Christian Missionaries Throughout History: Alopen

July 13, 2017

This series of articles will focus on getting a closer look at Christian missionaries throughout history, from the famous to the little-known missionaries who offer incredible stories of faith and courage as they spread the Gospel to all corners of the earth.

The missionary in question today is a little known or often forgotten missionary by the name of Alopen who was the first Christian to spread the Gospel to China.  

The early Christian church was often in a state of flux in its home territory within the confines of the Roman Empire along the Mediterranean Sea.  Persecution, along with doctrinal disputes, amongst early Christian churches often stalled the process of spreading the Gospel.  Due to the help of missionaries like Alopen, as well as the Apostle Thomas, who traveled well into India to preach the Gospel, it was quite possible that there were more Christians outside of the Roman Empire than within it during this time.

Alopen was not your traditional European missionary as we often think of them. He was Persian and from what is now modern day Syria.  The name Alopen is thought to be a translation from the name Abraham; perhaps spurred on by the persecution of Christians in the Persian Empire and the rise of Islam. Alopen decided to journey to the Chinese Empire in 635 AD via the Silk Road and spread the Gospel there.

The Chinese Empire at the time was under the rule of the Tang Dynasty and Emperor Taizong.  Emperor Taizong was very studious and encouraged religious freedom throughout the empire, a stark contrast to previous regimes who were often entirely pro-Buddhist. Taizong had an enormous library where he spent much of his time studying his collection of scrolls and documents.  

Alopen was welcomed immediately upon his arrival to China, with the Emperor sending a guard of honor to meet him and bring him to his palace. Curious to learn more about what Alopen was preaching, Emperor Taizong immediately asked for a translated copy for his library.

Since the Bible was not available as it is today, especially since the New Testament had only just recently been compiled, Alopen did his best to translate Jesus’s life and teachings into Chinese. Taizong was so impressed with the result that he ordered copies to be made and spread throughout the entire Empire. A church was even be built! These copies became what is now called the Jesus Sutras. It used Chinese Taoist and Buddhist language and terminology to best explain Christianity to the people of the Chinese Empire.

Unfortunately, this openness to Christianity was short lived. After the death of Emperor Taizong in 649 AD, new rulers became increasingly pro-Buddhist and Chinese Christians were wiped out by the fall of the Tang Dynasty. It wasn’t until the 1600s that missionaries from Europe began traveling to China. Upon their discovery of the Nestorian Stele, a monument documenting early Christianity in China, the missionaries were surprised to find that Alopen had been there first—over 1000 years ago.