Early Asian and East African Christianities

DAVID BUNDY Introduction

Christian communities evolved along the trade routes east of Antioch and south of Alexandria early in the Christian period as Christian merchants and soldiers plied their trades and told their stories. These were followed by priests and much later by organisational structures that have been, for historians, more recognisable as Christian churches. As modern migration studies indicate, migrants and merchants generally take their religion with them as they move. However, merchant missionaries do not keep good records of their religious lives and rarely recognise the cultural complexities, even contradictions, with which they live. As a result, the records of Christian communities in Asia generally begin when they attract the attention of administrators of church and state.

Early Asian Christians lived in very diverse contexts, contexts sometimes masked by the political unity imposed on diverse regions. National boundaries rarely reflected cultural boundaries, although over time differentiation took place. Differences of language, religion and ethnicity were easily recognisable by later historians. Larger cultural issues such as the understandings of death, pollution, embodiment (including poverty and asceticism), representation (including the functions of art), the understanding of power, and the factors of group identity have received less attention but were no less crucial.

Before and during this period, Christians came to live in most areas of Asia, including what is now eastern Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, China, Pakistan, the Arabian peninsula, Soqotra, the Persian Gulf and India. Christians generally had no access to political power in these regions (with the partial exceptions of Georgia and Armenia). In Byzantium, Christians by the end of the fourth century had co-opted the institutions of social, intellectual and political power. This did not happen in Asia. Christians lived alongside, often without access to, the

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