Bar Sauma and Rubruck’s experiences of learned religious debate

In the thirteenth century, Rabban Bar Sauma, a Christian monk from China, served as an ambassador from the western Mongol empire to the Roman Catholic pope.  Bar Sauma debated Christian cardinals in Rome. About the same time, Friar William of Rubruck, a Christian monk from the western edge of Eurasia, traveled with letters from the French King to the Mongol capital in central Eurasia.  Rubruck debated Buddhists and Muslims at the great khan’s court.  Both Bar Sauma’s and Rubruck’s experiences underscored the fruitlessness of learned religious debate.


Bar Sauma was born in the Chinese city now called Beijing.  He was the son of an eminent and wealthy Christian family.  Following an honored Chinese practice, he withdrew from society and became a monk.  He moved to an isolated place to pursue a life of poverty, study, and contemplation.  After more than seven years, news of his wisdom became known.  People began to honor him and visit him to hear his words.  After several more years, he set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  A long journey and intervening events, including his elevation to an episcopate of the eastern Christian church, led him to meeting with Roman Catholic cardinals in Rome in 1287.[1]

Bar Sauma and the cardinals in Rome engaged in sophisticated discussion of the precise relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son.  When asked to expound his creed, Bar Sauma provided a philosophical description of God’s nature.  The cardinals then initiated a dialectic focused on the Holy Spirit:

The cardinals asked:  “The Holy Spirit, does He proceed from the Father, or from the Son, or is it separate? ”

Bar Sauma replied:  “The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, are They associated or separate in regard to Nature?”

The cardinals: “They are associated in Nature but separated in Individualities.”

Bar Sauma: “What are their Individualities?”

The cardinals: “Of the Father, begetting; of the Son, being begotten; of the Spirit, proceeding.”

Bar Sauma: “Which of Them is the cause of the other?”

The cardinals: “The Father is cause of the Son, and the Son is cause of the Spirit.”

Bar Sauma: “If They are equal in the matter of Nature and operation and power and authority, and They are just Three Persons, how can one of Them be the cause of the other? [2]

Bar Sauma thus brought the reasoning to a contradiction.  They continued to argue respectfully through many more arguments about the same issue.  Bar Sauma then declared:

I have come from far lands not to dispute nor to expound the themes of the Faith; but to receive a benediction from the Reverend Pope and from the shrines of the saints, and to declare the business of the King and the Catholicos {head of the Church}.  If it be agreeable to you that we leave the discussion and you make arrangements and appoint some one who will show me the churches here and the shrines of the saints, you will confer a great favor upon your servant and disciple. [3]

Traveling across the former Roman Empire, Bar Sauma was deeply moved by the vast array of holy religious relics shown to him, wildly implausible to reason though those relics were.  Bar Sauma also marveled at the magnificent churches.  Things, not arguments, moved Bar Sauma.

The Christian ritual of communion was also important for Bar Sauma in building relationships in the foreign land of the former Roman Empire.  Bar Sauma traveled from Rome to visit Edward I, King of England, who was in the French province of Aquitaine-Gascony.  Bar Sauma celebrated the Eucharist in King Edward’s presence and served King Edward communion.[4]  Back in Rome, Bar Sauma received permission to celebrate the Eucharist there.  A large congregation gathered to see how the Christian ambassador from the Mongols, born in China, would celebrate the Eucharist.  Seeing Bar Sauma’s priestly acts, the congregation rejoiced and declared, “The language is different, but the rite is one.”[5]  Actions communicated more effectively than words.

Friar William of Rubruck had a similar experience of learned religious debate at the Mongol court in central Asia.  Rubruck was probably born in French Flanders.  He apparently spoke French in addition to Latin and was familiar with Paris.  He journeyed to the Mongols as a missionary and as an unofficial envoy carrying letters from the French King Louis IX.  He knew little about the Mongols and did not speak their language.  After a long, arduous journey, he arrived at the court of the Great Khan Mongke Khan in Karakorum in Central Asia in 1254.  Mongke Khan ordered representatives of Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists to engage in a public debate about the truth of their beliefs.  Rubrick spoke as a representative of Christians.[6]

The debate before Mongke Khan was formally serious.  Mongke Khan ordered each party to write before the debate a statement of its beliefs.  Rubruck and other Christians at the Mongol Court, whom Rubruck called Nestorians, plotted strategy before the debate.  The Nestorians wanted to debate first the Muslims, but Rubrick wisely explained that the Muslims would serve as their allies in debating against the polytheistic Buddhists.  The Christians together shrewdly decided to have Rubruck speak first for them, since Rubrick required an interpreter.  The Nestorians could join in subsequently with more agility and more rapid responses.  Rubruck proposed to his fellow Christians a debate rehearsal in which he would play the part of the Buddhists.  Rubrick, playing the role of a Buddhist, acted like a good medieval Christian philosopher.  He asked the Nestorians to prove the existence of God.  Rubrick recorded:

But at this point the Nestorians were incapable of proving anything, but could only relate what Scripture tells. ‘They do not believe in the Scriptures,” I said: “if you tell them one story, they will quote another.” [7]

As Rubruck acknowledged, holy scripture is not suitable for learned debate with non-believers.

Rubruck kept the actual debate with the Buddhist to philosophical-theological issues.  The Buddhist proposed debating matters of cosmological narrative: “how the world was made or what becomes of souls after death.”  Rubruck countered:

that ought not be the starting-point of our discussion.  All things are from God, and He is the fountain-head of all.  Therefore we should begin by speaking about God, for you hold a different view of Him from us and Mangu {Mongke Khan} wishes to learn whose belief is superior.

Rubrick shrewdly invoke Mongke Khan’s interest, but not in a way that reasonably discriminated between the possible opening questions for dispute.  The debate umpire ruled in favor of Rubrick.  Rubrick then declared to the Buddhists:

We firmly believe in our hearts and acknowledge with our lips that God exists, that there is only one God, and the He is one in a perfect unity.  What do you believe?

The Buddhist debater responded:

It is fools who claim that there is only one God.  Wise men say that there are several.  Are there not great rulers in your country, and is not Mangu Chan {Mongke Khan} the chief lord here?  It is the same with gods, inasmuch as there are different gods in different regions. [8]

The Buddhists had probably lost at this point.  Mongke Khan, as the Great Khan, regarded himself as Son of God and Lord of all the earth.  Before the debate, Mongke Khan, in imposing rules of civilized debate, asserted his exclusive claim to the authority of God:

The following announcement was made: “This is Mangu’s decree, and let nobody dare claim that the decree of God is otherwise.  He orders that no man shall be so bold as to make provocative or insulting remarks to his opponent, and that no one is to cause any commotion that might obstruct these proceedings, on pain of death.” [9]

After several turns of debate, Rubruck pressed home the winning question to the Buddhist: “{do} you believe that any god is all-powerful?”  In the presence of Mongke Khan, the Buddhist, not surprisingly, was reluctant to answer.  The Buddhist after some time answered that no god was all-powerful.  The Muslims responded with loud laughter.  Mongke Khan did not object to that commotion.  Rubruck pressed the point further and the Buddhist was rendered silent.  Rubruck then started to argue for “the unity of the Divine essence and for the Trinity.”  The Nestorians wisely silenced him.  They turned to begin debate with the Muslims.  However, according to Rubruck’s account, the Muslim conceded the truth of Christianity and declined to debate.  The Nestorians then engaged in a long, apparently friendly discussion with an old priest of a Uighur sect, whom Rubruck regarded as monotheistic, non-Christian idol-worshippers.  No one challenged a word of the Nestorians’ account of Christian salvation history and beliefs.

The result of the debate was only superficially a Christian victory.  Rubruck observed:

for all that no one said, “I believe, and wish to become a Christian.” When it was all over, the Nestorians and Saracens {Muslims} alike sang in loud voices, while the tuins {Buddhists} remained silent; and after that everyone drank heavily. [10]

Learned religious debate did little to bring together persons with different religious beliefs.  Singing and drinking was the superior practice.

The results of the debates in which Bar Sauma and Rubrick engaged were not idiosyncratic.  Across the first millennium after the birth of Jesus, Christian intellectual leaders engaged in learned debates about the nature of God.  How to describe precisely the relationship between God and man in Jesus Christ was an issue of bitter intellectual dispute.  That dispute led many Christians living in Eurasia northwest of Syria to condemn Christians in the rest of Eurasia as heretical Nestorians.[11]

Another issue of bitter intellectual dispute was how to describe precisely the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and to the Son.  Christians reciting the Nicene Creed in Latin declared (in approximate English translation), “I believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  Christians reciting the Nicene Creed in Greek declared (in approximate English translation), “I believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.”  The presence or absence of the clause “and the Son” prompted heated conflict among religious authorities.[12]

Not participating in learned religious debate is not necessarily anti-intellectualism.  Not participating in learned religious debate is not necessarily the thinking position of a ghetto believer.  It may be a wise judgment based on broad historical evidence of human understanding.

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[1] The facts in this paragraph are from The History of Yaballaha III and of his Vicar Bar Sauma, trans. Montgomery (1927) and Budge (1928).  Bar Sauma meant in Syriac “son of fasting.”  Montgomery (1927), Introduction, p. 19, n. 4.  Syriac was the liturgical language of early Chinese Christians.  Rabban was an honorary title meaning “master.”  Bar Sauma journeyed with his disciple Markos, a younger Uighur monk also from an eminent Christian family in China.  Markos became Patriarch Yaballaha III.  Murre-Vand Den Berg (2006) provides an insightful overview of the History and suggests that its author was Mar Yosep of Arbil, who became Patriarch Timothy II.  Pilgrimages westward were common among Chinese Buddhists.  In seventh-century China, the Buddhist pilgrim Yijing wrote a book containing biographies of 56 eminent Chinese Buddhist monks who traveled to India during the Tang Dynasty. See Lahiri (1986).

[2] Trans. adapted from that of Montgomery (1927) p. 58 and Budge (1928) Ch. 7.  The technical name of the issue under dispute was the matter of the filioque.  A letter that Patriarch Yaballaha III sent to Pope Benedict IX in 1304 illustrates the complexity of the issue.  The Latin translation of Yaballaha’s letter has him including the filioque.  The Arabic original is more subtle.  Teule (2003) pp. 113-6.

[3] Trans. Montgomery (1927) p. 59.

[4] Id. p. 65.

[5] Id. p. 68.

[6] The facts in this paragraph are based on The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, trans. Jackson (1990).  On Rubruck’s origins, see id., introduction, p. 40.  The earlier translation of W.W. Rockhill, updated, is available online as William of Rubruck’s Account of the Mongols.  Jackson (2011) provides an overview of the text.

[7] Rubruck, 33:11, trans. Jackson (1990) p. 232.

[8] Id. pp. 232-3.

[9] Id. p. 231. Christians and Muslims viciously insulted each other within the Mongol court.  Id. p. 225.  The Buddhists in turn were accustomed to highly confrontational debates:

Ritualized exercises in dialectics (sometimes involving magic), accompanied by all the pomp of a medieval duel or joust, were a common feature of Tibetan monastic life (and continue to be in the Geluk-pa order). The questioner faced his seated opponent in an aggressive posture, squaring his shoulders, raising his rosary and rolling up the sleeves of his gown, accentuating the final word of each question, stamping his feet, and clapping his right hand on his left in the other man’s face. The opponent might leap to his feet and reply with a question of his own. Colleagues of the winner would carry him on their shoulders in a victory procession, or he might sit on the loser’s back as if riding a donkey.

Young (1989) pp. 112-3.

[10] Id. p. 235.  Rubruck seems to have been highly intelligent and well-educated in Christian theology.  Yet he also had a keen sense for ritual and liturgy.  When he entered the Mongol leader Baatu’s court, he was instructed to kneel on both knees and then told to speak.  He recalled:

reflecting to myself that I could be at prayer, seeing I was on both my knees, I took my first words from a collect {ab oratione}, saying: “My lord, we pray God, from whom all good things do proceed ….

Id. p. 133.  When he entered a chapel, before he greeted an Armenian monk sitting there he prostrated himself and chanted the Ave regina celorum.  Id. p. 174.  He entered Mongke Khan’s presence in distinctive Franciscan habit, clasping a bible to his breast and singing.  Id. p. 190.  He and other Christians paraded about the Great Khan’s camp holding a cross aloft and singing.  Id. p. 199.  He made careful, eager preparation to have communion for Christians excluded from the eastern Christians’ communion service.  Id.  pp. 213-216. Over time Rubruck raised his status among the Mongols by emphasizing his priestly role.  Watson (2011).

[11] Positions in these disputes have been labeled monophysitism, miaphysitism, and Nestorianism.  Brock (1996) points out the inappropriateness of labeling all Christians of the eastern churches as Nestorians.

[12] The clause “and the Son” is known as the filioque.  The Greek and Latin words translated into English as “proceeds” have subtle differences.  Linguistic misunderstanding played an important role in the dispute.

[image] Andrei Rublev, Angels at Mamre (Holy Trinity), 1410, in Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


Brock, Sebastian P. 1996. “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: A Lamentable Misnomer.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 78(3):23-35.

Budge, E. A. Wallis, trans. 1928. The Monks of Kûblâi Khân, Emperor of China, or, The history of the life and travels of Rabban Ṣâwmâ, envoy and plenipotentiary of the Mongol khâns to the kings of Europe, and Markôs who as Mâr Yahbh-Allâhâ III became Patriarch of the Nestorian Church in Asia. London: Religious Tract Society.

Jackson, Peter, trans. 1990. Willem van Ruysbroeck. The mission of Friar William of Rubruck: his journey to the court of the Great Khan Möngke, 1253-1255. London: Hakluyt Society.

Jackson, Peter. 2011.  “The Itinerarium of Friar William of Rubruck.”  Seoul National University, Center for Central Eurasian Studies, Archive of Central Eurasian Civilizations.

Lahiri, Latika. 1986. Yijing. Chinese monks in India: biography of eminent monks who went to the western world in search of the law during the great Tʻang dynasty. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Montgomery, James A., trans. 1927. The history of Yaballaha the Third, Nestorian Patriarch, and of his vicar Bar Sauma, Mongol Ambassador to the Frankish courts at the end of the 13th century.

Murre-Vand Den Berg, Heleen (H.L.).  2006. “The Church of the East in Mesopotamia in the Mongol Period.”  Pp. 377-394 in Malek, Roman, and Peter Hofrichter, eds. 2006. Jingjiao: the Church of the East in China and Central Asia. Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta Serica.

Teule, Herman.  2003. “Saint Louis and the East Syrians, the Dream of a Terrestrial Empire: East Syrian Attitudes to the West.” Pp. 101-122 in Ciggaar, Krijna Nelly, and Herman G. B. Teule. 2003. East and West in the Crusader states: context, contacts, confrontations. III, Acta of the congress held at Hernen Castle in September 2000. Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters.

Watson, A.J. 2011. “Mongol inhospitality, or how to do more with less? Gift giving in William of Rubruck’s Itinerarium.” Journal of Medieval History, 37:1, 90-101.

Young, Richard Fox. 1989.  “Deus Unus or Dei Plures Sunt? The Function of Inclusivism in the Buddhist Defense of Mongol Folk Religion Against William of Rubruck (1254).” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 26:1 (Winter) pp. 100-137.

3 thoughts on “Bar Sauma and Rubruck’s experiences of learned religious debate”

  1. Good article. One minor correction – while the filioque was one of the major factors contributing to the great schism between Eastern and Western churches, there has never been any holy wars caused by it.

    1. Thanks for your comment and minor correction. I’ve changed “holy wars” to “heated conflict among religious authorities.” With the former I didn’t literally mean wars. Switching to the latter should make my meaning clearer.

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