"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Martyred Church of the East

We have, since the first Gulf War in 1991, and especially since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, seen an upsurge in publications treating the long-suffering Christians in the region. Christoph Baumer's The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity, published in 2006, was favorably reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies by Hugh Wybrew of Oxford. In 2008 we saw Mar Bawai Soro's The Church of the East: Apostolic & Orthodox. Philip Jenkins' 2009 book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died talked about the Church of the East as well, albeit in a larger context and at times subject to a sui generis analysis. We have also seen a number of recent books treating the so-called Silk Road, on which I have commented earlier.

Now a new book, from a relatively new press, is set to emerge giving us further insights into what was once the largest, and most geographically wide-spread Church in Eastern Christian antiquity:

David Wilmshurst, The Martyred Church: A History of the Church of the East (East-West Press, 2011), 548pp.

About this book, the publisher provides a lengthy overview:
This absorbing book deals with the Church of the East—the so-called ‘Nestorian’ Church—arguably the most interesting of all the Syriac-speaking Churches. Few Christians nowadays outside the Middle East are familiar with its name, let alone its history, yet between the ninth and fourteenth centuries the Church of the East was in geographical extent the largest Christian Church in the world, with dioceses stretching from the Mediterranean right across Asia to China. The Church of the East, which began life as the indigenous church of Sasanian Persia, has been harried and persecuted throughout its history. The tragic story of this ‘martyred church’ is brought vividly to life in this impressive book. The book is organised into the following ten chapters:
  • The Church beyond Rome (AD 36 to 502)
  • Nestorians and Jacobites (503–633)
  • Christians and Muslims (634–779)
  • The Age of Timothy I (780–905)
  • A Church at Bay (906–1221)
  • The Mongol Century (1222–1317)
  • The Years of Darkness (1318–1552)
  • Nestorians and Chaldeans (1553–1830)
  • The Age of the European Missions (1831–1913)
  • The Calamitous Twentieth Century (1914–2011)
Each chapter contains an overview and a narrative history that describes major events and assesses the reigns of successive Nestorian and Chaldean patriarchs. The historical narrative is followed by thematic sections on ecclesiastical administration, monastic history, and literature and scholarship. The sections on ecclesiastical administration give ample space to the history of the Nestorian missions to Central Asia, India and China. The sections on monasticism chart the growth and decline of a distinctive form of worship that differed in important respects from monasticism in the Roman Empire. The sections on literature and scholarship pay particular attention to texts which are readily available in English translation, and are written partly with the aim of winning new readers for these texts.
The book gives due weight to the popular Sasanian and Mongol periods but also provides a detailed history of the Church of the East under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, a relatively neglected area of study in the English-speaking world. It is particularly strong on the history of the Church of the East under the Ottomans. Drawing on the research which underpinned his earlier work, Wilmshurst provides the fullest account of the history of the Church of the East between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries that has yet been published in English. He also provides a thoughtful Afterword, in which he discusses several possible futures for the Church of the East in the twenty-first century.
The author demolishes a number of fashionable myths about the Church of the East. In his exposure of the alarming amount of legendary material in its early history, his sober appraisal of the extent and effectiveness of its missionary role in the Middle Ages, and his insistence on the positive role played by the European and American missionaries in the development of the Nestorian and Chaldean Churches in the nineteenth century, he ventures onto sensitive ground. Not all readers may welcome his conclusions, but they will certainly find his arguments stimulating.
I look forward to having this expertly reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.  

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