When is a Nestorian not a Nestorian? Mostly, that’s when

This is a post I stubbed long ago apropos of a discussion that followed on Jonathan Dugdale’s long-ago seminar paper at Leeds in late 2015, which was then brought home to me afresh as I taught the early spread of Christianity in my module Empire and Aftermath for the first time there in February 2016. You see, the early spread of Christianity was mainly eastwards, into the Caucasus, Persia, and then points even further east, India at an uncertain date between first and fifth centuries and China, even, by the seventh, if not before.1 The West was a much slower adopter. What this post is about is how, when that story of eastward spread is told, the Christians of the East are almost always termed ‘Nestorians’, which is mostly wrong. That has been pointed out, but only for two of three reasons and here I want to point out the other one.

Nestorian priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a Nestorian church in Qocho, China

‘Nestorian’ priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a ‘Nestorian’ church in Qocho, China, by DaderotOwn work, CC0, Link, with snigger quotes all to be explained below

So firstly, who are these ‘Nestorian’ Christians anyway? Well, Nestorius was a patriarch of Constantinople in the early fifth century, before orthodox (and therefore, later on, Catholic) Christian doctrine was fully settled. One of the big issues in Christian theology is exactly how to imagine the crucial mystery, the embodiment of God as man, and this remains one of the biggest rifts in the Christian firmament: did God have to shed his divinity to be a human being? If so, wouldn’t that mean that God didn’t Himself die on the cross, but merely His human avatar? Contrariwise, if God remained fully divine, and therefore immortal, even when walking around in human form, how can He be said to have died for our sins, or to have died at all, since God did not cease to be at the Crucifixion? If the Son was a separate and separable part of God, not only do both of those questions still arise but so does the problem of how an explicitly monotheistic religion can have plural godheads, and so on. It’s not simple, and the orthodox solution, that Christ has two natures, human and divine, intermixed without division, remains fairly mysterious.

So in the fifth century divisions arose over this.2 (If you’re a decent theologian, the following is probably going to be horribly over-simplified, which please forgive; if it’s actually wrong, though, please also chime in and correct me. But, as I understand it…) One view, the ‘Monophysite’ one, which is the root but not the modern belief of the Coptic Church of today, held that there was only one nature in Christ, fully divine; this faction lost their imperial support at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, setting up all kinds of future problems.3 Before that, however, there was an argument about whether Christ could perhaps have two natures, and Nestorius, according to his opponents, held that He could have. It’s important to specify that this is not something that Nestorius clearly says in his surviving writings, but lots of those were written after he was fired at the Council of Ephesus in 431.4 After that, many of his supporters were removed from their posts too, and a good proportion of them made their way eastwards, firstly to Persia where they alternated between being a rival form of Christianity to the Empire’s that the Persians encouraged as a diplomatic strategy and being a mistrusted potential fifth column, depending on the level of paranoia in the Persian establishment of the day.5 In the worse patches of that, and also out of the general desire to spread the good word, Christians of this stamp also moved further east, and this is why we have this historiographical trope that Eastern Christianity was Nestorian. But it ain’t necessarily so…

The Daqin Pagoda, controversially claimed to be part of an early Nestorian church in what was then Chang'an, now Xi'an, China, built during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD)

The Daqin Pagoda, controversially claimed to be part of an early Nestorian church in what was then Chang’an, now Xi’an, China, built during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), image by J. Coster, Jcoster, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link. For problems with the identification of this otherwise-seventeenth-century-recorded building, see Michael Keevak, The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (Aberdeen HK 2008), pp. 132-135, though I have to say he doesn’t exactly produce any evidence against it, or attempt to level any dispute at the claimed evidence beyond colonialism.

There are three ways this can be wrong, you see. One is that these eastern Christians may not actually have believed what Nestorius is supposed to have professed. That is obviously doubly likely if Nestorius himself did not but was misrepresented by his opponents, but secondly, even if he did, positions near his but more acceptably orthodox could easily exist, and this is in fact where the modern-day Church of the East, in its various denominations, now sits. That doctrine itself was only first agreed at the Council of Beth Lapat in 484, after the Persians had recognised a follower of Nestorius as the new Catholicos of the Christians in their empire, but then it was not Nestorius, but his follower Theodore of Mospuesta who was taken as the fount of doctrine. Theodore’s position, modified further by the Eastern theologian Babai the Great, was something much more like the orthodox one, “with the two qnome (individual natures) of Christ… unmixed but eternally united in his single parsopa (person)”.6 Of course, the Syriac terms used here aren’t necessarily equivalents of the Greek ones on which the Orthodox theology is based, but that could be held to reduce the difference between the two Churches to one of translation, although both sides tended to emphasise more difference than that. This is still the position of the Assyrian Church of the East, but it isn’t very Nestorian; indeed, they managed to resume communion with the Catholic Church in 1994. Sebastian Brock made this point quite some time ago in an article whose title declares his position loud and clear: “The Nestorian Church: a lamentable misnomer”.7

St Mary's Assyrian Church, Moscow

St Mary’s Assyrian Church, Moscow, image by By A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

So the so-called Nestorian Church wasn’t actually Nestorian? Well, not so simple, according to more recent work, because after some centuries Nestorius’s name and history, rather than his theology, began to surface as an anchor to the Church of the East’s past, its origins in the lands of the Empire and its nature as an exilic faith.8 I guess this has something to do with the replacement of the Persian state that had once nurtured the Church by the new non-Christian power of Iran; roots now needed to go back to somewhere Christian and Nestorius, as Patriarch of Constantinople, was their highest-placed founding figure, even if doctrinally superseded. Thus we find parts of the modern-day Assyrian Church of the East who would call themselves Nestorian, as well as moves to cease the veneration of this troublesome maybe-heretic in the Church. It’s all still alive.

The so-called 'Nestorian Stele'

The so-called ‘Nestorian Stele’, photography by your humble author. As you can possibly tell, it is an absolute pain to photograph, being covered in glass and open to the sunlight, so what you can mainly see there is a window’s reflection. There is a much clearer image here, and I’ve no idea how they got it; it’s so bright that having seen the real thing I have to suspect Photoshop…

But I said there were three ways that the trope of Eastern Christianity being Nestorian could be wrong, and what set me off on this rant originally was running again into this object in the literature, and then later on, as you can see, seeing it myself. This is known everywhere as the Nestorian Stele, and it is a marvellous thing, being a dedicatory inscription set up in 781 that tells the history of the ‘Luminous Religion from Da Qin’ in China, and it is clear that this religion was Christianity.9 It’s written in Mandarin characters and some Syriac, which tends to confirm what it says about the origins of its teaching, and it’s quite a long text, in scripts I don’t read and languages I don’t understand, so it seems simplest to present the summary of John Lawton which you can find in context on the web with its references:10

The text consists of three sections. The introduction is primarily doctrinal. It relates how a supreme, triune, creator Being responded to the disobedience of humanity by being born to a virgin in Da Qin (大秦), a name that loosely refers to the Roman Empire. The inscription summarizes the life and mission of this Son, or Messiah (弥施訶), and states that works of scripture were preserved. In addition, it describes the way of life and liturgical practice of his followers in China, who named this doctrine Jingjiao (景教), the Luminous Religion or the Religion of Light. The second section of the inscription relates the history of the first 146 years of the Church in China. In the year 635 C.E. (early Tang Dynasty, 618-907 C.E.), a priest named Alopen (阿羅本) traveled from Da Qin (most likely Syria) to Chang’an (長安), then the capital of China and now named Xi’an, and met with Emperor Taizong (太宗). This tradition’s scriptures were translated into Chinese, and after studying them the emperor issued an imperial edict in 638 endorsing the dissemination of the religion throughout China. Monasteries were built in Chang’an and many other cities, monks served the needs of the poor and the sick, and the Jingjiao community enjoyed imperial gifts and support. With thanksgiving for the success of the Luminous Religion in China, the writer concludes with a celebratory poem. The inscription then documents that the stele was unveiled on February 4, 781, and subsequently lists approximately 70 names of Christian clergy, written in both Syriac and Chinese.

So it’s not that ambiguous, you might think, and much has therefore been written about it and its evidence for cultural transmission, religious syncretism, Chinese religious plurality and of course the early history of the Church of the East.11 But wait. I haven’t given you a full translation because it’s quite long, but, I have read one and there is nothing in it to tell you more about that crucial bit, exactly how God was born to a virgin as the Son.12 The Christology of the Luminous Religion is not made clear. Perhaps it was thought too abstruse for the monumental context, perhaps too high-level for a Chinese public new to Christian ideas at that point, perhaps it didn’t seem seriously definitional to the writer, a priest called Adam in Syriac and Jingjing in Chinese. We have some writings of the missionary he says brought the faith to China, one Alopa, which also don’t settle this point.13 But the Nestorians were not the only exilic Christian denomination, not even the only one originally from Syria; what with the Empire’s various theological divisions, the Persians’ occasional suspicion of Christians and then Islam’s takeover of much or all of both areas, there was probably no Eastern Church some of whose members didn’t at some point start moving eastwards looking for more tolerant homes.14

Chinese characters and Syriac letters alongside each other on the so-called 'Nestorian Stele'

Still plagued by glass reflection, this shot nonetheless catches some of the Chinese characters and Syriac letters side-by-side

So there’s just no way to be sure that Adam/Jingjing was a member of what would come to be known as the Church of the East. For exactly this reason, as well as Brock’s older point about the term ‘Nestorian Christian’ possibly just being discourteous, a very recent piece by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson refers to him only as a ‘Syriac Christian’.15 But the tide is not far out on this, and I think it has a long way to go before turning. So, in the terms of that metaphor, this post is my little sandcastle, intended to defend historical ambiguity and uncertainty where it is needed. Not all Christians in the East were Nestorians; not even all ‘Nestorians’ are or were theologically Nestorian; it’s possible even Nestorius himself wasn’t. We know something about what Adam/Jingjing believed, and that he had fellows, but we don’t know how large his Church was or that it was the only one in China. This is one of those places where a bit more recognition of what we don’t know would open our minds to a lot more possible stories…


1. I think what I was reading when this kicked off in my head was Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: consequences of monotheism in late antiquity (Princeton, NJ, 1993), which is excellent on that eastward spread and the remaining connections with the Empire.

2. I think I first learnt all this stuff from Robert Markus’s The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge 1991), whch I heartily recommend still, but a shorter introduction might be Richard Lim, “Christian Triumph and Controversy” in G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown & Oleg Grabar (edd.), Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World (Cambridge MA 1999), pp. 196–218.

3. On why the Copts are not Monophysite, in more detail than that link, try Sebastian P. Brock, “Miaphysite, Not Monophysite!” in Cristianesimo nella storia 2016 no. 1 (2016), pp. 45–54, DOI: 10.17395/82929.

4. Brock goes through the Church of the East’s theological statements in detail in Sebastian Brock, “The Christology of the Church of the East in the Synods of the Fifth to Early Seventh Centuries: Preliminary Considerations and Materials”, in Everett Ferguson (ed.), Doctrinal Diversity: Varieties of Early Christianity, Recent Studies in Early Christianity 4 (New York City NY 1999), pp. 281–298.

5. For three very different perspectives on Persian Christianity, see A. V. Williams, “Zoroastrians and Christians in Sasanian Iran” in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Vol. 78 (Manchester 1996), pp. 37–54; Philip Wood, “Collaborators and Dissidents: Christians in Sasanian Iraq in the Early Fifth Century CE”, in Teresa Bernheimer & A. Silverstein (edd.), Late Antiquity: Eastern Perspectives (Warminster 2012), pp. 57–70; and L. E. Patterson, “Minority Religions in the Sasanian Empire” in Eberhard W. Sauer (ed.), Sasanian Persia: between Rome and the Steppes of Eurasia (Edinburgh 2017), pp. 181–198.

6. As well as Brock, “Christology”, this is laid out fairly clearly in either of Wilhelm Baum and Dieter W. Winkler, The Church of the East: a concise history (London 2003), online here, or Christoph Baumer, The Church of the East (London 2013), not online but beautifully illustrated.

7. Brock, “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: a lamentable misnomer” in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Vol. 78 (Manchester 1996), pp. 23–35.

8. I found it in Philip Wood, The Chronicle of Seert: Christian historical imagination in late antique Iraq (Oxford 2013), pp. 140-142, but it’s done in more detail in Nikolai N. Seleznyov, “Nestorius of Constantinople: Condemnation, Suppression, Veneration” in Journal of Eastern Christian Studies Vol. 62 (Leuven 2010), pp. 165–190.

9. On the equation of Da Qin with the Roman Empire, see Krisztina Hoppál, “The Roman Empire According to the Ancient Chinese Sources” in Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae Vol. 51 (Budapest 2011) 263–306, DOI: 10.1556/AAnt.51.2011.3-4.5.

10. David Lawton, “Description and Significance of the Nestorian Stele, ‘A Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Da Qin Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom’ (大秦景教流行中國碑)”, online here.

11. See P. Y. Saeki, The Nestorian Monument in China (London 1916), online here; Michael Keevak, The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (Aberdeen HK 2008); Zhao Liguang, Treasures Engraved on the Steles: Art of Calligraphy in the Xi’an Beilin Museum (Xi’an 2016), pp. 162-165 (no. 65); or now Richard Todd Godwin, Persian Christians at the Chinese court: the Xi’an Stele and the Early Medieval Church of the East, Library of Medieval Studies 4 (London 2018), only the last of which catches the point I’m trying to make here.

12. There is a full translation in Saeki, Nestorian Monument, pp. 162-165, and a more modern one in L. Eccles and S. Lieu (transl.), “大秦景教流行中國碑 : Stele on the diffusion of the Luminous Religion of Da Qin (Rome) in the Middle Kingdom”, online here.

13. Lawton, “Nestorian Stele”, p. 4, citing Saeki, Nestorian Monument, pp. 116-117, but actually I can’t find it there.

14. Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth, pp. 121-137.

15. Scott FitzGerald Johnson, “Silk Road Christians and the Translation of Culture in Tang China” in Simon Ditchfield, Charlotte Methuen & Andrew Spicer (edd.), Translating Christianity, Studies in Church History Vol. 53 (Cambridge 2017), pp. 15–38; cf. also Godwin, Persian Christians.

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5 responses to “When is a Nestorian not a Nestorian? Mostly, that’s when

  1. I have read that “Arian Christianity” – the one we were taught about in childhood in the saga of Arians vs Catholics – had little to do with Arius.

    Sometimes a label is only a label.

  2. Gawd, and now that I look back, it turns out I made pretty much the whole argument of this post in an image caption four years ago while ranting about something else. Well, never mind, now you also have the references!

  3. The clearer photo of the Nestorian stele is available here; it’s a 2008 photo of rubbing at the University of Birmingham “made directly from the stele in the 1920s.” (I’ll add a caption to the image on my blog to make the source of the image more clear.)

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