Jesus was Asian, said my Teacher, Samuel Hugh Moffett (1916–2015)

Ron Choong
7 min readSep 24

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It was 2015 in February. I was doing research in northern India when I heard the news that my friend and mentor had passed on. At almost 99, Samuel Hugh Moffett had lived to a great age, and I count it a great privilege to have known him during the last 19 years of his long life.

Sam was born in 1916 to missionary parents in Pyongyang, Korea. He studied at Princeton Seminary and went on to Yale for his PhD in history. In 1947, he and his wife, Elizabeth Tarrant, left for China as missionaries before Mao’s Communist Revolution expelled them from the country after a spurious trial.Elizabeth died three years later of cancer. In 1956, Sam returned to the land of his birth, Korea with his second wife, Eileen Flower. There, he taught and researched for the next 25 years before returning to the States to teach at Princeton Seminary from 1981–1986. I met Sam 10 years after his retirement.

I was a 36-year-old first-year seminary student (late starter, yeah) when I first met the 80-year-old professor. One of my classmates said I should meet this white professor who spoke Mandarin Chinese — my friend did not know that I did not speak it myself. Sam would take lunch at the cafeteria and meet students. I was one of them. I will always remember his kindness. He was aware that as a graduate student on a very tight budget, I tried to cut down on expenses. There were many occasions when Sam insisted on buying my lunch.

I learned 3 things from Sam:

1. The Asian roots of Christianity from studying geography and history.

2. Religions influence each other and evolve over time.

3. I should write my reflections down as time is not on the scholar’s side.

1. Christianity’s Asian Roots

Sam knew that I was on a lifelong quest to understand God in the contexts of science and other religions, beyond Christian belief in Israel’s God. He told me about the forgotten history of Christianity outside the West. I was stunned when he told me that Jesus was Asian, the Church began in Asia and Asia produced the first known church building, the first NT translation, the first Christian King, the first Christian poets, and arguably the first Christian state.

Asian Christianity

As an Asian who has always thought of Christianity as a European faith — I was gripped by the idea of this little explored reality.

In his studies of geography and history, Sam traced the journey of the Apostle Thomas to India via Oman, the rise of the Persian Church known as the Church of the East (sometimes called the Nestorian Church) at Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey). Its Assyrian missionary Alopen from Seleucia-Ctesiphon (near Baghdad) to Tang dynasty China, and Marco Polo’s incredible 20-year journey to Yuan dynasty China. Francis Xavier’s mission from Spain to India, Indonesia, Malacca Japan and on to Canton. Xavier’s convert, Anjiro, who became the first missionary to Japan, as a native speaker.

Anjiro and Francis Xavier

2. Religions Evolve as the Influence Each Other

Sam showed how every religion was intertwined with economics and politics. In his books, Sam wrote about other religions with respect — Madzaism or Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Mongol religion, Nestorianism, and Islam. Through his writings, I discovered that: there were Christian communities in modern Muslim Xinjiang, the Persian Mongol ruler accepted the appointment of a Nestorian Christian leader in Muslim Baghdad, Uzbekistan is named after Uzbek Khaan (r.1313–1341), the great-great-grandson of Batu Khaan, the Mongol leader of the Golden Horde in Russia, the first Mongol to convert to Islam and became the 6th Chagatai Khaan in modern Central Asia was Mubarak Shah, in 1390, the Uighurs of Turfan in China’s Xinjiang province were forced to convert to Islam. Turfan became known as Dar-al-Islam, Teguder, the Mongol Ilkhan of Persia converted to Christianity (Nicholas) and later to Islam (Ahmad), and that two of the most important Christian leaders in Persia were Uighur! Sam’s appreciation of other religions that Christianity encountered across the world prompted me to embark on a ministry of exploration to discover for myself what his generation could not. Advances in science and technology as well as medical pharmacology made visiting these far-flung places much safer.

Economics, Politics and Religion

3. Write it Down

Sam saw that I studied a great deal but chose not to publish any papers, until I felt I had more certainty. One day he invited me to his small office where had begun to write. It was full of handwritten notes in various stages of fraying. He then advised me not to wait too long before I wrote anything down. Sam had difficulty reading his own scribbles and feared that I might end up waiting too long before writing down my own findings and reflections. In retirement, Sam published his two-volume History of Christianity in Asia in 1992 and 2005, when he was 76 and 89. He regretted that he was unable to complete the trilogy with a 3rd volume on Christianity in Asia during the 20th century.

A History pf Christianity in Asia (2 Volumes)

When asked why he marked the year 1500 as the dividing period between his two books, he replied: “Prior to 1500, the way from Europe to Asia was largely by land, but after 1500, it was largely by sea. It was around 1500 that both Portugal and Spain sailed to Asia for both the Crown and the Cross, i.e., for gold and God. Then came the Dutch and British, as the East India Companies.” As someone born in Malaysia, I have known the colonial powers of Portugal, the Netherlands, and Great Britain.

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In 2010, something dramatic happened in my life that closed the door to a ministry I had known for 20 years. Sam suggested that I might visit the lands he wrote about but did not get a chance to see for himself. He had become too old to endure such adventure expeditions. I did not take him seriously — then I wondered, why not? From 2011, I began my plan to retrace the journey of Marco Polo, where he met Kublai Khaan, the Mongolian emperor of China whose mother was a Christian princess. Over the past decade, I have systematically visited the many lands that Sam wrote about — the next one coming up is Baghdad itself, and the ruins of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. His lifelong study showed that religions influence each other. My travels taught me that every religion evolved over time.

Sam and I had much in common

We were both born in Asia, both studied in the West, theology at Princeton and history at Yale, both fascinated by the great travelers who bridge the East and the West, as Christian scholars, we wanted to learn about other religions, and as citizens of the world, we considered the people around the globe part of our extended family. His deep interest in Asian history of Christianity sparked my own. Over the past 15 years, I have been tracing the accounts of Christian witness in his two books and visited many places he mentioned: Syria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, and soon, Algeria. Sam would have been delighted that I am now close to completing the Old Silk Road (except for southern Iraq and Afghanistan) — visiting and documenting with photographs and videos, the places he wrote of. I remember Sam urging me to start writing before I forget what I thought I remembered of what I knew.

“What’s with the Bible?”

I once asked him, “When you see God, what would your first question be?” He replied without batting an eyelid — “What’s with the Bible?” This was not what I expected from a missionary and professor of Church history. We spent many more conversations unpacking his four-word answer. Sam’s guarded answer resulted from a lifelong study of the Scriptures. This library of diverse genres, written by many anonymous writers, over a long period of time, in various locations — simply does not match the monolithic idea of the Bible as God’s Word we have been taught. His honest answer led me to investigate the history of canon, i.e., how the Bible came to be, with another distinguished scholar, the late professor of NT, Bruce Metzger, who lived to a ripe old age of 93. Both Bruce and Sam served as advisers to the ministry of ACT, for which I am grateful.

Every time we parted company, I’d say, “Sam, I’ll see you” and he would reply, “Not before I see you, Ron.”

Sam, if you can read this, here’s to you and your labors in writing of your learning. You will not be forgotten.

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Ron Choong

I am an interdisciplinary investigator and explorer of science and religion