When I first arrived at seminary 38 years ago, I was full of curiosity as to where I could find the Chinese in the Bible. Which of the names on the Genesis 10 Table of Nations was China by another name? A Chinese student was quick to advise me not to waste my time on the search. Yes, I’m sure the Table of Nations was selective. And yes, the Bible’s declarations about “all” of humankind apply also to the Chinese. But could there still have been at least one specific reference to China in God’s word?
The strongest candidate for such a verse is Isaiah 49:12, a description of Jews returning from captivity: “Behold, these shall come from far away, and behold, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Sinim.” While scholars including Gesenius and Delitzsch seriously believed this to be a reference to China, others in the past 2 centuries have emended the text from synym to swnym, to mean “Aswan” or “Syene” in far southern Egypt. The Dead Sea Scrolls (1Qa) contain such a reading, although even there it may be an attempted correction rather than an original reading, preferring a familiar place name to a name they knew nothing of. The Latin version reads de terra australi, “from the land of the south” (not Australia, although it is amusing to consider!). The Greek version reads “from the land of the Persians,” which may be a directional stab in the dark, or a directional understatement; the land in question may be much further east than Persia.
Sinae is the Latin name for the Qin (Ch’in) state, founded approximately 778 BC (here I confess to be academically deficient, and am forced to rely on Wikipedia!), although the Romans and Greeks usually referred to China as “Silk-Land” (Serica). So Sinim as a potential reference to the land which became China, by the name by which it became known, is plausible for the writer of this scripture, whether it was written by Isaiah ben-Amoz (690 BC?) or by a later writer (540 BC?).
The only other possible reference to the Chinese is in Revelation 16:12, the “kings from the East” who come in the final days before the return of Christ from beyond the Euphrates, for whom we are given their number: 200 million of them (Rev 9:16). It is a number probably larger than the entire population of the planet in 95 AD, but it has been argued that today’s China could potentially field an army that large. The claim that this is China cannot be proved, but cannot easily be dismissed.
NEXT WEEK: “WILL THE RUSSIANS HACK THE SECOND COMING?”
Rev. Tom Hobson, Ph.D., is Assistant Pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church (ECO), Chesterfield, MO, and author of What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?