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The Earliest Chinese Christianity Brought Back to Life

Jingjiao book cover, Church of the East in China

Jingjiao: The Earliest Christian Church in China by Glen L. Thompson. Eerdmans, 2024, 269 pages. ISBN-10: 1467467138, ISBN-13: 9781467467131, paperback. Available from Eerdmans and Amazon.

In his Jingjiao: The Earliest Christian Church in China, Glen L. Thompson, professor emeritus of New Testament and historical theology at Asia Lutheran Seminary in Hong Kong, offers by far the most up-to-date, balanced, accessible, and thorough history of Jingjiao, the first Christian church in Tang China.

In chapter one, against the prevailing narrative in China that Christianity is a “Western religion,” Thompson points out that the church at its very beginning is a thoroughly Eastern religion as a product of the Semitic heritage of the Jewish people (p. 9). Compared to the Greek and other Orthodox churches of the eastern Mediterranean or eastern Europe, the Church of the East is the real Eastern church (pp. 10–11). Thompson argues forcefully that against the claims of Wang Weifan and Pierre Perrier, there is no evidence of a Christian mission in the earliest centuries before the Church of the East sent their missionaries to Tang China (p. 13). He also endeavors to prove that Christianity’s entrance into China was an extension of the larger picture of Christianity’s slow permeation of Mesopotamia and Persia via the areas along the Silk Road (p. 14). Thompson briefly surveys the Mesopotamian church’s development (pp. 14–17), independence and controversy (pp. 17–20), solidification and expansion (pp. 20–22), and, in particular, its expansion via the Silk Road (pp. 22–25) until the seventh century, when the Arab raiders ended Sasanian rule and permanently annexed much of Byzantium’s territory (p. 26–27).

Chapter two is dedicated to the study of the stele from Chang’an (hereafter the Stele), commonly referred to as the Xi’an Stele. After briefly illustrating the history of its discovery and early scholarly studies by Zhang Gengyu, Li Zhizao, Nicolas Trigault, and Athanasius Kircher, Thompson presents a detailed description of the aesthetic design of the Stele, the microstructure in terms of breaking down the texts by column number and sense units, the macrostructure in terms of 頌並序 (song bing xu; that is, ode with commentary), as well as the Stele’s composition and production. For Thompson, the Stele is a result of a complicated project involving Adam (or Jingjing) and Yazdbozid (Yisi) for conceiving the idea and initial planning, Yeli for sending the text to the government for approval, Yazdbozid for funding, Lu Xiuyan for doing the calligraphy, a stone carver, and Yazdbozid and Sabranisho for transportation and erection of the Stele. Thompson highlights the Stele’s nature as a public document. Namely, the Stele is written simultaneously for the Christian faithful and the non-Christian readers, including government officials, passersby, possible “seekers,” and adherents of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Such an observation refutes some unwarranted criticisms toward the Stele for its syncretism and explains the difficulty for scholars to successfully write a single commentary on the Stele.

Chapter three demonstrates Thompson’s superb historical acumen in recounting the 146-year history from Alopen’s entrance to Chang’an in 635 to the erection of the Stele in 781. Based on a careful reading of the text inscribed on the Stele and the history of the Tang dynasty, he situates the development of Jingjiao in the proper context, which allowed him to critique some Christians who have spoken harshly against Jingjiao for their close rapport with the Tang government (p. 62). Thompson also rightly cautions his readers of the danger of interpreting and judging Jingjiao by our modern standards of separation of church and state, which took centuries for the post-Reformation church to develop and implement (p. 63).

In chapter four, Thompson surveys the more recent documents produced by Jingjiao, including the Pelliot chinois 3847 (purchased by Paul Pelliot in 1908 in Dunhuang), the collection of Li Shengduo, a manuscript purchased by the Japanese scholar Takakusu in 1922, and a Christian Dharani Pillar discovered by Zhang Naizhu in 2006 in Luoyang. Following that, a detailed introduction is presented on 1) Book of the Lord Messiah 序聽迷詩所經一卷, 2) Discourse on the One God 一神論 (including three tracts such as On the One Godhead, Number 1 一天论,第一, Metaphorical Teaching, Number 2 喻,第二, and Discourse of the Honored One of the Universe on Almsgiving, Number 3 世尊佈施论, 第三), 3) Hymn in Praise of the Salvation Achieved through the Three Majesties of the Luminous Teaching 景教三威蒙度讃, 4) Book of the Honored 尊經, 5) Book on Profound and Mysterious Blessedness 志玄安樂經, and 6) Book of the Luminous Teaching of Da Qin on Revealing the Origin and Reaching the Foundation 大秦景教宣元至本經. Following Lin Wushu, Rong Xinjiang, and other scholars, Thompson discards the Kojima documents as forgeries.

Based on the Stele and the six authentic documents identified in the previous chapter, Jingjiao’s teachings are presented in chapter five. After presenting Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist worldviews (pp. 111–13), Thompson studies Jingjiao’s doctrine of God (pp. 114–17), anthropology (pp. 117–18), Christology (pp. 118–29), soteriology (pp. 129–31), and ecclesiology (pp. 131–32).    

In chapter six, Thompson continues his historical analysis of Jingjiao under the Tang dynasty by laying out Jingjiao’s ecclesial organization (pp. 136–40). For Thompson, the available evidence dictates that the general structure of the Church of the East was preserved in the Jingjiao, though probably augmented and adjusted with titles and functions that had more “Chinese characteristics” (pp. 139­–40). A subsequent study of the names on the Stele yields useful information about “a small but flourishing community in the late eighth century” with an ongoing connection with the mother church and its Silk Road communities (p. 142). Thompson specifically studies the bishops and metropolitans in Jingjiao during its first century and a half (pp. 143–46). Then, placing Jingjiao among the three Persian religions—including Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, Thompson points out that one significant difference was that Jingjiao was part of a much more tightly structured organization (p. 151). Moreover, though Jingjiao remained a small foreign religion in China throughout the Tang era, it was not totally ignored or marginalized (pp. 153–55). Unfortunately, due to the imperial crossfire directed against the Buddhists in 842–845, Jingjiao disappeared from the Chinese literary sources and from the archaeological record after 845 (p. 159).

Chapter seven documents the Yelikewenjiao revival under the Yuan dynasty. Aided by detailed historical records, Thompson presents the two routes through which Christianity came into China during the Yuan period: from the Silk Road (and the steppes) and by sea. For the latter route, Quanzhou (known in Western sources as Zayton) became an important port city for international trade. The conclusion is that even though it did not gain widespread adherence within China, the Church of the East became a firmly established minority religion between the twelfth and fourteen centuries, especially among the non-Han population (pp. 186–87).

In the concluding chapter, Thompson argues against two main misconceptions or oversimplifications that Jingjiao and Yelikewenjiao were “Nestorian,” and that early Chinese Christianity had syncretized its belief with the other Chinese religions and worldviews. Instead, both are to be viewed as orthodox churches (pp. 194–98). Furthermore, Thompson refutes claims that Jingjiao and Yelikewenjiao’s official relationship with the imperial government was an inappropriate policy decision and one of the causes of their demise. Such claims are imbued with the ideals of separation between church and state and lack sensitivity towards the historical contexts in which both branches of the Church of the East were situated (pp. 198–200).

With a keen insight into the contemporary Chinese mentality, Thompson suggests that there is no need for the Chinese authorities to view Christianity as “a Western threat,” and that Jingjiao could be used as a model that service to Christ can coexist with patriotism (p. 201). Thompson is sensitive toward the contemporary Chinese government’s Sinicization project for Christianity. In formulating an answer, Thompson resorts to Jingjiao and Yelikewen Christians, who, as an example of contemporary Chinese Christians, “functioned as responsible Chinese citizens in their daily life while simultaneously practicing their Christian faith” (p. 204). Thompson also suggests that it is not wise to “attempt to forcibly cut off the Chinese church from outside Christian contacts” (p. 204–5). Accordingly, Thompson prophesies that “[a] total Sinicization of the Chinese church will never be fully accomplished, nor should it be” (p. 205). Meanwhile, he suggests that the Chinese church can continue to become more Sinicized in a godly way by reading the inspired texts in their original language and then applying them to Chinese culture (pp. 205–6).

A few caveats of the book need to be clearly stated. First, it is perhaps an overstatement for the author to state that “[t]he best account in English, now almost a century old and therefore very dated, is still that of A. C. Moule, Christians in China before the Year 1550” (p. 2, n. 2). At first glance, Thompson may seem to have neglected Matteo Nicolini-Zani’s The Luminous Way to the East: Texts and History of the First Encounter of Christianity with China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022). However, references to this book elsewhere (e.g., p. 29) suggest otherwise. Thus, it seems to me that Thompson does recognize the value of Nicolini-Zani’s monograph, which similarly strives to offer an updated and complete account of Jingjiao. However, due to the relatively short time span—about two years—between these two writing projects, Thompson fails to update his text in a thorough manner.

Second, regarding the Book of the Luminous Teaching of Da Qin on Revealing the Origin and Reaching the Foundation (大秦景教宣元至本经), Thompson comments that “[f]or the text of the entire tract, combining the Luoyang stele text with the Dunhuang manuscript, see Matteo Nicolini-Zani, ‘The Tang Christian Pillar from Luoyang and Its Jingjiao Inscription, a Preliminary Study,’ Monumenta Serica 57 (2009): 129–30, and his updated translation (The Luminous Way, 298–303)” (p. 106, n. 48). However, both references to Nicolino-Zani’s works contain only partial records. For the full text in Chinese, readers can refer to a monograph by Wu Chang Shing (吳昶興).1

Third, in expounding Jingjiao’s theological worldview in chapter five, Thompson’s analysis lacks theological nuances in that there is no explanation of how Jingjiao’s theology can be traced to their Syriac root, leaving readers the impression that the Jingjiao authors bypassed their theological tradition. In this respect, scholars such as Zhu Donghua have highlighted the Antiochene approach as the most central tradition of the Chinese Jingjiao theology and exegetics.2 Moreover, an important theological theme that is missing is Jingjiao’s pneumatology.3

Fourth, some factual mistakes are to be noted. For example, “Western Zhao dynasty” (p. 28) should be Western Zhou. The exact year of the Stele’s discovery is still under hot debate. Most authors would use the year 1621 or 1623 in their writing. Thompson does not cite evidence of his choice of 1623 (p. 28). Also, China’s last dynasty is not “the Qin” (p. 83) but “the Qing.” According to Thompson, Mi-shi-he (彌施訶, i.e., Messiah) is used “over seventy times in the Jingjiao documents as the most common way of referring to Jesus Christ” (p. 115). In fact, the phrase is used only 30 times in all seven documents.

Even with these caveats, I highly recommend this book to Chinese Christians and Christians worldwide. Readers will not only be equipped with the fascinating history of Jingjiao, which helps overcome the anti-Christian narrative that Christianity was brought into China by European and American colonial imperialists. Christians and missionaries in various global cultural contexts will also benefit from this book by learning from the Church of the East missionaries’ creative strategies of inculturation.

Our thanks to Eerdman’s for providing a copy of Jingjiao: The Earliest Christian Church in China by Glen Thompson for this review.


Feng, Jacob Chengwei. “Science, Religion(s), and Spirit(s) in China: A Constructive Chinese Theology of Creation Based on Jingjiao’s Qi-Tological theology.” PhD dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2024.

Wu, Changxing. Daqin Jingjiao Liuxing Zhongguo Bei: Daqin Jingjiao Wenxian Shiyi 大秦景教流行中国碑:大秦景教文献释义. [Daqing Jingjiao Liuxing Zhongguo Bei (The Xi’an Stele): Text Analysis with Commentaries on Documents of Daqin Jingjiao]. Xinbei: Ganlan chuban youxian gongsi 橄榄出版有限公司 [Oliver Publishing], 2015.

Zhu, Donghua. “Chinese Jingjiao and the Antiochene Exegesis.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in China, edited by K. K. Yeo, 47-62. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.


  1. Changxing Wu, Daqin Jingjiao liuxing Zhongguo bei: Daqin Jingjiao wenxian shiyi 大秦景教流行中国碑:大秦景教文献释义 [Daqing Jingjiao Liuxing Zhongguo Bei (The Xi’an Stele): Text Analysis with Commentaries on Documents of Daqin Jingjiao] (Xinbei: Ganlan chuban youxian gongsi 橄榄出版有限公司 [Oliver Publishing], 2015), 158–71.
  2. Donghua Zhu, “Chinese Jingjiao and the Antiochene Exegesis,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in China, ed. K. K. Yeo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).
  3. For a pneumatological analysis of Jingjiao’s doctrine of creation, see Jacob Chengwei Feng, “Science, Religion(s), and Spirit(s) in China: A Constructive Chinese Theology of Creation based on Jingjiao’s Qi-tological Theology” (PhD diss. Fuller Theological Seminary, 2024).
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Image credit: The top of the Xi’an Stele; David Castor via Wikipedia.

Jacob Chengwei Feng

Jacob Chengwei Feng holds a Ph.D. degree in Theological Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the Leader of Theology Interest Group at the Society for Pentecostal Studies and a Fellow at Oxford Interfaith Forum. He is a recipient of the 2024 ARTFinc prize offered by the journal Christian Perspective of …View Full Bio

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