When Christians Meet Each Other: The Saint Thomas Christians of Southwest India in the Early Modern Period

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Christianity is one of the most ubiquitous religions in the world. In reality, it would be more plausible to rather speak about Christianities given the wide variety that can be found adapted to different contexts, languages, and histories. In this sense, its own internal diversity makes it most pervasive and enduring despite the passage of time or cultural boundaries. But it is worth asking, what happens when Christians from different sides of the world, apparently, meet each other for the first time?

In this week’s episode, RSP associate editor Sidney Castillo talks with Dr. István Perczel who presents a highly detailed history of the Saint Thomas Christians (or Syrian Christians) of Kerala, a religious group that has been present in Southwestern India since late antiquity. His discovery of a corpus of Syriac manuscripts from their archives in 1998, has allowed for a turning point in the current understanding of the colonial relations, religious disputes, and overall historiography of the region.

One of the takeaways of the episode is how the discovery of new sources allows for further outline the cultural environment in which such texts are produced. Among the many sources, some of them refer to theological debates regarding mystical conceptions of God, and which were translated and re-read from Syriac, to Malayalam, and to Latin. The translation avatars of these documents, and the discussions that arose from figures such as Jesuit priest Francisco Roz, and Nestorian priest Mar Abraham, show the dynamism of the Syrian Christian community during the early modern period. Such “cultural wars” and disputes for truth narratives are certainly no strange to us in our present time, especially when looking at them through the lens of colonialism, political polarization, or cultural appropriation.

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