Iran's Ethnic Christians: The Assyrians and the Armenians

By Hopkins, Philip O. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Iran's Ethnic Christians: The Assyrians and the Armenians


Hopkins, Philip O., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


I. IRAN IN THE BIBLE AND IN EARLY CHURCH HISTORY

Eleven books in the OT directly reference the lands or peoples of greater Iran.4 Iran's current Islamic government displays Bibles in museums that date back hundreds of years and promotes the idea that the tombs of well-known OT figures such as Daniel, Esther, and Mordecai are located within its borders as are the tombs of Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes. In many OT books, the peoples of Iran play a prominent and positive role in God's plan for the nations, particularly Israel. Cyrus, for example, is used as a type of Christ and is called a "servant," a term used for Davidic kings. Even more significant is the designation of Cyrus as the Lord's "messiah" or "anointed one" in Isa 45:1. In certain ways, the policies of the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) molded post-exilic Judaism; the Achaemenids allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and enabled them to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and to construct the second temple. Contrasted with other non-Jewish nations, the OT characterization of Persians is affirming. Theologian Walter Brueggemann notes:

Compared to the complicated and vexed story of Yahweh with the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians, the story of Yahweh with the Persians lacks drama. On the horizon of this testimony, the Persians are not recalcitrant vassals of Yahweh, need not be broken by Yahweh, and so need no Yahwistic recovery. In this modeling of nations as partners, Persia is the exemplar of a positive, responsive partner. 5

Iran as a ?responsive partner? with the Judeo-Christian God continues as the history of Christianity begins deep in the heart of the Parthian Empire (227 BC- AD 224). Some believe the Magi, the famed ?Three Wise Men,? who followed the celebrated star to Christ?s home told about in Matt 2:1-11 were from Iran and possibly Zoroastrian priests,6 though Edwin M. Yamauchi disputes this claim.7 Church Father John Chrysostom mentions Persia as the origin of the wise men: ?They [the Jews] learn from a Persian tongue first of all, what they would not submit to learn from the prophets ... when they saw that wise men [sic], at the sight of a single star, had received this same, and had worshipped Him who was made manifest.?8 Another account by the fourth-century historian Eusebius states that the king of Edessa, Abgar, and Jesus Christ corresponded with one another, 9 though this report is probably more fable than fact.10 During Pentecost, the first grand spiritual awakening for Christians, the author of the biblical book of Acts of the Apostles mentions Jews from the Parthians, Medes, and Elamites-all tribes in Iran-as those who were converted to Christianity when they heard Peter the Apostle?s sermon (Acts 2:9). Church tradition indicates that a number of Christ?s first twelve apostles had contact with this area, including Matthew, Jude, Simon the Zealot, Bartholomew, and Thomas. While some of these accounts may be considered legend, generally historians agree that there has been a constant, albeit complicated, Christian existence in Iran since the early days of the faith. These explanations, even if not completely accurate, probably were based on actual historical details as they were accepted by the people of the day.11

Primary sources of the earliest forms of Christianity in Persia are scant, but there is a shared consensus on the basic history of the period. Christians were in the area by the AD 100s.12 Tatian, an Assyrian Gnostic (AD 100-180), is one of the first to give a definitive historical account of the church in Iran.13 It is also known that the metropolitan areas of Edessa (150 miles northeast of Antioch in Syria) and Arbela (N. Iraq) are where Christianity in Iran began, and Christianity eventually progressed to Nisibis (140 miles east of Edessa in northern Mesopotamia), a place where Iranian Christianity deepened when it was ceded to Iran in 363.14 Historians Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar W. …

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