Reflecting on the “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia and the Arabs” of Pentecost…

It is common that moments before the Pentecost Sunday service a panicked Lector rushes into the Pastor’s study and nervously asks, “How do you pronounce these words: ‘Medes. . . Elamites . . . Cappadocia . . . Phrygia . . .Pamphylia?!” 

The catalog of peoples present in Jerusalem at Pentecost is often butchered beyond repair, but forgivingly brushed over as pastors focus on the underlying theological import of the text – “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (v.11).  The concluding, “What does this mean?” (v. 12a) is a wide open door that every Lutheran Pastor should step right into with a reference to Luther’s Catechism.  However, a close reading of the catalog of peoples in verses 9-11 might provide a great deal of food for thought for American Christians.

The list of peoples present at Pentecost in Acts 2 includes five groups of people whose origins were outside of the Roman Empire of the 1st century: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, and Arabs.  These peoples came from territories that are known today as Iran, Iraq and Jazirat al-‘Arab (the Arabian Peninsula that includes what we now call Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Yemen).  This list provided in Acts is important for at least two reasons: 

First, these Jews or Proselytes (non-ethnic Jewish converts) were legally and culturally outside of the Roman Empire; and

Second, they were from what we now call the Middle East.  If we add to the list those peoples present who lived within the confines of the Roman Empire we might include the current countries of Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Libya – of all places.  We might then recognize that the majority of Christians were from the “Middle East.”  Pausing a moment to reflect on the cultural origins of the Christians of Pentecost should be instructive for us.  Let’s take these two important reasons in reverse order.

Middle Easterners

Because of the 19th century Protestant Missionary movement, the world has come to associate Christianity with Europe and North America.  The “Great Missionary Age” ultimately succeeded in creating Christian communities around the globe.  While this may be something to give thanks for, there is a flipside.  I have heard from many of my African, Asian and Middle Eastern Christian colleagues and friends that their home cultures associate Christianity with “the West”, and more particularly “Amrika.”  This has implications for the witness of the Gospel – as the association of the Church with Western economic and political movements is myriad.  And yet, on this Birthday of the Church the first Christians were not Westerners, but Semites from the Orient, from what we now call the “Middle East.”  Of course, this is a modern term invented by the American Press near the tern of the 20th century to designate an area of the world with strategic interests that was distinct from the “Far East.”  Such re-defining of the world’s geography continues even today when North American media regularly includes Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Middle East – two countries that are part of central and south Asia.  In fact, Pakistan was prior to 1947 part of India.  So, to my knowledge India has never been considered part of even the Middle East…  

There is a joke among Christians of Bilad al-Sham (Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestine) that an American couple was on holiday touring Lebanon.  Their taxi driver was a Maronite Christian.  After a full day of touring historic and Biblical sites the American man got up the courage to ask, “Please, I am curious.  When did you convert to Christianity?”  The Maronite taxi driver responded without hesitation, “Yes, there were two very important missionaries who came here and converted my people.  The first Christian missionary worked in the south and the second missionary worked in the north.  The first missionary’s name was Jesus, and the second missionary’s name was Paul.”  The association of Europe and North America with Christianity is not Biblical.  I have never read a Bible translation of Acts 2:9-11 that has included in this catalog of first Christians: Germans, Brits, Scandinavians, Canadians, or Americans.

Even if Americans do recognize that there are indigenous Christians in the Middle East, the general narrative is understood that Christianity was wiped out with the coming of Islam in the 7th century.  Edward Gibbon’s 17th century classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire coined the phrase, that Muhammad came “with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other [and] erected his throne on the ruins of Christianity and of Rome.” The common urban legend is that Muslims violently killed or forcibly converted all people, including Christians and Jews. Thus, according to this narrative, the Crusades and Protestant (and perhaps Catholic) missions re-introduced Christianity to its rightful place in Jerusalem.

Well, of course, such a narrative is simply inaccurate.  While the coming of the Arab Muslim Empire of the 7th century did subjugate its peoples, including non-Arab Muslims, it did provide space for religious minorities in ways that both the Roman Empire did for Jews and the Sassanian Empire for Christians before it.  Certainly the provision of Christians and Jews under the Islamic Empires was not a utopia that some might wish to claim.  By the same token, the coming of Islam did not wipe out the “infidels” or systematically persecute them as both Conservative Christians and Radial Islamists are wont to believe.  The Islamic Empires made provisions for religious minorities in ways that cannot be equated in the history of Western Europe until after World War II (and with the Bosnian War even this is debatable).  While there was no pluralistic democracy under the Fatimids in Egypt or the Abbasids in Iraq, the history of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East is filled with examples of inter-communal exchanges and common cultural identities.  Mark R. Cohen’s Under Cross and Crescent:  The Jews of the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 1994/2008) provides a very helpful analysis of these relationships. 

We know enough from both Oriental Christian and Muslim historical sources to know that relationships varied depending upon the time and place.  On the one hand, the Arab Christian tribe Banu Taghlib participated in the Islamic conquest of Persia with their ethnic Arab Muslims compatriots in the 7th century.  On the other hand, Egyptian Mamluk Warlords were pretty good at burning churches and persecuting Christians during the 14th century (and disseminating despotic rule over Egyptian Muslims as well).

Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died (HarperCollins, 2009) provides a reminder to Western Christian readers that there is another Christian world out there that has had no connection with Western expressions of the faith (at least up until the “Great Missionary Era” and now with the emigration of Eastern and Oriental Christians to the United States and Europe).  However, his book supports the Western narrative that the original lands of Christianity have been pummeled into extinction.  The whole premise that there was a Christianity that was “lost” is simply our Western perspective, much like Columbus “discovering” America.  (Tell that to the Lakota!)  Two important notes in Jenkins’ pseudo-academic but very readable story is the reality that Christianity’s “demise” in Western Asia came at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries, whose “shock and awe” campaign wiped out any last vestiges of the high Abbasid culture, and the terrible attrocities committed against the Armenians in 1894-1896 and 1915-1916 by the Turks.  What is missing from Jenkins’ work is the important ongoing cultural legacy and contribution of the Christians of the Middle East who have found amazing ways to be faithful and fruitful in the face of many different kinds of adversity for over two thousand years (including inter-tribal, inter-Christian, and inter-religious warfare; famine and drought; as well as discrimination and persecution from Islam, Latin Christian Crusades, Turkish nationalists, British, French and Soviet Imperialists; and most recently the loss any security or stability after the 2003 invasion of Iraq).  For many Coptic Christians I know, their identity as Christians is cemented in the fact that the faithful Church is built upon the “blood of the martyrs” throughout time.  How can the church be anything other than that?

Two of the most helpful and easily accessible academic works on the early history of the Church in what we now call the Middle East is Samuel Moffett’s History of Christianity in Asia (Orbis Books, 1998), and still Aziz Atiya’s classic A History of Eastern Christianity (Gorgias Press, 1980/2010).

Outside of the Empire:

The second important theme to glean from Acts 2:9-11 is a reminder that many of first Christians of Pentecost were culturally, linguistically, and legally outside of the Roman Empire.  The Greek New Testament is saturated with the culture and history of the Roman Empire (so much so that the Gospel of John has to explain to its Greek readers the meaning of Aramaic terms and phrases).  Paul’s writings move thematically west toward Macedonia and then on to Rome, the heart of the Empire.  Paul himself was a citizen of the Empire.  The history of Christianity that we are used to is the story of the persecution and martyrdom of Christians within the arenas of Rome until the coronation of Constantine. 

However, as I remind my students what we consider to be the Eastern Church – the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches – is for the Christians of the Middle East and Asia the Western Church.  Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine Empire, is both geographically and culturally West of the Churches of the Middle East and Asia.  The Churches of the Middle East and Central Asia are rather known as the Oriental Churches (after the British term of “the Orient”).  Thus, to truly understand the meaning of Acts 2 and Pentecost is to completely shift our geographic, historic and cultural expectations from Western notions of the faith.  A previous Chinese student of mine wrote her Masters Thesis on the role of missionaries from the Assyrian Church of the East in Persia to the T’ang Dynasty of China in the 8th century.  Her point was that Christianity is an Asian religion whose founding in China had nothing to do with the West.  The work of F.C. Burkitt, including Christianity Outside the Roman Empire (Cambridge, 1899), is a testament vast history of the Aramaic, or Syriac speaking Church.

While the New Testament was written in Greek for distribution within the Roman Empire, the Christians living on the border of the Roman Empire and to its East spoke a variety of Semitic languages, including Aramaic – Jesus’ own language.  Aramaic ultimately developed into a number of dialects called Eastern and Western Syriac.  Most of our views of early Christianity is based upon social-historical studies of Roman society.  However, the history of the Syriac Church can be gleaned from many documents that have received scant attention by us, except by a few specialists.  Current scholars such as Sebastian Brock, Sidney Griffiths and Irfan Shahid have all undertaken extensive research on the early Syriac, Arabic and Persian Christian communities.  We might add to this the extensive work done on the Coptic Church, which developed outside of the environs and culture of Greek speaking Alexandria by Gawdat Gabra and Magdi Girgis, among many others.

Now back to the importance of the theological theme of Acts 2.  The Pentecost text fits nicely within the Protestant principle of reading, preaching and teaching the Word in the vernacular.  We Lutherans pride ourselves on Luther’s translation of the Latin Vulgate into vernacular German for the common people to read the Bible for themselves.  This legacy of getting the Bible into the hands and hearts of the laity can be witnessed today through the ELCA’s “Book of Faith” initiative.  This is the underlying theological content for us -  and rightly so.

The import of the Pentecost crowd proclaiming that “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” is what Lamin Saneh calls the “translatability” of the Gospel into any language and culture.  The very first translation of the Greek Scriptures was into Syriac was by Tatian in the 2nd century.  The Syriac speaking church utilized the Diatesseron, a compilation of the four synoptic Gospels into one narrative.  The Diatesseron was ultimately replaced by the Peshitta, the Syriac translation of the New Testament.  Its several recensions had a different ordering of the canon, and excluded 2 Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude and Revelation from the Canon.  (The 6th century Philosenian and 7th century Harclean Revision, however, added these five books.) 

The Copts began translating the Bible into vernacular forms of Coptic during the monastic “reformation” led by Anthony and specifically Pachomius in the 4th century.  One of the requirements for being  “entranced” into the monastic order was the ability to recite the Psalms.  Because most of the early Egyptian monks could not read Greek this led to the translation of the Septuagint into Coptic so that they might be able memorize it.  And, of course, the Armenians claim to have translated the Greek New Testament into Armenian by the monk Mesrob in the 5th century.  Arabic translations of the Bible, interestingly enough, do not appear until well after the Arab Islamic conquest.  John of Seville translated the Latin Vulgate into Arabic in the 8th century.  Yet, the first indigenous Arab translations that we have in hand do not appear until the 9th century.   (For further information on Arabic translations of the Bible you might see my “The Word Made Book:  The 1865 Van Dyck Arabic Translation of the Bible and Arab Christian views of wahy,” in David Singh’s Jesus and the Incarnation: Reflections of Christians from Islamic Contexts (Regnum Books, 2011).

The point of my pontificating here is that Middle Eastern Christians living outside the Roman Empire, with a very different historical narrative and cultural-linguistic frame of reference, have “heard of God’s deeds of power” and lived out their faith since that first day of Pentecost over two thousand years ago.  They have never been “lost.”  Rather we have just ignored them.  Their names are just too hard to pronounce.