|Tang "Nestorian" documents as the first Chinese Christian
literature(Open Lectures 2006)
© 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
monks of the Church of the East in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907
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. 
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.  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?
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. 
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. 
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. 
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.
 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,
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
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
3) But this does not mean that the documents are not Biblical, in the
seeking to communicate a Biblical message in a specifically Chinese
What I mean is that the writers of these five documents do not seem
translating the Bible - or at least some Biblical passages - as their
Using the Bible as a point of departure, they are more interested in
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. 
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.  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 .
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. 
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.  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
Let us now consider a second document, the Xuting Mishisuo jing (Book
of the Messiah). 
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
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
 Tang huiyao 唐會要 (Institutions of the Tang)
49.1011. The same edict, with few variants, is also contained in the
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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)".
 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.
 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.
 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
 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.
 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).
 Cf. Rm 14,10; 2Cor 5,10; Eb 10,26; Gv 5,27-29; Mt 25,31-46, about
the final judgment.
 Cf. S. Eskildsen, "Christology and Soteriology in the Chinese Nestorian
Texts", in B.C. Asian Review 5 (1991), pp. 41-97.
 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.