781 Baghdad/Xi’an

Timothy of Baghdad’s Dialogue with the Caliphate (Baghdad: 781 A.D.)

With the assistance of God we will write the debate held by the Patriarch Mar Timothy before Mahdi, the Commander of the Faithful, by way of question and answer, on the subject of the Christian religion.

On the one hand I feel repugnance to write to your Lordship, and on the other I am anxious to do so. I feel repugnance, on account of the futility of the outcome of the work. It is true that I could not have acquired a mature experience of such a futility from the single discussion herein mentioned, but I may state that I have acquired such an experience from discussions that took place before the one involved in the present lucubration.

I am anxious, in order to confirm and corroborate a traditional habit, inasmuch as the habit of friendly correspondence has acquired the right of prescription from very early times, and has thereby received an additional title to existence; as a matter of fact it is born and grows in us from our childhood, nay even babyhood, and it is very difficult to shake a habit of such a duration.

For the reason, however, stated at the beginning I sometimes infringe this law, especially when I am reminded by a wise man who says that it is useless to draw upon that which is difficult to inherit. This is also due to the fact that the subject is to me difficult and is even against my nature, but we know that habit conquers inclination, as a powerful thought conquers a weak one.

We often see that a strong and well rooted branch goes spontaneously back to its former and congenial state after it has been violently twisted, and we do find that when powerful torrents are diverted from their natural channels with violence, they return immediately to their natural and customary course, without the need of any violence.

This happens to me in relation to your great wisdom; to put a stop to our correspondence we must needs make use of violence, but after the cessation of this violence, we go back to our natural state, while love conquers all between us and covers the weaknesses of the flesh which are full of shame and confusion, and also many other human proclivities which are known to the mind, but which the speech conceals and hides under the veil of silence. Such weaknesses are well known to your great wisdom, as if you were their father and originator, and are also known to all the members of the Orthodox Church.

Love covers and hides all these weaknesses as the water covers and hides the rocks that are under it. But let us now embark on our main subject in the way sanctioned by our old habit and ancient custom. Let it be known to your wisdom, O God-loving Lord, that before these days I had an audience of our victorious King, and according to usage I praised God and his Majesty. When, in the limited space allowed to me, I had finished the words of my complimentary address, in which I spake of the nature of God and His Eternity, he did something to me, which he had never done before; he said to me:

“O Catholicos, a man like you who possesses all this knowledge and utters such sublime words concerning God, is not justified in saying about God that He married a woman from whom He begat a son.”

 —And I replied to his Majesty:

“And who is, O God-loving King, who has ever uttered such a blasphemy concerning God?”

—And our victorious King said to me:

“What then do you say that Christ is?”

—And I replied to his Majesty:

“O King, Christ is the Word-God, who appeared in the flesh for the salvation of the world.”

—And our victorious King questioned me:

“Do you not say that Christ is the Son of God?”

—And I replied to his Majesty:

“O King, Christ is the Son of God, and I confess Him and worship Him as such. This I learned from Christ Himself in the Gospel and from the Books of the Torah and of the Prophets, which know Him and call Him by the name of ‘Son of God’ but not a son in the flesh as children are born in the carnal way, but an admirable and wonderful Son, more sublime and higher than mind and words, as it fits a divine Son to be.”

The Nestorian Steele Inscription (China: 781 A.D.) 

Behold the unchangeably true and invisible, who existed through all eternity without origin; the far-seeing perfect intelligence, whose mysterious existence is everlasting; operating on primordial substance he created the universe, being more excellent than all holy intelligences, inasmuch as he is the source of all that is honorable. This is our eternal true lord God, triune and mysterious in substance.

He appointed the cross as the means for determining the four cardinal points, he moved the original spirit, and produced the two principles of nature; the sombre void was changed, and heaven and earth were opened out; the sun and moon revolved, and day and night commenced; having perfected all inferior objects, he then made the first man; upon him he bestowed an excellent disposition, giving him in charge the government of all created beings.

Man, acting out the original principles of his nature, was pure and unostentatious; his unsullied and expansive mind was free from the least inordinate desire; until Satan introduced the seeds of falsehood, to deteriorate his purity of principle; the opening thus commenced in his virtue gradually enlarged, and by this crevice in his nature was obscured and rendered vicious.

Hence three hundred and sixty-five sects followed each other in continuous track, inventing every species of doctrinal complexity; while some pointed to material objects as the source of their faith, others reduced all to vacancy, even to the annihilation of the two primeval principles; some sought to call down blessings by prayers and supplications, while others by an assumption of excellence held themselves up as superior to their fellows; their intellects and thoughts continually wavering, their minds and affections incessantly on the move, they never obtained their vast desires, but being exhausted and distressed they revolved in their own heated atmosphere; till by an accumulation of obscurity they lost their path, and after long groping in darkness they were unable to return.

Thereupon, our Trinity being divided in nature, the illustrious and honorable Messiah, veiling his true dignity, appeared in the world as a man; angelic powers promulgated the glad tidings, a virgin gave birth to the Holy One in Syria; a bright star announced the felicitous event, and Persians1 observing the splendor came to present tribute; the ancient dispensation, as declared by the twenty-four holy men,2 was then fulfilled.

And he laid down great principles for the government of families and kingdoms; he established the new religion of the silent operation of the pure spirit of the Triune; he rendered virtue subservient to direct faith; he fixed the extent of the eight boundaries,3 thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross; he opened the gate of the three constant principles,4 introducing life and destroying death; he suspended the bright sun to invade the chambers of darkness, and the falsehoods of the devil were thereupon defeated; he set in motion the vessel of mercy by which to ascend to the bright mansions, whereupon rational beings were then released, having thus completed the manifestation of his power, in clear day he ascended to his true station.

Twenty-seven sacred books5 have been left, which disseminate intelligence by unfolding the original transforming principles. By the rule for admission, it is the custom to apply the water of baptism; to wash away all superficial show and to cleanse and purify the neophytes.

As a seal, they hold the cross, whose influence is reflected in every direction, uniting all without distinction. As they strike the wood, the fame of their benevolence is diffused abroad; worshiping toward the east, they hasten on the way to life and glory; they preserve the beard to symbolize their outward actions, they shave the crown to indicate the absence of inward affections; they do not keep slaves, but put noble and mean all on an equality; they do not amass wealth, but cast all their property into the common stock; they fast, in order to perfect themselves by self-inspection; they submit to restraints, in order to strengthen themselves by silent watchfulness; seven times a day they have worship and praise for the benefit of the living and the dead; once in seven days they sacrifice, to cleanse the heart and return to purity.

It is difficult to find a name to express the excellence of the true and unchangeable doctrine; but as its meritorious operations are manifestly displayed, by accommodation it is named the illustrious Religion. Now without holy men, principles cannot become expanded; without principles, holy men cannot become magnified; but with holy men and right principles, united as the two parts of a signet, the world becomes civilized and enlightened.

In the time of the accomplished Emperor Taitsung, the illustrious and magnificent founder of the dynasty, among the enlightened and holy men who arrived was the Most-virtuous Olopun, from the country of Syria. Observing the azure clouds, be bore the true sacred books; beholding the direction of the winds, he braved difficulties and dangers.

In the year A.D. 635 be arrived at Chang-an; the Emperor sent his Prime Minister, Duke Fang Hiuen-ling; who, carrying the official staff to the west border, conducted his guest into the interior; the sacred books were translated in the imperial library, the sovereign investigated the subject in his private apartments; when becoming deeply impressed with the rectitude and truth of the religion, be gave special orders for its dissemination. In the seventh month of the year A.D. 638 the following imperial proclamation was issued:

“Right principles have no invariable name, holy men have no invariable station; instruction is established in accordance with the locality, with the object of benefiting the people at large.

The ‘Greatly-virtuous Olopun, of the kingdom of Syria, has brought his sacred books and images from that distant part, and has presented them at our chief capital. Having examined the principles of this religion, we find them to be purely excellent and natural; investigating its originating source, we find it has taken its rise from the establishment of important truths; its ritual is free from perplexing expressions, its principles will survive when the framework is forgot; it is beneficial to all creatures; it is advantageous to mankind.

Let it be published throughout the Empire, and let the proper authority build a Syrian church in the capital in the I-ning May, which shall be governed by twenty-one priests. When the virtue of the Chau dynasty declined, the rider on the azure ox ascended to the west; the principles of the great Tang becoming resplendent, the lllustrious breezes have come to fan the East.”

Orders were then issued to the authorities to have a true portrait of the Emperor taken; when it was transferred to the wall of the church, the dazzling splendor of the celestial visage irradiated the Illustrious portals.

The sacred traces emitted a felicitous influence, and shed a perpetual splendor over the holy precincts. According to the Illustrated Memoir of the Western Regions, and the historical books of the Han and Wei dynasties, the kingdom of Syria reaches south to the Coral Sea; on the north it joins the Gem Mountains; on the west it extends toward the borders of the immortals and the flowery forests; on the east it lies open to the violent winds and tideless waters.

The country produces fire-proof cloth, life-restoring incense, bright moon-pearls, and night-lustre gems. Brigands and robbers are unknown, but the people enjoy happiness and peace. None but Illustrious laws prevail; none but the virtuous are raised to sovereign power. The land is broad and ample, and its literary productions are perspicuous and clear.

The Emperor Kautsung respectfully succeeded his ancestor, and was still more beneficent toward the institution of truth. In every province he caused Illustrious churches to be erected, and ratified the honor conferred upon Olopun, making him the great conservator of doctrine for the preservation of the State.

While this doctrine pervaded every channel, the State became enriched and tranquility abounded. Every city was full of churches, and the royal family enjoyed lustre and happiness. In the year A.D. 699 the Buddhists, gaining power, raised their voices in the eastern metropolis;6 in the year A.D. 713, some low fellows excited ridicule and spread slanders, in the western capital. At that time there was the chief priest Lo-han, the Greatly-virtuous Kie-leih, and others of noble estate frorn the golden regions, lofty-minded priests, having abandoned all worldly interests; who unitedly maintaied the grand principles and preserved them entire to the end…

…Thereupon the Emperor composed mottoes for the sides of the church, and the tablets were graced with the royal inscriptions; the accumulated gems emitted their effulgence, while their sparkling brightness vied with the ruby clouds; the transcripts of intelligence suspended in the void shot forth their rays as reflected by the sun; the bountiful gifts exceeded the height of the southern hills; the bedewing favors were deep as the eastern sea.

Nothing is beyond the range of the right principle, and what is permissible may be identified; nothing is beyond the power of the holy man, and that which is practicable may be related.

The accomplished and enlightened Emperor Suhtsung rebuilt the Illustrious churches in Ling-wu and four other places; great benefits were conferred, and felicity began to increase; great munificence was displayed, and the imperial State became established.

The accomplished and military Emperor Taitsung magnified the sacred succession, and honored the latent principle of nature; always, on the incarnation-day, he bestowed celestial incense, and ordered the performance of a service of merit; he distributed of the imperial viands, in order to shed a glory on the Illustrious Congregation. Heaven is munificent in the dissemination of blessings, whereby the benefits of life are extended; the holy man embodies the original principle of virtue, whence he is able to counteract noxious influences.

Our sacred and sage-like, accomplished and military Emperor Kienchung appointed the eight branches of government, according to which he advanced or degraded the intelligent and dull; he opened up the nine categories, by means of which he renovated the illustrious decrees; his transforming influence pervaded the most abstruse principles, while openness of heart distinguished his devotions.

Thus, by correct and enlarged purity of principle, and undeviating consistency in sympathy with others; by extended commiseration rescuing multitudes from misery, while disseminating blessings on all around, the cultivation of our doctrine gained a grand basis, and by gradual advances its influence was diffused.

If the winds and rains are seasonable, the world will be at rest; men will be guided by principle, inferior objects will be pure; the living will be at ease, and the dead will rejoice; the thoughts will produce their appropriate response, the affections will be free, and the eyes will be sincere; such is the laudable condition which we of the Illustrious Religion are laboring to attain…

…Moreover, practicing the discipline of the Illustrious Religion, he distributed his riches in deeds of benevolence; every year he assembled those in the sacred office from four churches, and respectfully engaged them for fifty days in purification and preparation; the naked came and were clothed; the sick were attended to and restored; the dead were buried in repose; even among the most pure and self-denying of the Buddhists, such excellence was never heard of; the white-clad members of the lllustrious Congregation, now considering these men, have desired to engrave a broad tablet, in order to set forth a eulogy of their magnanimous deeds.

  1. The statement here is in admirable harmony with the general tradition of the early Church, that the Magi or wise men mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel were no other than philosophers of the Parsee sect.
  2. The “holy men” denote the writers of the books of the Old Testament.
  3. The “eight boundaries” are inexplicable; some refer them to the beatitudes.
  4. The “three constant principles” may perhaps mean faith, hope, and charity.
  5. Exactly the number we have in the New Testament.

(Translated by A. Wiley 1909)

The true Lord is without origin,

Profound, invisible, and unchangeable;

With power and capacity to perfect and transform,

He raised up the earth and established the heavens.

Divided in nature, he entered the world,

To save and to help without bounds;

The sun arose, and darkness was dispelled,

All bearing witness to his true original.

The glorious and resplendent, accomplished Emperor,

Whose principles embraced those of preceding monarchs.

Taking advantage of the occasion, suppressed turbulence:

Heaven was spread out and the earth was enlarged.

When the pure, bright Illustrious Religion

Was introduced to our Tang dynasty,

The Scriptures were translated, and churches built,

And the vessel set in motion for the living and the dead:

Every kind of blessing was then obtained,

And all the kingdoms enjoyed a state of peace.

When Kautsung succeeded to his ancestral estate.

He rebuilt the edifices of purity;

Palaces of concord, large and light,

Covered the length and breadth of the land.

The true doctrine was clearly announced,

Overseers of the church were appointed in due form;

The people enjoyed happiness and peace,

While all creatures were exempt from calamity and distress.

When Hiuentsung commenced his sacred career,

He applied himself to the cultivation of truth and rectitude;

His imperial tablets shot forth their effulgence,

And the celestial writings mutually reflected their splendors.

The imperial domain was rich and luxuriant,

While the whole land rendered exalted homage;

Every business was flourishing throughout,

And the people all enjoyed prosperity.

Then came Suhtsung, who commenced anew,

And celestial dignity marked the imperial movements.

Sacred as the moon’s unsullied expanse,

While felicity was wafted like nocturnal gales.

Happiness reverted to the imperial household,

The autumnal influences were long removed;

Ebullitions were allayed, and risings suppressed,

And thus our dynasty was firmly built up.

Taitsung the filial and just

Combined in virtue with heaven and earth;

By his liberal bequests the living were satisfied,

And property formed the channel of imparting succor.

By fragrant mementoes he rewarded the meritorious,

With benevolence he dispensed his donations;

The solar concave appeared in dignity,

And the lunar retreat was decorated to extreme.

When Kienchung succeeded to the throne,

He began the cultivation of intelligent virtue;

His military vigilance extended to the four seas,

And his accomplished purity influenced all lands.

His light penetrated the secrecies of men,

And to him the diversities of objects were seen as in a mirror;

He shed a vivifying influence through the whole realm of nature,

And all outer nations took him for example.

The true doctrine how expansive!

Its responses are minute;

How difficult to name it!

To elucidate the three in one.

The sovereign has the power to act!

While the ministers record;

We raise this noble monument!

To the praise of great felicity.