Is the Nestorian Monument Nestorian?

Is the Nestorian Monument Nestorian?

Top of Stele attributed to Nestorians in China

The story of Christian history is often told from a Eurocentric point of view. Yet, Christianity began in the Near East and a major part of it spread Eastward. In fact demographically the major population of Christianity resided in the East of the Euphrates for the first thousand years. The story of the Nestorian Stele is colored by this Eurocentric interpretation. The facts demand a reexamination free of provincialism and embedded Eurocentric bias.

How did the interpretation of the Nestorian Monument become identified as Nestorian and does this Eurocentric interpretation require a new examination of the evidence?

Antioch and Jerusalem lost its authority to Rome and Constantinople in the first three hundred years due to the twin forces of Pauline theology and the precision of the Greek and Latin languages. A sense of self importance and provincial superiority arose in the West. This was not without reason as the West provided less hostile locations for Councils and centralized administration of the nascent Church. The Eastern Church that formed East of Antioch was hidden from the western centers of power. The thundering hooves of war, disease, famine, and internal strife muffled the authentic voices of eastern Christianity.

Forces of history gave birth to the Jing Jiao. Shapur I and his armies pushed West in the late  third century and conquered Syriac speaking Christians of every type. By 363 C.E. a treaty forced the turn over of  Nisibis to the Persian Empire for a hundred years and effectively split the Syriac Church community. Ephrem fled with some Christians West to Edessa on the Roman controlled side of the border. Other Christians remained in the East or moved further into the Persian Empire. The Assyrian Church of the East located its See in the heart of the Persian land by 478 C.E. This eastern form of Syriac Christianity linked itself to political powers in return for protection. Both Persian political dynasties and the Eastern Church expanded its influence eastward along the Silk Road and settled in China under the protection and recognition of the Tang Dynasty. This church transformed and evolved into a church as distinctive as its mother church over the course of time. The Jing Jiao was neither Nestorian, Jacobite,  Melkite, or Roman Catholic. It was Jing Niao the first truly Asian form of Christianity.

Perhaps more importantly they were handicapped by the languages of the East such as Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and various Turkic languages. Syriac, the language of our Lord, had a vocabulary less than one tenth of the vocabulary of Greek for example. In theological debate Syriac was no match against the scientific precision of Greek. Yet Syriac was better suited to express the poetic and deeply spiritual senses of theological ideas. Syriac is rich in meaning as each word must do double and triple duty. This is less true in Coptic and Armenian as they had larger vocabularies approaching Greek in size. Nevertheless, the bias of Greek against Syriac, the language of Christians before the rise of Mohammed, fixed the game against the theologians and saints of the East.


Sadly, anti-Semitism also fueled a rejection of the theologies and understandings of the message of the Gospels. Because Oriental Christians retained Semitic practices, customs, and worldviews embedded in their theologies, the Greek and Latin world favored sacred interpretations unsullied by Semitic features. The West condemned any idea or thought that was colored by the light of an eastern sun. Clearly this was due to a Pauline understanding of the message of Jesus Christ who broke from the Jerusalem understanding of faith and practice. While Pauline interpretation made the Message more palatable for Greek and Latin appetites it was not the complete story of Christian history or understanding. While the West was absorbing the interpretation of the Message as presented by Paul, there was another Christian Empire arising in the East, larger, more evangelistic, ad just as authentic as what would be known as the Holy Roman Empire in the West.

While the West created a caricature of the eastern church under the name of Nestorius, the eastern church was inspired by a theologian as great as Paul. His name is Ephrem. Using the language of Syriac, a dialect of the language of Jesus, Ephrem presented a Messiah born of a woman without whom there would have been no incarnation. He presented a theology of Mary so poetic and profound that it transcended the dualisms of the West. His understanding of Christ avoided the errors of Christology that came in later centuries. Ephrem’s teachings were carried by Syriac speaking Christians into the Persian Empire in the next three centuries until the rise of Islam. As Syriac speaking Christians expanded their presence along the Silk Roads of land and sea Ephrem’s teachings continued to inform the faith. In the very name of the community of Christians who reached China we find the influence of Ephrem. They called themselves “Jing Jiao” which means the “luminous Religion.” Of the three million lines of literature written by Ephrem the metaphor of “light” is used more than any other. It is no wonder that Christians in China called themselves “Luminists.”

Today with our greater body of evidence and access to the landscape of history we can be more objective and less provincial in our judgments of the past. The voices of Semitic languages and the variations of faith in eastern grammars can be heard more clear and amplified by a better understanding of evidence both old and new. This access and understanding allow us the opportunity to reexamine the evidence and challenge the bigotry and prejudice of Eurocentric prejudice.

Labeling the artifact found in China sometime between 1623 and 1625 C.E. as Nestorian requires reexamination due to the fact that early students of this artifact viewed it through the twin lenses of a limited and biased view of Nestorius and exclusivist sense of superiority over anything of the East. The scholars of the West knew of no other Christian name to apply to the Christians of China during the Tang Dynasty except to call them Nestorian. Yet, the Christians of the 8th century China did not call themselves Nestorian. They called themselves “Luminists.”  While the Christians of China may have understood themselves to be the sons and daughters of a theology informed by Nestorius and his teacher Theodore of Mopsuestia, the Jing Jiao were far removed in time, location, language, and theology from the Nestorianism as understood by the Greek and Latin West. Jing Jing, the author of the inscription calls himself a “Luminist.”

Did Ephrem Influence the Inscription of the Jing Jiao?

Ephrem (Syriac) (Chinese: Priest Hsuan-te)

The name Ephrem appears twice on the monument. No doubt he was respected by this Christian community in China. When we look at the imagery and the words of the inscription we see reflections and we hear echoes of Ephrem.

We begin with the images inscribed on the stone to answer the above question. We find a pearl held by the claws of two dragons all supported by clouds. These symbols were found on Daoist and Buddhist steles of the time and most scholars of the West recognize these symbols as an effort by Chinese Christians of the Tang Dynasty as an accommodation to the competing religions to make their message more acceptable. The Pearl was not an alien theme in Syriac literature and theology. Ephrem speaks of the pearl as a symbol of the riches and beauty of faith:

“I placed (the pearl), my brothers, on the palm of my hand, to be able to examine it. I began to look at it from one side and from the other: it looked the same from all sides. (Thus) is the search for the Son inscrutable, because it is all light. In its clarity I saw the Clear One who does not grow opaque; and in his purity, the great symbol of the Body of Our Lord, which is pure. In his indivisibility I saw the truth which is indivisible” (Hymn On the Pearl 1:2-3).

In another hymn, “On the Pearl,” St. Ephrem talks of faith:

“My brothers, I put (the pearl) in the palm of my hand, to be able to look at it closely.
I observed it from one side and then the other: It had only one appearance from all sides.
Such) is the search for the Son, inscrutable, for he is luminous.”

Dragons were part of the vocabulary of the Old Testament. Furthermore, a popular story among all Syriac speaking Christians of the East was the Hymn of the Pearl about a young man who is given the mission to go down to Egypt to recover a pearl protected by  lake dwelling dragon and then return home. Images of the pearl are also to be found in the Odes of Solomon, perhaps the earliest Christian hymnbook favored by Christians of the East.

Ephrem wrote about how Christ “rescued us, after having searched for us in the lairs of dragons.”

So the images of a pearl and dragons were quite familiar to Christians who arrived in China.

Clouds form the houses of the saints. Ephrem writes in Hymn I on the Hymns of Paradise.

Amidst glorious rays
it (Paradise) lies resplendent,
all fragrant with its scents;
magnificent clouds
fashion the abodes
of those who are worthy of it.

Ephrem compares God’s love to a cloud in Hymn 10 on Paradise.

His divine cloud hovers over
all that is His;
it drips dew even on that fire of punishment
so that, of His mercy,
it enables even the embittered
to taste of the drops of its refreshment.

Christians in the Tang Dynasty may have seen immediate parallels in the art of competing religions. The imagery of Ephrem allowed to them to adopt and adapt these images without shame or strained justification.

Ephrem in the Theology of the Stone

“Behold the unchangeably true and invisible, who existed through all eternity without origin; the far-seeing perfect intelligence, whose mysterious existence is everlasting; operating on primordial substance he created the universe, being more excellent than all holy intelligences, inasmuch as he is the source of all that is honorable. This is our eternal true lord God, triune and mysterious in substance. (Quote from the Monument)

God is described as “invisible” in the opening line of the inscription. Ephrem also describes God as “invisible”

“There is One Being, who knows Himself and sees Himself.
He dwells in Himself,
And from Himself sets forth.
Glory to His Name.
This is a Being who by His own will is in every place,
Who is invisible and visible,
Manifest and secret.
He is above and below.

Ephrem the Syrian, Hymn against Bar-Daisan(Hymn, 49,9-11).

The word “mystery” appears twice in the first two sentences of the Nestorian Monument. Ephrem writes in Mesopotamian/Persian tradition of mystery symbolism.

To express the mystery of Christ, Ephrem uses a broad range of topics, expressions and images. In one of his hymns he effectively links Adam (in Paradise) to Christ (in the Eucharist):

… the beginning God created the substance of the heavens and the substance of the earth. …Ephrem, Opera Omnia I, 116.

He appointed the cross as the means for determining the four cardinal points (Quote from Monument)

The Assyrian Church of the East as well as Melkites and the Syrian Orthodox practiced a Festival of the Holy Cross. In each of the liturgies the Cross is used to designate the four directions.. The priest holds the cross high and turns to each of the cardinal points. A prayer of Ephrem is  while facing each direction.

He established the new religion of the silent operation of the pure spirit of the Triune; he rendered virtue subservient to direct faith; he fixed the extent of the eight boundaries, thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross; he opened the gate of the three constant principles (Quote from Monument)

This reference to the new religion may be a self reference. Were the Chinese Christians referring to themselves? It is curious to see the definition of this “new religion”  characterized by the “eight boundries.” and ”three constant principles” which is Buddhist in form. The three Jewels of  Buddhism are Buddha, Sanga (community), and Dharma (wisdom). The eight boundries appear to be a reference to the eight-fold path which some have compared and find parallel to the “Eight Beatitudes.” Was this the new religion that adapted Buddhist principles to Christian teachings. Mani had done this previously but abandoned Christianity in favor of a vain “New Religion.” This inscription on the Stele is clearly Christian. But is it Nestorian?

The inscription goes onto to describe the silence of the spirit of God. Ephrem wrote “Glory to the Silence that spake by His Voice.” (Hymns on the Nativity, 2.)

This is not an isolated quote  on the subject of silence in Ephrem. He was recognized as a proponent of silence as the highest form of prayer. In the Byzantine Churches he is referred to as a lover of silence. (Kontakion of St Ephrem (Tone 2))

O Ephrem, as a lover of silence thou didst ever forsee the hour of reckoning and bitterly lament; and by thy words thou wast indeed a teacher, O righteous one. Wherefore, O father of all the world, thou dost rouse the slothful to repentance.

In his hymn “On Christ’s Nativity,” Ephrem reflected on the figure of the Virgin Mary:

“The Lord came to her to make himself a servant. The Word came to her to keep silence in her womb. The lightning came to her to not make any noise.”

Non Nestorian Elements

The inscription shifts to a discussion and description of the religious practices of the Chinese Christians.Several of the descriptions do not seem to match with what we know of the Assyrian Church of the East.  The inscription says they have “Twenty-seven sacred books” but Nestorians recognized only twenty two. Some have suggested that the Jesuits redacted the Chinese character to conform with the Roman Canon. If we take this number to mean what is says then this could be part of a body of evidence to suggest this is not a description of a Nestorian community in China.

The reference to silent watchfulness may be a nod to the religious practices of Zoroastrians which was the official religion of Persia.  Most of the Christians in China were Persian.  Had they adapted and adopted some Persian practices of the Nestorian who were known for Silent prayer. If so it further describes a Christianity that had drifted away from its mother church.

The inscription says that these Chinese Christians celebrated the Eucharist once a week. This seems to conflict with what we know of Persian Christians, especially those who belonged to monastic communities. Generally the Eucharist is celebrated three times a week on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday and on special saint days. It is a difficult passage to judge because the voice changes from first person to third person. It does not seem that  Jing  Jing is writing this description. Does the writer not fully understand the practices of these Christians. If it is a correct description then once again we have a description of a community that does not conform to a Nestorian identity.

Finally, the inscription tells the story of the arrival of Alopen in 635 C.E. that says he brought “sacred books and images.” The reference to images again does not quite square with what we know of the Assyrian Church of the East. They tended not to allow images in their worship centers. The Saracen (Islamic) culture that was arising in the East also subscribed to this cultural prohibition against sacred images. But the community described in this inscription allowed and encouraged images in their sanctuaries including images of the Emperors. Images of the Emperors were given as gifts to the monastery in Xian.

The inscription includes a tribute to the “Catholic Patriarch Mar Ananjesu” who was believed to be the Assyriach Patriarch (although he died the previous Novemember). This would seem to confirm that the Stele was Nestorian. The following line then says “When Priest Adam was Vicar , Bishop, and Pope of Sinastan (China) in the year 1092 of the era of the Greeks, (A.D. 781).” If we take the inscription at its word then these Chinese Christians had their own Pope. They were not under the Patriarch of the Assyrian (Nestorian) church. Perhaps they knew that the Patriarch had died. A new one was not elected until May of 781 C.E. This would have been the perfect time to declare their independence from the mother church.


We can see in the inscription of Syriac and Chinese names that there was an entire heirarchy in place including Bishops, priests, and monks. Was this a new denomination? Is this the reason perhaps that they began to die out 64 years later?

How did the Jing Jiao Become Jing Jiao

How did this transformation happen if in fact the Jing Jiao became a new Christian denomination?  Is it part of a natural process that occurs to churches in diaspora?  What happened to the Chinese Christians is a phenomenon of social transformation that is fairly universal. I have seen this transformation occur in my own denomination among the diaspora ofthe Syriac Orthodox and also I saw it happen in the church of my childhood.

I was ordained by Athanatius Y. Samuel who once owned five of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is quite a famous story. He was a new Bishop in Jerusalem in 1947 when Bedouin shepherds brought the scrolls to Jerusalem to sell. He bought them for about $125.00. No one believed they were authentic until they were tested by Harvard University and few years later. War broke out when Israel was declared a State and Samuel fled to the United States with the Scrolls. He eventually sold them in 1954 after placing an ad in the Wall Street Journal. The Scrolls have their own museum in Israel. Samuel died a few years after my ordination and he is buried at Saint Ephrem Monastery in Holland.

My association with this famous Bishop extended ten years before my ordination. Bishop Samuel and I traveled together in the Middle East, Europe and America.. We witnessed the slow but real ethnic cleansing of Christians from the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands live in diaspora in Europe, Australia, Canada, the United States. It has given me a unique view of the social changes that occur among immigrant populations. What happens to the religions of immigrant populations? The first generation digs in their heels and fiercely hold onto their traditions. Back in the homeland the traditions often change but the first generation in the diaspora have only the frozen memory of what they left behind. The desperate hold onto the past often puts a strain on the generations. The second generation is resentful of living according to the memories of their fathers and the strain of trying to adapt to their new host cultures. By the third generation most religious traditions begin to  fade into the dominate culture. Syriac Orthodox in Europe have seen many of their people of the third generation drift to other churches or none at all.

I saw this kind of aculturation occur as a child growing up in a Swedish Lutheran Church. My grandparents were immigrants from Sweden to America. I remember sermons in Swedish on Christmas and Easter but they were soon dropped by the time I was a teenager. The church switched to all English sermons. I remember the outrage among some members when a television program was mentioned during a sermon by an intern. I think the TV program was “Ben Casey.” I was the third generation and I saw the transition of an immigrant religion to one that became fully American.

This phenomenon occurred in China with immigrant religions that came during the Tang Dynasty. Universal cultural forces act upon the immigrant religions. We see in the Stele an adaptation to cultural images and archetypes to tell their story. It was a matter of a few generations and we see the Nestorians (Assyrians Church of the East) become less and less Nestorian until a day arrived when they were thoroughly Chinese.

So what is the answer to the above question. Were the Jing Jiao a foreign religion in China? At first they were but like all immigrant religions through history they adapted and adopted their new culture and transformed themselves into a unique and thoroughly Asian Christian faith.

The same thing happened among Buddhists They came from India but after a few hundred years they became sons and daughters of China. We see in sculptures change over time from Indian to Chinese forms and faces.



The community of Christian described on the Stele is not Nestorian. While they have been influenced by Ephrem and theology of the Syriac speaking churches, they seen to have variant practices and a theology adapted to their Asian culture. While they use images and concepts from their Semitic origins, they have adopted new meanings to old images. They self describe themselves with a name that separates their selves from their parent not in rebellion but in celebration of their newly found identity. The erection of the monument occurs conveniently at a time when there was no authority in the mother church to object. Instead of attaching old terms to this new community we should see through this Chinese glass clearly and reform our western interpretation.

Source of Quotations of the Monument

From: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. XII, Medieval China, pp. 381-392.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.



About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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