najran in south Arabia.

Before the end of the fifth century, Persian missionaries were making converts among the Huns and the Turks in Central Asia. When the Persian king Kavadh I had to flee his country to Central Asia in 499, he met on the way a group of Christian missionaries - a bishop, four presbyters and four laymen - going to Central Asia to preach to the Turks. Their mission was successful and many Turks became Christians. In addition to the work of Christian missionaries, Christian influence was making its way through the agency of Christian doctors, scribes and artisans who were readily able to find employment among the Turks and Huns. In the fourth to the seventh centuries, Merv was an important missionary base from where mission was undertaken to Central Asia. From Merv the urban centres of Bukhara and Samarquand in Transoxiana were reached with the gospel. Mingana speaks of a large number of converts beyond the Oxus river as a result of missionary work undertaken by Elliya, the metropolitan of Merv in the seventh century. In due course Samarquand became an important Christian centre and a base for missionary expansion further eastwards. Persian missionary activity was also to be found further to the northeast, towards Lake Baikal. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, several Tartar tribes were entirely or to a great extent Christian, notably the Keraits, Uighurs, Naimans and the Merkits.(13)

In AD 781, Timothy, the Nestorian patriarch at that time, wrote that another king of the Turks had become Christian with all his people. In another letter, Timothy mentioned that having ordained a metropolitan for the Turks, he was about to do the same for Tibet. In yet another letter Timothy wrote that in his time many monks had crossed the sea and went only with staff and scrip to the Indians and the Chinese. In the same letter he also mentioned the death of the metropolitan of China.

The discovery of the Nestorian Tablet in China and the story of the beginning of Christianity in China in the seventh century is well known. Again, during the Mongol period, the Persian missionaries were very active in China. It is believed that Christianity came to India in the first century with the apostolic activity of St Thomas.

In the years AD 520-525, Cosmas Indicopleustes witnessed Nestorian Christians in Socotra, south west and central India, Sri Lanka, Pegu (southern Burma), Cochin China (south Vietnam), Siam and Tonquin (northern Vietnam). There are also inscriptions, crosses, frescoes and ruins and contemporary documents that are evidences of Christians in these places from the seventh to fifteenth centuries.(14) John England observes:

Merchants and traders, monks and bishops along the "length of the silk roads" and in all major ports of Asia; mothers and matriarchs, princesses and queens in oasis. Communities, nomadic tribes and the courts of the Khans; physicians and teachers, pastors and ascetics, scholars, artists, chancellors and governors - in Samarquand, Turfan or Siam, Cranganore, Anuradhapura or Pegu, in Foochow, Kyoto or Karakoram: these are but scattered examples of the numberless Christians whom we now know to have lived in villages and settlements, encampments and cities of west, central, south and east Asia during the first fifteen centuries of our era.(15)

The missionary impulses in the Asian Christian tradition

From the very beginning the East Syrian church expressed its faith through missionary efforts. When the western church was busily engaged in theological controversies, the East Syrian church was busy preaching the gospel to the Persians, Arabs, Indians, Turks and the Chinese. The existence of trade routes connecting Syria with China, India and Tibet offered great opportunities for Christian missionaries to undertake their missionary efforts.

How will we explain the missionary dynamism of the early Asian Christian community? What were its impulses?

The Jewish Christian tradition

As we previously noted, it was the Jewish Christianity that spread to the regions east of Palestine and beyond the eastern borders of the Roman empire into Persia, Arabia, Central Asia, China and India. To find reasons for the missionary impulse in the early Asian tradition, we need to look, in the first place, to the Jewish Christian tradition that the Asian churches have inherited. The Doctrine of Addai, The Odes of Solomon, The Gospel of Thomas, The Acts of Judas Thomas, the writings of Tatian, Bardaisan of Edessa, Didascalia Apostolorum, the writings of Ephrem, Aphrahat and Narsai are some of the important sources by which we may gain an understanding of the early Syrian (Asian) Christian tradition.

The Odes of Solomon,(16) an earliest Christian hymn written in Syriac in the region of Edessa in the first century, gives us some knowledge of the early Syrian Christian community. The Odes of Solomon is itself a testimony to the presence of Christians in Edessa in the first century. The expressions and ideas in the Odes clearly show that they belong to a period prior to any systematic development of Christian doctrine and practice and that they were the first attempts to express its newly found faith.

The Christology of the Odes seems to be very much like that of the fourth gospel. The central emphasis in both is the victory that Christ has won over darkness and death, over satan and evil forces. He is the liberator and he is the light. In Christ, light shines casting out darkness and believers experience deliverance and eternal life here and now. This gospel is meant for all people. Out of their confidence in eternal life in Christ came their missionary spirit. In Ode X, the mission of the Redeemer is mentioned thus. Here Christ says:

The Lord has directed my mouth by His word; and He hath opened my heart by His light: and He hath caused to dwell in me His deathless light; and gave me that I might speak the fruit of His peace: to convert the souls of them who are willing to come to Him and to lead captive a good captivity for freedom. I was strengthened and made mighty and took the world captive; and it became to me for the praise of the most High, and of God my Father. And the Gentiles were gathered together who were scattered abroad. And I was unpolluted by my love "for them," because they confessed me in high places: and the footprints of the light were set up on their heart: and they walked in my life and were saved and became my people for ever and ever. Hallelujah.

In Ode VII, Christ says, "And I went over all my bondmen to love them; that I might not leave any man bound or binding; and I imparted my knowledge without grudging: my prayer was in my love" (Ode XVII, II).

There is a note of universalism and catholic outlook in these Odes. In Ode XVIII, 7, it is said, "Thou wilt receive men from all quarters." Commenting on these Odes, S.H. Moffett says that the Jewishness of the community as reflected in the Odes is as open and unaffected as their Christianity. They claim Christ as God's promise of salvation to the offspring of Israel. One particularly vivid instance in their innate Jewish spirit is a slight hesitancy about the propriety of accepting Gentiles as Christians. In the tenth Ode, Christ apologetically defends Christian love, which is broad, to encompass the Gentiles when he says, "And the Gentiles were gathered together who were scattered abroad. And I was unpolluted by my love for them." Despite an implied Christian hesitance about non-Jews, the hymn clearly indicates that here is a very Jewish Christian community where Gentiles were welcomed into the Christian fellowship and made an integral part of it. In this first century Jewish church, the Jewishness of the gospel had already been refined and transformed by an evangelistic love reaching out to both Jews and Gentiles with a message of grace that transcends "the law."

According to Moffett this emergent broadening of the church is an indication of an early date of the Odes, very different from the tinges of anti-Judaism that began to mar some of the later Syrian Christian writings.(17)

The confidence in Christ's total victory over darkness and death and the experience of eternal life here and now provide the impulse for missionary work. In a very beautiful verse, the Odist expresses the missionary spirit thus:

The Lord has multiplied his knowledge, and he was zealous that those things should be known which through his grace have been given to us. . . . For there went forth a stream, and it became a stream great and broad; indeed it carried away everything. . . . and the restrainers of the children of men were not able to restrain it, nor the arts of those whose business it is to restrain waters; For it spread over the face of all the earth, and it filled everything; Then all the thirsty upon the earth drank, and the thirst was relieved and quenched (Ode VI: 5-11).(18)

God zealously wishes his knowledge to be multiplied. The gospel, like a stream, great and broad, spreads. It cannot be stopped by anyone. The Odist is confident of the ultimate victory of the gospel over all those who oppose it. It spread over all the earth and filled everything. Then all the thirsty upon the earth drank, and their thirst was quenched. It reminds us of the call of God through Isaiah the prophet, "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; you who have no money, come, buy and eat."(19) This prophecy has been fulfilled in the coming of Christ. Jesus said, "whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."(20) In Ode XI, the speaker (Christ) says, "I was established upon the rock of truth, where he had set me up: and speaking waters touched my lips from the fountain of the Lord plenteously: and I drank and was inebriated with the living water that doth not die" (Ode XI: 15). Again in Ode XXX, like Isaiah, the Odist calls:

Fill ye waters for yourselves from the living fountain of the Lord, for it is opened to you: Come all ye thirsty, and take the draught; and rest by the fountain of the Lord. . . . Much more pleasant are its waters than honey; and the honeycomb of bees is not to be compared with it. For it flows forth from the lips of the Lord, and from the heart of the Lord is its name. . . Blessed are they who have drunk therefrom and have found rest thereby.

According to the Odist, blessed are the ministers who carry this life-giving water to the dying.

Blessed, therefore, are the ministers of the drink, Who have been entrusted with His water. They have pleased the parched lips, and have restored the paralysed will. Even the lives who were about to expire, They have seized from death. And the members who had fallen, They have restored and set up. They gave power for their coming and light to their eyes Because everyone recognized as the Lord's, and lived by the living water forever (VI: 13-18).

This is a remarkable picture of the ministers of the gospel. The ministers are blessed because they are entrusted with the life-giving water to give light and life to those who are fallen and are seized by death. To be a minister of the gospel is a great privilege and responsibility. It is a life-giving gospel; it is the water of life. It is this understanding of the gospel as life-giving that was the secret of the missionary dynamism of the early Syrian church. Jesus said, "Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." These words of Jesus became a strong and powerful missionary impulse in the life of the early Asian Christian community. All the believers are expected to bear fruit. They are like fruit-bearing trees that have been planted by the Lord in Paradise. "Their branches were flourishing, and their fruits were shining, their roots (were) from an immortal land (Ode XI:11)."

The theology of the early Syrian church

Aphrahat, the Persian theologian of the fourth century, in his book: Demonstrations, speaks of the Christian discipleship thus:

Our beloved, sons of peace, disciples of Christ; You are the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the eye of the body; you are the friend of the Bridegroom, the Good seed, the foundation laid on the rock. You are the wise architects, who dig foundations and lay bare what is rotten. You are industrious farmers, filling store houses and garnering produce You are wise merchants, receiving money and showing a profit . . . You are holders of the keys, faithful ambassadors and blowers of the trumpets . . . You are vines in the vineyard, the seed of good wheat, bearing fruit of a hundred fold. You are the lighters of lamps. You are Christ's ambassadors, heralds who bring (souls) to birth by water . . . You are the glorious shepherds, who bring their flocks into good pastures and Our Lord Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, Light in darkness, lamp on the lamp-stand. who brought light to the world and absolved sins, Let us journey in his footsteps that we may arrive at their haven.(21)

Aphrahat builds on the Jewish Christian tradition that he inherited. Like the Odist, Jesus Christ for Aphrahat is the chief shepherd, light in darkness and the living water. The task of the disciple is to follow the footsteps of the master by bringing the water of life to those who are thirsty, thus absolving their sins. Narsai in the fifth century was the head of the theological school at Nisibis. In his homily on priesthood he exhorts the priests to follow the footsteps of the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

Pasture (your sheep) well according to the command of the Good Shepherd; and tend his flock with the great love that befits his love. See, and examine, how he bought with His blood the flock of men; and on the summit of the cross he wrote and set it free from slavery. See how He suffered from the wrong doers for the sake of His flock, and despised and made light of all sufferings that it might not perish. He was desirous that His dear friends should imitate His example, and that they should travel in His footsteps in the way of His preaching.(22)

The priests are the friends of Jesus Christ. To be a priest is to be a missionary. For the Syrian theologians, Jesus Christ is the saviour of the world because he gave himself up for the sake of the world. St Ephrem, the fourth century Syrian poet, says:

Blessed be the shepherd who became the lamb for our atonement! Blessed be the vine shoot that became the chalice for our salvation, Blessed be the grape, the source of medicine of life. Blessed be the farmer, who became the wheat that was sown, and the sheaf that was harvested.(23)

Ephrem continues: "He is the lamb, and he is the sacrifice; He is the sacrificial calf and He is the high priest who sacrifices."(24)

Jesus Christ is both the shepherd and the sheep, the farmer and the wheat, the vineshoot and the wine in the chalice, the sacrifice and the sacrificer. He is the priest and the victim. The calling of the Christian disciples is to imitate Christ, to follow the footsteps of the master in sacrificing themselves for the salvation of the world. Whether it is for the author of the Ode of Solomon, or Ephrem or Aphrahat or Narsai, it was their Christology that controlled their whole theology and it was Christology that molded their missionary theology. The mission, for the East Syrian theologians, was part of their Christology. The missionary motive permeated the whole Christian life, whether of clergy or laity. John Stewart points out that the bishops, or presbyters, as they were frequently designated, were like pilgrim preachers going from place to place and looking after their people as best they could. In all probability they supported themselves. Many of them were traders, others were carpenters, smiths and weavers. One of the complaints brought against them by the Sacerdotelists in connection with their missionary work in later times was that the merchants could with ease lay aside his calling and become a monk or presbyter and vice versa. (25)

The East Syrians saw the mission in terms of combat against evil forces both in personal life and in society. Arthur Voobus speaks of the covenant consciousness of the East Syrians. There were people in the church who thought of Christian life as a new covenant. For them, the Christians were the sons and daughters of the covenant. The essence of their spirituality was the sense of being personally married to Christ in consecrated virginity. The covenanters were fighters in the army of God and they used military terminology and their mission theology was expressed in terms of struggle, fight, battle and war. Commenting on Jesus' saying, "Endeavour to enter through the narrow door," (Luke 13:23), Ephrem, in his Exposition of the Gospel, says:

And we see this same thing that the door of the kingdom shall be in this manner. He who indeed desires to enlist and write himself on the list of the number of soldiers here on earth, first put this on his mind: to leave his house and his kindred, in order to go away to other regions and for him to battle to death.(26)

For the East Syrian church, baptism is the initiation into the army of God for warfare. Narsai brings out this teaching very clearly in his homily on baptism. Speaking of the anointing with oil, he writes:

The oil is a symbol that proclaims the divine power. . . . By his power the body and soul acquire power; and they no more dread the injuries of death. As athletes they descend (and) stand in the arena, and they close in battle with the cowardly suggestions that are in them. . . the spirit gives power to the unction of the feeble oil, and it waxes firm by the operation that is administered in it. By its firmness it makes firm the body and the faculties of the soul, and they go forth confidently to wage war against the Evil one.(27)

Thus the tradition of the Jewish Christian heritage, and the theology as it developed in the East Syrian church contributed much to the missionary dynamism of the East Syrian church. It was their Christology that provided the impulse for their missionary work. Christian life was seen as an imitation of Christ, who gave his life for the salvation of the world. Christians were members of the army of Christ.

The monastic movement in the East Syrian church

Another important factor that contributed to the missionary dynamism of the East Syrian church was the monastic movement. It has often been held that the monastic movement in Mesopotamia originated as part of a general movement that started in Egypt under the influence of Antony and Pachomius. Today historians are inclined to believe that monasticism in East Syria originated independent of and prior to the Egyptian movement.

The early Christian movement in Mesopotamia and Persia found itself in the midst of a number of movements and groups such as Marcionites, Valentinians, Manicheans and various other groups that were very congenial to asceticism. All these movements displayed a uniform hatred toward the world and the body. Such ideologies and movements had their influence on Christian monasticism as it developed in the East Syrian church. But the question is to what extent did they influence Christian monasticism? Arthur Voobus points out that the Christian ascetics had a thirst after mortification and self-annihilation and went as far as to despise life itself. This was so because of the influence of Manicheism, which in turn was influenced by Indian asceticism.

While admitting that there might have been some extreme form of asceticism practised by some Christian groups, the question has been asked whether we can speak of the whole of the Christian movement as similar to that of Manichean monasticism. Was it greatly influenced by the strong anti-worldly and anti-bodily Manichean dualism? D.T.W. Drijivers disagrees with the conclusion of Voobus. He asks: Is the Christian ascetic practice an expression of contempt of the human condition and hatred of the body? He says that the social role of Christian holy men is in flagrant contradiction to such an explanation. The Manichean ascetics are a religious elite who never interfere with the body-social but always live at a safe distance from the cares and worries of daily life. We never hear about their social activities. Contrary to Christianity, it never became a social movement; its ideology leads away from the trivial and material aspects of human life. Christian holy men are always ready to participate in the daily lives of the common people in order to protect and integrate that life. They may cherish the ideal of virginity, but when necessary, they repair a marriage and they pray for the barren women.(28)

Drijivers points out that the lifestyle of the Christian saint is an exact replica of the essential elements in the early Syrian Christology. For them, anthropology is part of Christology. The literary heritage of the early Syriac-speaking church is reflected in The Acts of Thomas, The Odes of Solomon and in Tatian's Diatessaron. In all these Christ is considered as God's eternal thought and will, incarnate in the human body in order that the human being might return to the original state in which he or she is created according to God's thought and will. Christ manifests the divine will by his obedience unto death, which means denouncing human passions and strivings, revealing in this way God's eternal thought concerning the salvation of humankind. The lifestyle of the holy man is an imitation of Christ's passion, training of his will in dominating his passions and human strivings. He shows a certain Christ-conformity. Virginity is the ideal of the holy man not because he is filled with a deep hatred of the human body, but because Christ was ihidaya (monogenes). The doctrine of the free will of the human being by which he or she controls all passions and guides his/her body is an essential part of Syriac theology. In the hard exercise of his will, the holy man gains insight into God's saving thought. Asceticism and acquisition of wisdom are two sides of the same Imitatio Christi. The Acts of Thomas illustrates this. The holy man displays this insight of wisdom in his acts of power, which always aims at the salvation of the people. The Syrian holy man is the image of Christ and the continuation of the incarnation so that the divine manifests itself in human shape by transforming that shape into an instrument of God's thought and will. The central aspect of mainline East Syrian monasticism is not the fleeing from the world or despising the human body, but the exercise of self-discipline by the use of human will and acquisition of wisdom to be used for the salvation of the people.

The monks were popular with the masses. In the prayers of these spiritual men, the masses saw expiatory acts in the interests of the whole nation. The masses knew that the monks had particular compassion for those who suffered and that they were always willing to help the people both spiritually and materially. The monasteries became the congregating centres of the poor and those who suffered. There was competition between the monks and the regular clergy. The general masses believed that the monks' explanation of the scriptures was more accurate, their teachings were powerful and their prayers more effective. Large number of believers made pilgrimage to the monasteries even on Sundays. As a result the church was forced to make a rule that the people should go to church on Sundays and visit the monks only on weekdays.

In the fifth century, the spread of the monastic movement throughout Persia was very rapid and a large number of monasteries were founded both inside Persia and outside Persia where the Persian church undertook missionary work. The monastic movement reached the zenith of its prosperity by the middle of the seventh century. From hundreds of monasteries all over Persia and central and eastern Asia there came a constant stream of ascetics who went forth, in obedience to the Lord's command, seeking to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. They introduced letters and learning among peoples who were previously illiterate, such as Turks, Uighurs and Mongols; it is believed that all of them derived their alphabet from the Syriac. It is said about these monks that they were people of great faith and well-versed in scriptures, large portions of which they knew by heart, fervent in prayer, gentle and humble in manner, full of the love of God on the one hand, and love of their neighbour and all humankind on the other.

In Egyptian monasticism, the saints ignored the word, retreated to the desert into caves and cells. On the contrary, Syrian ascetics became wandering missionaries, healing the sick, feeding the poor, and preaching the gospel. They moved from place to place. R. Murray describes them as "homeless followers of the homeless Jesus on . . . ceaseless pilgrimage through the world."(29) A. Gerd Thessen, a German sociologist and New Testament scholar, speaks of the first followers of Jesus as "wandering charismatics." The members of Syrian monasticism adhered to the tradition of the first followers of Jesus.

In the tradition of the first missionaries of the east, there is the same note of wandering mission, moving out across the world for Christ. The ascetic is under obligation to traverse cities and villages as travelling missionaries expounding the gospel and strengthening the small communities. His mission is not described as withdrawal, but as an advance against the forces of error and darkness. It springs from a disciplined, missionary decision to go forth from his home and relationships to other regions and throw himself into the combat of the war of death. Thomas in India gives thanks to God that he has become an ascetic and a pauper and a wanderer for God.(30) Addai refuses to receive silver and gold from the king of Edessa saying that he has forsaken the riches of this world "because without purses and without scrips, beating the cross on our shoulders, we are commanded to preach the gospel to the whole creation." The Gospel of Thomas exhorts the faithful to become "wanderers," perhaps a call to mission. It says "travelling and healing are higher calling than fasting, praying and alms giving." It quotes the Lord's call to mission, "The harvest is great but the labourers are few." The monastic movement played a very important role in the missionary enterprise of the church.

Theological schools

The monasteries were centres of education for children and youth. They were in one sense Bible training schools, the chief subject taught being the scriptures. The sons of Christians were expected to attend a course of lectures, study the New Testament and learn psalms before entering a business career.

Apart from monastic or parish schools there were also renowned centres of theological education such as that of Edessa or Nisibis. About Nisibis it is said that the central aspect of the school was its spiritual discipline and Bible study. Within the framework of general biblical knowledge, the students were given systematic training in biblical exegisis after the manner of the great interpreter, Theodore of Mopsuestia. But the school was not only a school of spiritual discipline based on the study of the scriptures, its theology was also a missionary theology. According to S.H. Moffett, this explains to a large extent the astounding way in which the church expanded.

In the fifth century, the famous teacher in Nisibis was Narsai. He was a great teacher and enjoyed an immense reputation. His learning and knowledge were esteemed so singular that his grateful admirers, in their amazement and veneration, believed that they saw angels hovering around his chair when he taught. The roots of the missionary theology of the school arose out of the theology of Narsai. His theology effectively combined doctrines of creation, salvation and a universal mission patterned after the biblical models, Peter and Paul - Peter to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. But for Narsai the ultimate mandate for mission comes from neither Peter nor Paul, but from Jesus himself. As Narsai paraphrases the words of Jesus telling his disciples:

Your task is to complete the mystery of preaching! You shall be witnesses of the new way in which I have opened up in my person. . . . You, I sent as missionaries to the four corners of the earth to convert the gentiles; to kinship with the house of Abraham . . . . But you as light I will banish the darkness of error, and by your flames I will enlighten the blind. . . . Go forth, give gratis the freedom of life to immortality.(31)

Migration of Christians

Although trade was the main reason for the movement of people in the Asian region, religious faith also played a strong part in people's desire to travel or migrate to other places. One element that must have aided the missionary activity of the East Syrian church was the stream of refugees to Persia from the Roman empire. About this John Stewart writes:

Like the Huguenots, who after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, brought the silk trade to England, like the pilgrim fathers who carried the best puritan energy out of England to found a new world, the Nestorians came to Mesopotamia with the arts and crafts of life - carpenters, smiths, weavers - the best of the artisan class. They came to start industries and lay the foundations of manufacturing prosperity in the land of their adoption. Nor did they go merely as exiles. Their very trouble converted them into missionaries.(32)

They were remarkably successful in winning converts in one place after another as they penetrated further and further into the lands of Asia. Moreover, the increase in numbers and the zeal and devotion of men who were exiled for their faith stimulated the churches and made still more centres of missionary activities.

While the migration of Christians from the Roman empire helped the growth of missionary activity, the persecution of Christians in the Persian empire in the fourth, fifth and subsequent centuries was a contributing factor for the marvellous expansion of Nestorian mission. During these persecutions, a countless number suffered death rather than deny their Lord. Some became apostates, but many crossed over to Arabia to the south and west, to the furthermost extremes of the Persian empire and into the territories beyond, such as Transoxania and Turkistan. Some migrated to South India. Wherever they went, whether merchants or artisans, clergy or laity, they carded the gospel with them. Supporting themselves by the labour of their own hands or filling appointments as secretaries, physicians or stewards in the households of nobles and princes of those lands to which they went, they were one and all missionaries of the Cross.(33)


The Jewish Christian heritage as reflected in The Odes of Solomon was a powerful challenge for Christian missions. Jesus Christ, on the cross, has won the battle over darkness and death. He is the light and life of the world. His adversaries will not be able to stop the onward march of the gospel. Blessed are those who take the water of life to those who are thirsty and dying. The strong conviction that Jesus Christ has won the battle over evil and that his gospel will ultimately triumph was a strong missionary impulse in the life of the East Syrian (Asian) church. For the Syrian poet Ephrem, Jesus Christ is the king and Lord of all, at whose birth darkness fled from the world and the earth was enlightened. In his hymns for the Feast of Epiphany, Ephrem says, "Among the peoples there was great tumult - and in the darkness the light dawned - and the nations rejoiced to give glory to Him in whose birth they were all enlightened."(34)

The Magi who came to see baby Jesus told Mary, "The peace of thy son, it shall bear us in tranquility to our land, as it has led us hither; and when His power shall have grasped the worlds, may He visit our land and bless it!" Mary replied, "May Persia rejoice in your glad tidings! May Assyria exult in your coming! And when my son's kingdom shall arise, may He plant His standard in your country." This missionary motivation was deeply rooted in their faith that in the coming of Jesus Christ, "the world above and the world below are illuminated" and his standard needs to be planted in all nations.(35)

The centre of the East Syrian theology as it developed in the early period was its Christology. The Christian response to Jesus Christ is to follow his footsteps. Hence it was a missionary theology. This is clearly seen in the writings of the East Syrian fathers such as St Ephrem, Aphrahat and Narsai. The monastic movement was a way of imitating Christ, following his footsteps in bringing salvation to the world. The whole Christian life was permeated with a missionary spirit. Whether clergy or laity, traders or refugees, wherever they went they tried to be ambassadors of Christ. Speaking of the Syrian Christians Jerome observes that even a state of war did not necessarily prevent the Syrian merchants from carrying their wares from place to place. They have an innate love of commerce and the desire to gain, but also for spreading the faith, "who burn by the very warmth of their faith."


1 Keshub Chunder Sen, Asia's Message to Europe. Calcutta, 1919.

2 Keshub Chunder Sen, Who is Jesus Christ? Calcutta, 1919.

3 John C. England and Archi Lee (eds), Doing Theology with Asian Resources. New Zealand: Programme for Theology and Culture in Asia, 1993, p. 129.

4 Ibid.

5 Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian. Zondervan, 1970. p.73

6 John Stewart, Nestorian Missionary Enterprise. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928. p. xxix.

7 J. Danielou, "Christianity as a Jewish Sect," Arnold Toynbee (ed.), The Crucible of Christianity, p. 275.

8 Ibid., p. 275.

9 S.H. Moffett., History of Christianity in Asia, vol. 1. San Francisco: Harper, 1992, p. 25.

10 Ibid., p. xiii.

11 Ibid.

12 J. Spencer Trimmingham, Christianity Among the Arabs in pre-Islamic Times. London: Longman, 1979, p. 128.

13 Lawrence E. Browne, The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia. New York, 1967, p. 95.

14 John C. England, op. cit., pp. 145-146.

15 John C. England, The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia, (an unpublished manuscript), Introduction.

16 J.H. Charlesworth, The Odes of Solomon: The Syrian texts, edited with translation and notes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973. Also J. Armitage Robinson, The Odes of Solomon. Cambridge University Press, 1912.

17 S. H. Moffett, op. cit., pp. 52-53.

18 Several of the early church fathers interpreted the "waters" in the Ode as the water of baptism, typified by the river of Ezekiel 47, which flowed out from under the Temple and gathering volume in its progress, bore onward the waters of healing and fruitfulness. See Armitage Robinson, Odes of Solomon, p. 56. Whether it has an allusion to baptismal water or not, it is better to take it as a reference to the water of life that Christ gives. "Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" John 4:14. In Ezekiel the water is for healing and fruitfulness while in the Odes it is for drinking. The Ode XXX says, "Fill ye waters for yourselves from the living fountain of the Lord, for it is opened to you: come all ye thirsty, and take a draught; and rest by the fountain of the Lord. . . . : For it flows forth from the lips of the Lord, and from the heart of the Lord is its name. . . . : blessed are they who have drunk therefrom and have found rest thereby" (Ode XXX: 1-7).

19 Isaiah 55: 1.

20 John 4: 14.

21 Quoted in Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom. Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 163.

22 Quoted in Murray, ibid.

23 Murray, ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 John Stewart., op. cit., p. 5.

26 George A. Egan (tr), Saint Ephrem: An Exposition of the Gospel. Louvain, 1968, p. 61.

27 Dom R. H. Connolly (tr), op. cit., p. 45.

28 H.J.W. Drijivers, The Enast of Antioch, p. 30.

29 Murray, op. cit., p. 29.

30 Acts of Judas Thomas, 6:60-61; 139,145,61. See also Arthur Voobus, History of Asceticism, p. 100.

31 Arthur Voobus, History of the School of Nisibis, p. 106.

32 John Stewart, op. cit., p. 18.

33 Ibid.

34 John Gwyn (tr), Hymns and Homilies of Ephrem the Syrian, Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers (second series) vol. XIII, hymn xv, pp. 287-289.

35 Ibid., p. 289.

T.V. PHILIP, an Indian Church historian, is at present a Senior Fellow of the Brisbane College of Theology in Australia.
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Author:Philip, T.V.
Publication:International Review of Mission
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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