I have chosen to call those churches with whom I am dealing by the one they were known by Christendom in Late Antiquity, where the sources speak of the “Church of the East” – that is the “Apostolic Church of the East” whose patriarch (catholicos) had his see at the Persian capital Seleucia-Ctesiphon.
The title “Apostolic Church of the East” is regarded by scholars of Syriac and Oriental Studies as the most useful and accurate. But other appropriate names are also “Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East” and “Ancient Church of the East,” favoured by the two jurisdictions of the church itself.
In early East Syriac sources the preferred term was for the most part simply “Church of the East.” Under the influence of Anglican missionaries in the second half of the nineteenth century the term “Assyrian” was applied to them, one they adopted with the rise of Assyrian nationalism, and which became official in 1976.
Those who say that week ow little about the early days of the Christian Church should become more familiar with the history of the Church of the East. We know a vast amount about the Church in the Roman Empire. We know who spread the faith to Antioch and further West. We have some of the epistles written by Paul and his helpers. We know where they went and what they did. By contrast, as the formidably erudite David Wilmshurst tells us in his The Martyred Church ‘the history of the Church of the East before the fourth century is shrouded in mystery’.
We have no real idea who took the faith beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Tradition attributes it to St Thomas (whose mission ended in southern India) and to Addai and Mari. Dr Wilmshurst thinks it was unlikely to have been any of them, although, as the writer William Dalrymple shows, St Thomas may well have gone to Kerala, and we know that sometimes tradition embodies a truth not recorded elsewhere. But what we do know, as so often in history, can provide us with clues to what we don’t.
From the accounts we have of St Paul’s missionary work, it is clear that he made his earliest converts amongst Jews settled in places like Corinth and Rome as part of a diaspora of traders and merchants. That diaspora lay to the east as well, and it seems probable that it was via that route that the faith spread eastwards. Although we tend to imagine all Jews went back from Babylon and Egypt after their exiles, they didn’t, and just as the Holy Family probably found refuge with relatives in Egypt, so did the faith follow suit along the trade routes.
If trade defied the boundaries set by Rome and Persia, so did language and culture. The people of Mesopotamia thought of themselves, as Dr Wilmshurst tells us, ‘as Syrians, spoke a common language, Syriac, and shared a common culture’. Syria was spoken from Roman Antioch on the Mediterranean as Far East as the Tigris. There was no language barrier to the faith being transmitted, and there were, in the form of the great trades routes through the region, a ready opportunity for it to move that way. Moreover, and unusually, the first two centuries after the birth of Christ were ones of peace between the two great Empires
One final point here, the fact that the Council of Jerusalem allowed the abandonment of many of the Jewish rituals which prevented people converting to Judaism, made the new faith one to which anyone attracted by its radical message of repentance and renewal could be drawn.It is also likely that some of those who fled from Judea after the fall of Rome, sought refuge in the Parthian Empire. The same message which proves so attractive in the West, was equally so in the east. But as we shall see, that did not mean that the faith developed in the same way outside of Rome’s orbit.