Chapter 1 | Provided by The Keikyo Institute

Nestorian Christianity in the Tang Dynasty

Chapter Two

Nestorian Worship, Scripture and Mission

Worship eastward seems to be the first rule in Nestorian teaching. 'The Monument relates "Worshipping toward the east, they hasten on the way to life and glory." In the lvlongol period, in the history of Chin-kiang, we also read, "The worship towards the east is regarded as the principal thing in the religion." William of Rubruck like-worse pointed out "Then on the octave of Holy Innocents (January 4th) we were taken to the court and some Nestorian priests came. I did not know they were Christians and they asked me in what direction we worshipped. I said, 'Towards the East.'"

The veneration of the cross, as the instrument of redemption, became a Nestorian devotion. According to the Monument, "He set out the cross to define the four quarters," North, South, East and West. William of Rubruck told us that women of the Imperial Mongol household adored the cross with great devotion as they were instructed in that respect by the Nestorian priests. The cross indeed occupied so prominent a place in Nestorian faith and life that in the Mongol period the Nestorian monasteries were known as the monasteries of the cross. However, the Nestorians venerated the cross but not the crucifix as William of Rubruck reminded the readers of his Journal.

In the Nestorian monasteries, seven hours of ritual praise were kept and prayers were offered for the living and the dead. Sunday worship was especially stressed as "washing the heart and restoring purity."

The sacrament of baptism occupied a most important place in the Nestorian church. As the Monument stated, "The water and the Spirit of baptism wash away vain glory and cleanse one fine and white." This was equally true in the Mongol period. As we learn from William of Rubruck, "On Easter Eve the Nestorians baptized in the most correct manner more than 60 people and there was great common joy among all Christians." (Chap. xxx). This was a fine tribute from a Franciscan witness .

Of the Eucharist, we learn little from early Chinese Nestorian writing. But William of Rubruck 's Journal did throw some light on Nestorian liturgy. He wrote that in the church near Karakorum, the Nestorians celebrated Eucharist with a large silver chalice and paten. Again he recorded, "I said Mass on Maundy Thursday with their silver chalice and paten, which vessels were very large."

According to The Book of the Honoured Ones, the Trinitarian formula was stressed in divine service. "We reverently worship the mysterious Person, God the Father; the responding Person, God the Son; and the witnessing Person, the Spirit of Holiness We worship the Holy Trinity-three Persons in one."

We also have a Nestorian order of service dated 720, apparently for a special holy day. After the singing of a hymn, in this case the Hymn of Eternal Salvation, the congregation venerated St. John (probably reciting the collect of St. John's Day). This was followed by the recitation of the Book of Heavenly Treasure Store (The Breviary), the Psalms and the Gospels.

The Nestorian monks kept the beard and shaved the crown. The clergy were divided into two kinds: the black, clergy were the religious while the white clergy were the percular priests. Issu, for example though married is described as a monk and given the purple kashaya. His father, Milis, as we have noted, had also been a secular priest.

The Nestorian clergy were well-known for their social concern. There was no slavery in the Nestorian household. Moreover, the Nestorian missionaries were known among non-Christians for their medical knowledge and skill. This was one of the reasons for their success during the greater part of the T'ang Dynasty.

The eighth century also saw the beginning of Chinese hymnology. One of the oldest Chinese hymns - The Hymn to the Holy Trinity -was written at Chang-an around the year 800. It was probably the East Syriac form of the Gloria in Excelsis. Scholars are impressed with its rich imagery and its free adaptation of Buddhist terms. But it is not syncretism. As Prof. J. Foster of the University of Glasgow has reminded us, "Rather it is a borrowing of terminology, and a relation of doctrine to a familiar background of thought, as the only way of expressing Christian truth in its Far-eastern environment. "

If the highest-heavens with deep reverence adore,
If the great earth earnestly ponders on general peace and harmony,
If man's first true nature receives confidence and rest,
It is due to the merciful Father of the universe.

This hymn has been incorporated into the modern Chinese Hymnal, Hymns of' Universal Praise.

"Of scriptures there were left 27 books," the Monument stated. We do not know whether the whole New Testament had been translated into Chinese, but as early as 720 the Gospels were read in church. As early as 638 we have an excellent narrative of the Nativity, the Ministry and the Passion in The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah. The first half of this book is a manual on Christian living. Alopen tried to reconcile Christianity with Chinese ethics. The sutra stresses a three-fold loyalty: serving God, serving the Emperor, and serving one's parents. In the exposition of the Ten Commandments, it again stresses the importance of filial piety. It urges people to serve parents with deep respect so that they shall have no wants. In return, the filial children will inherit mansions in the Heavenly City. "All living, beings," the sutra reminded its readers, "owe their existence to their parents." The commandment for-bidding murder is changed into one forbidding the taking of life or exhorting others to take life. Here Alopen's Chinese Buddhist assistant used his own interpretation and imagination to render Alopen's ideas into his own mould of thought. The Buddhist influence was very apparent "The life of all living beings," the sutra added, "is the same as the life of man."

It is, however, the second half of the book which especially holds our attention. For the first time, Chinese readers were privileged to read an account of the Nativity. "God in Heaven above shed his light on heaven and earth. In the place where Jesus the Messiah was born, the dwellers in the world saw bright light on the earth, a star of good omen dwelling in the sky." The simile that the star was as large as a cartwheel proves to be interesting. The Chinese assistant of Alopen was familiar with Buddhist sutras and we have reason to believe that the simile was taken from the Buddhist scriptures where the size of the lotus is compared with that of the cartwheel.

In this document we read that at the Baptism "A voice was heard in space saying, 'Messiah is my son, all people who are in the world must obey his commandments.' " Yet according to St. Mark's Gospel , a similar saying is placed in the context of the Transfiguration. Does this mean that Alopen had made a mistake or that he had used an ancient Syriac text which had transplanted the voice of Heaven from the context of the Transfiguration to that of the Baptism?

The narrative of the Passion, in spite of its archaic language, is vivid and graphic. It was no mean achievement for the translator and his assistant who were searching for words and expressions. ~It followed St. Matthew's Gospel very closely, " The Prince said, 'I cannot kill this man.' The evil-doers said, 'If the man ought not to die, what will happen to our sons and daughters? ' The Prince Pilate asked for water and washed his hands in front of the evil-doers saying, 'I truly cannot kill the man.' "

The document ended abruptly in the middle of a sentence describing the aftermath of the Crucifixion. It appears that the original manuscript contained some more columns which have been lost to posterity.

In any case, we have a sequel to this sutra in The Messiah's Discourse on Charity which appeared in 642. Some of the terms adopted are quite ingenious. The Holy Spirit is the "Pure Wind;" the Resurrection is the "Holy Transformation." The first half of this latter document was devoted to a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount. The second half resumed the narrative of the life of Christ. It began with a description of the events which occurred at the time of the death and resurrection of Christ the splitting of the rocks , the opening of the tombs of the saints and their appearance for a period of 44 days (Matthew 27:52). In the section on the Ascension, the document ended thus, " Take My words and preach to all peoples. Call them to come to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I shall be with you in all your ways until the end of the earth. " Again it is reminiscent of the last verse of St. Matthew's Gospel. Indeed, St. Matthew is the Gospel par excellence for the Nestorians, and Alopen used it as the basis of his narrative both in the Sutra of Jesus the Messiah and in its sequel. The Book of the Honoured Ones (ninth century) gave a list of saints and scriptures . Among the saints or fa wongs (spiritual kings) one can recognize John, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Moses, David, Paul, Azariah, Michael, Milis and George. The list of scriptures includes the titles of 3 5 books which were venerated by the church in China. One can easily identify the Gospels, the Acts, Epistles of St. Paul, the Psalms, parts of the Pentateuch, a Breviary, and at least two of the original Chinese Nestorian books - Sutra Proclaiming the Origin and Root of the Holy Religion and the Sutra of Mysterious Peace and Joy.

In addition to Christian books, some Manichaean and astrological books like The Book of Three Moments and The Book of Four Gates were also included. In putting down the An Lu-shan rebellion, Nestorian tribesmen were fighting side by side with Manichaean Uighurs. In the process, the Nestorians apparently were influenced by the latter's beliefs. In the beginning and in the middle period of the T'ang Dynasty, the Nestorians had freely borrowed Buddhist and Taoist terms and imagery to express Christian doctrine, as we have seen in The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah and in The Hymn to the Holy Trinity. Moreover, free adaptation of Taoist terms in the Nestorian Monument is well known. Some of the sentences echoed closely the thoughts of the Tao Te Ching. For example, compare the phrases of the Monument, " The true and eternal way is wonderful and hard to name; its merits and use are manifest and splendid, forcing us to call it the brilliant teaching;" with those of the Tao Te Ching, "We do not know its real name (to classify it); that we may have it in writing we say, 'Tao', ' The Way. ' "

Now it is evident that the Nestorian Christians freely used Taoist terms and phrases in order to call the attention of the Chinese literati and the Imperial courtiers who favored Taoism to the Syriac religion. Yet after the turn of the ninth century, it ' is obvious that Nestorian writings were increasingly becoming syncretic in nature. The way that Buddhist and Taoist thoughts were freely borrowed had gone much beyond Alopen or Adam, the author of the inscription on the Monument. In the Sutra of Mysterious Peace and Joy, the Christian elements had largely disappeared. As the Messiah was surrounded by His disciples, like the Buddha, He enlightened them with divine mystery and at the conclusion of the discourse, the disciples were imbued with joy and with due ceremony withdrew. The setting bears little resemblance to that by the Sea of Galilee. But what was taught is even more astounding. It was not an adaptation of the Sermon on the Mount as we have seen in the early sutra of The Messiah's Discourse on Charity. It was rather a discourse on the overcoming of desire and thereby attaining inner peace and joy. It was more akin to Buddhism or Gnosticism than to Christianity.

The question is often raised whether the ministry of the Nestorians in China was aimed at the Chinese people. Or was the main work of Alopen and his successors that of caring for the needs of Nestorians in China and across the frontiers who had been gravely neglected by the Mother Church in Persia and left without episcopal or pastoral care? To begin with, the congregations of the Nestorian monastic churches in Chang-an and Loyang must have been largely Persian or Central Asian. But it is likely that missionary work among the Chinese also stood high on the list of Alopen's purposes. The very fact that the liturgy was written in Chinese is sufficient to show that there must have been a number of Chinese in the Nestorian congregations. More-over, in the persecution of foreign religions in 845 we learn that, besides foreign monks of Persian or Central Asian origin, there were a number of Chinese monks serving the Nestorian Church. These too must "be compelled to return to lay life and resume their original callings and pay taxes."

Again, the missionary impulse was clearly stated in the Hymn of Eternal Salvation ( 720) , "The Great Holy and Merciful Father will use His wisdom and strength to save the hundreds of millions of people . . . so that they could also return to the great truth."

But when all is said, the fact remains that Nestorianism in China was largely. a foreign church, without deep roots in Chinese soil. It had not entered the hearts of the people and really made itself at home. There was no Hsuan-tsang in the Nestorian Church who could translate Christian Scripture into elegant and lucid Chinese. Even Adam, who did so much for Nestorian Christianity in China, was of Central Asian origin. The Nestorians in China relied on the support of the mother church 'i~n Central Asia of Persia 'or Baghdad. After the fall of the T'ang Dynasty, it was exceedingly difficult to have communications with the Patriarch and no new missionaries could reach China in the time of turmoil. Moreover, the Nestorian Church in China was largely dependent on Imperial patronage. The fall of the Dynasty, therefore, meant the eclipse of the mission.

Nevertheless. Nestorianism continued to exist in Central Asia and along the Chinese frontiers. As early as the latter half of the eighth century, Nestorianism began to flourish among the Turkic tribes. In 781, the Patriarch Timothy was requested by the King of the Turks to establish a Metropolitan See there. The Patriarch noted, "The King of the Turks and nearly all the inhabitants of the country left their ancient idolatry and became Christians. He has requested us in his letters to create a Metro-politan See for his country and this we have done."

It was an age of Nestorian expansion. Central Asia was completely under Nestorian influence. The Patriarch was ruling a large church with 25 Metro-politans from Mesopotamia to the border of China. The Tokmak Cemetery alone contains over 600 gravestones, mostly with Syriac inscriptions dating from the middle of the 9th to the middle of the 14th Century. While in China, in a Nestorian monastery in San-pen Hill six or seven miles north-west of Fang-shan in Hopei Province, we find inscriptions on a tablet dated 960 and on another dated 1 365. These were Syriac inscriptions which included carved crosses. In spite of the eclipse of the mission in Chang-an, Loyang and Canton, the Nestorian Church continued to flourish along the frontiers of China and sometimes even m a corner of China itself.

Chapter 1 | Provided by The Keikyo Institute