As my little effort for the octave of Christian unity, which begins today, I want to write a little about one of the lesser-known but most ancient churches – the Church of the East, or the Assyrian Church as it is now sometimes called. I am not a scholar, and my knowledge is all second-hand from books in the library of my co-author, Chalcedon. I will list the main sources here so I don’t have to keep referencing them.
The main modern source is a superb study by Professor David Wilmshurst, one of the few scholars with the linguistic range to write such a study. It is indicative of the reach of the church that you’d need to have a command of New Testament Greek, Syriac, Arabic and Chinese to do what he has done in his Martyred Church. I feel even more like an extremely small pygmy standing on the shoulders of a giant than usual.
I will happily admit to finding Chrisoph Baumer’s The Church of the East: an illustrated history easier going. The illustrations are marvellous, and the text very clear.
There’s also a ‘Concise history of the Church of the East by Baum and Winkler, which is also very good and worth reading.
The lack of knowledge about the Church in the West today is part of a tradition which goes back almost to the beginning Eusebius (265-339) the first great historian of Christianity says almost nothing about Christianity outside the Roman Empire – which, of course, gives the game away. The heartland of the Church of the East, Mesopotamia, the cradle of the ancient civilizations of Babylon and Assyria, lay outside the orbit of the Roman Empire, and the Persian Empire, which occupied these areas, was one of that Empire’s main enemies – so there was little friendly interaction between the two.
The main interaction was that activity which has always united men – the pursuit of money. From China in the Far East, to Damascus and Antioch in the area we now call Turkey, ran the great trading route known as the Silk Road. Buddhism had spread along it in the second century before the birth of Christ, and in the first and second centuries, the same would be true for Christianity. It is significant that the first major ecclesiastical centre for the Church of the East was just west of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, and a major crossing point on the Road. Not until the Muslim conquests of the sixth century was this border at the Euphrates really penetrated. Its impermeability was one major reason why the Church of the East expanded eastwards.
This political rivalry also accounts for the relative isolation of the Church of the East. None of its bishops attended Nicaea, nor were they invited to Ephesus or Chalcedon. The Persians forced its leaders to declare their jurisdictional independence from the Latin Church in 414. The Church already had its own Creed, the Creed of Aphraates, and the Western Church came to see it as schismatic and heretical. But we get ahead of ourselves – how did there come to be a church there at all?