Bridging the Gulf between the ‘Eastern’ and the ‘Western’ in New Testament Studies-I: Toward an Attempt to Describe the “Eastern World”

Posted: July 18, 2011 in General

Before entering into the subject matter of New Testament studies, it seems better having a comprehensive idea about the extended Eastern and the Western hemispheres. After having a brief idea about the global hemispheres we may be able to look at the issues of the New Testament studies with more clarity and focus. The proposed series of posts are intended to develop a “New Methodology” in the field of New Testament studies by bridging the Eastern and the Western perspectives. In the preliminary posts we may sketch about the extended geographical context of the “Eastern” and the “Western” worlds and, later on, we will ponder exclusively into the area of New Testament studies. The following discussion is an attempt to delineate about the geographical context of the “Eastern world”.

One of the difficulties we may face is a proper distinction between ‘the Western world’ and ‘the Eastern world’. The concept West originated with the Greek and Roman empires and thereafter the East. While the term ‘Western’ is almost always a synonym for Euro-North American world, the term ‘Eastern” refers to the part of the world comparatively more diverse and difficult to define. The noun ‘east’ has the following meanings in the dictionary: (1) the direction in which the sun rises at the equinoxes, on the right hand side of a person facing north; (2) (the East) the eastern part of a place, the regions or countries lying to the East of Europe; and (3) (the East) historically, the former communist nations of Eastern Europe. The adjective ‘eastern’ means: (1) situated in or facing the east; and (2) (Eastern) coming from or characteristic of the regions to the east of Europe. From this basic premise we need to advance further in order to learn and explore more about the term ‘eastern’.

The Eastern sphere of the world refers very broadly to various cultures or social structures and philosophical systems of “the East”. Usually, the East refers to the countries of Asia, especially China, Japan and India. In the past, the Communist countries of Eastern Europe were also referred to as the East. Orient is another name for the Asian countries and islands. The eastern region is comprised of the Indian subcontinent, the Far East, the Middle East/Near East, and the Central Asia. Sometimes ‘the East’ is used to mean only the eastern part of Asia. East Asian part of the world was also defined as the “Far East” consisting of three overlapping cultural blocks: East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Far East is a term that is sometimes used for the easternmost part of Asia. Traditionally, the term has been used to refer to China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Macao, Taiwan, and eastern Siberia in the former Soviet Union. This region, excluding eastern Siberia, is now often called East Asia.

The meaning of the term Far East is sometimes extended to also include Southeast Asia. The countries of Southeast Asia are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The East Asian region shares a lot of geographical and cultural features with the Southeast Asian region. South Asian region is closely attached to the Eastern and Southeastern regions. The term “Indian Subcontinent” and “South Asia” are sometimes used interchangeably. South-Asia covers about 10 per cent of the continent. India occupies almost three-fourths of this region, and Pakistan makes up almost one-sixth. South Asia also includes small nations like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Historically, the region is forming the whole territory of Classical India. From the above analysis we understand that “Far East” is a geographical region around the Chinese province. The three regions, i.e., “Far East”, “Southeast Asia”, and “South Asia”, can together be called the “Greater Far Eastern regions”.

In modern contexts, all definitions of Central Asia consensually include the following five republics (or ‘Stans’) of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. North Asia or Northern Asia is a sub-region of Asia, consisting of the Asian portion of Russia. The Central Asian and North Asian regions are also considered within the broader Eastern world. The Middle East is often used as a synonym for Near East (or West Asia), in opposition to Far East. The countries of the Middle East are all part of Asia. The territories and regions of Middle East are Bahrain, Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Gaza Strip, West Bank, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

The above described larger Eastern World is a religiously and culturally sensitive area. In a religious sense, the eastern hemisphere is mainly divided into two: (1) Indian religions or South-Asian religions; and (2) Middle Eastern religions. At the earlier stages, Communist China, Japan, and Korea were considered as ‘eastern’. At another time, the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh regions of the Indian sub-continent were reckoned under this category. The Islamic countries of Asia were also counted as ‘eastern’. But in the broader sense, ‘Eastern’ refers to the larger geographical hemisphere east of the European nations.

The distinction between western European Christendom and eastern alien cultures was/is a conspicuous historical bifurcation. In the scholarly traditions, eastern world was considered as the “oriental” or “Indian” sphere over against the western or “occidental” sphere. There were/are other ways of bifurcations as follows: (1) Latin West versus Syrian East or Western Catholic world versus Eastern Orthodox world; (2) Secular West versus Religious East; (3) Material West versus Mystic East; and the like. Eastern Christianity comprises the Christian traditions and churches that developed in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Northeastern Africa, India and parts of the Far East over several centuries of antiquity. Eastern Christianity is a term generally used in Western Christianity to describe all Christian traditions that did not develop in Western Europe. The eastern scholarly traditions were usually considered as Orientalism and Indology. The oriental sphere was reckoned as a racially, culturally, and religiously diverse part of the world.

The above narrated geographical descriptions may help us to focus on the area of Eastern and Western New Testament studies. We may discuss this concentrated subject matter in the succeeding posts.

For Further Reading:

All the above descriptions and ideas were formulated out of my readings from the following and other resources. You are hereby encouraged to read the following as well as other resources related to the subject matter:

Benhart, J. E., and Pomeroy, G. M. South Asia: Modern World Cultures. USA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006.

Black, C. E. The Eastern World since 1945. Ginn, 1967.

Bose, S., and Jalal, A. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Law, F. Atlas of the Far East and Southeast Asia. Picture Window Books, 2008.

Miller, F. P., Vandome, A. F., and McBrewster, J., eds. Eastern World. VDM Publishing House Ltd., 2010.

Podany, A. H., and McGee, M. The Ancient Near Eastern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Salter, C. L. Eastern World. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2007.

The World Book Encyclopedia. Vol. 1, 7, and 14. London/Chicago/Sydney/Toronto: World Books, Inc., 1992.

Ware, K. “Eastern Christianity”. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Mircea Eliade. Vol. 4. London/New York: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1987.

NB: Next discussion: “Bridging the Gulf between the ‘Eastern’ and the ‘Western’ in New Testament Studies-II: Toward an Attempt to describe the ‘Western World'”

(Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India)


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