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CHINA: Ruins of an Old Christian Church on Lao-Tzu's Turf

From China, Paul Simon sends me an interesting article on a recently discovered early church in China, described in Martin Palmer, The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity (Ballantine Books, 2001). Here is an extract;

"The tranquil landscape surrounding a lonely stone pagoda some 50 miles from the city of Xian in northwestern China has inspired visionaries and rulers. According to legend, the founder of Taoism, Lao-tzu, wrote his classic work, the Tao Te Ching, during a single night's stay in the nearby hills before disappearing into the west. More than 1,000 years later, in the seventh century A.D., a Tang emperor erected a vast complex of Taoist temples on the site, calling them Lou Guan Tai. And there, more recently, Martin Palmer, a British Sinologist and theologian, claims to have discovered remains of the earliest Christian church in China, dating back to the seventh century.It's rather like the Hari Krishnas being allowed to build a temple on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral," Mr. Palmer said on the telephone from Manchester, England, where he heads the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a nonprofit preservationist group. "It immediately changes >our picture of the church in China. Western scholars had said that it was a heretical church, that it had no impact on Chinese culture. And here we see that it was given an incredibly honored position."

Mr. Palmer has long been interested in this Church of the East, whose followers were concentrated in Persia and scattered across the ancient trading routes to China, from Baghdad to Samarkand. Little evidence of their existence survives. The Nestorian Stone, an eighth- century tablet in the Museum of Stone Inscriptions in Xian, tells the story of Christian missionaries arriving in the capital of Changan (now Xian) in A.D. 635 from present-day Afghanistan. And scrolls found in the caves of Dunhuang, on China's northwestern frontier, recount a version of the gospel in Chinese, melding Christian, Taoist and Buddhist imagery.

"The scrolls describe a church in which men and women were equal and slavery was forbidden," Mr. Palmer said. "Its version of the Ten Commandments instructed Christians in vegetarianism and forbade the taking of any life. It taught the Taoist notion of original goodness, rather than original sin, and it said the answer to karma and the fear of perpetual reincarnation is Christ."

Ronald Hilton - 2/28/02