Magazine article The Christian Century

Patriarchs of Babylon

Magazine article The Christian Century

Patriarchs of Babylon

Article excerpt

Over a thousand years separate the parallel lives of two men who were each, in very different ways, important Christian leaders of their time. The two held very similar offices but in circumstances that had radically, tragically altered through the years. Placing the two lives side by side gives us a lesson about the sweep of Christian history outside the West.

In my book The Lost History of Christianity, I described the great Eastern churches that continued to flourish through the Middle Ages, usually while living under the power of Islamic regimes. Chiefly based in what is now Iraq and Turkey, they maintained a dazzling network of spiritual and intellectual centers far above anything to be found in contemporary Western Europe.

In telling that story, I focused on Timothy, patriarch of Babylon and head of the Church of the East, the so-called Nestorians, who reigned from 780 to 823. Although Timothy was contemporary with the legendary Western Emperor Charlemagne, he represented a totally different cultural world and a radically distinct geography. By 800, the Church of the East constituted at least a quarter of the world's Christians in a territory that stretched from the Mediterranean deep into Central Asia, China and southern India. From his patriarchal seat in Baghdad, Timothy appointed a new bishop for Tibet and another for the Turks, who then rived in deepest Siberia.

At a time when the intellectual life of the Latin West was severely limited, Timothy still had access to much of Greek antiquity and the Syriac Fathers. He wrote and translated a great deal in his own right in philosophy, law, theology, liturgy and astrology. Reading his correspondence, it almost seems as if the classical world had never perished. And all this took place under the rule of Islamic caliphs and generals. Timothy himself had a famously civilized debate with the caliph himself about the rival claims of the two faiths. Timothy presided over a golden age for his church.

By far the best source for Timothy's career is his letters, which are collected and summarized in an excellent French edition published by a Vatican press in 1956 (and never translated into English). The letters themselves give a fascinating account of the day-to-day politics of a patriarch in a church that makes the word Byzantine seem too gentle: his patriarchal predecessor was poisoned over a land dispute.

What gives that 1956 book its poignant quality is the fact that it was edited by a brilliant young scholar named Raphael J. …

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