A History of Christianity in Asia (1st of 3)

Part 1: From Edessa and Nisibis Missionaries Traveled East to Establish Christianity in Persia

This is the best overview of the history of Christianity in Asia ever written. Samuel Moffett, missionary in Korea and later professor of missions at Princeton Seminary, writes:    

Christianity in Asia refers to the churches that grew and spread outside the Roman Empire in ancient oriental kingdoms east of the Euphrates and stretching along the Old Silk Road through Persia to China, or along the water routes from the Red Sea around Arabia to India.[1] Christianity began in Asia. Its earliest history, its first centers were Asian. Asian Christians endured the greatest persecutions. They mounted global ventures in missionary expansion the West could not match until after the thirteenth century. By then the Nestorian Church exercised ecclesiastical authority over more of the earth than either Rome (the Catholic Church) or Constantinople (the Orthodox Church).”[2]

Memory of Christianity’s missionaries east of Rome has, unfortunately, languished. Until now.

The First Missionary to the Region East of the Roman Empire: Addai. It is likely that Christianity was established in the city of Edessa (Şanliurfa, Turkey today) by a missionary named Addai. Addai founded a missionary training school there. 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.”[3] 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.[4] 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. From Edessa Christianity spread eastward to Persia.[5]

Modern day Sanliurfa is ancient Edessa. Modern day Nusaybin is ancient Nisibis.

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 frontier of Christianity 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 faith 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 in Persia, 340-401. Christians in Persia suffered a great persecution in the fourth century, 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 Persian 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]

Next: A History of Christianity in Asia Part 2: The Nestorian Controversy

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

[2] Ibid. xiii

[3] Ibid. 52

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

[5] Ibid. 51

[6] Ibid. 92

[7] Ibid. 112

[8] Ibid. 123

[9] Ibid. 137

[10] Ibid. 138

[11] Ibid. 153