If Westerners are no longer astonished to meet fellow Christians from distant corners of the world, many still assume that these believers must be newcomers to the faith. In some cases, though, African and Asian Christians can trace a thriving church history back to a time when only the boldest missionaries were venturing into the remote lands of northern Europe. Their ancestors were Christian long before my own Celtic forebears (and we in turn have a couple more centuries of Christian history than the English).
Most striking are the South Indian communities who report that they were converted by the apostle Thomas. Although Thomas himself may remain a shadowy figure, it’s very probable that Middle Eastern Christians did follow Roman trade routes and make their way to the Malabar Coast during the first century, and certainly by the second. Today you can meet Indians whose genealogies claim to record the actual moment of the family’s conversion in those ancient times.
Philip Jenkins is professor of history at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade and The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels.