The Story of the Middle Eastern Church

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died - Philip Jenkins

Well, here I am sitting on the Overland, one of the very few interstate trains that exist in Australia - when it comes to travelling interstate, or even to regional centres, most Australians rely upon the humble aeroplane, which is not surprising considering the train journey from Sydney to Perth takes something like four days to complete, and even travelling from Melbourne to Sydney takes something akin to 12 hours. The train I'm on happens to go from Melbourne to Adelaide, and while it used to have daily (or even twice daily) services, these days it only makes the trip twice a week, and even then it doesn't look like it's going to be around for all that much longer.



Anyway, as you can probably guess from the title, this book has absolutely nothing to do with trains, so I better start talking about this so called 'Lost History of Christianity'. I remember when I was reading this book a couple of years ago (actually I think it is more like five) I was sitting on the bus on the way to work and one of the pastors from my church got on the bus and started talking to me. Upon seeing the book he immediately asked me if it was revisionist history. Isn't it interesting that any book that happens to be about the history of something that isn't necessarily following the party line is automatically revisionist. Having studied history since, well, forever, I have come to realise that pretty much any book that claims to explore the history of a particular period is going to be the author's interpretation of the primary sources relating to that period. In fact there is no such thing as objective history – all history is coloured by the views of the people writing about it.



So, thus we come to this book, and I'm sure a book that has the words 'Lost History' in its title is going to be akin to one of those fringe books that you usually find hidden at the back of the book store on the religious shelf (as opposed to being on prominent display at your local church or Christian book store). Well, as it turns out this isn't actually a fringe book with some radical (or not so radical) interpretation of Jesus Christ or the Bible. In fact there is nothing in this book about Jesus marrying Mary Magdeline, having Simon of Cyrene replacing him on the cross, and then heading off to Britain to raise a family – the lost history in the title isn't that type of lost history. Rather the book is about a part of the church that generally doesn't make it into your average church history classes: the church of the Middle East.



Now, the book focuses primarily on the Nestorian Church, the church that developed to the east of the Euphrates (as opposed to the Greek Orthodox church that arose after the great Schism of the early middle ages). For some reason many Christian historians, when it comes to the church of the Middle East, actually pretend that after the Muslim invasion it ceased to exist. Maybe that is why those of us in the west don't seem to recognise that there are actually Christians among the many refugees pouring out of Syria. However the Church has a very long history in the middle-east, and despite the Uppayashid conquests of the 7th Century, not only survived, but actually thrived. In a way the Muslim overlords at the time accepted them as 'People of the Book' so did not put in place a policy of convert or die.


However, an interesting thing that I have been reading of late is how some scholars are now making claims that the period of Islamic ascendancy, where many of the ancient texts were preserved, and the study of mathematics and philosophy thrived in the Middle East, wasn't actually pursued by the Muslims but rather by the Christians. Considering what I have said about revisionist history previously, I suspect that such statements are clear examples, especially in today's anti-Islam climate.


However, as we are well aware, Christianity wasn't to survive in the Middle East, at least not as a minority religion. Jenkins doesn't just look at the period after the Muslim ascendancy, but also right down to the modern age with the invasions of the Early 21st Century and the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism. While the persecution of Christians have been going on for centuries (it began around the time of the Mongol invasions, particularly when one of the Mongol overlords converted to a rather radical form of Islam and began persecuting people left, right and centre), however it has always gone in peaks and troughs. Unfortunately, with every peak (and we are in one such peak at the moment), more and more of these ancient Christian sects are slowly being driven out of their homelands, to the point that they will no longer exists, not just in the Middle-East, but throughout the world (though this is also true of other non-Islamic faiths, such as Zoarastrianism).