Convinced by Alopen of the validity of the Christian faith, Taitsung ordered the building of a monastery and the translation of some Christian papers the monks had carried with them. By 638, just three years after Alopen’s arrival, at least 21 monks were active in China. In the course of time, Persian monks (who became fluent in the languages of the places where they settled) translated the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament into Chinese. Being highly educated, they also produced Christian literature that appealed to the Chinese nobility. For example, Jesus Messiah Sutra, the main text produced by Alopen on instigation by Emperor Taitsung, described Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, endorsed monotheism, and attacked idolatry.
In 635, Emperor Taitsung (598–649) of China found Christianity so impressive that he wrote: “The meaning of the teaching has been carefully examined; it is mysterious, wonderful, calm; it fixes the essentials of life and perfection; it is the salvation of living beings; it is the wealth of man. It is right that it should spread through the empire.”
He had first heard about Christ from a Persian monk, Alopen, who walked all the way to the capital of China (today’s Xi’an) to bring the gospel to the Chinese. He was probably sent by Patriarch Ishoyahb II of Baghdad, who also sent missionaries to Iran, Afghanistan, Ubzekistan, and India. Most likely, Alopen had been ordained a bishop because he was able to appoint men to pastor the churches he founded. What little we know about his arrival in China and the history of the work that followed is recorded on a monument erected in Xi’an in 781 and discovered in 1625.
The Church of the East
Alopen was one of the many missionaries of the so-called Church of the East, a church that flourished well before the Roman Emperor Constantine I recognized Christianity in the west. Like other missionaries to the east, Alopen probably traveled along the Old Silk Road, a route followed by merchants. Carrying only a staff, a satchel, and a copy of the Scriptures, these missionaries stopped in monasteries other monks had built along the way. In fact, Timothy I (727-823), one of the most influential patriarchs of the Church of the East and great promoter of missions, used the simple life of these monks as an example to shame a bishop who wished to retire in comfort in Baghdad.
The Church of the East first blossomed in Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey) and in the renowned theological school of Nisibis (today’s Nusaybin, Turkey), where the famous poet Ephrem served as deacon. It continued to thrive in what is now eastern Turkey and Iraq.
It’s often known as the Nestorian Church, even though its connections with Nestorius are tenuous at best. The name is probably due to the fact that this church refused to recognize the 431 Council of Ephesus where Nestorius was condemned for his views of the two natures of Christ. For the most part, however, the reason for this refusal was cultural rather than theological. It was a way to assert the church’s independence from the Byzantine Empire. (While it’s true that Nestorianism spread to the eastern regions, many scholars agree that defining the Church of the East as Nestorian is unfair).
The Church of the East held its first official council in 410. In 424, it declared its independence from the west. The official language of the Church of the East was Syriac (a form of Aramaic), one of the first languages in which the Scriptures were translated. By the eighth century, this church had spread over much of Asia and Arabia, becoming the most widely spread church in the world.