Next July I will celebrate the 20th anniversry of my ordinaion as a Syriac Orthodox priest. 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.