Alopen — June 21

The Christian missionary Alopen and the Emperor Taizong, China. The first recoreded Christian missionary to reach China, arriving in 635. Educational card, late 19th or early 20th century.

Bible connection

“I see clearly now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” — The Apostle Peter tells the Gentile Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10: 34-35

“Stele to the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion of Daqin.” Daqin was what the Chinese called the Roman Empire or Syria in particular.

All about Alopen (c. 635)

Above is The Nestorian Stele on its Tortoise Pedestal (added after its find), in Beilin Museum, Xi’an, China. The monument is a stone slab erected in 781 AD during the Tang dynasty (618-907) documenting about 150 years of Christian history in China. The writing is in Chinese and Syriac. The stele was buried in 845, probably during religious persecution, and unearthed in the late Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) around1623.

Emperor Taizong (or Tai-tsung) of Tang first heard about Jesus Christ from a Persian monk, A-lo-pen (his Chinese name — Chinese: 阿罗本 pinyin: Āluóběn), who walked all the way to the capital of China (today’s Xi’an) to bring the gospel to the Chinese. He was probably sent by Patriarch Ishoyahb II of Baghdad, who also sent missionaries to Iran, Afghanistan, Ubzekistan, and India. Most likely, Alopen had been ordained a bishop because he was able to appoint men to pastor the churches he founded. What little we know about his arrival in China and the history of the work that followed is recorded on the stele.

In 635 Alopen stood before Emperor Taizong and presented him with a New Testament. He is the first missionary we know of who travelled the Silk Road all the way to China.

The stele says:

In the time of the accomplished Emperor Tai-tsung, the illustrious and magnificent founder of the dynasty, among the enlightened and holy men who arrived was the most-virtuous Olopun, from the country of Syria…

Observing the azure clouds, he bore the true sacred books; beholding the direction  of the winds, he braved difficulties and dangers. In the year of our Lord 635 he arrived at Chang-an; the Emperor sent his Prime Minister, Duke Fang Hiuen-ling; who, carrying the official staff to the west border, conducted his guest into the interior; the sacred books were translated in the imperial library, the sovereign investigated the subject in his private apartments; when becoming deeply impressed with the rectitude and truth of the religion, he gave special orders for its dissemination.

In the seventh month of 638 the following imperial proclamation was issued:

Right principles have no invariable name, holy men have no invariable station; instruction is established in accordance with the locality, with the object of benefiting the people at large. The greatly virtuous Olopun, of the kingdom of Syria, has brought his sacred books and images from that distant part, and has presented them at our chief capital. Having examined the principles of this religion, we find them to be purely excellent and natural; investigating its originating source, we find it has taken its rise from the establishment of important truths; its ritual is free from perplexing expressions, its principles will survive when the framework is forgot; it is beneficial to all creatures; it is advantageous to mankind. Let it be published throughout the Empire, and let the proper authority build a Syrian church in the capital in the I-ning May, which shall be governed by twenty-one priests.

The “Nestorian” church

Alopen was of “the Church of the East.” The Syrian church forged a different identity from the Eurocentric church of the Roman Empire. It was called the “Nestorian” Chruch by the Roman Church. So the Christians who went to China were Nestorians — at least by Roman Catholic definition.

Nestorianism was named after the Christian theologian Nestorius (386–450), Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431. Nestorius was rebuked by the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) for his argument about the nature of Jesus as human and divine. His main contention was that Mary should not be called Theotokos (Mother of God), since that undermines the true human nature of Jesus. He argued she should be called Mother of Christ, which he considered more orthodox in that Mary bore a human in whom God dwelled as in a temple. The Councils both affirmed that Jesus, both God and human was born by Mary and his dual natures are inseparable.

They said the natures were inseparable as in “hypostatic union” (from the Greek: ὑπόστασις/hypóstasis, translated “person, subsistence”). This is the technical term in Christian theology that won the Christology battle to describe the union of Christ’s humanity and divinity. His nature is one hypostasis, or individual personhood. The views of Nestorius were a fine point of understanding hypostasis, not an assertion of exclusive natures in one person. It was not his intent to elevate the human nature. But the Councils decided otherwise. He said: The Word, which is eternal, and the Flesh, which is not, came together in a hypostatic union, “Jesus Christ.” Jesus is both fully human and fully God, of two ousia (essences) but of one prosopon (person).

Elements of the break-off church did develop theology that resembled the thinking the Councils condemned. A brief definition of Nestorian Christology could be: “Jesus Christ, who is not identical with the Son but personally united with the Son, who lives in him, is one hypostasis and one nature: human.”(Wiki).  Both Nestorianism and Monophysitism (which says the Human nature of Jesus was subsumed by the divine) were condemned as heretical at the Council of Chalcedon.

Nestorius developed his Christological views as an attempt to understand and explain rationally the incarnation of the divine Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as the man Jesus. He had studied at the School of Antioch where his mentor had been Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theodore and other Antioch theologians had long taught a literalist interpretation of the Bible and stressed the distinctiveness of the human and divine natures of Jesus. Nestorius took his Antiochene leanings with him when he was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople by Byzantine emperor Theodosius II in 428.

Nestorious’ role as Patriarch was taken away and he returned to his monastery. His followers, however, applied his name to an Eastern branch of the Christian family tree. The Church of the East first blossomed in Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey) and in the well-known theological school of Nisibis (today’s Nusaybin, Turkey), where the famous poet Ephrem served as deacon. It continued to thrive in what is now eastern Turkey and Iraq.

The Church of the East is often known as the Nestorian Church, even though its connections with Nestorius are tenuous at best. The name is probably due to the fact that this church refused to recognize the 431 Council of Ephesus where Nestorius was condemned for his views on the two natures of Christ. For the most part, however, the reason for their refusal was probably more cultural rather than theological. It was a way to assert the church’s independence from the Byzantine Empire, being part of the upstart Sasanian Empire. While it’s true that Nestorianism spread to the eastern regions, many scholars agree that defining the Church of the East as Nestorian is unfair.

The official language of the Church of the East was Syriac (a form of Aramaic), one of the first languages in which the Scriptures were translated. By the eighth century, this church had spread over much of Asia and Arabia, becoming the most widely spread churches in the world.


A reading of the Stele:

Translation of Nestorian Stele [link]

The early Chinese church is further revealed in the Jesus Sutras, discovered in 1900 in the Dunhuang oasis on the Silk Road [link]. The Jingjiao Documents, also known as the Nestorian Documents or the Jesus Sutras, are a collection of Chinese language texts connected with the 7th century mission of Alopen, and the 8th century monk Adam. The manuscripts date from between 635, the year of Alopen’s arrival in China to around 1000, when the cave at Mogao near Dunhuang in which the documents were discovered was sealed. By 2011, four of the manuscripts were known to be in a private collection in Japan, while one was in Paris. Their language and content reflect varying levels of interaction with Chinese culture, including use of Buddhist and Taoist  terminology.

The day Alopen died is unknown. This collection uses offical saints days or death days to honor each member of our cloud of witnesses. We’ve placed Alopen’s day on June 21 to reflect the summer of love between China and the missionaries from Syria.

What do we do with this?

This history of the church is commonly unknown in the United States, mainly because the church and the nation see through a Eurocentric lens. The churches of the Sasanian Empire (Persia) rejected that lens in the 400’s. In welcoming their history, we become part of the true, transhistorical, transnational Body of Christ.

Emperor Taizong was remarkably open. Alopen and his companions were amazingly brave and bold. Whoever made the stele was very skilled and eloquent. The historians who have complied the mysteries of the past and the scholars who keep presenting them are honorable. The whole story of this missionary is full of brilliant, faithful people. Let’s celebrate them and appreciate the gifts each of us brings to the present story of Jesus, too.

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