A History of Christianity (2009–…): Season 1, Episode 1 - The First Christianity - full transcript

When I was a small boy,

my parents used to drive me
round historic churches

searching out
whatever looked interesting or odd.

But soon they realised that
they had created a monster.

The history of the Christian Church
became my life's work.

For me, no other subject
can rival its scale and drama.

For 2,000 years Christianity has been

one of the great players
in world history.

Inspiring faith
but also squalid politics.

It is an epic story starring a cast
of extraordinary people,

from Jesus himself
and the first apostles,

to empresses, kings and popes.

From reformers
and champions of human conscience

to crusaders and sadists.

Religious belief
can transform us for good or ill

It has brought human beings
to acts of criminal folly

as well as the highest achievements
of goodness and creativity.

I will tell the story of both extremes.

Christianity has survived
persecution, splits,

wars of religion, mockery, hatred.

Today there are two billion Christians,
a third of humanity.

Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox,

Pentecostal and many more.

Deep down, the Christian faith
boasts a shared core.

But what is it?

In modern Europe,
Christianity seems threatened

by the apathy of a secular society.

Will it survive? Can it?

I'm chasing the story of Christianity
across the globe,

coming face to face with people
who have got their own take

on this 2,000-year-old adventure.

And where better to start

than in the city which first knew
Jesus the Christ, Jerusalem.

Ripped By mstoll


I'm in Jerusalem for a very good reason.

But it's probably not what you think.

We've all heard
something of the Christian story.

Jesus, the wandering Jewish teacher
crucified by the Romans.

Paul, who had hunted down Christians

until, on the road to Damascus,
he experienced a blinding vision

of Jesus Christ,
resurrected from the dead.

Paul's newfound zeal focused on
people beyond the Jews, Gentiles.

It took him far from Jerusalem to Rome,

and it reshaped
not just the faith of Christ

but in the end,
all Western civilisation.

That's the familiar story
of the origins of Christianity.

But I'm here in Jerusalem because
I want to look for something else.

You can find clues here
in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The church is said to have been built
where Jesus was crucified and buried.


At its heart
is what's believed to be his tomb.

Somehow, the followers of Jesus
became convinced

that he rose from here to new life.

The belief that Jesus can overcome death
is the most difficult

and troubling affirmation
of the Christian faith.

Over 20 centuries
it's made Christians act in

heroic, joyful, beautiful,
terrible ways.

It's made this
one of the holiest sites on earth.

You see, at heart,
Christianity is a personality cult.

Its core is the unprecedented idea
that God became human,

not in a pharaoh, a king
or even an emperor,

but in a humble peasant from Galilee.

And the conviction that you can
meet Jesus, the son of God,

and transform your life,
is a compelling message.

It's what drove
Christianity's relentless expansion.

But the church
built around the tomb of Jesus

is also the starting point
for a forgotten story,

a story that may overturn your
preconceptions about early Christianity.

Pride of place in this building
goes to two churches.

This chapel belongs to
the Greek Orthodox Church.

Orthodoxy is a large part
of the Christian story.


The other church
with a strong presence here

is actually the biggest
in the modern world, Catholicism.


Orthodoxy and Catholicism
dominated Christianity in Europe,

in the West, for its first 1,500 years.

But as you walk around
the edges of the church,

you can't fail to notice
other curious little chapels.

They're not Western or European,
they're Middle Eastern or African.

And they tell a very different story
about the origins of Christianity.


Around the back of Christ's tomb
is Egypt's Coptic church.

There are plenty of other churches
represented here,

but you need to know where to look.

Now, this is the chapel
of the Syriac Orthodox Church

which the Greek Orthodox, of course,
would call unorthodox.


Back outside and through
a side door leading up to the roof,

you'll find
the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Many versions of Christian history
would make this unorthodox, too.

And yet it's far older than
better known versions of Christianity,

like Protestantism.

It's easy for tourists

to dismiss these ancient churches
as quaint, irrelevant even.

But that would be a big mistake.

These chapels contain vital clues
to the story I want to tell

Because the origins of
the Christian faith are not in the West,

but here in these ancient churches
of the East.

For centuries,
Christianity flourished in the East.

And indeed at one point
it was poised to triumph in Asia,

maybe even in China.

The headquarters of Christianity

might well have been Baghdad
rather than Rome.

And if that had happened,

Western Christianity would have been
very different.

I will trace that huge voyage,

from Jerusalem to Syria,

through Central Asia

to the far reaches
of the Asian continent

In my journey I'll discover
how the Christian faith survived

worlds away from Jerusalem.

I'm not giving you
a history of Christian theology,

though I won't be afraid to plunge
you into many ancient arguments

about Christian faith.

The main character here
is not Jesus or the gospels.

It is, in fact, the church,

the institution of Christian faith
that has fought its way through history.

It all started here in Jerusalem

when the first followers of Jesus
formed a Jewish Christian church.

It was led by James,

whom the gospels call
the brother of Jesus.

Here in the Old City
is the Armenian Cathedral of St James.

His tomb is said to lie
below the High Altar.

The Jerusalem church
probably would have remained

the headquarters of a single,
unified Christianity.

But in the year 70 disaster struck.

A rebellion of Jews against the Romans
ended in a siege of Jerusalem.

As troops finally broke into the city,
the temple went up in flames.

Today its Western Wall
is all that remains.

Christians quit the city
before the siege.

Now the fledgling faith would have
to survive outside its Jewish homeland.

But could it adapt?

That's the big test
facing any world religion.

With Jerusalem gone,
where would Gentile Christians look now?

Well, you might think
obviously west to Rome,

because that's where Paul had gone.

But at the time it would not have
seemed obvious at all.

Paul had been killed in Rome,
so had the Apostle Peter.

What if you take the other road
out of Jerusalem, east?

Today, this is Urfa,
in southeast Turkey.

In the first century
it was called Edessa,

capital of a small kingdom,

and wealthy because it controlled
part of the main trade route East.

Edessa is special
because its ruler, King Abgar,

set an important precedent here.

He chose to show
his personal devotion to Jesus

by adopting Christianity as
the kingdom's official state religion,

at least a hundred years
before the Romans did.

For the last 17 centuries,

Christianity has been repeatedly linked
with the state.

So, in the United Kingdom,

the monarch is still supreme governor
of the Church of England.

And this is where it all started,

in the ancient
Eastern Christian kingdom of Edessa.

And Edessa pioneered something else

that has become
inseparable from Christianity.


Church music.

Christian Edessa
has long since disappeared.

After the First World War
it became a community in exile,

over the border in neighbouring Syria.

This is the only surviving descendent
of that ancient church.


But its liturgical chant is still based
on the distinctive tradition of Edessa.

These hymns are derived from the poetry

of the great fourth century
Syrian theologian, St Ephraem.

And he was building on an even
earlier tradition from these lands,

echoing the music of the Roman Empire.


I found that service very touching
because what we were hearing

was the ghost of the music of
the streets and market places,

seized by the church,
turned into psalms and hymns,

taken across the western Mediterranean,

turned into the music
of the whole church.

Latin Gregorian chant,
Johann Sebastian Bach,

even the tambourines and guitars
of the Pentecostals.

All come from here.

But at the start of the 4th century,

hymn singing would have been the
last thing on the minds of Christians

in the western half of the Roman Empire.

In the West, most Christians wouldn't be
singing the public praises of God

because it was too dangerous.

Successive Roman Emperors from
Nero onwards persecuted Christianity.

They hated it. And I expect that most
Romans would have agreed with them.

In the early 4th century,
a betting man might have put his money

on Christianity becoming
a major religion here in the East.

But then something completely
unexpected happened in the West.

A new Roman Emperor, Constantine,
made Christianity his own.

Out went the old gods and goddesses
of pagan Rome,

in came the one God of the Christians.

It was a turning point
in the history of the Christian faith.

It was more than 100 years
after the King of Edessa

had made Christianity
his official religion.

But to be the state religion
of a whole empire

was something else altogether.

The ability to reinvent itself would
become a hallmark of Christianity.

But this was
the greatest reinvention of them all.

It meant an end to persecution,
it brought power and wealth.

It gave the Christian faith the chance
of becoming a universal religion.

From this moment,
a church of the Roman Empire emerged.

In theory, it embraced Christians in
the Eastern Empire as well as the West.

But in the East, many Christians
were unimpressed by the new alliance,

even hostile.

At stake were fundamental disagreements

about the direction
the faith should take.

Jesus had told people to abandon wealth,
not to ally with the rich and powerful.

Remember his joke about a rich man
wanting to enter the kingdom of heaven

was like a camel trying to get
through the eye of a needle?

Well some Christians actually listened
to what Jesus had said.

It was Eastern Christians here in Syria
who led the way,

showing Western Christianity
a pattern for spiritual life.

We call this pattern monasticism,

a way of life
involving isolation from the world,

austerity and suffering.

In the north of Syria
there is one of the oddest souvenirs

of the new religious movement
in Eastern Christianity.

For almost 40 years
a holy man called St Simeon

lived on top of a stone column.

He's now known as a pillar saint,
or stylite.

I am actually really excited to be here

because I first saw a picture of this
when I was eight

and I never thought I'd come here.
And now I am, I'm here.

And there it is,
the stump of his pillar.

Among all the other pillars you can see,

that's the thing which looks shapeless.

You've got to imagine this stump
30-foot-high or whatever it was.

Very strange sight indeed.
It's still pretty strange.

Crowds came to see
St Simeon sitting on his pillar.

The church was built around it
after his death.

And it's pilgrims
who made the pillar look so strange.

In their search for healing souvenirs,
they whittled it down

until it looks like
a well-sucked holy lollipop.

St Simeon is the most famous
of many Syrian hermits

who tried to come closer to God
by punishing their bodies.

For them suffering was
the road to salvation,

and they tried to
inspire others to follow.

According to the Syrian enthusiast
for St Simeon's Church I met,

this approach set Eastern Christians
apart from the West.

Saint Simeon here, he was on
the crossing of two main roads

between Aleppo and Antioch,
between Aparmea and Syrius,

so that was a crossing where many people

used to pass with their caravan
or whatever.

That's interesting because
the stereotype in Europe of the hermit

is someone who goes away from the world.

Yet this man is right in
the middle of things, isn't he?

Yeah, therefore, as you said,
when you see the man as a stylite,

vertical connection,
he is between the land and God.

- (CHUCKLES) He is like a lighthouse.
- Exactly.

Here is a man who's suffered more
than most people in his life.

What is it that makes him
want to suffer?

Christians at the beginning
of Christianity here,

they were thinking
we are passing by in this life.

We should suffer.
This is a valley of the tears,

our day will be in the next life
where we will see God.

We will be in heaven, in paradise.

We should suffer here
to deserve the other one.

MacCULLOCH: A clear divide was growing
between East and West.

Even as the Roman Emperor was making
Christianity powerful and wealthy,

here on its eastern borders
many preferred a faith

which denied
the temptations of the world.

Some started to gather in communities

where they could follow God
in purity and simplicity.

They created the very first monasteries.

The new institution of monastic life
eventually reshaped Christianity

when the Western Roman Empire
fell apart.

Monks turned their holiness into power.

And power is always a problem
for the Church.

People want it,
and they'll fight to get it.

And their fight gets mixed up
with what they believe about God.

Constantine may well have thought

that Christianity would
reunite his vast empire.

In fact, the opposite happened.
It deepened existing divisions.

Constantine presided over four
rival centres of Christian authority.

Antioch, in modern day Turkey,
was the main focus in the East.

Further south was Alexandria in Egypt

The Bishop of Rome was the Pope,

honoured in the West
as successor to the Apostle Peter.

And trying to mediate
between these rival centres

was Constantine's new capital.

Constantinople, present day Istanbul

From the beginning, Christians had
argued over passionately held beliefs.

But from here in his new capital,
the Emperor watched in horror

as the unity of the faith
was tested to its limits.

Matters came to a head over a question
at the heart of the Christian faith.

Who exactly was Jesus
and what was his relationship to God?

Christians believe that
God is all powerful,

the creator of the universe.
And Jesus is the son of God,

but he's also a flesh-and-blood man
who died on the cross.

Now, a man who died on a cross

surely can't be the same
as the creator of the universe.

How then are they both the one God?

According to a thoughtful
but maverick Egyptian priest,

Jesus was not the same as God.

The priest's name was Arius.

He claimed that it was impossible
for God, who is perfect and indivisible,

to have created the human being, Jesus,
out of himself.

But hang on.
If Jesus Christ is not fully God,

then is his death on the cross
enough to save you from your sins

and get you to heaven?

If you care about the afterlife,
and they did,

that's the biggest question you can ask.

The power of Christian belief

lay in its claim to wipe away
all the misery that humans feel

about sin and death,
our guilt and shame.

Christ died to give us the chance
to have an infinitely better life.

Arius' view could be seen
to undermine all this.

And so he was condemned.

Yet the fact was

many Christians had said the same
over the previous three centuries,

here on the shores of the Bosphorus
as much as anywhere else.

But Constantine
couldn't allow this divisive idea

to split the Church
and in the process his empire.

He had to put a stop to it

Just a few hours out of Istanbul

is one of the most important sites
in Christianity's turbulent history.

Bishops from across the Empire
were summoned to solve the crisis

in an imperial palace now thought to be
submerged beneath this lake.

Today the town here is called Iznik.

Back in the 4th century
it was the city of Nicaea,

the setting for the famous
Council of Nicaea.

There had been church councils before

but this was the first held
in the presence of an emperor.

And it was Constantine,
who proposed the vital statement

which he hoped would send
everyone home satisfied.

The phrase was that Jesus was

"Of one substance" with the Father.
In Greek, that's homoousios.


After many more arguments
over the next half century,

this phrase stayed at the heart

of one of the most important
Christian texts of all time.


We call it the Nicene Creed,

and it's still recited in everyday
worship throughout the Christian world.

It states that God is equally

the Father, Jesus the Son
and the Holy Spirit

They are three in one.

The Trinity.

The Emperor must have
breathed a sigh of relief.

Emperors longed for unity.

Inconveniently for them, Christians
repeatedly valued truth rather more.

A hundred years later, in 428,
a clever but tactless scholar

was appointed the new bishop
of Constantinople, Nestorius.

Bishop Nestorius wasted little time
in plunging the Church

into a fresh quarrel
about the nature of Jesus.

It would end the unity of the Church
once and for all, and in the process

consolidate Eastern Christianity
as a distinct and formidable force.

Now, I'll try to get to the heart

of what might seem
a very technical argument.

After Nicaea, we know that Jesus Christ
is of one substance with the Father,

so he's divine.

But he's also a man. So he's human.

He has two natures but he's one person.

How does that actually work?

Nestorius understood
the two natures in Christ

as being like oil and water
contained in a glass.

Although they are in the same container,
they remain quite separate.

So in Christ there are two separate
natures, human and divine.

It seemed a neat and satisfying formula,

especially for Christians
seeking salvation.

If Jesus was fully human,
people could identify with him.

And if he was fully divine,
he could grant the gift of eternal life.

But many thought it too neat.

The Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt,
called Cyril, was appalled.

Separating out the two natures of Jesus
tore Christ in two.

Imagine a glass
containing water and wine.

They mix indivisibly.

So, Cyril argued, it is with Christ,

his human and divine natures
come together as one.

Cyril's followers
squared up to Nestorius.

This really was a fight to the death,

because understanding
exactly how Jesus was God

explained how he was powerful enough
to save you from Hell.

At first Cyril seemed to have
the upper hand.

He had Nestorius
hounded out of Constantinople

and banished to
a remote Egyptian prison.

But Nestorius' supporters remained.

And so once again
a Roman emperor was left

fearing that his state would fracture.

He had to call yet more councils.

Eventually, in 451
the bishops of the Empire

gathered just across
the straits from Constantinople

for another landmark council
in Church history.

The Council of Chalcedon met to define
the future of Christian Faith.

The Council met just over there.

It tried to do what all Emperors want,

to sign up everyone to
a middle-of-the-road settlement.

When you do that it always helps
to have a few troops around.

So, the Council decreed a compromise.

In essence it backed Nestorius'
oil and water emphasis,

that whilst here on earth, Christ,
the divine and human being was, quote,

"Recognised in two natures,
without confusion, without change."

But in a nod to Cyril's followers,
it straight away added,

"Without division, without separation."
End quote.

And that compromise

is how the Churches which descend from
the Emperor's Christianity,

the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox

have understood
the mystery of Jesus ever since.

But frankly it was a fairly shabby deal
that left plenty of people unhappy.

Cyril's supporters were naturally angry.

But the followers of Nestorius
felt marginalised and insulted, too.

Nestorius had died a heretic in exile.

And even though Chalcedon used some of
his theological language,

it did nothing to restore
his reputation.

The losers of the Council of Chalcedon
refused to fall into line.

It was a watershed.

Imperial and non-imperial Christianity
would never be reconciled.

Instead, something new happened.

The church split for the first time,

something that would happen
many more times in its history.

The imperial Church now found itself
focused solely on the Mediterranean.

It had no choice.

Eastern Christians were not going to be
pushed around by the Emperor.

But unlike their Western cousins,
Christians in the East

would now have to survive in the midst
of hostile and alien religions

without the backing of an emperor.

You might think it would be
the end of them.

But in any religion,
apparent misfortune can be a spur.

Even stimulate expansion.

For Eastern Christians this was
the start of a great adventure,

to take what they believed
was the true and first Christianity

to the far ends of Asia.


In the 6th century, on the Eastern
fringes of the Roman Empire,

Syria was emerging as an alternative
Christian centre of gravity to the West.



Priests sympathetic to
Cyril of Alexandria's

mixed water-and-wine view of Christ
were secretly consecrated as bishops.

A new Eastern church was born.

It's now called
the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Today its priests are trained at
its headquarters just outside Damascus.

The seminary offers a glimpse of what
imperial Western Christianity

might have looked like if Chalcedon
had chosen in favour of Cyril



Instead of the rational,
tidy Christianity of the West,

this is a faith
which glories in mystery.

It pays meticulous attention to ritual

In particular,
to the quality of the performance.


One of the tutors at the seminary,
Father Fady,

suggested to me Eastern Christianity

is more in touch with its origins
than the West.

What do you think is lacking
in the Western church tradition?

Well you find the liturgy in the East
to be so much richer in symbolism.

The way people communicate is not only
through words but through gestures,

through the way, you know,
the person is expressing himself

through his body, or voice,
tune or whatever.

Now, this is very different from how
Western spirituality has developed,

which was always through philosophy.

So you always have theologians
who are philosophers.

But in the East, you always have
theologians who are either poets

or maybe icon drawers, or whatever.


MacCULLOCH: All Christian worship
is drama, full of sign and symbol

But what Father Fady is claiming

is that Eastern Christianity has made
a priority of passing down gestures

which take you right back
to the beginnings of the Church.


When the priest lifts
the communion bread, for example,

it symbolises Jesus
rising from the dead.

You could say that the most important
assertion of the Syriac Orthodox Church

is its claim to authenticity.


Key sections of this service are in
the ancient language called Syriac

It's a dialect of Aramaic,
the actual language which Jesus spoke.


What makes me so enthusiastic about
my church is that the church itself

speaks the language of Christ.

So, if you want to read the history
of the church

or the spirituality of the church,

you really need Syriac in order to
access all the manuscripts

and the writings of the early church.


MacCULLOCH: Here on the fringes
of the Roman Empire

was a Christianity now fully in charge
of its own destiny.

These Syrian Christians
honoured the memory of Cyril,

and other Christians felt the same way.

Go to the ancient Church of Egypt,
the Copts,

or the ancient Church of Ethiopia,

and you'll find that they've not yet
forgiven the Roman Emperor

for the Council of Chalcedon.


But just as confidence was growing
among Eastern Christians,

in the 7th century
the whole of Christianity,

East and West, found itself in danger.

It had to face up to a rival,
a new militant faith,


Followers of the Prophet Muhammad

began their push out from
the Arabian peninsula in 632,

conquering much of the known world
with astonishing speed.

Islam brought huge damage
to imperial Christianity.

As it traveled west,

it wiped out much of the southern
provinces of the old Roman Empire.

It reached across north Africa
into Spain.

And into Sicily and Italy.

It even threatened
mighty Constantinople.

That fight between imperial Christianity
and Islam for the soul of Europe

lasted centuries.

But the conflict also had
an eastern front


This is one of the world's
oldest mosques,

the Great Umayad Mosque.

It was built at the heart
of a new Muslim Empire

ruled by the Umayad Dynasty
from here in Damascus.

Crude modern versions of history

see the coming of Islam
as a "clash of civilisations",

in which Islam quickly wiped out
Eastern Christianity.

But the truth is rather different.

Here there was more of
an encounter of civilisations.

Much like the destruction of Jerusalem
in the first century,

the arrival of Islam was indeed
a crisis point for Christians.

But Christianity proved it could meet
this new challenge to its survival.


The Umayads didn't have
the resources or the inclination

to force conversion on Christians.

In fact, they did deals
with local leaders.

Christians did become
second class citizens,

and later rulers even forced Christians
to wear distinctive yellow clothing.

Much later, European Christians
would do that to Jews.

Despite all that, there is evidence
that Christianity did influence Islam.

MacCULLOCH: Christianity played a part
in shaping Muslim worship.

It even affected its doctrine.

The Umayad Mosque stands on
the site of a Christian church

and still contains a shrine said to be
the tomb of John the Baptist.

This Christian saint is honoured
as a prophet in Islam.

But perhaps most remarkable

is the likelihood that the act of
prostration during Muslim prayer

was originally inspired by
eastern Christian tradition.

I discussed all this with
Islamic scholar and Syrian politician

Mouhammad Habash.

According to our faith in Islam,
we believe all prophets,

as prophet of God
and as messengers of God,

- but Jesus Christ has more.
- Uh-huh.

In our faith, we believe him
as a spirit of God

and we believe he is coming back
exactly in this white minaret.

Oh, this white minaret.

HABASH: This white minaret.
Its name, Jesus minaret.

Because Prophet Muhammad, he said,

"By God, Jesus Christ is
coming back to you

"exactly in white minaret in Damascus."

MacCULLOCH: And here we are
in this great courtyard

and it's really quite natural
to take our shoes off,

but I've also seen the same thing
in the sanctuary of a Christian church

during the Holy Eucharist.

So, do you think it's possible
that such customs

are actually borrowed by Islam
in its first days from Christianity?

My colleagues in parliament,
he mentioned this one,

to leave off your shoes and how to pray.

He said in all the churches,
in all Christian sects,

you can find the same praying as Islam
five times every day,

and you can find people who pray
on the land, not on church.

Believe me, there is more
in common than you think

between Islam and Christianity.


MacCULLOCH: As Christians here learned
how to live side by side with Islam,

one group of Eastern Christians

was about to get an unexpected
new lease of life.

Remember Nestorius,

the bishop who won the day at Chalcedon,
but still came off the loser?

Well, adapting to the challenge of Islam

provided just the spur
his followers needed

to embark on their own
great Christian venture in the East.

Nestorius died in exile in Egypt,

but his supporters helped build
a church independent of both

Imperial Christianity
and the Syriac Orthodox Church.

They based their headquarters
further east in modern Iraq.

They called themselves, appropriately,
the Church of the East.



This is one of the church's
Iraqi congregations.

It's had a presence in what is now Iraq
for over 1,500 years.

Only recent wars have forced
this congregation to worship in exile

across the Syrian border.

It's naturally proud
of its ancient lineage.

But in fact it has a much
bigger significance

in the history of Christianity.

That's because these Eastern Christians
persuaded their Muslim rulers

that they had unique skills to offer.

Skills gained during the time they spent
arguing about the nature of Christ.


They turned Greek theology,
literature and philosophy

into their native Syriac
to argue the case.

They became the think tank
of the Middle East.


MacCULLOCH: So when the new
Muslim Empire wanted to translate

Greek science and philosophy
into Arabic,

it was to the ancestors of these
Christians that it naturally turned.

We in the West owe
the Church of the East a huge debt.

Much of what we know
about Greek learning,

from medicine to astronomy and even the
system of Arabic numerals in use today,

all come to us courtesy o f
those Christian translators.


The value of the scholars
to their Muslim rulers

ensured that the church thrived.

Within 200 years of the rise of Islam,

Patriarch Timothy 1
of the Church of the East

presided from the Avbasid
capital of Baghdad

over an area that extended from
Jerusalem to Central Asia,

even to India, which was home
to a thriving church.

Its descendants are still there.

Everywhere in this vast area,

Timothy was known by the ancient Syriac
title of respect for a religious leader,


Maybe a quarter of all Christians saw
Mar Timothy as their spiritual leader,

probably as many as the bishop
who was pope in Rome.

So here in Syria and Central Asia
Christianity had passed a crucial test.

In contrast to the West, it was unable
to rely on military strength

and so had learned to make the most
of persuasion, negotiation.

But Christianity is at heart
a missionary faith.

And in the Avbasid Empire
conversion from Islam was forbidden.

So the Eastern Church had to find
other ways to expand.

The solution was as radical

as the later expansion of
Western Christianity in the Americas.

The Church of the Middle East
decided to spread to the Far East.

MacCULLOCH: Christianity is now
so identified with the West

that we've forgotten that long ago
the belief that God became man in Jesus

found fertile ground in the Far East.

But that's exactly what happened
in seventh century China.

And we're beginning to understand

how Christianity may have managed
to survive in such an alien culture.

I met Martin Palmer,
a writer on early Chinese Christianity,

who believes he's found the smoking gun,

the missing evidence from
the Christian presence in China

in the seventh century.

That's around the same time

as Christianity was beginning to convert
Anglo Sax ons in England.

Martin came across a map of
modern day Shaanxi Province,

where there was thought to be
a long lost seventh century

Christian monastery, called Da Qin.

But to find it,

he needed to pinpoint an identifiable
traditional Chinese landmark.

was a very faded pencil map,

so I got out a huge magnifying glass,
put a whopping great light on it,

looked at this, read the characters
and then suddenly realising

- I knew exactly where it was.
- MacCULLOCH: Wow.

Because the next temple up on this map

was Lao Guan Dai.

- And that's the temple over there.
- Okay.

MARTIN: Right on that hill,
that wooded hill over there.

MacCULLOCH: Lao Guan Dai
was the most important Daoist Temple

in Tang Dynasty China.

And now on a hillside,
just across from that temple,

Martin was looking for evidence
of a Christian monastery.

The monastery seemed to have a tall,
typically Chinese feature, a pagoda.

And that's exactly what Martin found
only a mile away.

It was in a terrible state then.

Now the Chinese have given it
a good deal of TLC,

because it is
such an extraordinary survival.

MARTIN: We arrived to find
a 115-year-old nun.

I know this is beginning to sound
like Indiana Jones,

but she made tea for us
and I was desperately looking to see

if I could find something
with a cross on it.

So I went up the hill
just to look down on it,

and that's when I realised
this was a Christian site.

But how?

All Daoist, Buddhist and Confucianist
temples face south,

that's the geometric, the feng shui
direction of Chinese temples.

- Yep.
- All historical Christian churches

- face east, as you know...
- Yep,

- east-west, yep.
...better than anybody else.

This terrace cut into the side
of the hill runs east, west.

So I ran down the hill going,

"Yes, yes, I know it's true,
I know it's true!"

And, um, the Buddhist nun
kind of drew herself up

to her full height of five feet
and stared me in the knee caps

and went, "What's going on?"

So I said, "Well, we think that this
might once upon a time have been

"a very ancient Christian church."

And she kind of drew herself up
even more and she went,

"Well, of course it was, it was the most
famous Christian church in China.

"Didn't you know that?"


There are moments, Diarmaid,
when you just sort of think,

"Thank you, God!"


MacCULLOCH: The Christian monastery

seems to have adopted
typical Chinese architecture.

Inside the building
there are sculptures,

which Martin believes survive
from the pagoda's Christian days.

But when we tried to take a look,
we hit a problem.


Today the ground floor of the pagoda
is a Buddhist temple.

And some locals have had enough of
world interest in the building

as an historical Christian site.


In spite of lengthy negotiations,
I was not going to get inside.

I've a certain sympathy
for the angry villagers.

When my sort o f
Western Christian culture

bludgeoned its way by force
into China in the 19th century,

it humiliated the Chinese.

And they've not forgotten that

But when long before, the Church
of the East arrived on the scene,

it was very different

And Martin was keen to show me
more about the differences.

An hour's drive away, is the capital of
the Tang Dynasty, Chang'an,

modern day Xi'an.

It is home to a remarkable museum

of ancient stone-carved records
known as stelae.

The so-called Forest of Stelae
is really an ancient library

of classic Confucian writings,
Chinese poetry and history.

And there are other stelae gathered
from around this imperial capital

And one of these great stones
is quite breathtaking

when you realise what it is.

Nothing less than
an ancient commemoration

of the Church of the East in China,
dating back to 781.

And this is it.
This is the Da Qin stone.

There's the words "Da Qin".

Now, Da Qin means
"a big empire in the West".

The Chinese knew that there was
a whopping great empire,

somewhere to the west.

Now, whether they were referring to Rome

or the Byzantine Empire or
the Syrian Empire, we're not quite sure,

but what they're saying is,
"Well, this is the Western Empire's

"religion of brightness."

There's the word for religion,
there's brightness.

And that was the name that the Chinese
Christians gave to their own religion.

- Right.
- The religion of light.

But can I just show you one other thing
which will link you back to Syria,

- where you've just been...
- Right.

...with China. Because round here...

On the walls here,
can you see how we've got

- some Syriac texts?
- MacCULLOCH: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: And then underneath
the Chinese names.


And each one of the Chinese names
starts with the same character,

and that's the character for "Mar",

- "Oh, Priest!"
- (CHUCKLING) Exactly.

Yes, yes. Now, what strikes me
standing by all these great stones

is that this Christian one
is just like all the others.

Exactly, exactly.
So here we are in the year 781,

in the greatest empire, in the greatest
period of Chinese civilisation

that there has ever been,

and we have Christianity coming
proud of its roots,

but also able to mix and move amongst
the Chinese with great ease.

MacCULLOCH: Indeed, wherever they went,
Eastern Christians seemed to find

sympathy in societies
very different from theirs.

So the mystery is,
what happened to the Church of the East?

We know that in the ninth century,

a new Chinese emperor
turned against all foreign religion.

The Church seemed to disappear.

This was the examination hall up here,
but it also had a religious function...

But Martin has an intriguing theory
that rather than vanish,

the Church may have gone underground.

We have a record, Marco Polo,
who comes in the late 13th century,

loathed the Church of the East,
he was a good Catholic, hated them.


He says that 700,000
hidden Christians re-emerged.

Now, he probably underestimates...

- Yeah.
...because he didn't like them.

But he's talking a huge number,
that's the main thing.

- Huge number, huge number.
- So if Chinese people

were prepared to put that much
effort into Christianity,

what is it that has made
Christianity Chinese?

Well, I think
whereas the Church in the West,

once it had conquered the Roman Empire,
doesn't meet another literate culture

other than Islam,
with which it has a few problems

until the 15th century,

the Church of the East is engaging with

the greatest intellectual centres
the world has.

And therefore the kind of Christianity
they developed

was a Christianity of dialogue,
not of conquest.

They never... Never was
the Church of the East imperial.

It was a Church of merchants,
not of the military.

- Yeah.
- And that is a huge difference

because merchants like
to arrive at a compromise.

MacCULLOCH: Eastern Christianity's
ability to adapt

and spread without an army to back it

may have helped it survive in China
at least until the ninth century.

By then Western Christianity had
only just begun to make inroads

into central and northern Europe.

That's a point that's often been missed.

You might say the Church of the East
failed in China.

It never gained permanent favour
from Emperors.

It worshipped in a foreign language,
Syriac. It seemed to fade away.

But if Martin's right,
it didn't completely.

And maybe the Christianity we know

needs to regain
its ancient ability to listen.

Today, Christianity is seen
as a Western faith.

Indeed, many in the Muslim world
would see

"Western" lifestyles
as "Christian" lifestyles.

But Christianity is not by origin
a Western religion.

Its beginnings are in the Middle East,

where there still exist churches
which have been Eastern

since the earliest Christian era.

The story of the first Christianity
tells us that

the Christian faith is, in fact,
hugely diverse

with many identities.

And it shows us that far from being
a clash of civilisations,

in the East the encounter between
Islam and Christianity

enriched both faiths.

And yet, for all of Christianity's
ability to reinvent itself,

it was ultimately eclipsed
across most of Asia.

It suffered too many misfortunes,

massacre, plague, persecution.

Islam suffered them, too,

but Islam had enough powerful friends
to survive.

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