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Historical Geography Unit One

Historical Geography Unit Two

Origins of the Christian Faith

A study of selected biblical episodes (in early Christianity) which are enriched when understood in the context of Near, and Far  Eastern history along with Palestinian geography

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Historical Geography Unit Two

Origins of the Christian Faith

Chapter 5: Christianity in China

Origins of Christianity in China

The Chinese empire attained its greatest brilliance under the T’ang dynasty (618-907). The Song dynasty (960-1279) fell to the Mongols under Chengis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century. Chinese rule was restored by the Ming dynasty, in AD 1386, who in turn was ousted in 1664 by the Manchu dynasty.

The period of T’ang rule was a time of prosperity and peace. People could travel safely along good roads in almost any part of the country; mules and horses were available to travelers. Chang’an (Hsi-an-fu) was the capital of the empire. It was the largest walled city ever built and about 2 million people lived in and around the city. Officials from every part of the great empire, travelers, merchants and representatives of other countries were able to meet and exchange news and opinions. People became receptive to new ideas and customs. In the sea ports, especially Canton, there were large permanent communities of Arabs, Persians, Indians, and other foreign traders, people of many races, religions and backgrounds.

A.C. Moule in his book: Christians in China before 1550 mentions a tradition that St. Thomas visited China. Both the Latin and Syriac writers in the medieval period (Francis Xavier, de Cruz and de Gouivea, de Burros among the Latin writers and Ebed Jesus among the Syrians) mention this tradition.

John Stewart refers to another tradition current among the Chinese of Chang-an, a tradition referred to also in the Chinese records. According to this tradition, in AD 64, the Chinese emperor Ming-ti, as a result of a dream, sent messengers along a road leading to the west to find out who was the greatest prophet who had arisen in the west. They met two Christian missionaries on the way to the court and returned with them. The missionaries remained there till they died six years later. The only relic of their stay is to be found in a scripture of forty-two sections and a logia of the New Testament. We are not sure of the reliability of this tradition.

Arnobius who wrote about AD 300 tells that the Gospel had been preached in China; so also Cosmas Indicopleustes in the sixth century. From the end of the fifth century, Nestorian missionaries were working in Central Asia and there was a possibility of Christians coming into contact with the Chinese. Moreover, the Sassanid Persia had opened trade connections with China in the fifth century and Nestorian merchants were numerous in the merchant class of those times and Persian Nestorians might have gone to China for trade. About this, K.S. Latourette writes,

For centuries commerce between its [China’s] millions and Central and Western Asia had been carried on by way not only of the sea, but also by overland routes across what is now Sinkiang and through the oases of the Oxus valley. Since so many of the Mesopotamian Christians were merchants, Christianity was especially strong among the mercantile communities in such caravan centres as Merv and Samarquand, and many of the traders who traversed the land routes to the Far East and settled in China were probably Christians. So, too, in the coast cities of China Christian merchants who had come by the sea from Mesopotamia and Syria might be expected. (K. S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, vol. ii, London, Eyre and Spottis Woode, 1955, pp. 275-76.)

However, the first effective Christian missions to China of which we have definite knowledge was that sent by the Patriarch Yeshuyab II in about the year AD 635. Early in AD 1625 when trenches were being made for the foundation of some building near Chang’an (Hsi-an), the capital city of T’ang empire, a great slab of stone with an Inscription both in Syriac and Chinese was discovered. The monument was erected in 781. The long inscription speaks of the coming of one Alopen about the year AD 635 bringing Christianity to China. The inscription contains a long list of Persian missionaries and also a summary of the teachings of the church called Ta-Chin (Syrian).

Alopen came to China during the reign of T’ai-tsung (627-649). The emperor received Alopen warmly and after studying the Christian scriptures (sutras) he brought with him, the emperor thoroughly understood "their propriety and truth and specially ordered their preaching and transmission." The emperor was favourable to the new religion. It is said that the emperor’s mother came from a Turkish-Mongolian Nestorian family. It is difficult to say whether it contributed to a favourable reception of the first known Christian mission to China or not.

Though the religion of northern China was basically Buddhism, the first emperor of T’ang dynasty, Kao-tsu, the father of Tai-tsung turned anti Buddhist accepting the usual Confucian argument that Buddhism was alien and unChinese. One of Kao-tsu’s ministers, Fu-yih, presented a petition to the king criticising the Buddhists. His criticisms of Buddhism was not theological but social. He asked the Emperor to deal with the hundred thousand Buddhist monks and nuns whose idle, unproductive lives he felt to be a scandal. In his petition he said:

The Buddha was of the west. His words were mischievous and he was far from us. The Han Dynasty unhappily caused Hu books to be translated, and thus gave free course to this false teaching. This caused disloyal people to cut off their hair,(to become monks and nuns), and to give only second place to their prince and to their parents. On the other hand idle vagabonds donned the cowl in order to avoid the usual forced labour.... They fear no rules to the contrary, and are always ready to break the country’s laws. (John Foster. The Church of the T’ang Dynasty, London, SPCK. 1939, p.40.)

The same argument would have applied to Christianity also. Had Alopen arrived ten years earlier, in the reign of Kao-tsu, he would have been expelled.

In AD 626, Tai-tsung came to the Chinese throne by a palace coup with the help of some Buddhist priests. In return for their support he reversed the anti-foreign and anti-Buddhist policies of his father. The twenty-two years of his reign was a period of wide religious toleration. In AD 635 he welcomed the Christian bishop Alopen. To the Christians it seemed that the reign of Tai-tsung was the fullness of the time for God’s purpose in China.

The historical section of the Nestorian Tablet begins with the following words:

If there is only a way (Tao) and no sage, it will not expand. If there is a sage and no way, nothing great will result. When a way and a sage are found together, then the whole Empire is cultured and enlightened. (Ibid., p. 37.)

The coming of the Christian way was at a time when there was a worthy emperor upon the throne. It was the greatness of the Emperor T’ai-tsung which gave the Christian Church its opportunity. In AD 638 the emperor issued an edict of universal toleration and granted approval to the propagation of Christianity throughout the empire. It reads:

The Way has no constant name, nor the sage a constant form. According to environment religion is set forth quietly affording salvation to all living. The Persian monk Alopen, bringing a scriptural religion, has come to present it in our capital. If one studies the meaning of his religion, it is mysterious, wonderful, spontaneous, producing perception, establishing essentials, for the salvation of creatures and the benefit of man. It ought to spread through out the Empire. The officer of works is to build in the I-ning ward one monastery to house twenty-one monks. (Ibid., p. 53.)

The church and the monastery in the I-ning ward of Chang’An was built by grant from the imperial treasury. As a mark of special honour the emperor sent his portrait to be hung on the church wall. This was the sign of special patronage. This first Christian church of China remained one of the noted buildings of the capital. It is mentioned in Records of Chang ‘An, a book completed in the year AD 1076, and this seems to imply that it was still there, though only as a relic of the past.

A.C. Moule points out that a large number of manuscripts were discovered in north west China which speak of Christianity in China in the seventh and eighth centuries. One of the manuscripts written around AD 800 contains a hymn addressed to the Holy Trinity.

When T’ai-tsung died in AD 649, he was succeeded by his son Kao-tsung who continued his father’s policy of religious toleration and favoured the Nestorians. The Nestorian movement speaks of his establishing a number of monasteries or churches in the latter half of the seventh century. He gave Alopen the title ‘the Great Patron and Spiritual Lord of the Land.’ It was during Kao-tsung’s reign that Christian missionaries began to extend their work from one centre at Chang’An to other cities.

After Kao-tsung’s death, one of his queens Wu-Hou (Wu Chao) seized power (690-705). She was pro-Buddhist and against the Christians. She officially declared Buddhism as state religion in AD 691. The Buddhists hailed her as an incarnation of Maitreya Buddha. She persecuted the Christians. The Nestorian tablet does not say much about the persecution. But it did say that after the persecution in the capital "there were fallen roofs and mined walls to raise, desecrated altars and sanctuaries to restore." (Ibid., p. 655.)

During the reign of Wu Hou’s grandson, Hsuan-tsung (712-756), it was a period of recovery for the church. At the time of the Arab invasion of Persia in AD 636, many refugees including the Persian Shah, found shelter in China. Thus there was a very high ranking Persian community in the Chinese capital in the seventh century. The spread of Arab empire across Asia, rather than interrupting mission to China, actually stimulated the Nestorian mission. Nestorian missionaries accompanied Arab embassies to China, taking advantage of Arab sea and trade routes. The Arab embassies employed Nestorian missionaries as interpreters and advisers in their dealings with the Chinese government.

As for the church in China, the years between AD 712 and 781 were years of greater progress. New missionaries arrived in China with a bishop named Chi-ho. Christians were enjoying again the generous patronage of the emperor. Monasteries had been restored at Chang’An, Lo-yang and in the provinces. In AD 745, the official Chinese name for the Christian religion was changed from the Persian religion to the Syrian (Ta-ch’in) religion. Chinese records include an imperial edict of the year AD 754, which says: "The Persian scriptural religion began in Syria (Ta Ch’in). By preaching and practice it came and long ago spread to China It is necessary to get back to the original name. Its Persian monasteries shall therefore be changed to Syrian monasteries ... throughout the Empire." The reason for such a change, John Foster suggests, was that Christians in China wanted to free themselves from some of the misunderstandings under which they had hitherto laboured. Those were connected with the name ‘Persia’ by which they had been called. Christianity had been confused with Zoroastrianism and Manicheism since all are from the same root, about the same time and have the same popular name, ‘Persian barbarian religions.’ Now Islam also was added to the jumbled confusion. Besides, retention of the old name looked as though their religion belonged to a fading past. Old Persia had disappeared. For the Christians, the name ‘Persian’ had become a misnomer. The name ‘Syrian’ means to the Christians, restoring the original name. Christ was born and lived his earthly life in Ta-Chin. If their religion must have a geographic label, that is the most fitting one. John Foster further states that in discarding the term ‘Persian’, they naturally thought of their pre-Persian history. "Their Church had for centuries been dependent upon the patriarchate of Antioch, which was the capital of Ta-Chin (eastern part of the Roman empire). It is still a common experience for the missionaries in a pagan land to find the divisions of the Christian church of less significance than in the place of their origin. Among the Nestorian missionaries in China there is evidence of such growing catholicity." (Ibid., p. 89.)

What was the real reason for the change of Persian to Syrian? Some of the reasons suggested by John Foster seem to be far fetched. It does not seem that the change was made because the name Persian belonged to a fading past nor because they wanted to reaffirm their connection with the church in the Roman empire. The main reason was political. The church in China did not want to be tied up with any particular nation, Persian, Arab, Mongolian or Chinese empires. In the west the church was part of the political system -- the Roman empire. This was the reason that Christians were persecuted in Persia. They were suspected as an ‘ally’ of the enemy of the Persians. Even in China, foreign religions were suspected as dangerous to the security of the nation. The anti Buddhist sentiments among the early T’ang rulers were due to this. It seems that this was the main reason the Nestorian Christians in China rejected the name ‘Persian’ and adopted the name ‘Syrian’. Syria was where Christianity was born. Syrian Christianity refers to the origin of Christianity. There is no political overtone in the name Syrian. Syrian Christianity also means the Christianity which maintained the Jewish Christian heritage. Moreover, ‘Syrian’ is often used in a linguistic sense. The Syrian church-whether in Edessa, Persia, or in China-maintained the liturgy in Syriac. So when the church in China rejected ‘Persian’ for Syrian they were reaffirming their origin as well as the special theological and linguistic character of their church. At the same time they were also rejecting any idea that its loyalty was with any particular nation politically, as was the Latin or Byzantine church in the Roman empire. The Nestorian church was an independent church and ‘catholicity’ did not mean for them that they should be under Antioch or Constantinople. The adoption of the name ‘Syrian’ was not an effort to re-establish its link with Antioch or an effort to acknowledge the glories of the Roman empire, as John Foster suggested. (Ibid., p. 90.) The Persian church in its origin was independent of Antioch.

There were Christians in China who distinguished themselves by their service to church and state. One of them was Yazdbozid known by the Chinese name I-ssu. Another was one Adam (Ching-Ching). It was Adam who brought the church of the T’ang dynasty to its classical period of literary production in the second half of the eighth century. In him the church can boast, a scholar who, though a foreigner from the west, knew the Chinese classics and was able to fill his works with classical allusions. He had studied the writings of Taoist mystics, and was skillful in choosing illustrations from them. Above all, he was able to talk with Buddhists in terms of their philosophy, and was accustomed to borrow from them both background and terms to expound his Christian theme. Adam was first and foremost the chief composer of the Nestorian Tablets’ inscription. He has translated a number of Syriac books into Chinese.

He borrowed many terms from Buddhism. "Not only was this missionary endeavoring to make Chinese people Christian, he labored also to make Christianity, in a worthy sense, Chinese." But the opposition to such attempts came from the Buddhists. The fierceness of Buddhist attack was an evidence of their nervousness. "Christianity as represented by Adam is called a perversion, even wrong. Contrasted with Buddhism, it is as the Ching and Wei rivers, one of which was very muddy." John Foster comments, "Undoubtedly Buddhists regarded Adam as a dangerous man. He was dangerous not because he was making Christianity too Buddhist. But because he was trying to make Buddhism too Christian." (Ibid., p. 114) According to A.C. Moule, it is clear that a Christian literature existed in Chinese. The Hsi-an-fu inscription displays a grace of style and contains literary allusions and phraseology which indicate competence in Chinese language and familiarity with Taoism and Buddhism. He points out that one of the Christian documents discovered in recent years begins as does a Buddhist sutra and has a Buddhist coloring.

The ninth century was a century of persecutions in China. During the reign of Wu-Tsung (841-846), Uigurs who were a powerful force in Central Asia and had great influence in China came to the end of the period of their power. Uighurs were patrons of Manichacism. The eclipse of the Uighur power brought about the disappearance of Manichacism from Chinese soil. Throughout the empire Manichaean monasteries were closed. This state of things affected the security of the Christian churches. Manichaeism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism were classified together as Persian religions in popular thought.

Before long it was the fate of Christianity, too, to disappear from China, and to persist only in those lands beyond the Tarim desert from which it had previously made its triumphal entry in the days of T’ang Tai Tsung. "There were also strong anti-Buddhist feelings. The Chinese intellectuals thought of Buddhism as superstition. The Confucian scholars advised the government to extend the persecution to that greater ‘foreign religion’ Buddhism" (Ibid., p. 121)

Taoists were also against Buddhists. There are a number of important Chinese records which speak of the great anti-Buddhist persecution which broke out in AD 845. In these records it is definitely stated that the smaller ‘foreign’ religions, Zoroastrianism and Christianity were regarded as heretical forms of Buddhism, and were included within the scope of the edicts. According to the report prepared by the Board of Worship, there were 4600 monasteries, 40,000 hermitages (places of retreat), 260,500 monks and nuns. By the edict of AD 845 all these monasteries were abolished except for a very few. When the monasteries were broken up the images of bronze, silver or gold were to be handed over to the government. "As for the Tai-Ch’in (Syrian) and Muh-hu (Zoroastrian) forms of worship, since Buddhism has already been cast out, these heresies alone must not be allowed to survive. People belonging to these also are to be compelled to return to the world, belong again to their own districts, and become tax payers. As for foreigners, let them be returned to their own countries, there to suffer restraint." (Ibid., p. 123.)

One of the reasons for the suppression of monasteries was that it affected the economic prosperity and social life of the nation.

Buddhist monasteries daily grew higher. Men’s strength was used up in work with plaster and wood. Men’s gain was taken up in ornaments of gold and precious stones. Imperial and family relationships were forsaken for obedience to the fees of the priests. The marital relationship was opposed by the ascetic restraints. Destructive of law, injurious to mankind, nothing is worse than this way (Tao). Moreover, if one man does not plough, others feel hunger, if one woman does not tend the silk worms, others go cold. Now in the Empire there are monks and nuns innumerable. All depend on others to plough that they may eat, on others to raise silk that they may be clad. Monasteries and Refuges (Homes of ascetics, kuti in Sanskrit) are beyond compute.

All are as high as the clouds, beautifully ornamented; they take for themselves palaces as a dwelling.... We will repress this long standing pestilence to its roots ... In all the Empire more than four thousand six hundred monasteries are destroyed, two hundred and sixty thousand five hundred monks and nuns are returning to the world, both (men and women) to be received as tax paying householders. Refuges and hermitages which are destroyed number more than forty thousand. We are resuming fertile land of the first grade, several tens of millions of Ch’ing ( 1 ching is 15.13 acres). We are receiving back as tax paying householders, male and female, one hundred and fifty thousand serfs. The aliens who hold jurisdiction over the monks and nuns show clearly that this is a foreign religion.

Ta Ch’n (Syrian) and Muh-hu-fo (Zoroastrian) monks to the number of more than three thousand are compelled to return to the world, lest they confuse the customs of China. With simplified and regulated government we will achieve a unification of our manners, that in future all our youth may together return to the royal culture. We are now beginning this reformation; how long it will take we do not know. (Ibid., p. 125.)

The suppression of monasteries and persecution of foreign religions was part of a reformation undertaken. The persecution lasted for twenty months -- not long, but long enough to have permanent effects. Buddhism, for all its strength, never completely recovered. For centuries afterwards, it was merely a tolerated religion. The days of its greatest building, sculpture, and painting, and its most vital creative thought, were past.

Its effect on the Christian church might also have been several. The foreign leaders who were not able to remain in hiding must have found their way back across the Tarim desert or gone by the merchant ships which sailed from Canton to the Persian Gulf. Their Chinese colleagues -- how many of the three thousand, we do not know -- being freed to return to the world, would scatter to home villages to seek a living.

In AD 847 Hsuan Tsung came to the throne and he issued an edict of religious toleration. The second part of the 9th century was a period of internal rebellion and civil wars in China which contributed to the decline of the Tang dynasty. In AD 907, the last T’ang emperor was deposed. After a period of divisions, the Sung dynasty reunified the empire and established their control over China by AD 960. Their rule lasted almost towards the end of the 13th century. But they were defeated by the Mongols and the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty came to power in China (1259-1386) when Christianity found a second opportunity to enter China under the toleration of Mongols.

Christianity at the Time of the Mongols

The history of the church in Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries outside the subcontinent of India to the south, says Moffett, was dominated by the political power and traditions of three great Mongol conquerors, Hulegu, Kublai and Timor (better known as Tamerlane). (Moffett, op.cit., p. 422.) Hulegu and Kublai were sons of the Christian queen, Princess Sorkatani. Tamerlane was an outsider, not of royal Mongol blood and more Turk than Mongol. Hulegu and Kublai protected Christians; Tamerlane destroyed them.

Kublai Khan was the ruler of China from AD 1215-1294. He was a friend of Christians, but not a Christian himself. With the use of Mongol power in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Nestorian church followed by Roman Catholics, began to come to China once again. In spite of the low state to which the church in China was reduced in the 10th and 11th centuries, a recovery undoubtedly took place. Marco Polo’s account of his journey to China and of the Christians he found there is one of the most important pieces of information that has come down to us about the church in China in the 13th century. Marco Polo’s travels speak of Christians not only in China but also in Central Asia and in other parts of Asia

Marco Polo speaks of widespread Nestorian communities scattered across the Chinese empire. At Foo Chow, a Muslim told Marco Polo about a religious community whose religion nobody understood. Marco Polo traced them and found that they were Christians. They had books and they had preserved their faith for seven hundred years. They had a temple which was dedicated to three persons, painted on its walls. It is possible that the reference to a seven hundred year old tradition indicates that they might have been surviving descendants of the Christians at the time of Alopen. The three apostles celebrated were the three earliest leaders of pre-Nestorian, East Syrian Christianity -- Addai, Aggai and Mari.

Polo also reports of Christians and Nestorian churches in at least eleven other Chinese cities. The largest concentration of Christians was in the northwest along the old silk road. Another area with many Christians was on the southeast coast of China in the province of Chinkiang and Fukein. There was a strong Christian community at Chinkiang between Nanking and Shanghai. At one time the Nestorians had seven monasteries there, all of them founded about the year AD 1279 by Mar Sargis, a devout governor of that city. Kublai Khan appointed in that district a succession of Christian governors and assistant governors and the Christian community greatly benefited from it. After Kublai Khan’s death, between AD 1309 and 1333, Buddhist pressure at the imperial court compelled the Christians to surrender the monasteries one after the other to the Buddhists.

Though Kublai Khan was tolerant of all religions, he had a special affinity to Buddhism. But he knew that China cannot be governed long without the co-operation of the Confucian bureaucracy. To the Confucians, Buddhism was not only superstitious and unacceptable intellectually, it was a foreign religion and unacceptable culturally. He built Confucian temples in the capital and encouraged the veneration of ancestors. Christians benefited from the fact that Christianity was the faith of Kublai Khan’s mother. Christian advisers were well known at the court. Kublai Khan’s vulnerable situation as a foreign Mongol ruler of a conquered but thickly populated and highly civilized Chinese nation led him to adopt a strategy of governing through intermediaries. This in turn tended to enlarge the powers of foreign advisers, including Christians. One of them, the only European, was Marco Polo. He was governor of a district on the Grand Canal for three years. Marco Polo says that Kublai Khan was not anti-Christian, and that he was convinced that the Christian faith was the best of all religions but the low level of learning he found among the Nestorians and his fear that adherence to any one religion would divide the people and set the other religions against the government, prevented him from being baptized. But this did not seem to be the case. This mistaken notion was based on a conversation between Kublai Khan and the uncles of Marco Polo, when the Khan sent them as ambassadors to the Pope. They asked the Khan why he had not accepted the Christian faith. He said to them:

How do you wish me to make myself a Christian? You see Christians in these parts are so ignorant that they do nothing and have no power; you see these idolators do what ever they please, and when I am sitting at tables the cups which are in the middle of the hall come to me full of wine or drinks of other things, without anyone touching them, and I drink with them. They compel the bad weather to go any direction they please and do many wonderful things. And as you know their idols speak and tell them all that they want. But if I am converted to the faith of Christ and make myself a Christian, then my barons and other people who are not attached to the faith of Christ would say: What reason has moved you to baptism and to hold the faith of Christ? And these idolators say that what they do they do it by the holiness and power of the idols. Then I should not know what to answer them; and these idolators who do such things with their arts and knowledge could easily make me die. But you shall go down to your High Priest and shall pray him on our behalf to send me a hundred men skilled in your religion who before these idolators may be able to reprove what they do and may say to them that they know and can do such things but will not, because they are done by diabolical art and through evil spirits, and may so restrain them that they may not have power to do such things in their presence. Then when we shall see this we shall consider them and their religion; and so I shall be baptized, and when I shall be baptized, all my barons and great men will be baptized, and then their subjects will receive baptism, and there will be more Christians here than there are in your parts. (Moule, op.cit., p. 156.)

A number of western historians have misread the statement of Kublai Khan and his intentions. Stephen Neil wrote, "If attention had been paid to this request at the time, the result might have been considerable. But twenty years passed; and when Pope Nicholas IV decided, in 1289, to resume the practice of embassies, he sent two men, one of whom died on the way." (Stephen Neill. A History of Christian Missions, p. l26.)

The first Roman Catholic missionary to China was John Montecorvino who came to China just after the death of Kublai Khan in AD 1294. Shortly after his arrival, he converted a Nestorian prince, Prince George to Roman Catholicism, which made the Nestorians furious. There developed a strong friction between John Montecorvino and the Nestorians. With the help of prince George, Montecorvino made about six thousand converts and built a church. In AD 1307 he was made the Archbishop of Peking.

In AD 1318 Pope John XXII divided Asia into two missionary districts; one for China under the jurisdiction of Franciscans and the other for Ilkhanate Persia under the Dominicans.

By the time of Montecorvino’s death, sometime between AD 1328 and 1333, the Mongol dynasty that gave the Christians the freedom to preach and build churches, was disintegrating. There were rebellions against the Mongols. "Farmers rebelled against the rich; Chinese rose against the Mongols, the south invaded the north under the anti-Mongol slogan, These barbarians are created to obey and not to command a civilized nation." (M. Pradwin, The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy, 1940, p. 36. ) By AD 1368, the Mongol empire had fallen. "The Mongols had been dominant in Asian history from AD 1203 to 1368. Their genius in war and astounding victories had created a great military empire, stretching from Japan to Austria. Yet their disintegration was rapid, they had shown little cohesion and had consequently been quickly assimilated by other cultures."

With the defeat of the Mongols. China turned Chinese in the matter of religion also, "China as it has so often done, turned away from the world and turned in upon itself. The new China was to be isolationist, nationalist, and orthodox Confucian, ruled by a completely China centered dynasty, the Ming (l368-l644)." (Moffett, op.cit.. p.474.) But there is little evidence of direct religious persecution. Later writers have assumed that foreign proteges of Mongols whether Christian or Muslim were massacred with their patrons. K.S. Latourette observed, "It is just as likely that Nestorians and foreigners were killed indiscriminately in the pursuit of Mongols, and without foreign support a church that became dependent upon it withered away." (K. Latourette, Missions in China, p. 74)

Did Christianity completely disappear from China after the fall of the Mongols? We are not sure of this. It is unlikely that Christianity completely disappeared. There might have been small groups here and there. But its visibility has disappeared. Moffett observes that it is no surprise that the church fell with the old dynasty. This was the pattern of past Chinese history. Both Nestorian and Roman Catholic Christianity were considered foreign by the Chinese. Compounding the hardship, this imposed on the church, the Mongol dynasty itself was foreign. So to the Chinese, Christianity appeared as a foreign religion, protected and supported by a foreign government. Roman Catholic missions gave the impression of being even more foreign than the Nestorians, who were almost entirely Mongol, for they received far more visible support from outside China than was ever true of the Nestorians either in the ninth or fourteenth century. The Catholic cathedral in Zaithun was built and endowed by the wealthy wife of an American trader. An Italian trader bought the land for John Montecorvin’s church in Peking. (Moffett. Op.cit. p. 471.)


Chapter 6: Christianity in India


India and the Western World in the First Century

India has been open to the outside world from ancient times and a vigorous commercial activity went on between India and the Mediterranean world even before the Christian era. This is testified by both the western and Indian classical writers. Knowledge of Indian geography and India’s trade with the Mediterranean world is abundantly testified by western classical writers on India such as Strabo (63 BC-24 AD), Pliny (AD 23-79), Ptolemy (AD 100-160) and the author of Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. They give detailed information about the people, climate, trade routes, ports, cargoes and the economic condition of India. In their writings Muziris (Crananore), about twenty miles north of today’s Cochin, on the Malabar coast in South India is mentioned as an important part and trading centre. [Periplus of the Erythrean Sea states that Muziris abounds in ships sent with cargoes from Arabia and by the Greeks.] The Tamil classics also speak of the great commercial activity in South India during the first centuries.

There were three main routes which connected India with the western world. First, there was an overland route which linked India with the silk route from Antioch to Central Asia and to China. In normal circumstances the Himalayan range in the north was no serious obstacle to India’s trade with Central Asia along the silk route. Secondly, there was a route through the Persian Gulf. It connected the mouth of Indus to the mouth of the Euphrates and thence up the river to the point where roads branched off to Antioch and the Laventine ports. The third route was from India to the Red Sea and from there by road to the Nile and to Alexandria.

It was the third route through the Red Sea which was commonly used in the first centuries of the Christian era. Roman ships leaving the ports of the Red Sea and using the monsoon winds sailed across the Arabian sea to the ports of South Indian kingdoms. Cargoes such as textiles of various kinds, spices and semi-precious stones were shipped back to Egypt and from there on to Rome. The Romans paid for these goods in gold coins which have been found in large numbers in South India. The Akananuru, a first or second century Tamil work mentions that ‘ the Yavanas came in large vessels carrying gold and they returned with pepper.’ It was no wonder that Pliny, the Roman historian complained of the luxury trade with India draining the Roman treasury. Some Roman coins from the time of the Republic have been found in North India. But the coins from the time of Augustus and Tiberius are numerous especially in South India. The firm establishment of Augustus as the emperor brought peace and prosperity and the fashionable Roman world began to demand oriental luxuries, on a scale unknown before, which increased the trade. Moreover, the discovery of the direction of the monsoon winds by Hippalus in AD 45 helped the trade by sea immensely.

The sea route from Egypt to India became very vital for the Roman trade and Augustus had to take steps to ensure its safety. The veiled hostility of Parthia, the irruption of Scythian tribes into central Asia, the great length and the uncertainty of the land routes, and the enormous expenses incurred in bringing wares through desert routes of Arabia --all these conditions influenced the Romans towards using as far as possible the route through the Red Sea. The constant presence of the Sabaean, Nabataean, and Axumite intermediaries along the route impressed upon Augustus that for the sake of his empire’s welfare and for the sake of his own interest in Egypt, the necessity to take steps to make Roman trade with India easier and more profitable for state and people. (E. H. Warmington, The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India, London, Curzon Press. 1928, p.14.) He took steps to guard the journey from the Nile to Myos Hormos and to Berenice. The Himyarites and Sabaeans, the intermediaries in the trade, were the most substantial barriers to direct trade with India. Against them, Augustus turned the force of the Romans.

People were grateful. Augustus was hailed as a god and temples were raised for him at several places including one at Muziris by the Greek residents in India. It was only natural that the Romans should direct their great efforts towards an active and direct trade by a cheap, quick and tolerably safe route by sea. Such trade activities helped the movements of people and cultural influences between India and the outside world. According to Warmington, after the discovery of the monsoons, (Ibid.. p.78.) the presence of Indians in Alexandria was numerous and the Greeks, Syrians, Jews and in some cases Arabians dwelt in India. Shilappadikaram, a Tamil work of the second century, describes the homes of wealthy Greeks in the capital city of the Chera kingdom. It says, "All night lamps were burning, the lamps of the foreigners who talk strange tongues, who watch over precious cargoes near the docks." The settlement of Jews in India in the first century and before, demonstrates how a foreign religious community could settle down peacefully and become part of the Indian society and also the religious tolerance that existed in India.

The Origins of Christianity in India

All historians agree that the Indian church is very ancient but they differ as to how early the Gospel had been brought to India and who or what agency brought it and to which part of India. No book or inscription or monument of the first two centuries exist to enlighten us on the origin of Christianity until the third century when the ancient Christian writers began to mention the church in India. The historians of the origins of Christianity in India have to depend mainly upon traditions both within India and outside and occasional references here and there in later writers.

Broadly speaking there are two views among the historians as to the origins of Christianity in India. One view is that the Indian church has an apostolic foundation arising out of the apostolic activity of St. Thomas in the first century. The other view is that the church was founded in India at a very early date (during the course of the first three centuries) by Christians from East Syria. The more general view is that the church had its origin in the first century in the apostolic activity of St. Thomas. The St. Thomas community (Syrian Christians) in South India hold the apostolic foundation of their church as an article of faith. This view is based mainly on two traditions, one existing among the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala and the other among the East Syrians. There are some references in early Church Fathers, both the western and Syrian, supporting the view that St. Thomas’s activity was in India.

The tradition current among the St. Thomas Christians in India is as follows: St. Thomas, after visiting Socotora (an island in the Arabian Sea off the north-east coast of Africa) came to Muziris (Cranganore or Kodungallur) on the Periyar estuary north of Cochin in about AD 52. He is said to have preached to the Jewish colony settled there and to have made converts. He traveled south and converted high caste Hindus and established churches in seven places (Maliankara, Palayur, Parur Gokamangalam, Niranam, Chayal and Quilon) in four of which places Syrian churches still exist. Then he went to the eastern coast where he died as a martyr in AD 72. There is a tomb in Maylapore (near Madras) which is believed to be that of St. Thomas. This tradition has been persistent among the St. Thomas Christians for centuries and the community entertains little doubt as to the truth of the tradition. There are a number of different versions of the tradition expressed in songs and stories, all of them of later dates. But it is important to note that there is no other rival tradition in the church with regard to its origin and there is no other country in the world that claims that St. Thomas died there.

Similar to the Indian tradition, the East Syrian church holds a strong tradition of the apostolic activity of St. Thomas in India. This tradition is found in the writings of the Syrian fathers from the third century onwards. About this Mingana writes, "It is the constant tradition in the Eastern church that the Apostle Thomas evangelized India, and there is no historian, no poet, no breviary, no liturgy, and no writer of any kind who, having the opportunity of speaking of Thomas, does not associate his name with India. Some writers mention also Parthia and Persia among the lands evangelized by him, but all of them are unanimous in the matter of India. The name of Thomas can never be disassociated from that of India. To refer to all the Syrian and Christian Arab authors who speak of India in connection with Thomas would therefore be equivalent to referring to all who have made mention of the name of St. Thomas. Thomas and India are in this respect synonymous." (Mingana, Early Spread of Christianity in India, p. 301.) Among the non-East Syrian writers, while Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose and Jerome (fathers of the fourth century) held to the Indian apostolate of St. Thomas, Origen, Clementine Recognition, Eusebius of Caesarea, Rufinus of Aquileia and Socrates say that Thomas worked in Parthia. Here we are not to see any contradiction as the Parthian empire extended up to North India at that time. "The Parthian empire had spread into India and in the middle of the first century BC, a new Parthian kingdom, centered on Taxila, had been founded in northwestern India. Orosius in the fifth century said that generally the country (from the Indus to the Tigris) was called Parthia." (L. W. Brown, op. cit.. p. 46.) By the end of the fourth century the western sources are more or less unanimous that Thomas worked in India. Some writers have pointed out that the name ‘India’ has been very loosely used by some early writers. A few western writers might have used the name, India, as a convenient term for the lands of the East. But we need to remember, as we have already pointed out, that India was well known in the West because of the vigorous commercial activities that went on between India and the Mediterranean world. This was specially true with regard to East Syrians. "For them," says Mingana, "India is nearly always our modern India." (Ibid., p. 47.)

Among the East Syrian writers, the most important writer is St. Ephrem, in the fourth century, who lived in Edessa for some time and was a great hymn writer. Edessa claims to be the resting place of the bones of St. Thomas brought back from India by a Syrian merchant. An annual festival on July 3rd is celebrated there commemorating the transference of the bones of St. Thomas from India to Edessa. St. Ephrem has several hymns in honour of St. Thomas in which he sings of the apostle’s preaching of the Gospel in India, of the bringing of his bones to Edessa, of the honour that the Edessene church got thereby, and of the miracles wrought at the shrine. (C.B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History, Madras, CLS, 1968, p. 5.) Ephrem sings:

Blessed art thou, Thomas, the Twin in thy deeds.
Twin is thy spiritual power;
nor one thy power, nor one thy name:...
Blessed art thou, O Thrice- Blessed city, thou hast acquired, this pearl, none greater doth India yield;
Blessed art thou, worthy to possess the priceless gem.
Praise to thee, 0 Gracious Son, who thus thy adorers dost enrich. (A.E. Medlycott. India and the Apostle Thomas, pp.26-27 quoted by Firth p. 6.)

One example of the evidence for the Indian apostolate of Thomas is Didascalia Apostolorum (Teaching of the Apostles), a book probably written around AD 250, which says, "India and all its countries and those bordering on it, even to the farthest sea, received the Apostle’s Hand of the Priesthood from Judas Thomas, who was Guide and Ruler in the church which he built and ministered there." (Firth, op.cit., p.8.)

However, the earliest available record and a detailed one of St. Thomas’ travels and his missionary work in India is contained in the book: Acts of Judas Thomas, written in Syriac probably by a Christian in Edessa around AD 200. It is a very lively account in narrative form in thirteen acts. The book ends with the statement, "The acts of Judas Thomas are completed, which he wrought in the land of the Indians, fulfilling the command of him, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen."

The book begins by telling how the eleven apostles, after the resurrection of Jesus, met in Jerusalem and divided the world by lot among themselves for missionary work. India fell to Judas Thomas, "who is also called Didymus." He was reluctant to go saying, "how can I, who am a Hebrew, go and preach the truth among the Indians." The Lord Christ appeared to him at night. Thomas pleaded with the Lord, "send me anywhere but not to India." The Lord assured him saying, "Fear not, my Grace is sufficient." The story tells how Thomas was sold for three pounds to a merchant Abban from India who was looking for a carpenter for his king Gundaphorous to build him a palace. They began their voyage to India and arrived first at Andrapolis, (Historians differ as to the exact location of Andrapolis, whether it was within India proper or a nearby place. In the story it is said that from Andrapolis, Abban and Thomas left for India. According to Warmington, Andrapolis was the capital of the Andhra Kingdom in Deccan and was in India.) a royal city where there was a wedding of the king’s daughter. Abban and Thomas were also invited to the wedding. After a prayer by Thomas and the appearance of Jesus to the bride and bridegroom, they decided to forego marriage and live in celibacy. From there Abban and Thomas left for India. Having arrived in India. Thomas undertook to build a palace for the king Gundaphorous and received some money in advance. Thomas, instead of building the palace, distributed the money to the poor. In answer to the king’s enquiries Thomas said that he has indeed built it, but the king will not be able to see it till he has departed this life. The king was very angry and sent both Thomas and Abban to prison. At this time the king’s brother, Gad, fell ill and died. In heaven the angels asked him in which of the mansions he saw in heaven would he like to live. He selected a certain building only to be told that he could not have it because it was built for his brother, Gundaphorous, by Thomas. Gad asked permission to go back and buy the palace from his brother. His return astonished Gundaphorous. Thomas was released from prison and the king and his brother were baptized. Thomas continued his preaching, making many converts.

Then Thomas was sent for by another king called Mazdai in another part of India to heal his wife and daughter who were possessed of devils. The women were restored to sanity and they decided to abandon marriage. Many members of the royal family were converted. The king was angry and put Thomas to death. Later when one of the king’s sons became insane, they opened Thomas’s tomb hoping that a touch of the holy man’s bones may cure the child. But the grave was found empty. However, the king took some dust from the tomb and put it on the child. The child was cured and the king became a Christian.

For a long time several historians considered the Acts of Judas Thomas as of no historical value. They pointed out that the teaching of the Acts was unorthodox and the stories told were fantastic. The aim of the author was to establish the doctrine that marriage is sinful and Christians ought to abstain from it, and therefore the book was of Gnostic origin. Today historians are inclined to take more seriously the historical value of the Acts of Thomas and its theological orthodoxy. In our earlier sections, we have noted that F.C. Burkitt, Arthur Voobus and several other historians have shown that the emphasis on celibacy and abstinence from marriage belonged to an authentic tradition of the Syrian church till the fourth century. L.W. Brown observes, "The great stress on celibacy as a way of salvation, and the emphasis on the miraculous are not in themselves proof of a non-Catholic origin for the Acts, as even in the time of Aphrates only the unmarried could be baptized in Edessa." (LW. Brown, op.cit,, p.43.)

R. Murray points out how at several points the Acts of Thomas reflect the theology of the East Syrian church. Reflecting the asceticism of the East Syrian church, the Acts tells how Thomas refused to receive silver and gold from people. In Acts six of the book, Thomas thanks God that he has become an ascetic and a pauper and wanderer for God. The East Syrian writers when they speak of incarnation, speak of Christ putting on the body as a garment. Murray writes," ‘Christ put on the body’. This simple image of clothing is the Syriac fathers’ favourite way of describing the Incarnation. It occurs consistently in the Acts of Judas Thomas, while in Didascalia it comes as a heading.... (R. Murray, op cit., p.69.) Again Murray says, "The invocations to the Mother-spirit to descend on the candidate for baptism in the Acts of Judas Thomas are typical of early Syriac literature." (Ibid., p. 80.) Drivers also points out that the literary heritage of the early Syriac-speaking church is reflected in the Acts of Thomas, Odes of Solomon and in Tatian’s Diatessiron.

Perhaps for a historian, a more important and interesting observation is that of Warmington when he says:

Even if we cast aside as unhistorical every allegation of fact in the stories about St. Thomas, we must at least admit that they reflect voyages habitually undertaken to India during the most prosperous period of the Roman Empire. Thus the story which brings the saint to Gondophares is an echo either of land-journeys taken through Parthia towards India, or of voyages taken to Indus by using monsoon. The tradition which makes him land at Andrapolis is, I think, a reminiscence of voyages taken with monsoon to some port in the west coast of India under Andhra control. Again the south Indian tradition which makes St. Thomas land close to Cranganore recalls voyages of the final stage, and lastly, when the tradition brings him overland from Malabar to Chola coast, we have an echo of inland penetration of Greek merchants possibly to Madura. (Warmington, Op.cit., p. 83.)

There is no doubt that the Acts of Judas Thomas is a very imaginative reconstruction of the world of Judas Thomas and his travels and work in India. It is neither fiction nor history but it is both. It contains truth and fiction written in very lively narrative form reflecting both theology of the East Syrian church and the history of the origins of Christianity in India.

Till the middle of the 19th century, no king by the name Gundaphorus was known in Indian history. Since AD 1834 numerous coins have been found in the Punjab and Afghanistan bearing his name in Greek on one side and in Pali on the other, and they are dated to be from the first half of the first century. In some coins the name of Gad, his brother is also found. There is also a stone inscription (now in Lahore museum) containing his name and dates which tell us that he was an Indo-Parthian prince in the north western part of India (from AD 19-45) at the time when St. Thomas is supposed to have come there. In this connection Stephen Neill has raised an important point. "We have no means of knowing how it came about that the name of Gondophorus whose time and succession had wholly vanished from the earth was still remembered in a syriac speaking country at least a century, perhaps considerably more than a century, after his death". Stephen Neill himself answers it thus: "It appears that there had been more contact between north-west India and the countries now known as Iran and Iraq, than had been generally supposed. (Stephen Neill, A History of Christianity in India, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p.28.) He is certainly right in pointing out the frequent contact between north-west India and the countries now known as Iraq and Iran in the early centuries of the Christian era. But contacts alone need not retain in Edessa the memory of a Parthian king after a century and half. What Stephen Neill failed to recognise was the possibility of a tradition existing in Edessa at the time of the writing of the Acts of Thomas that Thomas worked in the kingdom of Gundaphorus. Whatever else may be legendary, one thing is certain that the author of the Acts of Judas Thomas was fully aware of a tradition in Edessa of St. Thomas’s work in the kingdom of Gundaphorus in north west India. As L.W. Brown notes there was a considerable Jewish colony in north-western India in the first century, which might have attracted the attention of the first Christian missionaries.

There are other facts which seem to indicate a northern locus for St. Thomas’s work. Bardaisan in his Book of Fate (AD 196) speaks of Parthian Christians living among pagans, which might be a result of the destruction of the Indian Parthian empire by Kushan invaders about AD 50. There are also said to be Christian tribes still living in north India, but holding their faith a secret from all others. For example, at Tatta in Sind (the ancient port of Pattiala at the mouth of Indus), there is a fakir community which calls itself by an Aramaic name, something like ‘Bartolmai’, and claims to have been descended from St. Thomas’s converts and to have books and relics to prove it. Unfortunately no outsider has ever beep allowed to see this alleged proof. (LW. Brown, op.cit, p.47. The information about the Bartolmai tribe is given by R. A. Trotter in a paper presented at a conference in Sind in 1947.)

The historical information provided by the Acts of Judas Thomas about the coming of St. Thomas to north west India and also the information that Christianity came to India for the first time with the apostolate of St. Thomas can be accepted as reliable.

There is another tradition that Thomas came to south India. On the basis of the Acts of Thomas, there are historians who argue that Thomas went only to the north west and they deny the south Indian tradition. Then there are others, who deny the Acts of Thomas as a reliable historical source and accept only the south Indian tradition. They point out that we do not possess any concrete evidence for the early preaching of the Gospel in northwest India as we have for south India. They say that the south Indian claim to apostolate is supported by the fact that there is the community of St. Thomas Christians with their living tradition and the tomb of St. Thomas which is claimed to be that of the apostle Thomas.

The fact that there is no strong Christian community in north western India need not lead us to conclude that there was no Christian community there at any time. There are a number of instances in the history of the church that countries and places which were once strong centres of Christianity have become, in later years, centres of Islam or Buddhism. This is true with regard to North Africa, some places in Arabia or Persia, Central Asia or China.

There is a third group who argue for both places. Bishop Medlycott, H. Heras, J.N. Farquhar and S.H. Moffett are some of them. Medlycott thinks of two separate journeys, one from Palestine through Mesopotamia and Persia by land to north west India, the other, after a return to Palestine, via Egypt and Ethiopia and Socotra and thence across the Arabian Sea to Malabar. (Medlycott, op.cit.. pp. I47-148.) J.N. Farquhar thinks of one journey in the East. He says that St. Thomas first went to north western India travelling by sea and up the river Indus, but had to leave because of the Kushan invasions, which eventually wiped out the Christians of that region so that no trace remained. Then he left India by sea, landed in Socotra and spent some time there during which he made converts; and afterwards he sailed for India again and came to Malabar, from where in due course he crossed over to the east coast. He mentions that Thomas even went to Burma, and after returning to India he was martyred at Mylapore. (C.B. Firth op.cit.. pp. 16-17: IN. Farquhar, ‘The Apostle Thomas in North India and the Apostle Thomas in South India,’ Manchester, The Bulletin of John Ryland’s Library, x:l and xi:l.) About this John Stewart comments:

Whatever difference of opinion there may be as to how, when and where St. Thomas died, or as to what he did and the churches he founded, it is at all events practically certain that he did visit India both north and south, and spent a considerable time preaching the Gospel wherever he went. The mass of tradition, especially that bearing his stay in the south is too great to be ignored or lightly passed over. There is the additional evidence that large Christian churches calling themselves by his name and claiming him as their founder still exist. (John Stewart, op.cit., p. 104.)

S.H Moffett summarizes the general consensus that is emerging among historians when he writes:

The consensus of the majority is that both theories are reasonable and, far from being mutually exclusive, can be interpreted as strengthening each other. It is not implausible to believe that after preaching in Gundaphar’s kingdom in the North, Thomas moved on as all traditions affirm, to preach the Gospel to other kingdoms as well, the kingdoms of south western and south eastern India, until at last he was put to death, perhaps near Madras. If, as seems quite possible, he was the apostle to India at all, it is satisfying to believe with considerable reason that he was the apostle to all India. (Moffett, op.cit., P. 36.)

The fad that St. Thomas went to north west India does not rule out the possibility of his work in the south. In fact the south Indian tradition gains more importance in the light of the living tradition of the community of St. Thomas, the presence of a Jewish community in south India and the existence of considerable commercial activity that went on between the Mediterranean and south India. It is reasonable to believe that Thomas was the apostle to all India. Both theories are reasonable and far from being exclusive, strengthen each other. This is the general consensus that is emerging among the historians.

The second view about the origin of Christianity in India is that Indian church was founded by Christians from East Syria during the course of the first three centuries. L.W. Brown can be considered as a representative of those who hold this view. In the Introduction to his book he mentions, "It will be suggested in this book that the founders of the Church were ‘East Syrian’ traders, from the Persian Gulf area, and it will be apparent that a most important feature of its history is the succession of contacts with foreign Christians, drawn to the Malabar coast by trade." (L. W. Brown, op.cit.. p.2.) About the Acts of Thomas he writes:

Plainly, no confidence can be put in the historical reliability of these stories. They are written to magnify St. Thomas, so that reflected glory would come on the Edessene (Chaldean) Church which claimed him as its founder. There were two reasons why this was necessary. In the fourth century, there was bitter war between Parthia and Rome and it was essential to the safety of the Edessene Church that she should show her independence both in the origin and administration of the Church of the western Empire. Not only that they were not reckoned Orthodox by the Church of Antioch and the West, and the claim to apostolic foundation-made in the Abgar legend where we read of Judas Thomas himself sending Addai (Tatian) to Edessa- was a claim to be on an equal footing with the great Church of the West. When the Acts was written there were known to be Christians in India and the story here told of their origin linked them with the Edessene Church and demonstrated its apostolic outreach.

Those Fathers who mention St. Thomas all rely on the Acts for their information; no independent tradition remains. (Ibid., p. 45.)

Again, after speaking of the trade that went on between India and the Mediterranean and the existence of a Jewish community in south India in the early centuries, Brown comments:

The evidence given above does not prove the apostolic mission of St. Thomas in south India. It does show that there was no physical reason why Christian traders or the Apostle himself, could not have come to Malabar in the first century. The existence of an old local tradition and of families whose ancestry seems ancient and indigenous, rather than of foreign immigrant trading stock, are factors which suggest the possibility of an early evangelist in the country, but the dependence of all traditions on the Edessene Church prevents us considering those factors conclusive proof that this early evangelist was St. Thomas. In fact, the Edessene dependence inclines most scholars to skepticism. (Ibid., p. 63)

Brown rejects the St. Thomas tradition on the ground that it depends on the Edessean Church. According to him, The Acts of St. Thomas which embody the tradition of the Edessean church is written to magnify St. Thomas so that the reflected glory would come on the Edessean church which claimed him as its founder. Brown’s conclusion is based on this premise and it is here that Brown has gone wrong in his argument. As pointed out earlier, though the Edessean Church had a special relation to St. Thomas, they never claimed him as the founder of their church. The Addai tradition was so strong in Edessa that even if the Edessean church wanted to claim apostolic foundation for their church, they could not have succeeded in their effort.

About the Addai tradition in Edessa, S.H. Moffett significantly observes:

The Addai traditions were as persistent in the early church of Mesopotamia as the Thomas traditions were in India By the end of the fourth century Addai was commonly accepted by Syrian writers both Eastern and Western as the founder of their church. The fact that so strong a centre as Edessa was content with one of the lesser known seventy rather than one of the original Twelve supports the view that the historicity of Addai’s mission was too well known to be easily set aside. (Moffett, op.cit., 50)

It was not only the Addai tradition that was strong in Edessa but also the tradition that St. Thomas worked in India and died there. The Edessean church, long before Ephrem in the fourth century wrote his hymns, started celebrating the feast of St. Thomas on July 3 in commemoration of the transfer of his bones from India to Edessa. There is an indication in the Acts of St. Thomas that the relics of the apostle were already transferred to the west at the time when the book was written. Long after the martyrdom and burial of Thomas, when king Mazdai opened the tomb of the apostle with the hope of healing his sick son with the touch of the relics, the bones were not found, ‘ for one of the brethren had taken them away secretly and conveyed to the west’. St. Ephrem in his hymns recognizes that the relics were very much venerated in Edessa. The hymns of St. Ephrem in the fourth century are a clear proof of the Edessean tradition that Thomas worked and died in India. The Acts of Thomas written around AD 200 reflected an earlier tradition. It reflected a strong and genuine tradition in Edessa and not something fabricated to bring glory to the Edessean church. Mingana, who is skeptical of the apostolate of St.Thomas in India, however, as we noted earlier, strongly affirms the unanimous opinion among the Syrian writers that Thomas worked in India. According to him, "there is no historian, no poet, no breviary, no liturgy, and no writer of any kind who, having the opportunity of speaking of Thomas, does not associate his name with India," As Moffett stated, the fact, so strong a centre of Christianity as Edessa was content with Addai instead of Thomas as their apostle and unanimously attested to the fact that Thomas died in India supports the genuineness of the Edessean tradition.

Brown is of the opinion that the story in the Acts of Thomas is fabricated to assert Edessean independence of the ‘great church’ and to prove its orthodoxy. As we stated the Acts was written at the beginning of the third century, reflecting a tradition that existed earlier. We need to ask whether the church in Edessa was under the administration of any western churches in the second or early third century and whether it was accused of holding any unorthodox views at this time. We need to remember that orthodoxy was not a pre-supposition with the early church and in the second and third centuries the demarcation between heresy and orthodoxy was rather thin or fluid everywhere in the church. There is no strong ground to reject the Edessean tradition of Apostle Thomas. On the contrary there is strong reason to accept it as genuine.

Eusebius the church historian of the early church (early fourth century) in his Ecclesiastical history mentions that Pantaneus, the first known head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, visited India about AD 180.

[Pantaneus] displayed such zeal for the divine word that he was appointed as a herald of the Gospel of Christ to the nations of the east and was sent as far as India. ... It is reported that among the persons there who knew Christ, he found the Gospel according to St. Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language which they had preserved till that time. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5:10.)

Later in the fourth century, Jerome mentions that a deputation from India asked Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria to send Pantaneus to India to hold disputations with Hindu philosophers. Accordingly the great Christian scholar Pantaneus was sent and there he found the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew left by Batholomew.

In the first place, this tradition of Pantaneus going to India and finding a Christian community there which was visited by Bartholomew in the first century confirms the first century origins of the Church in India. Secondly, it raises the question as to who was the apostle of India, Thomas or Bartholomew or both? For a long time the historians tended to down play the apostolate of Bartholomew in India as it seemed to take away the apostolate from Thomas and gave it to Bartholomew.

We cannot easily dismiss the apostolate of Bartholomew. Today historians are beginning to accept both the visit of Pantaneus and with it the earlier mission of Bartholomew. Indian historians George Moraes and H.C. Perumalil argue for such an apostolate. They hold that the Bombay region on the Konkan coast was the field of Bartholomew’s missionary activity, In an earlier section we have shown that the Jewish Christian community in Edessa (Nazarenes) had a Gospel of Matthew in Aramaic. It is possible that what Pantaneus found in India was a copy of this Gospel. In the Christian tradition Bartholomew was the apostle to Arabia, Persia, India and Armenia. It may be that he visited India after his travels in Persia and brought with him a copy of the Gospel of Matthew (Gospel of the Nazarenes) which was already in circulation in East Syria. The tradition of Bartholomew does not weaken the tradition concerning the Indian apostolate of St. Thomas. We have already mentioned that there are references in which the names of Batholomew, Addacus, Aggai and Mari are mentioned as companions or disciples of St. Thomas. There is always the possibility of more than one apostle visiting a particular place or country, It is important to note that both Eusebius and Jerome who mention the apostolate of Bartholomew in India also speak of St. Thomas apostolate in India.

There is no Indian tradition concerning the work of Bartholomew in India. Moraes explains this relating to the fact that the history of the Christians of Bartholomew got intermingled with that of St. Thomas Christians who came under the control of the Persian church. Perumalil thinks that Bartholomew Christians continued as a separate community till the coming of the Portuguese and then merged with the Christians of Bombay. (A. Mathias Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol.I, Church History Association of India, 1984, p. 66.) The fact that Batholomew left a copy of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew (the Gospel of the Nazarenes) is an indication that the first Christian converts in India were Jews. With regard to the Batholomew tradition Moffett comments:

As to whether the apostle in this particular case was Bartholomew as Pantaneus understood it or Thomas as most Indian Christians would insist, the evidence is too slight for a firm conclusion. Suffice it is to say that the overall evidence for an apostolic presence in India overwhelmingly favours Thomas. Even Jerome, who is one of the two earliest sources for the mention of Bartholomew, seems elsewhere, when writing to Marcellus, to acknowledge the primacy of Thomas. He [Jesus] was present in all places with Thomas in India, with Peter in Rome, with Paul in Illyria, with Titus in Crete, Andrew in Greece, with apostle and apostolic man in his own separate region. (Moffett, op.cit., p. 39.)

For C.B. Firth, the apostolic origin of the Indian church is a possibility. For L.W. Brown the truth of the Indian tradition that the Apostle Thomas worked in India is a reasonable probability. But he believes that the Indian church has been founded by East Syrian traders from the Persian Gulf area. His assumption is that Antioch brought the Gospel to East Syria and East Syria in turn brought the Gospel to India. He further says that the East Syrian church was under the ecclesiastical control of Antioch and the whole story of Thomas’s work in the East is a fabrication by Edessa to assert its independence of Antioch and also to prove its orthodoxy in faith, Hence Brown rejected the East Syrian tradition concerning the apostolic activity of Thomas in India.

C.S. Song, an Asian theologian speaks of the western God as a straight line God who operates in a certain logical order. Arnold Toynbee, a British historian speaks of the ego-centric illusion of the western historians who think that everything of some importance originates in the west and from there move to other areas in a linear progression. In the case of Christianity, the Gospel moved from the great centres of the Roman Empire such as Antioch or Rome to the places outside of the Roman Empire and Christian communities thus formed were dependent upon the churches in the Roman Empire for their ecclesiastical life. L.W. Brown considers the coming of Christianity in Asia this way and he cannot conceive of the possibility of the Gospel coming to the East independent of Antioch or some other centre in the west, nor can he think of an independent church in the East. Stephen Neill also argues more or less on the same line.

On the contrary, the church in ‘Asian Asia’ in the early period was proudly Asian and did not depend upon Antioch for its origin or ecclesiastical life. As Christianity expanded in its early years, Antioch was a great centre for missionary work in the Hellenistic world. The Christian expansion to the East among the Jewish communities and their semitic relatives in the Syrian orient was not undertaken by the Greek speaking missionary movement from Antioch but by the Ararnaic speaking Palestinian Christians. This is true not only in the case of Edessa but also of Adiabene. About this A. Voobus observes:

Thus, at the dawning of Christian history in the lands of the Euphrates and Tigris, we see something peculiar to the gains of the Christian movement. The historical eye can see little, but that which we see commends itself as trustworthy by virtue of its naturalness. It is natural that the pioneering work in the expansion of Christian faith in the semitic areas was carried out, not by Greek-speaking Hellenistic Christians, but by Aramaic-speaking Christians who possessed the lingua franca of their contemporary orient. (E. Ferguson (ed.), Studies in Early Christianity, Vol. X, Garland Publishing Inc. New York, 1993, p.13.)

In the case of Adiabene, a number of historians are raising the possibility that the Gospel came there independent of Edessa or even prior to it. We must be prepared to accept a similar possibility in the case of the origin of Christianity in India.

From the evidence available to us, especially the East Syrian and Indian traditions, it is reasonable to believe that the Indian church has an independent origin, independent of Persian Christianity, in the apostolic activity of St. Thomas in the first century. The Indian tradition of its apostolic foundation is much stronger than that of Rome or Alexandria or Constantinople. We may further assume that St. Thomas is the apostle of all India, and Bartholomew who was a companion of Thomas also visited India and brought with him a copy of the Gospel of the Nazarenes.


Chapter 7: Christianity in India up to AD 1500


The early disciples of Jesus Christ were wandering missionaries. After the resurrection of Christ, the disciples went to different parts of the world to proclaim the Gospel. There was the possibility of an apostle visiting more than one country or more than one apostle preaching in the same country. The expansion of Christianity in the East was not the work of Hellenistic Christian missionaries from Antioch, nor a linear progression from Antioch. It was the work of Jewish Christian missionaries such as Addai in Edessa, Aggai and Mari in Persia and Thomas in India. In the East Syrian tradition, St. Thomas is the great apostle of the East. The Christian churches thus formed were ecclesiastically independent of Antioch or any other centre in the West.

It is difficult to present the early history of St. Thomas Christians in India as a connected story due to lack of sufficient historical records. But we get certain glimpses of the life of the community in the writings of foreign visitors, sometimes in the traditions preserved in India and East Syria, occasionally in casual references by Indian writers, and in a few monuments and inscriptions. No serious archeological work has been undertaken in India in this area.

The Visit of Pantaneus in the Second Century

Pantaneus visited India about AD 180 and there he found a Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew language, left with the Christians there by St. Barthlomew. This is mentioned by Eusebius, and by Jerome in one of his letters. Born a Jew, thoroughly trained in Greek philosophy, and converted to Christianity, Pantaneus was a remarkable person and the most outstanding Christian scholar of his time. He is reported to be the first principal of the catechetical school in Alexandria and was the teacher of Clement. Clement paid great tribute to his teacher when he wrote, "A truly Sicilian bee, he drew honey from the flowers of the meadow of apostles and prophets and imparted in the souls of his pupils pure knowledge." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.1. p. 301.)

According to Jerome a deputation from India came to Alexandria. Impressed with the scholarship of Pantaneus, they asked Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, to send Clement to India "to preach Christ to the Brahmans and philosophers there." (St. Jerome, Letter LXX, The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (second series),, p.150.) About his visit, Eusebius writes:

Now at that time there was a man of great renown for learning named Pantaneus, who had charge of the school of the faithful at Alexandria, where it has been a primitive custom that a school for sacred studies should exist. This school has continued even to our day, and although we understand that it was filled with men of great learning and zeal for divinity, it is recorded that the said person was especially distinguished at that time, in as much as he had come from that sect of philosophers who are called Stoics. Now, it is said that he displayed such an ardent love and zeal for the divine word that he was appointed as a herald of the Gospel of Christ to the nations of the East, and that he journeyed even as far as the land of the Indians. For there were, yes, even still at that time, many evangelists of the word, desirous to contribute an inspired zeal, after the manner of the apostles, for the increase and building up of the divine word. Pantaneus also was one of these, and is mentioned as having gone to India; and the story goes that there he found, in the hands of some persons who had come to know Christ in that land, the Gospel according to Matthew, which had anticipated his arrival; for that Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them and left behind the writing of Matthew in the actual Hebrew characters, and that it was preserved up to the said time. But to resume, Pantaneus after many good deeds ended by becoming the head of the school at Alexandria, where he expounded the treasures of the divine doctrines, both orally and by means of treatises. (Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History, 5:10.)

There are people who argue that the country which Pantaneus visited was not India and the India of Eusebius was in fact Ethiopia or Arabia Felix. It is difficult to accept such an argument. As Stephen Neill points out, "But there is little to be said in favour of this view. When ships in hundreds were going from Egypt to South India. it is unlikely that any one in Alexandria would be the victim of such a confusion." (Stephen Neill, History of Christianity in India, p. 39. Mingana is one of those who deny that Pantaneus went to India. John Stewart observes, ‘ Notwithstanding the high reputation of Dr. Mingana and his well known erudition, one ventures to differ from him in the conclusion to which he has come." (Stewart, op.cit.,. p.106) While we acknowledge the contribution made by Mingana to the study of Eastern Christianity, some of his inferences and interpretations are to be treated with caution.) Jerome is very specific that Pantaneus was invited to preach to the Brahmans and philosophers of India. Moreover, Pantaneus’s pupils Clement and Origen wrote about India as if they knew more of that land than passing myths and in no way confused it with Arabia or Ethiopia. (S. H. Moffett, op.cit., p. 38.)

Pantaneus’s visit to India is historically authentic and there is general agreement among the historians today that he went to South India. The story of Pantaneus’s visit to India is of great importance for an Indian historian. In the first place it tells us that there was in existence at that time a Christian community in South India and that those Christians were fully aware of their Christian responsibility to preach the Gospel to Brahmans and philosophers in India. Further, the finding of a Gospel of Matthew left with the Christians by Bartholomew is very strong evidence to the existence of a Christian community in India in the first century at the time of the visit of St. Bartholomew. It traces the history of the Church in India to the first century. In fact it is an independent confirmation of the Indian church’s ancient and apostolic origin. Secondly the discovery of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew character suggests that the earliest Christians in India were Jewish converts. We have pointed out earlier that the Jewish Christians had a gospel written in Aramaic (Hebrew) known as the Gospel of the Nazarenes as the Jewish Christians were called Nazarenes and this gospel had some relation to the New Testament Matthew. The Jews were all over the Mediterranean world, and in Persia and Arabia even before the destruction of the temple in AD. 70. It seems that the Jews were in India even before the beginning of the first century AD. The Bene-Israel at Kalyan near Bombay traces its beginnings back to the second century BC. (According to Black-Well Dictionary of Judaica (Black-Well, 1992. p. 51), Bene-Israel, the Jewish community in India claim that their ancestors left Galilee because of the persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BC. Stephen Neill says that Bene-Israel at Kalyan near Bombay traces its beginnings back to the period of the second Temple about the time of Christ. G.M. Moraes, an Indian historian is also of the opinion that the Bene-Israel came to India before the destruction of the second Temple.) The arrival of Jews in Cochin might have been little later. It was the apostolic missionary tradition to preach the Gospel first to the Jews. Moreover, it was Judeo-Christianity which came to Asia and in the case of Edessa, and Adiabene, the first converts were Jews. The fact that Pantaneus was a Jewish convert also paints to the possibility that the first Christians in India were Jewish converts. We need to note that according to the Acts of Thomas, the first converts made by Thomas in the kingdom of Gondaphorus in north west India was a Jewish flute girl who knew Hebrew.

Thus the story of Pantaneus’s visit is a strong and independent witness to the fact that the history of the Christian community in India goes back to the first century and the earliest converts were Jews and they were in possession of the Gospel of Nazarenes written in Aramaic, left to them by St. Bartholomew. Just as the Christians in Palestine and Syria were called Nazarenes, the first Christians in India might have been known by that name. (This name is not of later origin as Mundadan suggests. [History of Christianity, p. 174]. Nazarenes or Nazranis was the earliest name applied to Christians.) This community from the very beginning was conscious of its missionary responsibility to the people among whom they lived and late in the second century they secured the services of Pantaneus a famous Alexandrian theologian, for discussion with philosophers and Brahmans in India. The visit of Pantaneus also tells us of the frequent travels of people between India and Alexandria at that time and the mutual awareness of the Alexandrian church and the Indian church of the existence of each other. It also raises the probability of previous contacts between the two churches.

The Indian Church and the Church of the East

When we take into consideration the vigorous trade that was going on between Alexandria and the Indian ports in the first few centuries of the Christian era, it is only reasonable to take seriously the probability of the Indian Christians coming into contact with the Alexandrian church even before the visit of Pantaneus towards the end of the second century. The visit of Pantaneus might have been a consequence of earlier contacts between the two churches. It is also true that the Mesopotamian merchants were in India from a very early date and it is probable that there were Christians among them. L.W. Brown remarks, "it is not unlikely that there would be Persian Christians settling on the Malabar coast for trade throughout the early centuries." (L.W. Brown, op.cit., p.65.) Though small in number, the Christians in India in the first two centuries were not completely an isolated group from fellow Christians in Alexandria or Persia. But we have no evidence of any ecclesiastical relationship which the Indian church entered into with the church in Alexandria, except the visit of Pantaneus. But in the case of the East Syrian (Persian) church, there came into existence some sort of ecclesiastical relationship between it and the Indian church from a very early date, though it is difficult to say when this relationship was established.

We may wonder why the Indian church came to establish a relationship with the Persian church and not with the church in Alexandria. A possible explanation would be that while Alexandria claimed St. Mark as its apostle, both East Syria and India claimed St. Thomas as their apostle. The Indian church claimed St. Thomas as its founder and the East Syrians had a special relationship with St. Thomas as it was he who sent Addai to Edessa and Aggai and Mari who evangelized Persia were the disciples of Addai. Edessa and Persia always unquestionably upheld St. Thomas as the Apostle of India. However, we also need to note here that according to certain traditions existing in India, St. Thomas, on his way to India, embarked at Basra, (William Yong, Handbook of Source Materials for Students of Church History Madras, The Senate of Serampore College and C.L.S, 1969, pp 26-27.) in the Persian Gulf. In all probability, St.Thomas might have preached in Basra and its neighbourhood; and thus they also claimed him as the founder of their church. This would explain the statement of Bar-Hebraeus (Abu’l Faraj) the great Jacobite scholar and writer of the 13th century about a dispute between Catholicos Timothy I (779-823) with the clergy of Fais (Basra) in about AD. 795. Bar-Hebraeus writes:

It is said that down to the time of this Timothy, the bishops of the province of Ears were wearing garments like secular priests, were eating meat, and marrying, and were not under the jurisdiction of the Catholicos of Seleucia. They used to say: "We have been evangelized by the Apostle Thomas, and we have no share with the see of Mad." timothy however, united them and joined them to him. He ordained for them as Metropolitan a man named Shim’un, and he ordered him not to eat meat, nor marry, and wear white garments made only of wool. He further permitted him to confirm bishops whom he would ordain, without coming for such confirmation to the Catholicos. (Ibid. pp. 326-327.)

There is no local tradition or historical evidence connecting Thomas with the Parthian empire proper; but it is very probable that Thomas worked in Basra and its neighbourhood on his way to India and the first contact of the Indian church was with the church in Basra (Fais), the name of Thomas linking them together. The available evidence indicates that this relationship of the Indian church with the church in Basra existed at least from the third century. The Chronicle of Seert, an important East Syrian document of the seventh century, mentions that Dudi (David), bishop of Basra in the Persian Gulf, an eminent doctor, left his See between AD. 295-300 and went to India where he evangelized many people. (Ibid., p. 27.)

Eusebius of Caesarea mentions the presence of a bishop from Persia at the Council of Nicea in AD. 325. In another account he is mentioned as bishop of Fais. In the list of bishops who signed the decrees of the Council as mentioned by Gelasius, there is one, "John the Persian, on behalf of the churches in the whole of Persia and the great India." A.M. Mundadan accepts the Gelasian list as genuine and authentic’. (A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, vol. 1, Bangalore, Theological Publications in India, 1984, p. 79.) The Council of Nicea was called together by emperor Constantine and it was a council of bishops in the Roman Empire. It was very unlikely that a bishop from Persia had attended the Council of Greek bishops, officially representing the whole of Persia and great India. We need to remember that it was only in the Synod of Isaac in AD 410, almost a century later, that the Persian church, with some modifications, accepted the decrees of the Council of Nicea. Moreover, it is very doubtful that the various Christian congregations in Persia became a nation wide community by the time of Nicea so that one bishop could represent the whole of Persia. In all probability the inclusion of ‘John of Persia and Great India’ was a later interpolation to convey the truly ecumenical character of the Nicene Council. However, it shows that when this interpolation was made, the interpolator was aware of the connection between the Indian church and the Persian church (more specifically with the Christians in Fars as Persia was changed to Fars in another document).

When the episcopal hierarchy of the East Syrian Church was fully organized by the beginning of the fifth century (410), the bishopric of Rewardastir was elevated to a metropolitanate and given jurisdiction over relations with India. Rewardastir was strategically located on the direct sea route to India near the head of the Persian gulf on its eastern side and the province included Basra. This arrangement continued till the seventh century when Patriarch Isho-Yahb II(628-643) appointed a metropolitan for India separately. The reason might have been the increase of Christians in India. Mingana mentions that between six and twelve suffragan bishops were also consecrated for India and that the metropolitan of India outranked that of China and that China outranked that of Central Asia. Metropolitans of distant seas such as India, China and Samarkhand were exempted from attending the General Synod of the Church because of the great distance. Instead they had to write a letter to the Patriarch declaring their allegiance to him and informing him of the state of their province.

We get a glimpse of the relationship between the two churches in the Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes (the Indian navigator) which was written about A.D. 547. Cosmas was probably a native of Persia and a Nestorian. His commercial interests carried him into seas and countries far removed from his home. "I myself made voyages of commercial purposes in three of these gulfs -- the Roman, Arabian, and the Persian, while from the natives or from sea-faring men I have obtained accurate information regarding different places", he wrote. His book, Christian Topography is essentially controversial, his purpose being to refute from scripture the pagan cosmography. His arguments are absurd in the extreme. According to him, the figure of the universe can best be learned from a study of the structure and furniture of the Tabernacle which Moses prepared in the wilderness. In dealing with the fulfillment of the prophecy and the expansion of the church throughout the world, he speaks of Christians in Ceylon and India thus:

Even in Taprobane [Ceylon] 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. In the country called Male [Malabar], where the pepper grows, there is also a church, and at another place called Calliana [a place near Bombayl, there is moreover a bishop, who is appointed from Persia. In the island, again, called the island of Dioscorides [Socotora], which is situated in the same Indian sea, and where the inhabitants speak Greek, having been originally colonists sent thither by the Ptolemies who succeeded Alexander the Macedonian, there are clergy who receive their orders in Persia and are sent on to the island, and there is also a multitude of Christians. (J. W. McCrindle (ed), Christian Topography of Cosmas An Egyptian Monk. Burt, Franklin Publisher, 1967, Book III, 64.)

In Book XI, Cosmas specifically speaks of Ceylon thus:

It is a great mart of the people in these 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 heathen. In this island they have many temples. (Ibid., Book XI.)

The account of Cosmas speaks of Christian communities in Ceylon, Malabar, Calliana, and Socotora with bishops appointed from Persia. In the case of Ceylon there was a church of Persian Christians. The account attests to the fact that by the middle of the sixth century the churches in the above places had maintained a connection with the church in Persia, which by this time had become Nestonan and that there were Persian Christians residing in Ceylon and they had a church of their own. Though Cosmas did not mention it, there were Persian Christians residing in India also.

Because of this Persian connection, some historians such as LW. Brown and some other western historians have drawn the wrong conclusion that the Indian church was a daughter church of the Persian church and the early churches of Malabar were connected with colonies of foreign traders. In this connection, the observation made by S.H. Moffett is significant. After noting that by the middle of the sixth century, the Indian church was organized and well established with bishops, clergy and believers, and that it was strongly related to and dependent upon the Persian church, he says:

But two other important facts must be recognized as modifying that general picture. For one thing, it was not a daughter Church of the Persian hierarchy. It already had a long history of its own. Ever since the ancient, third century Acts of Thomas, Persians and Syrians had been unanimous in recognizing the apostolic, independent origins of Indian Christianity. Moreover, however dependent the Indian Church structure later became on the Syrian Persia, the fourth-century report of Theophilus the Indian is evidence that at least two hundred years before Cosmas it had already begun the indispensable process of accommodating Christian practice to Indian ways. (S. H. Moffett, op.cit., p. 269. The visit of Theophilus the Indian will be discussed later.)

Migration of Persian Christians to Kerala

Apart from the ecclesiastical relationship that had been established with the Persian church, there were at least two important waves of immigration of Persian Christians to India, one in the fourth century and the other in the ninth century, which strengthened the already existing communities in India. (Mingana writes, "We do not deny that the persecution of Sapar gave a stimulus to the emigration of more Christians from southern Persia to India; and indeed there is every possibility that such an emigration did actually take place: but we do make that there is also every possibility that a Christian community of comparatively important size existed before that time in India, and it was more the existence of this community that attracted co-religionists from Persia in the time of persecution than the bare sword of Sapar." pp. 439-440.)

Different versions of the traditions about these immigrations exist both in East Syria and India which are of a later origin and are clouded with discrepancies. Yet we might be able to discover in these versions certain historical facts.

The fourth century was a time of severe persecution of Christians in Persia under Shapur II. The first immigration of Christians from Persia to Malabar is believed to have taken place during this period. The tradition speaks of one Thomas of Cana, a Nestorian merchant reached Kodungallur (Cranganore) on the Malabar coast in south west India in A. D. 345, bringing with him a group of about 400 Christian families including deacons, priests and a bishop. The Indian Christians received them with great joy and all proceeded to Cheraman Perumal, the king of Malabar, and were favourably received by him. The king granted the Syrian Christians seventy-two marks of distinction enjoyed by high caste Hindus and they received land at Cranganore to build for them a settlement and a church. In some traditions it is also mentioned that the king invested the Christians with royal honours inscribed on copper plates which were in existence till the 16th century but after that the whereabouts of the plates are not known. (Some suggest that the plates were taken to Portugal by the Portuguese.) But the content of the grant is available in various reports. A report based on a version of the plate kept in the British Museum says:

The king not only gave Thomas [of Cana] this town [Mahadevappatanam] but also ‘seven kinds of musical instruments’ and all the honours, and to travel in a palanquin and that at weddings the women should whistle with the finger in the mouth as do the women of the kings and he conferred on him the duty and privilege of spreading carpets on the ground and to use sandals and to erect a pandal and to ride on elephants. And besides this he granted five taxes to Thomas and his posterity and to his associates both men and women, and for all his relatives and to the followers of his faith for ever. (LW. Brown. op.cit., p. 86.)

The St. Thomas Christians have kept many of their traditional privileges in practice, and the songs sung at weddings recount the Syrian history and the royal grants. The town built by the migrants is supposed to be the Christian quarter of Kodungallur which is called Mahadevapattanam. To this day there is among the Syrian Christians a social distinction which is said to have originated in the settlement between those who intermarried with the Indians and those who did not. Those who intermarried were called Vadakkumbagar (Northists) and those who did not were called Thekkumbagar (Southists). About this C B. Firth comments:

It would be rash to insist upon all the details of the story of Thomas the merchant as history. Nevertheless the main point, -- the settlement in Malabar a considerable colony of Syrians- may well be true; and granted this, it is not unnatural that there should have been a difference of practice among the settlers in the matter of inter-marriage with Indians, leading to a permanent social distinction. (C. B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History. Madras C.L.S. First published in 1961. p. 30. For a detailed discussion of the Northist-Southist division. see Mundadan op.cit., pp. 95-98.)

Though the ecclesiastical relation between the two churches existed at least from the end of third century, the immigration of Persian Christians to Kerala not only strengthened the existing community, but also influenced its liturgical life. AM. Mundadan refers to Jesuit Dionsio as saying that "it was consequent on the arrival of Thomas of Cana that the Christians of Malabar accepted the rites and ceremonies of the Syrian Church." (A.M. Mundadan, op.cit.. p. 106.) This was not a complete acceptance of the Syrian rites and ceremonies. As we shall see later, there was a growth of indigenous traditions in the Indian Church. However, it is most likely that the arrival of the Persian immigrants in the fourth century was the beginning of Syrian influence on the liturgical life and practice of the Indian Church.

The second immigration is dated in the year AD 823 and the tradition claims that the Christian immigrants rebuilt the town of Quilon in AD. 825, from which date the Malayalam era is reckoned. A Syrian account of the 18th century recounts the tradition thus:

In those days and in the days that followed, Syrian Fathers used to come to that town by the order of the Catholicos of the East, and govern the diocese of India and Malabar, because it was from it that the Syrians used to go to other parts until they were dispersed. Then in the year 823. the Syrian Fathers, Mar Sapor and Mar Parut (Peruz) with the illustrious Sabrisho, came to India and reached Kullam. They went to the king Shakirbirti, and asked from him a piece of land in which they could build a Church for themselves and erect a town. lie gave them the amount of the land they desired, and they built a church and erected a town in the district of Kullam, to which Syrian bishops and Metropolitans used to come by the order of the Catholicos who sent them. (Mingana, Early Spread of Christianity p.45.)

The contemporary evidence of this event is available in five copper plates which are still in existence -- three in the Orthodox seminary at Kottayam and two with the Mar Thoma Church at Thiruvalla. These copper plates contain records of grants made to the Christians in Quilon by the king. Among these grants, certain rights are reserved in perpetuity to the Christians in Quilon. Most important of these is the guardianship of steel yard, the weights and the royal stamp. The church is given land let out under certain conditions and also certain families of lower caste are assigned for the maintenance of the church. The Christians have the sole responsibility of administering justice in their territory. The Christians are to enjoy protection from the Venat Militia called six hundred and from the Jewish and Manigrammam leaders. (There is considerable differences of opinion about the identity of Manigrammam. Probably it refers to the indigenous trade guild in Quilon when the immigrants arrived.) In the light of the royal grants, Stephen Neill comments, "The picture which emerges is important. The Christians are clearly a well-established community, accepted and highly respected. The granting of responsibility for the weights and measures is an unusual sign of confidence; it may indicate that the immigrants had a higher level of mathematical and commercial competence than the Indians among whom they had settled." (Stephen Neill, A History of Christianity in India, p.46.)

There are also certain inscriptions and monuments surviving from this period which speak of the connection between the Indian Church and the Persian Church. The monuments consist of five carved stone crosses (known as St. Thomas crosses ), which have been discovered in South India, the first at St. Thomas Mount near Madras and others at Kottayam and some other places in Kerala. They are Persian crosses and are dated 7th or 8th century.

The Extent of Christianity in India Before AD. 1500

The Gospel was first proclaimed in the kingdom of Gundaphorus in north west India and in the neighbouring places and then in Malabar and on the Coromandel coasts. Bartholomew was in Kalyan near Bombay. The first Christians were Jewish converts and later the Gospel was preached to other communities in India. South Indian tradition speaks of Namboothiri Brahmans becoming Christians. There were Persian merchants, probably including Christians among them, residing in the chief commercial centres in India. There were several immigrations of Persian Christians, the two important ones being in the fourth and ninth centuries, to Kerala in south India. According to Mingana, the fifth century opens with an Indian Christianity which was in such a state of development that she was able to send her priests to be educated in the best schools of the East Syrian church, and to assist the doctors of that church in the revision of the ancient Syriac translations of the Pauline epistles. He says, "In a precious Colophon to his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Isshodad writes as follows: This epistle has been translated from Greek into Syriac by Mar Komai, with the help of Daniel the priest, the Indian." (Mingana, Christianity in India. p. 459.)

Cosmas in the sixth century, in his Topography, speaks of Christians in Bombay, Malabar and Ceylon.

And so likewise among the Bactrians and Huns and Persians, and the rest of the Indians, and among Persarmenians and Greeks and Elamites, and throughout the whole land of Persia, there is an infinite number of Churches with bishops, and a vast multitude of Christian people, and they have many martyrs and recluses leading a monastic life. So also in Ethiopia, and in Axum, and in all the country round about, among the Happy Arabians who are nowadays called Homeritae, and all through Arabia. (I.W. McCrindle, op.cit.. pp. 118-121; Mingana, Ibid., p. 462.)

Mingana points out that Cosmas’ text is important not only as regards the existence of Christian communities in Bombay, Malabar and Ceylon, but also and ‘especially by the addition of the significant sentence: among the rest of the Indians.’ (Mingana, Ibid., p. 462.) According to Mingana the statement of Cosmas "proves the existence of numerous Christian communities among many Central Asian people and in India." (Mingana, ibid., p. 462.) By the time of Cosmas, Christianity seems to have been widespread not only in Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia and Central Asia, but also in India. In India it was not confined to North West India, or Malabar or Coromandal coast. When Cosmas wrote, ‘the rest of the Indians,’ there is no doubt that he was aware of the vast extent of the country. By this time the East Asian writers were familiar with the geography of India. In the seventh century, when the Nestorian Patriarch Isho-Yahb III (650-660) wrote to Simemon, the Metropolitan of Riwardashir, admonishing him for "closing the door of the episcopal ordination in the face of the many peoples of India", he speaks of India as a country ‘that extends from the borders of the Persian Empire, to the country which is called Kalah, which is a distance of one thousand and two hundred parasangas.’ (Ibid., p. 464.) Referring to the above correspondence between the Patriarch and the Metropolitan, Mingana observes that we can infer from the correspondence that "there was a considerable number of bishops and priests in India, whose sees and parishes were apparently scattered in the vast country to the distance of one thousand and two hundred parasangas." (Ibid., p. 465.)

According to John Stewart there were strong Christian communities all over the continent. Mingana gives a list of no less than thirty six bishoprics, some of them metropolitan sees either on the routes to or in the proximity of India including Afghanistan and Baluchistan. (Ibid., pp. 489-90.) Stewart observes that, "with so many centres of influence it would have been strange if Christian merchants and missionaries from those different centres had not penetrated the passes leading into India from the north and northwest, bringing their faith with them." (John Stewart, op.cit., p.85.) According to him there is a solid ground for believing that a fairly large Christian community existed in north India also from very early times. "The majority of these were undoubtedly Indians by blood and ancestry who had embraced the new faith for its own sake, as proselytes of Christian missionaries from Persia and Mesopotamia." (Ibid., p. 86.) Stewart writes:

Whether their beginnings were due to the teachings of Thomas as tradition strongly asserts, or some one else whose name is unknown, it can be asserted that the missionary activity of the Nestorian merchants, artisans and clergy in the subsequent centuries must have contributed considerably to their development and growth. The fact stated by Prof. Herzfeld in a recent lecture that ‘the whole of north west India was a vast province of the Persian Empire in the third century governed by Persian officials’ must also have been a contributing factor in the spread of Christianity in these regions. (Ibid., p. 86.)

Stewart further points out that if the Persian refugees during the persecutions under Sapor II in the 4th century and Yezdegard and Bharan V in the 5th century and bands of earnest missionaries from the monastery of Beth-Abhe and other centres carried the Gospel to other provinces of the Persian Empire, it is inconceivable that the province of India would be left untouched. Assemani, Osorius and Jarricus who -- wrote a century after Cosmas speak of numerous Nestorian communities in the regions along the river Ganges and also in central and eastern India. (Bulletin of the John Rylands Library vol. 2, p. 486. See also John Stewart, op.cit.. p. 89.)

We do not have detailed and in some cases reliable accounts of the various Christian communities in India. Yet the available evidences indicate that there were Christian communities scattered throughout the country in the early period. It will be a great mistake to think that Christianity in the early period was only found in south India. Some of these Christian communities continued to exist in North India in the medieval period. John Stewart points out that in Wiltsch’s Geography and Statistics of the Church, Patna is mentioned as a seat of a metropolitan in AD. 1222. Marco Polo who visited India at the end of the 13th century states that there were in Central India, six great kings and kingdoms, and three of these were Christians and three Saracens. (Yule, Book of Ser Marco Polo [revised by Cordier], vol. ii, p.427.) According to Polo, St. Thomas preached in this region and, after he had converted the people, went to the province of Malabar. John Stewart says that Abder-Razzak, who visited India in AD 1442, mentioned that the Vizier of Vijayanagar in Deccan was a Christian, his name being Nimeh-Pezier. (John Stewart, op.cit., p. 192.) Nicolo Conti, a Venetian Merchant from Italy who visited India in the 15th century wrote that he visited Mylapore where he found thousand Nestorians and these Nestorians are "scattered all over India as the Jews among them." (Medlycolt. op.cit., p. 95.)

It is very difficult to verify the truth of the above statements coming from various sources. It is also difficult to get a clear and precise state of Christianity in India up to AD. 1500. However, all these pieces of information from various sources, though very scanty, point to the fact that there were scattered communities of St. Thomas Christians (Nestorians as they were referred to in some of the documents) in different parts of the continent. Marco Polo speaks of St. Thomas preaching in Central India, a tradition which might have existed in Central India at the time of his visit.

Church historians are in general agreement that there was a concentration of Christians in South India. Speaking-of the diffusion of Christianity in medieval India, E.R. Hambye, a Roman Catholic historian writes:

The majority of its faithful was concentrated in Kerala, more precisely between Cranganore in the north and Quilon in the south. Syrian Christian communities were also found scattered along the west coast, in Goa, Saimur (Chaul), Thana, Sopara, Gujerat and Sind. The east coast of Mylapore had also such a Christian community close to the St. Thomas’ shrine. It should also be noted that scores of stones marked with a cross have been found on the southern slopes of Nilgiris. This relatively wide, though sparse, diffusion extended up to Kashmir where near Tenkse, on the eastern side of Leh, rock inscriptions still bear witness today to a settlement of Syrian Christians, which existed there around AD. 800. (H. C. Perumalil & E. R. Hambye (ed), Christianity in India, Prakasam Publications. Alleppey, 1972. p. 32.)

St. Thomas Christians and Missionary Activities

How did the Gospel spread in India? The early stages of the growth of Christianity in India did not seem to be spectacular. Yet we know that in the medieval period, Christianity was diffused throughout the country. There are a number of instances where the East Syrian missionaries came to India for evangelistic purposes. David, Bishop of Basra left his see in AD 295-300 to go to India where he evangelized many people. According to John Stewart the spread of the Gospel in north India was due greatly to the efforts of the missionary activities of Nestorian merchants, artisans, clergy and the monks of the Beth-Abe from Persia. There is no doubt that at least from the beginning of the fourth century, the Persian church had a missionary relationship with India. However, the Persian missionaries were not the only people who spread the Gospel in India.

Several western and some Indian writers have stated that the Indian church had no missionary zeal and it was only later through the contact with European missionaries that evangelistic spirit was awakened in the church. Stephen Neill writes, "There is no clear evidence of attempts by the Indian Christian community to propogate its faith in the non-Christian society in the midst of which it had its existence." (Stephen Neill, A History of Christianity in India (1984), p. 47.) According to L.W. Brown,

The result of the honourable place given by the rajas to the Christians, and of their assimilation in social custom to their Hindu neighbours, was that they were accepted as a caste, and often thought of their community in this way. They ranked after the Brabmans and as equals of the Nayars. Many Christians would claim that there was Brahman convert blood in the community and that for this reason they were superior to Nayars.

It was in consequence of this position that the St. Thomas Christians. so far as our evidence goes, never attempted to bring their non-Christian neighbours to a knowledge of Christ, and so into the Christian church. The Portuguese Archbishop Menzes did his best to create a sense of evangelistic responsibility among the Indian Christians by preaching to the Hindus whenever he could, and the eighteenth-century Carmelites had a number of baptisms from the heathen every year, so much so that they had to defend their actions before the Raja of Travancore, but the Indian Church itself was not (L. W. Brown, op.cit., p. 173.) aroused to share this work.

George Moracs, an Indian historian, after pointing out that St. Thomas Christians became a closed corporation, like the fire temp1es of our times in Bombay, where there is no admission except for Parsis, says:

The result was that the Christians had only added one more caste to the multiplicity of the Indian caste system. It is because Christianity became a caste that it could offer no challenge to the Hindu mind, which would have otherwise tried to steal its thunder by first trying to understand its principles and then incorporate them into itself. (George M. Moraes, A History of Christianity in India from Early times to St. Francis Xavier: AD. 52-152. Bombay, 1964, p. 293. [see also Mundadan op.cit.. p. 496.])

Did the St. Thomas Christian community become a caste among the other castes and thus had no encounter with Indian society and culture? Was it true that St. Thomas Christians had no sense of responsibility of Christian witness ? The conclusions of Stephen Neill, L.W. Brown and George Moraes are sweeping generalizations and cannot be accepted as such. The Portuguese sources coming from the 16th century speak of Thomas Christians practicing ‘untouchability’ like caste Hindus. This might be true but it did not mean that the St. Thomas Christian community from the very beginning was a caste community and had not felt any missionary responsibility till the coming of the Portuguese. The majority of the St. Thomas Christians before the 16th century were found in Kerala and in all likelihood they were mostly Dravidians who had not yet developed the rigid caste structure which came to exist in South India in the medieval period. Though Aryans began to come to South India even before the Christian era, Aryanization of the south was a slow process. Before the thirteenth century there was much social mobility.

The St. Thomas Christian community was conscious of its missionary responsibility from an early date and they did not wait for the Portuguese Archbishop Menzes to teach them their evangelistic responsibility. In the second century they invited Pantaneus from Alexandria to preach the Gospel to Hindu philosophers and scholars. The Nestorian church with which the Indian church established ecclesiastical relationships since the fourth century was a great missionary church. It was a church on fire with great missionary zeal. One can only expect that the Indian church has caught something of the missionary spirit of the church. About the evangelistic efforts of the Indian church, E.R. Hambye observes:

For centuries, the Thomas Christians expanded, thanks to their zeal, though inspired also by the apostolic spirit of their East Syrian brethren. We know that some monks from India went to the Far East, if not to China and central Asia. Thomas Christians during the 10th-11th centuries tried to spread their faith in the Maladive Islands, and as late as the 15th century, Nairs in Kerala were joining their ranks.

There even existed among those Christians four prominent families of very ancient origin, whose own duty was to foster the integration of new members into the community. (H. C. Perumalil and E. R. Hambye, [ed] op.cit., p.37.)

H. Hosten mentions that in AD. 780 a ‘Nestorian missionary from India received an award from the Chinese superior. (Ibid., p. 321.)

Because St. Thomas Christians were socially integrated with the Indian society, one important way the Christian influence was exerted might have been through their daily social intercourse with caste Hindus. Several scholars of History of Religions have pointed out the probability of a significant missionary encounter that took place between Hinduism and Christianity in the early centuries of the medieval period. One important development in Hinduism in South India from the 7th century onwards was the development of the Bhakti Movement (theistic movement characterized by ecstatic piety) especially in Vaishnavism and Saivism.

George A. Grierson mentions the possibility of a Christian encounter with Hindu Bhakti tradition in North India in the sixth century. In his article on ‘Bhakti Marga,’ in Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he mentions that "in the year AD 639 the famous Indian king Siladitya of Kanauj, a patron of the Bhagavatas, received a party of Syrian Christians, headed by the missionary Alopen, at his court." Grierson is very emphatic about Christian Influence on Bhakti tradition in South India in the medieval period.

It was in south India that Christianity as a doctrine, exercised the greatest influence on Hinduism generally. Although the conceptions of the fatherhood of God and of bhakti were indigenous to India, they received an immense impetus owing to the belief of Christian communities reacting upon the medieval Bhagavata reformers of the South. With this leven their teaching swept over Hinduism, bringing balm and healing to a nation gasping in its death throes under the horrors of an alien invasion. It is not over stating the case to say that in this reformation India rediscovered faith and love; and the fact of this discovery accounts for the passionate enthusiasm of the contemporary religious writings. (George Grierson in James Hastings’ (ed), Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Edinburgh, T&T Clark, l909, pp. 539-551.)

Grierson sees some influence of Islam (Sufism) also in Bhakti revival. Bhakti doctrine is pre-Christian in origin and not a product of Christian influence. But its development in South India in the early middle ages was qualitatively different from the Bhakti of earlier Hindu tradition. The chief emphasis of the new movement is on a relationship with a God who is personal, full of love and grace for his creation, and on the grace of God as the means of salvation. Salvation is achieved through Bhakti and Bhakti leads to union with the divine. But this unity is not to be conceived as an onthological unity in which all distinctions between the soul and the deity are done away. The new movement is often spoken of as a religion of Grace.

The two chief theologians of the movement were Ramanuja (11th century) and Madhva (13th century). There is no doubt that there is a close resemblance between Christianity and the new movement in Hinduism. Some, like Grierson, have seen Christian influence in this development, while others have not. For example, speaking of development of Bhakti in Saivism in Tamil Nadu, Stephen Neill says, "The sober verdict of historical judgement must be that any such Christian influence in Tamil literature is unlikely." (Stephen Neil. op.cit., p. 62.) However, there is much in the teaching of Madhva which is very similar to Christian teaching, so that a western historian of Indian culture, A.L. Basham observes, "The resemblance of Madhva’s system to Christianity is so striking that influence, perhaps, through the Syrian churches of Malabar, is almost certain." (A. L. Basham, The Wonder That was India, p. 333.) If this new development in Hinduism was influenced by Christianity then it shows that the Christian impact was being felt in Indian society through the witness of Indian Christians long before the arrival of western missionaries. In the missionary encounter, Christian witness cannot be measured only in terms of the number of converts made. A similar encounter took place between Christianity and Hinduism in the 19th century. Though it also did not result in many conversions of caste Hindus, it partly resulted in encouraging new religious and social movements within Hinduism itself.

The inherent missionary dynamism of the St. Thomas Christian community seemed to have diminished by the end of the 15th century due to several reasons. After the 13th century, south Indian social life was marked by a rigid caste system. Because of the social integration of St. Thomas Christians with the upper social group, caste consciousness also crept into the church. That might be the reason that the Portuguese sources coming from the 16th century speak of the St. Thomas Christians practicing ‘untouchability’ like the caste Hindus. It was this which prevented them from undertaking any missionary work among the ‘depressed classes’. But the more important reason for the diminishing of missionary dynamism was the coming of the Muslims into political power. In the territories under Muslim rule, conversion became difficult. Moreover, Hinduism under Muslim rule became self-defensive in the late Middle Ages, the consequence of which was that Hindu rulers prevented the conversion of Hindus to any other religion. Thomas Christians who were living in the territories of these Hindu rulers had to respect the wishes of these rulers. Even the Roman Catholic missionaries, with Portuguese political power behind them, had to confine themselves to work among the low caste people in Cochin and Travancore area. About this A. Meersman writes:

When the Portuguese first arrived in Cochin, its king welcomed them. With their aid he hoped at least to neutralize the preponderance of Calicut in Malabar affairs and enrich his kingdom through trade. However, as far as the spreading of the Gospel in his realm was concerned, he was not enthusiastic and he forbade the missionaries to approach the members of certain castes for the sake of conversion. They were permitted to seek catechuments from other castes or sections of the population, which they did. (A. Meersman, ‘Development of the Church under Padroado’, H. C. Perumalil and Hambye (ed), Christianity in India. p. 69.)

Moreover, due to the interference of the Portuguese missionaries in the life of the church, St. Thomas Christians were involved in internal dissentions and attempts at self-preservation. All these factors contributed to a loss of missionary dynamism in the church from the end of the 15th century to the middle of the 19th century. In the second half of the 19th century, their missionary zeal was again awakened by the contact with western missionaries and this time they also evangelized the depressed classes. (The statement of L. W. Brown that Archbishop Menzes tried to encourage a spirit of missionary responsibility among the Syrians to which they did not respond, is rather misleading. It was difficult even for western missionaries to evangelize the caste Hindus in the 16th century.)

Social Life of the Christian Community During the Early Period

The Gospel was first preached to the Jews and then to the Hindus. At first, the Jewish Christians might have been very small in number; but as time went on, the majority of the Christians were Hindu converts. The Indian tradition speaks of Christian converts from high caste Hindus. They continued the social organization and life they lived before conversion and thus there was no social dislocation between the Christians and the Hindu community. Christians shared with the Hindus very many of the social customs and practices. There were instances of intermarriage between Christians and the Nairs in Kerala. The coming of Christian immigrants from Persia did not seriously affect the social life of the Indian Christians, as the immigrants (except the Thomas of Cana group) intermarried with the Indians. From the very beginning, the Indian Christians were an indigenous community, having social and community life with the Indians. (It was not a question of adaptation as Mundadan suggests, but not rejecting the social milieu in which the Christian converts were born. They were not the product of foreign missionary enterprise. A. M. Mundadan, op.cit., vol.i, p. 154.)

Some trial excavations were done in Cranganore in AD 1945-46, though much more has yet to be done. From the result of those excavations, Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg conclude "From such scant remains, it is clear that religious harmony was the rule of the land." (Nathan and Ellen Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin, Columbia, University of South Carolina, 1993, p. 53.) There were Christian communities to either side of the palace, one the ‘Vadakkumbhagam’, or ‘Northists,’ and the other the ‘Thekkumbhagam,’ or ‘Southists’. Both claimed Jewish ancestory. (Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg, The last Jews of Cochin, Columbia, University of South Carolina, 1993, p. 53.)

The religious harmony and toleration that existed in South India was remarkable till the Middle Ages. The Church in north Parur near Cranganore is called Kottakavu which was built in 1308 on the site of another old church which was originally a temple converted into a church. It is said to be the site where St. Thomas converted several Nambudiri Brahmins. There is a Hindu temple just across the lane and to this day Christian processions make their first stop at that temple to pay respect to Hindus, and Hindu processions make a similar stop at the church. This interreligious aspect of procession rituals in South India is not confined to North Parur. (Achan P. Anujan, "A Trial Excavation at Cranganur", Bulletin of Rama Varma Research Institute, 13 [July 1946] pp. 40-42 quoted by Katz and Goldberg. Ibid.. p. 53.) Susan Bayly in her study of Christians and Muslims in South India also speaks of the inter religious co-operation and harmony that existed in South India.

In many parts of Malabar, Nayars accepted Syrians as participants and donors in local temple rites and took part in turn in Syrian church festivals. The acknowledgement of the Syrians’ right to share Hindu sacred space’ was expressed in some centres by the construction of Syrian churches on sites virtually adjoining Hindu temples... Christians used Hindu-style torches, umbrellas and banners in their Cattam festivals, and in some localities actually had a single collection of processional regalia which was shared between both Church and Hindu temple. At least one Hindu temple regularly lent Out its temple elephants to Syrian worshippers for use in their festival processions. (Susan Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings. Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society 1700-1900. Cambridge University Press. 1989, p. 253. see also Katz and Goldberg, op.cit., p. 54)

From the grants given by the local Rajas to the immigrant Christians, we can infer that the Christians had a position of privilege in society and shared certain honorific titles (most of which they shared with the Nayars) such as Tharakan, Muthalali, Menon and Panickar. The commonest name of the Christians was Nasrani Mappila. L.W. Brown observes:

The Christians shared many other things beside names with the Nayars. They occasionally took wives from the community, and their children often went to school with Nayar children. They joined in many of the ordinary celebrations of the country such as Onam and Vishu or New Year’s Day. (L. W. Brown, op.cit.. p. 171.)

Christians observed many of the ceremonies connected with birth, adolescence and marriage and death like Hindus. In their day to day life the Christians differed very little from the higher castes of the Hindu society.

According to Monserrate:

In their dress they do not much differ from the nairs except for this that they do not cut their hair around the head as the nairs do, but grow it fully and tie up and arrange it in such manner that it is very beautiful and serves for a hat or a cap. The old people, however, shave their heads and use hats. Another matter in which the men differed from the nairs was that when they come to battlefield, they do not smear their heads nor do they paint their bodies with the ashes of cow-dung blessed by the cursed, the yogis or the Hindu priests, which the nairs make very much of. (Quoted in A. M. Mundadan, op.cit., vol.1. p.158.)

Monserrate says that the Christian women were much more modestly dressed than the Nayar women. On the streets and when they went to Church, they covered themselves with some white cloth which made them look very modest.

St. Thomas Christians were employed in agriculture and trade and military service. From the Portuguese sources we gather that the Christians were predominantly agriculturists and pepper-growing was their sole monopoly. The St. Thomas Christians were also engaged in trade. But by the 16th century, they had lost most of their trade to the Muslims who controlled the main trade between the countries of west Asia and the East. But still some Christians were engaged in overseas trade. Vasco da Gama, on his first voyage to India is reported to have met on the East African coast some ships of the Christians of Malabar. (Ibid., p. 156.) Just like the Nayars, St. Thomas Christians were good soldiers and the local rulers highly valued their service in the army.

The Christians in South India lived under many local rulers, chief among them being the Cochin Raja. There is a tradition of a Christian king of the Villar Vattam family as the temporal ruler of St. Thomas Christians. When the family ceased to exist, the Christians came under the protection of the king of Cochin.

Ecclesiastical Life of St. Thomas Christians

The growth of the ecclesiastical organization -- the clerical order as well as other institutional structures and practices of the church was a slow process in the early period of Christian history. To begin with, the Christian church did not uphold a particular form of structure, ministry and liturgy. We do not find any one particular ecclesiology and ministry developed in the New Testament. Jesus did not teach any model of the church or ministry to be followed by those who believed in Him. St. Paul used a number of different metaphors and images to denote the Christian community life. The primary responsibility of the apostles was to be evangelists and missionaries, travelling through the countries and not to govern a community. They lived as those who expected the end of the world in their own life time. Therefore, the setting up of a permanent and uniform pattern of ministry or church structure would hardly have seemed a high priority for them. As the church approached the second century, there was no uniform development in structure, theology and practice among different Christian groups. This was true with regard to Christian ministry also. The Christians have often tended to read back into the past the later development that took place in the church. According to the first Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, a permanent constitution of the church had been conferred upon it by the Lord Himself. (T. V. Philip, Ecumenism in Asia, ISPCK & CSS, 1994, pp. 73-74.) In the case of the Persian Church there is little evidence to show that there were bishops much before AD 300. (S. H. Moffett, op.cit.. p.118.) The Christian congregations there, to begin with, were independent of one another and only in the fifth century a national ecclesiastical body was established.

Because of the lack of documentary evidence, it is very difficult to speak about the ecclesiastical organization of the St. Thomas Christian community in the first few centuries. What we know of the community came from a later period, some from the writings of the Portuguese as they saw them in the 16th century.

Where did the earliest Christians meet for worship? Did they meet in Christian homes; or as the first Christians were converts from Judaism, did they organize themselves into synagogues led by elders? We do not know for sure when the threefold ministry of bishop, presbyters and deacons came to be accepted in India. There was a Persian bishop among the immigrants who came with Thomas of Cana in AD 345. It is probable that this immigration of a large number of Christians. from Persia was the beginning of East Syrian influence on the ecclesiastical and liturgical life of the church in India. Was it also the beginning of the threefold ministry in the Indian church? In the fifth century when the Indian church came under the jurisdiction of the metropolitan of Riwardashir, were there bishops stationed in India? Where there any Indians among them? When, in the seventh century a metropolitan was appointed for India, was he an Indian and where was he placed? According to Mingana, with the appointment of a metropolitan, between six and twelve suffragan bishops were also consecrated for India. "We infer that there was a considerable number of bishops and priests in India, whose sees and parishes were apparently scattered in that vast country to the distance of one thousand and two hundred parsangas." (Mingana, op cit., p. 464) Were there some Indians among these bishops and priests? In the absence of adequate answers to such questions, it is difficult to accept the statement of A.M. Mundadan that " tradition is unanimous in asserting that the prelates of St. Thomas Christians came from Babylon (Persia) for many centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese in India." (Mundadan, op.cit.. p. 174.)

While the arrival of immigrants was the beginning of Persian influence on the life of the Indian Church, it was not a wholesale acceptance of Persian traditions. From the very beginning, the church was taking roots in India and there was the growth of indigenous traditions, practices and leadership. Western church historians mention that Emperor Constantine sent a Christian embassy in AD 354 to certain countries bordering the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea under the leadership of an Asian Christian Theophilus, the Indian, who appears to have been a native of Maladive Islands. During this journey, he visited India also where, it is reported, he "reformed many things which were not rightly done among them; for they heard the reading of the Gospel in a sitting posture, and did other things which were repugnant to the divine law; and having reformed everything according to holy usage, as was not acceptable to God, he also confirmed the dogma of the Church." (Mingana, Early Spread of Christianity in India. pp. 26-28. A.E. Medlycott points out that the value of the report of Theophilus is its evidence that by the middle of the fourth century India or its adjacent territories had indigenous, worshipping congregations ministered to by local clergy, with customs such as sitting for the Gospel, that were well adapted to the Indian culture though divergent from accepted western practice. (A. E. Medlycott, India and the Apostle Thomas (1905). pp. 188-202.) Both in western and Syrian traditions, the congregation stood for the reading of the Gospel during the Eucharist. He writes "if there be any doubt as to whether the congregation be indigenous or foreign, such doubts ought to be set aside by the peculiar customs found among them." In the Didascalia Apostolorum. (Margaret Dunlop Gibson [tra], The Didascalia Apostolorum in English. London: C. J. Cloy & Sons, 1903, p.19.) of the Syrian Church, it is said "The Apostles have also decreed that at the end of all the scriptures, the Gospel shall be read as the seal of all the scriptures, the people rising to their feet to hear it; because it is the salvation of all men." It is important to note Medlycott’s observation that Lie worshipping congregation at this time were ministered to by local clergy. It seems very unlikely that there were no Indian bishops among the clergy by this time. All this shows that the Indian Church was not simply a copy of the Syrian or Persian church and that there was the growth of air independent indigenous Christian tradition in India.

In the controversy between the clergy of Fars and Timothy I in the 8th century, we have seen that the bishops of the province of Fars, contrary to the practice in the rest of Persia, were wearing white garments like secular priests, were eating meat and marrying. Was the Indian Church following the practice in Fars when it was under the jurisdiction of Riwardashir from the 5th to the 7th century? However, as time went on the Persian influence was felt more and more in matters of ministry and liturgical practices. In addition to the three fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, there also came Choreepiscopas and archdeacons. Mundadan writes "It is beyond any doubt that from very early times the St. Thomas Christians had an arch deacon to serve their church and community. The documents which are available today, though not many, are clear about it." (Mundadan. op.cit., p. 180.) This office was received from the East Syrian Church and there is a tradition that the first archdeacon in India was from the family of Pakolomattam. He was the chief assistant to the bishop in the administration of the diocese.

There were monks and monasteries in India. It is very difficult to say when exactly the monastic tradition came into existence in the Indian church. Did the Hindu and the Buddhist ascetic and monastic traditions influence Indian Christianity? If so, monastic tradition began to develop in the Indian church much earlier than the Persian connection in the fourth century. We have noted earlier that even the asceticism in Persia was affected by Indian ascetic tradition. If it were a borrowing from the Persian church, it began to develop only after the 4th century. In a passage in Jerome (late 4th century or early 5th) he tells that he was visited in Palestine every day by monks from India, Persia and Ethiopia. Mingana could not think of daily crowds of monks from India visiting Jerome and he interprets India to mean South Arabia. It is surprising that wherever India is mentioned, Mingana sees it referring to some other place and we can hardly accept his views in this matter. We have seen that monasteries were a great missionary and educational instrument in the life of the Persian church and wherever the Persian influence spread, the monasteries sprang up. This was so in China and in Arabia, and Mingana points Out that in the fourth century "the way to India was not only strewn with bishoprics, but also with monasteries." (Mingana, op.cit.. p. 438.) Naturally, one could expect a rapid development of the monastic movement in India after the Persian connection. Monks from Persia also used to come to India. In one of his letters Patriarch Timothy (9th c) mentions that "many monks voyage to India and China with only a stick and a purse." (See Mundadan, op.cit,., p. 101.)

Mingana mentions the biography of hermit Yonan, the archimandrite of the Monastery of St. Thomas in India written by the end of the fourth century. The monastery was situated on the borders of an island called ‘the black Island’, south of the coast of Baith Katraye. The island was in the vicinity of a town called ‘Milon’, the inhabitants of which fished for pearls. Mingana comments "The existence in about AD 390 in the shores of the Arabian sea of a monastery under the name of Thomas is highly interesting, and constitutes the weightiest proof of all those which have so far been addressed to bolster up the historicity of the mission of Thomas. Interesting also in the story is the narrative dealing with the inner life of the two hundred monks of the monastery in that far off period. Some of the proper names of the monks of the monastery imply a country like Baith Katraye, because they have an undoubted Arabian origin." (Mingana, op.cit., p. 307.) There is considerable difference of opinion about the location of the island. Some have identified the ‘black island’ with Ceylon, some others locate it on the Coromandel coast. while Mingana thinks that the island is on the Arabian side of the Persian gulf and is between Oman and Baharin. However, Mingana admits that the tradition about the existence of a monastery of St. Thomas in India, is very old. Mingana himself asks: Would it be possible to assume that there were, in the fourth century two monasteries of St. Thomas, one on the coast of Oman, and the other on the Coromandel coast? Gregory of Tours who died in AD 594 speaks of a monastery of St. Thomas in India. In AD 883, King Alfred of England sent to the Pope the alms which the king had vowed to send to Rome and also to India to St. Thomas and Bartholomew. (Ibid. p. 307.) As in other instances, in this case also Mingana says that the mention of Bartholomew renders almost certain that King Alfred’s India was not India at all, but south Arabia and Abyssinia. On the contrary, we have pointed out earlier that St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew were missionaries to India and that it confirms that King Alfred’s India was our India and a monastery of St. Thomas existed in India from ancient times. The existence of a St. Thomas shrine and church is also attested by medieval visitors to India, such as Marco Polo (1223), John of Monte Corvino (1293), Friar Odoric (1325). John de Marignolli (1349) and Nicolo Conti (1440). Early in the 16th century, writing to the Patriarch, three Nestorian bishops in India mention in their letters a monastery of St. Thomas. They wrote "As to the monastery of St. Thomas the Apostle, some Christian men have gone into it, have inhabited it, and are now busy restoring it; it is distant about twenty-five days from the above mentioned Christians; it is on the shores of the sea in a town called Mailapore, in the country of Silan, one of the Indian countries. (Mingana, op.cit., p.471.)

With a very close relationship established between the Indian Church and the East Syrian Church from the fourth century onwards, East Syrian influence was strongly felt in the liturgical practice. It was as a result of this relationship that in due course of time, Syriac came to be used as the liturgical language. Also St. Thomas Christians came to be referred to as Syrian Christians. It is very puzzling for the historian that the Nestorian missionaries who were eager to create alphabets for Central Asian people and who helped the growth of indigenous theology among the Chinese Christians did not encourage translation of the Bible into Arabic or the Syriac liturgy into the language of the people in India. It is not very easy to find an adequate answer to this problem.

Mingana mentions that the Indian Church never had a definite ecclesiastical language except Syriac till the arrival of western missionaries. He says "The fact proves first of all, that not one of the scores of dialects spoken by India in the first century has been found fit to be raised to the dignity of a sacred language in which the message of the Gospel could be expressed with dignity and aptitude; it proves also that the Indian Christians were satisfied for the upkeep of their spiritual life with the use of a language which their esteemed migrants had made familiar to them." (Mingana, op.cit., p. 295.) Mingana’s suggestion that any of the Indian languages was not fit to convey the Christian gospel is made out of his ignorance of the Indian languages. Moreover, Christianity in India before the 16th century was very widespread and our knowledge of different Christian groups is very scanty. It is very difficult to say that the worship of the Christians was not held in their native tongues. But as we have noted earlier, from the fourth century onwards the Persian influence was felt more and more in the liturgical life of St. Thomas Christians.

The East Syrians had a love for Aramaic or Syriac. Aramaic was the language spoken in Palestine around the first century, and the Jews wrote it in Hebrew characters. The Assyrians wrote it in cuneiform, from which developed the Kharishti script of India and the Pehlavi script of Iran. According to Arthur Christensen, Aramaic was the lingua franca from eastern Persia to western India until the seventh century. "Aramaic with a christianized vocabulary is known as Syriac. (See Katz and Goldberg, op.cit., pp. 301-302.) Their love for Syriac was not because of nationalism or cultural insensitivity to other cultures. If it were because of nationalism, the Persian Christians would have insisted on the use of Persian or Pehlavi. In China, at the request of the Nestorian Christians the Chinese government in AD 745 changed their name Persian to Syrian religion. No official reason was given except that "the Persian scriptural religion began in Syria." For the Nestorian Christians, Syrian Christianity meant one which is nearer to the source of Christianity. Jesus Christ spoke and taught in Aramaic. The Nestorian Christians had a special love for the Syriac (Aramaic) because it was the language of Jesus Christ and Syrian Christianity meant original Christianity. Among the Jews there was a prejudice against committing the Scriptures to writing in any other than the sacred tongue. The day on which the Old Testament was translated into Greek was said to be as evil as that on which the golden calf was made. The early Syrian Christians, being converts from Jews, might also have had a similar love for Aramaic (Syriac). This could also be said of the St. Thomas Christians in India. Moreover, Syriac was not an unknown language in India in the early centuries. As has been stated, Aramaic was the lingua franca for eastern Persia to western India till the seventh century. Katz and Goldberg point out that according to Cochin Jewish tradition, the Jews in Cranganore spoke Aramaic. (Ibid., p. 302.)

Christian Theology in India

We know very little about the theology in the Indian Church during the early period. As to the times of Nestorian contact, Robin Boyd writes "We shall leave aside the question of the theology of the Indian Church in Nestorian times, as no recordings are available, noting merely that there is still a small Nestorian church in South India and that India has never ceased to be conscious of the ancient Nestorian associations." (R. H. S. Boyd, An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology Madras, CLS, 1969, p. 9.) Whatever records were available were destroyed by the Roman Catholic missionaries during the Portuguese period. About this Mundadan says:

Today there is no written pre-16th century record of the doctrinal theological position of St. Thomas Christians prior to their contact with the West in the 16th century. Even those books which the Portuguese writers of the 16th century examined and used for drawing their conclusions are not available today. Since the Portuguese suspected the presence of errors in the books, they all became casualties in the auto-da-fe programme launched by the Portuguese padroado authorities at the close of the 16th century and later. This leaves us without sufficient data to verify whether the Indian Christians had evolved a theology of their own. Recourse then has to be made to other sources of information, namely, ‘ the life, experience and tradition’, to form some idea of the pre-16th century views on Christianity in India. In other words, we have to find out what theology is reflected in the general outlook and religious mentality of the community, in their life, customs and traditions. (A. M. Mundadan, op.cit., pp. 492-93.)

According to Antony Mookenthottam, it is probable that the ancient church in India had developed some theology of its own and this theology is not written down in books but it is implicit in the life, experience and traditions of the community. (Ibid., p. 492.) Though no written records are available, yet, we might be able to infer something of the theological thinking in the Indian Church from other sources and circumstantial evidences.

The first Christian converts in India were Jews and it was with the Jewish Christian community in East Syria that the Indian church entered into an ecclesiastical relationship in the subsequent period. So it is not wrong for us to assume that the church in India in the first few centuries shared in the general characteristics of Judeo-Christianity. The first Gospel they possessed was the Gospel of the Nazarenes believed to have been brought to India by St. Bartholomew. The language of Judeo Christians in Jerusalem was Aramaic (Syriac) and wherever Judeo Christianity spread, Syriac had a permanent place in the liturgy of the church.

The Indian church because of its ecclesiastical relationship with the East Syrian church was also influenced by the theology of that church. Ephrem and Aphrahat were great theologians of that church in the fifth century. From the fifth century onwards, the writings of the Antiochene theologians, especially that of Theodore of Mopsuestia (392-428) became the chief resources for the study of theology in the East Syrian church. Narsai, the great teacher of Nisibis was a follower of Theodore. Theodore, for the East Syrian church, was the doctor of doctors and the great exegete and interpreter of the Bible, whose sober and literal interpretation was always the Nestorian model. The works of Antiochene theologians were translated into Syriac. It is only logical for us to infer that the theological thinking in the East Syriac church, namely of Ephrem and Aphrahat and later Theodore of Mopsuestia, had some influence on the Indian church. After noting that the epistle to the Romans was translated from Greek into Syriac by Mar Komai with the help of Daniel the priest, the Indian, Mingana says:

This union of the Church of India with that of Mesopotamia and Persia is rendered more evident by another scholar of the school of Edessa, Ma’na, bishop of Riwardhashir, who, in about AD 470, wrote in Persian (i.e., Pahlawi) religious discourses, cantacles and hymns, and translated from Greek into Syriac the works of Diodore and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and sent them all to India. And he dispatched to the islands of the sea (Baharin), and to India, all the books he had translated. (Mingana, op.cit., p. 314.)

This is a very strong evidence to show that from the fifth century onwards, the works of Antiochene theologians, especially those of Diodore and Theodore were known in India and had some influence on the theological thinking of the Indian church. By AD 470, the Indian church was under the episcopal supervision of the bishop of Riwardashir and it was only natural on the part of the bishop to feel strongly about his episcopal responsibility for the theological education of the Indian church. Not only the theology of Diodore and Theodore, but also of Ephrem and Aphrahat might have had some influence on the Indian church. As we stated earlier, Theodore and his colleagues had a real appreciation for the human life of Jesus without minimizing his divinity. Jesus Christ represented humanity at its highest and fullest. Salvation is not divinization but the life of a community with God. The Christian life for them is the imitation of Christ and to be in the service of Christ. That means leading the life of unrelenting warfare against the forces of evil. The doctrine of free will of human beings, by which he or she controls all passions and guides his/her actions, is an essential aspect of the East Syrian theology. The East Syrian theologians did not locate sin in human nature. In their theology they preserved the freedom of the human being to make choices and a certain degree of self-reliance, though they accepted the need for Grace. Theirs was a theology which was a strong critic of the Augustinian position on Sin and Grace, and on human nature, which was imposed on the Indian Church later by the Latin missionaries. Arising out of their Christology and anthropology was also the East Syrian Church’s theology of universal mission.

There are Indian writers who maintain that the Indian church was not aware of the theological developments in the Persian church and was thus not influenced by it. They point out that the Indian church had a relationship with the Persian church before it became Nestorian and maintained that relationship ever after the Persian church became Nestorian without really realizing the difference. Such a view cannot be accepted as it implies that the Indian church in the early centuries was theologically ignorant or indifferent. in fact, the church was fully aware of its theological position as it came to realize the sharp distinction between the Law of Peter and the Law of Thomas. The conflict at the Udayamperoor Synod in AD 1599 was between the Church of St. Thomas and the Church of St. Peter. Act III, Decree 7 of the synod reads:

The Synod is painfully aware of the heresy and perverse error which is being disseminated in this diocese by the schismatics to the great detriment of souls: There is one Law of St. Thomas and another of St. Peter; the Church founded by the one is distinct and different from the Church founded by the other; each is immediately from Christ; one has nothing to do with the other; neither the prelate of one owes obedience to the prelate of the other; those who belong to the law of Peter endeavoured to destroy the law of St. Thomas; for this they had been punished by him…( Quoted in Mundadan op.cit.. pp. 494-495. Mundadan says that the words used by the synodical decree are too sharp to be taken literally. He seems to suggest that the conflict was only on the ‘form of Christianity’ and on different forms and customs. It was much more than that. It was about the identity and independence of the Indian church. The Indian church repudiated the juridical claims of the Roman Catholic church.)

This is a very valuable evidence. It shows that the pre-16th century Indian church was fully aware of its identity and independence. It is founded by St. Thomas and they follow the Law of Thomas. For the Indian Christians the church founded by Peter and the Law of Peter are distinct and different from theirs. They have nothing to do with the Roman Church and their bishops do not owe obedience to Roman bishops. They strongly repudiated the papal claims to universal supremacy as the authority of each bishop is immediately from Christ. They vehemently protested against the interference of the Roman church in their affairs and the attempts of the Roman church to destroy the law of Thomas. The Indian Christians knew the distinction and difference between the Church of St. Thomas and the Church of St. Peter, both ecclesiastically and theologically. The St. Thomas Christians used to stage a drama in their churches telling the story of a fight between St. Peter and St. Thomas where Thomas defeated Peter at the end of the fight.

While the Indian church was aware of and influenced by the theological developments in the East Syrian church, it was not a whole sale acceptance. There were also indigenous theological developments within the Indian church. The Nestorian church wherever it went encouraged the growth of indigenous theology. In the case of China, the Nestorian church there took seriously the Chinese classics. As we said earlier about Adam, a Nestorian missionary in China, that he knew Chinese classics and had studied the writings of Taoist mystics, and he was skilful in choosing illustrations from them. He was able to talk with the Buddhists in terms of their philosophy and was accustomed to borrow from them both background and terms to expound his Christian themes. Not only he endeavoured to make China Christian but also tried to make Christianity, in a worthy sense, ‘Chinese’. Buddhists regarded Adam as a dangerous man, not because he was making Christianity too Buddhist but he was trying to make Buddhism too Christian. There existed a Christian literature in Chinese.

In India, the Christian community, from the beginning, was an indigenous community with social and cultural roots in Indian tradition, sharing a social and community life with the Hindus. Anthony Mookenthottam is right when he writes "their identification with their socio-cultural milieu was so thorough ... This oneness with their socio-cultural milieu implies an implicit incarnational theology lived, an awareness that Christ in becoming man assumed everything human and redeemed all social and cultural values." (A. Mookenthottam, "Indian Theological Tendencies", 1978. p. 23 quoted by Mundadan, op.cit., p. 493.)

In the second century. when the Indian Christians invited Pantaneus to preach to the Hindu philosophers and religious leaders, they were aware of their missionary responsibility to Indian culture as a whole. The Alexandrian theologians, especially Clement and Origen in the second and third centuries, had a positive attitude to Greek culture. Clement, a distinguished student and successor of Pantaneus believed that the idea of God is implanted in all people at creation. There is a spark of nobility in every soul, an upward inclination which is kindled by the divine logos. Philosophy is of divine origin. For Clement, all wisdom is summed up in Christ. All history is one, because all truth is one. ‘There is one river of truth, but many streams fall into it from this side and that." (Stromata. 1:5) Perhaps the Indian church had developed a positive attitude to Indian philosophy and culture through their contacts with Pantaneus and other Alexandrian Christians.

In the Synod of Udayamperoor in AD 1599, the Latin missionaries condemned the Indian Church’s opinion that each one can be saved in one’s own law and all laws are right and forbade a number of customs and practices to continue in the Indian church because they were pagan (Hindu). In Act III, Decree 4 of the Synod it reads:

Each one can be saved in his own law, all laws are right: This is fully erroneous and a most shameful heresy: There is no law in which we may be saved except the law of Christ our Saviour.... [ and the footnote says]: This is a perverse dogma of politicians and those tolerant...Consequently being indifferent they wander very far away from the truth". (Mundadan, op.cit., p. 493.)

Commenting on the decisions of the Synod, Mundadan observes, "These prohibitions and restrictions imposed by the Synod are a witness to the communal harmony and cordial relations that existed between the Christians and the Hindus. This communal harmony and spirit of tolerance should be considered a typical Indian contribution to the Christian vision." (Ibid.)

The Hindus and the Christians lived as one community for many centuries in South India. They accepted each other and there was co-operation between the two communities not only in social matters but also in religious. This communal harmony was undergirded by a theological perception which the Udayamperoor Synod condemned as heresy. According to Mundadan, the Latin missionaries had no life experience of non-Christian religions and they narrowly interpreted the dictum, "Outside the Church there is no salvation".

It is to be noted that the synod attributes this ‘error’ to contact with pagans. What is really involved here is the understanding of the doctrine ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’ (outside the Church there is no salvation) by the Portuguese and St. Thomas Christians, respectively. The Portuguese came from the West where a rigid interpretation of the dictum had prevailed for a long time and had become acute in the 16th century in the context of the anti-Protestant Counter Reformation spirit. They sensed danger in the more liberal attitude of the Indian Christians towards Hindus and Hindu religion.... It would be centuries before the Europeans would acquire a life-experience of non-Christian religions, before a theology of the religions of the world would emerge which would give due respect to the positive elements in those religions and their providential salvific role for millions of people. But the Indian Christians had already been living for centuries in a positive encounter with the high caste Hindus and had developed a theological vision of Hindu religion which was more positive and liberal. (Mundadan. op.cit., pp. 493-494.)

The Latin church had a very narrow view of the church, and the Latins interpreted Christ and salvation in Christ, in the light of their doctrine of the church; so much so that pope Bonifice VIII in the Middle Ages could assert that outside the church there is no salvation nor remission of sins and that submission to the Roman pontiff, for every human being is an utter necessity for salvation. This was the law of Peter which the Latin missionaries tried to propagate in India. It was contrary to the law of Thomas and hence the clash at Udayamperoor Synod. St. Thomas Christians were able to have a positive view of Hinduism not only because of their life-experience of living among the Hindus, but also because of their theology. At the heart of Antiochene theology which influenced the St. Thomas Christians in the pre-sixteenth century period was the emphasis on the full humanity of Jesus Christ. The reality of Jesus’ humanity and its kinship with the rest of humankind is of utmost importance in their theology. Contrary to the Augustinian teaching on original sin, and human nature, they emphasized human freedom and the responsibilities and obligations of Christian faith. They did not locate sin in human nature and thus preserved human freedom and a certain degree of self-reliance. It is possible for such a theology to develop a positive attitude to other religions and cultures. An emphasis on the full humanity of Jesus Christ, an appreciation of human freedom and responsibility, a positive attitude to other religions and cultures and a strong affirmation of the independence and freedom of the Indian church were some of the salient features of the Indian Christian theology and ecclesiology in the early period. This is what the Latin missionaries found to be heretical and what the present day historians of Indian Christian theology failed to notice.

Christianity in India at the End of the Fifteenth Century

Christianity which came to India with the apostolic activity of St. Thomas had established contacts with the churches in Alexandria and Persia. When Pantaneus from Alexandria came to India by about AD 180, he found a Gospel of the Nazarenes with the Christians there, brought to them by St. Bartholomew. The Indian church entered into an ecclesiastical relationship with the church in Basra probably by the beginning of the fourth century. There were at least two immigrations of Persian Christians to India, one in the fourth and the other in the ninth century which influenced the liturgical and religious life of the Christians.

The Indian Christians were socially and culturally very much integrated into the wider Hindu community; and they kept on many of the Hindu social customs and practices. From the grants given by the local rulers to the immigrant Christians, we can infer that the Christians in South India had a position of privilege in Indian society.

The St. Thomas Christians were engaged in missionary work both inside and outside the country and there were communities of Christians scattered throughout the country.

We have very little information about the state of affairs of Christians from the eleventh to the fifteenth century. From the thirteenth century onwards, there were European travelers -- especially Marco Polo and a number of Roman Catholic missionaries -- who visited India and wrote of their visits. One thing which came to be known from the writings of these medieval travelers is that there was a considerable Nestorian dispersion all over India in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The rise of Muslim political power in north India seems to have been the beginning of the decline of Christianity in the north. The Christians suffered several disadvantages under the Muslim rule and many of them were converted to Islam.

The medieval Roman Catholic travelers in India were a source of tension within the Indian Christian community and some of them tried to latinize the St. Thomas Christians. It was only the beginning of what was to come later under the Portuguese Padroado.

The majority of the St. Thomas Christians were in South India. The Christians in the south were living in the territory of Hindu rulers and were not very much affected by the rise of Muslim political power in the north. From the Syriac sources mentioned by Mingana, we learn that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Indian church did not have enough bishops and priests for the spiritual ministrations in the church. We do not know the reason for the development of such situations. In AD 1490, a deputation of two Indian Christians, George and Joseph, came to the Patriarch of the East asking him to send bishops to India, which had been without bishops for a long time." (Mingana, op.cit., p. 469.) The Patriarch ordained George and Joseph as priests and consecrated two monks from the monastery of St. Eugenius as bishops and sent them to India. In AD 1503, Patriarch Elias consecrated three more bishops -- Mar Yahb Alaha, Mar Jacob and Mar Dinha, -- for India.

All Christians of this side were greatly pleased with us. ... There are here about thirty thousand families of Christians, our co-religionists, and they implore the Lord to grant thee a long life. They have begun to build churches, and are prosperous in every respect, and living in peace and security As to the monastery of the St. Thomas the Apostle, some Christian men have gone into it, and are now busy restoring it. ... The countries of India are very numerous and powerful, and their distance is about six months journey. Each country has a special name by which it is known, and our country in which Christians are found is called Malabar. It has about twenty towns out of which three are renowned and powerful: Karangol, Pallur and Kullam, with others which are near them. They contain Christians and churches, and are in the vicinity of the large and powerful city of Calicut, the inhabitants of which are idol-worshipping pagans. (Mingana, op.cit., pp. 470-71.)

As to the general state of St. Thomas Christians at the close of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century as the Portuguese found it, we have the following description.

The authority of the Syrian bishop extends to all temporal and spiritual matters. They are natural judges of all civil and ecclesiastical cases within their diocese. The pagan princes and judges have no concern with them, excepting only in criminal cases. ... Men walk armed, some with fusees of which they know perfectly the use, others with spears; but the greatest numbers carry only a naked sword in the right hand and a shield in the left. They are carefully instructed in the use of arms from their eighth to their twenty-fifth years, and are excellent hunters and warriors. The more Christians a pagan prince has in his dominion, the more he is feared and esteemed. It is on this account as well as on that of their fidelity and strict attachment to truth in everything, that the princes cherish and countenance them so much. They are second in rank only to Brahmins. The Christians, pursuant to the laws of the country, are the protectors of silversmiths, brassfounders, carpenters and smiths. The pagans who cultivate the palm trees form a militia under the Christians. If a pagan of any of these classes should receive an insult, he has immediate recourse to the Christians, who procure a suitable satisfaction. The Christians depend directly on the prince or his minister and not on the provincial governors. If anything is demanded from them contrary to their privileges, the whole unite immediately for general defense. If a pagan strikes one of the Christians, he is put to death on the spot or forced himself to bear to the church of the place an offering of a gold or silver hand according to the quality of the person affronted. In order to preserve their nobility, the Christians never touch a person of inferior caste, not even a Nair. ..... They are authorized to ride and travel on elephants. They sit in the presence of the king and his ministers, even on the same carpet -- a privilege granted to ambassadors only. The king of Paroor having wished during the last century to extend this privilege to the Nairs, the Christians declared war against him and obliged him to restore affairs to their former state. (C. B. Firth comments that this is a remarkable picture quoted from E. M. Philip, The Indian Church of St. Thomas,. Nagercoil, L.M.S. Press, 1950, pp 421-23, by C. B. Firth, op. cit., p. 47.)

C.B. Firth comments that this is a remarkable picture of a strong and well organized community, commanding respect among its Hindu neighbours, managing its own affairs and able to assert its rights.


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.


Chapter 9: In the Shadows of History


By AD 1500, the story of Asian Christianity, after a millennium and a half of heroic efforts and phenomenal expansion almost came to an end in several countries; so much so, the historians speak of the eclipse of Christianity in Asia. (See L. E. Browne, The Eclipse of Christianity, 1967.) "Like a sun in eclipse, Christianity in Asia moved so abruptly, yet so imperceptibly, from its peak of expansion down into the shadows of history, that it is difficult to pin point any precise moment at which progress turned into decline. (S.H. Moffett, op.cit., p. 471.) According to Moffett the definitive turning point was AD 1294 in East Asia and AD 1295 in West Asia. "In the space of one year the emperor Kublai Khan, protector of the church in China died, and in Persia the Ilkhan Ghazan announced his conversion to Islam. ... In the next one hundred years the religious tolerance of Mongol imperial rule gave way to a new destructive wave of widespread Mongolian ferocities fueled by conquering Muslim zeal, and the shattered remnants of Asian Christianity were left isolated in ever smaller pockets of desperation. (Ibid.) The decline of Christianity in Asia was not an isolated event which happened all of a sudden. The grounds were being prepared for it and the reasons were complex.

Various historians have suggested various reasons for the ‘eclipse of Christianity’ in Asia. According to K.S. Latourette the invaders who emerged from Central Asia in successive waves became Moslems rather than Christians, the break up of the Mongol Empire which showed religious tolerance, the religious persecution under Timur or Tamerlane (1336-1405), the rise of Ottoman Turks, and the condition in western Europe were some of them. "Beset by an advancing Islam in the East, having lost the larger proportion of its wide-flung communities in Asia, and suffering from corruption and indifference in the church which represented it in the west, in AD 1500 Christianity did not seem to face a promising future. The coming centuries might well have appeared to belong to Islam. (K. S. Latourette, op.cit., vol. 2., pp. 341-342.)

Moffett suggests eight reasons: Geographical isolation, chronic numerical weakness, persecution, the encounter with formidable Asian religions, ethnic introversion, dependence upon the state, the church’s own internal divisions, and the theological factor. (Moffett. op.cit., p. 503 ff.) The reasons suggested by Moffett are of varying importance. While some reasons such as geographical isolation, numerical weakness and persecution were important reasons, some others were of less importance. The disappearance of St. Thomas Christian communities in North India in the face of Muslim or Roman Catholic pressures were to some extent due to their numerical smallness and geographical isolation from one another.

It is true that Asian religions created strong social, intellectual and religious barriers against conversion to Christianity. In fact, with the exception of Japan, the majority of the Christians in Asia have come from among the tribal or depressed classes in Asian society. Christianity was not able to make any serious inroad into Hinduism or Buddhism or Confucianism. It is also true that some of the Asian religions, at times, for example, Zoroastrianism in Persia, were instrumental in the persecution of Christians. But these religions on the whole were tolerant of Christianity and were not the main obstacle for the survival of Christianity. Only when Christianity sided with the foreign political powers Asian religions became hostile.

Moffett points out that Asia never produced a Constantine. Then he asks: Was that the pivotal difference between Asian and European history? It never emerged from politically dependent minority status under absolute non-Christian monarchies. In Asia, Christianity never won more than a temporary touch of imperial favour. "Instead, for most of their first fifteen hundred years the Asian churches were compelled to rely on the fitful tolerance of non-Christian rulers whose power of life or death over their subjects was unlimited. Dependence upon political power is always perilous to religious integrity and it is not an unfamiliar phenomenon in Western church history. But in Asia, where dependence was extreme, the damage was extreme." (Ibid.. pp. 505-506.)

It is true that one of the serious reasons for the decline of Christianity in Asia was the religious minority status of the Christians under non-Christian rulers. The melet system of the Sassanids and the socially harassed and separated ghettos (dhimmas) of the Muslim caliphates were a serious threat to the survival of Christianity. But does the answer to the problem lie in creating a Christian state under ‘Constantine’? In Europe, Christianity depended upon the political power both for its expansion and protection. In the sixteenth century, when the Roman Catholic missionaries came to Asia, they tried very hard to convert the political rulers first, though they did not succeed.

Moffett further states that in the opinion of some western scholars, another reason for the weakness and final disappearance of Asian Christianity was the inferior intellectual character of its theologians. Asians did not produce theologians of the stature of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian or Augustine.

History does not prove that under Christian rulers, Christians will not be persecuted, or a Christian state will guarantee the presence of Christianity. History also does not show that the intellectual quality of its theologians will guarantee the survival of Christianity. The history of the Church in North Africa illustrates these points.

North Africa, before the eighth century, was part of the Roman empire, guarded and guided by Christian emperors since the beginning of the fourth century. There was an alliance between Church and State, and Church and Latin culture. In the fourth century, under Christian emperors, the position which the Catholic church occupied in society was enviable. The church gained numerous benefits from the state and the church in turn supported the state. Yet, during the Donatist controversy, the Christian emperors persecuted the Donatist Christians. The persecuted Christians were forced to ask: What has the emperor to do with the church?

North Africa was one of the territories under the Roman Empire where Christianity took its deepest roots in the third and the fourth centuries. It was a province of the Roman Empire and was ruled by Christian emperors. The church in North Africa was the church of Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine. Their works embody the teachings and traditions of the western church. Tertullian was an original theologian and a prolific writer. He was the first church father to inaugurate writing in Latin. "Though never canonized, he must be regarded as one of the most illustrious ante-Nicene Fathers of the church. Subsequent generations continued to build on his illuminating trinitarianism and Christology after his death about AD 220. (Aziz. S. Atiya, op.cit.. p. 430.) Cyprian followed the foot steps of Tertullian. His writings on the church and its unity influenced the development of western ecclesiology. For him, the church is the indispensable ark of salvation and there is no salvation outside the church. The church is a single whole and its unity is expressed through the authority of the bishops. African Christianity reached its peak in the emergence of Augustine of Hippo (340-430). His life and work became one of the greatest land marks in the development of western theology. It is often said that the reading of Augustine belongs to the discovery of western intellectual and spiritual ancestry. It was he who in the fourth century gave western civilization the formative ideas which guided it for centuries. Again it has been said that just as western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, western theology is a series of foot notes to Augustine. In the medieval period Anselm and Thomas Aquinas acknowledged their dependence on Augustine. In the period of the Protestant Reformation Luther and Calvin reaffirmed Augustinian conceptions of God and human nature and the utter dependence of human beings on the Grace of God.

North Africa had a long history of Christian tradition and had Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine as their theological fathers. It was a church protected and supported by Christian emperors in a Christian state. In spite of all these, from the eighth century, North Africa has been lost to Latinity and Christendom alike. All efforts to win back from the Muslims, either by crusades or by missionary efforts, have been unsuccessful. It is true that the Asians have not produced a Constantine nor an Augustine. But the very church of Constantine and Augustine in North Africa could not survive the Muslim invasion.

The reasons, for the decline of Christianity in Asia, are very complex and it varies from country to country. Among a number of interrelated causes, we mention four which had immediate bearings on the decline of Christianity in Asia by the end of the fifteenth century; -- the political situation under which the churches in Asia found themselves; the foreigness of the church; the decline in spiritual life in the church; and the Latinizing activities of the Roman Catholic missionaries.

Political Situation: Christianity Under Islam

Christianity in Asia had a different history from that in Europe. In Europe once Christianity became the state religion, paganism lost its secular support and the tendency was for people to become adherents of Christianity. In the Justinian code, compiled a century before the time of Prophet Mohammad, it was enacted that the heathens were to be baptized if they wanted to enjoy the common rights of citizens. It is said that the law was so administered that seventy thousand people were added to the church in Asia Minor. In Asia, the course of Christianity had been completely different. Christianity never enjoyed the status of a state religion. It was always a minority community living under the various disabilities and often isolated from one another by vast distances. From time to time it was persecuted.

In the third century, when the Sassanians came to power, Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the Persian empire and this led, from time to time, to the persecution of minorities including Christians. The violent persecution under Sapor II lasted for forty years. There were also periodic persecutions in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Christians in the Persian empire were organized as a separate minority community called melet within the larger community as a state within a state. In the melet system Christians were allowed to manage their own affairs, subject to the laws of the state. But they had no political power outside their community. They were subjected to special taxation such as land tax and poll tax. Yet Christianity survived these disabilities and persecution under the Persian rule and made considerable progress. But the advent of the Arabs opened a new chapter in the history of Persian Christians.

The long and indecisive war between Rome and Persia weakened both empires and prepared the way for the relatively easy Arab conquest and the expansion of Islam. The Muslim invaders seized Seleucia-Ctesiphon in AD 637 and subsequently the whole empire succumbed to their armies. By AD 652 the Arabs became the sole rulers of Persia. Their empire extended from the shores of the Mediterranean and Red seas to Oxus and the Indus, and from the Indian Ocean to the Caucasus and the Caspian. The empire is usually described as Caliphate. The first four Caliphs, the immediate successors of Mohammed are known as Perfect or Orthodox Caliphs (632-661). They were followed by thirteen Caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty (661-749) with their capital at Damascus. After that, there were thirty seven Caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258) and their capital was at Baghdad (the city of peace) on the bank of the river Tigris.

The Arab conquest of Persia brought about great upheaval in the empire but it did not adversely affect the Christians much; they were not persecuted or massacred. In fact, there is evidence to show that the Christians welcomed the Arabs as liberators from Zoroastrian oppression. This does not mean that the Christians had no political disputes under the Muslim rule. But the Christians under Islamic protection were far more better off than they had been under the Byzantine or Persian rule. No attempt was made in the early decades of Islam to convert Christians to Islam. The Arabs levied a land tax and a poll tax in the same way as the Persians. On the other hand, the Christians as a whole seemed to enjoy more favour with the Muslims than other conquered communities. They shared with the Jews and Zoroastrians as dhimmis or protected subjects. But the Christians were treated more favorably as they were the people of the Book. It is said that Mohammed himself had given certain privileges to the Nestorians which the Caliphs affirmed.

The Arabs were very appreciative of the intellectual attainments of the Christians and used them in the administration of the empire. Christians furnished the state with accountants and clerks; physicians, teachers and interpreters. The great teachers of the early Abbasid period were Nestorians. The great Academy of learning called the House of Wisdom founded in AD 830 was staffed essentially by the Nestorians. Scholars who mastered Syriac, Greek and Arabic, and who were commissioned to translate the scientific and philosophical works of Greece were Nestorian Christians. During the first three centuries of Arab rule, the Nestorian church was at the peak of its growth and expansion.

The favored position of the Christians began to decline by the end of the seventh century. Melet or dhimmi was a system that separated minority religious groups from the social, political and military mainstream of the empire’s life. As the Arabs consolidated their control over conquered people and as the number of Muslims increased, the disabilities under dhimmi began to increase. Non-Muslims paid special taxes, and as time went on, the taxes grew heavier, the social discrimination became more oppressive, and a system of Christian disabilities developed in the official and legal circles. The Covenant of Omar describes the disabilities as it developed in the ninth century. A dhimmi was bound by the contract of his position to revere the Muslim’s Holy scripture, refrain from uttering a falsehood against the Prophet Mohammed, and never to speak against Islam. Furthermore, he was forbidden to approach a Muslim woman for marriage or illicit intent; to try to apostate a Muslim or harm his property or person, and to assist an enemy of Islam or harbor a spy. All these obligations were to be kept. There were others which were commendable and included the use of a distinctive dress, prohibition from erecting buildings higher than those of the Muslims, from using church bells, from drinking wine and displaying a cross or a pig in public, from pomp and lamentation in burial offices, and from horse riding. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit., pp. 269-272.)

By the middle of the eighth century the Christian communities and their leaders had come to recognize that the official Muslim toleration which had seemed so attractive a century earlier was in fact a rigid prison from which there is no escape other than apostasy or flight. The dhimmi system, while allowing the Christians to keep their religion, churches and property, and live according to the common law of their religion, condemned them, in effect, to a slow but almost inevitable decline and death. They were not allowed to build new churches. As the succeeding Caliphs became less tolerant, many of the old churches were converted to mosques, the most famous example being the conversion of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Damascus into a mosque. (Robert Benton Bretts, Christians in the Arab East, London, SPCK, 1972 pp. 7-10.) The Christians were prevented from seeking new members from even among non-Muslims, and apostasy from Islam was punishable by death. Tax pressures became more and more severe on the Christians. Such social, economic, political and religious disabilities made conversion to Islam very attractive. When the newly converted non-Arabs were allowed to enlist in the army and therefore become eligible for pension and support, it was an added attraction for the Christians to become Muslims. Christians and Jews were further crippled in any defence of themselves before the law by a Muslim judicial ruling that their testimony could not be received in the court against the Muslims since the Koran says that the Christians had corrupted their scripture and are therefore unworthy. In such circumstances of discrimination and disabilities, ordinary Christians found it expedient to convert to Islam. It was through pressures, not necessarily by active persecution, Islam mainly found converts among the Christians in the days of the Caliphate. A large number of Nestorian Christians in Persia, Arabia, Central Asia and North India turned Muslims. The smallness of the Christian groups in many places, and their geographical isolation from one another helped the process of conversion to Islam. However, persecution also played a major role in later centuries.

From the middle of the ninth century the Caliphate began to decline and several countries which were under Caliphate rule became independent. The weakening of the Caliphate rule helped the rise to power of the Seljuk Turks, who were also Muslims, in the tenth century. They took Baghdad in AD 1050. Though they recognized Abbasid caliphs as nominal heads of state, the real power was in their hands. The military victories of Seljuk Turks alarmed the Byzantine emperors for the safety of Constantinople which eventually led to the Crusades. The crusades began with the call of Pope Urban II in AD 1095, which led to a senseless episode in the history of the church. As Browne observes, "Turks and Franks met as enemies, and two centuries later parted as enemies; and the enmity extended from them to the indigenous Muslims and Christians, who from this time onwards showed a mutual hostility far more marked than before. (Browne, op.cit., p. 146.) This was the state of affairs when, in the thirteenth century, the Mongols began to extend their power. Mongol Hulegu captured Baghdad in AD 1258. The Mongols were tolerant of Christians and Buddhists, and Christianity spread rapidly in Central Asia and China. The history of the church in Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was very much tied up with the rise of the Mongol power under Hulegu, Kublai and Timur the Great (Tamerlane). The first two were brothers, sons of the Nestorian princes Sorkaktani. Tamerlane was an outsider and not of Mongol blood. Hulegu and Kublai protected the Christians, but Tamerlane destroyed them. (Moffett, op.cit. p. 276.)

The Mongol ruler of Persia (Ilkhan), Ghazan (1295-1304) be-came a Muslim and under him, Christians, Jews and Buddhists were persecuted and their places of worship were destroyed. During the early period of Mongol rule, Christians were favored in the empire, but now after a lapse of seventy years, Islam again became the state religion in Persia. Bar Hebraeus, in his chronography describes the conditions of the Christians thus:

No Christian dared to appear in the streets (or market), but the women went out and came in and bought and sold, because they could not be distinguished from the Arab women, and could not be identified as Christians, though those who were recognized as Christians were disgraced, and slapped, and beaten and mocked. (Quoted by Moffett. Ibid., p. 476.)

Persecutions of Christians continued under the succeeding Ilkhans. By the 1340s the power of the Mongols began to decline. Then Timur the Great (1336-1405) captured power. Born in Central Asia near Samarkhand, he was to revive an Islamic Caliphate and boasted that he would make Samarkhand the capital of Asia. He was a great and brutal conqueror. Between AD 1380 and 1393, he captured Central Asia, Persia, Egypt and Northern India. He seized Baghdad with the whole of Mesopotamia in AD 1393. In some places he wiped out the whole cities he conquered. It is recorded that in Persia he left a pyramid of seventy thousand human skulls on the ruins of Isfahan and another ninety thousand on the ruins of Baghdad. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit., p. 276.) In India he ordered a hundred thousand prisoners killed to free his soldiers for the advance to Delhi. Amidst these misfortunes both Muslims and Christians suffered. Christians were no longer in favour; on the contrary they were persecuted on account of their religion.

Thus with the rise of Islam as a political power in the Middle East and Central Asia, the whole history of Christianity in Asia began to take a different turn. By the end of the ninth century, during the Caliphate period, all vestiges of Nestorian Christianity were stamped out of Arabia. Similarly the decline of Christianity which began with the early Caliphate in Persia was greatly accelerated with the ruthless persecution of Christians by Tamerlane. By the end of his life, Christianity in Persia, Central Asia and North India was greatly reduced in number and vitality and the once great Nestorian church, lay in ruins.

By the end of the fifteenth century, in the Mediterranean world, Islam was dominant in all the ancient centres of civilization except Italy, Spain and Southern France. It controlled Mesopotamia and Persia. It was strong in Central Asia and was represented by communities in India and China. Muslim merchants were in possession of most of the trade between the Far East and the West, and Islam was spreading along the sea routes to the Malay Peninsula and the islands of the east. (K. S. Latourette, op.cit., p. 340.)

Foreigness of the Church

When the Ming dynasty took control of China in AD 1369 from the tolerant Mongols, a wave of merciless persecution of ‘alien’ religions began. It ended in the total extinction of Christianity in China by the turn of the century, while Tamerlane simultaneously carried out the same destructive mission in Central Asia. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit., p.265.)

A number of historians speak of the foreigness of the Nestorian church in China and point out that it was because of this that the church in China was persecuted and thus disappeared. Speaking of the persecution of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity in the ninth century China, L.E. Browne strongly asserts that the major reason for the failure of Christianity in China must be placed in the fact that it was predominantly a foreign church. "Now if a church is felt to be foreign it has not really entered the hearts of the people and made itself at home in the land. (L.E. Browne, op.cit., pp. 99-100.) It is true that the Chinese considered Buddhism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism as foreign religions.

The persecutions in the ninth century were primarily against Buddhism and not against Christianity as such. But Christianity and Zoroastrianism were also persecuted and their monasteries suppressed because they were regarded as heretical forms of Buddhism and therefore came under the edict of the emperor against foreign religions. The Buddhists were persecuted in the ninth century primarily because of economic reasons and not simply for cultural reasons. By the ninth century, Buddhism in China had changed much and adapted very much to Chinese society. They had modified their ideas and remolded their institutions to better fit Chinese society. It was the economic reasons which were upper most in the persecution.

The rich holdings of the great Buddhist monasteries presented the Chinese with the only true church problem it ever faced. Monasteries were built by rulers or prosperous individuals and tended to accumulate more riches through further gifts of land or treasure from pious believers. They also expanded their holdings through usury and the various other legal or illegal methods by which the great families amassed their holdings. Thus they constituted in the eyes of the rulers a fiscal menace to the state, removing land and men from the tax registers. The idea therefore developed that the number of monasteries and monks and the size of the holdings should be limited. This was paralleled by the concept that, if Buddhism were indeed of value to society, it should not only be regulated by the state but also supported by it as a sort of spiritual branch of the administration. Nothing could have been further from the original role of Indian Buddhism. (John K. Fairbank, op.cit., pp. 108-109.)

Occasionally the effort to regulate the Buddhist church resulted in persecution. Many Chinese resented Buddhism as a foreign religion and detested some of its social practice such as self-mutilation and cremation as well as celibacy of the monks which were felt to threaten the family continuity and violate ancestral traditions. The jealousy of the Taoist priests was also sometimes a contributory factor. "But the chief reason for Buddhist persecution was the financial need of the government. Persecutions were chiefly efforts to return the land and the monks of the monasteries to the tax registers and seize their gilt-bronze images and other wealth for the imperial treasury. Individual believers were not seriously bothered." (Ibid., p. 109.)

The situation in the time of the Ming dynasty in the fourteenth century was different but at that time also Christianity was considered foreign. It was persecuted specifically because it was a foreign religion. In what sense was it foreign? Moffett is right when he says that the early Christian communities of Asia, though they were themselves Asian and for centuries were planted by Asian missionaries, nevertheless found it difficult to break through the barriers of their own ethnic differences and take root in the other social fabric of other Asian peoples. (Moffett, op.cit., p. 508.) In China, Christians tried to accommodate themselves to Chinese culture and develop a Chinese literature and theology. It also tried to develop indigenous leadership in the church. Yet they were considered foreign.

Christianity was favored under the Mongols and it was under them that Christianity spread in China a second time. Mongols were aliens who seized power in China. For the Chinese, they were barbarians. The Mongols differed from their subjects in very striking ways -- culturally and socially. Later Chinese chronicles described the Mongols as primitive savages capable only of destruction. In the face of Chinese hostility, the Mongols employed many foreigners, particularly Muslims and Nestorian Christians in the administration of government. "You see the Great Khan had not succeeded to the domain of Cathay by hereditary right, but held it by conquest; and thus, having no confidence in the natives, he put all authority into the hands of Tartars, Saracens or Christians, who were attached to his household and devoted to his service, and were foreigners in Cathay." (Marco Polo quoted by John K. Fairbank & others, op.cit., p.168.) The ‘Scholar class’ in China was antagonized by Mongol patronage of foreign religions. Mongols exempted from taxation, the religious establishments, like the Confucian temples, of the Buddhist, Taoist and Nestorian faiths. The Mongols did not specially favour the scholar class and their interests. Instead they maintained a cosmopolitan regime under which the Chinese bureaucratic class was given little scope. (Ibid., p. 169)

At the demise of Mongolian empire, the Ming dynasty came to power (1368-1444). From then on, till the beginning of the twentieth century, China followed traditional ways. During the Ming period, the leaders of Chinese society were devoted to tradition. They turned back for inspiration to the great ages of Han, T’ang and Sung. This turning back was also accompanied by a hostility to Mongols. Alien rule had inspired hostility toward alien things in general. Gradually this view hardened into a lack of interest in anything beyond the pale of Chinese civilization. This turning away from the outside world was accompanied by a growing introspection within Chinese life. (Ibid., p.178.)

The Ming rule was a revival of Chinese rule, the animating spirit had been to return to the pre-Mongol institutions of the Tang and Sung. It was a revival of Confucianism. This revival of everything Chinese resulted in hatred for the Mongols who were foreign rulers and persecution of them and their supporters namely Muslims and the Nestorian Christians. During the Ting period, ‘foreign’ meant not simply alien culture, but it also meant ‘alien rule’ over China. Foreigners were those who unlawfully usurped political power and their allies. Christians were persecuted and were practically exterminated from China by the end of the fourteenth century, not only because they were not in the mainstream of Chinese culture, but mainly because the Christians were supported by an alien political power and they in turn supported that political power. The history of the Chinese church during the Ch’ing period shows that the Chinese were always suspicious of religions which were supported by foreign powers within or outside China.

The Proselytizing Activities of the Roman Catholic Missionaries

A third reason for the demise of Nestorian Christianity was the proselytizing activities of the Roman Catholic missionaries. The Crusades (1095-1291) formed one of the most striking features of European history. As originally conceived, the Crusades were not intended as instruments for spreading Christianity or regaining the population lost to Islam. Pope Urban II declared the objective of the Crusades to be the rescue of the holy places in Palestine, the defense of the Christians of the East against the Muslims, and the rolling back of the tide of Muhammedan conquest. But in reality the different Crusades had different objectives. The fourth Crusade was directed against Constantinople. Instead of defending Eastern Christians it destroyed them. Crusades were preached against the Slays, against the Muslims in Spain, against the Albigenses, and against the various enemies of the Pope. The Crusades accentuated the bitterness between Muslims and Christians. A number of places in Palestine and Syria came under the domain of the Latin church.

Franciscans and Dominicans were the chief missionary agents of the Roman church at this time and one of the main objectives of the Roman Catholic missions in the Orient was the union of the various Christian bodies of these regions under the authority of the Pope.

The success of the efforts of the Latin Christians to draw the churches of the East into communion with Rome varied both with the time and with the particular church. More than once the Greek and the Roman churches seemed to have been brought together. More than once in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries progress appeared to be made toward ending the schism between the Armenians and Rome From practically all the Eastern churches groups were won. Usually these became Uniates, bodies which preserved their ancient rites and customs but which recognized the primacy of the Pope and in creed conformed with Rome. Only in the case of the Maronites, however, did an entire church come over. From the other churches only minorities were gained. (K. S Latourette, op.cit., vol.II, p.327.)

Among the Nestorians, the Patriarchate became a hereditary institution, the office being passed on from uncle to nephew. During the course of the fifteenth century, there developed, among the people, opposition to this method of succession. When the Patriarch Shim’un bar Mama died in AD 1551. some of the bishops supported by a section of the Nestorian community wished to elect a candidate other than his own nephew Shim’un Denha. They elected one John Sulaka Patriarch which resulted in a schism. With the instigation and help of Franciscan missionaries, Sulaka went to Rome and Pope Julius m (1550-1555) ordained him as the patriarch which divided the Nestorian community even to this day. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit., p. 397.)

During the Crusades, there were a number of diplomatic contacts between Western Christendom, the Mongols, and Islam, seeking each other’s help. After AD 1241, the papacy sent a series of Franciscan monks on diplomatic and evangelical missions to Persia, Mongolia, and China, evidently to explore the possibility of obtaining Mongol help against the Muslims. One of those envoys was John of Montecorvino who succeeded in establishing a Roman Catholic mission in Peking at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

John of Montecorvino, on his way to China, stopped in India in AD 1291 and stayed there thirteen months. He visited the tomb of St. Thomas near Madras, where he wrote, he baptized about a hundred people. But a later visitor to the tomb, Odoric of Pordenone in AD 1324, found no Roman Catholics there but only the Nestorian Christians. When John wrote that he baptized about hundred people, he might have meant that he tried to make the Nestorian Christians Roman Catholics; they might have gone back to Nestorianism by AD 1324.

John of Montecorvino was the first Roman Catholic missionary to reach China. By the year AD 1305 he could report that he had made as many as six thousand converts, and if not for the opposition of the Nestorians, he would have baptized more than thirty thousand. This is an amazing success story. How did he achieve this? In one of his letters he wrote thus:

A certain king of that region, of the school of Nestorian Christians, who was of the race of that great king who was called Prester John of India, attached himself to me the first year of my coming hither and, being converted by me to the truth of the true Catholic faith, took the lesser orders and wearing the sacred vestments served me as I celebrated; so that the other Nestorians accused him of apostasy. Nevertheless he brought over a great part of his people to the true Catholic faith, and built a beautiful church on a scale of magnificence to the honour of our God, of the Holy Trinity. and of the Lord Pope, and of my name, calling it the Roman church. And this king departed to the Lord six years ago, a true Christian, leaving a son and heir in the cradle who is now nine years old. But the brothers of the same king George, since they were perfidious persons in the errors of Nestorius, subverted after the king’s death all whom he had converted, leading them back to their former schism. (A. C. Moule, op.cit., p. 173 ff.)

The above letter of John makes very clear the Romanizing activity of John and why the Nestorians were furious with him. When the news of John’s success in China was heard in Europe, Pope Clement V was very pleased and appointed John as the first Archbishop of Peking in AD 1303.

After John Montecorvino’s visit to India at the end of the thirteenth century, the next Roman Catholic visitor was a French Dominican, Jordanus. Just before his arrival, four Dominicans who stopped in Thana, near Bombay, were murdered by Muslims. It shows how difficult it was to preach to and convert the Muslims and Hindus. Jordanus went about the region of Gujarat preaching and baptizing -ninety were baptized in one town, twenty in another, and thirty-five in the third. In his Mirabilia Descripta he wrote that since his arrival in India about ten thousand persons had been won over to the Catholic faith. He was very appreciative of the quality of the Christians.

There is no better land or fairer nor people so honest, no victuals so good and savory, dress so handsome or manners so noble as here in our own Christendom; and above all, we have the true faith, though ill it be kept. For as God is my witness, ten times better (Christians) and more charitable with all are those who are converted by the Preaching and Minor Friars to our faith than our own folk here, an experience has taught me. (Quoted by Mundadan, op.cit., p. 134.)

Jordanus does not tell us how he was able to communicate with the people without knowing their language and the previous religious affiliation of the people whom he converted, whom he found very exemplary. But he tells the difficulty he encountered among the people with whom he worked.

To whom shall I speak of my sufferings? The pirates have seized me on the high seas; the Muslims have cast me into prison. I was accused, and was maligned. And behold it is a long time since, like a criminal, I have been prohibited from wearing the habit of my order. I have endured hunger and thirst, heat and cold, wrath and curses, illness and destitution, accusations by false brethren; ... I suffered more than what I can describe. (Ibid., p. l33.)

Stephen Neill suggests that the people whom he converted might have beep St. Thomas Christians. (Stephen Neill op.cit., p.73.) Gujarat was one of those places in North India where St. Thomas Christians were found. It is also probable that some of his troubles came because of the opposition of the St. Thomas Christians. The ‘false accusers’ might have been the St. Thomas Christians. In a letter to Europe Jordanus mentions that he was deeply troubled by a ‘horrible schism among the people in reference to me.’ "‘This veiled report of disagreement in the Christian community over his ministry suggests a possible rift between the older St. Thomas Christians and the incoming Roman Catholics, much as it occurred in Peking when Montecorvino, about the same time, found Nestorians already well established there under Kublai Khan." (Moffett, op.cit.. p. 500.)

After thirteen months in India, Jordanus returned to Italy. when in AD 1328, Pope John XXII consecrated him as bishop of Quilon (Kerala, India) with a double mission. He was to convert the Muslims and reunite the Nestorians (Nazarenes) with the ‘true church’. Pope sent with him a letter to the head of the Nazrani Christians, commending him to them and inviting them to abjure their schisms and enter the unity of the Catholic Church.

It was the official policy of Rome to proselytize the St. Thomas Christians. It was not the pastoral concern which attracted the medieval Latin missionaries to St. Thomas Christians, (Mundadan. op.cit.. p. l43.) but a deliberate policy of bringing the St. Thomas Christians under Rome. While Tamerlane was persecuting the Asian Christians ruthlessly, at the same time and in a parallel movement, the Latin missionaries were proselytizing the ancient Asian Christians and both were destroying them.

Decay of Spiritual Life in the Church

A fourth reason for the rapid demise of the Nestorian church, especially in Persia, on the onslaught of Islam was the element of decay within the church itself. During the period of the Caliphate the church in Persia was growing in wealth and worldliness with disastrous consequences. When the Caliphs built their capital at Baghdad, the church also moved the Patriarchate to Baghdad. As to its effect on the life of the church Atiya observes:

As head of one of the richest and most influential communities in the Islamic empire, his [Patriarch’s] position in the central administration became one of relative importance, sometimes through favour with the caliphs themselves and sometimes through bribery and gifts. Spiritually, however, the patriarchal leadership was on the decline at a time when the church had reached the furthest limits of its extension in Asia. The patriarchs were beginning to look like civil servants as much as ecclesiastical dignitaries and were occasionally dispatched on diplomatic missions to Constantinople and Rome. The patriarchal throne was coveted by ambitious candidates who were ready to buy episcopal votes for large sums. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit, p. 272.)

It is interesting to note that the situation of the church in Persia was very similar to that in North Africa before the Islamic invasion. The North African Catholic church expressed its catholicity in keeping its relation with Rome and its policies. In the fourth century, under Christian emperors, the position which the Catholic church occupied in society was enviable. The church gained numerous benefits from the state. W.H.C. Frend observes:

As the church expanded in wealth and numbers, offices and auxiliary duties multiplied. Clerics in a variety of minor orders were needed. The bishop of a large see was now a great officer of the state, paid 720 solidi a year like a provincial governor and expected as Gregory of Nazianus complained during his short tenure of the see of Constantinople (380-381) to rival the consuls, the generals, the governors, the most illustrious commanders, to eat well and dress splendidly. (W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church,, p. 250.)

As the church grew in wealth and power, the Nestorian patriarchal office in Persia was coveted by many. There is a story about the election of Timothy I as Nestorian patriarch in the eighth century. He laid out at the disposal of his electors heavy sacks to be opened after his success, presumably full of money. Timothy won the election, and when his supporters opened the sacks they found them full of stones. He defended himself by saying, "The priesthood is not to be purchased for money." They could not replace him by his rival since his election was already ratified by the Persian state. (Aziz S. Atiya, op.cit., p. 272.) The church became a prey to rivalry for the patriarchal throne, and this led to prolonged vacancies. Often it was won in the end by the highest bidder.

Nestorians were after political power and influence. When the Mongols under Hulegu captured Baghdad in AD 1258, he was welcomed by the Christians. In the brutal massacre of the population that followed, only the Christians were spared, as they were a favored group. Their privileged position turned them arrogant toward Muslims. About this Magrizi, a Muslim historian of the fifteenth century wrote,

They produced a diploma of [Hulegu] guaranteeing express protection and free exercise of their religion. They drank wine freely in the month of Ramazan and spilt it in the open streets, on the clothes of the Mussulmans and the doors of the Mosques. When they traversed the streets, they compelled the merchants Co rise and ill-treated those who refused. ..; When the Mussulmans complained they were treated with indignity by the governor appointed by [Hulegu] and several of them were by his orders bastinaded. He [Hulegu] visited the Christian church and paid deference to their clergy. (Howorth, History of Mongols, quoted by Moffett, op.cit., p. 424.)

The political advantage enjoyed by the church because of their support of the Mongol rule was short lived and the situation very soon turned against them. The Mongols were defeated in their battle against the Egyptians in Al) 1260. Browne suggests that Perhaps’ because of this defeat the Mongols first began to think seriously of accepting Islam. "The Christians of Damascus now suffered the fruits of the arrogant behaviour they had shown to Muslims during the few months of Mongol occupation of the city. Many Christians were slain, and others were enslaved." (L. E. Browne, op.cit., p. 154.)

The enemies of the church are often inside and not outside the church.

Published by CSS & ISPCK, India, 1998

. Published by CSS & ISPCK, India, 1998


Trinity College of Biblical Studies

A study of selected biblical episodes which are enriched when understood in the context of Near, and Far  Eastern history along with Palestinian geography


Historical Geography Unit Two