The Luminous Religon: Nestorian Christianity in China

The Luminous Religon: Nestorian Christianity in China April 10, 2022





It was on this day, the 10th of April, in 428, that Nestorius was enthroned as Patriarch of Constantinople. Three years later he would be deposed and driven into exile. This would lead to the first ongoing schism within the continuing Christian churches, which would in time create the great branches of Oriental Orthodox, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and the many branched Protestants.
The Church of the East (for more see here and here), which kicked off the schism by refusing to condemn Nestorius has its own fascinating history. For me birthing my fantasy Taoist Christian church, the Luminous Religion of early medieval China. My imagination was fired particularly by Martin Palmer‘s The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity. (Sadly, it would seem this book is currently out of print, but available here and there as a PDF.)
While controversial in some circles who suggest Professor Palmer, when translating the Jingjiao Documents, given the choice between two or more possible renditions of a text, chose the one that most closely fit his thesis of a full on hybrid Taoist Christianity. These critics suggest a much more prosaic version of Christianity was in fact the sect known as the Luminous Religion.
Me, I’ve wondered what do we know that is beyond controversy? And, here we are. For those interested in minority Christianities, and what we can actually know, the scholar and one-time Buddhist monk, Dr Jeffrey Kotyk has compiled a survey of materials and scholarship concerning that largely veiled Christian experiment.
It was first published by the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, and then shared at this site by permission of the author in 2021. And now republished in honor of the day…


Nestorian Christianity

A Survey of materials and scholarship concerning
Nestorianism / East-Syriac Christianity in China

From the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (shared here with permission of the author)

Jeffrey Kotyk


NESTORIAN CHRISTIANITY A sect of Christianity that was influential in China during the Tang dynasty 唐朝 (618–907), and later under the Yuan dynasty 元朝 (1279–1368). Also known as Nestorianism, Syriac Christianity, East Syrian Church, Church of the East, and Assyrian Church of the East. The term “Nestorian” is controversial in present academia with an increasing preference for the term “East Syriac Church”, though “Nestorian” has been the standard term until recently.

Nestorianism initially developed in the fifth century starting from Nestorios (c.381–c.451), who was bishop of Constantinople (428–431). The primary doctrine of Nestorianism is that Christ was comprised of two separate persons, one human and one divine. This was rejected as heretical by their opponents. The Nestorian bishops were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. They established a separate church that spread throughout Persia, parts of Syria, northern Arabia and eastward to Central Asia, India and finally China. It appears to have been a popular religion among Persian and later Arab merchants (Kazhdan, 1991: vol. II, 1459–1460). For relevant discussions of Nestorianism in Central Asia see Sims-Williams (1991) and Hunter (1992).

Nestorian Steles

There are two extant steles produced by Nestorian communities in China. These are the key primary sources about this religion in Tang China.

The first stele was erected in 781 in Chang’an. It is included in the Taishō (T 2144). It has the inscribed title of “Stele to the Propagation of the Luminous Teaching of Daqin in China” 大秦景 教流行中國碑. The inscription was written by the clergyman Adam 景淨 (d.u.) who employed Buddhist and Daoist vocabularies. The inscription contains 1,756 characters and seventy Syriac words in Syriac script, mainly names of Persians and Syrians. Most of these names are adopted from the Old and New Testament (Standaert, 2001: 22–23). The stele describes Christ’s birth, Christian doctrine, a short history of Nestorianism in China from the arrival of the first missionary in 635, a eulogy and a list of names of clergymen. The erection of the tablet is given using three calendrical systems (Chinese, Persian and Greek-Seleucid). The stele mentions a total of twenty-seven books, which corresponds to the number of New Testament writings. The Nestorians, however, only accepted twenty-two books of the New Testament as canonical (Foley, 2009: 8). The stele was unearthed in between 1623–1625 in Xi’an 西安. It is made from a slab of black limestone from nearby quarries in the county of Fuping 富平縣.

The authenticity of the stele was initially disputed by European scholars, but later confirmed as authentic (Tang 2004: 17–25). Note that the Buddhist “Toutuosi Inscription” 頭陀寺碑文 of 494 by Wang Jin 王 巾 (d. 505) served as a model for this inscription (included in fasc. 59 of the Zhaoming wenxuan 昭明文選; see Zhaoming Taizi 昭明太子, 1986: 811–817). For details see Forte (1996: 473– 481). The stele inscription was translated into English by Wylie (1855–1856) and others.

The second stele was erected in 814 in Luoyang 洛陽. It was unearthed in 2006. It has two inscriptions: Daqin Jingjiao xuanyuan zhiben jing 大秦景教宣元至本經 and Jingchuang ji 經幢 記. The stele is missing its bottom half. The inscription includes a theological discourse and some details about the community which produced the stele. This stele demonstrates that in the early ninth century a Nestorian church was present in Luoyang and that Sogdian clergymen served there (Moribe, 2012). For a translation and study see Tang (2009).


The stele of 781 states that in year 9 of reign era Zhenguan 貞觀 (635) a mission led by Aluoben 阿羅夲 (also rendered as 阿羅本) from the country of Daqin 大秦 arrived in Chang’an 長安 (the stele states that “the virgin gave birth to the holy man in Daqin” 室女誕聖於大秦, thus ‘Daqin’ here refers to the Levant). The Zunjing 尊經 (see below) records that Aluoben addressed the court in his native language 本音, which was translated by Fang Xuanling 房玄齡 (579–648) and Wei Zheng 魏徵 (580–643). Standaert (2001: 19) suggests that the language was Sogdian rather than Persian in light of the former being the lingua franca of Central Asia. Aluoben’s mission was perhaps motivated by the turmoil of the collapsing Sasanian empire (224–650). Fasc. 49 of the Tang huiyao 唐會要, compiled in 961 by Wang Pu 王溥 (922–982), gives an account of the founding of the Christian church in China. It records that in year 12 of reign era Zhenguan (638), the ‘Persian monk’ 波斯僧 Aluoben presented his scriptural teachings 經教 to the court as tribute. The new teachings were considered beneficial, and thus the court ordered the construction of a monastery in Yining ward 義寧坊 in Chang’an, and the ordination 度僧 of twenty-one clergymen. It also records an imperial edict from year 4 of reign era Tianbao 天寶 (745) which states that the scriptural teachings of Persia 波斯經教 had come from the country of Daqin, and thus the churches in the two capitals, which had earlier been called ‘Persian temples’ 波斯寺, would be renamed as ‘Daqin temples’ 大秦寺 (Wang Pu, 1991: 1011–1012). All other provinces and counties where such temples existed were to follow suit, indicating that such churches existed across China. This decree is also recorded in fasc. 32 of the Quan Tang wen 全 唐文, compiled by Dong Hao 董誥 in 1814 (see Dong Hao, 1983: vol. 1, 357a6-9).

It appears that Nestorianism in China was largely destroyed in 845 when Emperor Wuzong 武宗 (r. 840–846), a Daoist zealot, initiated a purge of foreign religions. The Jiu Tang shu (fasc. 18a) records that more than three-thousand Christian and Zoroastrian 穆護 clergymen were laicized 還俗 (Liu Xu, 1975: vol. 2, 606). Around the year 980, the catholicos (patriarch) of Baghdad sent an envoy to China to investigate the status of Christianity there. It was reported that Christianity had been wiped out in China (Raguin, 2002: 170).

The Nestorian Church re-emerged in China during the Yuan dynasty 元朝 (1271–1368) but again vanished following the collapse of that dynasty. Alongside Nestorianism, Franciscan and

Dominican missions were also sent to the Mongol court. The mother of Kublai Khan was a Nestorian Christian. He also hosted at his court Nestorian monks. In the year 1330, there were more than 30,000 Nestorians in China (Malek, 2009: 136).

In the Yuan period Christians, both Nestorian and Catholic, were known as yelikewen 也里可溫, yelikewen 也里克溫 or yeliqiao 也里喬, which is derived from Mongolian or Turkic ärkä’ün / ärkägün / erke’ün. The etymology of this term remains uncertain. It can also refer to Christian laypeople and clergy (Moriyasu, 2011: 351–352). Marco Polo (1254–1324) noted the presence of Nestorian Christians in China, such as the foreigner Mar Sarghis or Ma Xuelijisi 馬薛里吉思, who governed over Zhenjiang Prefecture 鎮江府 before building several churches (Vogel, 2011: 357). A comprehensive record of the Nestorian community is preserved in the Zhishun Zhenjiang zhi 至順鎮江志, a local gazetteer of Zhenjiang compiled by Yu Xilu 余希魯 around 1333 (Halbertsma, 2015: 60–61). Despite the strong presence of Nestorianism, neither it nor other Christian denominations had any significant impact on Chinese society in this period. For extensive details on Yuan period Christianity see Standaert (2001: 43–111).

There are scattered references to Chinese Christians in Syriac and Arab sources. The Syriac sources name specific Nestorian clerics in China (see Standaert, 2001: 9–10).

Nestorian Scriptures

Nestorian works introduced Christian and theological terms such as Alāhā 阿羅訶 (God), Satan 娑殫, Messiah 彌施訶 and the Trinity. They also borrowed from Buddhist ecclesiastical vocabulary such as seng 僧 (Christian clergyman), si 寺 (Church), dade 大德 (bishop) and fawang 法王 (saint).

All texts below were translated into English by Saeki (1937) with the Chinese reproduced in the back of the volume. Note that his translations are dated and subject to reevaluation by contemporary scholars. The following two scriptures are included in Pelliot Chinois 3847 (available at International Dunhuang Project Reproduced in Saeki (1937: 71– 76). See T 2143.

Jingjiao san wei mengdu zan 景教三威蒙度讚. Nestorian Hymn of the Three Majesties for Obtaining Salvation. 1 fasc.

Zunjing 尊經. The Diptychs. 1 fasc. An anonymous work from the early tenth century. It provides the names of saints such as David, Hosea, Peter, and Paul. It lists several presently non- extant texts including the Book of Moses 牟世法王經, Zechariah 刪河律經, Epistles of Saint Paul 寶路法王經 and Revelations 啟真經 (Foley, 2009: 7–8). It mentions the aforementioned clergyman Adam, stating that he translated thirty texts listed therein.

Yishen lun 一神論. Discourse on Monotheism. 1 fasc. Dated to 642 (Zhao & Nie, 2010: 13). Reproduced in Saeki (1937: 30–70). An incomplete theological work comprised of three sections: “The Parable Part II” 喻第二, “Treatise on the One God Part I” 一天論第一, “*Lokajyeṣṭha Treatise on Giving Part III” 世尊布施論第三. The last section notably summarizes quotations from the “Sermon on the Mound” by Jesus (corresponding to Matthew 6 & 7).

Xuting Mishi suo jing 序聽迷詩所經 (T 2142). The Jesus-Messiah Scripture. 1 fasc. Reproduced in Saeki (1937: 13–29). Takakusu Junjirō 高楠順次郎 bought the original manuscript of this text from a Chinese seller in 1922. Saeki (1937: 113–117) argued that this was produced by Aluoben before 638. Saeki (1937, 147) suggested that Xuting 序聽 is a Chinese approximation of ‘Ye-su’ (Jesus). Mishisuo 迷詩所 is a scribal error for Mishihe 迷詩訶 or ‘Messiah’ (Haneda: vol. 2, 250). This text describes the life of Jesus including the virgin birth, his baptism 湯谷 by John, his miracles, arrest, crucifixion 木上縛著 and resurrection, in addition to general Christian precepts for daily life before calling on the reader to have faith in the teachings. It also uses various foreign names and terms in transliterated Chinese from Syriac (Jehovah 序娑, Messiah 彌師訶, Mary 末艶, Jesus 移鼠, Jerusalem 烏梨師�, Jordan 述難, John 若昏, Pilatus 毘羅都思, Golgotha 訖句). The author of this text continually insists on the virtue of filial piety 孝父母, as well as respect for the Emperor, indicating a conscious adaptation to Chinese values. For a detailed early study see Haneda (1958: vol. 2, 240–269). For an English translation see Palmer (2001: 159–168).

Zhixuan anle jing 志玄安樂經. Scripture of Profound Joy. 1 fasc. Reproduced in Saeki (1937: 77–95). A dialogue, based on the model of a Buddhist sūtra, concerning religious cultivation between a monk named Cenwen 岑穩 (Simon?) and the Messiah. The above Zunjing attributes the ‘translation’ 譯得 of this work to Adam. This work displays strong Daoist and Buddhist influences.

Daqin Jingjiao xuanyuan benjing 大秦景教宣元本經. Primary Scripture Explaining the Origins of the Daqin Nestorian Religion. 1 page (fragment). Reproduced in Saeki (1937: 96). A fragmentary account of a sermon by a Patriarch Jingtong 景通 in Nazareth 那薩羅城.

There are two manuscripts acquired by Kojima Yasushi 小島靖, the Daqin Jingjiao dasheng tongzhen guifa zan 大秦景教大聖通真歸法贊 and Daqin Jingjiao xuanyuan zhiben jing 大秦景 教宣元至本經, which were earlier thought to be legitimate Nestorian texts, but Lin Wushu 林悟 殊 and Rong Xinjiang 榮新江 demonstrated that they are modern forgeries (Rong, 2013: 335– 337).

Interaction with Buddhists and Daoists

Nestorianism as a major religious community in Tang China interacted with Buddhism and Daoism. The Zhenyuan xinding Shijiao mulu 貞元新定釋教目錄 (fasc. 17), compiled by Yuanzhao 圓照 (d.u.) in 800, reports that the aforementioned clergyman Adam translated the *Mahāyāna-naya-ṣaṭ-pāramitā-sūtra 大乘理趣六波羅蜜多經 in seven fascicles based on a Sogdian edition 胡本 together with the monk Prajñā 般若. However, at the time, Prajñā did notunderstand Sogdian 胡語 or Chinese 唐言, while Adam understood neither Sanskrit 梵文 nor Buddhism 釋教. The resulting translation was found to be problematic, and Prajñā retranslated the text from Sanskrit in 788. It was ordered that Adam should only transmit the teachings of the Messiah 彌尸訶教 while Buddhists would only propagate Buddhist scriptures 佛經 so as to keep the doctrines and communities separate.

Saeki identified what appear to be Syriac Christian prayers in the form of transliterated incantations in a Tang Daoist text, the Lüzu quanshu 呂祖全書 (see Saeki, 1937: 400–407 & Zeng Yangqing, 2005: 35–38).

Introduction of Foreign Arts and Sciences

Nestorianism brought to China new technology, arts and scientific knowledge from the Near East. Fasc. 546 of the Cefu yuangui 冊府元龜, compiled by Wang Qinruo 王欽若 (962–1025) in 1013, records that in year 2 of reign era Kaiyuan 開元 (714), Persian monks such as Jilie 及烈 and others produced numerous wondrous devices 奇器異巧 (see Wang Qinruo, 1989: vol. 2, 1490b4), indicating technology transfer.

The Sino-Persian court astronomer Li Su 李素 (743–817) likely had a role in transmitting astronomical knowledge from the Near East. His biographical details are known from his tomb inscription, which was discovered in Xi’an in 1980 (for the initial report see Chen Guoying, 1981), though it does not state he was a clergyman. Rong Xinjiang (2001: 255–257), however, pointed out that the Nestorian stele of 781 lists his courtesy name 字 of Wen Zhen 文貞 alongside the Syriac name of Luka among the names of Christian clergymen.

Bill M. Mak (2014) argues that Nestorian clergy, such as Li Su, were responsible for introducing Hellenistic astrology, in particular horoscopy, into China through the translation of the Duli yusi jing 都利聿斯經 (Middle Chinese pronunciation: tu lijH ywit sje; Baxter-Sagart, 2011), a recension of an astrology manual written by Dorotheus of Sidon (c. 75 CE). It was through this work that Hellenistic astrology was integrated into Daoist literature such as the Lingtai jing 靈臺 經 (DZ 288). The Duli yusi jing was furthermore studied as a primary text by the Sukuyō-dō 宿 曜道, a community of Japanese Buddhist astrologers in the Heian and Kamakura periods (Momo Hiroyuki, 1975: 17).

Nestorian clergy are known to have been practitioners of medicine. The clergyman Yisi 伊斯 named on the 781 stele appears to have practiced medicine (Nie Zhijun, 2008). The Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書 (fasc. 95) reports that in year 28 of reign era Kaiyuan 開元 (740), the clergyman Chongyi 僧崇一 healed the younger brother of Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗 (Liu Xu, 1975: vol. 9, 3012). The Tongdian 通典 (fasc. 193) compiled in 801 by Du You 杜佑 (735-812), quoting a fragment from the Jingxing ji 經行記, a travelogue by Du Huan 杜環, reports that Daqin physicians are adept in treating eyes and dysentery.

They also diagnose illness before symptoms emerge 未病先見, and perform trephinations 開腦 (Du You, 1987: 1041c9-10). This account possibly indicates Greek medicine, especially in light of the account of Byzantium 拂菻 in the Xin Tang shu 新唐書 (fasc. 221) that notes their physicians are skilled in medicine and able to perform trephinations to heal eye diseases (Ouyang, 1975: vol. 20, 6261). The Tang xinyu 唐新 語 (fasc. 9) has an account of Qin Minghe 秦鳴鶴 (d.u.), whom Huang (2002) and others identify as an immigrant Nestorian clergyman, successfully treating Emperor Gaozong 高宗, who in his later years suffered of dizziness and blindness, by draining blood 出血 from the crown of his head 百會 (Liu Su, 1983: 368–369). Fasc. 703 of the Quan Tang wen includes a report by Li Deyu 李德裕 (787–849) that states a certain Daqin cleric proficient in optometry 醫 眼大秦僧一人 was present in the Chengdu 成都 area (Dong Hao, 1983: vol. 7, 7220b10-11).

(Nipponica, FGS)
*For reconstructed Chinese pronunciations see “The Digital Etymological Dictionary of Old

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Image above is a Tang Dynasty portrayal of a Nestorian Bishop

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