The Sutras of Jesus and other testimonies of the arrival of Christianity in China in the seventh century

One of the most curious sets of documents preserved from ancient China is what is known as Sutras of Jesus.

These are some manuscripts, dated between the 7th and 11th centuries, which were found in a cave and are of extraordinary value, not so much because of their age – there are older ones in India – but because they constitute an exceptional testimony of the arrival of Christianity to the country.

Before going on to explain the matter, it should be made clear that these are not sutras in the strict sense of the term. Sutra It is a Sanskrit word to refer to a type of aphorism or saying with which Hindu philosophy and, later, also Buddhist philosophy were counted; in fact, its exact translation would be something like “binding thread”, since the ideas were sewn together through the sutras. Now the Sutras of Jesus They are not such, but were mistakenly called by modern Western authors. The most suitable name would be jingwhich is how classical and religious books are called in Chinese, whether domestic or foreign.

But since the name has stuck, let’s stick with the Sutras of Jesus. Its origin is closely related to the arrival in Asia of the Syrian bishop Alopen. In the year 635, he became the first Christian monk to set foot in China, carrying the word of God. At that time he ruled the Tang dynasty, successor to the Sui and considered the greatest splendor of that civilization in all senses, from the political to the economic through the cultural. In such a context, Alopen arrived in Chang’an, the capital, where he was received by Emperor Taizong, thinking that he was an emissary of Da Qin, that is, the Roman Empire, so called because the Chinese believed that the Qin dynasty was the founder of Rome.

Since TaiZong was quite tolerant, he allowed Alopen to found the so-called Eastern Church, a Nestorian Christian center. Nestorianism was a religious doctrine created by Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople in the century, relying on the theological school of Antioch, according to which Christ was made up of two totally different natures at the same time, the divine and the human. In the year 431, the Council of Ephesus determined to agree with his opponent, Cyril of Alexandria (who advocated the unity of both people), so he deposed Nestorius and declared his ideas heretical, destroying the works of the.

Even so, the doctrine spread throughout the Middle East and took root, especially in the Sassanid Empire and above all among the Lajmids, a dynasty of Mesopotamian leaders who adopted it upon converting to Christianity. Of course, in other places in that region Monophysitism was imposed, which said that in Jesus there was only divine nature; In other words, there was a confrontation between Monophysites and Diffisites that continued the already traditional ones within Christianity, facilitating the spread of Islam. Thus, although the Muslims respected the Christians and adopted classical philosophy from them, in the first half of the seventh century the Persian church was in clear decline and, fearing that Islamic expansion would continue towards Asia, it was decided to send missions to Christianize the continent earlier.

In this way Alopen arrived in China, where he began to direct the translation of sacred texts into the local language with the approval of the emperor, who was a scholar and became a patron of that work. Three years later, a first class of twenty-one priests, presumably also from Syria, was ready to take care of the founded parishes, Alopen being their bishop. Gaozong, Taizong’s son, continued his father’s policy in this direction, and this trend continued with ups and downs until the end of the dynasty, in the 10th century, when persecutions against foreign religions (including Manichaeism and Islam) led to to its disappearance from Chinese territory.

Nestorianism would return in the 13th century, reintroduced by some Mongolian tribes, and it stayed for a while, as the traveler Rubruquis attested, although it ended up radically clashing with the conquering mentality that settled in that town since Genghis Khan; the spread of Buddhism gave him the coup de grace. Christianity was absent from China until the Jesuit missionaries landed there in the 17th century, only they no longer preached the Nestorian version but the Catholic one.

From that first happy stage of Alopen, the Sutras of Jesus remain, in which a certain eclecticism between the faith of Christ, Buddhism and Taoism can be appreciated. They were found in the Mogao Caves, a group of almost five thousand temples housed in caves in the middle of the Gobi desert, but close to the city of Dunhuang, which began to be excavated in 1907 by the British archaeologist Aurel Stein, helped by the Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu and French sinologist Paul Pelliot. The place itself is splendid and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 198, but thousands of documents were also removed; for the most part they were collections of sutras – these yes – and for this reason the Nestorians were also included in that category.

However, it is not the only testimony of that early Christian branch in China. Another equally interesting one is the Nestorian Stela of Xi’an, a limestone tablet 2.70 meters high epigraphically inscribed in Chinese and Syriac in the year 781 and which synthesizes a century and a half of history of the faith of Christ in the eastern country. , including the arrival of Alopen and her reception by Tai Zong. The piece was discovered in 1625 by the Jesuit Mateo Ricci and translated a few years later; it had been buried in the year 845 to hide it from some persecution. It is preserved in the Berlin Museum.

Finally, it is believed that the Daqin Pagoda, located in Chang’an, is what remains of what would be the oldest Christian church in China. It would have been part of a monastery built by Alopen and his followers in the year 640, being abandoned during the same persecution that led to the burying of the Stele of Xi’an and reoccupied by Buddhist monks in the 14th century, until an earthquake forced it to be abandoned. definitely in 1550. Its interior is decorated with frescoes on Biblical themes.


The Jesus Sutras (Martin Palmer)/The Tantric Jesus (Robert H. Stucky)/The story of a stele. China’s Nestorian monument and its reception in the West, 1625-1916 (Michael Keevak)/A new history of Christianity in China (Daniel H. Bays)/China and Christianity. Burdened past, hopeful future (Stephen Uhalley and Xiaoxin Wu, ed)/Wikipedia

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