Posted by on Oct 22, 2014 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on NESTORIAN MERCHANT MISSIONARIES AND TODAY’S UNREACHED PEOPLE GROUPS / Howard D. Owens



A Paper


at the National Meeting

of the Evangelical Missiological Society

Howard D. Owens

Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 2003

M.Div., Columbia International University, 1988

B.S., Georgia Institute of Technology, 1980

Minneapolis, Minnesota

September 22-24, 2005

Travel well girt like merchants,

That we may gain the world.

Convert men to me,

Fill creation with teaching.

A Syriac hymn quoted by Richard C. Foltz,

Religions of the Silk Road, 62.

1Andrew F. Walls, “Eusebius Tries Again: Recovering the Study of Christian History,”

International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 24,3 (July 2001) : 110.

2John Foster, The Church in the T’ang Dynasty (London: Society for Promoting Christian

Knowledge, 1939), vii.



I was a missionary in France. “Why,” you may ask, “do I bother with a study of Nestorian

merchant missionaries?” The answer is simple. While the history of the eastward expansion of

Christianity from Jerusalem is overshadowed by what students of missions know about the

westward spread, the size of the church in Europe paled in comparison to the breadth of the

church in Asia.

If the church in Asia reached such a scale, many Asians must have become Christians. Andrew

F. Walls asserted that “the eastward spread of the Christian faith across Asia is still more

remarkable than the westward spread across Europe.”1 John Foster made a similar point when he

wrote, “Those who serve the Church in the East ought to have in the foreground of their thoughts

a Church which was always universal, and which from the days of the Apostles onwards was

always advancing eastwards. Western Church history will then take up its rightful place as a

useful, indeed an indispensable, background.”2 I wonder, therefore, if Christendom is in the

process of becoming deChristianized, was not Asia first deChristianized?

An appropriate objection to such pronouncements would be to ask, “Where is this church

today?” One must readily concede that the regions east of Jerusalem are inhabited by some of the


most unreached peoples of the present world. If, however, the spread of Christianity eastward

was as extensive as some writers assert, who carried the gospel to Asia and were not some of the

ancestors of these peoples “reached” at some point? How one responds to these questions has

implications on contemporary missiology.

The Nestorian Church in Asia

In search of an answer to these questions, I will examine the missionary efforts of Nestorian

missionaries. Their church has been variously known as the Syrian Church, the Nestorian Church,

or the Church of the East. The latter will be avoided to preclude confusion with the Eastern

Orthodox Church. These missionaries were largely from Syria, Persia, and Sogdiana.

As I progress through this inquiry, you will discover that, first, the primary actors in the

spread of the gospel were merchant missionaries. These missionaries, who combined their

business with their Christian mission, hardly resembled a contemporary missionary. They lacked

ties to mission sending structures and to their sending churches that today’s missionaries enjoy.

These merchant missionaries must have appeared more as lay Christians who had a zeal for

sharing their faith along the trade routes of Asia. Second, you will consider the impact these

missionaries, along with their clerical and monastic colleagues, had on some of the people groups

which are unreached today.

Nestorian Christology

When students of church history read of the Nestorian church, they probably think immediately

of Christological controversies. A theologian named Nestorius, from whom the Nestorian

church got its name, has been suspected of diminishing Christ’s deity. Due to the limitations of


3Paul E. Pierson, “Nestorian Mission,” Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Scott A.

Moreau, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 675. C. Gordon Olson considered the

Nestorian view to be “weaker than the ‘orthodox’ view.” C. Gordon Olson, What in the World is

God Doing? The Essentials of Global Missions: An Introductory Guide (Cedar Knolls: Global

Gospel Publishers, 2003), 102.

4Paula Harris recalled that these theological debates were taking place “in multiple

communities and in translation to multiple languages.” Paula Harris, “Nestorian Community,

Spirituality, and Mission” in Global Missiology for the Twenty-First Century, ed. William D.

Taylor (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 496.

5Alphonse Mingana, The Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia and the Far East: A

New Document (Manchester: University Press, 1925), 41.

this present study, the author will be unable to explore this debate. He, nonetheless, feels justified

in proceeding with the development of his thesis. Today, it does not appear that Nestorius was as

heterodox as was once thought. Paul E. Pierson, in his article in the Evangelical Dictionary of

World Missions, “Nestorian Mission,” stated that Nestorius’ “Christology was probably orthodox,

although perhaps not stated adequately.”3 Maintaining an unorthodox faith is far worse than being

able to express accurately orthodox faith.4 Due to the limitations of this paper, I will proceed by

accepting that the Nestorians, as merchant missionaries, preached an unadulterated gospel.

In the Russian province of Semiryechensk, located in southern Siberia, were discovered

Nestorian gravestones. In this cemetery, interred side by side, were the earthly bodies of

individuals who had come from China, India, East and West Turkestan, Mongolia and Manchuria,

Siberia, and Persia. The ethnic variety of these Nestorians allows one to suspect, as Alphonse

Mingana suggested, that peoples across Asia were in constant dialogue.5 They lived in an age

when the church was planted in Asia. They lived in the age of the Nestorian merchant missionary.


6Richard C. Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 7.

7Ibid. Foltz considered the context of Central Asia to be pluralistic, precluding the possibility

of finding monolithic religious traditions across the continent. He nonetheless described the

conversion of “hundreds of thousands among the Eurasian steppe peoples . . . [to Nestorianism,

which] appears centuries later like a bad dream to the first Catholic missionaries in China, who

found it comfortably entrenched there as the recognized resident Christianity of the East.” Foltz,

8. While Christianity may adopt local forms which may lessen a sense of homogeneity on first

view, the pluralism of these cultures did not exclude the possibility of attaching oneself to a

particular faith over and against another.

Merchant Missionaries

Richard C. Foltz, in his Religions of the Silk Roads, told “the story of how religions accompanied

merchants and their goods along the overland Asian trade routes of pre-modern times.”6

His thesis included three elements. First, he argued that ideas and trade were in continuous motion

along the trade routes of Asia. He suggested that just as merchants managed a mixed inventory of

imported or exported merchandise, so the people of Asia adhered to a melange of local and

foreign religious beliefs. He allowed that other factors attributed to the spread of religious faiths

in Asia. He insisted, however, that trade was the main facilitator.7 How were the merchants of

these days able to wed business and missions?

Business and missions is the theme of the present meeting of the Evangelical Missiological

Society. The theme may cover tentmaking as the means by which cross-cultural workers support

themselves. This tentmaker would be akin to a bi-vocational worker. The theme may also cover

the scenario of missionaries who use their business activities to justify their presence in countries

which restrict the legal entry of traditional missionaries. In the case of Nestorian merchant

missionaries, they appeared less like traditional missionaries. They were Christians who supported

themselves by their business and who had a zeal for sharing their faith.


8Acts 2:9.

9John Stewart, Nestorian Missionary Enterprise (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1928), xxvxxvii.

Foltz, 1.

10Foltz, 31-32.

11Ibid., 64-65.

Merchant Missionaries and the Day of Pentecost

The Parthian converts of Pentecost were the first of these Asian merchant missionaries.

Christianity began to spread among the Jewish diaspora in Asia. Luke recorded in Acts that the

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost, were among the first

converts to Christianity.8 John Stewart believed that these men and women were either Jews or

Jewish proselytes. These Asian converts were most likely merchants.9

Foltz argued that the Jews of the Persian diaspora turned to commerce for their livelihoods.

He wrote, “[They] set up networks with relatives or other Judeans in other parts of the Persian

Empire or elsewhere. . . . By the Parthian period, both Palestinian and Babylonian Jews were

involved in the silk trade of China . . . Because Jews were spread across a wide geographic area

spanning both the Parthian and the Roman lands, they were ideally situated to participate in trade

between the two empires.”10 Given that the Christian faith was spread among Jews first, and given

that the contacts that the Jews had with other peoples were essentially mercantile, Foltz later

reasoned, “it can safely be said that Christianity’s first link with the Silk Road was via the

Babylonian Jews.”11 As with the Nestorian merchant missionary, the Jewish convert to


12Foltz argued that their evangelism naturally followed their business. Their clients became

familiar with both their Christianity and their commodities. Foltz, 35. While Foltz’s comments are

beneficial for the present writer, he does take exception with other theses proposed by Foltz. For

example, Foltz proposed that Persian influences were present in Jewish postexilic scripture. He

argued that Ezekiel and Daniel borrowed their eschatologies from Persian beliefs. Foltz, 32.

13Per Beskow, “Mission, Trade and Emigration in the Second Century,” Svensk Exegetisk

Årsbok 35 (1970) : 108.

Christianity did not conceive of his business as a facade for his missionary activity. His livelihood

depended upon his business and not upon his evangelistic ministry.12

Merchant Missionaries and the Early Church

Per Beskow, writing in Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok, argued that Christian merchants continued

to be the primary reason for the expansion of the Church in the second century. He explained that

the spread of the Christian gospel was facilitated by a generally westward movement of

merchandise and the westward emigration of Eastern populations, the Jewish diaspora, and the

exchange of Christian slaves. “In both of these contexts,” he concluded, “Asia Minor and Syria

are of primary importance during the second century. . . . Asia Minor and Syria were immensely

rich and sent their merchants and ships around the Mediterranean with Oriental products.”

Beskow believed that, as incredibly as the thought may seem to the reader, merchant missionaries

from Asia may have founded and provided the majority membership of the church in Gaul.13

Eckhard Schnabel, in History of Early Christian Mission, demurred on Beskow’s insistence

that Christian traders and the commerce of Christian slaves were the only explanations for the

growth of the church in this period. Schnabel countered that Beskow based his reasoning uniquely

on the absence of historical testimony supporting other explanations, such as “the sending of


14Eckhard Schnabel, Paul and the Early Church, vol. 2, Early Christian Mission (Downers

Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 1555.

15Foltz, 62.

16Harris, 497.

missionaries to foreign regions.”14 If the merchant missionaries were not the only traveling

Christian evangelists publishing the gospel of Jesus Christ in other lands, they certainly played a

significant role as the church spread to the west and to the east.

Nestorian Merchant Missionaries

Like the Jews before them, Persians who had placed their faith in Christ, were merchants. The

close relationship between the business of Nestorian Christians and their missionary activity is

confirmed by the metaphorical meaning of “merchants.” Foltz noted that in Syriac, the language

of the Persians, the word for merchant, tgr’, was often used as a synonym for a Persian missionary.

A fourth century Syriac hymn included the following stanza:

Travel well girt like merchants,

That we may gain the world.

Convert men to me,

Fill creation with teaching.15

The clergy of the Nestorian church also could be found among traders of their day. Paula

Harris, who presented a thoroughly researched paper on the missionary heritage of the Nestorian

church at the 1999 World Evangelical Fellowship’s missiological meetings in Brazil, explained

that the Nestorian missionary model included both the professional missionary and the lay

missionary.16 One may conclude that the professional missionaries were fully supported by their

ministry activities. Stewart would not agree. He explained that the Nestorian church lacked the


17Stewart, 5.

18Mingana believed that Addai was Thaddaeus, one of Christ’s twelve disciples. Mingana, 8.

Moffett believed Addai was one of the Seventy in Lk 10:1-24. Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History

of Christianity in Asia, vol. 1, Beginnings to 1500 (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 33.

19Bosch did not include in his “Missionary Paradigm of the Eastern Church” the role played

by the merchant missionary. He accredited the spread of Christianity in Asia via Nestorian

missions to Nestorian “monasticism, theology, and mission.” David Bosch, Transforming

Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, Orbis Books: 1991), 204.

20Pierson, 675.

21Mingana, 39.

structure to provide for the material needs of its clergy. The Nestorian bishops supported

themselves as Paul did through his tentmaking activities. They were merchants, carpenters,

blacksmiths, and weavers. With humor, Stewart recalled how “sacerdotalists” objected that “the

merchant could with ease lay aside his calling and become a monk or presbyter, and vice versa.”17

According to Mingana, some of the original priests in Persia were ordained by one “Aggai, a

maker of silks, the disciple of Addai.”18 They were merchants from the start.19

Paul E. Pierson believed that these merchant missionaries, teamed with their monastic and

cleric counterparts, formed “one of the most passionately missionary branches of the church.”20

Mingana considered the Persians to be the most “virile element” of the Nestorian missionary

movement.21 These Christians had the character to persevere through difficulty, the training to

transmit the gospel message, and the social networks to encounter the men and women who had

not yet heard of the Savior from Nazareth. These missionaries took the gospel to the extremities

of Asia.


22Foltz, 12-13.

23Ibid., 68.

24Ibid., 47.

25Mingana, 7.

26Foltz, 15.

Sogdian Nestorian Merchant Missionaries

The Sogdians were the primary actors in this merchant missionary paradigm of the church in

Asia. Foltz considered them to be the middle-men of trade and ideas.22 “Sogdian merchants were

the real masters of the Silk Road, whoever the ephemeral powers of the time might be. Under the

rule of their fellow Iranian peoples, the Parthian and the Sasanians, Sogdian merchants moved

easily in the Iranian lands to the west, where some of them were won over to the Christian

message, just as other Sogdians, active in the former Kushan lands, had embraced Buddhism.”23

Admittedly the Sogdians did not persist in their Christian faith. They were attracted to

Manichaeism at the same time as Nestorian Chrisianity. Earlier they had been converts to

Buddhism. As Foltz related their shifting faith, he insinuated a naive attitude in the Sogdians

towards different faiths. Foltz allowed that the Sogdians never embraced Buddhism as a people,

while he insisted that they were the primary Buddhist messengers east of their land.24 If the

Sogdians adopted Christianity in the late second century, the time during which an ancient Syriac

document was written attesting to the presence of Christians among the Bactarians,25 their

Nestorian baptism came at least four hundred years after their encounter with Buddhism. They

remained a Christian people until the eighth century, when they turned to Islam.26 The Sogdians

could have been a Christian people for between five and six hundred years. While their later


27Ibid., 13.

28Ibid., 68. Syriac is often considered the language of the Nestorian church. Foltz explained

the difference between Syriac and Sogdian. Syriac served as the language of the priest and

Sogdian served as the language of the missionary.

abandonment of Christianity was complete, they were hardly flippant believers. Before their

conversion to Islam, the Sogdians, because of their trade relations, were well situated to carry the

Christian gospel along the trade routes of Asia.

The commerce of the Sogdians benefitted from a system of trails and roads which crisscrossed

Asia. This system of overland trade routes was later called the Silk Roads. These itineraries were

so denominated because of the predominance of the silk trade on these roads which connected

Rome and China. The Nestorians established their churches in towns that lined these roads.

While there is much to contrast between Western and Eastern missions, they shared one

common element: Antioch. Antioch was connected to the Roman Roads and the Silk Roads.

From Antioch, Paul traveled into Asia Minor or Europe by traveling on Roman Roads, or by

boarding a Roman ship. Nestorian missionaries, from Antioch, took the Silk Roads into Asia.

Foltz considered the Sogdians to be the most successful merchants of Asian trade and as such,

“the major link connecting East and West.”27 Their ability to transmit the story of Christ, while

they caravanned across Asia, was enhanced by their language, Sogdian. Sogdian was the Greek

language of Asia. As the lingua franca for trade relations, Sogdian was the language of choice for

the merchant missionaries as they traded their wares and communicated the gospel with their

clients and associates.28 The Sogdians also learned the languages of other Asian peoples as they

had opportunity to trade with them. Their language abilities enabled them to serve as interpreters

and translators. Sogdians were the primary translators of Buddhist, Christian, and Manichaeistic


29Foltz, 13. Foltz related how Nestorian missionaries of Persia taught the Turks the art of

writing. Foltz, 69.

30Adolf Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, trans. James

Moffatt (New York: Williams and Norgate, 1905), 294.

31Mingana, 5-6.

texts. Foltz asserted that Sogdian translators were behind the translations of religious texts “from

Indian Prakrits (vernacular dialects), Aramaic, or Parthian into Bactrian, Tokharian, Khotanese,

Turkish, or Chinese, either via Sogdian or directly.”29 These merchant missionaries were ideally

suited for cross-cultural ministry because of their language skills.

Training Nestorian Merchant Missionaries

Nestorian merchant missionaries benefitted equally from the training they received in

Nestorian monasteries. The Nestorians had two primary schools, one at Edessa and the other at

Arbel. Edessa’s importance to Nestorian missions is unquestionable. Adolf Harnack, in The

Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, described it as the headquarters of

Nestorian missions and the nucleus of Syrian Christianity in the third century. From Edessa,

Syrian Christian literature was disseminated. The Christian population even exceeded every other

city of its day prior to Constantine. But it was no more than “an oasis.” Harnack believed that

“round it swarmed the heathen.”30

East of the Tigris, Arbel was the second missionary center. It was the capital of the province

of Adiabene. Mingana located the origin of the church’s spread deeper into Asia at Arbel. He

proposed that the missionary significance of neither city paled in light of the other city.31

Nestorians were trained for three years in one of these schools, after which they departed to carry


32Stewart attested to the presence of “hundreds of monasteries in the land of Persia.”

Stewart, 46.

33Stewart, 37.

34Assemmani, Bibliotheca Orientalis 3, pt 2 : 941, quoted in Stewart, 39.

the message of Christ to the ends of the earth. Some established new monasteries in the lands of

their sojourn.32 The new monasteries became new Nestorian training centers.

These monasteries were the educational institutions for Nestorian children and youths. The

primary subject of these schools was the Scriptures. While these schools were tuition free, per se,

the parents were expected to provide a portion of the Nestorian monks’ compensation. The

students sought employment during their summer vacations to provide for themselves.33 Future

merchant missionaries were among the students in such schools. Aspiring merchants “were

expected to study the Psalms, the New Testament, and to attend courses of lectures before

entering on a business career.”34

Ascetic Nestorian Merchant Missionaries

As merchants, the Nestorian Christians sought to maintain lucrative businesses. The future of

their work and their own livelihoods depended upon profitable trades. Their desire for material

gain must have been counterbalanced by the ascetism of their school masters, the Nestorian

monks. Alphonse Mingana related the tale of the Bishop of Arran who was accompanied by four

presbyters and two laymen to the country of the Turks. They began their journey after the bishop

had received a commission in a vision to evangelize Byzantine prisoners. Their daily rations


35Mingana, “Early Spread of Christianity,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 9 : 303,

quoted in Stewart, 81-82.

36Foltz, 9.

37Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, vol. 1, Beginnings to 1500 (San

Francisco, CA: Harper, 1992), 77-78. Bosch also contrasted Nestorian missionary asceticism with

Egyptian isolated asceticism. Bosch, 204.

consisted of a loaf of bread and a jar of water for each.35 The merchants and missionaries who

traveled the roads of Asia had to be accustomed to surviving on such meager sustenance.

The merchants would join a caravan for the trip to distant markets. Caravan members enjoyed

a degree of safety due to the size of the traveling entourage and due to an eventual military escort.

The caravan’s professional guides knew the optimum routes for each journey.36 Caravans still did

not provide a trip of leisure. Merchant missionaries who were acquainted with the asceticism of a

Nestorian monk possessed the stamina to survive the journey.

Often one may associate isolation from the activities and cares of the world with the life of the

ascetic. If Samuel Hugh Moffett is correct, this impression originated from the reputation of the

Egyptian ascetic, not the Nestorian ascetic missionary. In contrast to the ascetic tradition of

Egypt, Moffett explained, “Syria . . . , with its travel and trading traditions, stressed mobility and

outreach. Its ascetics became wandering missionaries, healing the sick, feeding the poor, and

preaching the gospel as they moved from place to place.”37 Such missionaries brought the gospel

to the Asian peoples of their age.


38Mingana, 5.

39Foltz, 66-67.

40Abu Rayhan Biruni, Chronology of Ancient Nations, trans. E. Sachau (Lahore: Hijra

International, 1983), 282; quoted in Foltz, 67.

Nestorian Merchant Missionaries and Today’s

Unreached People Groups of Asia

Mingana argued that the Persian missionaries, many of whom were merchants, worked to

thoroughly convert the peoples they encountered. He wrote, “From the third century down to the

time of Chingis [sic] Khan, the activity of the East-Syrian and Persian converts to Christianity

slowly but surely worked to diminish the immense influence of the priests of the hundred and one

cults of Central Asia, the most important of whom were the mobeds of Zoroastrianism and the

wizards of Shamanism.”38 Foltz concurred that Christianity in Central Asia was “on the verge of

displacing Zoroastrianism, on the popular level.”39 A Muslim scholar of the eleventh century, Abu

Rayhan Biruni, wrote that “the majority of the inhabitants of Syria, Iraz, and Khurasan [were]

Nestorians.”40 The Nestorians, at least before their decline, would not blend elements of their

Christianity with those of another faith. When the Nestorians met these peoples, they sought to

win them to Christianity.

The Keraits

The ancestors of the Uighurs were one of the peoples among whom the Nestorians worked

when their church spread across Asia. They live today in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous

Region in Northwest China. The Nestorian missionaries, while working in Central Asia, worked

among the Turkic Kerait tribe, the ancestors of the Uighurs.


41This story is recorded in a 1009 C.E. letter written by a Nestorian metropolitan to the

Nestorian Patriarch, John. Mingana, 14-16. See also Foltz, 70.

42Moffett, 400.

43Pierson, 675.

In 1007 C.E., the ruler of the nomadic Keraits was hunting at a high altitude and was

surprised by a sudden snowstorm. He lost all hope of returning to his camp. While despairing, he

saw a vision of a saint, who said to him, “If you believe in Christ, I will lead you to the right

direction, and you will not die here.” He gave his allegiance to Christ. After regaining his camp,

he summoned the Nestorian merchants who were also in the camp, to seek their advice

concerning Christianity. They emphasized his need to be baptized and they gave him one of the

Gospels, which he read on a daily basis. They also taught him the Lord’s prayer. The Kerait chief

requested that a priest be sent to his tribe to baptize him and the two hundred thousand souls who

had followed him to faith in Christ.41 Moffett asserted that “during the twelfth and thirteenth

centuries the whole tribe was considered Christian.”42 Of the Keraits, Paul E. Pierson stated that

“in the eighth century their language was reduced to writing.” He does not say it explicitly, but

the scriptures may have been translated, knowing the practice of the Nestorians. Pierson goes on

to say that this “was passed to the Mongols.”43 He alluded certainly to the Kerait orthography,

and perhaps to the scriptures as well.

The Taklimakan Uighur and Lop Uighur

The Taklimakan Uighur and the Uighur Lop Nur are two other unreached people groups of

East Asia. They too were in contact with the Nestorians. The latter are descendants of the

“ancient Loulan people,” who lived at the Lake Lop Nur. When it dried up, they had to move to


44Paul Hattaway, Operation China: Introducing all the Peoples of China (Pasadena: William

Carey, 2000), 529.

45Ibid., 530.

46Ibid., 363, 564.

Miran. Their contact with the gospel was through the Nestorian missionaries who “established

churches in the villages along the Silk Road” between the eighth and thirteenth centuries.44 The

Taklimakan Uighur live today as a remote tribe in the Taklimakan Desert. Until 1990, when they

were “discovered,” they had lived in isolation for 350 years. Soon after their discovery, Nestorian

manuscripts were uncovered nearby in the Dunhuang Oasis. At some point the inhabitants of this

region, if not the ancestors of today’s Taklimakan Uighur, were in the proximity of Nestorian

missionaries. Today though, they are “the epitome of an unevangelized people group.”45

Other People Groups

Nestorian missionaries, whether lay or clergy, influenced other people groups who are

considered to be unreached today. The reader has already met the missionary band of a bishop,

four presbyters, and two laymen who subsisted on a loaf of bread and a jar of water each day and

preached the gospel to Byzantine prisoners, who were among the Turks. Nestorian missionaries

evangelized the Mongols, the You Tai, the Central Tibetans, and the Sarikoli Tajiks. The

Mongols at times were on the verge of embracing Christianity as a tribe. Nestorian missionaries

won many Mongol converts between the seventh and fourteenth centuries. You Tai are Chinese

Jews, who migrated to China between 500 and 1000 C.E. When Marco Polo passed through

China, he found them among Nestorian Christians.46 Concerning another group, the Nestorian

patriarch in Baghdad, Timothy (778-820), referred to the presence of Christians in Tibet and


47Arthur Christopher Moule and Paul Pelliot, Marco Polo: The Description of the World, 2

Vols. (London: Routledge, 1938), 143; quoted in Hattaway, Operation China, 511.

48Hattaway, 498.

49Mt 28:19.

expressed his willingness to send a missionary to them.47 And finally, today’s Sarikoli Tajiks are

descendants of the Persians. Before the arrival of Islam in the tenth century, most Persians were

Christians.48 Are Sarikoli Tajiks the sons and daughters of these missionaries who originally

brought the gospel to the peoples of Asia?

Nestorian Merchant Missionaries and Post-Christian Peoples

One result of recognizing the significance of the work of Nestorian missionaries in Asia,

whether they were clergy or merchants, is that the church of today is returning to where it was

once planted. Based on the preceding examples of peoples reached by the Nestorians, these

peoples are post-Christian, even if ancient post-Christian. The criteria of apocalyptic group

representation is met, as is the criteria of group accountability.

The Criteria for Missions to Unreached People Groups

Paul Hattaway used these two criteria as he presented a case for the nearly 500 unreached

people groups that he catalogued in Operation China. He first established that when Christ

commanded the disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations,”49 the Lord envisioned the

nations to be the ethnolinguistic people groups of the world. Hattaway then considered the scene


50Rev. 5:9, 7:9. While conference participants and the writer discussed the themes raised in

this paper at the South Central Regional meeting of the EMS in New Orleans, March 12, 2005,

Mike Pocock astutely observed that in Rev. 7:9 the apocalyptic seer referred to the redeemed

representatives of the world’s people groups who came “out of the great tribulation.” The writer

afterwards added the reference to Rev. 5:9, for this multitude “from every tribe and language and

people and nation” is the universal collective of men and women whom the Lamb purchased with

his blood.

51Hattaway, 6.

52Mt 24:14.

53Hattaway, 6.

in Revelation of a multitude present before the throne of Christ from “every tribe, tongue, and

nation.”50 He stated:

If the ultimate aim of God is to redeem individuals from among every ethnic and linguistic

representation of humankind on the earth, then everything must be done to learn who those

people are so that the church may do everything in their power to see them won for Christ.

This appears to be of such importance in the Scriptures that the final sign of the imminent

Second Coming of Christ is linked to the completion of this task: “And this gospel of the

Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations (ethnae), and then

the end will come.51

Hattaway began with the necessity that the gospel be announced, so as to insure the

comprehensive representation of all peoples before the throne of Christ. He established next the

accountability criteria for the preaching of the kingdom. After the gospel has been preached as a

testimony to an ethnolinguistic people group, the group becomes responsible for how it responds

to the gospel.52 He concluded, “In places like China there are whole races of people who have

never had the opportunity to hear the gospel. Not only are these lost individuals, but they are lost

ethnic representations of humankind.”53

Hattaway pled with Christians to recognize the value that each of these peoples has in “God’s

sight.” And rightly so. However, because of what has now been demonstrated, to say that some of


these ethnic groups are without representation before the throne of God is difficult to defend. For

one, a number of these groups were reached at some point in time. Second, the criteria of

accountability also has been fulfilled as the gospel was preached “as a testimony” to some of these

groups, or at least to their ancestors.

Ancient and Recent Post-Christian Peoples

Having recognized the contribution made by the Nestorian merchant missionaries to insure the

representation of the peoples of Asia before Christ’s throne and their accountability for the

gospel, the first needed adjustment is with terminology. Some of these peoples must no longer be

considered pre-Christian, at least based on how these passages in Matthew have been understood

and how “nation” has been defined. According to this understanding, some of the groups must at

least be seen as ancient post-Christian. The church is now going back to this continent to

evangelize these groups again because of how precious they are in the “sight of God,” to borrow

Hattaway’s words.

Denominating these groups as ancient post-Christian will enable a more instructive

comparison to be made with the recent post-Christian people of the West. Christianity in a

civilization once known as Christendom is in the process of waning, as happened to the Nestorian

Church in Asia. Perhaps this deChristianization is happening for similar reasons. Future study

based on a recognition of the similarities between the two situations will facilitate a better

understanding of the scriptural mandate for missions on one hand, and a more realistic

understanding of the history of the expansion of Christianity on the other. Post-Christian peoples

must be understood in light of the scriptures. What missionary mandate remains for them?



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