HEARTS RIPE FOR HARVEST: CHRISTIANITY PEEKING THROUGH THE FOG
Finding Christianity in the Archaeological Haystack
“The first impediment to archaeological research in all Central Asia is due to the extreme climatic conditions,” bewails a scholar of Nestorian archaeology. Nestorians were a sect of fourth century Christians who left an archaeological footprint in Central Asia, but as the scholar goes on to explain, their trail and the trail of Christianity in general is a hard one to follow.
While climate is recognized as a primary challenge in solving this puzzle, it is far from being the only one. Christianity was not native to the area; it was carried there among the parcels and packages of the travelers passing through. Once planted it was rarely allowed to grow unhampered by other influences. While the Western travelers thought bilaterally – I am a Christian/I am not a Christian – the Eastern thought process tended to be more complicated, amalgamating multiple belief systems into a personal theology, so even when Christian symbols are found they are often tainted by evidence of other belief systems.
When Christianity arrives in most cultures, it faces down an panoply of gods. The choice is clear, one God or many. The followers of Christ traveling the Silk Road, many of whom were Nestorians, encountered another monotheistic religious tradition, Zoroastrianism, which dominated the area for many centuries before the birth of Christ. Many scholars believe the Magi of the Bible were actually Zoroastrians and they find many cross-over influences between Judaism and Zorastrianism. This makes following the trail of Christianity even more confusing – especially when you consider the Nestorian form of Christianity was eventually declared heretical by the Byzantine church.
Climate had another ally in its effort to wipe out the trail of Christianity, and it is another monotheistic religion – Islam. The Silk Road trade routes, utilized for over fifteen hundred years, were shut down by the Ottoman Empire and all ties with the West were severed. While the initial indoctrination to the Muslim faith had not been particularly strong, it was followed by many centuries of unrivaled influence. During this period ideologies of the West were systematically barred from entering and those already existing erased. Churches became mosques and over the years the Muslims were almost successful in eradicating any evidence of Christianity along the once heavily traveled Silk Road.
"Finally," our frustrated archaeologist says, "one must note the extreme fragmentation of the documentation;it is dispersed in many countries, and it appears in many languages, not always well known, or in publications with very limited circulation and unknown to most outside a circle of orientalists. The dispersion of documentary materials has been caused not only by the division of the region into various states, but it is also due to the differing nationalities of the scientific expeditions which have taken significant material back to their respective countries, where it is preserved in their museums and libraries. This has also led to the publication of this material in a haphazard variety of languages. Such dispersion, generally characterized by inferior holding facilities and poor study centers, constitutes an almost insurmountable obstacle for those who wish to have a synoptic vision of the condition of the studies."
The Needle of Christianity is Being Uncovered
The Nestorian archaeologist admits, “Archaeological remains are few, but diverse, and they include sacred buildings, tombs, mural paintings, different objects, and inscriptions.” So, in spite of the difficulties, evidence of Christianity in the lands of the Silk Roads is coming to light.
While faith does not come through evidence, but by belief, it is important to Central Asians to know they have not been the first Persians to embrace Jesus Christ. One of the methods used by unbelievers to discourage Christians is to disinherit them from the Persian culture, a key element in the personal identity of all Central Asians. As more evidence comes to light, proving Christianity has been a part of the Central Asian culture since before the rise of Islam, Christians are emboldened to hold on to their faith and share it with others. This is a great encouragement to our Central Asian audience, for both the believers and seekers. Archaeology has become an unwitting ally in GHM’s efforts to reach the lost in Central Asia and the Middle East.
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