Cover Story

Staying the course

"Staying the course" Continued...

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

They settled in Haran (later in Scripture called Paddan-Aram), an important crossroads east of the Euphrates and not far from today’s Turkey-Syria border near Aleppo. Clay tablets discovered in Syria in the 1970s confirm these settlements, and also make reference to Canaan. Abram would eventually resume the journey, along the way acquiring a servant in Damascus named Eliezer so trusted that Abram named him his heir (Genesis 15:2).

THE SAME ROUTE would be taken by invaders from Mesopotamia against the tribes that descended from Abram (now Abraham): Assyrians captured Samaria in 722 B.C., then Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 597 B.C. They burned and destroyed it, along with Solomon’s temple, 10 years later.

In Babylonian captivity, the first Jewish Diaspora found bitter and sweet labor. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon weren’t Nebuchadnezzar’s only wonder: He built a bridge across the Euphrates supported by piers of brick covered with asphalt and designed to take into account river flow and turbulence.

Yet with their stores of Jewish teachings and law—plus their zeal to preserve both their history and their faith in a Messiah to come—the Babylonian Jews made the area the center of Jewish scholarship. Near present-day Fallujah in Iraq sprang Talmudic academies that produced the best translations of Jewish law, and where religious authorities served out justice as the Sanhedrin once had in Israel. They adopted present-day Hebrew script. Jehoiachin, the captured king, built a synagogue using stones carried from Jerusalem, and Ezra the scribe opened a synagogue and an academy. All survived the fall of Babylon to Persia.

Astonishingly, with exile and the destruction of the temple, the “spiritual supremacy of Judaism removed to the Euphrates valley,” writes Baptist missionary and author C. W. Briggs. 

SOME SCHOLARS SPECULATE that the apostle Paul, who “went away into Arabia” after his conversion near Damascus (Galatians 1:17-18), traveled to the Babylon academies to present the Jews of the Eastern Dispersion with the gospel. The term “Arabians” by then had come to signify those Jews. These scholars argue that as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul would seek ways to testify to the truth of Christianity in a bastion of Jewish learning. (As Briggs put it: “Paul was not the man to seek to learn to swim by reading books about the subject, but by plunging into deep water.”) Paul later adhered to a similar pattern on his missionary journeys, they contend, entering first the synagogue in any new city before preaching to the Gentiles.

Whether Paul made the trek to Babylon or not, we know that Christianity spread rapidly east, buoyed by the trade routes and commerce that ran from northern Mesopotamia into central Asia. In Edessa, Christian scholarship fostered early Syriac Christian writing. South in Tikrit, known widely now as the hometown of Saddam Hussein, Christianity dominated the city for hundreds of years after the coming of Islam. “Iraq was through the late Middle Ages at least as much a cultural and spiritual heartland of Christianity as was France or Germany, or indeed Ireland,” writes religion scholar Philip Jenkins in The Lost History of Christianity.

Yet for most Westerners it’s as though no legitimate eastward expansion of the church existed. The Bible maps we study in Sunday school show Paul’s missionary journeys around the rim of the Mediterranean, ever westward. We know “how the Irish saved civilization,” and how a German monk named Martin Luther wrested it from Rome, and how Reformers made their way to a Protestant New World. But we know little about how the Babylonian academies and the Edessan patriarchs made possible a culture of Christian learning that would affect global Christianity in also profound ways. As Jenkins points out, as late as the 11th century at least one-third of the world’s Christians lived in Asia. Their culture dominated the arts and sciences. Even the development of Arabic, the language of Islam, began as a branch of Aramaic.

AUDO: “I respect everybody who chooses to leave. But I will continue.”
AUDO: “I respect everybody who chooses to leave. But I will continue.”

Without this historical context, reports of contemporary persecution by the dominant Muslim culture dribble out of the region in isolation—treated as sectarian conflict or predictable oppression of minorities.

Given the length and breadth of Jewish and Christian influence that fanned out from the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the reductionist perspective distorts the enormity of present-day persecution—like writing George Washington out of the American Revolution. The notion of Christianity as a mostly Western inheritance leads to a poor understanding of its spread into Africa and Asia. And it ignores the historic diversity of Christianity—far more than “white man’s religion” spreading through colonialist expansion.

IN SPITE OF THE DISTORTIONS, the faith of Christians in the Middle East, like the history of the Jews, has been shaped by removal and destruction. Within five years of Muhammad receiving a revelation from Allah, he unleashed his Muslim armies upon the ancient empires of the Near East.


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