Presentation of Christian Scriptures in China

The Arrival of Syrian Christians in China and the Presentation of Christian Scriptures
The Arrival of Syrian Christians in China and the Presentation of Christian Scriptures

With the arrival of Syrian Christians in the early 7th century

In the early 7th century, the East was a melting pot of various cultures and religions, thanks to the Silk Road, which facilitated not only trade but also the exchange of ideas and beliefs. It was during this vibrant period that a significant event took place: the arrival of Syrian Christians in China, carrying with them Christian scriptures.

The Journey to China

Around the year 635 AD, a group of Syrian Christians embarked on a monumental journey to the East. Led by a monk named Alopen (sometimes spelled as Aluoben), they traveled through the vast expanses of Central Asia, following the Silk Road. Their journey was arduous, taking them across deserts, mountains, and hostile territories. Despite these challenges, their faith and determination propelled them forward.

Alopen and his companions finally reached the Chinese capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an), a bustling metropolis and the heart of the Tang Dynasty. At that time, Emperor Taizong ruled China, a wise and open-minded leader known for his interest in foreign cultures and religions.

Presentation of the Scriptures

Upon their arrival, Alopen and the Syrian Christians were granted an audience with Emperor Taizong. The emperor, intrigued by their faith and their journey, welcomed them warmly. The Syrian Christians presented the emperor with Christian scriptures, which included portions of the Old and New Testaments, and perhaps other Christian texts such as hymns and liturgical writings.

The content of these scriptures would have included:

  1. The Gospels: Narratives of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  2. Epistles: Letters written by apostles like Paul, providing guidance to early Christian communities.
  3. Psalms: Poetic hymns from the Old Testament used in worship.
  4. Prophetic Books: Texts containing the messages of prophets who spoke on behalf of God.
  5. Acts of the Apostles: A historical account of the early Christian church after Jesus’ ascension.

Translation and Reception

Emperor Taizong, recognizing the value of these texts, ordered them to be translated into Chinese. He appointed scholars to work alongside Alopen to ensure accurate and meaningful translations. The resulting texts were not merely literal translations but were adapted to resonate with Chinese philosophical and cultural contexts. This process facilitated the integration of Christian ideas with the prevailing Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist thought.

The emperor was impressed by the ethical teachings and moral philosophy embedded in the scriptures. He appreciated the emphasis on compassion, humility, and charity, which resonated with the Confucian values of benevolence and righteousness. As a result, he issued an edict that allowed the establishment of Christian churches and monasteries in the empire, providing state support to the new faith.

The Xi’an Stele

One of the most significant artifacts from this period is the Xi’an Stele, erected in 781 AD to commemorate the arrival of Christianity in China. The stele, written in both Chinese and Syriac, details the history of the Christian mission, the support from the Tang emperors, and the teachings of Christianity. It serves as a testament to the harmonious relationship between the Syrian Christians and the Chinese authorities.

Long-Term Impact

The arrival of Syrian Christians and the dissemination of their scriptures had a lasting impact on Chinese religious and cultural life. While Christianity did not become a dominant religion in China, it established a presence that would influence later interactions between China and the Christian West. The initial tolerance and support from the Tang emperors set a precedent for future religious diversity in the region.

The integration of Christian teachings into the broader tapestry of Chinese spirituality exemplifies the potential for cross-cultural understanding and religious coexistence. The Syrian Christians’ journey and their successful engagement with the Chinese emperor highlight the power of faith, determination, and the willingness to embrace and learn from different cultures.

This narrative of the Syrian Christians’ arrival in China and the presentation of their scriptures to Emperor Taizong underscores a pivotal moment in the history of interfaith relations, demonstrating the enduring legacy of mutual respect and the sharing of spiritual wisdom across cultural boundaries.

Online ressources 

The arrival of Syrian Christians in China around 635 AD, led by the monk Alopen, is a significant historical event documented in several sources. The group traveled along the Silk Road and reached Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Taizong. They presented Christian scriptures to the emperor, who welcomed them and ordered the translation of these texts into Chinese. This led to the establishment of Christianity, known as Jingjiao, or the “Luminous Religion,” in China.

The Xi’an Stele, erected in 781 AD, provides a detailed account of this event and the subsequent history of Christianity in China during the Tang Dynasty. It describes the journey of Alopen, the reception by Emperor Taizong, and the translation of Christian scriptures, which included parts of the Old and New Testaments, hymns, and other liturgical texts. The stele highlights the integration of Christian teachings with Chinese cultural and philosophical contexts​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Wikipedia)​​ (EARLY CHURCH HISTORY –)​.

Several of these translated texts, referred to as Jingjiao Documents, have been preserved. They include translations of the Pentateuch, Psalms, the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and Pauline epistles, although many original translations have not survived. Notable surviving texts include the Sutra on the Origin of Origins and the Sutra of Ultimate and Mysterious Happiness​ (Wikipedia)​​ (EARLY CHURCH HISTORY –)​.

The introduction of Christianity in China by Alopen and his companions was well-received initially, thanks to the open-mindedness of Emperor Taizong, who supported the establishment of churches and monasteries. This period of religious tolerance allowed Christianity to spread and integrate into Chinese society, although it remained a minority religion and eventually declined after the fall of the Tang Dynasty​ (Wikipedia)​​ (OpenEdition Journals)​.

For those interested in exploring the translated texts of the Jingjiao Documents, there are several accessible resources available online:

  1. The Syrian Documents and Relics in China by Yoshiro Saeki provides a comprehensive collection of translated texts and is available for free on the Internet Archive. This includes texts like the “Sutra of Hearing the Messiah” and the “Hymn of Perfection of the Three Majesties” among others​ (​.
  2. The Jesus Sutras translated by Martin Palmer, offers insights into the Christian manuscripts discovered in China. Palmer’s work, along with Eva Wong and L. Rong Rong, brings these ancient texts into a contemporary context, making them more accessible to modern readers​ (Wikipedia)​.
  3. A Study of the History of Syrian Christianity in China and Its Literature in Chinese by Li Tang includes translations and critical commentary on the Jingjiao documents. This scholarly work provides detailed historical background and linguistic analysis of the texts​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Cambridge)​.
  4. The Xi’an Stele, also known as the Nestorian Stele, which documents the early presence of Christianity in China, has been translated and can be accessed through various online resources including Wikipedia and academic publications​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Cambridge)​.
  5. For more detailed information, you can explore the following sources:

These resources provide a rich overview of the historical and cultural significance of the translated Christian texts in China during the Tang Dynasty.


The term “Nestorian” refers to a specific Christological doctrine associated with Nestorius, who was the Patriarch of Constantinople in the early 5th century. Nestorius and his teachings were condemned as heretical at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. His doctrine emphasized the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ, which was in contrast to the Orthodox position that emphasized the unity of these two natures.

Following the Council of Ephesus, many of Nestorius’s followers, along with other Eastern Christians who disagreed with the decisions of the council, moved eastward. These communities established what became known as the Church of the East, which thrived in Persia (modern-day Iran) and extended into Central Asia and China.

Even though Syria was part of the Roman Empire and predominantly Orthodox, the term “Nestorian” became associated with this particular branch of Christianity because it continued to propagate the theological ideas attributed to Nestorius. These communities, particularly those beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, became known for their missionary activities along the Silk Road, reaching as far as China.

Historical Context and Spread

  • Nestorius and His Teachings: Nestorius proposed that Jesus Christ existed as two separate persons, one divine and one human, rather than a unified person with two natures. This view was seen as problematic because it suggested a separation between Jesus’s humanity and divinity, which the Orthodox Church found unacceptable.
  • Council of Ephesus (431 AD): This ecumenical council condemned Nestorius’s teachings, resulting in his excommunication and the persecution of his followers. Many of these followers found refuge in the Persian Empire, where they established what is known as the Church of the East​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Cambridge)​.
  • Church of the East: This church, while originally connected with the Syriac-speaking Christian community in the Persian Empire, adopted the label “Nestorian” due to its adherence to the teachings associated with Nestorius. This church played a significant role in the spread of Christianity along the Silk Road, including the missionary efforts in China led by figures like Alopen​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Wikipedia)​.

The Xi’an Stele and Christian Influence in China

The Xi’an Stele, erected in 781 AD, is a significant artifact that documents the presence and influence of Syrian Christianity in China. The stele recounts the arrival of Christian missionaries, the translation of Christian texts into Chinese, and the support they received from the Tang Dynasty emperors. Despite being labeled as “Nestorian,” the Christians who propagated these beliefs were part of the broader tradition of Eastern Christianity that had developed unique characteristics distinct from both the Western Latin and Eastern Byzantine traditions​ (EARLY CHURCH HISTORY –)​​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Wikipedia)​.

In summary, while the term “Nestorian” originally referred to a theological position deemed heretical by the Orthodox Church, it became associated with the Eastern Christian communities that continued to propagate these teachings. This included their significant missionary work in regions like Persia, Central Asia, and China.

Note that the teachings found in many of the Christian texts translated and propagated by the Church of the East in China do not strictly adhere to what is commonly labeled as “Nestorian” Christology. Instead, they reflect a broader spectrum of early Christian theological thought that was more in line with mainstream orthodoxy of the time.

Key Points on the Teachings

  1. Mainstream Christian Doctrine: The translated texts and scriptures that were brought to China by the missionaries of the Church of the East primarily included the Old and New Testament writings, which align with the broader orthodox Christian teachings. These texts did not emphasize the specific Christological distinctions that Nestorius was known for but rather focused on the central messages of Christianity such as the life and teachings of Jesus, the importance of faith, and ethical living​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Wikipedia)​.
  2. Integration with Chinese Culture: The missionary efforts led by figures like Alopen were more focused on translating Christian teachings in a way that was comprehensible and culturally relevant to the Chinese audience. This included the use of terms and concepts that resonated with Chinese philosophical traditions such as Confucianism and Daoism. The Xi’an Stele, for instance, illustrates this syncretic approach by highlighting the harmony between Christian teachings and traditional Chinese values​ (EARLY CHURCH HISTORY –)​​ (Wikipedia)​.
  3. Orthodox Elements: The surviving Jingjiao documents and texts such as the “Sutra of Hearing the Messiah” and the “Hymn of Perfection of the Three Majesties” reflect theological themes that are consistent with orthodox Christian beliefs. They emphasize the unity of God’s nature, the salvific work of Jesus Christ, and the importance of the Holy Spirit, which are central to Christian orthodoxy. These texts do not delve into the Christological controversies that defined Nestorianism but instead present a cohesive Christian doctrine​ (Wikipedia)​​ (​.

Historical and Theological Context

  • Church of the East: The Church of the East, often labeled as Nestorian, developed in regions that were politically and culturally distinct from the Roman and Byzantine Empires. As a result, it preserved many elements of early Christian teachings that predated the Christological controversies. This church maintained a strong missionary focus and adapted its teachings to the local cultures it encountered, including in Persia, Central Asia, and China​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Oxford Academic)​.
  • Orthodoxy vs. Nestorianism: While the label “Nestorian” is historically tied to the specific theological positions of Nestorius, the broader tradition of the Church of the East did not strictly adhere to these positions in practice. The theological teachings propagated by this church often reflected a more nuanced and integrated understanding of Christian doctrine that was acceptable within the broad spectrum of early Christian orthodoxy​ (Cambridge)​​ (​.


In summary, while the Church of the East is often referred to as Nestorian due to historical and political reasons, the actual teachings and scriptures it propagated, especially in places like China, were more aligned with mainstream Christian orthodoxy. The focus of these missionaries was on spreading the core messages of Christianity in a way that was accessible and relevant to the local populations, rather than emphasizing the specific Christological distinctions that led to the Nestorian controversy.


For further reading, you can explore

These sources provide comprehensive insights into the nature of the teachings and the historical context of Christianity in China.

Translation of  “Jingjiao” (景教) in English

The term “Jingjiao” (景教) is commonly translated into English as “The Luminous Religion” or “The Religion of Light.” This term was used by the Chinese to refer to the form of Christianity brought to China by the Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church.

Breakdown of the Term

  • “Jing” (景): This character can mean “luminous,” “bright,” or “illustrious.”
  • “Jiao” (教): This character means “religion” or “teaching.”

Full Translation

When combined, “Jingjiao” literally translates to “The Luminous Religion” or “The Illustrious Religion.” It reflects how the early Chinese perceived this branch of Christianity, emphasizing its enlightening and illuminating aspects.

Usage and Context

  • Historical Documents: The term appears in historical documents such as the Xi’an Stele, which commemorates the introduction and spread of Christianity in China during the Tang Dynasty.
  • Syncretism: The translation emphasizes the syncretic approach of the Church of the East in China, which sought to integrate Christian teachings with local Chinese philosophies and religious concepts.

Sources for Further Reading

  • Wikipedia on Jingjiao
  • Early Church History – The Xi’an Stele Content
  • Jingjiao Documents – Academic Resources

These resources provide additional context and detailed discussions on the historical and cultural significance of “Jingjiao” in the spread of Christianity in China.

The Xi'an Stele, depicting its detailed carvings and inscriptions in both Chinese and Syriac.
The Xi’an Stele, depicting its detailed carvings and inscriptions in both Chinese and Syriac.

The Xi’an Stele

The Xi’an Stele was erected in 781 AD during the Tang Dynasty. The stele was commissioned to commemorate the establishment and history of Christianity (referred to as Jingjiao or “The Luminous Religion”) in China from 635 AD to 781 AD.

Key Figures and Authors

  • Adam (Jingjing): The primary author of the stele’s inscription was a Church of the East monk named Jingjing, who is also identified as Adam, a priest, chorepiscopus, and papash (a title akin to “pope” or “patriarch”) of Sinistan. Adam’s involvement is noted in both the Chinese and Syriac inscriptions on the stele​ (EARLY CHURCH HISTORY –)​​ (Wikipedia)​.
  • Lü Xiuyan: The calligraphy of the stele was done by Lü Xiuyan. His work ensured that the inscription was legible and artistically presented, following the traditional Chinese calligraphic style​ (Wikipedia)​.

Content and Purpose

The Xi’an Stele was erected to document the arrival of Christianity in China, the support it received from the Tang emperors, and its integration into Chinese society. It provides a historical account of the missionary efforts led by Alopen and the subsequent translation of Christian texts into Chinese. The stele also highlights the syncretic approach adopted by the Church of the East to make Christianity compatible with Chinese culture and philosophy​ (EARLY CHURCH HISTORY –)​​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Cambridge)​.

Historical Significance

The stele stands as an important artifact in the history of Christianity in China, showcasing the early interactions between Chinese civilization and foreign religions. It provides valuable insights into the religious, cultural, and political dynamics of the Tang Dynasty.

For more detailed information, you can explore:

  • Wikipedia: Xi’an Stele
  • Early Church History: The Xi’an Stele Content
  • Cambridge Core: Silk Road Christians and the Translation of Culture in Tang China

 The Syriac texts and historical accounts

The Syriac texts and historical accounts provide a rich narrative about the Christian mission led by Alopen and the broader activities of the Church of the East in China. Here’s a summary of what is said about this mission in Syriac texts and history:

Syriac Texts and Historical Accounts

  1. The Mission of Alopen:
    • Arrival in Chang’an: According to the Nestorian Stele and other historical sources, Alopen, a Syriac monk, arrived in the Tang capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) in 635 AD. He and his companions brought Christian scriptures and teachings to China.
    • Reception by Emperor Taizong: Alopen was received warmly by Emperor Taizong, who was known for his interest in foreign cultures and religions. The emperor ordered the translation of the Christian scriptures into Chinese, allowing for the integration of Christian teachings into the local cultural and philosophical context.
  2. The Xi’an Stele:
    • Inscriptions: The stele, erected in 781 AD, contains inscriptions in both Chinese and Syriac. The Syriac text provides details about the mission’s origins, the doctrines it propagated, and the support it received from the Tang emperors. It highlights the contributions of key figures like Alopen and acknowledges the role of the Chinese authorities in facilitating the mission’s success​ (EARLY CHURCH HISTORY –)​​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Oxford Academic)​.
    • Content: The stele describes the “Luminous Religion” and its spread across China, emphasizing the harmonious relationship between Christian teachings and Chinese culture. It also lists the names of several higher clergy, priests, and monks who were involved in the mission.
  3. Surviving Syriac Manuscripts:
    • Jingjiao Documents: Several manuscripts that were translated from Syriac into Chinese have been discovered, such as the “Sutra of Hearing the Messiah” and the “Hymn of Perfection of the Three Majesties.” These texts reflect a blend of Christian and Chinese religious ideas, demonstrating the syncretic approach of the Church of the East​ (Wikipedia)​​ (​.
  4. Historical Significance:
    • Integration with Chinese Society: The Syriac texts emphasize how Christianity adapted to the local context in China, integrating with existing philosophical and religious traditions. This adaptation helped the religion gain acceptance and flourish during the Tang Dynasty.
    • Legacy: Despite later periods of persecution and decline, the early mission left a lasting legacy on Chinese religious history. The Nestorian Stele remains a crucial artifact, providing insights into the interactions between the Church of the East and Chinese society​ (Wikipedia)​​ (Cambridge)​.

Further Reading and Resources

For those interested in exploring these texts and historical accounts in greater detail, the following resources are recommended:

These sources provide comprehensive information about the Syriac texts, historical context, and the impact of the Christian mission in China.

My humble salute to the church of the East 🙏🏼❤️

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