In 635 of the Common Era, a Christian mission to China, probably from the church in Persia, arrived in Chang-an (Now Xian), the capital of the Tang Dynasty. This was likely a mission of the Church of the East, whose beginnings can be traced back to Thomas called “The Twin, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus.
Thomas went as a missionary to Persia and India, and was martyred in India in 72 CE. A two-ton stone stele–a carved stone slab–was uncovered in China in 1625 CE, which is dated from 781 CE, and told of a new “Religion of the Light of the West” which arrived in 635. The Catholic Church sent a mission to China in 1581, thinking they were the first to take Christianity to China, but they were upstaged by nearly a thousand years.
Thomas, or someone influenced by him, is the author of “The Gospel of Thomas,” an apocryphal text favored by the Gnostic arm of the early church–and strongly opposed as heresy by Irenaeus of Lyons, who is as much responsible for the “orthodoxification” of what would become The Church of Rome as anyone might hope to be, and was a “heretic hunter” without equal during the early years of the formation of Christianity and the development of an official theology/doctrine/dogma.
The theology of the Church of the East, and the Religion of the Light of the West, would have developed apart from the influence of Irenaeus, Ignatius, St. Augustine, Dante, Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church–all of whom bestowed Christianity as we know it upon the churches of the West.
A link to the Church of the East was discovered near the end of the eighteenth century by a Taoist priest who opened a room cut into a mountain range along the Silk Road. The room was a storage vault for sacred writings and had been sealed with a type of brick that suggests it had been shut up around 1005 CE.
The writings included texts of a Christian nature and refer to themselves as “The Jesus Sutras,” and have been collected in a volume with the same title by Martin Palmer and others. Palmer is a distinguished translator of Taoist works, and published The Jesus Sutras in 2001. It is currently out of print, but copies are available through used book stores on the internet.
The Sutras are a fascinating collection of teachings, rituals, sermons and reflections from priests and leaders of an early Christian church in a culture of Taoists, Buddhists, and followers of Confucius, and reflects the work of those who blended the religions of the day into a united whole that remains amazingly contemporary in many of the things it says.
For instance, here are passages Palmer and his collaborators translated from what they call “The Sutra of Returning to Your Original Nature”:
Detach yourself from what disturbs and distracts you,
and be as pure as one who breathes in purity and emptiness.
This state is the gateway to enlightenment–it is the way to peace and happiness.
If anyone wants to follow the way of Triumph, they must clear their minds
and set aside all wanting and striving.
To be pure and still means to be open to purity and stillness.
As a result, you can intuit the truth.
This means that the light can shine,
revealing the workings of cause and effect,
and leading to the place of happiness.
Those who trust in their own heart’s guidance,
can go beyond wanting,
and trust in direct spiritual realization.
In being free from the Western emphasis on original sin, the Christian church in China made use of the Taoist concept of our original nature and permitting Jesus to become the guide leading people back to the person they are capable of being and to the qualities/virtues/gifts that are theirs from birth.
The Jesus Sutras is a remarkable book suggesting possibilities that are still open to us to imagine and serve by transforming our relationship with ourselves and with one another, and finding in the wonder of that engagement the foundation of enlightenment itself, and a life that knows no bounds, free of the theology that has been so burdensome and misdirecting through the years!