return to religion-online

East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia by T.V. Philip


T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by CSS & ISPCK, India, 1998.This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 8:Christianity In Other Places In Asia


Christian history in Asia has not only been neglected or ignored but also distorted for a long time. This is specially so with regard to the beginnings of Christianity in South East and East Asia (except China). For the majority of the western historians, the beginnings of Christianity in this area belong to a period after AD 1500; it was the result of the work of the Roman Catholic missionaries since the sixteenth century and of the Protestant missionaries from Europe and America since the nineteenth century. For them the history of the churches in Asia belongs to the history of the western missionary movement and is not an independent story of their own. K.S. Latourette, the well known American historian of the missionary movement says that it was the European expansion of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which carried Christianity to the various states and regions of south-eastern Asia -- Burma, Malay Peninsula, Siam and parts of what are known collectively as Indo-China. According to him, the first missionaries in Burma were Franciscans who reached Pegu in the fifteen fifties. In Siam, Roman Catholicism was the only form of Christianity which attempted missions before the nineteenth century. Christianity came to the Malay Peninsula after the Portuguese conquered Malacca in AD 1511. In AD 1615, Jesuits, driven out from Japan by a persecution. established a mission in Cohin China which met with considerable success. The Portuguese landed in Japan in AD 1542 and the Christian mission there began with the arrival of Francis Xavier in AD 1549. Spain conquered the Philippine islands in the third quarters of the sixteenth century and in AD 1570 efforts were made for the conversion of the islands. With regard to Tibet and Korea, Latourette says that though European missionaries penetrated Tibet in the sixteenth century, Christianity gained only slight footholds in Korea and Tibet before AD 1800. (K. S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, vol. 3, pp. 293-335.)

However, contrary to what has been said by western historians, there is evidence to show that Christianity found its way into South East and East Asian countries even before the coming of western missionaries, through the efforts of Nestorian merchants and missionaries from Persia or India or China or from all the three places. After speaking of many technical and critical problems involved in the study of Asian history, John England writes:

Taking account of these and similar issues, and drawing upon the range of evidence now available to us, it is possible to outline the presence of Christian communities from Syria in the west to Japan in the north-east and as far as Java in the south-east by the first half of the eighth century. (John England., op.cit., p. 133.

John England mentions some of the places in Asia where inscriptions, crosses, frescoes, paintings and manuscripts and other such evidence of Christian history are found.

By the sixth century, we have crosses and inscriptions from Sri Lanka and Turkestan (where some early manuscripts were also found); and by the eighth century, Sian-fu-stele, documents from Gobi sites, inscriptions from central Japan and Russian Turkestan (which has frescoes and church remains also), along with large bodies of the writing of the golden age of Syriac literature from west Asia. With local writings, these have been found across the region, especially in South India and West China. In the next three centuries would be added the large collections of crosses and tombstones from Kirghizstan (ninth to fourteenth centuries), others from central and north China; relics in Burma and Malaya; crosses, inscriptions and documents in Tibet and South China; along with contemporary manuscript evidence for Christian activity in Syria, Iran, Turkestan, Indo-China, Sumatra, and China (north and south). (Ibid.)

According to him the above evidence has been assembled by scholars and travelers over many centuries and subjected to careful study especially since the work of Assemani in the eighteenth century. Much of the new evidence now available are in the work of Syriac and Arabic scholars, specialists in medieval church history or of historians studying the early trade routes linking west Asia and east Asia by land or sea. (Ibid., pp. 133-134)

Historians differ as to the extent of Christianity in Asia before the sixteenth century According to S.H. Moffett, the references to early Christianity in South East Asia -Burma, Thailand, the kingdoms of Cambodia\Vietnam Peninsula, Java and the Philippines -are very difficult to verify historically. He says that some of the references are due to misunderstandings on the part of the European travelers in Asia or questionable claims made by them of seeing Christians in Asia. It is possible that some travelers might have misunderstood the situation or made questionable claims and we need to examine the evidence carefully. But it does not mean that all the evidence with regard to an early spread of Christianity in Asia cannot be trusted. There are a number of writers including Mingana who acknowledge that Christianity was widespread in Asia before AD 1500. According to John England, "There is now some agreement that amongst the episcopal and metropolitan sees recorded for the churches of the East from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries, those for India and China include in their jurisdiction a number of South East Asian episcopates. Some manuscript evidence in early chronicles and correspondence confirms this for such places as Ceylon, Malaya, Indo-China and Indonesia." (Ibid., p. 145.) One of the earliest accounts of the Christian communities in South east Asia comes from Cosmas Indicopleustes in the sixth century. He speaks of Christian communities in Socotora, India, Ceylon, Pegu (Burma), Cochin-China (southern Vietnam), Siam and Tonquin (northern Vietnam). (Ibid., p. 145.)

With regard to Ceylon, the testimony of Cosmas is very clear that there were Christians on the island in the sixth century. About Ceylon (Taprobane) he writes:

This is a large oceanic island lying in the Indian sea. By the Indians it is called Sieledibe, but by the Greeks Taprobane, and there in found the hyacinth stone. It lies on the other side of the pepper country. It is a great mart for the people in those parts. The island has also a Church of Persian Christians who have settled there, and a Presbyter who is appointed from Persia, and a Deacon and a complete ecclesiastical ritual. But the natives and the kings are heathens. In this island they have many temples. The island, as it is, in central position, is much frequented by ships from all parts of India and from Persia and Ethiopia, and it likewise sends out many of its own. (Cosmas. op.cit., p. 365.)

In another passage, Cosmas says, "Even in Taprobane, an island in Further India, where the Indian sea is, there is a church of Christians, with clergy and a body of believers, but I know not whether there be any Christians in the parts beyond it." (Ibid., p. 118)

From the above observations of Cosmas it is often assumed that in Ceylon in the sixth century there were only Persian Christians who settled there and there were no indigenous Christians. We need to remember that Cosmas was a Persian and a Nestorian and it is understandable if his main interest was in the Persian Christian communities in places which he mentioned in his book. Moreover, he did not personally visit all the places he mentions and did not claim to have made a complete survey of Christianity in those places. Is this not what he meant when he wrote, "I do not know whether there be any Christians in the parts beyond it." We do not know when Christianity came to Ceylon, probably earlier than the sixth century as there were Christian communities in South India from the first century onwards. It is also probable that there were indigenous Christians in Ceylon (other than the Persian Christians who settled there) from the beginnings of Christianity in Ceylon. Just as it happened in South India the East Syrian influence might have been felt in Ceylon through Persian merchants and missionaries, and/or perhaps through the St. Thomas Christians in South India at least from the fifth century onwards. A series of stone inscriptions and coins record the ‘presence of foreign Christian high officers at the service of Sinhala kings’ from AD 473 to 508 , and the conversion of one of these kings." (Ibid., p. 118) Nestorian crosses have been found in several places such as Anuradhapura, the capital of the north-central kingdom between the second and the tenth centuries, in Kotte (east Colombo) and Gintumpitya (St. Thomas town, Colombo). The crosses found at Anuradhapura are very similar in style to those in Persia (7th century), China at Sian-fu-stele (8th century) and to those in Tibet and Armenia. (John England. op.cit., p. 146.)

Pegu in Burma was a trading centre on Arab trade routes until the fifteenth century and according to Cosmas there were Christians there in the sixth century. Marco Polo in AD 1278 found Nestorian Christians in the Chinese province of Yun-an which borders on Burma. According to Marco Polo, Burma was temporarily conquered by Kublai Khan in AD 1277 and 1283. It is difficult to know whether any Christian missionaries came to Burma from China at this time and any Christian influence was felt. Marco Polo tells the story of Ludovico di Varthema, a Bolognese, who traveled in South East Asia in AD 1503 or 1504 and tells of meeting in Bengal (India) Nestorian merchants from Siam. The latter conducted him to Pegu in Burma where they saw some hundreds of Christians in the king’s service. (Henry Yule (tr.) and edited by H. Cordier, Cathy and the Way Thither, vol. x referred to by S. H. Moffett, op.cit, p. 146.) Accepting the truth of the story, John England adds, "We know from other sources that there were west Asians in Tenasserim from as early as the fourth century, in Champa and Tonking in the eleventh century and in Siam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the evidence points to Christians being among them." (John England., op.cit., l46.) S.H. Moffett thinks that the claim made by Varthema is questionable. "He may well have mistaken chanting Buddhists for Nestorians," he writes. "But if, as he says, he was travelling in the company of Nestorian merchants, surely they should have known the difference between Nestorians and Buddhists." (S.H. Moffett, op.cit., p. 461.)

Early presence of Christians in Tibet is well attested. Towards the end of the eighth century the Nestorian patriarch Mar Timothy I (AD 779-823) in his letter to the monks of Mar Maron concerning the addition of the formula Crucifixus es pro nobis [Crucified for us] to the trisagion wrote, "And also in the countries of Babylon, of Persia, and Assyria, and in all the Countries of the sun rise, that is to say, -- among the Indians, the Chinese, the Tibetans, the Turks, and in all the provinces under the jurisdiction of this patriarchal see, there is no addition of Crucifixus es pronobis." (Mingana, op.cit., p. 466.) In another of his letters, Timothy mentioned that he was about to consecrate a metropolitan for Tibet. (Lawrence Browne, op.cit.. p.95.)

According to Aziz S. Atiya, one relic of Nestorianism in Tibet is the survival of its ritual in a debased form in the Lamaism of Tibet. The striking resemblances with Lamaist Monasticism, the use of holy water, incense and vestments of a similar character to Nestorian practices, must be traced to the days of the Nestorian missionary in the high middle ages. (Aziz S. Atiya, A history of Eastern Christianity, London, Methuen & Co. 1968, p. 263.)

Cosmas mentions the presence of Christians in Siam in the sixth century. About Siam Moffett writes

His [Varthema’s] traveling companions, the Nestorian merchants, were from the capital of Siam (Sornau), he says. Two northern Thai kingdoms, Changmai and Sukhotai, had become dependencies of the Mongol empire in 1294. About 1350 a powerful new kingdom was founded further south at Ahudaya just north of present day Bangkok. It welcomed traders from China and Persia, some of them perhaps Nestorian, like those whom Varthema met a hundred and fifty years later. But there is no record of Christian churches there. .(S. H. Moffett, op.cit., p. 461.)

The traders from Persia, China and India were very active in South East Asia during this period and we cannot rule out the possibilities of some Christians present among them. Moffett asks: Were there Christians in Sumatra or Java before the coming of the Western explorers? "That is even more doubtful, but not impossible," he says.

The island was briefly subdued by Kublai’s naval forces in 1293, but there is no mention of Nestorians there in any account of the venture. The only reference to a possible Christian community that early in Indonesia is a tantalizing remark by John Marignolli, who says that on his way home from China, after he had stopped in India to see St. Thomas’s tomb near Madras, he sailed in 1349 to a great island called Sabah, "where there were few Christians." A number of writers identify this with Java, as does H. Yule, but only after giving up hope of a better situation ‘in something like despair,’ for there is still no convincing evidence available for anything but a guess. (S. H. Moffett, op.cit., p. 461. Yle, op.cit., 3:191-196.)

In the case of Indonesia, though Kublai’s naval forces landed in Indonesia in AD 1293 for a brief period, we need to look for Christian influence much earlier through Persian and Indian merchants and missionaries.

From the beginning of the Christian era, there were commercial and cultural contacts between Indonesian islands and India. The Sailendra kingdom of Central Java which rose to power in the eighth century is very famous in Indonesian history. They were a great naval power. The Sailendras brought a great part of the Malay Archipelago under one central authority. Their empire extended as far as Champa and Kambuja.

The Sailendra period is one of the most important eras in the history of Southeast Asia. Buddhist art, inspired by the Mahayanism and Tanthrism of the Palas, reached a new peak. Indonesian civilization during the Sailendra period became a model for Southeast Asian countries. The Sailendras introduced a new kind of script, Devanagari, from northern India. built world famous monuments such as Lara Jonggrang and Borobudur, and gave Malaysia a new name, Kalinga. Whilst Mahayana Buddhism had its votaries at the court and amongst the governing classes, Saivism was prevalent amongst the common people. Whilst Borobudur represents the peak of Buddhist art in Indonesia, the temple of Lara Jonggrang at Prambanan is Saiva. (DR Singhal, India and World Civilization. Michigan State University Press, 1969, vol. II, p.142.)

Trade and cultural influences between India and Indonesia and between other countries in Southeast Asia were at their peak during the Sailendra period (8th-11th). The Sailendrans maintained good relations with the Chola rulers of South India. Perhaps it was to this period we should look for the beginnings of Christianity in Indonesia. In this context, the observations made by John England are important.

Sources so far available suggest that the churches of Sumatra and lava, like those of Ceylon, Burma, Siam and Malay Peninsula at that time grew from the work and witness of residential foreign traders -Persian, Arab, and Indian -- sometimes assisted at times by visiting missionaries but often having their own clergy. They were often closely associated with, and always dependent upon the favour of the rulers of each territory, yet maintained at least occasional correspondence with the Patriarch at Selucia-ctsiphon" (John England, op.cit.. p. 147.)

There is nothing improbable about John of Marignolli visiting Java in the 14th century on his way from China and finding Christians there. (Most probably Marignolli visited Java on his way to India from China rather than after his visit to India.) Abu Saliah, a Persian traveler in the seventh century mentions in his book, Descriptions of Chronicles and Monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries, that he found several churches at Fansur, which some writers identify with Barns in West Sumatra. (John England, op.cit.. p.147.) It is very doubtful whether this identification is correct. In an important Syriac document it is mentioned that Mar Elijah, the Catholicos and Patriarch of the East Syrian church, at the request of a delegation from the church in India, ordained three monks from the monastery of St. Eugenius as bishops in AD 1503 and " he sent them to the country of India, to the islands of the sea which are inside Java, and to China." (Mingana, op.cit., p.469. In the original document the name is Dabag which Mingana and several others read as Java.)

Early Roman Catholics in the Philippines found old images that might have been Christian images of the pre-Catholic period. Some have argued that an earlier Nestorian presence must have been the reason for the rapid growth and widespread acceptance of Roman Catholic Christianity that followed it. But it is very difficult to verify historically these claims. (Moffett, op.cit.. p. 461.)

There are several historians, the chief among them being P.Y. Saeki, who claim that Christianity first came to Japan and Korea from China during the T’ang period. According to Saeki the Nestorians had no small share in the creation of the golden age of China and through China these same western influences passed on to Japan. "Whether the Nestorians were heterodox or orthodox it is certain that their ethical and practical theology and their medical knowledge were the true sources of their success in China." He argues that the Japanese were consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, much influenced by the Nestorians and received Christian thought in Chinese garb during T’ang period. There was scarcely anything good in Hsi-an-fu, the great T’ang capital, that was not introduced into Japan or copied sooner or later by the Japanese at their capital at Nara. It was not until the invasion of Japan by Kublai Khan (AD 1268-1281) that Japan began to assert her spiritual and material independence. (P. Y. Saeki, The Nestorian Monument, S.R.C.K. 1916, pp. 112 tt.) John England seems to suggest that Christianity came to Japan by the end of the sixth or the beginning of the seventh century. "Regarding Japan," he writes, "the Seventeen Articles of injunction of the Regent Prince Shotoku (574-622) apparently include a grant to Nestorians of" full liberty and personal rights." Festivals which have persisted over the centuries are also cited for their Christian references, and incised crosses and tombs have been found in north west Japan from the Nara or early Heian periods (seventh to eleventh centuries).

There are others who reject the Christian presence in Japan before the coming of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Richard H. Drummond begins his History of Christianity in Japan with the arrival of Francis Xavier. S.H. Moffett dismisses the arguements of Soeki and others as pure speculation. He writes

In recent years. some have revived apocryphal stories of even less credible and mysterious traces of Nestorianism in Japan. One such story declares that after his resurrection Jesus was seen in Japan. ... Another tells of the coming of the Nestorian physician and some missionaries to Japan during the reign of Emperor Shomu (724-728) and of apparently Syriac inscription found on the beams of the ancient Horyuji temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan, near seventh-century Nara. The whole city of Nara was built after the model of the T’ang dynasty capital, Chang’an. Since there were Nestorian missionaries in Chang’an in that period, a possible connection has been conjectured. But all this is pure speculation. (S. H. Moffett. op.cit., p. 460.)

Though the evidence suggested by Soeki and others for the Christian presence in Japan before the coming of the western missionaries are fragmentary and in several cases not convincing, the possibility of the Christian influence in Japan through China needs to be seriously considered. The same could also be true of Korea.

With regard to Korea also, there are differences of opinion among the historians as to the time when Christianity came to Korea. Yoon Tae, John England and others find evidences in Korean Chronicles for the presence of Nestorian Christianity during the Silla and Koryo dynasties. "This is not unexpected in the light of the known presence of Koreans in the T’ang capital -- Chang’- an in the seventh to the ninth centuries." (John England, op.cit., p. 148.) Here again Moffett is more cautious.

As for Korea, the evidence of at least one possible ancient Nestorian community at its northern border is more convincing, but as in the case of Indonesia, it depends on a question of location. In 1927 a Japanese team excavated an old tomb near Anshan in what is now southern Manchuria about a hundred miles from the present Korean border, on the railroad line up the Liaotung Peninsula to Shenyang (Mukden). They found the remains of seven bodies and at the head of each a clay cross, only one of which was in perfect condition. They were able to date the grave at between 998 and 1006 by Chinese coins of the Sung dynasty left with the bodies. As Soeki points out this is striking evidence of the existence of a strong Nestorian family in the Liaoyang area.

The question remains, was Anshan in Korea or Manchuria at the beginning of the tenth century? In the seventh century the Liaotung Peninsula was Korean But by about 1000, the apparent date of the burial, the Korean border had been pushed south to the Yalu, and a Manchurian tribe, the Liao (or Chitan Liao), had taken that part of the north east from the Chinese Sung emperor. All we can say with certainty, therefore, is that as early as 1000 there were Nestorian Christians in what had not long before been Korean territory. (S. N. Moffett, op. cit., pp. 161-162.)

In the Korean territory at Kyungju, the ancient capital of unified Korea, the historian Kim Yang -Sun discovered what appears to be a stone cross being used by Buddhist monks at Pusoksa, Korea’s most famous temple, as a charm to aid in child birth. It is now kept in the Christian museum of Soomgsil university in Seoul. Moffett says that there is no way to date it or even to determine whether it is indeed an ancient Christian cross. (Ibid.)It is possible that Christianity existed in Korea at least from the tenth century.

The evidence for South East and East Asia are very scanty and fragmentary and some have drawn questionable conclusions from it. But there are sufficient evidences to show that Christianity was present in a number of countries in South East and East Asia. There is no doubt about Christian presence in Ceylon, Burma, Tibet, Indonesia and Korea before the arrival of the western missionaries. We do not know the number of Christians in these various countries, it was probably very small. Assemani says that in the 13th century, there were twenty-five Nestorian metropolitan provinces with an average of eight to ten episcopal sees for each province, thus totally about 200 to 250 bishoprics. (Assemani, Bibl. Orient. III, 2, p.630.) Some of these bishoprics were in South East and East Asia.

The coincidence of the opening of trade routes into further Asia with the ascendancy of the Nestorian church offered a ready outlet for missionary effort. The Nestorians, who were strongly influenced by missionary motivation seized this opportunity. In Marco Polo’s day, the trade routes from Baghdad to Peking were lined with Nestorian churches; the Muslim persecutions of AD 699 and 813 did not check the zeal of these earliest missionaries. The mission was carried out by Persian, Indian and Chinese missionaries and traders. Before the arrival of western powers, the commercial and cultural influences of China and India were very widespread in other Asian countries. While Korea, Japan, Philippines and Vietnam remained under the Chinese influence, Laos, Cambodia, Siam, Burma, Malayasia and Indonesia came within the Indian sphere. China and India met in Indo-China. By far, South India exercised the greatest influence in South East Asia. For centuries, St. Thomas Christians carried out missionary work both inside and outside India. E. R. Hambye speaks of Christian monks from India going to the Far East, if not to China and Central Asia, for missionary work.

Viewed 195329 times.