What does the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and 7th century Chinese Christianity have in common? Not much. Except the fact that there is a world beyond Trump, beyond the bombastic rhetoric and the chasms of fear and racism some of his comments have opened.
For many people living in the USA (Republicans included), Trump being the front-runner at this stage is nothing short of a disaster. For many people outside the country, his candidacy and remarks only confirms some of their worst fears about the United States. I am a political independent, and don’t know whether to be more astounded at some of the things he says, or the fact that he is still has so much support with the primaries about to begin.
But there is a world beyond Donald Trump. And beyond the political discourse and future of the United States. As there was in the 7th century for the “Imperial Christianity” of the Western and Eastern edges of the Mediterranean. These were the glory years of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantines. It had been in 537 C.E. that the great Church in Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia, had been re-built by Emperor Justinian. (It became a mosque in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks took the city, renaming it Istanbul).
For many in the Christian world, this was the center, along with a growing rivalry over who had the greatest power with Rome. But there was a world beyond both Rome and Constantinople. A world to the East, a strong Christian faith held by millions in what is now Eastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, India and China. Yes, China as well. (See the first part of this post, Hidden in Plain Sight for 1400 Years, Part 1).
Sometime in 634-635 C.E., a group of missionary monks led by Alopen left a monastery most likely in what is now Northern Iraq (then Mesopotamia), traveling along one of the routes of the Silk Road across Asia. They reached the outskirts of the capital of the Chinese T’ang dynasty, Chang’an, (the modern city of Xian), and most likely waited for a summons from the Emperor. After an unknown period of waiting, they were ushered into his presence. In a previous post from November, I have written some of the history of what happened, preserved in 781 on a large stone tablet that was buried for almost 800 years. (See my post Buried for 780 years.)
Near where the stone Stele was found in 1625, having been in the ground since 845, a tower-like structure still exists. It is called the Da Qin Pagoda, and most scholars believe it was actually built by Christians sometime after 635. It would serve along with possibly other buildings no longer in existence as a monastic complex for mission work into the whole area.
When my colleagues and I visited a few weeks ago, the chanting of Buddhist hymns was going on non-stop, as for many years there have been claims that the Pagoda had either Buddhist or Taoist origin. But that morning we were brought into the building next to the Pagoda, into the office of the official Chinese government curator of the site.
Over the next almost 2 hours, he gave us a wonderful, information-filled account of the history of the Pagoda and the contrasting claims. Though making it clear more than once to us that he was not an adherent of the Christian religion, he very strongly stated his beliefs that it was indeed originally a Christian structure.
According to this man, the finding of the Stele nearby was only one of several evidences for why it was a Christian site from the 7th century and not of more recent origin or from another faith. Though crosses have not been found inside the Pagoda on any of its several floors, there are inscriptions in Syriac language inside, the language of liturgy for the Church of the East in Asia. (An inscription with a cross on it had been dug up in the 1920’s nearby, but was stolen during the Japanese occupation and has disappeared.)
On the Stele, of which a copy stood nearby where we were sitting, are both the languages of Mandarin as well as Syriac. The images of the Buddha on the bottom floor of the Pagoda, as well as a sign draping it outside, are all of much more recent origin. The direction of the plateau the Pagoda is built on runs east to west. For Jesus Sutras author Martin Palmer, this was an important confirmation. “Suddenly I realized that the plateau of our pagoda ran east to west, and I leapt to my feet with a triumphant cry. It is an immutable design of every Chinese temple, Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian, that it runs north to south.” (pg. 22) This was the same conclusion of our curator as well.
Our Chinese curator explained to us that he had taken considerable heat by continuing to defend the Christians origin of the Pagoda, including at international symposiums held even in Beijing. It was a stunning day for me to be there and consider what an amazing evidence this could be of early Chinese Christianity, combined as well with the Nestorian Stele found nearby. For Martin Palmer on his first visit there, it was no less emotional. “As night drew in and the features of the Christian pagoda of the long-lost Da Qin monastery slid into the darkness, I stood where I guessed the church had been. I stood where fourteen hundred years ago Christians had faced east and prayed, and I too prayed.” (pg. 25)
There was a vast world beyond the Christianity of the Roman Empire, Western or Eastern versions. It is a world that is still extremely unknown to us today, but continued discoveries in more recent years in Asia of documents, scrolls, buried monasteries and churches, treasures like the Stele and the Pagoda, are emerging.
I’m grateful that there is a vast world beyond Trump, and indeed beyond the United States. Trump will come, and Trump will go. What will remain in 1400 years from now?