'Lost History of Christianity' unveils Eastern church empire

University Park, Pa. -- Since 2002, Penn State scholar Philip Jenkins has been describing in several books the changes and the faces of global Christianity for the 21st century, with membership growth and ecumenical power shifting to the Christians in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But his newest book "The Lost History of Christianity" travels back nearly 1,500 years to a forgotten empire of Christian churches in the Middle East and Asia, co-existing with nonChristian regimes, but eventually falling prey to persecution and ethnic/racial cleansing.

"In modern times, Christianity is described as traditionally based in Europe and North America," said Jenkins, the Edwin Erle Sparks professor of the humanities. "But Asia and the Middle East were home to some of the world's largest Christian communities and churches that possessed a vibrant, direct connection to the earliest Jesus movement of Syria and Palestine."

In his book, the Penn State religious studies and history researcher documents a vast network of the world's largest and most influential Christian churches that existed to the east of the Roman Empire. These churches and their leaders ruled the Middle East for centuries and became the chief administrators and academics in the new Muslim empire.

While most modern Westerners follow the church's expansion west through Greece and onto Rome, a greater number of believers had traveled east along the land routes through modern Iraq and Iran, building enduring churches. Iraq had substantial numbers of flourishing churches and monasteries, with significant scholarship and spirituality. Iraq served as a powerful cultural and spiritual heartland of Christianity in the late Middle Ages, as did France, Germany or Ireland.

Iraq and Syria housed two great transnational churches, the Nestorians and Jacobites, deemed heretical by the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. Today's Iraqi cities of Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit, hometown of the late Saddam Hussein, existed then as thriving Christian centers several centuries after the coming of Islam.

Jenkins tells the story of Bishop Timothy, who became the patriarch of the Church of the East in the year 780 in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Seleucia, near Babylon. In terms of his prestige and the geographical extent of his authority, Timothy was more influential than the Western pope in Rome and equal to the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople. Perhaps a quarter of the world's Christians considered Timothy as their spiritual and political leader.

"Given the breadth of the empire, church leaders frequently engaged in dialogue with heads of other world religions, including Islam and Judaism, but also Buddhism, Daoism and Zoroastrianism," said the Penn State historian. "Most eastern Christians had lived under Muslim political power, largely flourishing although subject to legal disadvantages."

In addition, the major contributions of Eastern Christians to the scholarship of medieval Arab societies are not well known. Nestorian, Jacobite, Orthodox and other Christians preserved and translated the science, philosophy and medicine of the ancient world to centers such as Baghdad and Damascus.

"Much of what we call Arab scholarship was in reality Syriac, Persian and Coptic, which is not necessarily Muslim," Jenkins noted. "They were the Christian roots of the Arabic Golden Age."

The 12th and 13th centuries saw cultural renaissance in many lands, but around 1300, the axe fell brutally, according to the new book. The 14th century witnessed a crescendo of violence and discrimination, attacking Christians as traitors and terrorists and introducing a trend of religious and ethnic intolerance for global factors.

"The Mongol invasions terrified Muslims and others," Jenkins said. "There were also climate change factors as the world entered rapid period of cooling, bad harvests and shrinking trade routes. A frightened and impoverished world looked for scapegoats. For whatever reasons, Muslim regimes and mobs delivered near-fatal blow to weakened Christian communities."

With political pressures from hostile regimes, local residents often converted to non-Christian religions, mainly Muslim, Buddhist and Shinto, sometimes following their leaders or the growing population in their communities.

In one estimate, the number of Asian Christians fell from 21 million to 3.4 million between 1200 and 1500. The proportion of the world's Christians in Africa and Asia fell from 34 percent to just 6 percent.

"Few records or scholars survived to maintain the history of the Eastern churches. A brutal purge of Christianity, most spectacularly in Asia, left Europe as the geographical heart of the Christian faith and the only base for expansion," Jenkins said.

Today, the world may again face the prospect of social tension and religious violence as the effects of global climate change are being felt. Hostile regimes could pose pressures to growing Christian populations in south and east Asia as well.

"We can certainly draw lessons from mistakes that churches make that hasten their demise, but other lessons present themselves. Rather than asking why churches die, we should seek to know how they endure for so long in seemingly impossible circumstances," Jenkins said.

"The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia -- and How It Died," is published by HarperOne.

Last Updated November 18, 2010