Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.03.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.03.35

Nathanael J. Andrade, The Journey of Christianity to India in Late Antiquity. Networks and the Movement of Culture.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xvii, 296.  ISBN 9781108419123.  £75.00.  


Reviewed by Andrea Sterk, University of Minnesota (sterk@umn.edu)

Nathanael Andrade’s new book makes an important contribution to scholarship examining diverse cultures, identities, and religious communities on and beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Focusing on the transmission of culture across frontiers, he proposes to examine “how the religion of Christianity traveled from the Mediterranean to India” (ix). The book’s three parts comprise six chapters, followed by two appendices. The Preface introduces some of the challenging concepts used throughout the book. Oddly, however, Andrade does not discuss the term “India,” forcing readers to wait until Chapter 2 to tease out the meanings of this complicated term in the book’s title.

The Introduction presents Andrade’s methodology and main arguments. Drawing from recent trends in world history, especially the use of social network analysis, he sets out to reassess the Acts of Thomas and other “dubious literary sources” that scholars have mistakenly used to support the movement of early Christianity to India. He acknowledges diverse meanings of “conversion” before defining it as “the adoption of new social alignments, network affiliations, and practices in ways that facilitated the transfer of religious culture among bodies” (12). He also introduces the terms “evangelize” and “evangelizer,” but without any comparable definitions or discussion. In contrast to the radical itinerant preachers represented in the literature, Andrade affirms that evangelizers “followed well-laid social pathways blazed by socio-commercial networks” to conduct “evangelizing efforts at their residential settlements” (15). He claims his approach is the reverse of most previous scholarship: “socio-commercial networks should provide the context for the Acts of Thomas and problematic literary narratives, not vice versa” (21). Social networks, he argues, were key to Christianity’s travels from the Mediterranean world throughout Afro-Eurasia in Late Antiquity.

Part I, “The Acts of Thomas,” consists of one chapter focusing on this literary text that has been foundational for assumptions about Christianity in India from Late Antiquity to the present. Andrade first discusses the complexity of the text, the identity of the protagonist, Judas Thomas, its translation into different languages, and its adaptation by diverse Christian communities who aligned the text with their particular theological visions. His very brief outline of its content focuses on Acts I and II, which introduce Judas Thomas, the Indian merchant Habban to whom Jesus sells him, and the beginning of the apostle’s journey and converting activity in India. He also describes the layering of the text, for example, the insertion of the influential yet controversial Hymn of the Pearl, commonly believed to have been added by Manichaeans; yet he says nothing about the Hymn’s content until p.193. He then discusses the Acts’ integration of themes from the gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and ancient novels as well as Manichaean and Zoroastrian traditions. In this regard he cites Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint Laurent’s recent work, Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches (Berkeley, 2015). Andrade’s scattered summaries of the Acts of Thomas would have benefitted from the model of clarity with which Saint-Laurent presents a concise overview of the narrative, Act by Act, before addressing its complicated redaction history.

Compounding the confusion in Chapter 1, Andrade refers to two traditions of the Acts of Thomas as the “Parthian” and the “Indian” Acts, phrases he repeats throughout the book with no clear explanation of which Acts belong in which category. He first suggests that a “tradition” (paradosis) regarding Thomas’s evangelization of Parthia, referred to by Origen, was “most probably” not an oral tradition but a text circulating under anonymous authorship. By the next page this tradition has become “the text celebrating Thomas’s Parthian ministry” or simply “this Parthian Acts of Thomas” (51-52). Later in Chapters 1 and 4 Andrade refers to “the lost Parthian Acts of Thomas” (59, 162), not merely a “tradition” known to third- and fourth-century authors but a definitive text, now lost. He reiterates his main point in the chapter’s conclusion: while the Acts of Thomas shaped late antique beliefs about Thomas’s evangelization of Parthia or India, its narrative has no historical validity regarding the arrival of early Christianity in India.

Part II, “Christianity, Networks, and the Red Sea,” brings us to Andrade’s main interests and the heart of the book, namely the role of trade networks in transmitting culture. Chapter 2 examines the many “Indias” that appear in late antique sources. Ecclesiastical historians narrate the travels of diverse charismatic figures credited with evangelizing places called “India”: the second-century Alexandrian Pantaenus; Theophilus “the Indian,” sent by Emperor Constantius to build churches for Roman merchants in south Arabia; and Frumentius, who evangelized “inner” or “farther India” and was ordained bishop of Aksum. While classical writers distinguished between east Africa, South Arabia, and the Indian subcontinent with some precision, later Romans increasingly used the term “Indian” for “any population that inhabited regions south of Egypt” or whose merchants engaged in Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade (73-74). Ecclesiastical historians provide no reliable evidence for the movement of Christianity to India, Andrade summarizes, but rather describe the putative evangelization of areas in east Africa and Arabia.

Chapter 3 traces the Roman Egyptian socio-commercial network across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE, emphasizing Alexandria’s importance as a hub in Indo-Mediterranean trade. Andrade draws from diverse epigraphic, numismatic, and archaeological evidence that coincides with contemporary literary texts and papyri, for example, the “Muziris papyrus,” a fragmentary second-century document illuminating social relations involved in transporting a ship’s cargo between Alexandria and the Red Sea. Evidence of trans-imperial commerce and diplomatic exchanges, bolstered by the Acts of Thomas and other traditions of apostolic travel, strengthened the premise that Christianity had been transported to India before the fourth century. However, Andrade quickly dismisses such assumptions, because Christian culture did not become established beyond Alexandria until at least the late third century; meanwhile the Roman Egyptian network experienced a hiatus in commercial activity that disrupted direct contact with India for centuries. When the network revived in the fourth century, he explains, Alexandrian churchmen like Athanasius sought to use it for their own purposes. Yet ecclesiastical activity was “not the primary motor” for Christianity’s anchorage beyond Egypt. Rather, the Roman Egyptian network transmitted Christian culture to Aksumite Ethiopia, Arabia, and other parts of the Red Sea—“the ‘Indias’ whose evangelization the late antique ecclesiastical historians narrated” (130-131).

Part III shifts focus to the Middle East, where other traditions about Thomas’s travels emerged. Chapter 4 surveys evidence of Christianity’s movement into Sasanian Persia. Unfortunately, the absence of maps or explanatory information to help readers navigate such locations as Upper Mesopotamia, the Parthian lowlands, Sasanian highlands, the Iranian plateau, Khuzistan, lowland Iraq, and the Roman Levant will leave even the most conscientious non-specialist bewildered. Late antique chronicles and hagiographies describe Christianity’s movement through lowland “Parthian/Sasanian territory” to the Iranian plateau, Central Asia, and India, connecting this movement with first-century itinerant apostles and linking their missionary success with merchants and trade. Yet Andrade emphasizes the dubious reliability of these accounts which, like the Acts of Thomas, “bear the hallmarks of contrived literary elements that circulated widely in Late Antiquity” (148). Though sources show that diverse Christian communities populated Parthian territory by around 200 CE, we have no reliable evidence of such communities in the Iranian plateau or central Asia before 350. The “culture of Christianity” was transported to those regions only in the later fourth century. Chapter 5 traces Levantine socio-commercial networks into Central Asia. In an effort to assess “social connectivity,” Andrade devotes much of this chapter to the alleged commercial activity of the Roman Syrian merchant Maes Titianos. Reproducing much of his earlier article (164n1), he demonstrates that Maes likely did not travel as far as the Iranian plateau, much less send an embassy to the farthest reaches of Asia, as many have assumed. Since this early second-century merchant was in no way connected with Christianity or the transmission of Christian culture to India, it seems excessive to spend 30 pages analyzing his travels. More valuable in Chapters 4 and 5 is Andrade’s discussion of Manichaeism and comparison with the slower spread of Christianity, which followed the same pathways but “had a longer gestation period” (202).

Chapter 6 returns to the Acts of Thomas and its impact, such that late antique Christians from Mediterranean and Upper Mesopotamian regions mistakenly came to believe their co-religionists lived in India. Andrade ends by explaining how the lowland Sasanian socio-commercial network finally transported and anchored Christianity in south Indian ports; but this did not occur until the fifth century, aided by the organization of the Church of the East. Summarizing the chapter and one of the book’s main arguments, he concludes that the Acts functioned as “an article of Christian culture,” and that late antique Christians “created a historical experience of Christianity in India even before Christianity had arrived and found anchorage there” (231).

This is a very learned monograph. To support his thesis about the transmission of culture, Andrade incorporates an impressive breadth of sources, both textual and material, from Greek papyri to Chinese histories and Tamil poems. He is at his best when tracking the development and disruption of socio-commercial networks that connected various regions of the ancient Afro-Eurasian world system. He shows how these networks cohered and created pathways by which religious cultures traveled, and how they facilitated the spread of late antique literature about Christianity’s movement. Specifically, they carried “invented narratives” of Thomas’s apostolic travels that shaped the way Christians viewed the spread of their religion, and eventually how Christians in India understood their Christian past.

Unfortunately, the book is very confusing, assuming a high level of geographical, historical, and literary knowledge of the late antique Near East. Andrade introduces important people, places, works, and concepts without explanation. For example, the first mention of Parthia occurs in connection with the “Parthian Acts” (51), but nowhere does he explain that “Parthian” and “Sasanian” refer to subsequent Persian dynasties, or that their empires encompassed largely the same territory. The book’s three maps do not include many of the regions or kingdoms he mentions. Meroitic, Aksumite, and Nubian Ethiopia are discussed in connection with the Roman Egyptian network, but Andrade indicates neither their location nor their historical relationship; and neither Meroë nor Meroitic Ethiopia appears in the index. Other editing deficiencies include an amusing typo, “martial intercourse” (35), syntactical errors (Mani’s religious “cultural” rather than “culture”) (206), and excessive repetition.

Andrade’s approach and analysis are also problematic. He draws from the methods and terminology of social network analysis—networks, anchor points, circulation society, etc.—but in the absence of adequate maps, charts, a glossary, or clear explanations of terms, his dense prose tends to complicate rather than clarify. More vexing is his treatment of Christianity. Andrade speaks repeatedly of networks “transporting Christianity” or “carrying the culture of Christianity” to ports in the Red Sea, south Arabia, and Central Asia—if not to India. Yet he barely acknowledges different “strands” of Christianity and says almost nothing about what constituted “Christian culture.” Nor does he discuss the specific personnel involved in its transmission, referring only vaguely to the “bodies [who] carried Christian culture…and anchored it in expatriate residential settlements” (205). Despite two appendices with the beginning of the Syriac and Greek Acts of Thomas, Andrade offers no substantial analysis of the role of languages, liturgies, or translation in transmitting and embedding Christianity in “residential communities.” He occasionally mentions preaching or the “missionary activities” of evangelists, but the nature of such activity is nowhere discussed.

For specialists interested in late antique trade networks and the geographical “movement of culture” indicated by its subtitle, this book has a great deal to offer. Scholars of late antique religion, particularly those attracted by its title, may be disappointed. This is not primarily a book about “the journey of Christianity to India” but rather about the socio- commercial networks that carried an ill-defined “Christian culture” from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, the Red Sea and Indian Ocean worlds, and Central Asia. It is a fascinating study, but not what most readers would expect from the book’s title.

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