Quote from Philip Jenkins and Timothy of Seleucia


This is an extended quote from Philip Jenkins book, “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Goden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia– and How it Died” (HarperOne, 2008).  I suppose it may be a longer quote than normal copyrights approve. But I do heartily recommend getting the book for those who are interested in Christian history… even more so since Asian and African Christianity are gaining in importance. Interfaith dialogue and interaction are also gaining in import, so there is much to be gained from this book.  This section speaks of Bishop Timothy living in the 8th and 9th centuries AD in Selucia. I am quoting from pages 16-19.

“Timothy’s church also had critical interactions with Islam, inevitably because for the past century and a half most Eastern Christians had lived under Muslim political power. Christians largely flourished under that authority, although subject to legal disadvantages. Timothy lived in a universe that was culturally and spiritually Christian but politically Muslim, and he coped quite comfortably with that situation. As faithful subjects, the patriarch and his clergy prayed for the caliph and his family. The catholicos was a key figure at the court of the Muslim caliph, and when the city of Seleucia itself went the way of ancient Babylon, fading into ruin in its turn, the caliphate moved its capital to Baghdad; and Timothy naturally followed. Most of his patriarchate coincided with the legendary caliphate of Haran al-Rashid, the era of the Arabian Nights.

As in the case of Buddhism, Christians had to engage intellectually with Islam, and the interactions were impressive, even moving. Timothy’s famous dialogue with the caliph al-Mahdi survives as a precious monument of civilized, intelligent religious exchange. …. He asked the king to imagine that

we are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house, a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of people, and all become aware of its existence, every one would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one a stone or a bit of earth, but every one will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those people who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch their hand towards the light, which alone can show what everyone has in hand. The one who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.

In the same way, Timothy said, the pearl of true faith had fallen into the transient mortal world, and each faith naively believed that it alone possessed it. All he could claim– and all the caliph could assert in response– was that some faiths could see enough evidence that theirs was the real pearl, although the final truth would not be known in this world.

Timothy could speak so freely because Eastern Christians played such a critical role of building Muslim politics and culture, and they still had a near stranglehold over the ranks of administration. Their wide linguistic background made the Eastern churches invaluable resources for rising empires in search of diplomats, advisers, and scholars. Eastern Christians dominated the cultural and intellectual life of what was only slowly becoming the “Muslim world,” and this cultural strength starkly challenges standard assumptions about the relationship between the two faiths. It is common knowledge that medieval Arab societies were far ahead of those of Europe in terms of science, philosophy, and medicine, and that Europeans derived much of their scholarship from the Arab world; yet in the early centuries, this cultural achievement was usually Christian and Jewish rather than Muslim. … Timothy himself translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic, at the behest of the caliph. …

It was during Timothy’s time that Baghdad became a legendary intellectual center, and the caliph’s creation of the famous House of Wisdom, the fountainhead of later Islamic scholarship. But this was the direct successor of the Christian “university” of Jundishapur, and it borrowed many Nestorian scholars. One early head of the House of Wisdom was the Christian Arab Hunayn, who began the massive project of translating the Greek classics into Arabic: the works of Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists, as well as medical authorities like Hippocrates and Galen.”

It is sad that the congenial relations were not mirrored in Western Christianity. It is also sad that the usually peaceful relations in “Muslim” territories between Muslims and Eastern Christians ended starting in the 13th century continuing until today. However, as more and more Christians live in countries whose government is not aligned with Christian beliefs (be they Muslim, Buddhist, Secularist, or otherwise) we may find better models from the 1st Millennium Eastern Christianity in how to relate in their societies.

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