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Jingjiao and Sion-Christian Theology

Since the discovery of “The Monument Commemorating the Propagation of Daqin Jingjiao in the Middle Land” in 1625 near Xian, Jingjiao has always been a fascinating topic. The Monument is celebrated as a definitive physical proof that Christianity came to China in as early as the 7th Century, but the paradox is that it came from the Christian tradition that was condemned as heretical by the Ephesus Council in the 5th Century, and has not been treated with the respect it deserves ever since. This tradition also has suffered fractures numerous times down the centuries, making it weak and, thanks also to language barrier, obscure.

To the people of the West, the arrival of Christianity to China at such an early time is an intriguing story. Indeed, people of the West marvel at the monument, decipher it word by word, and behold it with fascination. At one time the fever ran so high that about a century ago some Westerners made an attempt to smuggle the Monument out of China, and the alarm it set off can still be felt today: the Monument remains one of a handful artifacts not allowed to leave the country, not even for international museum loans.

In the Ming Dynasty, not long after the discovery of the Monument, Li Zhizao, one of the three Chinese scholars converted to the Catholic faith, examined the Monument, and made some remarks, but mostly from the viewpoint of the Catholic Church. In the Qing Dynasty, a few Chinese scholars studied the Monument to find out to what extent it contains influences from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and some treated it as an object of epigraphy. In the 19th Century, some Chinese ministers of the Protestant churches sought a biblical interpretation of the Monument. Despite all these efforts through the centuries, the study of the Monument still seems incomplete and inadequate.

In the 20th Century, some Jingjiao documents were discovered in Dunhuang, and this event re-kindled interest in Jingjiao study. Scholars, in China and abroad, started to place Jingjiao studies in a larger perspective – Chinese, Asian and world history. In November 1994, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Vatican signed “The Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East”, recognizing each other’s formulations of Christology as being valid. Jingjiao then finally was free from the accusation and stigma of being a heresy.

Jingjiao studies, on the other hand, also enter a new age with some new understanding:

1. The mother church of Jingjiao was the Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE), which fell in the Syriac-speaking region, one of the four language regions of the early church: Greek, Latin, Coptic (an ancient Egyptian language), and Syriac. Such separation by languages had contributed to misunderstanding among the churches, and eventually led to the unfortunate and wrong verdict of the 5th Century.

2. The ACOE, an apostolic church, has been using Syriac as its liturgical language since ancient times. Its theological tradition found resources in the Antiochene School, which stressed the importance of literal and historical interpretation of the Scripture. It also accepted, to some degree, the Alexandrian School, which was receptive to Greek influence.

3. After the condemnation and exile of Nestorius in the 5th Century, the ACOE was distanced from the Latin and Greek churches. Since then, and perhaps partly because of that, it has kept its original ecclesiastical structure and monastic discipline, as well as practicing liturgy passed down from the apostolic age.

4. In and around the 7th Century, members of the ACOE were active along the Silk Road, reaching all the way to China. When the Sassanid Empire collapsed in the 7th Century, a large group of the imperial descendants and members of ACOE migrated to Tang China. From then on, Jingjiao spread and reached all the way to Japan and Korea. It remained active in the outskirts of China for many more centuries. Jingjiao was revived during the time of the Mongolian Empire under a different name:Yelikewen. Once some Yelikewen monks were appointed as special envoys for the Empire to make contact with the Vatican and kings in the West, and in those contacts, these monks entered into doctrinal discussions with prelates of the western churches. One of these monks was even elected to be a Patriarch of the ACOE (a position equivalent to the Pope in the Catholic Church).

5. Jingjiao is often criticized of having incorporated too much Buddhist terminology to express the faith, leading to the accusation of synthetization between the two religions. However, recent research shows that when the Jingjiao clergymen or monks borrowed the Buddhist terms, they did it chiefly to convey Christian doctrines, with substantive references to Syriac Fathers. In effect, the Jingjiao documents express Patristic thoughts in classical Chinese language.

6. The ACOE was called by Pope John Paul II as the “Church of the Martyrs”. Indeed, over the centuries persecution never seems to have stopped. Today, this martyred church still stands. It has about 40 thousand members.

In recent years, sinicization of Christianity is a much talked-about topic in Chinese Christian communities and among scholars of religion. In this regard, Jingjiao studies should no doubt be a key part in this discourse. Since 2010, we have been collaborating with the ACOE to systematically translate the writings of the early Syriac Fathers, and a recent result is the publication of the Chinese translation of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Catechetical Homilies, in 2015, by Prof. Zhu Donghua. We will be studying the histories of the ACOE and Jingjiao, the liturgy and monasticism of the ACOE, and the synicization method and experiences of Jingjiao and Yelikewen. These studies will be a boost to the on-going effort of formulating Sino-Christian theology.