History of Christianity in Asia. Part 1.

The Nestorian Church in Persia.

At last, the history of the Church of the East, known also as the Nestorian Church, is being told in this superb book. The Church of the East spread east of the Roman Empire beyond the Euphrates River. Its missionaries traveled along the Old Silk Road through Persia to China, or sailed the water routes from the Red Sea around Arabia to India.[2] Its adherents endured the greater persecutions than in the Roman Empire. The

Church of the East Administrative Centers (Dioceses)

By the 13th century the Nestorian Church exercised ecclesiastical authority over more of the earth than either Rome (the Catholic Church) or Constantinople (the Orthodox Church).”[1] Memory of all this has, unfortunately, languished, until now.

The Missionary to the East: Addai. It is likely that Christianity was established in Edessa (Şanliurfa, Turkey today) by a missionary named Addai. Addai founded a missionary training school in Edessa. From Edessa Christianity spread eastward to Persia.[3] The Christians of Edessa compiled a hymnbook, called The Odes of Solomon, perhaps the first Christian hymnbook in history. It was discovered in 1909, and could be dated as early as 80 to 100 AD. “The poems give a clear and moving picture of a community at worship, rising early before dawn to begin the day in prayer, hands outstretched in the early Christian fashion to form the shape of the cross.”[4] It was said in Edessa that the Osrhoene king himself had become a Christian. These are the first solid evidence of an organized Christian church in Asia beyond the borders of Rome.[5] All was lost in the war between Rome and Persia in 116. The Roman emperor decreed that pagan sacrifices be enforced, and a period of Christian persecution and martyrdom began. Around the year 200 the Christians in Edessa came out in public again.

The Sassanid Revolution and the Church in Persia. “About the year 226 a revolution so changed the course of Persian history that, slowly at first, then with increasing momentum, the country’s scattered groups of Christians were caught up in the changes. In that year the Parthian kings of Persia were defeated by a new dynasty, the Sassanids, who ruled for the next four centuries.”[6] Sassanid rule proved favorable. The theological center of the Church of the East moved eastward from Edessa to Nisibis (Nusaybin, Turkey). Monasteries more than church communities became centers of reform and mission outreach. The edge of the church moved steadily eastward.”

The Clash of Religions. But during the reign of Shapur in 272, a dark eminence by the name of Kartir, of the Zoroastrian clergy, succeeded in persuading the king that he should make Zoroastrianism the national religion of the Persia empire. All other religions suffered. “In province after province, place after place, the Jews, shamans, Brahmans, Nazareans, Christians, Maktaks and Manichaeans have been annihilated from the Empire.[7]

Jacob of Nisibis and the Beginnings of Monasticism. Tradition relates the beginnings of communal monasticism (as distinct from separatist ascetism) in the Church of the East to Jacob of Nisibis. The fifth-century historian Theodoret describes how Jacob at an early age chose the life of an ascetic. He wore no clothes and used no fire and his only protection from the elements was a cave in winter. But about 306, when asked to lead the church, Jacob returned to the world and to the church to become the first bishop of Nisibis.[8] He is the earliest example of one of the finest traditions of the Eastern church: Time and again, when the church needed them, the greatest of the ascetics put the call to service above the claims of separation.

The Great Persecution, 340-401. Christians in Persia suffered a great persecution coinciding with the conversion of Constantine. When Rome became Christian, its old enemy Persia turned anti-Christian.[9] Up to then the situation had been reversed. For three hundred years it was in the West that Christians had been persecuted. About 20 years after Constantine’s conversion, he assembled his armies for war in the East. In reaction, the Zoroastrian religion became Persia’s national religion, and a period of persecution was released upon the Christians, “unequalled for its duration, its ferocity, and the number of martyrs.”[10] It lasted forty years.

The Reorganization of the Persian Church. The shah Yazdegard issued an edict in 409 AD that began a period of toleration. Some say he was planning to become a Christian, when he died in 420. “This was not likely; Christians were always hoping for an Eastern Constantine.” In any case, Yazdegard is not well regarded by Zoroastrians or Muslims “who have never forgiven him for pursuing a policy of peace with the enemy, Rome, and for being a friend for the Christians.”[11]

The Nestorian Controversy. A Christian named Nestorius was a monk monastery near Antioch. He gained a following on account of his teaching and preaching. In 428 The Roman Emperor Theodosius II appointed him patriarch of Constantinople. His rival, Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, accused Nestorius of denying the deity of Christ. That was not true, but an uproar against Nestorius followed. A council was held in Ephesus in 431 to determine a judgment in the manner.

The Council of Ephesus, 431. It seems that the Council of Ephesus was called for the purpose of creating a statement of faith that the Church of the East could not agree to. Moffett writes:

The Council of Ephesus was the most violent and least equitable of all the great councils. It was an embarrassment and blot on the history of the church. Cyril opened the proceedings before the patriarch of Antioch, who favored Nestorius on this issue, could arrive. The meeting thus opened with one of the five patriarchs missing. Nestorius refused to attend, and later wrote his own version of what happened:

They acted as if it was a war they were conducting, and the followers of the Egyptian (Cyril) went about the city girt and armed with clubs . . . with the yells of barbarians, snorting fiercely . . . lying about, drunk, shouting obscenities. . . . [15]


So tense was the situation that a guard surrounded the house in which Nestorius lodged to prevent his murder. At Cyril’s bidding the council proceeded to vote two hundred to nil to excommunicate Nestorius. John, Patriarch of Antioch, with forty bishops, arrived too late to do anything but declare the result illegal and hold a counter council to excommunicate Cyril. Confronted by an impasse that threatened to tear his Byzantine empire apart, Theodosius II reluctantly decided to accept the deposition of both patriarchs. However, Cyril promptly bribed his way back to power. Nestorius, on the other hand, after protesting the injustice, obediently went into exile first to his old monastery near Antioch and then, in 435, on to Petra in Arabia. He was moved far into the Egyptian desert; there he died in about 451—to the western church a heretic to the Persian church a hero and a martyr. But to himself, neither heretic nor hero. Near the end Nestorius wrote:

Earthly things have little interest for me. I have died to the world and live for Him. As for Nestorius, let him be anathema! And would God that all men by anathematizing me might attain to reconciliation with God . . . . Farewell desert, my friend . . . and [farewell] exile, my mother, who after my death shall keep my body until the resurrection. Amen.[16]

“Nestorianism” Examined. Nestorius’ writings were burned; only fragments survive. Luther, after looking over all he could find of his writings, decided there was nothing really heretical about them. Then, dramatically, in 1889 a Syrian priest discovered an eight-hundred-year-old manuscript of a Syriac translation made about 540 of Nestorius’ own account, in Greek, of his controversies and teachings. This much is clear. He was not at ease with technical and semantic theological distinctions. He was convinced his was biblically orthodox. At no time did he deny the deity of Christ, as was charged against him. At Chalcedon, in 451, much was restored. It was at least a partial victory of Nestorius. The Chalcedonian creed declared, “Christ has two natures.” That was precisely what Antioch stood for and what Alexandria denied. Now it was the Alexandrians’ turn to be branded with the stigma of a heresy of their own, Monophysitism. [Egypt elected its own patriarch, and from that time established a separate, national identity, the National Coptic Church] As for the doctrinal problem of the relationship between Jesus Christ’s two natures, not even Chalcedon was able to define it; it could only confess it, and to affirm they are preserved “without confusion, without change without division, without separation.”[17]

Conclusion. To some, Nestorians are heretics, condemned by ecumenical councils more than 1500 years ago. To others they are ancient and apostolic Asian Christians untainted by the perversions of Western Greek philosophy. And, of course, many have forgotten the Nestorians altogether.[18] Moffett:

The general consensus of scholarship today would probably agree with A. R. Vine’s observation that Nestorius was the better man but Cyril the better theologian. Chalcedon was probably right in recognizing that Nestorius’ phrase prosopic union” was not strong enough to bear the strain of maintaining the essential unity of the person of Christ. The West, at least, was satisfied with Chalcedon, but not so Egypt, and, to a lesser extent, Persia.[19]

The School of the Christian Persians. For generations the School of the Persians had been one of the most effective channels of intellectual communication and Christian ecumenicity between East and West. Persian Christians came there not only to study the Bible and the Greek church fathers, but also to learn of Greek philosophy and logic. Narsai and Barsauma welcome the refugees warmly. The found an old caravanserai near the church for a campus, and with Barsauma as promoter and Narai as scholar, the school was reorganized in Persia as the School of Nisibis. The School of Nisibis quickly became the most famous center if learning in Asia and brought new life and learning surging into the Persian church. Students came from afar, wrote the Nestorian chronicler of Arbela, “to draw spiritual milk and to drink from the sweet waters of orthodoxy.”[20]

The rules of the school as drawn up by Narsai in 496 still survive and emphasize the ways in which the school resembled a monastery. The students roomed together in cells, three men to a room. Studies began and sunup and continued till sundown. Tuition was free, but during the long vacation from August to October students were sent out to labor and earn their keep. Like some monasteries, the school enjoyed independence from the jurisdiction of the bishop.[21]

But the school’s theology was a missionary theology. The roots of the expansion of the Nestorian mission trace to Nisibis and to this school. The mandate for mission came from Jesus himself, who told his disciples to “go forth and convert the Gentiles to the House of Abraham.”[22] The School of Nisibis became the center for the Nestorianizing of the Persian Church. A network of missionary monasteries (!) was organized in Basra. Other monasteries are “The Black Island,” probably an island near Bahrain, and the island of Socotra, where a monastery existed from the middle of the fifth century.[23]

From the time of the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant in the third century and Aphrahat in the first half of the fourth, Persian monks and ascetics had been the models for the spiritual Christian life, models more often admired than followed. Their influence waned for a century, due to worldliness in the monasteries. But when revival came to the church, it came through the monasteries. In the sixth revival of Christianity spread throughout the Persian Empire. The outstanding name in the revitalization of the monastic movement was Abraham of Kaskar (ca. 491-586).[24] Abraham of Kaskar studied at the School of Nisibis in 502. For a time, he became a missionary to the Arabs. From there he traveled to Egypt and was greatly impressed by the ascetic disciplines and stern lifestyle of the monks in the great desert monasteries around Scete. He returned to Mesopotamia zealous to recapture something of their self-control and strength for the Persian church He withdrew into the mountains near Nisibis and founded what quickly became the greatest of all Persian monasteries, known simply as “the Great Monastery,” on Mt. Izla.[25] His stern example and flaming challenge to give up all for Christ drew crowds of disciples. Thomas of Marga wrote in the ninth century, “As formerly everyone who wished to learn the heathen philosophy of the Greeks went to Athens, so now everyone who desired to be instructed in spiritual philosophy went to the holy Monastery of Mar Abraham.”[26] In time the Great Monastery superseded the School of Nisibis as the center of Nestorian teaching and missionary training. Christianity became the second most powerful religious force in the Persian empire.

References Cited

Moffett, Samuel H. A History of Christianity in Asia Vol. 1. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

[1] Samuel H. Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia Vol. 1, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992). xiii

[2] Ibid. xiv

[3] Ibid. 51

[4] Ibid. 52

[5] Ibid. 57. Edessa is Urfa, in southeastern Turkey, on the Tigris River, not far from Harran, from whence Abraham departed for “a land that I will show you.”

[6] Ibid. 92

[7] Ibid. 112

[8] Ibid. 123

[9] Ibid. 137

[10] Ibid. 138

[11] Ibid. 153

[12] Ibid. 163

[13] Ibid. 172

[14] Ibid. 173

[15] Ibid. 174

[16] Ibid. 175

[17] Ibid. 180

[18] Ibid. xiv

[19] Ibid. 180

[20] Ibid. 200

[21] Ibid. 201

[22] Ibid. 201

[23] Ibid. 101

[24] Ibid. 225

[25] Ibid. 226

[26] Ibid. 226