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by Mark Noll

The Lost Is Found

Missing pages from church history.

After three noteworthy books that shook up perceptions of the Christian present, Philip Jenkins is now proposing to shake up the Christian past. Where his much-noticed The Next Christendom (2002) and The New Faces of Christianity (2006) charted the recent emergence of Christian movements in the non-West and introduced their dynamic engagement with Scripture, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis (2007) suggested that much conventional wisdom about religion in contemporary Europe needed serious re-thinking. Now in The Lost History of Christianity, Jenkins turns his attention to the experience of Christians in the greater Middle East—which, he argues, has been systematically neglected in the general accounts of standard church history.

The success of Jenkins' latest effort is indicted by how effectively his narrative ties contemporary incidents into long-existing historical realities. In the cascade of news on Iraq, it has been easy to dismiss intelligence from Turkey as a mere sideshow. Only regional experts, for instance, might have noticed that the city of Urfa in far southeastern Turkey had become a center of Islamic piety and a headquarters for the Muslim political movement that in 2003 defeated Turkey's secular parties and formed a government that rules to this day. American evangelicals are more likely to recall the horrific murders of three Protestants in Malatya in eastern Turkey that occurred in April 2007. The five assassins immediately confessed that they had slain German missionary Tilmann Geske and two Turkish converts (Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel) because they saw Christian profession, especially by converts, as destroying the Turkish nation.

With Philip Jenkins' new book in hand, it is immediately obvious that such accounts, with no apparent connection to anything but the fervid antagonisms of the moment, in fact represent the latest incidents in a very long history for the part of the world that was known as "Asia Minor" to the Apostle Paul and then as "Byzantium" during more than a thousand years of full-orbed Christian settlement. In Turkey's case, much is interwoven with the history of Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christianity, when Urfa was known as Edessa and Malatya as Melitene. Each was a center of majority Christian settlement for a very long period, each contained thousands of Christians as late as the early 20th century, and each experienced intermittent attacks of which recent violence is only the last in a long series. Edessa's history is especially poignant. As early as AD 200 its king had accepted the new religion and ruled his kingdom as the first formally Christian state. Much, much later, in a savage attack perpetrated as the once-great Ottoman Empire neared collapse, angry Muslims massacred 8,000 Armenian Christians in this same city (1894). That same year, one thousand more fell at Melitene; in the great slaughter at the time of the World War I, Greek and Armenian Orthodox were mostly wiped out in Melitene. Yet as late as 1924, 2,500 Syrian Orthodox believers remained in Edessa, when they were then forced into exile. Today there are no known Christians in Urfa (Edessa) and only a hard-pressed few in Malatya (once Melitene). Following Jenkins, we know it was not always so.

The Lost History of Christianity casts similar light on events in Iraq itself. After Pope Benedict XVI delivered his controversial 2006 address in Regensburg, which quoted a medieval text about the senseless violence of Islam, Muslim reprisals took place in many parts of the world, including the Iraqi city of Mosul, which is situated north of Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris River, very close to the ancient biblical city of Nineveh. Almost immediately after the pope's speech, angry Muslims sought out and beheaded Paulos Iskander, a priest in the Syrian Orthodox Church. At about the same time, Father Ragheed Ganni began to send messages abroad about his hard-pressed community in this same city: "priests celebrate mass amidst the bombed out ruins; mothers worry as they see their children face danger to attend catechism with enthusiasm; the elderly come to entrust their fleeing families to God's protection." On Trinity Sunday, 2007, Father Ganni and three of his sub-deacons were kidnapped and killed. He was a priest in the Chaldean Catholic Church.

In Jenkins' account, Iskander and Ganni are not out-of-place anomalies but rather latter-day representatives of churches that trace their lineage in a nearly unbroken line back to the apostles. The "Syrian Orthodox" arose in the wake of the Council of Chalcedon (451), when the bishops gathered at that momentous synod defined the person of Christ as made up of two natures (physis) in one person. A strong minority of the church disagreed, maintaining instead that Jesus was of one divine nature (mono-physis). Clarification: the Monophysite teaching that defines the Syrian Orthodox church separates it from the Eastern Orthodox in fellowship with the Patriarch of Constantinople.

The "Chaldean Catholics" (aka Nestorians, Assyrians, or simply the Church of the East) also arose in the 5th century as a protest against what became the standard teaching of Western Christianity and Greek Orthodoxy. Nestorius believed that Jesus was of two natures, but he held that these two natures were distinct (Mary could thus be called the "mother of the human Jesus," but not "Theotokos," the "mother of God").

It is the great merit of Philip Jenkins to remind readers that, even if the Greek and Western churches wrote off the Nestorians and the Monophysites as heretics, the communions named for these protests against standard Western doctrine did not fade away. Instead, they flourished for a thousand years—in Syria, Mesopotamia, the Arabian peninsula, India, along the Silk Road to the Far East—and have survived in many variations to this day. They even established substantial beachheads in China on two separate occasions.

One of the most intriguing by-stories of the recent explosion of Christianity in China is the insistence by a few Chinese believers that theirs is not a new, Western faith but an ancient Chinese faith. Their surprising claim rests on the Nestorian mission that established a Christian presence in the early 7th century—at about the time Muhammad called Islam into being—in the Chinese imperial capital, Ch'ang-an. This mission lasted for more than two centuries. Five hundred years later, other Nestorians took advantage of contacts with Mongol emperors to return to China for a work that again survived for centuries. These missions did not result in permanent Christian communities. But because of these early efforts, it is accurate to say that China enjoys a longer Christian history (though broken into segments) than the Christian communities of the Western hemisphere.

The Lost History of Christianity is filled with such revelations. In the year 1000, there may have been as many Christian believers in Asia and Africa as in Europe. In the 13th century, the great age of European Christian renewal associated with Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, Baghdad and other Middle Eastern centers may have witnessed roughly the same high level of spiritual discipleship and intellectual acumen.

Beyond its useful correctives to standard church histories, the book also probes the meaning of Middle Eastern Christianity's long history. Jenkins shows, for example, that much can be learned about inter-religious strife in the 21st century by heeding the history of Christian communities that lived intermingled among Muslims for centuries (and in the Far East, with Buddhists, and in India, with Hindus). He discusses at length the process of church extinction—for example, why once-flourishing Greek Orthodox and Catholic Christianity vanished almost entirely from North Africa once Islam spread through that region, while Monophysite Coptic Christians have survived in Egypt with considerable numbers and at least some spiritual vitality to this day. There is much as well on why outbursts of intense persecution took place in the late 13th century (the spread of the Mongols), at the turn of the 20th century (the collapse of the Ottoman Empire), and in the early 21st (the rise of Islamism); and on the great significance of state authority in determining the fate of Christian churches under non-Christian rulers. Brief, but compelling, thoughts on the judgments of God and the apparent annihilation of Christian communities make for theologically profitable reflection as well.

Since Jenkins relies mostly on secondary works in English and French, his findings will not surprise the real experts on the history under consideration. But for the rest of us, who are just waking up to the contemporary reality of Christianity as a genuinely global religion, his depiction of the long Christian history of Asia, Mesopotamia, and the greater Middle East is both a much-needed education and a spiritually fruitful provocation.

Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton Univ. Press).

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