The Kingdom and the kingdoms

A little after 680 CE, Julian, bishop of Toledo, the capital of the Visigothic kingdom of Spain, was challenged to answer a constant objection made by the Jews against Christianity. Christians were misguided to think that, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah - the "Christ," the Anointed One -had come. The Messiah had not come. The world was only five thousand years old. The sixth age in which the Messiah would arrive had not yet even begun. The recent centuries lacked meaning. They were a blank space, a time of waiting for the arrival of the true Christ - the Anointed One of God.

To the bishop of Toledo, his imagined Jewish interlocutors could not have been more wrong. History was already tinged with excitement. The Messiah had come. Christ had been born in Bethlehem in the days of the Emperor Augustus. His coming to earth had left a palpable trace. For it had coincided with a moment of almost supernatural quiet, throughout the Mediterranean world, associated with the foundation of the Roman Empire. Civil wars ceased. Peace returned to the cities. Relieved of military emergencies, the civilian population returned to the fields: "and the business of war was delegated to the Roman legions alone, to be conducted against barbarian nations."1 For Julian, the peace of the Roman world in the age of Augustus, now over six centuries in the past, had been nothing less than the footprint on time of the incarnate God. The peace of Rome itself had not lasted. ForJulian, the present age was an age of war. But that distant and momentary lull in the laws of history proved to Julian that the Jews were wrong. The Messiah had come. His arrival had been marked, in time, by a thin fleck of peace. From that time on, the world had entered its last, sixth age. And this sixth age was to be lived out under the shadow of a vast, invisible empire. The entire world now belonged to the Kingdom ofChrist: "The Lord has made bare His holy arm in

1 Julian of Toledo, De comprobatione sextae aetatis, 1.13,160.

the sight of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God."2

What we moderns call (with deliberate vagueness) the "spread of Christianity" was, for Julian of Toledo, the proclamation, through the Catholic Church (and through no other body admitted by him), of the fact that the Kingdom of Christ had happened, and could be seen to have happened, "in the sight of all the nations . . . and [to] all the ends of the earth."3

It was not a claim calculated to convince a contemporary with any degree of geographical knowledge. The Jews raised the fact that many "barbarian" nations had plainly not become Christian. Julian's answer to such skeptics is revealing. He divided the world into two zones. The first was fully Christian; and it was fully Christian because it was ruled by Christian rulers. "For although there are still unbelievingpeoples in some regions, they are nonetheless unable to escape the Lordship of Christ. For they are suppressed by rulers in whom it is known that Christ already dwells through their faith in Him."4

The second zone formed a less well-defined penumbra ofthe first: "For nor do I think [Julian continues] that there is any population left which does not know of the name of Christ. And although it may not have a preacher [of the Gospel present among them] it cannot but know of Christ from what it has heard from other nations."5

It is with this notion of a double zone within the single, overarching territory of the world-wide Kingdom of Christ that we must begin our account of what we now call "Christendom" in 600 CE.

Julian was already out of date when he wrote. One could not guess from his pages that, by 680, Muslim armies had already entered North Africa and would soon pass into Spain. But he was a scholarly bishop whose eyes in the year 680 looked at the world through the lens of books. For such a person, Christianity still lived in the shadow of empire. It was at its most confident and populous within the structures of two great empires who had (until recently) controlled most of the agrarian land of the western hemisphere from the Atlantic coast of Julian's Spain to the edge of Central Asia and Afghanistan - the Roman Empire and the Sasanian, Persian Empire. It was of these empires that contemporaries first thought when they contrasted the grandiose Kingdom of Christ with the "kingdoms of the world."

3 Julian ofToledo, De comprobatione sextae aetatis, 1.13,160.

4 Ibid.

The sixth century had shown that the age of empires was far from over. Under the Emperor Justinian (527-65) the Roman Empire, ruled from Constantinople, reasserted its rights to large areas of the western Mediterranean -to much of Italy, to North Africa, and even to parts of Spain. Even outside the frontiers of the newly reconquered imperial territories, in Visigothic Spain and in the Frankish kingdoms, strong kingship still wore a recognizably "Roman" face. And a "Roman" face was a face borrowed from Constantinople. With a population of over half a million, Constantinople had become overwhelmingly the largest city in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. In Gaul and Spain, the Roman Empire, as it continued at Constantinople, had remained the preeminent model for earthly power at its most ebullient, formidable, and God-fearing.6

In western Asia, the Sasanian Empire (which embraced Iraq, Iran, and parts of Central Asia) showed that it was the equal of the Roman Empire. Under Chosroes I Anoshirwan (530-79) and again under Chosroes II Aparwez, "the Victorious" (590-628), the Sasanian Empire entered into a period of military and diplomatic confrontation with Constantinople which stretched throughout the Middle East from the northern Caucasus to Yemen. It was a colossal confrontation. It reached so deep into Central Asia and Inner Asia that it stirred the interest of the Chinese court in the affairs of the distant West for the first time since the days of Marcus Aurelius (121-80).7

The vast horizons still embraced by these "kingdoms of the world" imparted a sense of immensity to the Christian conviction that a yet wider Kingdom of Christ stood, as it were, as the invisible backdrop to the history of western Eurasia. How the various "kingdoms of the world" related to the Kingdom of Christ was a matter ofconcern to contemporaries. In around 550, at the far end of the Mediterranean, over two thousand miles from Toledo, a merchant and amateur theologian from Antioch engaged the same questions as did Bishop Julian. Cosmas (later called Cosmas the India-Merchant) was an experienced traveler. He had lived in Alexandria. He had traveled as far as Axum (Ethiopia) at the southern end of the Red Sea. He had even sailed on the Indian Ocean. For a subject of the Roman Empire, his religious loyalties were somewhat eccentric. Cosmas favored the views of the Christians of Persia, and spoke with admiration of the teaching of a converted Iranian, Mar Aba, who had traveled all the way from Mesopotamia to Alexandria and Constantinople in

6 Ward-Perkins, "Constantinople."

7 Mikawaya and Kollautz, "Ein Dokument zum Fernhandel."

the 520s before returning to Ctesiphon, near modern Baghdad, to become the head of the Church of the East.8

Cosmas's views on the Kingdom of Christ were conventional. The Kingdom of Christ alone was the truly "eternal" Kingdom spoken of by the prophet Daniel: "His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away."9 Cosmas took for granted that, in some way, a shadow of that eternity had fallen on the Roman Empire. Because Christ had been born within its territories, this kingdom had received special "privileges" from God. Though frequently damaged, for its sins, by barbarian invasion, it would last until the end of time. The world-wide acclaim of the rulers of Constantinople was known to Cosmas from his experience of the trade routes of Asia. He reported withpride that, as far away as Ceylon, the goldensolidus ofthe Roman emperors was regarded as the best currency in the world.

This did not mean that Cosmas viewed the Roman Empire of his days as a "universal" empire: the Kingdom of Christ was alone in that. But it was unbeatable. Its unshakeable prestige among the nations ensured that the Christian faith would never be "narrowed down" to one region alone.10

Faced with the Persian empire, Cosmas propounded a more "de-centered" view ofthe world than that which reigned in Constantinople. He found a place for Persia, also, in the Kingdom of Christ. Persia was not simply the traditional barbarian antithesis to the Christian empire. Though not a Christian state, the Sasanian Empire had a role in God's providence. For the Magi had come to Christ from the East. By bringing gifts to the newborn Christ in Bethlehem, they had paid homage to him as the true Emperor of the world on behalf of all Persia. This act of homage had given the Sasanian Empire certain "privileges."11 The Christian church within its boundaries could be treated as the equal, in prestige and even in numbers, of the churches of the West.12

In this "de-centered" view of the world, Cosmas was in touch with the realities of his time. The Roman Empire, though privileged, was one state among many. Its universal claims had been tacitly refused by the western kingdoms of the Franks and the Visigoths. In the East, the Sasanian Empire had shown itself to be on a par with Rome. The "Church of the East" was so called precisely because it was the Christian church within the territories of the Persian Empire, the "Empire of the Sublime Region of the

8 Wolska-Conus, La topographie chrétienne.

10 Cosmas Indicopleustes, Topographie chrétienne, 2.74-77, 389-93.

11 Monneret de Villard, Le leggende orientali sui Magi evangelici.

12 Cosmas Indicopleustes, Topographie chrétienne, 2.76, 391.

East." The Kingdom of Christ now towered above a world made up of many kingdoms.

We need only look eastward, to the Christian communities within the Sasanian Empire to which Mar Aba returned after his tour of the West, in order to appreciate how much the Christians of this time, in all places, still thought of themselves as living in the shadow of empire. The King of Kings and his aristocracy were loyal to their traditional Zoroastrian religion. But they had long extended a tolerance to the religious beliefs of their non-Iranian subjects which was far greater than any extended in Constantinople to religious dissidents.13 As a result, the Sasanian Empire stretched above the Christianity of the East as distant, but as much taken for granted as the sky. When Mar Aba summoned a council in 544 to impose order on the Church of the East, the council met at the imperial capital of Ctesiphon and at the direct behest of Chosroes I: "In the Year of the Victory of the sweet, the merciful, the beneficent Khusro [Chosroes], the King of Kings ... by the care of this new Cyrus, who is greater than all kings whom Christ has suggested to constantly lavish gifts upon His church."14

Though largely concentrated at this time in the towns and villages of northern Iraq, in the foothills of the Zagros, and in the trading posts of the Persian Gulf, the Church of the East partook in the vast horizons of the Sasanian Empire.15 Mar Aba's spiritual empire stretched as far as Zerang and Qandahar, in modern Afghanistan - over a thousand miles to the east of Iraq - where he was helped in his negotiations with the local bishops by the good graces of "Suren of Beth Garmai [northern Iraq] the Keeper of the Queen's Camels." There was a Christian bishop at Merv, the great oasis city on the far eastern frontier of the Sasanian Empire.

Thus, it was as a religion protected by the structures of the Persian Empire "of the Sublime Region of the East," that the "Church of the East" (which has come to be known to us as the Nestorian Church) entered the world of Central Asia. A generation after 600, at a time when the pattern of world-empire itself changed, with the dramatic rise of Islam and the consequent reconfiguration of the lands between Merv and China, the "Nestorian" church moved yet further east, to establish itself in China. It did so in the train of upper-class refugees from Persia, diplomats, and career generals. Christian monks and clergymen entered Hsian-fu in 635 less as "missionaries" than as part of the shattered remnants

13 Brock, "Christians in the Sasanian Empire."

14 Council of Ctesiphon (544), Synodicon orientale, 315.

15 Fiey, Communautés syriaques.

of the Sasanian Empire within whose framework a vigorous Christian church had grown up and expanded far into Asia in the fifth and sixth centuries.16

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