The term “Nestorian” is used to describe both a religion and Syriac-speaking linguistic minority. The Nestorians were based primarily in what is now Iraq and southern Turkey. They had a great school in Edessa (present-day Urfa in south-central Turkey). Their early followers included Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Persians and Arabs. After they became Christianized they were called “East Syrians” to distinguish them from the “West Syrians” — Monophysites or the Jacobites.
Today there are about 400,000 Nestorians living around Orumiyeh around Lake Urmiah in northwestern Iran. They also live in the plains of Azerbaijan, the mountains of Kurdistan in eastern Turkey and in the plain around Mosul in northern Iraq. They have often lived in close proximity to the Kurds, with whom they have had an variable relationship with over the centuries.
Nestorian Christianity today is largely extinct but at one time it was quite a powerful Christian sect and was at the center of important doctrinal controversies. The Nestorians emphasized the duality of being between man and divine. They were regarded as heretics by other sects for their belief that there were two separate persons in the incarnate Christ and their denial that Christ was in one person both God and man. They went on to argue that Mary was either the mother of God (a blasphemous concept to many Christians) or the mother of the man Jesus; but she couldn't have it both ways.
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Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “ The term ‘Nestorian’ refers to their Christological doctrine that stresses the reality of the human nature of Jesus and that distinguishes it from his divinity. The word ‘Nestorian’ comes from Nestorius (c.381-451), the Patriarch of Constantinople who enunciated these doctrines. Nestorius held that Christ’s human and divine natures were distinct.” [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 <=>]
“Nestorius’s belief that Christ’s human and divine natures were distinct “caused his opponents to falsely accuse him of believing Christ had two personalities. The controversy arose over Nestorius’s opposition to the expression ‘Mary the Mother of God’. The word in Greek is Theotokos, meaning ‘Birthgiver to God’. Nestorius felt this was inappropriate because Mary is the mother of Christ’s human nature and physical body but not his divinity. Nestorius taught that Mary should be called ‘mother of Christ’ or ‘mother of God, mother of Christ’ but never just ‘Mother of God’. “ <=>
Nestorius, Theodore and the Origin of the Nestorians
Some say the Nestorians were the first people to adopt Christianity. It is said they did so after St. Thomas visited Assyria within a few years after Christ’s death. There is no real historical evidence to back up this claim.
Lance Jenott of the University of Washington wrote: “Christianity in the first century CE was disseminating both to the West and to the East...through connections with already existing Jewish communities dispersed in the lands outside of Israel. After continual growth, the population of Christians east of Palestine was further augmented by Greek and Syriac speaking Christians who were relocated to the East as a result of the Persians' successful invasion of eastern Roman territory in the mid-third century. As the Church in the West became more interwoven with imperial politics after Constantine's conversion, the eastern churches, many of which were established beyond Roman borders, became more autonomous from the West. In 424, a synod of eastern Bishops declared their sees "administratively" independent from the Western Church. [Source: Lance Jenott, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad \*\]
Nestorian Christianity is named after Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople from A.D. 428 to 431. Of Persian origin, he became a monk and lived in a monastery in Euprepius near Antioch. His skill as a speaker helped earn him his appointment to bishop. He was an activist bishop who launched campaigns against heretics and promulgated beliefs that later became associated with Nestorian Christianity. His efforts won him the scorn of other powerful bishops who declared Nestorious a heretic.
The person who really defined Nestorian Christianity was Theodore (died 431), bishop of Mopsuestia in Colicia and a pupil of Diodorus, bishop of Tarsus. Theodore emphasized the humanity of Jesus and argued that he acquired his state of sinlessness by uniting with the Person of the Divine Word. which he received as an award for attaining a state of sinlessness. The Word, he insisted, dwelt in the man Christ. Nestorians thus rejected the union of God and man and Mary was considered the mother of a man not a god.
Theodore’s doctrines were influenced by 4th century Christian scholars from Antioch, who emphasized Christ’s humanity and its inherent imperfections. It was not until Nestorius came to Constantinople that Theodore’s teachings became popular and thus was named after Nestorious. At the Council of Constantinople in 553 Theodore’s doctrine was formally condemned.
Nestorians and the Great Councils of Christianity
In the 3rd through 12th centuries, great councils were called to address Christian theological and doctrinal issues. The Council of Ephesus in 431 was called in part to address the policies of the Nestorians and address the issue of whether Christ was dualist (human and divine) or singular (two in one). Nestorian beliefs lost out. At the council several sects were forced to split from the Christian church. Afterwards the Nestorians were persecuted and exiled. Nestorius was banished to Egypt, where he died in exile. The Nestorians were formally removed from the Orthodox-Catholic church after the Muslim conquests in the 7th century.
Lance Jenott of the University of Washington wrote: ““The "Nestorian" identification of the eastern churches sprouted from the theological and political disputes of the fourth and fifth centuries. One of these disputes was over proper terminology for Mary, the mother of Jesus, which was, in turn, the result of a dispute over the nature of Jesus himself. Within the early church philosophical schools of interpretation were often associated with geographic centers. Antioch in Syria and the churches in the East tended to view Jesus as having two distinct natures, one fully divine and the other fully human, culminating in the person of Jesus (thus the term diophysitism from the Greek words for "two" and "nature"). Thus, they argued, Mary should be spoken of as "the bearer of Christ." An opposing interpretation was offered by the school of Christians associated with Alexandria in Egypt, who insisted that Christ was of one nature only: fully divine (monophysitism), and thus Mary should be termed "the mother of God." [Source: Lance Jenott, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad \*\]
“When a Syrian bishop named Nestorius was appointed to the prestigious and influential position of Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, he continued to propagate his natural Antiochan (diophysite) position. Fierce resistance came, however, from Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, who through political influence with the Emperor's sister was able to have Nestorius removed from office and have the diophysite position proclaimed a heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The eastern churches refused to attend the council. Rejecting the authority of Cyril and the monophysite position, they distanced themselves still further from the Western Church. They proceeded to establish a new Episcopal seat in the Sassanian Persian capital at Chestiphon and thus became further associated with the Persian world of the East while the Western Church remained associated with Byzantium. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the Western Church proposed a sort of compromise, but the measure was not enough to reunite the divisions. A synod of eastern bishops in 486 declared the Eastern Church's Nestorian identity and upheld their diophysite position.” \*\
Early History of Nestorian Christianity
Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “The Egyptian Patriarch Cyril accused Nestorius of heresy. Nestorius was condemned as a heretic and banished to a monastery near Antioch. From there he was exiled to the Great Oasis in the Sahara Desert. After the storm of controversy abated, the Byzantine Emperor Marcion decided to pardon and release him, but the news arrived as Nestorius was laying in his deathbed. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 <=>]
“Many Christians who spoke Syriac were attracted to the teaching of Nestorius and those of his teachers, Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. The Church of the East adopted Diodore, Theodore, and Nestorius as the authorities of church doctrine. Theodore of Mopsuestia is now recognized as one of the greatest Bible scholars in church history. Today many Assyrian Christians object to being referred to as Nestorians. The reason, they argue, is that Nestorius did not found the Church of the East and that the term ‘Nestorian’ sometimes refers to a heresy that was never held by Nestorius nor by the Church of the East, that being the belief that Christ’s human and divine natures were two separate persons within Christ. However, until recently, Assyrians referred to themselves as Nestorians. Also not all members of the Nestorian Church were Assyrians; in fact, many were Indian, Mongol, and Chinese and only used Syriac as a liturgical language. <=>
“Being accused of heresy by the west was beneficial to the Nestorian Church. Before Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire many Christians sought refuge in the Persian Parthian Empire, Rome’s traditional enemy. When Constantine ended the persecution of Christians and claimed to be a Christian himself, Persia began to suspect the loyalty of its Christian subjects. When the Assyrian Christians demonstrated that the church in the west had condemned them as heretics, the Persians once again showed the East Syrian Church tolerance. With Persia as its base, the East Syrian Church began to spread out across the Silk Road and throughout all of the Far East. <=>
“The West Syrian Church is the other branch of the Syriac speaking Church. This church is also known as the Jacobites and the Syrian Orthodox. A Jacobite is a member of the Syriac Church tradition that rejected the teachings of Nestorius, they believe that Christ’s human nature was insignificant and was absorbed into and overwhelmed by his divinity. They are called Monophysites. The term Jacobite comes from Jacob Baradaeus [died 578]. The East Syrian Church was dominant in the East, but wherever Nestorians went the Jacobites often followed. The Jacobite church has survived as the Syrian Orthodox Church.” <=>
Later History of the Nestorians
Nestorians lived in large numbers in Persia and Iraq after they were persecuted in the Christian west. Around the time of the Muslim conquest in the early 7th century they began traveling eastward on the Silk Road to Turkestan, India, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. They had penetrated deep into China, where a Nestorian church was founded in 638, in Changsan (Xian). See China
Wherever the went Nestorians continued to use the Syriac language. It was estimated that around the end of the A.D. first millennium there were more Nestorians than Catholics and Orthodox Christians combined. Among the Asian who were converted to Nestorian Christianity were Kublai Khan’s sister in law. The Nestorians prospered in the Mongol Empire but were nearly wiped out by Tamerlane. See Mongolia.
The surviving Nestorian church was weakened further by internal struggles in the 15th century that were brought about in part because the patriarch was required to be celibate and his nephews or uncles generally succeeded him but this practice ith Nestorian canons that restricted hereditary succession.
Beginning in the 19th century many Nestorians in Turkey, Syria and Iraq were reawakened by European and American Protestant missionaries, which led to persecution by their Muslim neighbors. Nestorians were massacred in 1843. After this many migrated to the Lake Urmia area of Iran, where their presence was more readily tolerated. Many of those that remained converted to Protestantism.
Nestorian Christianity and the Silk Road
Lance Jenott of the University of Washington wrote: “For Christians living in Persia, persecutions were intermittent and usually resulted from a particular ruler's ties with the native Zoroastrian priests who often strove to elevate their native faith over such non-traditional religions as Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Manichaeism. Most of the time Nestorians lived peacefully under rulers who favored religious diversity within their realm. At times, Nestorians even served in the Persian military against the Christian Byzantine West. [Source: Lance Jenott, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad \*\]
“From Persia, the Nestorian church continued to grow eastward along the Silk Roads. Situated on the crossroads of Asia, the region of Sogdiana (modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) was a chief center of commercial and cultural exchange bringing together merchants from nearly all regions of Asia. Through their long existent commercial ties with the Persian merchants, Sogdians began to convert to Nestorian Christianity and played a key role in its transmission east. Often multilingual, Sogdian merchants served as capable translators of Nestorian texts. In the Tarim Basin--a well known hot-spot of diverse religious beliefs--a cache of Nestorian texts translated from Syriac (the official language of the Nestorian church) into Sogdian was discovered in the early twentieth century. Although translations, some of these texts were previously unknown. By 650 an archbishopric existed in Samarkand and even further east in Kashgar. Sogdian merchants, along side Syrian missionaries, also contributed to the conversion of nomadic Turkish tribes living in the steppe of Central Asia. The Nestorian faith by the Mongol period (13th century), intermixed with indigenous religious practice, is thought to have been quite prosperous among the nomads. \*\
“The success of the Nestorians in China is mixed. A monument erected in 781 in the Tang capital Chang'an (Xian) relates the story of Syrian and Persian missionaries bringing the faith to China in the seventh century. Much of the early Tang rulers, themselves of a semi-foreign origin, promoted religious diversity in China to help legitimize their rule and therefore welcomed the Nestorians along side other non-Chinese religions such as Buddhism. After being granted an audience with the Tang Emperor Tai Zong (r.626-649), the Syrian missionary Alopen was allowed to establish a monastery in Chang'an and was asked to translate the Christian scriptures into Chinese. Later persecutions of non-Chinese faiths, however, led to the virtual disappearance of Nestorians in China by the tenth century. For a brief time under the Mongols (in the 13th and 14th centuries) the Nestorian church had a resurgence in China, but was again suppressed under the Ming Dynasty, which ascended in 1368." \*\
William of Rubruck on Nestorian Christians in Central Asia
William of Rubruck wrote: On the feast of Saint Andrew (30th November) we left this city ( Cailac, Qayaligh, near present-day Kapal in Kazakhstan), and at about three leagues from it we found a village entirely of Nestorians. We entered their church, singing joyfully and at the tops of our voices: "Salve, regina!" for it had been a long time since we had seen a church...Living mixed among” the Mongols and Tartars “though of alien status (tanquam advene), are Nestorians and Saracens (Muslims) all the way to Cathay. In fifteen cities of Cathay there are Nestorians, and they have an episcopal see in a city called Segin [=Hsi-king], but for the rest they are purely idolaters. The priests of idols of the nations spoken of all wear wide saffron-colored cowls. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~\]
“There are also among them, as I gathered, some hermits who live in forests and mountains and leading lives that are extraordinarily ascetic. The Nestorians there know nothing. They say their offices, and have sacred books in Syrian, but they do not know the language, so they chant like those monks among us who do not know grammar, and they are absolutely depraved. In the first place they are usurers and drunkards; some even among them who live with the Tartars have several wives like them. /~\
“When they enter church, they wash their lower parts like Saracens (Muslims); they eat meat on Friday, and have their feasts on that day in Saracen fashion. The bishop rarely visits these parts, hardly once in fifty years. When he does, they have all the male children, even those in the cradle, ordained priests, so nearly all the males among them are priests. Then they marry, which is clearly against the statutes of the Fathers, and they are bigamists, for when the first wife dies these priests take another. They are all simoniacs, for they administer no sacrament gratis. They are solicitous for their wives and children, and are consequently more intent on the increase of their wealth than of the faith. And so those of them who educate some of the sons of the noble Mongol, though they teach them the Gospel and the articles of the faith, through their evil lives and their cupidity estrange them from the Christian faith, for the lives that the Mongol themselves and the Tuins [=Buddhists, from Chinese T'ao-yen: "man of the path." The term properly refers only to priests but Rubruck applies it here to all Buddhists] or idolaters lead are more innocent than theirs. /~\
William of Rubruck on Nestorian Religious Observances
William of Rubruck wrote: “Before Septuagesima Sunday, the Nestorians fast three days, which they call the fast of Jonah, that he preached to the Ninivites; and then also the Hermenians (Armenians) fast for five days, which they call the fast of Saint Serkis, who is one of the greater saints among them, and who the Greeks say was model for saints. The Nestorians begin the fast on the third day of the week, and end it on the fifth, so that on the sixth day they eat meat. And at that time I saw that the chancellor, that is the grand secretary of the court, Bulgai by name, gave them a present of meat on the sixth day; and they blessed it with great pomp, as the Pascal lamb is blessed. He himself, however, did not eat (meat on Friday), and this is also the principle of master William the Parisian, who is a great friend of his. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~\]
“On the octave of the Epiphany [January 13th], all the Nestorian priests assembled before dawn in the chapel, beat the board, and solemnly sang Matins; then they put on their church vestments, and prepared a censer and incense. And as they thus waited in the court of the church, the first wife, called Cotota Cater (cater is the same as "lady," Cotota is a proper name), entered the chapel with several other ladies, and her first-born son called Baltu, and some others of her children; and they prostrated themselves, the forehead to the ground, according to the fashion of the Nestorians, and after that they touched all the images with their right hand, always kissing their hand after touching them; and after this they gave their right hands to all the bystanders in the church. /~\
“This is the custom of the Nestorians on entering church. Then the priests sang a great deal, putting incense in the lady's hand; and she put it on the fire, and then they incensed her. After that when it was already bright day, she began taking off her headdress, called bocca, and I saw her bare head, and then she told us to leave, and as I was leaving, I saw a silver bowl brought in. Whether they baptized here or not, I know not: but I do know that they do not celebrate mass in a tent, but in a permanent church. And at Easter (12th April), I saw them baptize and consecrate fonts with great ceremony, which they did not do then." /~\
Christian Fasting with the Mongols
William of Rubruck wrote: “When we came (to live) with the monk, he advised us, in all kindliness, to abstain from meat; that our servant would get meat with his servants; and that he would provide us with flour and oil or butter. This we did, though it greatly incommoded my companion on account of his weakness. Consequently, our diet consisted of millet with butter, or dough cooked in water with butter, or sour milk and unleavened bread, cooked in a fire of cattle- or horse'dung. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~\]
“When came Quinquagesima (February 22nd), which is when all Eastern Christians abstain from meat, the great lady Cotata and her company fasted that week and she came every day to our oratory, and gave food to the priests and to the other Christians, of whom a great multitude gathered there that first week to hear the services; and she gave me and my companion each of us a tunic and trousers of grey samite, lined with silk wadding, for my companion had complained greatly of the weight of his fur gown. These I received for the sake of my companion, though I excused myself for not wearing such clothes. I gave what belonged to me to my interpreter. /~\
“After the first week of the fast, the lady ceased to come to the oratory and to give the food and mead we were accustomed to get. The monk did not allow (any food) to be brought, saying that mutton tallow was used in preparing it. He only very rarely gave us oil. Consequently, we had nothing save bread cooked on the ashes, and dough boiled in water, so that we could have soup to drink, as the only water we had was melted snow or ice, and was very bad. Then my companion began to complain greatly; so I told our necessity to that David, who was the teacher of the eldest son of the Chan, and he reported my words to the Chan, who had us given wine and flour and oil. The Nestorians will not eat fish during Lent, neither will the Hermenians (Armenians); so they gave us a skin of wine. The monk said he only ate on Sunday, when this lady sent him a meal of cooked dough with vinegar to drink. But he had beside him, under the altar, a box with almonds and raisins and prunes, and many other fruits, which he ate all through the day whenever he was alone. /~\
“We ate once a day, and then in great misery; for it was known that Mongke Khan had given us wine, so they pushed their way in on us like dogs in the most impudent manner, both the Nestorian priests, who were getting drunk all day at court, and the Mongol, and the servants of the monk. Even the monk himself, when someone came to him to whom he wished to give drink, would send to us for wine. So it was that that wine brought us more vexation than comfort, for we could not refuse to give of it without causing scandal; if we should give it, we would want it; nor would we dare ask for more from the court, when that was done." /~\
Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in Mongke Khan's Court
William of Rubruck wrote: “I had inquiry made of Mongke Khan what he wanted to do with us, for we would willingly remain there permanently, if it pleased him; if, however, we must go back, it would be less trying for us to do so in summer than in winter. He at once sent me word not to absent myself, for he wanted to speak to me; he would send for the son of master William, for my dragoman was not competent. He who was speaking with me was a Saracen, and had been an envoy to Vastacius. And he, having been dazzled with presents, had advised Vastacius to send ambassadors to Mongke Khan, and that in the meanwhile time would pass; for Vastacius believed that they (i.e., the Mongols) were about to invade his country at once. He sent, and when he had come to know them, he heeded them little, nor did he make a peace with them, nor have they yet entered his country; nor could they do so, so long as he dares defend himself. For they have never conquered any country by force of arms, but only by deceit; and it is because men make peace with them, that they work their ruin under cover of this peace. Then (this Saracen) inquired a great deal about the Pope and the king of the French, and concerning the roads leading to them. The monk, hearing this, cautioned me, unobserved, not to answer him, for he wanted to get himself sent as ambassador; so I was silent, and would answer him nothing. And he spoke to me I know not what injurious terms, for which the Nestorian priests wished to bring a charge against him, and he would have been put to death or soundly beaten; but I would not have it."Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~\]
“The next day, which was Sunday before Pentecost (24th May ), they took me to court; and the grand secretaries of the court came to me, and one was the Mongol who handed the Khan his cup, and the others were Saracens (Muslims), and they inquired on the part of the Khan why I had come. Then I repeated what has previously been said; how I had come to Sartach, and from Sartach to Batu, and how Batu had sent me thither; then I said to him: "I have nothing to say from the part of any man. (This he must have known from what Batu had written to him.) I have only to speak the words of God, if he wishes to hear them." They interrupted me, asking what words of God I wished to speak, thinking that I wanted to foretell some piece of good fortune to him, as many others do. I replied to them: "If you want me to speak the words of God to him, procure for me the interpreter." They said: "We have sent for him; but speak (now) through this one as well as you can; we understand you very well." And they urged me greatly that I should speak. So I said: "Of him unto whom much has been given more shall be required. And furthermore, of him to whom much has been given much love is required. By these words of God I teach Mongke, for God hath given him great power, and the riches which he has were not given him by the idols of the Tuins (Buddhists), but by Almighty God, who made heaven and earth, in whose hand are all kingdoms, and who removes it (i.e., power) from one nation to another on account of the sins of men. So if he shall love Him, it shall be well with him; if otherwise, he must know that God will require all things of him to the last farthing." /~\
“Then one of the Saracens (Muslims) said: "Is there anyone who does not love God?" I replied: "God says: 'If one love me, he keepeth my commandments; and he who loveth me not keepeth not my commandments.' So he who keepeth not the commandments of God loveth not God." Then he said: "Have you been to heaven, that you know the commandments of God?" "No," I replied, "but He has given them from heaven to holy men, and finally He descended from heaven to teach us, and we have them in the Scriptures, and we see by men's works when they keep them or not." Then he said: "Do you wish, then, to say that Mongke Khan does not keep the commandments of God?" I said to him: "Let the dragoman come, as you have said, and I will, in the presence of Mongke, if it pleases him, recite the commandments of God, and he shall judge for himself whether he keeps them or not." Then they went away, and told him that I had said that he was an idolater, or Tuin, and that he did not keep God's commandments. /~\
“The next day (25th May) (the Chan) sent his secretaries to me, who said: "Our lord sends us to you to say that you are here Christians, Saracens (Muslims) and Tuins (Buddhists). And each of you says that his doctrine is the best, and his writings--that is, books--the truest. So he wishes that you shall all meet together, and make a comparison, each one writing down his precepts, so that he himself may be able to know the truth." Then I said: "Blessed be God, who put this in the Chan's heart. But our Scriptures tell us, the servant of God should not dispute, but should show mildness to all; so I am ready, without disputation or contention, to give reason for the faith and hope of the Christians, to the best of my ability." They wrote down my words, and carried them back to him. Then it was told the Nestorians that they should look to themselves, and write down what they wished to say, and likewise to the Saracens (Muslims), and in the same way to the Tuins (Buddhists). /~\
“The next day (26th May) he again sent secretaries, who said: "Mongke Khan wishes to know why you have come to these parts." I replied to them: "He must know it by Batu's letters." Then they said: "The letters of Batu have been lost, and he has forgotten what Batu wrote to him; so he would know from you." Then feeling safer I said: "It is the duty of our faith to preach the Gospel to all men. So when I heard of the fame of the Mongol people, I was desirous of coming to them; and while this desire was on me, we heard that Sartach was a Christian. So I turned my footsteps toward him. And the lord king of the French sent him a letter containing kindly words, and among other things he bore witness to what kind of men we were, and requested that he would allow us to remain among the men of Mongol. Then he (i.e., Sartach) sent us to Batu, and Batu sent us to Mongke Khan ; so we have begged him, and do again beg him, to permit us to remain." They wrote all these things down, and carried it back to him on the morrow. /~\
“Then he again sent them to me, saying: "The Khan knows well that you have no mission to him, but that you have come to pray for him, like other righteous priests; but he would know if ever any ambassadors from you have come to us, or any of ours gone to you." Then I told them all about David and Friar Andrew, and they, putting it all down in writing, reported it back to him. /~\
“Then he again sent them to me, saying: "You have stayed here a long while; (the Chan) wishes you to go back to your own country, and he has inquired whether you will take an ambassador of his with you." I replied to them: "I would not dare take his envoys outside his own dominions, for there is a hostile country between us and you, and seas and mountains; and I am but a poor monk; so I would not venture to take them under my leadership." And they, having written it all down, went back. /~\
“Pentecost eve came (30th May). The Nestorians had written a whole chronicle from the creation of the world to the Passion of Christ; and they went beyond the passion, they had touched on the Ascension and the resurrection of the dead and on the coming to judgment, and in it there were some censurable statements, which I pointed out to them. As for us, we simply wrote out the symbol of the mass, "Credo in unum Demn." Then I asked them how they wished to proceed. They said they would discuss in the first place with the Saracens (Muslims). I showed them that that was not a good plan, for the Saracens (Muslims) agreed with us in saying that there is one God: "So you have (in them) a help against the Tuins (Buddhists)." They agreed with this. Then I asked them if they knew how idolatry had arisen in the world, and they were in ignorance of it. Then I told them, and they said: "Tell them these things, then let us speak, for it is a difficult matter to talk through an interpreter." I said to them: "Try how you will manage against them; I will take the part of the Tuins (Buddhists), and you will maintain that of the Christians. We will suppose I belong to that sect, because they say that God is not; now prove that God is." For there is a sect there which says that whatever spirit (anima) and whatever soul or any power is in anything, is the God of that thing, and that God exists not otherwise. Then the Nestorians were unable to prove anything, but only to tell what the Scriptures tell. I said: "They do not believe in the Scriptures; you tell me one thing, and they tell another". Then I advised them to let me in the first place meet them, so that, if I should be confounded, they would still have a chance to speak; if they should be confounded, I should not be able to get a hearing after that. They agreed to this." /~\
Debate Between Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in Mongke Khan's Court
William of Rubruck wrote: “We were assembled then on Pentecost eve at our oratory, and Mongke Khan sent three secretaries who were to be umpires, one a Christian, one a Saracen, and one a Tuin; and it was published aloud: "This is the order of Mongke, and let no one dare say that the commandment of God differs from it. And he orders that no one shall dare wrangle or insult any other, or make any noise by which this business shall be interfered with, on penalty of his head." Then all were silent. And there was a great concourse of people there; for each side had called thither the most learned of its people, and many others had also assembled. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~\]
“Then the Christians put me in the middle, telling the Tuins (Buddhists) to speak with me. Then they--and there was a great congregation of them--began to murmur against Mongke Khan, for no other Khan had ever attempted to pry into their secrets. Then they opposed to me one who had come from Cathay, and who had his interpreter; and I had the son of master William. He began by saying to me: "Friend, if you think you are going to be hushed up (conclusus), look for a more learned one than yourself." I remained silent. Then (the Tuin) inquired by what I wished to begin the discussion, by the subject how the world was made, or what becomes of the soul after death. I replied to him: "Friend, this should not be the beginning of our talk. All things proceed from God. He is the fountain-head of all things; so we must first speak of God, of whom you think differently from us, and Mongke Khan wishes to know who holds the better belief." The umpires decided that this was right. /~\
“He wished to begin with these questions, as they consider them to be the weightiest; for they all belong to the Manichaean heresy, that one half of things is evil, and the other half good, and that there are two (elemental) principles; and, as to souls, they believe that all pass from one body into another. Thus a most learned priest among the Nestorians questioned me (once) concerning the souls of animals, whether they could escape to any place where, after death, they would not be forced to labor. In confirmation furthermore of this error, as I was told by master William, there had been brought from Cathay a boy who, from the size of his body, was not more than three years old, but who was capable of all forms of reasoning, and who said of himself that he had been incarnated three times; he knew how to read and write. /~\
“So I said to the Tuin: "We believe firmly in our hearts and we confess with our mouths that God is, and that there is only one God, one in perfect unity. What do you believe?" He said : "Fools say that there is only one God, but the wise say that there are many. Are there not great lords in your country, and is not this Mongke Khan a greater lord? So it is of them, for they are different in different regions."/~\
“I said to him: "You choose a poor example, in which there is no comparison between man and God; according to that, every mighty man can call himself god in his own country." And as I was about to destroy the comparison, he interrupted me, asking: "Of what nature is your God, of whom you say that there is none other?" I replied: "Our God, besides whom there is none other, is omnipotent, and therefore requires the aid of none other, while all of us require His aid. It is not thus with man. No man can do everything, and so there must be several lords in the world, for no one can do all things. So likewise He knows all things, and therefore requires no councilor, for all wisdom comes of Him. Likewise, He is the supreme good, and wants not of our goods. But we live, move, and are in Him. Such is our God, and one must not consider Him otherwise."/~\
“"It is not so," he replied. "Though there is one (God) in the sky who is above all others, and of whose origin we are still ignorant, there are ten others under him, and under these latter is another lower one. On the earth they are in infinite number." And as he wanted to spin (texere) some other yarns, I asked him of this highest god, whether he believed he was omnipotent, or whether (he believed this) of some other god. Fearing to answer, he asked: "If your God is as you say, why does he make the half of things evil?" "That is not true," I said. " He who makes evil is not God. All things that are, are good."/~\
“At this all the Tuins (Buddhists) were astonished, and they wrote it down as false or impossible. Then he asked: "Whence then comes evil?" "You put your question badly," I said. "You should in the first place inquire what is evil, before you ask whence it comes. But let us go back to the first question, whether you believe that any god is omnipotent; after that I will answer all you may wish to ask me."/~\
“He sat for a long time without replying, so that it became necessary for the secretaries who were listening on the part of the Khan to tell him to reply. Finally he answered that no god was omnipotent. With that the Saracens (Muslims) burst out into a loud laugh. When silence was restored, I said: "Then no one of your gods can save you from every peril, for occasions may arise in which he has no power. Furthermore, no one can serve two masters: how can you serve so many gods in heaven and earth?" The audience told him to answer, but he remained speechless. And as I wanted to explain the unity of the divine essence and the Trinity to the whole audience, the Nestorians of the country said to me that it sufficed, for they wanted to talk. I gave in to them, but when they wanted to argue with the Saracens (Muslims), they [the Saracens (Muslims)] answered them: "We concede your religion is true, and that everything is true that is in the Gospel: so we do not want to argue any point with you." And they confessed that in all their prayers they besought God to grant them to die as Christians die. /~\
“There was present there an old priest of the Iugurs (Uighurs), who say there is one god, though they make idols; they (i.e., the Nestorians) spoke at great length with him, telling him of all things down to the coming of Christ in judgement, and by comparisons demonstrating the Trinity to him and the Saracens (Muslims). They all listened without making any contradiction, but no one said: "I believe; I want to become a Christian." When this was over, the Nestorians as well as the Saracens (Muslims) sang with a loud voice; while the Tuins (Buddhists) kept silence, and after that they all drank deeply." /~\
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018