LEADER TIMES WEEKEND RELIGION ARTICLE FOR
September 8, 2012 by William H. Scarle, Jr.
Persia, today’s Iran, was not a part of the Christian Byzantine Empire when it was overrun by Islam in 644 AD. It was, in fact, at war with Byzantium, which, in part, accounts for the weakness of the Byzantine forces when Syria and Africa fell. Persia was largely a Zoroastrian culture. It was so in the first century when Christianity was born.
There are a few references to Persia in the New Testament. The Magi who visited Bethlehem and brought gifts to the young Jesus were likely Zoroastrian Priests from Persia. The Magi were a Zoroastrian religious order of priest scholars. About thirty years later the Apostle Peter was preaching in the courts of the Temple. There were present, among others, Parthians, Medes and Elamites from Persia who heard the good news of the Messiah’s resurrection and victory over sin and death.
The Apostles who evangelized Persia following the resurrection of Jesus according to tradition were Peter and Thomas. The Church grew rapidly in Persia. Our sources for Eastern Christianity are scarce, but Syriac documents indicate that at the beginning of the third century there were three hundred and sixty congregations in Persia and many martyrs.
Part of the reason for the rapid growth of the faith was the existence of Jewish communities throughout the Sassanid Empire. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem under Darius the Mead in 538 BC many stayed in Persia. These Jewish communities spoke the Aramaic language, the language spoken in Israel and still spoken by the Assyrian Christians in Iran today. The Apostles went first to the Jewish communities. This was the same strategy used by Paul in the West. The biblical faith was the foundation of the Gospel message. However, it led to a different linguistic and religious culture. The language of the West was Greek. The Church in Persia never really identified with the Persian language. The culture and rulers of Persia were Zoroastrian. The Christians of Persia saw themselves as Syrian Christians, and developed their liturgy in the Syrian, or Aramaic, language.
Whenever Joan and I would visit Bethlehem we would shop at a large restaurant and gift shop along the Bethlehem road from Jerusalem. The proprietor was a Syrian Christian who would always come on the bus and pray the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic.
The history of the persecution of the Christians in Persia is an up and down story, depending upon the disposition of the ruler. This article is not long enough to discuss that history. One theological issue became prominent in Persian, or Assyrian, Christianity. Nestorianism was a movement of the followers of Nestorius who was Bishop of Constantinople about 451 AD. It involves the relationship of the divine and human nature in Jesus. Assyrian Christianity still holds a Nestorian view in conflict with Western Christianity.
Today Iran’s indigenous Christians include an estimated 250,000 Armenian Christians and 32,000 Assyrians. Added to this would be small numbers Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant believers.
The reason for this article and a few others is to fill in a history which is sorely neglected. The Middle East is not all about Islam. There are other elements in the story.
(Bill Scarle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).