Tang "Nestorian" documents as the first Chinese Christian literature(Open Lectures 2006)
Matteo Nicolini-Zani
© 2006 Studium Biblicum Hong Kong

The reason why I have been asked to give two speaches on socalled "Nestorianism" in China, in this 60th anniversary commemoration of the of foundation of the Studium Biblicum, first established in Peking and later moved to Hong Kong, may not be so evident to people who are not familiar with the life and the scientific production of Father Gabriele Allegra (1907-1976), who founded the Institute.

This was also my situation before I read the articles Father Allegra wrote on Nestorianism in China, and also before I looked through his memories, which he wrote during the two last years of his life, and in which he mentions Chinese Nestorianism several times. In order to save time today, I will say something more in detail about all of these biographical elements in my second speech, because I think it is important to remember what the great Franciscan friar produced in the field and the place he intended to give to research on Chinese Nestorianism within the scholarly programs of his Studium.

As an introduction to this paper, I would like to summarize only the main aspect. What is clear in what Allegra wrote is the fact that he considered Tang Chinese documents to be the first Christian literature in Chinese. As a translator of the Bible into Chinese, he himself was particularly interested in the first translations of Biblical and spiritual literature into the Chinese language.

That is why I have decided to talk about this important topic, and to try to summarize the evolution of research since Father Allegra's death.

I will try to answer two main questions:

1) What do we know about the translation of Christian texts into Chinese by
monks of the Church of the East in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD)?
2) In what sense can we speak of a "use of the Bible" - as Father Allegra often
put it - by the first Christians in China, as reflected in the documents?


Let us consider the first question.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the only Christian literary source that gave direct witness to a Christian presence in China during the Tang dynasty was the Xi’an Christian stele (Da Qin jingjiao liuxing Zhongguo bei 大秦景教流行中國碑). No proof of a possible work of translation of the Christian scriptures into Chinese was known, except for a brief mention of such a work in two sources.

One is the stele itself, which says in a passage:

In the kingdom of Da Qin 大秦there was [a man of] superior virtue, whose name was Aluoben 阿羅本. After having scanned the signs of the blue clouds, he brought [with him] the true Scriptures, and after having examined the musical notes of the winds, he passed through troubles and dangers. In the ninth year of the Zhenguan 貞觀era (635) he then came to Chang’an 長安. The Emperor sent into the Western quarter of the city his State Minister, the duke Fang Xuanling 房玄齡, with the Imperial Guard in order to welcome the visitor and introduce him to the Palace. [The Emperor] ordered the Scriptures to be translated in the [Imperial] Library and made a careful examination of that Way inside the forbidden gates...

The second source is the historical work Tang huiyao 唐會要 (Institutions of the Tang). Inside this source, we find the edict, issued in the year 638, which permitted a Christian presence in the imperial territory. This edict reports:

The Persian monk Aluoben, bringing from afar the Scriptures and the teaching [of Da Qin], came to offer them to the highest capital. [1]

But, starting in 1907-1908, the socalled "Dunhuang Nestorian documents" were discovered, studied, and translated. These gave concrete evidence of a Christian production in Chinese dating back to the first millennium.

Great was the scholars’ astonishment upon discovering that at the end of the first manuscript that had come to light there were some precious annotations. These notes speak of the translation of the Christian scriptures into Chinese by Adam / Jingjing 景淨, the author of the stele’s text. I quote here the annotations:

A careful examination of the catalogue of all the scriptures reveals that the scriptures of this religion of Da Qin are altogether 530, and they are written on pattra [leaves] in a foreign language. In the ninth year of the Zhenguan era of the Tang emperor Taizong 太宗(635), the monk Aluoben, the Great Virtuous one from the Western regions, entered China and humbly presented to the imperial throne a petition in his native language. Fang Xuanling and Wei Zheng 魏徵 ordered the petition to be translated. Afterwards, an imperial decree summoned the monk Jingjing, the Great Virtuous one of that religion, [before the Emperor]. And the aforementioned thirty volumes [juan 卷] were translated. The majority of the [scriptures] left over and contained in pattra manuscripts have not yet been translated.

It is far from easy to understand the data given by the writer of these annotations. Pattra is the Sanskrit name of the palm leaves which were used by Buddhists in India and Central Asia as writing material. The pattra leaves, after being tied together, formed the socalled "pōthi books". The claim that the Christian scriptures in China were also written in this pōthi format could be true, but until now only one Christian fragment in this format has been found in Central Asia. [2] Should we think that once many Christian texts in this format existed and then were then lost, or that the compiler assumed the Christian manuscripts had been written in accordance with a Buddhist and Manichaean custom? [3]

What is certain is that these annotations testify to Jingjing’s translation from Syriac or one of the Middle¬Iranian languages spoken in Central Asia into Chinese, and also, that the “aforementioned thirty volumes (juan 卷)” are defined as translations. But, if we look at the name of the “aforementioned books” in the manuscript, we see that:

1) they are thirtyfive and not thirty;
2) not all of them seem to be translations;
3) it is very difficult to trace which original Christian works were translated into Chinese.

Let now glance at the part of the manuscript P. 38-47 that contains the list of these thirtyfive scriptures. [Fornire testo parziale dello Zun jing (elenco dei libri) da distribuire]

As we can see, the categories of these books (jing 經)are:

Scriptures of the Old and New Testament: numbers 5, 6, 7, 18, 26, 32 (?).
Biblical narratives: numbers 10 (?), 19 (?), 22 (?).
Theological works: numbers 2, 8 (?), 9 (?), 13, 17 (?), 30 (?).
Liturgical texts: numbers 4 (?), 24, 25, 34 (?), 35.
Patristic and historical works: numbers 20, 21, 27, 28, 29, 33.
Secular books: number 31.
Spiritual writings, clearly intended for those who practised the Christian monastic life in China: numbers 1 (?), 3, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 23. [4]

Unfortunately, among the books listed here, only three have come down to us: they are numbers 2, 3, and 25 in the list I gave you. Of the Hymn to the Three Majesties, which is a translation of the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo used in the Syriac liturgy, has also been found in a Sogdian translation at Turfan. [5]

We know very little about how the translation and writing of Christian texts were done, and just as little about where this work was done. What we know for sure is that this literature was indeed produced in the social and religious environment of the cosmopolitan city of Chang'an in the 7th-9th centuries AD, where the contacts between Christian monks and members of other religions were very close.

The only literary evidence of cooperation between Christian and Buddhist monks of the late Tang dynasty in the translation of their own scriptures appears in a passage found in the Zhenyuan xinding shijiao mulu 貞元新定釋教目錄, a Buddhist Catalogue edited by Yuanzhao 圓照 (a Buddhist monk who lived in 8th century China). In this passage it is said that the Christian monk Adam / Jingjing helped the Buddhist monk Prajña (734-?) from Kapiśi (north of today's Afghanistan) in translating the Buddhist Sutra of the Six Perfections (Liu poluomi jing 六波羅蜜經, Sanskrit Prajñā pāramitā sūtra) in seven volumes from a Central Asian Iranian language (most probably Sogdian) to Chinese after 782 AD, the year of his arrival at the imperial capital Chang'an. [6]

This practice of collaboration and dialogue is clearly visible in the five Chinese Christian documents we have. Although they are obscure and difficult to understand, nevertheless they are still very precious pieces of literary evidence regarding the inculturation of the Christian message in a Chinese linguistic, cultural, and religious context.

On the basis of recent findings, it is possible today to reconstruct the actual structure of the corpus nestorianum sinicum - a Latin definition coined by Father Allegra, which means the corpus of the Chinese Nestorian texts. In my opinion, it is better to do this on the basis of the manuscripts (scrolls) that have survived than by isolating individual texts within those manuscripts, since their independence or interconnection is still a debated matter.

The corpus, therefore, can be reconstructed as follows:

1) The scroll Pelliot chinois 3847 (often abbreviated P. 3847), named after the great French sinologist who discovered it in 1908, and conserved today at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris. It consists of three parts: a) Jingjiao sanwei mengdu zan 景教三威蒙度讚 (Hymn of Invocation, in Praise of the Three Majesties of the Luminous Religion); b) Zun jing 尊經(Venerable Books); c) Closing note (the last four lines).
2) The manuscript Zhixuan anle jing 志玄安樂經(Book on th Realization of Deep Peace and Joy), which formerly belonged to Li Shengduo 李盛鐸(1858-1937) and is now kept in a private collection in Japan.
3) The manuscript (fragment) Da Qin jingjiao xuan yuanben jing 大秦景教宣元本經(Book of the Luminous religion from Da Qin on the Disclosing of the Origin), which also formerly belonged to Li Shengduo and is now kept by a Japanese collector. The twentysix lines we have are probably only the first part of a longer original work.

In addition to these, there are 4) the Tomioka document (Yishen lun 一神論, "Discourse on the One God") and 5) the Takakusu document (Xuting Mishisuo jing 序聽迷詩所經, "Book of the Messiah"), whose origin and date of composition - according to what we know today - do not allow us to place them with certainty in the classification suggested above, although their content is genuinely jingjiao 景教, i.e. belonging to "the Luminous Religion", the name of Christianity during the Tang dynasty. The dating of these two manuscripts has been recently called into question by Professor Lin Wushu 林悟殊 (Zhongshan University, Canton). He has suggested distinguishing between the material documents, which were probably produced by a contemporary at the beginning of the 20th century, and their contents, which are quite surely the genuine expression of a Christian of the Tang dynasty. [7] We will therefore continue to consider them in our research, remembering the fundamental distinction just made.

What is even more surprising is that among the five documents, these last two are the most "Biblical" in content, and for that this reason they have long been regarded as the first to be composed. The second part of my speech will try to analyse more deeply this issue of the Biblical content of the documents.


Some preliminary general observations can be made about this "use of the Bible" in the documents that have survived:

1) The documents appear for the most part to be original compositions, based of some Christian sources that are often difficult to recognize. What is clear is that they do not claim to be faithful translations, but seem more interested in shaping their contents and literary structure according to the cultural background of the reader.
2) In the line with this general approach, the Biblical references in the documents are often not intended to be "literal quotations" or "faithful translations" of the original Biblical texts (which ones? which versions?). Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to recognize a particular Biblical passage behind a Chinese sentence.
3) But this does not mean that the documents are not Biblical, in the sense of seeking to communicate a Biblical message in a specifically Chinese context. What I mean is that the writers of these five documents do not seem to have translating the Bible - or at least some Biblical passages - as their first priority. Using the Bible as a point of departure, they are more interested in writing spiritual texts and texts of meditation.

I now propose to direct our attention to the contents of the two texts I mentioned above, the Yishen lun (Discourse on the One God) and the Xuting Mishisuo jing (Book of the Messiah).

The third part of the Discourse on the One God bears the title Discourse of the Venerable of the Universe on Almsgiving (Shizun bushi lun 世尊布施論in Chinese). This is undoubtedly the most Biblical text among all of the early Chinese Christian documents. The text's contents can be divided into three sections. [8]

The first section is a paraphrase of part of the Sermon on the Mount - to be, of Mt 6,17,14. In this section of the Gospel, Jesus gives instructions on almsgiving, prayer, forgiveness, the true treasures, God and money, refraining from judging and from profaning sacred things, effective prayer, trust in Providence, the golden rule, the two ways, and false prophets. This section of the document is in places so close to the original Matthean text that it seems to be an actual translation of Matthew's Gospel, "adapted" to the Chinese cultural context.

The second section of the document tells the story of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection, of the womens' and disciples' witness to Jesus' resurrection, of Jesus' ascension to Heaven, and of the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. In this case as well, the Biblical text that seems to have been drawn on is Matthew's version of the Gospel, even if some elements typical of John's Gospel are present. [9] On the basis of these frequent direct references to Matthew's text in the Chinese document, some have thought that Christian monks in China used Tatian's Diatessaron as their Gospel reference in preaching and liturgies [10]. Tatian's Diatessaron, composed in 170-180 AD, is a harmonization of the four Gospels according to an order based mostly on that of Matthew. But we know that around the second half of the 4th century, the Diatessaron was replaced with the Peshitta version. However, it is hard to say which texts of the Gospels were used by the Church of the East in Central and East Asian missions.

The third section of our document offers an account of the spreading of the Christian message in the Byzantine Empire and Persia by the first apostles and missionaries, with special emphasis on the persecutions they suffered. This part of the document is very close to the accounts contained in the Acts of the Martyrs. This genre of Christian literature was common in the Persian Church, and its eastward diffusion is witnessed by several Sogdian Christian fragments. [11]

This last section ends with advice about following the Way of the Lord's teaching, given from an apocalyptical and eschatological perspective, that is to say with the final divine judgment as a background. Although the language in this section is borrowed from the Buddhist scriptures, which talk about the doctrine of retribution according to karma, I think that the message expressed in this text is not at odds with the core of Christian soteriology: God in Christ passes judgment on man, and in this way man is no longer judged by his own merits and sins, but is saved and freed from his sinful condition by divine grace, that is to say by the event of Christ's death and resurrection. [12] Salvation as a divine act and as the result of faith in God is therefore the main point underlined in our Chinese text. In this point we find the most significant difference between Christianity and Oriental religions like Buddhism and Daoism. Generally speaking, for Buddhists and Daoists, man is able to obtain salvation or immortality by his own efforts, and if he does not reach these goals this is because of his ignorance or the lack of effort. In the two Oriental religions the "divine" aid is only a secondary means to salvation, and is offered only because bodhisattva or heavenly immortals feel pity for human beings in their ignorance. [13]

Let us now consider a second document, the Xuting Mishisuo jing (Book of the Messiah). [14]

In the first lines of this document, the concept of God's trascendence, omnipresence, omnipotence, and eternity is described using the image of wind. Just as the wind is invisible and yet blows everywhere, is formless and yet its voice can be heard, God too dwells in the highest heavens and yet is present everywhere, has no human appearance and yet is manifest in many ways. God alone - as saint Paul says - is "immortal and dwells in unapprochable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see" (1 Tim 6,16), and yet is present in man's life through His spirit. God is present in all creation and in man's body, which he created. He is then present everytime people do good and virtuous deeds.

The document, then, describes God's first revelation in creation, while God's last revelation in Christ is described in the last part of the text, which is closest part to the Gospel narrative. The main events of Jesus' historical life are told with particular and unusual nuances: the Holy Spirit's descent on Mary and her pregnancy, Jesus' birth as an extraordinary and humanly inexplicable event, Jesus' childhood, his baptism by John joined with God's manifestation, Jesus' healing and preaching ministry, the opposition to Jesus by evil persons and their conspiracy against the Messiah, the trial in front of Pilate, Jesus' crucifixion and death as a voluntary gift of his life for humanity's sake.

In the middle of the document, between these two sections, the author gives his attention to humanity, to whom God's revelation was addressed and for whom God "felt great pity" when he saw that human beings, "after being urged to do good deeds, did not obey him". People are described in their basic relationships: to begin with, God, their first origin, and the evil forces which oppose God's action; second, the parents, humanity's second origin; third, the king, who rules social life; and fourth, other people. I would like to say here that the stress that the text gives to the deference due to parents has to be understood in the light of the Chinese cultural and social context. It is well known that filial piety has always represented one of the main social virtues that rule Chinese life. In this sense, the Biblical precept of honouring father and mother (cf. Ex 20,12; Deut 5,16) seems to have found in the Confucian virtue of filial piety (xiao 孝)a counterpart that the first Christian missionaries were able to make good us of.

For our document's author, to serve God means to welcome God's precepts, teach them to others, and stop worshipping idols. "God kindled a spirit of responsability in man" - says our Chinese text - and therefore humans are asked every time to choose between doing good deeds with a kind heart and so walking in the Heavenly Way (tiandao 天道), or doing evil deeds and so falling along the Evil Way (edao 惡道).

Again, one can recognize a Biblical theme behind these words, that of the two Ways (cf. Deut 30,15-20).

The last theme of this central part of the Book of the Messiah that is worth underlining is the ethical theme. It is represented by a list of "ten vows" (jie 戒) to obey. These are clearly inspired by and modelled on the "ten words" God delivered to humanity, and that are written in the Bible (cf. Ex 20), but these vows are expressed in particular tones, chosen to suit the cultural background of the author and the readers. Here the author seems to have been influenced by Buddhist ethics, which propose some vows to be obeyed as the student obeys to his teacher (jie wei shi 戒為師), more than by Confucian ethics or Daoist teachings.

We can conclude and summarize with two brief remarks.

First, the New Testament texts are "quoted" more often than Old Testament texts, and for the Chinese author their interest lies mainly in their ethical dimension. The Christian faith in the One God, like the Hebrew faith before it, is presented to the
Chinese audience as a way, the True Way to be followed. And this is in full accordance with the East Asian concept of a spiritual teaching as a Way (dao 道)to walk.

Second, the pages of the New Testament that are quoted or referred to in the Tang Chinese documents are the Gospel stories, in particular those about Jesus' life, and the pages about Christian behaviour modeled on the spirit of Beatitudes. That is to say, they aim at the core of Christian teaching.




[1] Tang huiyao 唐會要 (Institutions of the Tang) 49.1011. The same edict, with few variants, is also contained in the stele's text.
[2] This is the fragment C 46 (in Syriac and Sogdian language), containing a passage not yet identified from the New Testament. Cf. O. Hansen, "Die christliche Literatur der Sogdier", in Handbuch der Orientalistik,I. Der Nahe und Mittelere Osten,IV. Iranistik,2. Literatur, Lieferung 1, a cura di B. Spuler, Brill, LeidenKoln 1968, p. 94, n. 2.
[3] A Manichaean pōthi from Murtuq was written in Tocharic and Uyghur language between 10th and 11th century. Cf. L. V. Clark, "The Manichaean Turkic Pothi-Book", in Altorientalische Forschungen 9 (1982), pp. 145-218.
[4] Cf. "Tangdai jingjiao zhi fawang yu zunjing kao" 唐代景教之法王与尊經考 (Investigation on fawang and zunjing in Tang Nestorianism), in Dunhuang Tulufan yanjiu 敦煌吐魯番研究(Journal of the Dunhuang and Turfan Studies) 5 (2001), pp. 13-57, here p. 48.
[5] N. SimsWilliams, "A Sogdian Version of the 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo'", in R. Gyselen (ed.), Au carrefour des religions. Melanges offerts a Philippe Gignoux, Groupe pour l'etude de la civilisation du MoyenOrient, BuressurYvette 1995 (Res Orientales 7), pp. 257-261.
[6] Cf. J. Takakusu, "The Name of 'Messiah' Found in a Buddhist Book". The passage in the Zhenyuan xinding shijiao mulu says: "[[Prajña] together with Jingjing, a Persian monk of the Da Qin Monastery, translated the Prajñā-pāramitā sūtra in seven volumes (juan), on the basis of a text in Iranian language (huben 胡本)".
[7] Cf. Lin Wushu 林悟殊, "Fuwangqian shi cang jingjiao Yishen lun zhenwei cunyi" 富罔謙氏藏景教〈一神論〉真偽存疑 (Doubts Concerning the Authenticity of the Nestorian Discourse on One God from the Tomeoka Collection), in Tang yanjiu 唐研究 (The Journal of Tang Studies) 6 (2000), pp. 6786; reprinted in Id., Tangdai jingjiao zai yanjiu 唐代景教再研究(New Reflections on Nestorianism of the Tang Dynasty), Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan chubanshe, Beijing 2003 (Tang yanjiu jijinghui congshu 唐研究基金叢書[The Tang Research Foundation Series]), pp. 186207. Lin Wushu, "Gaonan shi cang jingjiao Xuting mishisuo jing zhenwei cunyi" 高楠氏藏景教《序聽迷詩所經》真偽存疑(Doubts Concerning the Authenticity of the Nestorian S?tra of Jesus Messiah from the Takakusu Collection), in Wenshi 勻史 (Letters) 55 (2001), pp. 141-154; reprinted in Id., Tangdai jingjiao zai yanjiu (New Reflections on Nestorianism of the Tang Dynasty), pp. 208-228.
[8] For a detailed description of its contents, see: F. S. Drake, "Nestorian Literature of the T'ang Dynasty", in The Chinese Recorder 66 (1935), pp. 681-687; Gong Tianmin 龔天民, Tangchao jidujiao zhi yanjiu 唐朝基督教之研究 (Research on Christianity during the Tang Dynasty), Jidujiao fuqiao chubanshe, Hong Kong 1960, pp. 24-29; P. Chiu Chunghang, An Historical Study of Nestorian Christianity in the T'ang Dynasty between A.D. 635-846, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Forth Worth Texas 1987 (Ph. D. Diss.), pp. 192-211.
[9] All these aforementioned elements (Matthew's Gospel on the backround, the presence of elements typical of John, the apologetic accents, the stress given to Jews' guilt) let one to think to the Apocryphal Gospels, and in particular to Peter Gospel, whose origin is probably a Syriac environment.
[10] See Yao Zhuhua, "A Diatessaronic Reading in Chinese Nestorian Texts", paper presented at the 2nd International Conference "Research on the Church of the East in China and Central Asia", Salzburg, 16 June 2006.
[11] Cf. J. P. Asmussen, "The Sogdian and UighurTurkish Christian Literature in Central Asia before the Real Rise of Islam. A Survey", in L. A. Hercus et al. (eds.), Indological and Buddhist Studies. Volume in Honour of Professor J. W. de Jong on his Sixtieth Birthday, Australian National University, Faculty of Asian Studies, Canberra 1982 (Bibliotheca IndoBuddhica 27), pp. 11-29 (in particular pp. 17-19).
[12] Cf. Rm 14,10; 2Cor 5,10; Eb 10,26; Gv 5,27-29; Mt 25,31-46, about the final judgment.
[13] Cf. S. Eskildsen, "Christology and Soteriology in the Chinese Nestorian Texts", in B.C. Asian Review 5 (1991), pp. 41-97.
[14] For a detailed description of its contents, see: F. S. Drake, "Nestorian Literature of the T'ang Dynasty", in The Chinese Recorder 66 (1935), pp. 677-681; Lee Chang Sik, "A Study of a Chinese Nestorian Sutra, 'Jesus Messiah'", in Northeast Asia Journal of Theology 13 (1974), pp. 46-52; P. Chiu Chunghang, An Historical Study of Nestorian Christianity in the T'ang Dynasty between A.D. 635-846, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Forth Worth Texas 1987 (Ph. D. Diss.), pp. 172-192.