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The Forgotten First Eastern Christians


Philip Jenkins - published on 02/02/15

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.

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