The Greek and Eastern Churches/Part 2/Division 4/Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV

THE NESTORIANS OF THE FAR EAST

The remarkable enterprise of the Syrian missions promoted by the impulse of the Nestorian movement is registered in the scattering of metropolitan sees over a vast area of Central and Eastern Asia. Impelled by two forces, the persecution of the orthodox Church in combination with the Byzantine Empire which drove them into exile, and the zeal for spreading the gospel which converted their banishment into a benediction, the Nestorians went much further than was necessary merely to secure immunity from molestation; and wherever they went they planted the standard of the cross. So we find metropolitan bishoprics in Syria, Armenia, and Arabia; at Elam, Nisibis, Bethgerma, and Carach in Persia; at Halavan or Halach on the confines of Media; at Mara in Korassan; at Hara in Camboya; at Raja and Tarbistan on the Caspian; at Dailen, Samarcand, and Mavaralnabar; at Tauket or Taugut—a country of Great Tartary; in Casgar, in Turkistan, in India, in China. From many of these centres all traces of ancient Christianity have long since disappeared, swept away in the deluge of Mongolian invasions, stamped out by Mohammedan tyranny, or, if spared for a time, generally only left to perish in crass ignorance and spiritual inanition. But in some few places it still lives on among numerous adherents.

The most important of the old Syrian churches existing in our own day is the community of ancient Christians consisting of 400,000 people inhabiting the mountain slopes and valleys and coast of Malabar, the most enlightened of whom live at Travancore. Local tradition assigns the origin of this Indian Church to St. Thomas the Apostle, who is said to have "landed at Malankara, an island in the lagoon near Crangamore, preached to the natives and baptised many converts."[1] According to the legends of the land, he planted seven churches and ordained two priests in this district, converted the king and all the people of Mailapore, went on to China and was there equally successful, and returned to Mailapore, where he roused the jealousy of the Brahmins, who excited the people to stone him, after which one of them pierced him with a lance. When these parts were discovered to Europe by Portuguese adventurers in the year 1517, among other ruins and relics the remains of a chapel were seen, digging beneath which the travellers found some bones, which they identified as undoubtedly the relics of the apostle on account of their superior whiteness.

Turning from local legend, the late origin of which must be admitted since we have no traces of its antiquity, and it can be accounted for apart from tradition, as we shall see in proceeding with the story, when we come to the literary records. Here we have the earliest account of St. Thomas's mission to India in the Acts of Judas Thomas, previously referred to,[2] which belongs to the third, or even the fourth century, written by a man named Leucius, the author of several apocryphal "Acts." This work tells us that in the division of districts among the apostles India fell to the lot of Thomas. He was unwilling to go so far on so hazardous a mission. Then Christ appeared to him in a vision, encouraging him with a promise to be with him. Thomas remaining obstinate and even growing angry, Christ sold him to an Indian merchant as a slave carpenter. Arriving in India after fantastic scenes by the way, Thomas was introduced to the King Gundaphorus. When this king learnt what his trade was, he gave him money with which to build a palace. Several times the apostle sent for more money, describing to the king the progress of his work from walls to roof; but he was spending all the money he got on widows and orphans and other needy folk. So when Gundaphorus came to take possession of his palace no palace was to be seen. Thomas's friends told him of the Apostle's charities and of the ascetic living of the holy man. "The king having heard this, stroked his face with his hands, shaking his head for a long time." He was about to kill both Thomas and the merchant, flaying and burning them, when his brother died and went to heaven, where he saw a palace, which he was told by the angels Thomas had built for the king. Coming back to life while his body was being put in the burial robe, th3 prince informed the astonished monarch of what he had learnt in the world above. The result was the conversion of king and people. After the fourth century the connection of Thomas with India was widely accepted both in the Eastern and in the Western Churches.[3]

We have here a double confusion, first in the person of the missionary and then in the country. There are two Thomases and several Indias. Centuries later, a Nestorian missionary named Thomas went to India, and his mission has been transferred to the credit of the apostle; then the word "India" was used in early times very vaguely for the countries about the south of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf—Abyssinia, Southern Arabia, perhaps also Southern Persia.[4] The orthodox tradition of the life of Thomas assigns Parthia as his district.[5] According to Eusebius, another apostle, Bartholomew, had preached to the Indians.[6] But it seems not unlikely that the historian was misled by the name of the Sindians in the region of the Bosphorus, over whom kings of the house of Ptolemy ruled, because Bartholomew's traditional field of labour was the district of the Bosphorus.

We have more definite information about Pantænus, the head of the theological school at Alexandria, who gave up his pleasant work in that centre of culture and luxury to go as a missionary to "India."[7] Eusebius identifies this "India" with the scene of Bartholomew's activity. That, however, is most improbable, if the locality assigned to the apostle is correct. Since there can be no doubt that the name is "India" in this case, there is here no possibility of confusion with the Sindians. But the question is what "India"? Eusebius tells us that Pantænus found a copy of the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which he calls "the Gospel according to Matthew," written "in the Hebrew language." Therefore there must have been Christians in the place before him, and in all probability these were Jewish Christians. The Jews travelled far in their trading journeys, and it is quite possible that this distant Christian movement was in the country we now know as India. On the other hand, we have no definite trace of Christianity there before the arrival of the Nestorians. It is therefore more probable Pantænus's "India" was one of those parts nearer to Egypt to which the name was sometimes given.

It is also conceivable that natives of India learnt about Christianity through their own visits to Alexandria, and carried the gospel back to their country on their return home. Among the many nationalities represented in that cosmopolitan centre of trade much earlier than this were people who bore the name "Indian." Dion Cassius, whose date is about a.d. 100, writes of Ethiopians, Arabians, Bactrians, Scythians, Persians, and Indians flocking to Alexandria.[8] The order in which these names stand suggests that the Indians who come last were from the most remotely eastern of all the nationalities mentioned, and since they follow the Persians we should infer that their country was farther off than Persia. If we could be sure of Jerome's information and accuracy, we should have a clear proof that India proper was the country to which Pantænus went, for he says in his letter to Magnus, an orator at Rome, "Pantænus, a philosopher of the Stoic school,"—he had been a Stoic previous to his conversion to Christianity,—"was on account of his great reputation for learning sent by Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, to India to preach Christ to the Brahmins and philosophers there."[9] It would be very interesting to think that a man who had passed from Greek philosophy to Christianity had been selected as a missionary to the Indian Brahmins and had actually attempted the conversion of the caste which our missionaries find almost unapproachable, though apparently without satisfactory results, or he would hardly have abandoned the work to resume his chair at the Alexandrian theological school. But unfortunately Jerome is notoriously inaccurate, being often proved guilty of rushing at conclusions on insufficient evidence, and filling in the lacunar of information with the creations of imagination, though no doubt these are shaped with regard to certain degrees of verisimilitude. We must not attach much weight to his assertions when they go beyond Eusebius and other earlier writers. It would be enough that Jerome knew that Pantænus had been sent to some place called "India," for him to conclude as a matter of course that the Stoic had gone to evangelise the Brahmins. His assertion may be taken, however, as valuable to a certain extent. It shows that early in the fifth century it was believable to a scholarly man with large knowledge of the world, that India itself might have been visited by a Christian missionary before the end of the second century. Therefore in Jerome's day at latest our India was known and not inaccessible. This is probable on other grounds. Moreover, Indian influences are to be traced in Alexandrian philosophy and in Christian Gnosticism. There is no insuperable difficulty in believing that the gospel may have readied the country before the end of the second century. Still, even if we could settle this question in the affirmative, the answer would not be of much value. We can see no signs of any results of the early mission; even if this did exist it would appear to have been abortive. Pantænus's return and resumption of his old work, as already indicated, point to an unsatisfactory ending to the ambitious project. A mission projected in this spasmodic way is not likely to be successful. It is heroic to attack the most impregnable fortress if the attempt is adequate to the aim; otherwise it is Quixotic.

Over against Jerome's authority in favour of India proper—so unreliable in itself—we have not only to set the loose way in which the name was commonly used, but also the absence of all real evidence in the land itself previous to the Nestorian period. The local tradition goes back to St. Thomas, passing over Pantænus in silence. That may be explicable on the ground that the passion for an apostolic foundation was common in the churches, while the visit of an unsuccessful missionary might be mercifully forgotten. Still, we have no evidence to point to the existence of any Christian Church in India at this early period, and that is the real question with which we are concerned, whatever may have been the objective of the Alexandrian scholar's expedition. Even Dion Chrysostom's Indians may have been the people just to the east of Persia, in the country since known as Beluchistan—very far from the Indian Christians discovered in later times, whose home is in the south; if Pantænus did go to that country, north of the Arabian Sea, he would have had nothing to do with the founding of the Church in Travancore.

Among the signatories at the Nicene Council we have the name of "John of Persia in all Persia and great India." The vastness of the area here assigned to John is such that he could not have exercised supervision over it, and we must take the vague phrase to mean that whatever Christians there were in these parts of the East were supposed to be under his authority. This does not carry the assertion that there were Christians at the time in India, much less that it was our India, although the word "great," which does not seem to have had a definite geographical meaning when applied to India, suggests an indefinitely large region.

Towards the end of the fourth century we have the remarkable story of Frumentius recorded by Rufinus, who associates it with "India";[10] but there is no doubt that he means Abyssinia. To this therefore we must return later on, meanwhile dismissing it as having no connection with Indian Christianity.

About the same time we come to "Theophilus the Indian." According to Philostorgius, he was an Arian who went to India to spread the doctrine of his party there. But the Arian historian obliges us by adding "that these Indians are now called Homeritæ, instead of their old name of Sabæans, which they received from the city of Saba, the chief city of the whole nation."[11] A little further on he says that "Constantius sent ambassadors to those who were formerly called Sabæans, but are now known as Homeritæ, a tribe which is descended from Abraham by Keturah." He adds that the territory which they inhabit is called by the Greeks "Arabia Magna" and "Arabia Felix."[12] He identifies Saba with the Sheba whose queen came to see Solomon. Here then we have the clearest possible evidence that the name "India" was used for South Arabia. However, while this plainly shows that Theophilus had nothing to do with our India, his story is not devoid of interest on its own account.

Thus, when we examine the various successive references to early Christian associations with India, they all melt into vagueness, or indicate some other region than that of the present Christians of St. Thomas. We have here six persons who are apparently carrying on Christian work in India, and yet to none of them can we assign our present India as the scene of their labours. Thomas, Bartholomew, Pantænus, John of the large episcopate, Frumentius, Theophilus—all of these men, when their Indian claims are examined, seem to be associated with other regions. South Arabia, Abyssinia, the neighbourhood of the Bosphorus, the country immediately east of Persia, all these parts have borne the name or have been mistaken for India, and it is among them that the work of the early missionaries is distributed. Of course it cannot be denied that Christianity may have reached India proper, or at all events the South India of the later Church, at an earlier time than we know. That is another matter. We have no evidence to indicate that it was so, and all our available evidence points in other directions. There we must leave the question.

We come out of these mists of legend into clear daylight in the Nestorian period. There is no doubt that the great wave of missionary enthusiasm that swept over so large a part of Central Asia poured down into Southern India, or, more probably, came direct across the sea to the region of Travancore, then passed over to Ceylon, and ultimately reached China. The ancient Christian community in India is known as the "Syrian Church" of India. This name should not lead us to suppose that it is composed of Syrian colonists. Its members consist of the native people of their province. But the name reminds us that their Christianity sprang from the activity of the Syrian Church in these parts. The consequences of its origin are seen in many customs, notably in the use of the Syrian liturgies. Its theology is Nestorian, after the pattern of Syrian Nestorianism.

The earliest distinct witness to the existence of the Syrian Christian in India is afforded by the Alexandrian merchant Cosmas, who was surnamed Indicopleustes on account of the fame of his voyage in the Indian seas early in the sixth century. He wrote a curious book, full of strange fancies, entitled Universal Christian Topography. In this work Cosmas states that he found a church with clergy and a congregation in Ceylon, and also Christians "in the land called Malabar, where the pepper grows." At Caliana—the coast country south of Bombay—there was a bishop who held his appointment from Persia. Returning to Ceylon, Cosmas adds, "The island hath also a church of Persian Christians who have settled there from Persia, and a deacon, and all the apparatus of public worship."[13] If this is correct, we must regard the Malabar Church as in the first place consisting of refugees from persecution in Persia, like the Huguenots in England and the Pilgrim Fathers in America. But the Ceylon refugees never appear to have associated with the natives, and consequently their Church melted away and in course of time disappeared. Cosmas was himself a Nestorian and a friend of the catholicos in Persia. He would therefore look on the co-religionists whom he had discovered to his surprise in these remote parts with peculiar interest. The Persian navigators who came into communication with the Malabar coast travelled further and carried the gospel to the Coromandel coast, and so were brought into contact with the great empire of the Pallavas.

While satisfactory documentary evidence of the origin of Christianity in these parts is lacking, this is partly made up for by the irrefragable testimony of monuments. In the year 1547 a cross with an inscription in Pahlavi, the language of the Persian Empire at the time of the Sassanian dynasty, was found on the hill now known as St. Thomas's Mount at Mailapore, the chief town of this district. The date assigned to it is the seventh or at latest the eighth century. There is a similar cross with the same inscription in a church at Cottayam in North Travancore. A translation of the inscription is as follows:—

"In punishment by the cross (was) the suffering of this One;
He who is the true Christ, and God alone, and Guide ever pure."[14]

This inscription is doubly important. In the first place, the use of the Pahlavi language in which it is composed is an unmistakable testimony to the antiquity of Christianity in the places where the crosses are set up, helping us to fix an approximate date for them. In the second place, the singular wording of the inscription contains an apparent statement of Nestorian doctrine. The second line seems to refer to the Trinity. The order in which the Three Persons occur is not so very surprising when we consider that it is the order of St. Paul's doxology. But the couplet appears to identify all Three Persons of the Trinity as present in the Incarnation and as therefore present also at the crucifixion. The same idea is found in later Nestorian documents; it was expressly condemned in the synod of Diamper (a.d. 1599). The doctrine thus expressed comes very near to Patripassianism; but then it must be remembered that, as held by Nestorians, who made a sharp distinction between the two natures in Christ, it did not involve the suffering of the Divine Persons in the way in which the union of the natures would imply. It was the human nature that was tortured on the cross and that died. With this view it was possible to think of the Divine nature in Christ as consisting of the whole Godhead, and yet not be Patripassian.

There is a second cross in the old church at Cottayam—with a modification of the curious inscription—making three of these crosses in all; but this is assigned to the tenth century. A panel in the same slab of stone, similar in shape and decoration to that containing the cross, has on each side of it the figure of a peacock. Here we first meet with the mysterious symbol associated with St. Thomas in the later times of the Syrian Church in India. Various fantastic legends given by successive travellers—by Marco Polo, by John de Marignolli, and lastly by Duarte Barbosa as late as the sixteenth century—bring peacocks in some way into the story of the apostle. Evidently the symbolism has been borrowed from the mythology of the neighbouring Hindu temple, the Purana of which tells how Siva's wife appeared to her lord in the form of a peafowl, the name of which in Sanscrit is mayil. This is given as an explanation of the name Mailapore, Mayil-a-pur—"Peacock-town."

While this church at Mailapore declined and died out, the church at Malabar continued to flourish, assimilating the native population, and obtaining political status and recognised rights of self-government. These are registered in two copperplate charters, one of the date a.d. 774, recording a grant by King Vira Raghava Chakravarti to Irair Corthan of Crangamore as the representative of the Christian community, making him sovereign merchant of Kerala; the other granted to the Syrians of St. Thomas, about the year 824, with the sanction of King Sthanu's palace-major, confirming a gift of land to Muruvan Sapor Iso and the Tarasa Church. Further intercommunication between State and Church and confirmation of the Church's rights followed. In the year 745, according to the local tradition, Knaye Thomas, or Thomas of Cana, came with a fresh band of emigrants from Bagdad, Nineveh, and Jerusalem. Some have attributed the name "Christians of St. Thomas" to a confusion of this leader of the more recent additions to the Church with the Apostle Thomas. These new-comers appear to have settled to the south of the original Syrian community. The Christian Church in India is thus divided into two portions, a northern and a southern. The latter consists of people of fairer complexion than their brethren to the north. Yet another body of refugees appeared in the year 822 led by two Nestorian Persians, Mar Sapor and Mar Perog, the former of whom has been identified with the Sapor to whom the grant of land was made as recorded in the copperplate. The Syrian Christians were now important people in Malabar, both socially and politically. But before long their Church declined in missionary fervour and religious vitality. It has never developed any intellectual energy or made any contribution to theology.

When Cheraman Perumal, the last emperor of Kerala, became a Mohammedan and died while on a visit to Arabia, the country came under Mussulman rule. We now reach an almost blank period of five hundred years in the history of the Syrian Church in India, during which, however, the Christians were so powerful that at one time they had their own kings. Subsequently they came under the government of Cochin. By this time the Church had become spiritually torpid. The ceremonies were duly performed. As far as we can see, they were the chief functions of religion. Meanwhile the Christians lived as a superior close caste, so completely had their old missionary zeal died out. They even came to imitate the Hindoos in caste regulations of diet and avoidance of pollution.

The next period in the history of Christianity in India is that of the Roman Catholic missions which resulted from the great religious revival in the Western Church during the thirteenth century, and were carried on by those wonderful democratic missionary bodies, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. During the years 1321 to 1323, Jordanus, a Frenchman of the Dominican order, the author of the Mirabilia, was in Malabar. Thence he wrote a circular letter to his brethren of the two orders of Friars, commending India as a sphere for missionary activity. Nothing is more interesting in this story than the combination abroad of the orders the members of which were rivals at home. Jordanus the Dominican was accompanied by four Franciscans when he embarked for Quilon. A storm drove them on the island of Salsette, near Tana, where they were kindly received by the Nestorian Christians. Describing his experiences in his second letter, Jordanus says that while he was away from his four companions in this place, on a journey to Baroch, they were arrested and killed by the Saracens. This is very significant. For the time being, the Nestorians are living in the same place in peace and safety, because they keep themselves to themselves. But these Franks, these new-comers who are busy in trying to make converts, cannot be endured. So the missionaries are killed, while the Church is not molested. Can we have a plainer proof of the mournful fact that this Church had entirely lost the evangelistic zeal that had been the glory of her founders?

In his Mirabilia Jordanus describes his mission as being very successful in spite of trying persecutions and perilous adventures. His story reads like St. Paul's chapter of autobiography in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Four times he was cast into prison by the Saracens; how many times he had his hair plucked out, was scourged, was stoned, "God Himself knoweth," he writes. In the year 1330, Pope John xxii. issued a bull to the Christians of Quilon, nominating Jordanus bishop of that place, and inviting the Nestorians to enter "the Christian Church." No doubt this earnest, active man left some lasting fruits of his heroic work. John de Marignolli found a "Church of St. George" of the Latin communion in the year 1347. But the greatest activity of the Latin Church in India did not begin till a century later. This was of a very different spirit from Jordanus's Christ-like missionary enterprise. It was a Jesuit mission armed with the cruel weapons of the Inquisition.

  1. Rae, The Syrian Church in India, p. 15.
  2. P. 474.
  3. e.g. Jerome, Epis. 70.
  4. Harnack holds that the reference in the Acts of Thomas is to "the North-West Territory of our modern India" (Expansion of Christianity, vol. ii. p. 299).
  5. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. iii. 1; cf. Clementine Recognitions, ix. 29, and Socrates, Hist. Eccl. i. 19. According to Rufinus, Hist. Eccl. ii. 5, and Socrates, Hist. Eccl. iv. 8, he was buried at Edessa. The Roman Martyrology reconciles the two stories in a measure by bringing the apostle's bones from India to Edessa, whence they are conveyed by Crusaders to Ortona in Italy. According to Clement of Alexandria, he died a natural death, Strom. iv. 9, 73. See Hastings' Dict. Bible, article "Thomas."
  6. Hist. Eccl. v. 10.
  7. Ibid.; also Jerome, De vir. ill. 36.
  8. Smith, Dict. Christ. Biog. vol. iv, p. 182a, note a.
  9. Epist. lxx.
  10. Hist. Eccl. ii. 9-14.
  11. Philostorgius, Hist. Eccl. ii. 6.
  12. Ibid. iii. 4.
  13. Quoted in Rae's The Syrian Church in India, p. 115.
  14. The Indian Antiquary, vol. iii., 1874, pp. 308–316, article by A. C. Burnell, Ph.D., of the Madras Civil Service, on "Some Pahlavi Inscriptions in South India," quoted by Rae in notes to chapter ix. p. 370. But there is some doubt as to the correctness of this translation.