The history of the Nestorian Church is a fascinating insight into ‘what might have been’. Every time someone laments the effects of Constantine’s conversion on ‘Christianity’, they might be reminded that not all Christianity was affected. If we want some idea of what might have happened had the most powerful Empire in the world not adopted the Faith, we might turn to those who lay outside its orbit.
Here the Church of the East is the great exemplar. Where those non-Chalcedonian Churches which at first still lay within the Empire, and were then lost to it – the Fathers of the Copts and the Syriac Orthodox – made their peace with Islam and catered only to their own peoples, the Church of the East continued to reach out to the whole world east of the Euphrates.
Even before the division with the West, the Church of the East had contact with the Indian Thomas Christians at Kerala around AD 300, and had penetrated into the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf. My favourite Saint, Isaac the Syrian, was a member of the Church of the East. By the 550s the Church had penetrated beyond the Oxus river and reached Samarkand. It established a bishopric there. It also penetrated into Western Turkey, making converts there.
The wars of the late sixth and early seventh centuries between the Persian and Roman Empires exhausted both of them. Although the former was able to conquer Antioch, Damascus, Jerusalem and Egypt between 602 and 619, the Roman counter attack in the 620s inflicted heavy damage on the Persians. Thus weakened, both lost lands to the forces of Islam which broke out of the desert in the 640s, and the Zoroastrian Sassanids were replaced by the Muslim Umayyads.
The first Islamic rulers were happy to let Christians be, as long as they accepted the role of second-class citizens and paid more taxes. The Nestorian Millet was one of a number of such groups in the Empire, and for a while Christians noticed little difference. However, when as was bound to happen, a Muslim Caliph who hatred and distrusted Christians came to power, they were savagely persecuted as during the reign of al-Hakim (996-1021) – and had no protection. As with the Christian communities in Syria and Egypt, these periods of active persecution, combined with the burdens of taxation and the petty humiliations of being second class citizens, gradually eroded numbers.
The same was true of its missions to the Far East. The Nestorian presence in Samarkand (where there was a bishopric) is attested to by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century, and we know that by the end of the eighth century there were Nestorian missionaries in Tibet, where Christian manuscripts have been found dating from that time. There were also Nestorian communities in Western China as early as the late sixth century. The great oasis of Turfan in the Chinese Gobi desert contains the ruins of a Nestorian monastery, which was only one of many on the Silk Road to eastern China.
The Nestorian stele mentioned in the first of my pieces on the Church of the East, dates back to 781, and confirms what Marco Polo wrote later about the presence of Christian communities in China in the thirteenth century; they had been there for at least five hundred years by that time; although the Church was much diminished by his time. As ever, the fate of the Church depended upon the whim of rulers who had no real interest in it – beyond taxing it and distrusting it.
Those who wonder what Christianity would have been like without Constantine do not have to engage in counter-factual speculation – they just need to read David Wilmshurst’s moving account of the Martyred Church.