Travel back in time with me to the early 7th Century. We are on a visit to imperial China and the Tang dynasty is on the rise. Our focus, in this story, is on the second emperor of that dynasty, Emperor Taizong, often regarded as one of the greatest of all Chinese emperors.
He was quite a scholar; he established one of the largest libraries in the ancient world and promoted study of the Chinese classics for all who would take on a role in his administration. After a period of struggle, in which he established control, his reign was marked by great prosperity and peace. This was due in part, at least, to his fostering trade and cultural links with places outside China, such as the Sasanian Empire in Persia and beyond. The emperor’s grandmother was of Turkic ethnicity and he seems to have taken particular interest in non-Chinese people. Traders following the ancient Silk Road trade route, from as far away as Damascus, were frequent visitors to the imperial capital, Chang’an, known today as Xi’an.
The visit of one such trader to Chang’an is recorded in some detail on a large stone slab that was discovered in the 17th Century. (The Nestorian Stele, as it is known, actually originates from 781AD, but had lain buried underground for over 800 years.) The text on the stele relates how, in the ninth year of Emperor Taizong, the most virtuous Alopen came from Ta Tsin bearing the true Scriptures.
To spell this out for a modern reader, a Christian trader, named as Bishop Alopen, came from Damascus, or possibly Antioch, in 635AD. On arrival in the capital, he was invited, with his Bible, into the palace to meet the emperor.
The ancient text goes on: the sacred books were translated in the imperial library; the emperor investigated the books in his private apartments; after becoming deeply impressed with the rectitude and truth of the religion, he gave special orders for its dissemination.
There is a growing body of evidence that churches sprang up in many parts of the Chinese empire in the years after Alopen’s biblical texts were translated.
Now let us not get too carried away. Alopen did not produce a translation of the entire Bible and there was no printing press, not even in China, to enable wide dissemination! On the other hand, consider these amazing facts.
Firstly, Emperor Taizong did not ask initially for debate or a lecture; he wanted to examine sacred texts. His interest in literature fits entirely with what we know about him from other sources. He wanted to discover for himself more about this ‘Persian religion’, for this was evidently how he viewed the Christian faith. Christianity had earlier grown very strong around the Persian Gulf; there were vibrant centres of the faith in Seleucia and Baghdad. In point of fact, the Scriptures Alopen carried with him were almost certainly written in Syriac.
He wanted to discover for himself more about this ‘Persian religion’.
Secondly, translation of these sacred texts was obviously required. Indeed, it was the first task of the followers of Jesus in this new cross-cultural dialogue, as Dr Andrew Walls pointed out in a 2007 lecture to Wycliffe staff. Dr Walls went on: ‘The first Bible translation into Chinese took place in the royal library under the eyes of the official scholars.’ We do not know exactly what was translated, but we have clues. There was one book produced in 638 entitled Discourse of the Universal Lord concerning Almsgiving. It is, in fact, a translation of much of the Sermon on the Mount. There is another book entitled Introduction to the Messiah which presents an overview of the Fall, the law and Gospel extracts.
It is a story of the spreading of the faith from Asia to Asia.
Challenges in how you translate key terms such as Messiah, how far you employ Confucian concepts, how you convey Paul’s theological ideas are all evident. To this day, they remain issues for the translator to wrestle with.
Consider also the impact of these translated Scriptures. The text on the Stele states that Emperor Taizong was impressed with what he read. Furthermore, it states that he issued an edict in the seventh month of the year 638. His Edict of Toleration allowed the spread of the Christian faith in China. There is a growing body of evidence that churches sprang up in many parts of the Chinese empire over the next 200 years.
The story of Alopen is remarkable at several levels. It is a story of the spreading of the faith from Asia to Asia. This was not the work of the Roman church but of the Eastern Church, the Nestorian church based in Syria. It is also a story where the text of Scripture is central. Emperor Taizong did what no Sasanid ruler had ever done; he examined the biblical text and, having done so, sanctioned the spreading of the Christian faith.
And as for Alopen, we have no idea who he was. Some speculate that Alopen was a Chinese version of his name, and that he was really called Abraham. The title he is given on the stele is obscure. ‘Lofty Virtue’ is the way one translation has it. He may have been a bishop or he may have been given such an honorific title for other reasons.
It is a story from a very far off time, but nonetheless remarkable for demonstrating the power of the word and the effectiveness of mission that is both bold and humble.