The Lost History of Christianity

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The world’s first Christian state was not in Europe but in Osrhoene, Northern Mesopotamia. Its king converted around 200. Its capital, Edessa, was the center of the earliest Christian scholarship. Bordering Armenia, which converted around 300, remains Christian to this day. Armenia’s capital, Ani, was known as the city of 1001 churches. Nearby Georgia also converted around this time. Other ancient churches outside the purview of the West included the African churches of Nubia, which lasted from the sixth through the fifteenth centuries, and Ethiopia, once called Abyssinia, which converted early and remains strongly Christian after eighteen centuries.

Philip Jenkins’s The Lost History of Christianity reads initially like an alternative-history science fiction book. It supplies a bewildering number of unfamiliar names, covers thousands of miles of geography, and reviews a couple of thousand years of time. It even includes a map on its dust cover that looks more like a three-leaf clover than a map of the world. With Jerusalem in the center, surrounded by the three lobes of Europe, Africa, and Asia, this Middle Ages cartography asserted not geographic reality but an article of faith: the influence of Christ’s sacrifice in Jerusalem extended throughout the entire world. It also underscored what has been largely forgotten: that two-thirds of early Christendom lay outside of Europe.

Jenkins’s method is to force a reconsideration of the history of Christianity, putting its Eastern branch at the center of early development. After all, he argues, the Asian church lasted a thousand years, spread over a million square miles, and nourished hundreds of churches. Moreover, it was Semitic in flavor and language, like the earliest Christianity, and developed without either the hindrance or help of the powerful Roman Empire. It developed a church hierarchy not unlike Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism, and its evangelical fervor propelled missionaries along trade routes, including the Silk Road that stretched from Syria to Northern Persia into Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Bukhara, Samarkand, and China: all told some 4,500 miles.

Asian Christianity, then, is a third branch of the faith that extended from the Holy Land, not westward as did the Orthodox and Catholic churches, but north and eastward. There is more heard about the latter two branches because they survived, and the Eastern church did not. Jenkins skillfully puts often strange new facts into perspective. Jerusalem, he notes, is an equal distance from Merv in the East and Rome in the West, and it is actually closer to central Asia than it is to France. Geography alone logically suggests that Christianity would have moved as far east as it did west. In fact, Jenkins shows that, in the first thousand years of Christendom, the Asian churches moved more quickly to evangelize the world, and their influence was without parallel. He argues persuasively that history is distorted when it forgets this Eastern faith.

Merv, in what is now Turkmenistan, is a dead city today, but in the Middle Ages it was, as Jenkins details, one of the largest cities on earth with some two hundred thousand people. Situated on the Silk Road, it was also one of the greatest centers of Christianity: Nestorian, or Eastern, Christianity, that is. By 420, it had a bishop; by 544, it had become a metropolitan see. It sent missionaries as far away as China. It had a school and translated Greek and Syriac textsfrom Aristotle to the New Testamentinto Asian languages. It flourished as a center of Christianity until the thirteenth century, much of that time under Muslim rule. Jenkins notes that Merv does not fit the Western paradigm of the spread of Christianity, developing much earlier than Western Christianity and lasting much longer than expected. It retained the Semitic roots of the faith long after they were thought to have been lost. Christianity in Merv developed without the aid of the Roman Empire or the sponsorship of a European king; it was a tolerated minority faith under Muslim rule.

The most influential ancient Christian groups in Asia were the Nestorians and Jacobites. They originated in the Near East and used the Syriac language, which was related to the Aramaic of Jesus. Although both dissented to some degree from the Orthodox Church, Jenkins is adamant that they not be considered fringe groups for three reasons: They agreed with the Western church on most essential pointsthe trinity, incarnation, baptism, the Eucharist, the two testaments, Resurrection, eternal life, the return of Christ, and the last judgment; they accepted the Council of Nicaea; and they accepted the faith as handed down from the apostles. If those are not sufficient reasons for taking them seriously as Christians then one must consider that they, very simply, outnumbered the Western churches.

The Nestorians took their name from the Patriarch Nestorius. They differed with the Orthodox Church on the nature of Christ. They agreed that He had two natures but did not agree that they were absolutely united in the mystical sense. The Jacobites took their name from Jacobus Baradaeus, who in the sixth century organized a group called Monophysites: those who asserted that Jesus had only one nature, a divine one. This group was declared heretical by the ecumenical council of Chalcedon and thus was split from the Orthodox Church. Egyptian Copts and Syrians (Suriani) were Monophysites, and Jacobus organized them into an underground church. They were...

(The entire section is 2249 words.)