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Jul 1, 2004 4:27 am

Nestorians and the Legend of Prester John ...

At The Argus, pf has a terrific post on Nestorians and the Legend of Prester John. Nestorius (ca 351-451 CE) was an early Christian theologian and patriarch of Constantinople, who was condemned in his own lifetime as a heretic. Because of efforts to crush heresy, the usual fate of early heretics is that their teachings are known only through the writings of their opponents, so exactly what Nestorius taught is in dispute. Even so, his teachings became identified with the peculiar character of the Christian churches located outside the Roman Empire and spread from Egypt to India and Mongolia. These churches, centered in Mesopotamia, were out of communion with the rest of Christendom long before the great assize which divided Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Nonetheless, knowledge in the West of the existence of these churches in the East has a long tradition. In the high middle ages, it fed rumors of a mighty Christian potentate, Prester John, whose power threatened both Moslem caliphates and Persian sultanates. Reports of Prester John's kingdom sometimes located it in India or in Abyssinia on the horn of Africa. Such reports of a Christian kingdom in the East encouraged European voyages of exploration. In our own time, the Church of the East is of renewed interest because the largest body of Christians in Iraq are the Chaldean Christians. They speak Aramaic or Syriac and have not been in communion with the rest of Christendom for over 1500 years.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 7/2/2004

Your post made me take down from my shelf my copy of Lindberg's The Beginnings of Western Science. There's a neat bit there on the Nestorians as vectors of Greek science and culture to the East. They translated a large body of Greek literature, and became the court physicians in Baghdad. One Nestorian was installed at the head of the House of Wisdom.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/1/2004

Thanks for the recommendation, Konrad. I'm a huge fan of The Name of the Rose. I'll want to read Baudilino.

Konrad M Lawson - 7/1/2004

I didn't know much about this fascinating Prester John factor until I read Umberto Eco's newest book Baudilino . In addition to writing a book that thoroughly rattles the mind of the reader and plays with ideas of narrative, memory, truth and deception, he does a wonderful job of introducing the reader to the rich world of Prester John myths, as well as dozens of variations on medieval theological debates. I really recommend the book, it was an eye opener for me in many ways.