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Jingjiao—Not Nestorian

From the series Learning from Jingjiao, China’s Earliest Christian Church

“Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never hurt you.” The old adage has been around in English at least two centuries, probably much longer. And while our parents may have used it to help get us successfully over playground spats, as we matured, we learned that it is anything but true. Calling others by pejorative names can hurt them—and not just emotionally.

When a huge Christian stele (upright stone with inscription) was dug up near Xi’an in the early seventeenth century, it soon attracted the interest of the Jesuit missionaries who had established a precarious presence in Ming China. They not only saw a cross pictured at its apex, but they soon were reading the text which spoke of a Jingjiao (Luminous Teaching) with an eternal “Three-One” god, also called “A-luo-he” (Elohim), and with a Messiah born of a virgin. The inscription also stated clearly that the stele had been dedicated in AD 781. The Catholic missionaries were overjoyed, for here was proof that Christianity had been in China long before.

The Jesuits sent back translations of the stele which included not only Chinese characters, but also Syriac script. The latter was evidence that this Chinese church had been planted by Middle Eastern missionaries traveling what we have come to call “The Silk Road.” The remarkable stele text provided much of the impetus for Western Enlightenment scholars to begin the decipherment of Chinese characters! At the same time, the Syriac language was receiving the first serious study from Semitic scholars. Eusèbe Renaudot and Giuseppe Assemani deciphered much of the Syriac text of the stele, referring to it as the product of Syrian “Nestorians.” (The complete Chinese and Syriac texts of the stele with English translation are found in the appendix of my recent book, Jingjiao: The Earliest Christian Church in China. Eerdmans, 2024).

But why “Nestorian”? Nestorius had been Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 until he was deposed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 for allegedly teaching the separation of the two natures of Christ. In popular parlance, he insisted on calling the Virgin Mary “the mother of Christ” rather than “the mother of God.” When the imperial court backed his deposition, many of his supporters moved eastward out of the Roman Empire and many merged into the Syriac-speaking churches of the Middle East. The church there came to call itself the Church of the East, and while they respected Nestorius for his bold stand, there is little evidence that the Syriac church ever adopted his heretical Christology. In fact, within a few generations, a Syriac church with the opposite teaching came into being. They taught that Christ’s two natures were closely mingled, a teaching known as Monophytism or Miaphytism—but soon Western Christians were calling them “Jacobites” after one of their most famous theologians. Similarly, the term “Nestorian” began being used in the West as a short, handy, and deprecating term for the Church of the East and its members, with a strong connotation of being heretical.

The name stuck. While the Latin church of the Middle Ages became more and more isolated from the Greek East and the Syriac Middle East, the stereotypes of “Nestorians” remained alive. When the two groups rubbed shoulders in the Holy Land during the Crusades, the name was again used widely. And when Catholic emissaries were sent to China to treat with the Mongol rulers in the thirteenth century, they, like Marco Polo, found “Nestorian” congregations and priests all along the Silk Road and in China. When John of Montecorvino built the first Catholic church in China (near modern Beijing) in 1299, he not only converted pagan Chinese but also “Nestorians” to become his members.

So, when the Xi’an stele became a sensation in the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was only natural that it too would soon be called “Nestorian.” As mentioned earlier, its text was studied by many of the early Western sinologists. But soon Chinese missionaries and Christians lost interest in it. While some Protestant missionaries considered the stone a Jesuit forgery, most dismissed it as evidence that the heretical Nestorians had once made it to China. As a result, few missionaries or ethnic Chinese scholars made this early church the focus of serious study. And even those who did, such as the Japanese Christian scholar Peter Yoshirō Saeki wrote about “The Nestorian Monument in China” (1916) and “The Nestorian Documents and Relics in China” (1951). 

In 1996, Sebastian Brock, arguably the most important living Western scholar of Syriac, took aim at the term in an article entitled “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: A Lamentable Misnomer”1 In it he pleaded that the disparaging term be dropped by scholars. A survey of recent literature shows that his call has begun to be heeded. However, even today, the miniature crosses from the Ordos region of China are still usually called “Nestorian crosses,” and a recent PhD dissertation was entitled “Corpus Nestorianum Sinicum.”

The facts speak for themselves. In AD 635 Christian missionaries whose worship language was Syriac traveled thousands of miles down the Silk Road to plant a church in China. The imperial officials examined their teaching and issued a decree (preserved in the stele) allowing the church to be established. The text then summarizes how the church grew and spread during the following century and a half, until the stele was erected in 781. Other Chinese Christian documents from the period provide an insight into the church’s teaching—several of them giving detailed accounts of the coming of a Messiah who, although innocent, was arrested and put to death and rose again. “The Messiah preached to the people in the world and died in their place; he gave his own body and received death willingly. … Death and life are in the hands of the Messiah” (Book of the Lord Messiah, 163-164, 170). (All these texts can be read in translation in Matteo Nicolini-Zani’s recent The Luminous Way to the East from Oxford University Press, 2022).

Rather than disparaging this early church, we ought to be thanking God for it. Rather than looking for heresy between the lines, we ought to rejoice in the Christian witness that the stele and documents show existed in seventh- and eighth-century China. The name “Nestorian” has never been an accurate one, and we should now relegate it to history. A modern Church of the East still preserves its Syriac Christian heritage, and today it can be found worldwide. Unfortunately, its current spread is partially caused by the persecution and suffering it has endured, especially in the past century, in the volatile Middle East. Fortunately, Chinese Christians have started to show much more interest in the ancient church which called itself Jingjiao, “The Luminous Teaching.” Many Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Mainland and overseas Chinese Christians have made the pilgrimage to the Forest of Steles Museum (Bei Lin) in Xi’an to see the original stele. At least a half-dozen young Chinese Christian scholars are completing PhD dissertations on the Jingjiao. Plans are underway for a website that will provide all the relevant texts, translations, and bibliography on Syriac Christianity along the Silk Road and in China. Perhaps we will at last overcome the harm done by that inappropriate name, and be able to see the Jingjiao, “The Luminous Teaching” in its own, proper light.


  1. S. P. Brock, “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: A Lamentable Misnomer,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 78, no. 3 (1996) 23–35.
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Image credit: WikiSource (Chinese).
Glen Thompson

Glen Thompson

Glen L. Thompson received an MDiv from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary and MA and PhD degrees in history from Columbia University. He served as a missionary in Zambia, New York City, and Hong Kong, and held professorships at Wisconsin Lutheran College (Milwaukee) and most recently at Asia Lutheran Seminary (Hong Kong) …View Full Bio

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