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The Forgotten First Eastern Christians



Philip Jenkins - published on 02/02/15

History has neglected these early Christians outside Europe and the Mediterranean
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I recently found an intriguing and valuable source for early Christian history. Apart from its intrinsic interest, though, we have to ask just why it is so little known. That in turn raises the much larger issue of how we study that history, and how we define the world we are looking at.

From very early times, Christianity became a real force in the lands east of Palestine, in Syria and Iraq, and in many territories ruled by the vast Persian Empire. In a sense, that empire represented a kind of mirror image of the Roman world. Yet many valuable parts of that eastern Christian history are virtually unknown to mainstream scholars, who focus exclusively on Europe and the Mediterranean world. In consequence, we are missing a large part of the story.

To illustrate that point, I take an odd and still rather mysterious story from the late third century.

The leading figure in Persia’s Zoroastrian priesthood was one Kartir (or Kerdir), a revolutionary figure who departed from the standard imperial model of wide-ranging cultural tolerance. In the 270s, at Naqsh-e Rajab near Persepolis, Kartir commissioned some immodest inscriptions that vaunted his services to this faith and his empire. Among these very informative words, we find a boast of his intolerant and persecuting activities, and how he had “smitten” various minority religions:

“The heresy of Ahriman [the Devil] and the demons departed and was routed from the empire. And Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and Nazarenes and Christians and Baptists and Manicheans were smitten in the empire, and idols were destroyed, and the abodes of the demons disrupted and made into thrones and seats of the gods.”

But who was actually smitten? Translators agree that he gave seven names, but they vary quite widely on how they identify the victims. For the sake of argument, let us agree on Buddhists, Hindus, Manicheans and Jews, about whom there is a general consensus, and focus on the controversial Christian aspects of the inscription.

All scholars who have addressed this issue agree that he listed Christians, kristen, but what about the other groups? Two other words are reconstructed as Nasra and Makdag. The first of these is commonly read as Nazarenes/Nazoreans, a term that in a Western context often implies Jewish-Christians, perhaps related to the Ebionite sect. In the east, though, it might suggest orthodox/mainstream believers. This is for instance the name that the persecuted believers in contemporary Iraq give themselves. Curiously to our eyes, Nazarenes/Nazoreans actually precede “Christians” in the catalogue.

The “Makdag” are the most difficult to decipher. The term could well refer to Jewish-Christian baptismal sects like the Elchasaites, and that is how many scholars read it. Less likely, it suggests another related group altogether, such as the non-Christian Gnostic Mandaeans who survive in southern Iraq.

We naturally assume that the unadorned “Christians” refers to mainstream, orthodox believers, the kind who would be in fellowship with Antioch or Alexandria, but that is not necessarily so. Some scholars suggest that in this context, the word refers to Marcionites, Christians who rejected the Old Testament and its God. If that is the case, then orthodox believers are comprehended under another term, namely Nazarene/Nazorean.

You could either be a “Christian,” or you could believe in the Old Testament. It’s rather like in parts of modern-day Asia, where uninformed outsiders draw a self-evident distinction between “Christians” and “Catholics!”

Let us assume that Kartir was listing the empire’s “Western” religious minorities as Jews, Manicheans, and three “flavors” of Christians. I suggest that these Christians were, respectively, mainstream/orthodox; Marcionites; and Jewish-Christian baptismal sects. Put another way, in the late third century – within the lifetime of the future Constantine the Great – this was the familiar taxonomy of Christians in the eastern world, in that vast territory lying east of Syria. There were Christians, Nazarenes and Baptists, with no suggestion that any one group was dominant.

Just possibly, the order in which sects are listed suggests that Kartir saw the Manicheans as part of the broader Christian continuum. Mani actually began his career in the Elchasaite baptismal sect.

To Western eyes, this is an odd and surprising catalogue, which is very different indeed from what we might expect from a standard source like Eusebius’s Church History. Clearly these eastern Christians had their own distinctive range of controversies and divisions, which differed fundamentally from the concerns obsessing the Christians of Egypt or Italy.
The sheer number of groups listed is also surprising. Kartir makes no quantitative claims, and assuredly had no idea of the actual number of adherents that any given tradition had. The order in which he lists sects may or may not give any indication of their relative population or strength, but it is interesting that he begins with Jews, who we know to have abounded in Persian-ruled Babylonia. Although Christian (or Christian-ish) sects do not stand at the start of his list, there are no fewer than three of them. That suggests that Christians enjoyed real numbers and/or visibility, enough to arouse real alarm for the Persian state religion.

Of course, Kartir’s assertion that he had “smitten” or destroyed these groups was simply false. There were plenty of Christians left for the Persians to persecute in later centuries.

Not for a second do I believe that I am making some kind of scholarly discovery in recounting this story, which is absolutely familiar to that body of highly-qualified experts who specialize in Persian and Iranian matters, in Iranology. Yet I don’t believe I have ever seen this inscription referred to in the very substantial “mainstream” literature on early Christian history, or on those movements we deem heretical. That may be my ignorance, and I am quite prepared to be corrected.

My impression, though, is that this is yet another example of that vast eastern Christian history that we do not study because it did not happen on the maps that limit our geographical perspective. Then as now, a whole other Christian world existed out there, and we neglect it at our peril.

Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor Universityand author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

Church History
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