Now, Jenkins is arguing that the Christian past isn't as Western as we think, either. The Lost History of Christianity is a fascinating study of the first thousand-plus years of the Church--a Church rooted in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. We have much to learn from the tale of its reach, its particular way of being Christian, and its eventual decomposition.Then there's an e-mail interview with the author. Excerpt:
Give us a sense of the scope of the Eastern Christianity that, as you explain, dominated the first half of Christian history.I think the last couple of paragraphs stretch the point. It's true that the Syriac-speaking church spoke a dialect of Aramaic, but it was the dialect of Edessa in Asia Minor from (if memory serves) the second century CE, so it was some distance linguistically and considerable distance culturally from first-century Galilee and Judea. And keep in mind that although Syriac Christianity has an Aramaic New Testament, it's just the Greek New Testament translated into Syriac. So I don't see that Syriac Christianity has any greater claim to primacy than other traditions. With this sort of reasoning one could argue that Orthodox Christianity has the primacy (and Orthodox Christians sometimes do). The language of the Orthodox Church is indeed the Greek language of the New Testament but, again, the tradition is suffiently remote from the Aramaic-speaking world of first-century Palestine that such claims of primacy are not very interesting to the historian.
Its sheer scale is astonishing. Already by the seventh century, the Church of the East - the Nestorian church - is pushing deep into Central Asia. Nestorian monks were operating in China before 550, and nobody knows when the first Christian actually saw the Pacific - that would be a great historical novel for someone to write!
As I write in the book, "Before Saint Benedict formed his first monastery, before the probable date of the British King Arthur, Nestorian bishops functioned at Nishapur and Tus in north-eastern Persia. Before England had its first Archbishop of Canterbury, the Nestorian church already had metropolitans at Merv in Turkmenistan and Herat in Afghanistan, and churches were operating in Sri Lanka and Malabar. Before Good King Wenceslas ruled a Christian Bohemia, before Poland was Catholic, the Nestorian sees of Bukhara and Samarkand achieved metropolitan status. So did Patna on the Ganges, in India." What I find fascinating about that is how that history violates our usual assumptions about what Christianity looked like in the so-called Dark Ages - about what it was, and where it happened.
Also, this Eastern world has a solid claim to be the direct lineal heir of the earliest New Testament Christianity. Throughout their history, the Eastern churches used Syriac, which is close to Jesus's own language of Aramaic, and they followed Yeshua, not Jesus. Everything about these churches runs so contrary to what we think we know. They are too ancient, in the sense of looking like the original Jerusalem church; and they are too modern, in being so globalized and multi-cultural.
Just a suggestion. Perhaps we should think of these eastern communities - the Nestorians and Jacobites - as the real survivors of ancient Christianity. In that case, the great Western churches we know, the Catholic and Orthodox, are the "alternative Christianities."
Jenkins also has an article in the Boston Globe: When Jesus met Buddha. Excerpt:
The most stunningly successful of these eastern Christian bodies was the Church of the East, often called the Nestorian church. While the Western churches were expanding their influence within the framework of the Roman Empire, the Syriac-speaking churches colonized the vast Persian kingdom that ruled from Syria to Pakistan and the borders of China. From their bases in Mesopotamia - modern Iraq - Nestorian Christians carried out their vast missionary efforts along the Silk Route that crossed Central Asia. By the eighth century, the Church of the East had an extensive structure across most of central Asia and China, and in southern India. The church had senior clergy - metropolitans - in Samarkand and Bokhara, in Herat in Afghanistan. A bishop had his seat in Chang'an, the imperial capital of China, which was then the world's greatest superpower.That's an interesting story, and one that I didn't know.
When Nestorian Christians were pressing across Central Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries, they met the missionaries and saints of an equally confident and expansionist religion: Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists too wanted to take their saving message to the world, and launched great missions from India's monasteries and temples. In this diverse world, Buddhist and Christian monasteries were likely to stand side by side, as neighbors and even, sometimes, as collaborators. Some historians believe that Nestorian missionaries influenced the religious practices of the Buddhist religion then developing in Tibet. Monks spoke to monks.
In presenting their faith, Christians naturally used the cultural forms that would be familiar to Asians. They told their stories in the forms of sutras, verse patterns already made famous by Buddhist missionaries and teachers. A stunning collection of Jesus Sutras was found in caves at Dunhuang, in northwest China. Some Nestorian writings draw heavily on Buddhist ideas, as they translate prayers and Christian services in ways that would make sense to Asian readers. In some texts, the Christian phrase "angels and archangels and hosts of heaven" is translated into the language of buddhas and devas.
One story in particular suggests an almost shocking degree of collaboration between the faiths. In 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in Chang'an, bearing rich treasures of sutras and other scriptures. Unfortunately, these were written in Indian languages. He consulted the local Nestorian bishop, Adam, who had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese. Together, Buddhist and Christian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical good will, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued: Do you really care more about relieving suffering than atoning for sin? And your monks meditate like ours do?
These efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other residents of Chang'an at this very time included Japanese monks, who took these very translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan, these works became the founding texts of the great Buddhist schools of the Middle Ages. All the famous movements of later Japanese history, including Zen, can be traced to one of those ancient schools and, ultimately - incredibly - to the work of a Christian bishop.