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


It is one of the ironies of history that Christianity, which was born in Asia, has become ‘alien’ in its own home. The Christians in China, for example, were persecuted in the ninth and fifteenth centuries because Christianity was considered to be a ‘foreign’ religion. One important reason for the ‘alieness’ of Christianity is that the history of Christianity in Asia is either forgotten or ignored even by the Asian Christians themselves. Having lost a sense of history, and thus their own identity, Christians were not able to participate fully in the historical process in the continent.

In recent years there has been a revival of interest in the study of history of Christianity in Asia, among the Asians as well as among historians abroad. In 1993, an American missionary in Asia, S.H. Moffett published a book: A History of Christianity in Asia. John C. England from New Zealand, in several of his articles, has drawn our attention to the vast resources now available for the study of Asian church history. The programme on Theology and Culture in Asia encourages young theologians and historians to study Asian Christianity and to write theology using Asian resources.

When we speak of Asian Christianity, we mean that manifestation of Christianity that spread outside the Roman empire and east of it. The territory of the Roman empire lay mainly in Europe and in those parts of Asia to the west of the Euphrates. But to the east of Euphrates, at the time when Rome was at the zenith of its power, there existed also the Persian empire, which extended to and included part of North India. In this vast empire and beyond it up to China, Christianity spread rapidly. There were Christian communities in Persia, Central Asia, Tibet, China, Arabia, India and Ceylon in the early centuries. Before the sixteenth century, there were Christians in several of the South East and East Asian countries. In most of these countries, Christianity was present before the arrival of western missionaries, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. St. Thomas was the great Apostle of the East as St. Paul was of the West.

Christianity came to Asia in the first century itself, not through the missionary activities of Antioch and not ecclesiastically dependent upon Antioch. Addai, one of the seventy and a disciple of St. Thomas brought Christianity to Edessa, Aggai and Mari to Persia and St. Thomas to India. It was the Judaistic Christianity which originally spread to Asia, first among the Jewish settlers. Asian Christianity shared in the general characteristics of Jewish Christianity.

The Persian (East Syrian) Church by the beginning of the fifth century had developed a national organization with the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon as Catholicos and Primate of the church. When the Roman empire started to persecute the Nestorians, many of them found refuge in Persia and the Nestorian teaching spread rapidly there. Indeed, at a synod held in 486, the Persian church officially accepted the Nestorian position. The two important theological schools of the East Syrian Church were those at Edessa and Nisibis. The most important theologians were Ephrem, Aphrahat, and Narsai. From the fifth century onwards, the church was greatly influenced by the theology of Antiochen theologian, Theodore of Mopsuestia. For the Persian church, he was the doctor of doctors. In the teachings of these schools and in the writings of these theologians we see a distinctive Asian theology emerging which was in contrast to Latin theology. These theologians are the ‘Fathers’ of the Asian church.

One of the most important and fascinating aspects of the life of the East Syrian church was its missionary dynamism. When the western church in the Roman empire 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 whole life of the Christian community was permeated with missionary spirit. Whether clergy or laity, traders or refugees, wherever they went, they tried to be ambassadors for Christ.

In the missionary outreach of the Church, Monasticism played a very important part. The monastic movement reached the zenith of its prosperity by the middle of the seventh century. From hundreds of monasteries all over Persia, there poured forth 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. In the Egyptian monasticism, the saints ignored the world, retreated to the desert into caves and cells. By contrast, Syrian ascetics became wandering missionaries, healing the sick, feeding the poor and preaching the Gospel. Their mission is not described as withdrawal, but an advance against the forces of error and darkness. They were wanderers for God. Apostle Thomas in India gives thanks to God that he has become an ascetic and a pauper and a wanderer for God. Addai refuses to receive silver and gold from the king of Edessa saying that he has forsaken the riches of the world "because without purses and without scrips, bearing the cross on our shoulders, we are commanded to preach the Gospel to the whole creation." In the eighth century, Patriarch Timothy I wrote that in his time many monks crossed the sea and went only with staff and scrip to the Indians and the Chinese.

In less than two hundred years after Christ’s death, therefore, there was extensive Christian penetration in Asia and the East Syrians were beginning to carry the Gospel not only in Persia but also towards Arabia and Central Asia. The discovery of the Nestorian Tablet in China attests that Christianity came to China in the seventh century through the efforts of the Nestorian missionaries. It found favour with the Mongol rulers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and spread widely in China. Efforts were made to adjust itself to the Chinese culture and religious traditions. Adam, one of the Nestorian missionaries in China, was considered by the Buddhists as dangerous not because he was making Christianity too Buddhist but because he was trying to make Buddhism look too Christian.

Christianity came to India in the first century through the apostolic activity of St. Thomas both in North and South India. St. Bartholomew, a companion of St. Thomas, also visited India. By the end of the third century or early fourth century, the Indian church entered into some sort of ecclesiastical relationship with the Persian church. Apart from this ecclesiastical relationship, there were at least two important waves of emigration of groups of Persian Christians to South India, one in the fourth century and the other in the ninth century, which reinforced and strengthened the existing St. Thomas Christian community. Because of such contacts, the St. Thomas Christians were greatly influenced by the ecclesiastical and liturgical practices of the Persian church.

It will be a great mistake to think that the Christian communities were founded only in South India in the early period. There is no doubt that there were small Christian communities scattered throughout India and some of them continued to exist in North India in the medieval period. It must be noted that these were not communities of Persian Christians but of Indians by blood and ancestry brought to Christian faith by the missionary activities of Indian Christians as well of Persian missionaries.

In South India, the St. Thomas Christians were socially integrated with the wider Indian society and shared many things in common with their Hindu neighbours. They were employed as farmers and traders and in military service. A number of witnesses in the fifteenth century mention that they were a strong and well organized community, commanding respect among the Hindus and enjoying certain privileges in the society like that of higher castes among the Hindus.

The evidence for the presence of Christianity in South East and East Asia is scanty and fragmentary. Yet, there is sufficient evidence to show that Christianity was present in Ceylon, Burma, Tibet, Indonesia and Korea before the arrival of European missionaries.

A church which once exercised ecclesiastical authority over more of the earth than any other church in the world, lay in ruin by the end of the fifteenth century. What were the reasons?

What is attempted in this book is to present a general and brief introduction to the exciting and fascinating story of the movement of the Christian Gospel in Asian lands. It is much indebted to the findings, and writings on the subject, of a large number of historians and scholars. The book is written in the hope that it will, in a small way, contribute to the Asian Christian community’s search for its historical roots and identity. I am grateful to Dr. Han Spykerboer and Rev. Douglas Galbraith for reading the manuscript and making useful suggestions, and also to Rev. Ashish Amos of ISPCK and Rev. Dr. T.M. Philip of CSS for publishing the book.

T.V. Philip


Christmas 1997