Two recent books on the history of the Church of the East

Li Tang, East Syriac Christianity in Mongol-Yuan China (Orientalia Biblica et Christiana 18; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2011) (Review to appear in BIOR)

David Wilmshurst, The Martyred Church: A History of the Church of the East (London, East & West Publishing, 2011), review to appear in Church History and Religious Culture

Last year, two books were published on the history of the Church of the East: a full-blown history from its earliest stages up till the present by David Wilmshurst (who earlier published the highly praised study The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East, 1318-1913, Louvain: Peeters, 2000), and a detailed study of the Church of the East’s expansion into Central Asia and China in the twelfth to early fourteenth centuries by Li Tang, a young Chinese scholar who already published a number of articles and works, among which an edited volume together with Dietmar Winkler (Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters: Studies on East Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia, Berlin: LIT, 2009; review in Church History (2012) 81-2).

Both books certainly belong in the library of those who study the Church of the East, and both books can be profitably used by those who look for an introduction into the fascinating and varied history of this church that despite a modest and growing popularity in scholarly circles, still suffers from superficial judgments about ‘Nestorianism’ and about their ‘isolation’ from major trends in the history of Christianity. Especially the book of Wilmshurst goes a long way in providing a detailed history, with the necessary attention to the Syriac sources that undergird this historical construction, and rising above the more general introductions of Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar W. Winkler (Die Apostolische Kirche des Ostens: Geschichte der sogenannten Nestorianer, Klagenfurt: Verlag Kitab, 2000) and of Christoph Baumer (The Church of the East, An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity, London/New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006) – the latter of which remains my favorite, not in the least because its well-chosen and abundant illustrations.

Li Tang’s book is much more specialized, and focusses on bringing some order in the wealth of sources (ranging from western travelogues via Syriac sources and inscriptions in many languages to Chinese gazetteers) on the history of Christianity in Central Asia and China. She also tries to sort out the many names and indications of the various ethnic groups that have been connected to Christianity in this region, thus adding to a concise but detailed overview of what we know of this history.

Both books, unfortunately, also have their flaws: where Tang’s work suffers from an overload of detailed information and references (sometimes repeated twice or more) and from a certain hesitation to paint a more general picture of the Church of the East in this period, Wilmshurst took the opposite approach. His study obviously is well researched, but no footnotes and referencing are included to help the readers understand where some of his more original (or sometimes controversial) interpretations come from. This, of course, also detracts from the usefulness of this work for newcomers in the field.

More importantly, Wilmshurst at places allows his dislikes to dominate his story, preventing, in my opinion, balanced views on such important topics as the specific religious characteristics of the Church of the East (cf his lack of appreciation for the monastic literature), and the way in which this church is much more than a church in the modern western sense of the word – i.e., a church that in addition to a spiritual organization, is also a social, regional and linguistic community – everything that in the modern world is perceived as an ‘ethnic’ or ‘national’ group. The tensions that arose and continue to arise from these two aspects of the Church of the East, the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ (again, in modern terms), is something that Wilmshurst find difficult to deal with. As a consequence, his interpretations of the political and secular within the Church of the East always seem tinged with a hint of disapproval, as if clerical leaders should not be tainted with issues as mundane as the political protection of their people. Similarly, the move to the Assyrian nationalist interpretation of the Church of the East in the late nineteenth century, is described merely as a historical mistake that took the name ‘Assyrian’ for something that could just as well be described as the ‘Church of the East’ or even ‘Nestorian’ Church. That this development can be understood precisely from the changing interpretations of what is a religious or a national community in the modern world (and thus was in need of a new name that was not a priori religious), is overlooked when the ‘secular’ and ‘political’ are considered as separate from the ‘religious’ domain of a particular church.

Nevertheless – books that may profitably serve to introduce new students and researchers to this exciting field and at the same time challenge the old hands to (re)think their views on this story, are received with great appreciation and deserve a wide public among Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Syriacists and whoever else might be interested.

Picture: Mar Odisho Oraham, bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East, at Mar Benyamin Parish, Netherlands (May 2012), next to the Assyrian flag

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