Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stone-Cold Evidence for Syriac Christians in China in the First Century?

by Father Dale A. Johnson

On the 5th Anniversary of Saint Ephrem Mission in the Dominican Republic

In 303 AD, Arnobius, in "Adversus Gentes", speaks of the Seres as among the nations reached by "that new power which has arisen from the works done by the Lord and his Apostles. Arnobius speaks of the Chinese as "united in the faith of Christ." Earlier Christian traditions suggested that either Saints Thomas or Bartholomew first visited China.

There are very few pieces of archaeological evidence to suggest that Christians arrived so early. One exception is an iron cross was found in China with a carved couplet:

Four seas rejoice o’er peace; iron rod splendors a cross;
Ten thousand folks for grace yearn; a thousand autumns incensed by golden urn.

The date of this relic is “the ninth year of Chi-wu, Eastern Wu.”(4) Chi-wu was the name for the fourth period of reign of Sun Quan who became King of Eastern Wu in the year 222 AD. The fact that such an iron cross existed has led to speculation that the Gospel may have been brought to China during the Eastern Han dynasty.

Now we may have more evidence and an even earlier arrival of Christianity in China. Professor Wang Wei-fan related numerous stone reliefs of the Han period in a burst of speculation. I have selected a few that may warrant further study.

In June, 2002 a professor from Xuzhou (in northern Jiangsu Province) informed Wang Wie-fan, Christian professor of Nainjing Seminary, that the museum in Xuzhou contained many excavated carvings with Middle East cultural characteristics from the Han period of Chinese history (25-220 AD).

Professor Wang Wie-Fan identified a carving with birds and a fish. (A)(1) Although he identified the birds as phoenix they do not conform to such a detailed description. But there is no doubt that a fish is being held by the birds. The Fish was used by early Christians on their doors and tombs as a secret identity. Birds were a common motif in Christian art. The Gospel of Rabbula features birds prominently in his 5th century bible. If this is a Christian tomb where this carving was found then we have the actual date of the presence of at least one family of Christians in China. To the left of this carving was the date: “The seventh day of the third month in the year of Yuan-he” – 86 AD. Yuan-he was the Emperor Zhangdi in Eastern Han. The construction of this tomb was 550 years before the Syriac priest Alopen reached Changan ( Xi’an) in 635 AD, and about 15 years after the fall of Jerusalem, resulting in Christians being dispersed to other parts of the world.(3)

Another of the carvings was interpreted by Professor Wang to be the creation story from Genesis. (B)(4)

On the top are “two great lights” of sun and moon, a big fish and a bird. On the right are wild beasts. The left are domestic animals such as donkey, horse and ox.

The iconography of the allegorical birds and animals of the Maltese catacombs deserves special attention because of remarkably similar iconography when compared to the Chinese carvings. The finest example comes from a small hypogeum at ─Žal Resqun in the neighborhood of the Malta International Airport. Here two hybrid creatures are busily feeding a fledgling in the arched space above main entrance of the sepulcher. One of them wears a branched horn like a stag’s antler, while the other has an apparent tail and four legs. Similarity is no proof but it does add to a larger body of circumstantial evidence that grows to a tipping point where the weight of evidence falls toward an hypothesis that suggests a first century Christian presence in China.

Another carving shows the temptation of Eve.(C) On this carving we read from right to left (in Chinese and Syriac order): the devil, serpent, Eve, the tree of discerning good and evil, the cherubim, then the sword (symbols of evil and deceit on the right; symbols of goodness on the left.) The serpent is waving flowers to Eve while biting her left hand. At the same time Eve’s right hand is picking the fruit from the tree. To the left of the tree we see the cherubim and the sword, flaming and turning, guarding the tree of life. By itself, this interpretation may not stand.

A number of the limestone entrances to the Eastern Han burial chambers have carvings of fish and lamb. (G) The lamb is associated with Jesus, as is evident in a reference made to it in the New Testament: “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1: 29). More than 80 frescoes created during the first and fourth centuries depicted Jesus either with a lamb or sheep on his shoulders or at his side, as found in Roman catacombs.

Some of the beams from the tombs have just the ram (H). The ram (or lamb) is seldom seen in traditional Chinese art.

An Eastern Han tomb discovered at Wang Shan had semicircular upper beams with two levels.(I) The upper level describes “heaven” with the tree of life and the eternal bird. It is remarkably similar to the images of birds we see perched on arches in the Rabbula Gospels (411). The tree of life and the eternal birds often represent resurrection.(5)

Likely manger scenes identified by Professor Wang clearly shows a baby held on the lap of his mother.(M) They have celestial beings above the roof, and wise men coming to pay homage. What distinguishes these is the presence of horses If this is a manger scene then it follows a pattern of Syriac iconography. There is a Syriac icon which is now in Berlin, (Preuss. Bibl. Sachau 220 fo 8v.) The three wise men in this Syriac icon are shown riding horses not camels, since according to Syriac tradition they came from Mesopotamia.

In the Xuzhou museum is a bronze container, dating back to the Eastern Han period. (O)(6) The bottom is carved with two fishes and five loaves, plus the character “Yi.” The word Yi means “sharing.” It could also be a variant transliteration of “yodh” and “he” the Syriac abbreviation for “God.” “Y_h” is a Syriac symbol used by some Christians today.

It is not difficult to imagine that this was a vessel used by the early church in Eastern Han to celebrate Holy Communion.

Several locations in Henan and Shandong provinces have sizable collections of these excavated stone carvings. They deserve our careful attention.

In the Western Han period, Zhang Qian explored the west and went on the Silk Road to “Da Qin” (Syria). It is not hard to hypothesize that Syriac speaking Christians traveled the same Silk Road to Eastern Han through what is today Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Xinjiang, Dunhuang to reach Changan (Xi’an).


(1) From Wang Zhi-xin, A History of Chinese Christianity which quoted from A Record of Careful Thoughts by Li Jiugong of Ming Dynasty, and from “Poem of the Iron Cross” in Liu Zigao’s Collection of Poetry.”
(2) Xuzhou Han Stone Carvings Wu Liuhua (published in Beijing, November 2001)
(3) Originally published in Wen Hui Bao (Daily), August 9, 2002
(4) Genesis 1; Psalm 148:7; Isaiah 27:1
(5) Matthew 12:22-30
(6) No. 81 of Xuzhou Han Stone Carvings, from the northern wall of the stone chamber of a tomb at Mao Village, Tong Shan County, Xuzhou


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