The Church of the East
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The Church of the East

A Concise History

Wilhelm Baum, Dietmar W. Winkler

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eBook - ePub

The Church of the East

A Concise History

Wilhelm Baum, Dietmar W. Winkler

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The Church of the East is currently the only complete history in English of the East Syriac Church of the East. It covers the periods of the Sassanians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans, the 20th century, and informs about the Syriac, Iranian and Chinese literature of this unique and almost forgotten part of Christendom.

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Until 651

Dietmar W. Winkler

The Apostolic Church of the East first surfaces in ecclesiastical and dogmatic history only in the fifth-century debates in the Roman empire over orthodox Christology. In nearly all reference books one finds information about this branch of Christianity under the heading “Nestorian Church.” Thus a heresy is attributed to the East Syr-iac Church, a heresy the church itself has rejected as incorrect since at least the sixth century. In 1298 the distinguished East Syriac theologian and canonist Abdisho bar Brika († 1318) wrote in his Book of the Pearl (Margarita) that East Syriac Christians “never changed their faith and preserved it as they had received it from the apostles, and they are called Nestorians unjustly, especially since Nestorius was not their patriarch, and they did not understand his language.”
Theological use of the epithet “Nestorian” has persisted even into the present day. Many historical accounts begin with the events of the Council of Ephesus (431) and with the controversy between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople. This also suggests that the Church of the East separated itself on account of the council’s events or that it found its beginning with this council.
In this first section, the beginnings of the Apostolic Church of the East until the entrance of the Arabs into its history will be traced, and we will inquire whether a heretical theology, the so-called “Nestorianism” was adopted.

The beginnings of Christianity in Persia

While Christianity in the Roman empire was subjected to persecutions prior to 313, it could for a time develop in peace on the other side of the Euphrates in the Iranian kingdom of the Parthians (until 224). Presumably Christianity found its way into the regions east of the Tigris – Adiabene and Khuzistan – as early as the beginning of the second century. However, the sources are scanty, and the origins of Christianity are shrouded in legends of apostolic foundation. In contrast, beginning with the early third century, Christianity can be well explored in both literary and archeological sources. In the final chapter of the “Book of the Laws of the Countries” written by Philippus, a pupil of the Aramaic philosopher Bardaisan, mention is made of Christians in Parthia, Kushan, Persia, Media, Edessa, Hatra, and Fars, among other places. On the island of Kharg, third-century Christian graves testify with Syriac inscriptions from Christian communities around the Persian Gulf.
One can assume that Christianity spread from Osrhoene and its capital Edessa (Urfa) and from the region surrounding Nisibis (Nusaybin) – where Christianity is evidenced by the second-century epitaph of Aberkios – into the Parthian empire. The chronicle of Edessa offers a series of dates from the earliest history of Christianity in that city. This source allows us to conclude that Christianity gained a foothold in Osrhoene in the second century. Before the historically well-established flood in the year 201, the faith was already being shaped by Marcion († 160), Bardaisan († 222), and finally Mani († 276), all of whom the great Syriac poet-theologian Ephrem challenged as heretics. Only at the beginning of the fourth century, with Bishop Qune, did Christianity become orthodox in the normative sense known to church history. Since early Christianity in Edessa presented itself as extremely diverse, only conjectures can be put forth regarding the first Christians in Persia.
Very probably, the first Christian congregations emerged in the Jewish communities of the Parthian empire, which, like the inhabitants of Osrhoene and the Roman province of Syria, were Aramaic-speaking. Judaism had been present in Mesopotamia and across the Tigris at least since the Babylonian exile. At the time of the Parthi-ans, the silk trade with China was under Jewish control. The first to bring Christianity to the East were the merchants who traveled the trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and across Central Asia to China. As Edessa occupied a position where significant trade routes intersected, and Antioch on the Mediterranean was the most influential metropolis of the Roman province of Syria, the gospel traveled a route from Jerusalem through Antioch and Edessa to Mesopotamia. Edessa’s significance for Syriac Christianity extends finally to the fact that the Aramaic dialect of this city (i.e. “Syriac”) became the definitive biblical and liturgical language of this branch of Christianity.
An additional factor contributing to the development of Christianity in Persia was the expanding movement of refugees. Wartime deportations are reported up to the sixth century. With the strengthening of the Persian empire under the Sassanians (224), a state of perpetual conflict arose between the Persians and the Roman empire. This situation had consequences for the spread of the gospel above all during the reign of Shapur I (240–72). Shapur I and his army advanced far into Roman territory and finally reached Antioch in 260. Many Christians from Antioch, Cappadocia, Cili-cia, and Syria were deported to Persian provinces and established as tradesmen and artisans in Babylonia, Persia, Parthia, and Susiana. Among them was Bishop Demetrius of Antioch, who subsequently served as the first bishop of Beth Lapat (Gundeshapur). These deported Christians, to the extent that they belonged to Greek-speaking communities, appear not to have integrated themselves into the local Christian population before the fifth century, since separate churches and two hierarchies, with Greek and Syriac- Aramaic as liturgical languages, are reported. The inscription of the Zoroastrian magician Kartir (Kerdir) – who occupied an important position under Shapur I, Hormizd I († 273), Bahram I († 276), and especially Bahram II († 293) – speaks of “Nazarenes” (nasraye) and “Christians” (krestyane). This could be a significant indication of the double community. Although an exact interpretation of the inscription of Kartir remains to be determined, it can be assumed that the first term denotes the local Aramaic Christian congregation and the second designates those Greek-speaking Christians deported from Syria under Shapur I.
In the time of Shapur I, i.e. the second half of the third century, Christianity in Persia already had an episcopal structure, as evidenced by the conflict over Papa, who as bishop of Seleucia- Ctesiphon should have held a position of primacy over the other bishops. The sources, however, exhibit contradictions. Seleucia- Ctesiphon probably became a diocese only in the third century. As early as the end of the third century or beginning of the fourth, Papa attempted to gain supremacy, in the face of opposition from the other bishops. According to the (disputed, possibly fabricated) account of the Chronicle of Arbela, this claim was founded on the fact that he was bishop of the royal residence. Besides this purely political argument, also of interest is the fact, preserved in the chronicle, that Papa, because of the continued opposition, turned to the bishops of the “West” (i.e. the Roman empire) and especially Sada, bishop of Edessa. The Chronicle of Arbela makes Papa, with Western help, the first supreme head of the Persian Church. It is striking that Papa appealed to the bishop of Edessa rather than that of Antioch. The Chronicle of Arbela appears here actually to be more historically reliable that the lists and biographies of the patriarchs, which locate the origins of the episcopal see of Seleucia- Ctesiphon in the apostolic era. Over and above that, the conflict and the intervention of the Western fathers are also mentioned in the speech of Agapet, recorded in the acts of the Synod of Dadisho (424), which are included in the collection of East Syriac synodical documents (Synodicon Orientale).
Nevertheless, certain questions remain open: Why is this undoubtedly noteworthy Western intervention mentioned in no historical source of the Church of the Roman Empire? Additionally, is it possible that a “patriarchate” of the East was supported by the Western bishops even before the time of the Council of Nicaea (325), where the prerogatives of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch were first recognized? The questions surrounding the first catholicos-patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon seem impossible to answer satisfactorily with the currently available sources. In any case, one can nonetheless conclude from the opposition to the claim of primacy made by the bishop of the capital city that already at the dawn of the fourth century a series of independently organized dioceses existed in the Persian empire.
Persian martyrologies provide further clues to the ecclesiastical structure of the time. While in the times of the Parthians, because of their liberal religious policies, Persia was a refuge for Christians persecuted by the Roman empire in its outlying provinces, Christians at times also endured various forms of repression under the succeeding Sassanians and the dominance of Zoroastrian religion. Among others we find the Acts of the Persian Martyrs an extensive account of the life and execution of Mar Shimun I (+ 341), who was the successor of Papa in the see of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.
Violent persecution tormented Christians most notably between 339 and 379 under Shapur II (309–79), and these events are reflected in the Syriac writings of a contemporary witness, the theologian Aphrahat († 350), called the “Persian Sage.” Causes of the persecution included not only the increasing strength of the Zoroastrian religion but also the political circumstances. The Roman ruler Constantine considered himself a Christian emperor and true lord of the Church. In a 337 letter preserved by Eusebius, he wrote to Shapur II that the Christians ought to be protected. The undiplomatic demand of Constantine, who as earthly leader of the Church considered all Christians his subjects, could attract little sympathy in Persia. Moreover, the Roman–Persian conflict also involved Armenia, which had been a Christian state since 301. Thus the Sassanian rulers of the time, recognizing that Christianity in the Roman empire was on its way to becoming the state religion, saw the Christians of Persia as a threat to their interests.
The major developments of the Church of the Roman Empire since the Edict of Milan, such as the Arian controversy at the Council of Nicaea (325), had no impact whatsoever on the Persian church. On the contrary, while under the Parthians the attitude toward the Christians was tolerant, and under the first Sassanians there were only isolated, localized persecutions for apostasy from Zoroastrianism, the reign of Shapur II brought, in response to developments in the Roman empire, the first systematic persecutions of the region’s Christians. These persecutions, as well as the destruction of churches in the fourth century, are described in detail in the Persian martyrologies. Even if they include legendary characteristics and tend toward exaggeration, they nonetheless offer sufficient material to grasp the scale of the persecutions. Furthermore, references are made to bishops, priests, deacons, and monks from various towns and provinces, attesting to the extent of Christianity and so providing information about the Church of the East.
Besides Aphrahat, another outstanding theologian of the time, Ephrem the Syrian, was eyewitness to the Persian–Roman clash. He lived through the fall of his native city Nisibis, which after three futile sieges (338, 346, 350) was peacefully ceded to Shapur II in 363 during negotiations with the Roman emperor Jovian (363/4). Bishop Abraham fled the city with his Christian community, and many educated Christians went to Edessa, the nearby capital of Osrhoene. Among them was Ephrem himself, with whom the founding of the school of the Persians in Edessa would later be associated.

The question of apostolic foundation

The sources regarding the origins of Christianity in Persia do not suffice to enable one to draw a reliable picture. As we have seen, Christianity may have been spread in the Persian empire first by traders, then by refugees from the Roman empire, and eventually through what is called the deportation. Christian names testify also to conversions among the Iranian population. Nomadic Arab tribes around Hatra also came into early contact with the gospel. Nevertheless, the majority of Christians arose from the Aramaic population, which gradually absorbed the congregations of the deported Greek population as well.
However, the tradition of the Apostolic Church of the East traces its origins back to the apostle Thomas and to Addai and his disciples Aggai and Mari. In this regard, the sources are conflicting and complex.
The best-known and most widely disseminated version of this missionary tradition appears to be the one transmitted by the patriarchal chronicle of Mari b. Suleiman (twelfth century). This tradition can be verified as early as the ninth century and has been preserved in East Syriac literature (Elias Damascenus, c.893; Abdisho bar Brika) as well as West Syriac (Chronicon anonymum, 846; Doctrina Apostolorum, ninth century; Barhebraeus, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum). According to these, the East was evangelized by Thomas from the circle of the Twelve and by Addai, Mari, and Aggai from the Seventy. Edessa, Nisibis, Mosul, Arbela, Beth Garmai, and Babylonia are credited to Addai and his disciples. Following Addai’s return to Edessa, Aggai continued on to Gibal (Media), al-Ahwaz (Khuzistan), and to the border of India, as well as to the neighboring regions of Gog and Magog (China). The East Syriac canonist Ibn at-Taiyib († 1043) designated the East as a whole the missionary territory of Addai, Aggai and Mari, while India and China belonged to the territory of Thomas.
In particular, the Mari tradition views this student of Addai as the missionary of Persia, as well as founder and liturgical organizer of the Church of the East. According to the East Syriac historian Amr b. Matta (fourteenth century), it was Mari who established the patriarchal see at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, thus serving as the first catholicos. Beforehand he also appointed a bishop of Kashkar, who because of this apostolic foundation served as vicar to the patriarch. With this, Amr portrayed in his missionary account an ecclesiastical organization corresponding to that of the sixth century, because only at the Synod of Joseph (554) was the function of the patriarchal vicar explicitly assigned to the bishop of Kashkar.
According to the vita of Mari, Papa was personally ordained by Mari as his successor. However, Papa is historically verifiable only in the early fourth century. Therefore the account of his primacy and the placement of the See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in apostolic succession is historically difficult to comprehend.
Why is the connection to Mari or Aggai – and thus to their teacher Addai – of such import? The answer to this question requires a look at the evangelization tradition of Edessa, the mother city of Syriac Christianity. This tradition is preserved in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, produced between 311 and 325, and above all in the Doctrina Addai (c.400). According to these reports, the king of Edessa, Abgar Ukama, suffered from a serious illness and learned of the work of Jesus in Palestine. Through his secretary Hannan, he sent a letter to Jesus, with the request that he come to Edessa and heal him. He also offered Jesus protection from his persecutors. In his response, Jesus praised Abgar as blessed, for he believed without seeing (cf. John 20.21), but he did not accept Abgar’s invitation, for he had to return to his Father in fulfillment of his mission. In a dictated letter, he promised Abgar that after his death and resurrection he would send him one of his apostles. This apostle was Addai, who was chosen by Thomas after the Ascension. Addai healed Abgar, preached the gospel, and founded the church in Edessa. After Addai’s death, his disciple Aggai was selected as his successor.
The Abgar legend has been interpreted many times. The historical kernel within the story is believed to be that Christianity was adopted as the state religion under King Abgar VIII the Great (177– 212); this was then conflated with the historically unsubstantiated Abgar V (13–50). That Abgar VIII was the first Christian king of Edessa cannot be verified. This missionary account is definitely historical fiction. Eusebius of Caesarea provided the first version of this story around 303 or 312; before, it was unknown. The Chronicle of Edessa, a reliable source, says nothing about an apostle Addai, the correspondence with Jesus, or Abgar’s conversion. According to this, a Christian apostle Addai is purely legendary. Eusebius called Addai in his Ecclesiastical History “Thaddeus,” because Addai was unknown to him, and he included him in the circle of the seventy-two commissioned apostles (cf. Luke 10.1). However, Addai was the best-known Manichean missionary of the Syriac-Mesopotamian region, whom the Doctrina Addai, as an anti-Manichean document of Edessan orthodoxy, wove into the Abgar legend (Han J. W.
Drijvers). The intention of the fourth-century Doctrina Addai is the defense of an orthodoxy going back to Jesus, in opposition to other sects, such as those of Mani, Bardaisan, or Marcion.
In the diary of her pilgrimage through the Holy Land, Egeria also reports letters from Jesus kept in the archives of Edessa. In 384 she spent three days in Edessa. According to Egeria, in addition to Jesus’ letter to Abgar, the grave of the apostle Thomas, whose corpse was brought back to Edessa from India, was also venerated in the city. A later insertion into the Doctrina Addai added that the famous Mandylion, a portrait of Jesus which Hannan made for Abgar, was also venerated in Edessa. However, the Mandylion is first mentioned only by Evagrius Scholastikos in 593. Because of the letters from Jesus, the grave of Thomas, and the portrait of Jesus, Edessa was one of early Christianity’s most important sites.
The legends of Addai, Mari, and Aggai, which developed later, projected the founding of the episcopal see at Seleucia-Ctesiphon back into the apostolic era. Through the correspondence of Jesus with Abgar, the missionary activity of Addai was traced back through the apostle Thomas finally to Jesus himself. This assures not only the apostolic nature of the church but also its directly divine origins. In other sources, the ordination of the bishops of Kashkar and Seleucia-Ctesiphon is attributed directly to Mari.
In the East Syriac synods, the attribute “apostolic” appears in reference to the see of the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon for the first time in 497. Interestingly, there is no reference to the missionary tradition in the records of East Syriac synods, known as the Synodi-con Orientale. Mari and Aggai are never mentioned; Addai is named but once and not until 612.

The centralization of the Church and the reception of the faith of Nicaea

As a consequence of the deaths of Shapur II (379) and his successor Ardeshir (Ardaschir) II († 383), the situation of the Christians improved toward the end of the fourth century. Above all Yazdgird I (399–421) sought to ease political tensions with the Roman empire and began to integrate Christians into imperial politics. Thus began the period of diplomatic exchanges between the two great empires of Late Antiquity, exchanges in which the Christian hierarchy of Persia played an essential role. Several Persian diplomatic missions to the neighboring Christian empire were led by bishops and patriarchs of the Church of the East. Likewise the Roman empire was represented by delegates at Persian courts. Under the influence of one of the Roman delegations, led by Marutha, the respected bishop of the border city Maipherkat, Yazdgird permitted the release of Christians and the rebuilding of churches.
Christianity had spread as far as Merv, which had been a diocese since the second half of the fourth century. The individual dioceses were still not collectively organized. The diplomatic skills of the Aramaic bishop Marutha contributed, however, to the first East Syriac council documented in the Synodicon Orientale. This synod, held under the “Grand Metropolitan” Isaac in 410, reorganized the church after the persecutions and provided an essential contribution to the establishment of the East Syriac Church and the primacy of the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.
The impulse for the first recorded synod came from Marutha of Maipherkat, a bishop from the Roman empire. However, the synod was convoked by the Sassanian king Yazdgird I. In the first session of the forty assembled bishops, a letter from the “Western” fathers was read, which Marutha had brought. The letter, signed by bishops Porphyry of Antioch, Akakios of Aleppo, Pakida of Edessa, Eusebius of Tella, Akakios of Amid, and others, was translated from Greek into Persian and had been brought to Yazdgird’s attention earlier. The letter included three demands or recommendations, which were eventually adopted by the synod and defined more precisely in the canons: (1) in each city and its surrounding region there should be only one bishop, ordained by three bishops, who possess the full authority of the metropolitan and head of bishops, i.e. the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon; (2) liturgical feasts should be celebrated together and on the same d...

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