Through the Middle Ages, European churches made enthusiastic  use of apocryphal scriptures, but matters changed rapidly at the Reformation. Protestants and Catholics alike campaigned against the old alternative gospels and saints’ lives, driving many out of use. A similar process of scriptural cleansing was under way elsewhere in the world in these same years, and it makes for a disturbing and depressing story. It also represents one of the most painful encounters between old and new Christian worlds.

The Christian presence in Southern India dates back to very early times, at least to the second century. Claiming foundation by St. Thomas, the church maintained its identity through the Middle Ages. It was firmly part of the Church of the East, the so-called Nestorian Church, which looked to the Iraq-based Patriarch of Babylon.

In the sixteenth century, new Christian adventurers appeared, as Portuguese ships carved out their commercial empire in the Indian Ocean. Portuguese and Spanish Catholic clergy were intrigued but baffled by these Indian Christians, who claimed not even to have heard of the Pope in Rome. Gradually, the Europeans expanded their power over the local churches.

Matters came to a head in 1599, with the synod held at Diamper (Udayamperoor, in the modern Indian state of Kerala) under Aleixo de Menezes, the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa. The synod imposed Roman authority on the local church. It demanded that Indian believers renounce their Nestorian doctrines, as well as any customs that could not be reconciled with European Catholic standards. This particularly included Hindu-tinged customs that had crept in over the previous centuries.

For present purposes though, the synod’s most significant act was in identifying and condemning many local writings, including ancient apocryphal scriptures. Henceforward, on pain of excommunication, no person should “presume to keep, translate, read or hear read to others” any of the following books. One was The Infancy of our Savior (The History of our Lady), which contained many ideas that had been the familiar fare of pseudo-gospels across the Christian world for centuries, including the Protevangelium. Now, though, they were classified as damnable errors, demanding the book’s suppression and elimination. For instance, the book asserted that

That the Annunciation of the angel was made in the Temple of Jerusalem , where Our Lady was, which contradicts the Gospel of St. Luke, which says, it was made in Nazareth; as also that Joseph had actually another wife and children when he was betrothed to the holy virgin; and that he often reproved the child Jesus for his naughty tricks; that the child Jesus went to school with the rabbins, and learned of them with a thousand other fables and blasphemies of the same nature….. that St Joseph, to be satisfied whether the virgin had committed adultery, carried her before the priests who according to the law gave her the water of jealousy to drink; that Our Lady brought forth with pain, and parting from her company, not being able to go 
farther, she retired to a stable at Bethlehem. 

(See Scaria Zacharia, The Acts and Decrees of the Synod of Diamper 1599 (Edamattam, Kerala: Indian Institute of Christian Studies 1994).

Also condemned to the fire was a whole library of Syriac spiritual and theological writings. I quote from A Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts Preserved in the Library of the University of Cambridge (1901), by William Wright and Stanley Arthur Cook:

“The main object of the Synod of Diamper was to stamp out Nestorianism and enforce Roman Catholicism. With this object a careful examination was made of all the extant writings, and those which taught the heresy of Nestorius, or spoke against the Virgin, or suggested an early rivalry between S. Peter and S. Thomas (the patron saint of the S. Indian Syrians), or were opposed in any way whatsoever to the teaching of Rome were condemned to be burnt. This was actually done at Angamale, Chinganor, and elsewhere. … Fortunately the edicts of the Synod give us some idea of the writings which were burnt. Among them are mentioned:

The infancy of our Savior, or the History of our Lady;

the Book of John Barialdon (Bar Khaldon);

the Book of the Fathers;

the Procession of the Holy Spirit;

the Book of the Pearl (‘Abhd-isho’);

Maclamatas (i.e. Makamat, ‘Abhd-isho’s Book of Paradise);

a Life of Abba Isaiah (which anathematized Cyril of Alexandria);

the Book of Synods (with a forged letter of Pope Caius);

the Book of Timothy the Patriarch;

the Letter which came down from Heaven, called also the Letter of the Lord’s Day;

the Uguard or ” Rose ” (the Warda ?);

the Camiz (the Khamis?);

an exposition of the Gospels wherein it is stated that 1 John and James are not the work of the Apostles whose names they bear and are therefore uncanonical;

the Book of Rabban Hormizd the Martyr;

the Letter of Mar Narsai (against the doctrine that Mary is the Mother of God);

a book after the manner of the Flos Sanctorum, containing the lives of over a hundred Nestorians — many of them current separately;

and astrological and kindred works, including the Book of Lots, and one called Parsiman.

All copies were to be surrendered for destruction.

An area once rich with ancient Christian scriptures was largely robbed of its heritage. The Synod of Diamper “probably accounts for the poverty of the Indian Syriac literature and the absence of really old MSS.”

Incidentally, Catholic envoys were in these same years inflicting similar damage on the old Christian libraries of Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia.

Overall, this was a cultural catastrophe, inflicted by Christians on other Christians.




Turmoil and Portents
The Hadith and the Jews
Dueling Apocalypses
In Our Time
  • http://jamesdowden.wordpress.com/ James Dowden

    Did any copies of any of these works escape the Roman Catholics?

    • philipjenkins

      Some are lost entirely. Others survive at least in partial form, although not in India.

  • http://onbehalfofall.org/ Gabe Martini

    Am I understanding you correctly in that you’re claiming Nestorians as “the ancient Church,” rather than as a heterodox or even heretical sect?

    Do you reject the decisions of the Third Ecumenical Council?

    This information, while perhaps historically accurate, is presented here with a generous amount of bias.

    I’m no fan of the Latins, but a spade is a spade.

    • philipjenkins

      I don’t say they are “THE ancient church” but they are very deeply rooted in that church. I would treat them as a legitimate outgrowth of that church, much like the Orthodox and Catholic. BTW, the “Nestorianism” of Nestorius was highly exaggerated.

      • http://onbehalfofall.org/ Gabe Martini

        That’s a popular claim these days, but the issue isn’t Nestorius the man as much as what the Nestorians believed and continue to espouse today (e.g. a refusal to call Mary the Theotokos, among other things). A liturgy without the words of institution speaks for itself.

        • philipjenkins

          Well, it’s a popular claim because that’s what most scholars
          accept. And I’m not sure how the Theotokos issue does speak for itself, if that means reading the Church of the East out of Christianity, or the Christian tradition. We can respect the disagreements while acknowledging the common roots. To use an analogy, Protestants and Catholics have spent centuries calling each other names, including heretic and heterodox, but they both unquestionably belong within that wider tradition.

          By the way, does the problem about words of institution mean that modern non-liturgical Protestant churches are also heterodox or heretical sects? That seems quite harsh.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    It seems rather unusual that a synod would absolutely forbid _any_ studying or keeping, as opposed to the usual Catholic idea that you keep copies of heretical books and study them to fight heresy and for historical reasons, and that only those not authorized for such purposes are told to keep away from such books. So it would seem this is post-Reformation panickiness plus some Portuguese nationalism, because…

    …the Synod was convoked without the proper authority from Rome and did not follow Canon Law. It was an invalid synod. The Catholic Encyclopedia points the finger at “the misguided zeal” of Archbishop Menezes, who basically pulled the Synod of Diamper and its policies out of his own butt. (And how can you have a synod with only one bishop, especially if you’re taking authority away from all the other clerical participants that aren’t Catholic? It’s silly and wicked.)

    • philipjenkins

      Yes, that canonical status has been much debated. Bishop Jonas Thaliath did a technical study of the legalities in the 1958 book, THE SYNOD OF DIAMPER.

      Also please note, I don’t hold this position myself, but according to the
      standards of Menezes and his allies, the other participants aren’t just not
      Catholic, but not properly or fully Christian, so you can ride roughshod over them as you please.