The Lost History and Early Christianity
Written by Gerald Procee
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Reformed Worldviews - The Hand of God in History

Current books on church history, explaining the expansion of Christianity, often give the impression that the church expanded into Europe and only after many centuries to other continents of the world. Something remarkable is forgotten in such overviews, namely that the church initially expanded significantly towards the East. The church in the West has largely forgotten the Eastern church. Soon after the establishing of the Jerusalem church, mission work extended towards the East. Recently, Philip Jenkins wrote an interesting book, The Lost History of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins 2008), which offers fascinating details.

Church Expansion in the East

Jenkins explains that due to early missionary endeavours churches were planted in the East and prospered there for a thousand years. Christianity became firmly rooted in countries such as Iraq, Persia, Syria and Egypt and expanded into India, China, Tibet and Mongolia. Cities such as Basra, Mosul, Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam, Nisibis, Jundishapur and Peshawar used to have large Christian populations. Many of these people spoke Syriac. They called themselves Nasraye (Nazarenes). Jesus was known among them as Yeshua. Monks and priests bore the title of rabban (rabbi). Linguistic research was on a very high level, text criticism was practiced and clergy were trained in ancient languages. These churches were to have a profound and lasting influence upon the churches in the West. Mariology was first implemented in Syria, and later incorporated in Rome. Church music originated in Syria and was transported to the Western church. Gregorian chants have Syrian roots.

In these churches of the ancient Middle East, academic learning was on a high level. Intellectual achievements, which are now being credited to Islam and Arab Muslim scholarship, were actually Christian. Christians preserved the learning of the ancient world. That which is now called Arab scholarship was really Syrian, Persian, and Coptic (Egyptian) scholarship. The numbering system we now have in the Western world is called Arabian, but originated from India. The Christian university of Jundishapur has been called the world’s oldest university, and was the basis for Islamic learning.

Conditions in Europe

Around the year 800 the societal and church scene in Europe looked very glum. Charlemagne’s empire was crumbling, pagan Norseman were rampaging in the northern part of the empire, advancing even into the Mediterranean. The Saracens were unleashing their havoc in the south. Ruin and massacre devastated the British and Irish monasteries. Spain was Muslim. Southern Italy and southern France seemed to follow. In 846 the Saracens plundered Rome. Pagan Magyars from Asia were on a mission of destruction in the eastern part of Europe. Northern Europe was still pagan. It seemed that Christianity in Europe had failed and was doomed to vanish.

The Situation in the Middle East

The situation in the Middle East looked far more prosperous. For example, in 780 A.D. the English church had two metropolitans: York and Canterbury. The counterpart in the East had 19 flourishing metropolitans with 85 bishops. Their authority reached into Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan and even into Mongolia. Arabia had four bishoprics. Bishops were residing in Yemen, India, and Mesopotamia. After all, it was in Mesopotamia where Paradise had existed and it was the country of Abraham, and therefore was naturally considered to be the centre of the Christian faith.

The church had expanded all the way to Beijing. Georgia, Armenia, Edessa, and Nubia. Ethiopia, and Egypt were early Christian nations. In the fifth century there were five great patriarchates, and only one in the West in Rome, while there were four in the East: Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Antioch. Rome was considered to be merely an outpost in the Christian realm. Theologians from the East were sent to bolster Christian learning in England.

In the year 1275, two Nestorian monks, Markos, a Uygur born near Beijing, and Bar Sauma, an Onggud Turk, travelled from China to Palestine. They visited the centres of the faith in the East and came to Syria and stayed there. In 1281, Markos was elected patriarch, bearing the name Yaballaha III. Bar Sauma began a diplomatic career, travelled in Catholic Europe and even visited England. His visit was a sensation when people understood that he was a Christian bishop from the Far East who was quite orthodox in the faith. The King of England even took communion from his hands. People were amazed that Mongols and Chinese knew the Christian faith. The people received an amazingly good impression of the church in the East. But what no one knew was that the church of the East was on the verge of annihilation.

The Advance and Conquest of Islam

In 1200, an amazing network of vibrant Christian churches and monasteries existed throughout the Near East, stretching deep into Asia. But in 1480 an anonymous Greek churchman lamented: What a frightful decline! Read all and you shall greatly lament.... Fifty-one metropolitanites, eighteen archbishoprics and 478 bishoprics are desolate.... And not only were those metropolitanites, archbishoprics, the monasteries and churches desolate; but also the provinces of the three patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Neither will you find a single metropolitan there, nor other Christian, laymen or clergy. But on the thrones of those patriarchates you will find barely a few priests, monks and laymen. Because the churches of their provinces have been obliterated completely and Christ’s people, that is the Christians, have been utterly destroyed.

What had happened? The Muslim conquest, started in the 7th century, had initially exercised restraint against nonMuslims. Islam bore a much closer resemblance to Christianity than it does now, which made conversion much easier. Mosques looked like early Christian churches. The prostration of Muslims was similar to the posture of prayer practiced by the early Eastern Christians. Fasting in Lent resembled the fasting in Ramadan. The Koran had parallels with Eastern Christian writings and devotional hymns.

Without any blows or torture people turned to Islam. In the 6th century North Africa numbered 500 bishops. In the 8th century none were left. African Christians were killed or fled. In Egypt, however, Christianity survived until today (10% of the population).

Muslim self-identity grew and their persecution of Christians started. Around 700 the poll tax was imposed upon non-Muslims in Syria. Life became harsher. The Turks, originating from central Asia in present-day Irkutsk, ventured into western Asia. In 1071 they defeated the Byzantines and flooded into Asia Minor. An eye witness (Michael the Syrian) describes the scene. The Turks began to massacre without pity and to torture men that they might show them hidden things and many died in torment. The Turks burned cities and even the whole country.... Everywhere Christians had been delivered to the sword or into bondage interrupting thus the cultivation of the fields, so that bread was lacking. The farmers and workers had been massacred or led off into slavery and famine extended its rigor to all places. Many provinces were depopulated.

In the 1140s the Turks took Edessa, a Christian city in Turkey, killing or enslaving its entire population. Edessa remained a desert. Around 1150, Michael the Syrian describes that clergymen would see this violence against them as a punishment of the Lord. Some aged priests recited the words of the prophet, “I will endure the Lord’s wrath, because I have sinned against Him and angered Him.” And they did not take flight nor did they cease praying until the sword rendered them mute.

The End of Christianity in Central Asia

Then a change seemed to take place. The 13th century invading Mongols from central Asia conducted their brutal and bloody attacks. Initially, they were anti-Muslim and cultivated ties with the Christians. They changed Muslim places into Christian centres. This was around the time of the visit of Bar Sauma to the West. At that time the future seemed positive, with Islam in retreat.

But Mongol rulers drifted towards Islam. In 1295, Khan Mahmud Ghazan, a Muslim, turned against the Christians. Around the 1350s mobs demanded that Christians and Jews recite the Muslim professions of faith upon threat of being burned alive. Due to cruel persecutions, many defected to Islam. Church hierarchies were destroyed, priests and monks killed, enslaved or expelled. Monasteries were destroyed and churches fell silent. Christian communities shriveled as ethnic and religious cleansing took place. In 1050 A.D., Asia Minor numbered 373 bishoprics, while the inhabitants were virtually all Christian. In 1450 A.D., Christians were only 10% of the population and only three bishops remained. During the 14th and 15th century, the Uzbek leader Amir Timur and his grandson Ulug Bek, virtually killed all the Christians in central Asia. The church had died.

What We Can Learn

What can we learn from all this? How is it possible that a once vibrant church could be so devastatingly rooted out? There are various factors to take into consideration.

God’s Sovereignty. God is sovereign in planting His church and in expanding or removing His church. The Lord can send revivals and can also withhold revivals. In Asia there was a vibrant church for 800 years while during that time significant parts of Europe had no church presence. We must consider God’s sovereignty in planting His church and sending His servants where and when it pleases Him.

Spiritual Decay. This can also be a reason why a church declines and is eventually removed or dies. In Revelation 2 we read of a congregation in decline and the threats of the King of the church that unless the church repents He will remove the candlestick from it. This means that the church will be removed; it will decline. Spiritual decay can take place in many ways. There can be pride, especially spiritual pride, which is an abomination in God’s sight. There can be a lack of love or a process of accommodating to false religion. Many in Asia accommodated to Islam because in its outward forms it initially looked so much like Christianity.

Failure to Spread the Gospel. Failing to spread the Gospel is probably the reason why the church in North Africa died out so soon. The church and its theologians (among whom were Augustine and Tertullian) were not mission minded. They did not reach out to the original Berber population and their religion was contained within their own class of society, while the Coptic church of Egypt did gain a foothold among the common people. As a result of the Muslim onslaught, the church in North Africa died out in just a few generations while the Coptic church exists to the present day. We also must take into consideration that Revelation 11 tells us that the powers of antichrist will be allowed to overcome the church (Rev. 11:9) so that the public face of the church disappears.

There was a time when people in the East would not have been able to imagine a post-Christian Syria or a nonChristian Mesopotamia. A century ago, Western Europeans would have thought the same of their nations. But now we see a rapidly shrinking Christianity in the West and a growing Muslim religion. In the midst of these developments, the church must recognize its high calling. First of all, that calling is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Every generation needs to experience a form of revival to discover for itself the riches of the Word of God and the blessedness of His service. God’s love must fill our hearts. Only then will there be a living faith. We are also to be watchful to preserve the doctrines of God’s Word. When doctrine fails, faith becomes vague and meaningless. Neither may we accommodate to the spirit and practice of our current pagan and immoral world, lest God’s Spirit is grieved and He removes Himself and we are left to our own foolishness.

Finally, the need of the church is to guard the lively faithful, experiential, uncovering, spiritual preaching, for through the foolishness of preaching it pleases God to save sinners. We need to multiply the prayer of old: “Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts, cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved” (Ps. 80:19).

Dr. Gerald Procee is the pastor of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk in Middelharnis, NL. This article was printed in the FRC Messenger and is repubished here with permission.