Alopen (Seventh Century)
Christians Who Changed Their World

Alopen with China's Emperor (Image credit: GoodSalt)

Although it is not very well known, for the first thousand years of church history there were probably more Christians outside of the old boundaries of the Roman Empire than within them. Christianity in India may date back as far as the Apostle Thomas; the first kingdom to convert to Christianity was Armenia; Christianity spread in Ethiopia in the fourth century; and there were large numbers of Christians in the Persian Empire who spread their faith into Central Asia and beyond via well-established trade routes to China.

The Christians in Persia and Asia formed what is today known as the Church of the East. They were Nestorians, that is, they believed that Jesus was fully God and fully human but disagreed with the specific formulation adopted by the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). This made them heretical in the eyes of orthodox Christians in the Roman Empire. However, this meant little as there was little cooperation between the churches.

Nonetheless, Christianity spread along the trade routes into China, and across Central Asia a network of Nestorian monasteries, schools, and churches were established. The route to China was blocked, however, by the people of Turkmenistan. In the year 630, twelve years after the founding of the T’ang dynasty in China, Chinese forces overwhelmed the Western Turks, reopening trade across the Silk Road.

Just five years later, in 635, a group of Nestorian missionaries led by Alopen (possibly an attempted transliteration of Abraham) arrived at Chang-an, the capital of China.

By this time, Nestorian Christians from Central Asia or in the Persian merchant community were probably already living in Chang-an, given that the city appears to have been well-prepared for Alopen’s arrival. Emperor Taizong, a promoter of religious tolerance, sent a delegation to the western suburbs to escort the Nestorian missionaries into the city.

One reason for the welcome may have been the fact that Taizong was a scholar. He had built a library next to the palace of 200,000 books, making it as large as any library in the world at the time, including the fabled Library of Alexandria. When he found out that Christianity was a religion of the book, he immediately brought Alopen to his library and set him to the task of translating Christian books into Chinese.

The first book Alopen selected to translate is known as the Sutra of Jesus the Messiah, the first Christian book in the Chinese language. The original was probably written in Persian or the Central Asian Sogdian language, given the way he transliterated some of the names. It is a free translation, with the surviving text containing 206 verses intended to explain Christianity and to demonstrate that it was compatible with traditional Chinese values. He may have translated other books as well, either at this time or later.

The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah begins with an invocation of the invisible God, and then describes the condition of humanity, focusing on the problem of sin and mortality. The problem of death was particularly pertinent, as religious versions of Daoism had long been trying to develop the Elixir of Life which would grant immortality to the Emperor. The Sutra then tells the story of Jesus’ life from the Virgin Birth at least until his Passion—the surviving copies of the manuscript stop abruptly in mid-verse during the description of Jesus’ death, but we can presume it continued at least to the Resurrection and Ascension.

The Emperor received the text and after studying it, pronounced it acceptable and ordered that it be disseminated around China. In 638, he issued a decree granting toleration of all religions in China and official protection to the Nestorian Church. That same year, he also built the first Christian church and monastery in China in the capital city of Chang-an. The monastery housed 21 monks, probably all Persian.

When Taizong died in 649, he was succeeded by his son, Gaozong (649-693). Gaozong continued his father’s religious policies. During his reign, churches spread elsewhere in the Empire, though the exact number is unknown. He named Alopen “Great Patron and Spiritual Lord of the Empire,” which suggests he had become the metropolitan bishop overseeing all the churches in China, though whether his spiritual superiors in Persia had granted him this title is also unknown.

Unfortunately, Gaozong began to lean toward Buddhism during his reign due largely to pressures from his family and especially from his consort Wu Hou. Wu had been Taizong’s concubine, and when he died she had been sent to a Buddhist monastery. She wanted to be back in the seat of power, however, so she somehow maneuvered her way into becoming Gaozong’s concubine as well, in violation of the principles of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Wu gave Gaozong two sons and then a daughter; when the daughter died, apparently by strangulation and possibly by Wu herself, she then accused the Empress of the murder. The Empress had no alibi, so she was removed from her place and the ardent Buddhist Wu became the new Imperial Consort.

From this position, Wu began accumulating more and more power, eliminating rivals, poisoning the crown prince, exiling Gaozong’s sons by different concubines and even some of her own sons. Gaozong’s health deteriorated, and Wu became regent of China. When Gaozong died, Wu deposed her two sons in rapid succession, and in 690 AD named herself Empress, the only woman to rule China in her own name in its 4000 year history.

Although Empress Wu flouted Buddhist ethics—for example, she took a Buddhist monk as a lover—she promoted Buddhism as the state religion in China. She tacitly encouraged attacks on Christian churches far from the capital and eventually allowed the churches in the capital itself to be sacked by rampaging mobs of Buddhists. Her attitude toward the Nestorians changed, however, due to the work of a Nestorian Persian nobleman named Abraham.

Abraham, who must have been well acquainted with Alopen, had such a good reputation for his achievements that Gaozong had summoned him to court and appointed him on an embassy to the territory east of Persia. According to his tombstone, he brought Christianity to the barbarian tribes there, who ever since lived in peace and harmony.

When Empress Wu took the throne, her half-brother ordered the construction of a 105 foot tall column in her honor outside the Tuan Gate at Chang-an. The column was to be built by an Indian sculptor, and Abraham was to raise the money for it. They were so effective at their respective tasks that the column was finished in just eight months. Empress Wu was so impressed at Abraham’s loyalty and diplomatic and financial abilities that she backed off the persecution of the Nestorians, deciding that she could trust their loyalty.

Empress Wu died in 705; Abraham outlived her by 5 years, dying in 710 at the age of 95. With the Empress’s death the threat to the church receded. The T’ang Dynasty was quickly reestablished, and the church recovered. Alopen’s work thus weathered its most severe threat and would continue on until the fall of the T’ang Dynasty in 907 AD. While Christianity never emerged as a major religion in China during this period, it continued to enjoy the protection and favor of the court, and Christian leaders continued to play an important role in the development of Chinese culture.

Next Steps

How well do you know the history of your own faith? Stories like the above make fascinating reading; they also provide encouragement for us to take part in changing our own culture. See below for a couple of good reads. Try one!

Further Reading:
For starters, download “BreakPoint This Week: The Importance of Knowing Church History” from the Colson Center Library. For a broad overview of our history, you can purchase this volume from the Online Store: Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.