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A History of Christianity in Asia: Beginnings to 1500 [Paperback]

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Pages   560
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9.23" Width: 6.02" Height: 1.22"
Weight:   1.85 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   May 15, 1998
Publisher   Orbis Books
ISBN  1570751625  
EAN  9781570751622  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...
The story of Christianity in the West has often been told, but the history of Christianity in the East is not as well known. The seed was the same: the good news of Jesus Christ for the whole world, which Christians call "the gospel." But it was sown by different sowers; it was planted in different soil; it grew with a different flavor; and it was gathered by different reapers.It is too often forgotten that the faith moved east across Asia as early as it moved west into Europe. Western church history tends to follow Paul to Philippi and to Rome and on across Europe to the conversion of Constantine and the barbarians. With some outstanding exceptions, only intermittently has the West looked beyond Constantinople as its center. It was a Christianity that has for centuries remained unashamedly Asian. A History of Christianity in Asia makes available immense amounts of research on religious pluralism of Asia and how Christianity spread long before the modern missionary movement went forth in the shelter of Western military might. Invaluable for historians of Asia and scholars of mission, it is stimulating for all readers interested in Christian history.

Publishers Description
The history of Christianity in the West has often been told, but the story of Christianity in the East has received scant attention. This Christianity looked neither to Rome nor Constantinople, and for centuries remained proudly Asian. This first volume of Samuel Moffett's epic history reveals this fascinating and little-known story.

While Paul and other early missionaries converted Greeks and Romans, then the "barbarian" tribes of Europe, priests of the Church of the East -- later called the Nestorian -- established centers in Persia and Afghanistan, across India and the Mongolian steppes, and in China itself as early as the 7th century. These missionaries experienced both favor and persecution according to the political climate of their times; but the expansion they achieved would not be matched by the West until after the 13th century.

Moffett captivates readers with the rise and fall of empires and the rulers whose actions determined the fate of Christianity in their realms. It was Kublai Khan's mother, a Christian Mongol princess, who encouraged the Great Khan's tolerance of Christian missionaries. Indeed, Mongol armies were known to ride into battle under the banner of the Holy Cross. But it was a dust cloud from a different desert -- Islam -- that was to dramatically bring about the end of this first, dynamic period of Asian Christianity.

A History of Christianity in Asia makes available immense amounts of research on the religious pluralism of Asia and how Christianity spread long before the modern missionary movement went forth in the shelter of Western military might. Invaluable for historians of Asia and scholars of mission it is stimulating for all readers interestedin Christian history.

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More About Samuel Hugh Moffett

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Samuel Hugh Moffett is Henry Luce Professor Emeritus of Ecumenics and Mission at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of a History of Christianity in Asia Volume I: Beginnings to 1500.

Samuel Hugh Moffett currently resides in Princeton, in the state of New Jersey.

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An eye-opening journey with lessons for modern Christians  Oct 4, 2008
Simply put, this book brought me on a remarkable journey into an area of Christian history about which I'd previously known very little. It opened my eyes to the faith and works of God's people in the post-apostolic Church of the East, and it also posed some interesting lessons that are relevant to Christians in today's world, despite the gulf in time--as well as geography, for many of us--that separates their age from ours.

The book itself was one of many additional readings recommended by Dr. David Calhoun in association with his Ancient and Medieval Church History course at Covenant Theological Seminary (available for free download at To be honest, it took me nearly two years of on-and-off reading to get through the book, but I would attribute that to the fact that I am, in retrospect, less of a history buff than I'd thought, and to my tendency to get my fingers stuck in more books than I can really manage! The book itself is an interesting read, with many of the individual stories of saints and martyrs being real page turners, and with overall content and organization that are just superb. Dr. Moffett's heart for Asia was definitely poured into this book, and it shows.

The book begins in the apostolic and early post-apostolic era, and traces the growth of the church eastward, into Asia. The primary layout of the book is chronological, moving from this early period forward until its close at the dawn of the sixteenth century. Geographically, I'll oversimplify by saying that it focuses on three primary regions: Persia/Arabia, India, and China/Mongolia. Persia/Arabia and China/Mongolia get the most detailed treatment, which is understandable due to the vast area covered by the one, and the great amount of change and relevance to modernity encompassed by the other. Of course, as empires shifted and grew, a lot of this runs together--the Mongols, for example, ruled from China to Persia.

Being concerned with Christianity in Asia, Dr. Moffett focuses on the main church that existed in Asia: the Church of the East, also called Nestorian, which is to be differentiated from both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of the West. Thus, most of the Christian figures in the book are Nestorian, with Jacobites (Syrian Monophysites) probably second most numerous. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches are described as they interact with the Church of the East, as well as when their respective empires interact with the various empires of the east, for better or for worse.

As Dr. Moffett describes it, this eastern branch of Christianity actually grew rather quickly and widely, with the gospel spreading to India within only a few centuries (perhaps less than 200 years) of Jesus' resurrection, and even to China, where it found a degree of favor under the T'ang dynasty prior to the end of the first millennium AD. However, for a variety of reasons, it developed in a different "flavor" than it did in the West. Some of the reasons were cultural: we should not expect Christianity, and Christians, to "look" exactly the same in all cultures. Some of the reasons were theological: the physical location of various schools of theological thought, as well as "who went where", influenced the theology of the eastern church in a particular direction. Many of the reasons, and probably the root of some of the theological reasons, were political: the Church of the East tended to be separated by political borders from the churches of the West. First Persia, then the Muslims, then the Mongols, and eventually the Turks--all of these empires served to geographically and culturally separate the eastern church from the western churches.

As a result, Christians in the East established a church that they considered to be of equivalent standing to, and independent from, the patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople. They established their own hierarchy of bishops, maphrians, patriarchs, metropolitans, and so forth. They organized for missions, established schools and monasteries, and generally did the same sorts of activities that the church in the West did. They communicated across the imperial borders with their brothers in the West with varying degrees of regularity, but by and large their work was the sole responsibility and product of the church that they believed stood on equal ground with those in the West.

Indeed, being associated with the churches in the West was often a liability to the Eastern Christians. As Dr. Moffett discusses, the West had Constantine, and so eventually Christianity in the Roman Empire operated under official sanction--but no such figure arose in the East. Generally, Christians in the various empires of Asia existed as an underprivileged minority. At worst, they were actively and mercilessly persecuted, as under certain Persian and Muslim rulers. At best, they survived with the mercy, and at the whim, of a benevolent--but never Christian--dictator. In this environment, being too friendly with the West could ruin Christians' reputations and standing, and perhaps even put their lives at risk. As it stood, Christianity in most of the tribal Asian cultures stood out as a "foreign" religion; one can imagine that a practicer of a foreign religion who started getting friendly with those of an opposing empire could quickly be branded a spy or traitor.

The history that Dr. Moffett presents takes one from highs of excited amazement, to lows of disappointment and woe. We see Christians trusted as physicians and royal assistants in Persian courts; Orthodox, Jacobite, and Nestorian missionaries banding together despite their theological differences to evangelize distant tribes; Mongol rulers marrying Christian princesses, and even teaming up with Western Christian empires against common enemies--indeed an entire line of faithful Christian women in the Mongol royal line; even a long-surviving clan of Christians in the south of India, claiming a heritage back to the apostle Thomas.

Yet, then we see dissent between Christians being the cause of pagan rulers withdrawing their previously benevolent support; bloody massacres of Christians that dwarf anything ever experienced by the Western church; the failure of the early church to translate the Scriptures to Arabic and thus perhaps bring about a future far different than we see today; syncretism and compromise with the surrounding cultures; and, almost always, treatment as second-class citizens by the ruling empires. To me, the most heartbreaking of these lows were always the failures by Christians--failures that we ignore at our own peril, lest we fall into similar traps.

At the close of the book, at the year 1500, Christianity in Asia has dwindled to near insignificance. Indeed, it has retreated back to almost the same state it held in the early post-apostolic period, with a small outpost farther west, closer to Syria, and a small outpost in India. At the dawn of the "age of exploration", as Westerners are on the brink of bringing their own Christianity into Asia, the original missions to the great continent seem to have failed. Dr. Moffett poses various possible reasons, but then leaves us with the thought that perhaps it's something that will remain known to God alone. We can propose various reasons--cultural, political, even theological--but humility and charity demand we cast a kind, and perhaps sad, eye toward the ancient Church of the East.

All that being said, the book really served to drive home some lessons for me.

(1) Gospel behavior matters. Throughout the book, one is saddened to see the various times where Christians failed to act like Christians; for example, where Christians, finding favor with Mongol rulers, mistreated Muslim neighbors--mistreatment that was inevitably returned upon them when the tables turned.

(2) Christian unity matters. It's all and well to discuss exactly what form this unity ought to take; I am partial to the anecdotal example of the Orthodox, Jacobite, and Nestorian missionaries banding together to evangelize some barbarian tribe or another (the Huns, perhaps). However, the journalized notes of various Western explorers, referring to the Nestorians in China (for example) as "vile heretics", are a saddening reminder of the lack of humility we often display toward one another as Christians. There, in the depths of a foreign, pagan empire, Western Christians had come across Eastern Christians--and permanently recorded them as heretics.

(3) Christ in culture--we've got to evangelize at all levels of a culture. Dr. Moffett makes a comment in his conclusion that I didn't quite get, but which, based on the book, I think may reflect this sentiment: oftentimes, Christians in Asia failed to evangelize at the popular level. They were frequently welcomed in courts as advisors, physicians, and so forth, but I got the impression that Christianity was always considered "foreign" at a popular level, especially in China. We, as Christians, must be effective at evangelism at all levels. (Yet, as we learn this lesson from the example of the early Asian Christians, we've also got to remember that they lived in the status of a repressed and controlled minority--not exactly conducive to evangelism.)

(4) Christ against culture--we must evangelize in a manner relevant to the culture, but not in such a way that Christian doctrine becomes distorted by the culture. The New Testament authors do this, after all, figuring out how to present ancient Hebrew themes in the Greek philosophical world. Reading some of the examples of the Asian Christians, we see places where they began to adopt the customs and traditions, even some of the beliefs, of their "host" cultures. Some of this is good and necessary, but as it takes on too much of a theological character, Christianity ceases to be such.

(5) We belong to a separate kingdom. The West has the advantage, but also the bias, of being able to view our church history from a position of favor since very early in the first millennium AD. Perhaps, then, we're not as careful about our relationship with the politics of earthly kingdoms as we ought to be. The example of the Church of the East shows us some positive examples of Christians interacting with pagan and hostile (or indifferent) governments, but also some perils. Too closely associating themselves with a regime tended to result in their own minimization when that regime inevitably fell.

(6) The Church is important. It seems that almost universally, the early church--whether Western or Eastern--recognized the importance of the "institutional" Church. Even the various hermits and ascetic monks--frequent in the West but more so in the East--tended to (albeit reluctantly at times) heed the call of various church authorities to come and take up positions of leadership or teaching within the church. There were few "lone gun" Christians.

I'll present one final note on the issue of theological differences. Dr. Moffett spends a good deal of effort in the book explaining the issue of Nestorianism--and more importantly, delving into what Nestorius himself actually believed and taught, based on his writings. Nestorius was declared a heretic at Chalcedon, and so it was apparently relatively easy for later Christians to dismiss their Eastern brethren as heretics and schismatics. However, Dr. Moffett makes a good case for the following points:

(1) The issue over Nestorianism was at least as much, if not more so, an issue of politics--Antioch versus Alexandria--as theology.

(2) Nestorius' "crime" was probably more an issue of choosing language (the actual words he chose) that were too weak to adequately contain the concepts at hand, than actually believing that Jesus was somehow two persons.

(3) Nestorius' own writings in his defense, discovered within the last century or two, credibly vindicate him and should cause Western Christians too look more kindly on him and those who followed his legacy. Perhaps the Nestorianism against which Chalcedon spoke was never more than a theological straw man.

This has become quite a bit more than a casual review. I can conclude by saying nothing other than that, if the topics I've discussed have caused you some degree of curiosity about this little known but, in my mind, immensely important piece of the body of Christ, then by all means, purchase and read this book. You won't be disappointed.
Excellent Historical Survey  Jan 4, 2006
I have found Moffett's history to be very informative and well-written. His organization is clear and his writing clear and easy to read. I know of no other work which so clearly and comprehensively addresses this much neglected topic.

My only criticism is a lack of more detail as to the doctrinal beliefs of the early Christians in Persia and further east. While he naturally spends a considerable amount of time on the Nestorian controversy, I would have liked more treatment regarding other issues, such as the early (pre-A.D. 325) Church of the East's understanding of the Lord's Supper (e.g., did they believe in the real presence?), Mariology (e.g., while they reject the title Theotokos, what did they believe as to her perpetual virginity, sinlessness or sinfulness, and the assumption), soteriology (e.g., how is one saved and is it an event or a process), baptism (e.g. what modes are appropriate and may infants be baptized?), communion of the saints, etc. Perhaps there simply is inadequate sources to address those issues, but it would have made what is an excellent history even better.
Dawning...  Oct 13, 2004
As I'm Asian (Mongolian Christian), I read this book and delighted much. I'm looking for a coming new day on Asian people.
Last night I dreamt I was a great Khan...  Jul 20, 2004
Last night I dreamt that I was a Great Khan, deciding who the next Nestorian Archbishops would be in the four sections of the empire...

There are few non-fiction books good enough to invade my dreams. This is one of them. I was pulled into the book and found it difficult to put down. Moffett writes in a very readable, engrossing style, but full of research and incredibly accurate. Unlike other treatments of this subject, Moffett is not trying to put forth a particular ideology or accept wholesale hagiophora. While he respects the traditions of some about the formations of the early church, he analyzes these traditions critically to see what might be reality and what might be more myth.

It is rare to find a book on the Nestorian Church, this, perhaps the largest church in the world in the first 1000 years of Christianity, containing at least 20% of all Christians- all East of Antioch. Because many still consider their beliefs heretical (although most scholars now agree that the differences in understanding of the nature/s of Christ were more linguistic than theological), many theologians avoid this church, or don?t even know of it?s existence. I grew up being taught there were Protestants and some Catholics. That was it. It wasn?t till much later I learned there were Orthodox, and two varieties, as well as The Church of the East, the Nestorians. But when a writer does touch this subject, it is often very a very dry, terse history, that makes one want to rather fall asleep.

Moffett takes a different approach. He spent the time to do his research, as copious endnotes and sources indicate. He spent the time to contemplate the lives which he was writing about. And that?s what makes this book different. He?s writing about lives. It?s exciting. He writes about the missions endeavors of this early church, how they spread throughout known Asia: to the Caucuses, central Asia, Arabia, Yemen, Suqutra, India, China, SE Asia, and maybe even Japan. He writes honestly about their successes and failures- why they expanded, and why they declined. Much of their approach was laudable, in their desire to contextualize. Some tragically hurt them in the end, in their repeated attempts to get close to the state, they sacrificed not necessarily ethics but their foremost mission for the sake of temporary security. And when the state fell, as all states do, the new state did not look with favor on those that were so closely tied with the old state. And the overall goal, of being a people called out to be different, an alien people, became lost in a struggle for survival. Ironically, in the attempt to survive, they spelled their own doom- so that today they only exist in isolated pockets in India, Kurdistan, and America, where the Patriarchate is.

Two minor issues that I would recommend to improve this book. There are many helpful references to the endnotes. However, much of the endnotes are simply source sites. It would be helpful to differentiate these. Also, because much of the book refers to unfamiliar place names, it would be helpful to include more detailed maps, changing as the years change, and not placed at the beginning of the book, but rather next to whatever text it is that is referring to the map. I spent a lot of time referring back to a random town in the maps, and trying to find where it was located.

This is a definite must for anyone interested in the Eastern churches, and the Church of the East. But I think all Christians should be aware of this church that was so formative in our history, to see how Christianity was really, in the first 12 centuries, an Asian religion before it was European. Though now the majority of Christians live outside the Western world, many forget that the narrowing of Christianity to Europe was only a temporary period in history.
Definitive Overview of the Subject  Feb 18, 2004
I know of no other seurvery of Asian Christianity that matches Moffat's, with regards to scholarship and readability for the general reader. I found this book absolutely unputdownable!

I don't know what exactly Moffat's religious persuasion is. This work is as sympathetic to Nestorian Christians as it is to their orthodox (i.e. Catholic and Orthodox) counterparts. I learned a lot from this book.

For instance, the Nestorian controversy was more a dispute over terminology than dogma; Christianity was not introduced into China by Portugese Catholics in the 16th century; Armenia's was not the first Christian king; Saint Thomas' mission to India justmay be more than legend; and much, much more.

The book is an absolute must-red on the subject. There's a couple of minor errors in it, though. The book states, for example, that the Nestorian Christians in China were not heterodox by Protestant standards except that they apparently prayer for their dead. I think this is a gross oversimplification. If these were anything like they're Western Asian Nestorian brethren, then they also would have had seven sacraments, believed in the Real Pressence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Euccharist's sacrifical aspects, praying to Mary and the saints, veneration of relics, belief in Apostolic succession, etc. The book also states that the Maronites of Lebanon were Oriental Orthodox (i.e. Monophysite), when, in fact, they are one of two Eastern Churches that never broke communion with the Roman Church.

Other than these, however, the book was really good. As one reviewer noted either, it would have been more useful for the book to have included the various dynasties and succession of Patriarchs in appendices, rather than scattered through the footnotes. Also, the maps could have been a bit more readable. It was somewhat difficult for a not-geographically-inclined person like myself to find certain cities.

Christendom will have much to gain when the "schismatic" Nestorians finally reunify with the Catholic Church. Until then, books like this will aid dialogue, educating believers about this often under-studied denomination of historic Christianity.


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