REL 407/507 Asia

East from Jerusalem: Christianity in Premodern Asia

MW, 14:00-15:20

Professor: Dr. Stephen Shoemaker
Office: 813 PLC ;  Office Hours: MW 3:30-4:30 (or by appointment)  Telephone: 346-4998; Email: sshoemak (at) uoregon (dot) edu

Course Description

“In the thirteenth century, the height of medieval Christian civilization in Europe, there may have been more Christian believers on the continent of Asia than in Europe, while Africa still had populous Christian communities.”  So observes Philip Jenkins in his recent and groundbreaking book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2002).  Indeed, this makes one wonder if “global Christianity” is in fact “coming” or, instead, “returning,” as Jenkins explains in the opening chapters of his book. In its early history, Christianity was far more “global” than we often realize.  Nor is this just a matter of numbers: in nearly every area the Christians of Asia outshone their European brothers and sisters during the first millennium of Christian history.  Due in large part to the preservation of the classical heritage of Greece and Rome, Asian Christian culture was far more sophisticated than the West in the areas of theology, philosophy, and literature, as well as science, math, and medicine.  Indeed, the well known intellectual renaissance of medieval Islam under the Abbasids was only made possible by the learned Asian Christian scholars who served as the main teachers and translators of this movement.

Perhaps even less well known is the fact that Christianity reached China by the early seventh century, leaving behind numerous original theological works written in Chinese during the seventh through ninth centuries.  Nor is it widely recognized that millions of Christians in southern India today belong to communities that were first established during the second century, if not even as early as the first century!  Christianity also has a rich history in medieval Central Asia, where it was an important part of a complex religious landscape that included Buddhism, Islam, and Manichaeism, among other religious traditions.  In the middle ages, these diverse manifestations of Asian Christianity were united in a single “Church of the East” whose headquarters were in Baghdad.  A small remnant of this once great church still exists in the modern day Church of the East, most of whose members live in Iraq.  It is rather unfortunate that Western historians have for so long neglected (and continue to neglect) the importance of the Christian traditions of premodern Asia.

This course aims to fill in this important gap in our knowledge of the Christian (and human) past.   It will explore the complex and varied history of Christianity as it developed across the Asian continent, beginning with the initial (and apparently “unorthodox”) spread of Christianity eastward from Jerusalem and ending in 1500, before the onset of European colonization.


1.   Preparation of reading assignments prior to class and active participation in seminar (30% of grade).

2.   Each student will be responsible for initiating class discussion during one session. Students will be expected to summarize the main points of the readings for that class and raise specific issues from the material for class discussion (20% of grade).

3.   Undergraduate students will complete a paper of 8-10 pages chosen from the options available on this web page.  Undergraduates also have the option of writing an 8-10 page research paper on the topic of their choice (subject to approval).  Graduate students will complete a research paper (or comparable approved project) of 12-15 pages (topics chosen in consultation with the instructor).  Papers are due 1 PM Monday, 7 June.         (50% of grade).



  • Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, vol. 1, The Beginnings to 1500
  • Martin Palmer, The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity

Numerous other items are to be found online or in a coursepack.  Please print out the online items and bring them to class.

Bibliography of Christianity in Premodern Asia (by Paul Russell, Mount St. Mary’s College)

Course Outline  

Week 1

3/29 Introduction  


  • Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christainity, ch. 2 (e-reserve)
  • Moffett, 3-20

3/31 The Origins of Asian Christianity: Thomas & Abgar

Week 2

4/5  Philosophy and Asceticism in Early Asian Christianity: Bardaisan & Tatian

4/7 Religion in Sasanian Persia: Christians, Mani, and the Magi

  • Moffett, 91-101; 105-12
  • The Life of Mani (Cameron and Dewey, The Cologne Mani Codex) (coursepack)
  • Albert Henrichs, Mani and the Babylonian Baptists: A Historical Confrontation, HSCP 77 (1973) 23-59, pp. 43-56 (e-reserve)

Week 3

4/12 Aphrahat and Early Persian Christianity

4/14 Ephrem the Syrian & Poetic Theology

Week 4

4/19  The Christological Controversies in the Asian Churches: “Nestorianism” & the Council of Chalcedon

4/21  Christianity in Later Sasanid Persia

  • Moffett, 216-228; 230-57
  • Sebastian P. Brock, “Christians in the Sasanid Empire: A Case of Divided Loyalties” (e-reserve)
  • A. V. Williams, “Zoroastrians and Christians in Sasanian Iran,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 78 (1996): 37-53 (coursepack)
  • Isaac of Nineveh, II.38-41 (e-reserve)

Week 5

4/26  Christianity in Pre-Islamic Arabia

  • Moffett, 272-81
  • Irfan Shahid: Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century. (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, Washington, D.C. 1989), 528-539, Ch. Vll. Byzantinism and Arabism: Interaction
  • The Book of the Himyarites (coursepack)

4/28  The Rise Islam and the Christians of Asia

Week 6

5/3 Christians in Medieval Islamic Society

  • Moffett, 348-61
  • Bat Ye’or, Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam, 69-91; 305-13; 333-40; 342-59 (coursepack)
  • Sebastian Brock, “From Antagonism to Assimilation: Syriac Attitudes to Greek Learning” (e-reserve; read 17-27)
  • Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, 13-24; 136-41 (e-reserve)

5/5  Early and Medieval Christianity in South Asia

  • Moffett 24-39; 265-70
  • Ian Gillman & Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Christians in Asia before 1500, 155-202; 307-13 (coursepack)
  • Acts of Thomas (selections)

Week 7

5/10  Christianity in Medieval Central Asia

5/12  The Spread of Christianity to China

  • Moffett, 287-302
  • Palmer, 1-74

Week 8

5/17  Early Chinese Christianity: Theological Writings

  • Palmer, 75-168

5/19  Early Chinese Christianity: Liturgical Writings

  • Palmer, 169-244
  • Moffett, 302-13

Week 9

5/24  The Recovery of Asian Christianity under the Mongols

5/26  No Class: Instructor away for North American Patristics Society conference.

  • READ: Moffett, 442-462, 470-88

Week 10

5/31  No Class: Memorial Day

6/2  The Rise and Fall of Christianity in Mongol China

 7 June: Paper due 1 PM

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