The Nestorian Monument: An Ancient Record of Christianity in China/Nestorius and the Nestorians

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2768145The Nestorian Monument: An Ancient Record of Christianity in China — Nestorius and the NestoriansPaul Carus


THE Nestorian Church is a sect which calls itself Chaldæan Christianity. In its doctrines it follows Nestorius, who was patriarch of Constantinople (428-431) where for three years he exercised an unusual power but succumbed in the conflict with his rival Cyril of Alexandria mainly through the enmity of Pulcheria, the influential sister of Emperor Theodosius II.

Nestorius, a disciple of Theodorus of Mopsuestia, had been ordained a presbyter at Antioch and in his theology he followed the austere traditions of the Antiochian school. When called to Constantinople as patriarch he came with the intention of establishing the "pure doctrine." In his installation sermon before the emperor, he said: "Give me a country cleansed of heretics and I will return heaven to you in its place. Help me to overcome heretics and I will help you to conquer the Persians."

Nestorius combined with his zeal for the truth the awkwardness of the monk who was not fitted to cope with the complicated conditions at the capital, the power of the emperor as head of the Church, the intrigue of the Byzantine court and the influence of the masses. He had offended Pulcheria, who under the title Augusta, shared with her brother the Emperor, the honors of imperial power. While Theodosius favored Nestorius, she, the Augusta, sided with his enemy, the wily Bishop of Alexandria.

In those days dogmatic subtleties and theological terms became issues of great controversies and Nestorius took special exception to the name "Mother of God" which was commonly attributed to Mary. The term was an old pagan expression and is a literal translation of the Egyptian Neter Mut by which pagan devotees addressed the goddess Isis.

A presbyter of Nestorius, Anastasius of Antioch, who had accompanied his master to Constantinople, once preached a sermon in which he declared, "Call ye not Mary, mother of God, for she was but human, and God cannot be born of a human being.[1]

These words gave great offense, for the term "Mother of God" was very dear to the Egyptian Church and had been adopted by the other congregations. But Nestorius supported his presbyter and thereby was implicated in a struggle with the worshipers of Mary. He was accused of splitting up the personality of Christ into two separate beings, Christ born of God in eternity, and the human Jesus, son of Mary.

Cyril succeeded in having Nestorius condemned at the council of Ephesus in 431 before all the members had assembled, among them his friend, Johannes, the Bishop of Antioch, who arrived too late to undo the mischief that had been done. The emperor protested and declared the council as illegal. But Cyril had gained a powerful ally in the person of the Archimandrite Dalmatius, a hermit who had stayed in his cell for forty years and was reverenced by the masses of the people as a saint. He stirred the populace and intimidated the Emperor. After several vain attempts to reconcile the two parties, the Emperor yielded to the insistent protestations of the numerous supporters of Cyril and had Nestorius deposed.

The expelled patriarch lived for four years in the monastery of Euprepius near Antioch, where he still exercised considerable influence on the Syrian Church so as to rouse the suspicion of his enemies. Accordingly he was removed into more out of the way places. One edict ordered him to be sent to Petra in Arabia, but according to Socrates, the Church historian, he was deported to one of the Egyptian oases. When this was raided by a Blemnyan desert tribe he fell into the hands of the barbarians, who however treated their venerable prisoner with consideration and even respect. Later on we find him in Panopolis. In his last years he was dragged about from place to place in the confines of Egypt like a common criminal under the supervision of Egyptian guards. He wrote the story of his life under the title "Tragedy" which was known and utilized by Irenæus who admired him greatly for his noble character, his patience and Christian piety. An extract of this same book of Nestorius exists in a manuscript preserved in the Abbey at Monte Cassino, published in the Synodikon by Lupus.[2]

Nestorius had been crushed and he died in the power of his enemies who embittered the end of his life, but the problem he had raised continued to upset the Church for a long time. He had many friends and disciples among his parishioners at Constantinople, but in Syria his adherents predominated and the bitterness with which they were condemned by Cyril's party led to a schism and the establishment of an independent Syrian Church. The Nestorians of Syria recognized the bishop of Seleucia as their head, under the name of Catholicus.

These Syrian Christians shared the fervor and missionary zeal of their founder Nestorius. They distinguished themselves through


learnedness and established good schools wherever they went. Their main seat and center of learning was Nisibis. The Nestorians sent out missionaries toward the East and extended their Church into Mesopotamia, Persia, India and Tibet.

The Indian Nestorians are commonly called St. Thomas Christians, and there is a remarkable monument left of them near Madras which is mentioned by Marco Polo and is regarded as the tomb of St. Thomas, the first Christian apostle to India.

Nestorian Christians upon the whole follow the ritual of the Greek Church. Part of them united later on with the Roman Church and are now commonly called United Nestorians. Their patriarch calls himself Mar Joseph and his residence is Diarbekr, the ancient Amida in the valley of the upper Tigris. The others who have remained independent recognize as their Catholicus, a patriarch who bears the name Mar Simeon, residing at Kotchannas near Julamerk in the upper valley of the greater Zab, in the territory of the Hakkiare, a tribe of the Kurds. They are strongly under Russian influence and it is not impossible that in time they will join the Greek Church.

At present the Nestorians are weak in numbers and influence. They may not be more than one hundred and fifty thousand souls, but in former days they were a flourishing Church, and for a time it seemed as if Nestorian Christianity would be the state religion of Tibet.

From Tibet Nestorian Christianity spread even into China where it was welcomed by the emperor and had a fair chance of competing with Buddhism and Confucianism for supremacy. It is still an unsolved problem how this once so powerful Church could disappear without leaving a trace in the minds of the people . We do not yet know in detail how Nestorianism lost its hold on the Tibetans and the Chinese. We would scarcely believe how influential they once were in the center of Asia had not a happy accident brought to light that remarkable slab which bears witness to former Nestorian activity in China. P. C.

  1. Socrates, Hist. Ec., VII, chap. 32.
  2. A reprint of the manuscript is also found in Mansi Concil. T. V.
  3. It may be of interest to note that the cross preserved on the Nestorian stone bears a great resemblance to that on the tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle, near Madras, India, which for good reasons is assumed to date from the same century. Marco Polo's interesting account of it can be found in Chapter XVIII of his well-known book of travel. We reproduce the picture from page 353 of the edition of Henry Yule published by Charles Scribner's Sons.