Chapter 1: Asia: The Cradle of Christianity

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

Chapter 1: Asia: The Cradle of Christianity

A History Ignored

In an address on Asia’s message to Europe, delivered in Calcutta in 1883, Keshub Chandra Sen, the great Brahma Samaj leader in Bengal observed:

Is not Asia the birth place of great prophets and saints? Is it not preeminently 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 leading prophets and all the great religious geniuses of the world. No great prophet was born outside the boundaries of Asia.(Keshub Chandra Sen, Asia’s Message to Europe, Calcutta, 1919.)

It is in Asia, the great land mass which extends from the Mediterranean eastwards to the Pacific, that about three quarters of the world’s present population is found. It is in Asia the roots of the present great civilizations are to be found. Here, the major religions and philosophical traditions of the world had their origin: Hindu, Buddhist, Confucius, Jewish, Christian and Islamic.

In another address on the subject: Who is: Jesus Christ?, Chandra Sen told the Indians, "Gentlemen, go to the rising sun of the East, not to the setting sun of the West, if you wish to see Christ in the plenitude of his glory and in the fullness and freshness of his divine life." He told them to recall the true Asiatic Christ. "Behold he comes to us in his loose flowing garments, his dress and features altogether oriental, a perfect Asiatic in everything." (Keshub Chandra Sen. Who Is Jesus Christ?. Calcutta, 1919.) The complaint of Sen was 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Jesus Christ was presented to the Asians as a western Christ and the history of the Asiatic Christ in Asian soil had been replaced by the history of western missionary organizations in Asia.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 century of Christian era. Then he says:

Christianity can then 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 through out central , south, southeast and north-east Asian countries. (John C. England and Archee Lee (ed); Doing Theology with Asian Resources, N Z, Pace Publishing, 1993, p. 129).

Like Chandra 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 recognized -- 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." (Ibid., p. 129.)

While we have a good deal of information about the history of the expansion of Christianity to the west of Palestine, we know very little of its expansion to the regions east of it. 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. A number of New Testament scholars have questioned the reliability of Luke as a historian. Howard Marshall points out that Luke has idealized and simplified the story of the development of the early church. He has selected one strand in the history of the church that leads from Jerusalem to Rome and from the 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." (Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, Zondervan, 1970, p.73.)

What about the other strands in the history of Christian expansion? There are references in the later Christian writings to a tradition that the disciples after the ascension of Jesus assigned to themselves different regions of the world for missionary work. Whether this is true or not, the New Testament writings reflect unambiguously the conviction of the early church that it was a missionary community. But we have no contemporary records to know about the work of the different apostles. The Acts of the Apostles deals only with that of Peter to a certain extent but mainly with that of Paul. Moreover there is ample evidence to show that there were groups, and parties in the early church. Michel Goulder, an English New Testament scholar points out that there were two missions: one run from Jerusalem by the Jewish Christians under the leadership of Peter, James (brother of Jesus), other members of Jesus’ family; the other run by Paul and his party from various centres. Luke’s concern was with the Pauline party. (Michel Goulder, A Tale of Two Missions, London: SCM Press. 1994.)

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 Euphrates. But to the east of Euphrates, at the time when Rome was at the zenith of its power, there existed the Persian empire which extended to and included part of northern India. In this vast empire Christianity spread very rapidly. Beyond the borders of the Persian empire, there were Christian communities in Central Asia, China, Arabia, and India. As John Stewart observes:

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 still closed to the Gospel message, were centres of Christian activity long before Muhammad was born. (John Stewart, Nestorian Missionary Enterprise, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1928, p.xxix.)

This was a Christianity that looked neither to Rome nor Constantinople as its centre and which remained for centuries proudly Asian. After saying that the church began in Asia, S.M.Moffett writes:

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 expansion the West could not match until after the thirteenth century. But 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.(Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Harper, San Francisco, 1992, p. xiii [see also Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity. P. 2])

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. According to John Stewart, "This may be due partly to the mistaken impression that the Roman empire dominated the whole world and that outside the range of its operations there was nothing of any importance to record." (John Stewart, op.cit., p. xxx.) Moffett says that one of the reasons for the neglect of the Asian dimension in church history is the comparative paucity of available source materials on eastern roots of Christianity outside the Roman empire. (Moffett, op.cit., p. xiii.) One might also look for doctrinal and ideological reasons for such a neglect.

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 be blamed for this tragedy except the Christians themselves. It is very unfortunate that only a few Christian churches in the region have retained a strong sense that their history goes back to the early centuries of the Christian era. Nelson Mandela, president of South Africa, in his autobiography: Long walk to Freedom, speaks of his life in a South African prison. With Time-pieces of any kind barred from prison, 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 appear to have lost a sense of history and thus also lost their grip on Asian realities.

Jewish Christianity and Its Characteristics

It is now generally accepted that Christianity which spread to the regions east of Palestine was Judeo-Christianity. Christianity in its origin belonged to the Jewish world. Roman writers such as Suetonius and Tacitus took Christianity as a Jewish sect. However, as Jean Danielou points out, the official documents which tell us about the origins of Christianity, namely, the writings of the New Testament, were written for, and were connected with, Hellenistic Christianity. This has been, for a long time, a serious obstacle to the recognition that Christianity arose in a Jewish milieu and was, to start with, deeply involved theologically and culturally in the Jewish world. (J. Danielou, "Christianity as a Jewish Sect", in Arnold Toynbee [ed], The Crucible of Christianity, p. 275.) The man who wrote the Acts of the Apostles, the chief documentary evidence for the first decades of the church, was a Greek and wrote it for the Greeks. He took little interest in the history of the Aramaic speaking Christians and was hostile to Judeo Christianity. (Ibid., p. 275) 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, and not only Paul but other apostles were also involved in the preaching of the Gospel.

A number of discoveries made in recent years make it possible to get a better picture of Jewish community. The Dead Sea scrolls reveal in greater detail the Jewish culture of the period and the Jewish religious framework within which Christianity arose. The discoveries at Nag Hammadi particularly that of The Gospel of Thomas, perhaps put us in touch with an Aramean tradition of the logia of Jesus. The Judeo Christian writings -- The Didache, The Ascension of Isaiah, The Tradition of the Presbyters -- help us, to discover prior to or contemporary with the writings of the New Testament, an oral tradition which is a direct echo of the Judeo Christian community. In addition, there are a number of Judeo Christian inscriptions discovered in Jerusalem and Nazareth which throw further light on the life of the community. There are also references to Jewish Christianity in the Jewish literature of the period. (H.J. Schonfield. The History of Jewish Christianity, London: Duckworth, 1936, p. 277.)

In analysing the Jewish tradition of the time, we notice that there were different groups or sects or parties within Judaism with their different understanding of monotheism, covenant, Torah and the Temple; and there never was a normative Judaism in the first century. "In reading the Acts of the Apostles there is a danger that we may fail to appreciate how important it was for early Christianity to belong to an extremely lively and varied Jewish milieu." (Ibid., p. 277)

Jerusalem was the centre of the primitive Church and the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem community till A.D.62 was James, the brother of Jesus. It was James’s party and the Judeo Christian church in Jerusalem which exercised the dominant influence in the first decades of the church. As regards James himself, the epistle to the Galatians makes clear his importance. Later non-canonical documents from Judeo Christian circles throw further light on James. In the Gospel of the Hebrews, which appears to be linked with a Judeo Christian community in Egypt in the beginning of the second century, it is to James the risen Christ first appeared. The Clementine Recognitions, The Second Apocalypse of James, The Gospel of Thomas -- all agree in making James the founding figure in the Judeo Christian church. In The Gospel of Thomas, Jesus commits his church to James, and it is to James the disciples should go after the ascension. In Clementine Recognitions it is said that no teacher is to be believed unless he brings from Jerusalem the testimonial of James, the Lord’s brother. One of the most conspicuous features of the church in Jerusalem was the position that was occupied by Jesus’ family, very much in line with the semitic tradition.

The Jewish Christians were called Nazarenes (Nazoraioi) by their Jewish opponents. Ray A. Pritz in his study of Nazarene Jewish community. (Ray A Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity, Leiden, E.J. Brill. 1988.) points out that Nazarene was the earliest name applied to Christians by their Jewish opponents. At first it did not denote a sectarian stigma as the name was applied to the entire church. The first reference to the name in the New Testament is in Acts 24:5, where Tertullus the lawyer, during the time of Paul’s trial before the Governor Felix, accused Paul as a ring leader of the Nazarene sect. The reference here is not to a particular sect among the Christians but to the entire church. The name ‘Christian’ was at first applied by non-Christians in Antioch to designate the believers among the gentiles. Only when the gentile Church took over and overshadowed the Jewish church, could there be any possibility of sectarian stigma attaching to the name ‘Nazarene’ within the church itself. Even then the name Nazarene was used for Christians in Syria as a whole for a long time and it continued to be used in India till very recently.

The Jewish Christians had a gospel written in Aramaic (Hebrew), the existence of which was attested by Hegesippus, Eusebius, Epiphanius and Jerome. Both Epiphanius and Jerome believed that The Gospel of Nazarene was the Aramaic original of the New Testament Matthew. This may not be a true statement but the text bears some relation to Matthew, though not an exact copy. Jerome says that Matthew in Judea was the first to compose the Gospel of Christ in the Hebrew character and speech for the sake of those who came over to the faith from Judaism. H.J.Schonfield observes that a prejudice existed in Jewish minds against committing the scriptures to writing in any other than the sacred tongue. The day on which the Old Testament was rendered into Greek was said to be as evil as that on which the golden calf was made. Pantaenus, visiting India late in the second century, reported that "he found on his own arrival anticipated by some ... to whom Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached, and had left them the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew." (Eusebius quoted by Schonfield, op.cit. p. 66.) This Gospel of the Nazarenes needs to be distinguished from two other Jewish gospels, that is, from the Gospel of Ebionites and from the Gospel of Hebrews. (For a discussion of this see R. Mel Wilson, New Testament Apocrypha, James Clark and Co., 1991, vol.1.) J. Danielou is certain that the environment with which the Gospel of the Nazarenes should be associated is that of the Jewish Christians in Syria who spoke Aramaic and who were the most direct heirs of the Palestinian Jewish Christian community and from whom they received certain traditions. (J. Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1964. pp. 21-22.)

The Nazarenes were distinct from the Ebonites and prior to them. Pritz suggests the possibility of a split occurring among the Nazarene ranks about the turn of the first century, and the Ebonites emerging out of this split, differing from the Nazarenes by their Christology.

There are a number of references to the activities of the Jewish Christians in the Jewish Talmud. (See Schonfield, op.cit, ch. IV.) There were a number of groups among Jewish Christians, and they differed among themselves in various ways. The name ‘Jewish Christians’ is sometimes used to refer to the Christians who remained faithful to the Jewish observances -- sabbath, circumcision and worship in the Temple, as the Jerusalem community did. But from a very early date the observances of the Jewish customs came to be regarded, even in some semitic circles, as incompatible with the Christian faith. Judeo Christianity that remained faithful to Jewish rituals did survive for a long time among small groups, but very soon it became marginal to the main body of the church. (Danielou, "Christianity as a Jewish Sect", op.cit, p.277.) Sometimes Judeo Christianity is equated with Aramaic or Syriac speaking Christianity. The Christianity which developed in Edessa or in Persia was the result of Judeo Christian mission and referred to as Judeo Christianity. The name Judeo Christianity is also used for a form of Christianity where liturgical, theological and ascetic structure has been borrowed from the Jewish milieu in which Christianity first appeared.

According to Danielou, the most characteristic feature of Judeo Christian culture was its concern with apocalypse. The apocalyptic frame work, which Judeo Christianity shared with contemporary Judaism, was the setting for Judeo Christian theology. Jewish apocalypse is made up of information about the hidden realities of the heavenly world and the ultimate secrets of the future. In apocalypse angelology plays an important part. Another aspect of Jewish Christianity was the stress on the ideal of encratism which involved abstention from wine and meat, and exalting of virginity. The virgins had a privileged position in the community.

It was not only in Jerusalem and in Palestine that Judeo Christianity was dominant during the first century of the church. Every where the Judeo Christian mission seems to have developed before the Pauline mission; this may be the explanation of the repeated references to the conflicts in Paul’s epistles. The regions east of Palestine were a preserve of Judeo Christian missions 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.

St. Thomas: The Apostle of The East

It was the story of the church’s expansion to the west which had been told by Luke and taken up by the western historians. No contemporary historian has recorded the Gospel’s eastward march, but there is no doubt that the Gospel did move east even while Paul was opening his mission in Europe. In this eastward movement, St. Thomas was the central figure. "And however Western scholars may write their histories of the church, from time immemorial Asia has linked the church’s expansion eastward to the missionary travels of the apostle Thomas. (Moffett, op.cit., p.25)

Thomas was one of the twelve disciples. (Moffett, op.cit., p.25) The name Thomas is the Greek form of the Aramaic name Thoma. In St. John’s Gospel, he is called Didymus (twin). The later tradition speaks of him as the twin brother of Jesus. Nearly all what we know of Thomas comes from St. John’s Gospel (John 11:16; 14:5; 20:24; 21:2.) in which he plays a fairly prominent part. While other disciples tried to prevent Jesus from going to Judea fearing trouble from the Jews, Thomas told them, "let us go that we may die with him." When Jesus had told his disciples that they knew the way he was going, Thomas asked how they could know the way since they did not know where he was going. Thomas was one of the seven who participated in the extraordinary catch of fish and to whom Jesus appeared on the shores of the sea of Tiberius. Thomas is best remembered for the event recorded in John 20:24-29. Jesus’ statement, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" has influenced the later tradition of unfairly referring to Thomas as ‘doubting Thomas’. In the fourth Gospel he displays a mature and strong leadership and his confession of the risen Jesus Christ as "My Lord and my God" is the greatest confession ever made, perhaps greater than that of Peter at Caesarea Philippi. Is not on this confession that the church is being built?

Among early Christian literature there are a number of non-canonical books associated with the name of Thomas. Of these, the most important ones are The Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Judas Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas is one of the apocryphal gospels found among the writings discovered in Nag-Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. It consists of 114 sayings or logia of Jesus stated in question and answer forms. In the prologue to the gospel it is mentioned that the sayings are the secret words spoken by the living Jesus and which Judas Didymus Thomas wrote down. It is to Thomas that Jesus entrusted his secret sayings. In Logia 13 it reads as follows: "Jesus said to his disciples: compare me, tell me whom I am like. Simon Peter said to him: you are like a righteous angel. Matthew said to him: you are like a wise philosopher. Thomas said to him: Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like. Jesus said: I am your master, for you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling spring which I have caused to gush forth. And he took him, withdrew and spoke to him three words. Now when Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him: What did Jesus say to you? Thomas said to them: If I tell you one of the words he said to me, you will take up stones and throw them at me; and the fire will come out of the stones and burn you up."

In the Acts of Thomas, which show on many points a remarkable affinity with the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas is addressed in the following terms: Thou twin of Christ, apostle of the most High and initiate in the hidden word of Christ, who receivest his secret orders, fellow worker with the Son of God. (chapter 39) In the Syrian tradition in which the Gospel of Thomas is written, apostle Thomas is the one who is particularly trusted and is the bearer of Jesus’ secret teaching. (A.F.J. Klijn. Jewish Christian Gospel Tradition, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992, p. 97.)

Several early traditions of the East centre around Judas Thomas. F.C. Burkitt has found the following passages in a Syriac Breviary.

By S. Thomas has been abolished the error of idolatry from the Indians

By S. Thomas the Chinese also with the Ethiopians have turned to the truth.

By S. Thomas have shone the beams of doctrine of life in all India.

By S. Thomas has flown and gone up the kingdom of the Height among the Chinese.

A second passage reads, "Indians and Chinese and Persians and other outlanders and those in Syria and Armenia and Ionia and Romania bringing worship in commemoration of Thomas to thy Name, our saviour." These passages do not say that St. Thomas went to all these places or founded churches there by himself. The important thing is to note that a number of places in the East are associated with the name of Thomas. A.C. Moule points out a number of references where the names of Bartholomew , Addaeus, Aggai and Man are mentioned as companions or disciples of Thomas. A thirteenth century Syriac writer, Ebed Jesus writes: "The holy Apostles, masters of eastern shore, Thomas and Bartholomew of the number of the twelve and Addacus and Man of the seventy, bore the sacred leaven which they had kept to all the churches of the east for the accomplishment of the mystery of the Body of the Lord until his coming." (Quoted in AC. Moule, Christians in China before 1550, SPCK, 1930, p.24. See also p. 19.) Whether it was Thomas personally who went to all these places associated with his name, or whether it was his disciples, Thomas is considered as the great Apostle of the East just as Paul is the great Apostle of the West.