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The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian
Christianity. By Christoph Baumer, 336 pages with maps and over 150
full-color photographs. Published by I.B. Tauris & Co. London, 2006.
Reviewed by Arianne Ishaya, Ph.D.
Of encyclopedic proportions, this book covers a vast geographical expanse
from the Euphrates to China and India, and spans a time period ranging from the
first century A.D. to the present, taking the reader to a long missionary journey of
extraordinary dimensions.
This book has received exuberant reviews from leading Syriac scholars in
the West. The outstanding characteristics singled out for this book include:
• First book in English about the history, culture, and theology of the
Church of the East.
• Author gained unique access to sites of outstanding historical and
cultural importance
• Richly illustrated throughout in full-color, and includes several maps of
the region. Many of the photographs were taken during the author’s own
extensive travels. (See back cover.)
The present review brings to the reader the native’s perspective or the
insider’s view on the history of this Church. What is different about the book
from this perspective is:
• It boldly associates the legacy of the Church of the East with the
Assyrian Christian heritage.
• It reveals not only the rich spirituality of the Church, but also its
indispensable contributions to the world of scholarship.
• In the interplay of politics and religion, it documents the Eurocentric bias
which contributed to the weakening of Eastern Christianity resulting in
the growing strength of Islam in the Near East.
The historical link between the Church of the East and Assyrian Christian
heritage has territorial, linguistic, and theological bases. Baumer’s research
indicates that the Church developed in the first century A.D. east of the
Euphrates in the Assyrian homeland Adiabene and the environs. The seat of the
Patriarchate was for many centuries in Seleucia-Ctesiphon to the south of
present-day Baghdad. Later the seat was transferred to Baghdad as it became the
capital city of the Abbasids. Baghdad was built on the site of an Assyrian village
in 762 A.D. One of the earliest Christian churches was the Church of Kokhe built
around 79-116 (present day Kirkuk). Among the very first theologians was the
Assyrian Tatian (c.110-180), the author of the Gospel harmony called the
Diatessaron. He spread his gospel in Adiabene among the Assyrians (P.21).
Diatessaron and later the Peshitta Bible were both written in Syriac, the language
of Assyrians at the time. Since Peshitta was the Bible that the missionaries took
to the far reaches of Asia, Syriac became the language of liturgy that unified all
adherents to the faith.
Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. 20, no. 2, 2006
From the perspective of an Assyrian Christian, it is a source of pride to note the
contributions of the forefathers to the world of scholarship. The 8th and 9th
centuries A.D. are known as the age of translators since the “Nestorian” (Church
of the East) scholars translated sources from Greek first to Syriac, and then to
Arabic. Because Arabic scholars and scientists themselves had no access to the
ancient writings and did not know Greek, they were dependent on the mediation
of the Nestorians and Jacobites (Syrian Orthodox). Thanks to this effort, the Arab
world had access to the works of the Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and
Plotinus, the physicians Galen and Hippocrates, and the mathematicians Euclid
and Ptolemy. Thus the Nestorian translators and scholars built the bridge linking
the knowledge of classical antiquity with the European Middle Ages. Europeans
had lost the originals of Greek Classical knowledge and at a time when Europe
was threatened into barbarism, the treasures of antiquity were transferred back to
Europe in the 12th century via the University of Toledo (pp. 156-157). At the
same time it is painful to read about the devastations caused by Roman Catholic
missionaries to the world of scholarship.
The conversion of the Church of the East by the Roman Catholic Church
started in 1294. Instead of supporting the Church of the East that had been
established in China, the Catholic Church infiltrated the Christian communities
by setting up parallel hierarchies based on the argument of universal papal
authority (P.203). This strategy was employed among the Christians in Iraq, Iran,
and India as well and continued until the second half of twentieth century. The
Catholic Church directed its missionary activities not towards the non-Christians,
but rather towards the already established Christian communities creating split
and dissention among the members. The destruction of rare Church manuscripts
occurred in early 19th century when Catholic missionaries incited recent converts
to Catholicism to throw the library of Mosul, made up of many thousands of
manuscripts, into the river Tigris (P. 253).
At the beginning of the 16th century there were 150,000 to 200,000 Thomas
Christians in India. By the end of 16th century the Thomas Christians were
forcefully converted to Catholicism and all the manuscripts of the Thomas
Christians were systematically collected and burned, which amounted to the
cultural destruction of a 1300-year old Christian tradition. Baumer concludes
“Thus, the only branch of the Church of the East to escape Tamerlane’s frenzy of
destruction was annihilated by Europeans”; [Portuguese in this respect] (P.239).
The interest of the Western scholars in Eastern Christianity is of a recent
date. Throughout its history, the European Christians looked upon Eastern
Christianity as a heresy. They either ignored the Eastern Christians or forced
them to convert to Catholicism. According to Baumer the Eurocentric bias has its
roots in the early history of Christianity. Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339) in his
Ecclesiastical history ignores even mentioning Eastern Christianity. Baumer sees
the Eurocentric bias a contributing factor to a number of missed opportunities of
an alliance between the West and the East. A notable one is when the second
ruler of Iran, II-khan Ghazan (ruled 1295-1304) offered W. European rulers Pope
Boniface VIII, King Edwards I of England and James II of Aragon his
The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity.
conversion to Christianity in the case of a military alliance against their joint
archenemy, Egypt. But since the age of Crusades had past, in 1287 King Philip of
France and Edward I of England gave Ghazan’s special envoy Rabban Bar
Sauma (+1294) a cold shoulder. Due to lack of European interest in an antiIslamic alliance, Ghazan remained Muslim. Consequently the opportunity for the
re-Christianization of Iran and Iraq was lost forever (P.5). Between 10-14th
century from 12% and 16% of the estimated 50-60 million Christians in Asia
were adherents to the Church of the East until the start of the 14th Century. In the
11th Century the authority of the Patriarch of the Church of the East stretched
from the Euphrates to the Yellow Sea in China. Today it has only 400,000
adherents (P.1). Given the political climate in the Middle East today when Islam
has become the ideology driving the anti-western movement, the consequences
of Western arrogance towards Eastern Christianity is all the more instructive.
In the last chapter of the book Baumer addresses the issue of the identity of
the Church of the East. Should the Church define itself in terms of its ethnic
composition, the Assyrian identity and its history, or in terms of its religious
mission spreading the Good News whether in Syriac, English, or any other
language (P. 278)?
It seems to me this is a spurious question. The name “The Assyrian Church
of the East” does not in any way imply that the Church is for the Syriac speaking
Assyrian Christians only any more than the title “Roman Catholic Church”, or
“Russian Orthodox Church” imply that these two churches are for Romans or
Russians only. The ethnic name is meant to recognize its cultural history and
spirituality. National issues are the concern of specific nationalities irrespective
of denominational differences or similarities.