Christianity Along the Silk Road

During the height of trade along the Silk Road, not only did merchants pass along commodities, but they also spread ideas. Religions such as Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Nestorian Christianity were given safe passage through the many trade networks that comprised the Silk Road (Hansen 2015). Nestorian Christianity is a sect of Christianity that follows the teachings of Nestorios, patriarch of Constantinople, who was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431CE for privileging the human nature of Jesus over his doctrinally equal divine and human natures. Due to Byzantine hostility, the Nestorian Church settled in Mesopotamia, called the “interior” within the church. Eventually, through missionary work and intellectual exchange, it spread to eastern Iran, Arabia, Central Asia, the coast of India, and Indonesia, called the “exterior.” Though officially divorced from the Church, Nestorianism prescribed to a similar hierarchy including abbots, priests, monks, and a catholicos—the Nestorian patriarch (Angold 2006). Peoples living along the Silk Road trade routes, such as the Sogdians, adopted, translated, and modified belief systems brought to them via the trade routes, such as Nestorian Christianity, into their cultures due to the surprising religious tolerance present in Central Asia during the ancient and early medieval periods (Hansen 2015). This tolerance may be due to the fact that many diverse groups lived within Silk Road principalities that were often subject to outside rule, such as the Sasanians or the Uighurs, and other outside cultural influences, such as merchants and traders. These communities depended on each other for certain goods and services, which may have resulted in this religious and cultural tolerance.

Although residents were allowed religious freedom, individual rulers oftentimes designated one religion as that of the state, for example, Sogdiana’s relationship with Zoroastrianism (Hansen 2015). Like Jews within a Zoroastrian state, Christians in Zoroastrian communities adhered to the laws of the land. This cooperation allowed Christians to often determine what their roles in society would be, sometime rising to the company of the ruling elite (Payne 2015). This Christian integration into society allowed for them to respond to “the call” to spread the religion. Classically attributed to Paul, the author of 2 Thessalonians explains the importance of belief in Jesus’ teachings and the need to spread those teachings (Barton and Muddiman 2007):

For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:14-15 NRSV)

It is possible that such active proselytizing occurred within tolerant Zoroastrian states such as Sogdiana, as well as further along the Silk Road via traders and travelers.

However, even considering the flourishing of Christianity and other religions under Zoroastrian rule, there were instances of violence sparked by religion (Payne 2015). This idea of violence and possibly martyrdom was not a foreign concept to early Christians, especially considering the deaths of Jesus, Paul, and Stephen. Upon death, Stephen was even granted a vision for his faithful missionary service: “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56 NIV). Stephen’s perhaps death served as an example for early Christians for what could happen if they engaged in proselytizing—death and glory from God. Even with the threat of death, Christians continued to be active missionaries. It seems that tolerant communities such as Sogdiana became incubators for religions along the Silk Road.

ChrSogd in Syriac Script: The Legend of Barshabba Bishop of Merv, who brought Chr'ity to the E Iranian area

Fragment of Bar Shabba legend

The spread of Christianity eastward begins with the legend of Bar Shabba coming to Merv in the second century CE and Christianizing the area. Fragments of the missionary story were found near Turfan and are part of the large collection of religious writings attributed to the Nestorians (Baum & Winkler 2000). Most Nestorian texts were written in Syriac, but others were written in Sogdian or a combination of the two scripts. Along with missionary stories, theological summa, biblical commentaries, apologies, collections of sermons, and works of history make up Nestorian texts. These writings seemingly were used to defend the doctrines of one church over another or against outside religions, as evidenced in a Christian refutation of Manichaean doctrines written in Sogdian (Angold 2006). As Christians were accepted into many non-Christian communities, they still managed to write treatises against less powerful heretical or non-Christian doctrines.

Sogdians living outside Sogdiana were important to the spread of Nestorian Christianity. Sogdian texts found in East Turkestan make clear that Sogdians translated Christian texts from Syriac to Sogdian (Gilman & Klimkeit 1999). However, it is uncertain when Christianity reached their homeland. The Nestorian church practiced fervent missionary activity between the fifth and eighth century CE, but Samarkand did not become a metropolitan see of the Church until the ninth century CE (Gilman & Klimkeit 1999; Angold 2006). Translations of Daniel, Moses, the Ten Commandments, the Nestorian Creed, and apocryphal texts as well as the Bar Shabba text were found at Turfan, but this lends little information as to when the religion reached Sogdiana (Sims-Williams 2014). 


Christian thurible

Another written source, a writing exercise in Syriac points to possible non-textual evidence of Christians in Sogdiana. The exercise, most likely the work of a Sogdian student, mirrors the liturgical language of the Church of the East (Hansen 2015). This calls to mind the possibility of a Christian school attended by Sogdians. Further, in the tenth century CE, a monastery was established northwest of present day Urgghut, some twenty miles from Samarkand. (Gilman & Klimkeit 1999). Until the eleventh century CE, an exclusively Nestorian community existed outside of Samarkand as well, although, again, the dates of the establishment of such a community is hard to trace (Lurje "Other Religions" 2014). In Penjikent, there is evidence of Christian burials. Fully extended bodies are buried in tombs, exceptions to the use of ossuaries in Zoroastrian funerary rites. One of these entombed corpses was discovered wearing a bronze cross (Hansen 2015). Evidence of Christian places in Sogdiana not only attests to the fact that they were a community within a community, but they had grown large enough to establish their own towns. Calling to mind their aid in missionary activity through translations, it is possible that Sogdian Nestorians helped spread the word even farther. For instance, westward towards Mosul where the Monastery of Mar Mattai was established in the twelfth century and where a thurbile possibly of Sogdian origin was discovered or eastward towards Pishpek and Toqmaq, where Christian cemeteries and churches were erected before the eleventh century CE (Angold 2006; Barthold 1962). What can be known is that Nestorian Christianity spread to Sogdiana and Nestorian Sogdians became implicit in that mission.

Christianity Along the Silk Road