The Eastern (Nestorian) Church

Christianity in the first century CE was dissimnating both to the West and to the East in much the same way: through connections with already existing Jewish communities dispersed in the lands outside of Israel. After continual growth, the population of Christians east of Palestine was further augmented by Greek and Syriac speaking Christians who were relocated to the East as a result of the Persians' successful invasion of eastern Roman territory in the mid-third century. As the Church in the West became more interwoven with imperial politics after Constantine's conversion, the eastern churches, many of which were established beyond Roman borders, became more autonomous from the West. In 424, a synod of eastern Bishops declared their sees "administratively" independent from the Western Church.1

The "Nestorian" identification of the eastern churches sprouted from the theological and political disputes of the fourth and fifth centuries. One of these disputes was over proper terminology for Mary, the mother of Jesus, which was, in turn, the result of a dispute over the nature of Jesus himself. Within the early church philosophical schools of interpretation were often associated with geographic centers. Antioch in Syria and the churches in the East tended to view Jesus as having two distinct natures, one fully divine and the other fully human, culminating in the person of Jesus (thus the term diophysitism from the Greek words for "two" and "nature"). Thus, they argued, Mary should be spoken of as "the bearer of Christ." An opposing interpretation was offered by the school of Christians associated with Alexandria in Egypt, who insisted that Christ was of one nature only: fully divine (monophysitism), and thus Mary should be termed "the mother of God."

When a Syrian bishop named Nestorius was appointed to the prestigious and influential position of Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, he continued to propagate his natural Antiochan (diophysite) position. Fierce resistance came, however, from Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, who through political influence with the Emperor's sister was able to have Nestorius removed from office and have the diophysite position proclaimed a heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The eastern churches refused to attend the council. Rejecting the authority of Cyril and the monophysite position, they distanced themselves still further from the Western Church. They proceeded to establish a new Episcopal seat in the Sassanian Persian capital at Chestiphon and thus became further associated with the Persian world of the East while the Western Church remained associated with Byzantium. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the Western Church proposed a sort of compromise, but the measure was not enough to reunite the divisions. A synod of eastern bishops in 486 declared the Eastern Church's Nestorian identity and upheld their diophysite position.

For Christians living in Persia, persecutions were intermittent and usually resulted from a particular ruler's ties with the native Zoroastrian priests who often strove to elevate their native faith over such non-traditional religions as Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Manichaeism. Most of the time Nestorians lived peacefully under rulers who favored religious diversity within their realm. At times, Nestorians even served in the Persian military against the Christian Byzantine West.

From Persia, the Nestorian church continued to grow eastward along the Silk Roads. Situated on the crossroads of Asia, the region of Sogdiana (modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) was a chief center of commercial and cultural exchange bringing together merchants from nearly all regions of Asia. Through their long existent commercial ties with the Persian merchants, Sogdians began to convert to Nestorian Christianity and played a key role in its transmission east. Often multilingual, Sogdian merchants served as capable translators of Nestorian texts. In the Tarim Basin--a well known hot-spot of diverse religious beliefs--a cache of Nestorian texts translated from Syriac (the official language of the Nestorian church) into Sogdian was discovered in the early twentieth century. Although translations, some of these texts were previously unknown. By 650 an archbishopric existed in Samarkand and even further east in Kashgar. Sogdian merchants, along side Syrian missionaries, also contributed to the conversion of nomadic Turkish tribes living in the steppe of Central Asia. The Nestorian faith by the Mongol period (13th century), intermixed with indigenous religious practice, is thought to have been quite prosperous among the nomads.

The success of the Nestorians in China is mixed. A monument erected in 781 in the Tang capital Chang'an (Xian) relates the story of Syrian and Persian missionaries bringing the faith to China in the seventh century. Much of the early Tang rulers, themselves of a semi-foreign origin, promoted religious diversity in China to help legitimize their rule and therefore welcomed the Nestorians along side other non-Chinese religions such as Buddhism. After being granted an audience with the Tang Emperor Tai Zong (r.626-649), the Syrian missionary Alopen was allowed to establish a monastery in Chang'an and was asked to translate the Christian scriptures into Chinese. Later persecutions of non-Chinese faiths, however, led to the virtual disappearance of Nestorians in China by the tenth century. For a brief time under the Mongols (in the 13th and 14th centuries) the Nestorian church had a resurgence in China, but was again suppressed under the Ming Dynasty, which ascended in 1368.2

-- Lance Jenott


(1) Foltz, Richard, Religions of the Silk Road (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 66

(2) "Nestorian Church, China" in A Dictionary of Asian Christianity, ed. Scott W. Sunquist, (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2001)

Further Reading:

  • Foster, John, The Church of the T'ang Dynasty (London: Macmillan, 1939)

  • Translation of the Nestorian stele at Chang'an (Xian)

  • The Travels of William of Rubruck to the Mongol Court (13th c.), in which Friar William gives large descriptions of the Nestorians at the Mongol court and their interaction with other religions.