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The Church of the East (Classical Syriac: ܥܕܬܐ ܕܡܕܢܚܐ, romanized: ʿĒḏtā d-Maḏenḥā) or the East Syriac Church, also called the Church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the Persian Church, the Assyrian Church, the Babylonian Church or the Nestorian Church, is one of three major branches of Nicene Eastern Christianity that arose from the Christological controversies of the 5th and 6th centuries, alongside the Miaphisite churches (which came to be known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches) and the Chalcedonian Church (whose Eastern branch would later become the Eastern Orthodox Church). Having its origins in the pre-Sassanian Mesopotamia, it developed its own unique form of Christian theology and liturgy. During the early modern period, a series of schisms gave rise to rival patriarchates, sometimes two, sometimes three. In the latter half of the 20th century the traditionalist patriarchate of the church underwent a split into two rival patriarchates, namely the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East, which continue to follow the traditional theology and liturgy of the mother church. The Chaldean Catholic Church based in Iraq and the Syro-Malabar Church in India are two Eastern Catholic churches which also claim the heritage of the Church of the East.
|Church of the East
|East Syriac Theology
|Catholicos-Patriarch of the East
|Middle East, Central Asia, Far East, India
|East Syriac Rite
(Liturgy of Addai and Mari)
|Jesus Christ by sacred tradition
Thomas the Apostle
|Apostolic Age, by its tradition
|Its schism of 1552 divided it originally into two patriarchates, and later four, but by 1830 it returned to two, one of which is now the Chaldean Catholic Church, while the other sect split further in 1968 into the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East.
|Nestorian Church, Persian Church, East Syrian Church, Assyrian Church, Babylonian Church
The Church of the East organized itself initially in the year 410 as the national church of the Sasanian Empire through the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. In 424 it declared itself independent of the state church of the Roman Empire, which it calls the 'Church of the West'. The Church of the East was headed by the Catholicose of the East seated originally in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, continuing a line that, according to its tradition, stretched back to the Apostolic Age. According to its tradition, the Church of the East was established by Thomas the Apostle in the first century. Its liturgical rite is the East Syrian rite that employs the Divine Liturgy of Saints Addai and Mari.
The Church of the East, which was part of the Great Church, shared communion with those in the Roman Empire until the Council of Ephesus condemned Nestorius in 431. Supporters of Nestorius took refuge in Sasanian Persia, where the Church refused to condemn Nestorius and became accused of Nestorianism, a heresy attributed to Nestorius. It was therefore called the Nestorian Church by all the other Eastern churches, both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian, and by the Western Church. Politically the Sassanian and Roman empires were at war with each other, which forced the Church of the East to distance itself from the churches within Roman territory. More recently, the "Nestorian" appellation has been called "a lamentable misnomer", and theologically incorrect by scholars. However, the Church of the East started to call itself Nestorian, it anathematized the Council of Ephesus, and in its liturgy Nestorius was mentioned as a saint. In 544, the general Council of the Church of the East approved the Council of Chalcedon at the Synod of Mar Aba I.
Continuing as a dhimmi community under the Sunni Caliphate after the Muslim conquest of Persia (633–654), the Church of the East played a major role in the history of Christianity in Asia. Between the 9th and 14th centuries, it represented the world's largest Christian denomination in terms of geographical extent, and in the Middle Ages was one of the three major Christian powerhouses of Eurasia alongside Latin Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. It established dioceses and communities stretching from the Mediterranean Sea and today's Iraq and Iran, to India (the Saint Thomas Syrian Christians of Kerala), the Mongol kingdoms and Turkic tribes in Central Asia, and China during the Tang dynasty (7th–9th centuries). In the 13th and 14th centuries, the church experienced a final period of expansion under the Mongol Empire, where influential Church of the East clergy sat in the Mongol court.
Even before the Church of the East underwent a rapid decline in its field of expansion in Central Asia in the 14th century, it had already lost ground in its home territory. The decline is indicated by the shrinking list of active dioceses. Around the year 1000, there were more than sixty dioceses throughout the Near East, but by the middle of the 13th century there were about twenty, and after Timur Leng the number was further reduced to seven only. In the aftermath of the division of the Mongol Empire, the rising Buddhist and Islamic Mongol leaderships pushed out and nearly eradicated the Church of the East and its followers. Thereafter, Church of the East dioceses remained largely confined to Upper Mesopotamia and to the Saint Thomas Syrian Christians in the Malabar Coast (modern-day Kerala, India).
The Church faced a major schism in 1552 following the consecration of monk Yohannan Sulaqa by Pope Julius III in opposition to the reigning catholicos-patriarch Shimun VII, leading to the formation of the Chaldean Catholic Church (an Eastern Catholic Church in communion with the Pope). Divisions occurred within the two factions (the traditionalist and the newly formed Eastern Catholic) but by 1830 two unified patriarchates and distinct churches remained: the traditionalist Assyrian Church of the East and the Eastern Catholic Chaldean Church. The Ancient Church of the East split from the traditionalist patriarchate of the Church of the East in 1968. In 2017, the Chaldean Catholic Church had approximately 628,405 members and the Assyrian Church of the East had 323,300 to 380,000, while the Ancient Church of the East had 100,000.
The Church of the East's declaration in 424 of the independence of its head, the Patriarch of the East, preceded by seven years the 431 Council of Ephesus, which condemned Nestorius and declared that Mary, mother of Jesus, can be described as Mother of God. Two of the generally accepted ecumenical councils were held earlier: the First Council of Nicaea, in which a Persian bishop took part, in 325, and the First Council of Constantinople in 381. The Church of the East accepted the teaching of these two councils, but ignored the 431 Council and those that followed, seeing them as concerning only the patriarchates of the Roman Empire (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem), all of which were for it "Western Christianity".
Theologically, the Church of the East adopted the dyophysite doctrine of Theodore of Mopsuestia that emphasised the "distinctiveness" of the divine and the human natures of Jesus; this doctrine was misleadingly labelled as 'Nestorian' by its theological opponents.
In the 6th century and thereafter, the Church of the East expanded greatly, establishing communities in India (the Saint Thomas Syrian Christians), among the Mongols in Central Asia, and in China, which became home to a thriving community under the Tang dynasty from the 7th to the 9th century. At its height, between the 9th and 14th centuries, the Church of the East was the world's largest Christian church in geographical extent, with dioceses stretching from its heartland in Upper Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean Sea and as far afield as China, Mongolia, Central Asia, Anatolia, the Arabian Peninsula and India.
From its peak of geographical extent, the church entered a period of rapid decline that began in the 14th century, due largely to outside influences. The Chinese Ming dynasty overthrew the Mongols (1368) and ejected Christians and other foreign influences from China, and many Mongols in Central Asia converted to Islam. The Muslim Turco-Mongol leader Timur (1336–1405) nearly eradicated the remaining Christians in the Middle East. Nestorian Christianity remained largely confined to communities in Upper Mesopotamia and the Saint Thomas Syrian Christians of the Malabar Coast in the Indian subcontinent.
In the early modern period, the schism of 1552 led to a series of internal divisions and ultimately to its branching into three separate churches: the Chaldean Catholic Church, in full communion with the Holy See, and the independent Assyrian Church of the East and Ancient Church of the East.
Description as Nestorian
Nestorianism is a Christological doctrine that emphasises the distinction between the human and divine natures of Jesus. It was attributed to Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, whose doctrine represented the culmination of a philosophical current developed by scholars at the School of Antioch, most notably Nestorius's mentor Theodore of Mopsuestia, and stirred controversy when Nestorius publicly challenged the use of the title Theotokos (literally, "Bearer of God") for Mary, mother of Jesus, suggesting that the title denied Christ's full humanity. He argued that Jesus had two loosely joined natures, the divine Logos and the human Jesus, and proposed Christotokos (literally, "Bearer of the Christ") as a more suitable alternative title. His statements drew criticism from other prominent churchmen, particularly from Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, who had a leading part in the Council of Ephesus of 431, which condemned Nestorius for heresy and deposed him as Patriarch.
After 431, the state authorities in the Roman Empire suppressed Nestorianism, a reason for Christians under Persian rule to favour it and so allay suspicion that their loyalty lay with the hostile Christian-ruled empire.
It was in the aftermath of the slightly later Council of Chalcedon (451), that the Church of the East formulated a distinctive theology. The first such formulation was adopted at the Synod of Beth Lapat in 484. This was developed further in the early seventh century, when in an at first successful war against the Byzantine Empire the Sasanid Persian Empire incorporated broad territories populated by West Syrians, many of whom were supporters of the Miaphysite theology of Oriental Orthodoxy which its opponents term "Monophysitism" (Eutychianism), the theological view most opposed to Nestorianism. They received support from Khosrow II, influenced by his wife Shirin. Shirin was a member of the Church of East, but later joined the miaphysite church of Antioch.
Drawing inspiration from Theodore of Mopsuestia, Babai the Great (551−628) expounded, especially in his Book of Union, what became the normative Christology of the Church of the East. He affirmed that the two qnome (a Syriac term, plural of qnoma, not corresponding precisely to Greek φύσις or οὐσία or ὑπόστασις) of Christ are unmixed but eternally united in his single parsopa (from Greek πρόσωπον prosopon "mask, character, person"). As happened also with the Greek terms φύσις (physis) and ὐπόστασις (hypostasis), these Syriac words were sometimes taken to mean something other than what was intended; in particular "two qnome" was interpreted as "two individuals". Previously, the Church of the East accepted a certain fluidity of expressions, always within a dyophysite theology, but with Babai's assembly of 612, which canonically sanctioned the "two qnome in Christ" formula, a final christological distinction was created between the Church of the East and the "western" Chalcedonian churches.
The justice of imputing Nestorianism to Nestorius, whom the Church of the East venerated as a saint, is disputed. David Wilmshurst states that for centuries "the word 'Nestorian' was used both as a term of abuse by those who disapproved of the traditional East Syrian theology, as a term of pride by many of its defenders [...] and as a neutral and convenient descriptive term by others. Nowadays it is generally felt that the term carries a stigma". Sebastian P. Brock says: "The association between the Church of the East and Nestorius is of a very tenuous nature, and to continue to call that church 'Nestorian' is, from a historical point of view, totally misleading and incorrect – quite apart from being highly offensive and a breach of ecumenical good manners".
In his 1996 article, "The 'Nestorian' Church: a lamentable misnomer", published in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Sebastian Brock, a Fellow of the British Academy, lamented the fact that "the term 'Nestorian Church' has become the standard designation for the ancient oriental church which in the past called itself 'The Church of the East', but which today prefers a fuller title 'The Assyrian Church of the East'. Such a designation is not only discourteous to modern members of this venerable church, but also − as this paper aims to show − both inappropriate and misleading".
Organisation and structure
At the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 410, the Church of the East was declared to have at its head the bishop of the Persian capital Seleucia-Ctesiphon, who in the acts of the council was referred to as the Grand or Major Metropolitan, and who soon afterward was called the Catholicos of the East. Later, the title of Patriarch was used.
The Church of the East had, like other churches, an ordained clergy in the three traditional orders of bishop, priest (or presbyter), and deacon. Also like other churches, it had an episcopal polity: organisation by dioceses, each headed by a bishop and made up of several individual parish communities overseen by priests. Dioceses were organised into provinces under the authority of a metropolitan bishop. The office of metropolitan bishop was an important one, coming with additional duties and powers; canonically, only metropolitans could consecrate a patriarch. The Patriarch also has the charge of the Province of the Patriarch.
For most of its history the church had six or so Interior Provinces. In 410, these were listed in the hierarchical order of: Seleucia-Ctesiphon (central Iraq), Beth Lapat (western Iran), Nisibis (on the border between Turkey and Iraq), Prat de Maishan (Basra, southern Iraq), Arbela (Erbil, Kurdistan region of Iraq), and Karka de Beth Slokh (Kirkuk, northeastern Iraq). In addition it had an increasing number of Exterior Provinces further afield within the Sasanian Empire and soon also beyond the empire's borders. By the 10th century, the church had between 20 and 30 metropolitan provinces. According to John Foster, in the 9th century there were 25 metropolitans including those in China and India. The Chinese provinces were lost in the 11th century, and in the subsequent centuries other exterior provinces went into decline as well. However, in the 13th century, during the Mongol Empire, the church added two new metropolitan provinces in North China, one being Tangut, the other Katai and Ong.
The Peshitta, in some cases lightly revised and with missing books added, is the standard Syriac Bible for churches in the Syriac tradition: the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Maronites, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
The Old Testament of the Peshitta was translated from Hebrew, although the date and circumstances of this are not entirely clear. The translators may have been Syriac-speaking Jews or early Jewish converts to Christianity. The translation may have been done separately for different texts, and the whole work was probably done by the second century. Most of the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament are found in the Syriac, and the Wisdom of Sirach is held to have been translated from the Hebrew and not from the Septuagint.
The New Testament of the Peshitta, which originally excluded certain disputed books (Second Epistle of Peter, Second Epistle of John, Third Epistle of John, Epistle of Jude, Book of Revelation), had become the standard by the early 5th century.
It was often said in the 19th century that the Church of the East was opposed to religious images of any kind. The cult of the image was never as strong in the Syriac Churches as it was in the Byzantine Church, but they were indeed present in the tradition of the Church of the East. Opposition to religious images eventually became the norm due to the rise of Islam in the region, which forbade any type of depictions of Saints and biblical prophets. As such, the Church was forced to get rid of icons.
There is both literary and archaeological evidence for the presence of images in the church. Writing in 1248 from Samarkand, an Armenian official records visiting a local church and seeing an image of Christ and the Magi. John of Cora (Giovanni di Cori), Latin bishop of Sultaniya in Persia, writing about 1330 of the East Syrians in Khanbaliq says that they had 'very beautiful and orderly churches with crosses and images in honour of God and of the saints'. Apart from the references, a painting of a Christian figure discovered by Aurel Stein at the Library Cave of the Mogao Caves in 1908 is probably a representation of Jesus Christ.
An illustrated 13th-century Nestorian Peshitta Gospel book written in Estrangela from northern Mesopotamia or Tur Abdin, currently in the State Library of Berlin, proves that in the 13th century the Church of the East was not yet aniconic. The Nestorian Evangelion preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France contains an illustration depicting Jesus Christ in the circle of a ringed cross surrounded by four angels. Three Syriac manuscripts from early 19th century or earlier—they were published in a compilation titled The Book of Protection by Hermann Gollancz in 1912—contain some illustrations of no great artistic worth that show that use of images continued.
A life-size male stucco figure discovered in a late-6th-century church in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, beneath which were found the remains of an earlier church, also shows that the Church of the East used figurative representations.
- Palm Sunday procession of Nestorian clergy in a 7th- or 8th-century wall painting from a church at Karakhoja, Chinese Turkestan
- The twelve apostles are gathered around Peter at Pentecost, from the Nestorian Peshitta Gospel.
- Portraits of the Four Evangelists, from a gospel lectionary according to the Nestorian use. Mosul, Iraq, 1499.
- Nestorian Christian statuette probably from Imperial China
- Detail of the rubbing of the Nestorian pillar of Luoyang, discovered in Luoyang. 9th century.
Although the Nestorian community traced their history to the 1st century AD, the Church of the East first achieved official state recognition from the Sasanian Empire in the 4th century with the accession of Yazdegerd I (reigned 399–420) to the throne of the Sasanian Empire. The policies of the Sasanian Empire, which encouraged syncretic forms of Christianity, greatly influenced the Church of the East.
In 410, the Synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, held at the Sasanian capital, allowed the church's leading bishops to elect a formal Catholicos (leader). Catholicos Isaac was required both to lead the Assyrian Christian community and to answer on its behalf to the Sasanian emperor.
Under pressure from the Sasanian Emperor, the Church of the East sought to increasingly distance itself from the Pentarchy (at the time being known as the church of the Eastern Roman Empire). Therefore, in 424, the bishops of the Sasanian Empire met in council under the leadership of Catholicos Dadishoʿ (421–456) and determined that they would not, henceforth, refer disciplinary or theological problems to any external power, and especially not to any bishop or church council in the Roman Empire.
Thus, the Mesopotamian churches did not send representatives to the various church councils attended by representatives of the "Western Church". Accordingly, the leaders of the Church of the East did not feel bound by any decisions of what came to be regarded as Roman Imperial Councils. Despite this, the Creed and Canons of the First Council of Nicaea of 325, affirming the full divinity of Christ, were formally accepted at the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 410. The church's understanding of the term hypostasis differs from the definition of the term offered at the Council of Chalcedon of 451. For this reason, the Assyrian Church has never approved the Chalcedonian definition.
The theological controversy that followed the Council of Ephesus in 431 proved a turning point in the Christian Church's history. The Council condemned as heretical the Christology of Nestorius, whose reluctance to accord the Virgin Mary the title Theotokos "God-bearer, Mother of God" was taken as evidence that he believed two separate persons (as opposed to two united natures) to be present within Christ.
The Sasanian Emperor, hostile to the Byzantines, saw the opportunity to ensure the loyalty of his Christian subjects and lent support to the Nestorian Schism. The Emperor took steps to cement the primacy of the Nestorian party within the Assyrian Church of the East, granting its members his protection, and executing the pro-Roman Catholicos Babowai in 484, replacing him with the Nestorian Bishop of Nisibis, Barsauma. The Catholicos-Patriarch Babai (497–503) confirmed the association of the Assyrian Church with Nestorianism.
Parthian and Sasanian periods
Christians were already forming communities in Mesopotamia as early as the 1st century under the Parthian Empire. In 266, the area was annexed by the Sasanian Empire (becoming the province of Asōristān), and there were significant Christian communities in Upper Mesopotamia, Elam, and Fars. The Church of the East traced its origins ultimately to the evangelical activity of Thaddeus of Edessa, Mari and Thomas the Apostle. Leadership and structure remained disorganised until 315 when Papa bar Aggai (310–329), bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, imposed the primacy of his see over the other Mesopotamian and Persian bishoprics which were grouped together under the Catholicate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon; Papa took the title of Catholicos, or universal leader. This position received an additional title in 410, becoming Catholicos and Patriarch of the East.
These early Christian communities in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Fars were reinforced in the 4th and 5th centuries by large-scale deportations of Christians from the eastern Roman Empire. However, the Persian Church faced several severe persecutions, notably during the reign of Shapur II (339–79), from the Zoroastrian majority who accused it of Roman leanings. Shapur II attempted to dismantle the catholicate's structure and put to death some of the clergy including the catholicoi Simeon bar Sabba'e (341), Shahdost (342), and Barba'shmin (346). Afterward, the office of Catholicos lay vacant nearly 20 years (346–363). In 363, under the terms of a peace treaty, Nisibis was ceded to the Persians, causing Ephrem the Syrian, accompanied by a number of teachers, to leave the School of Nisibis for Edessa still in Roman territory. The church grew considerably during the Sasanian period, but the pressure of persecution led the Catholicos, Dadisho I, in 424 to convene the Council of Markabta of the Arabs and declare the Catholicate independent from "the western Fathers".
Meanwhile, in the Roman Empire, the Nestorian Schism had led many of Nestorius' supporters to relocate to the Sasanian Empire, mainly around the theological School of Nisibis. The Persian Church increasingly aligned itself with the Dyophisites, a measure encouraged by the Zoroastrian ruling class. The church became increasingly Dyophisite in doctrine over the next decades, furthering the divide between Roman and Persian Christianity. In 484 the Metropolitan of Nisibis, Barsauma, convened the Synod of Beth Lapat where he publicly accepted Nestorius' mentor, Theodore of Mopsuestia, as a spiritual authority. In 489, when the School of Edessa in Mesopotamia was closed by Byzantine Emperor Zeno for its Nestorian teachings, the school relocated to its original home of Nisibis, becoming again the School of Nisibis, leading to a wave of Nestorian immigration into the Sasanian Empire. The Patriarch of the East Mar Babai I (497–502) reiterated and expanded upon his predecessors' esteem for Theodore, solidifying the church's adoption of Dyophisitism.
Now firmly established in the Persian Empire, with centres in Nisibis, Ctesiphon, and Gundeshapur, and several metropolitan sees, the Church of the East began to branch out beyond the Sasanian Empire. However, through the 6th century the church was frequently beset with internal strife and persecution from the Zoroastrians. The infighting led to a schism, which lasted from 521 until around 539, when the issues were resolved. However, immediately afterward Byzantine-Persian conflict led to a renewed persecution of the church by the Sasanian emperor Khosrau I; this ended in 545. The church survived these trials under the guidance of Patriarch Aba I, who had converted to Christianity from Zoroastrianism.
By the end of the 5th century and the middle of the 6th, the area occupied by the Church of the East included "all the countries to the east and those immediately to the west of the Euphrates", including the Sasanian Empire, the Arabian Peninsula, with minor presence in the Horn of Africa, Socotra, Mesopotamia, Media, Bactria, Hyrcania, and India; and possibly also to places called Calliana, Male, and Sielediva (Ceylon). Beneath the Patriarch in the hierarchy were nine metropolitans, and clergy were recorded among the Huns, in Persarmenia, Media, and the island of Dioscoris in the Indian Ocean.
After the Sasanian Empire was conquered by Muslim Arabs in 644, the newly established Rashidun Caliphate designated the Church of the East as an official dhimmi minority group headed by the Patriarch of the East. As with all other Christian and Jewish groups given the same status, the church was restricted within the Caliphate, but also given a degree of protection. In order to resist the growing competition from Muslim courts, patriarchs and bishops of the Church of the East developed canon law and adapted the procedures used in the episcopal courts. Nestorians were not permitted to proselytise or attempt to convert Muslims, but their missionaries were otherwise given a free hand, and they increased missionary efforts farther afield. Missionaries established dioceses in India (the Saint Thomas Christians). They made some advances in Egypt, despite the strong Monophysite presence there, and they entered Central Asia, where they had significant success converting local Tartars. Nestorian missionaries were firmly established in China during the early part of the Tang dynasty (618–907); the Chinese source known as the Nestorian Stele describes a mission under a proselyte named Alopen as introducing Nestorian Christianity to China in 635. In the 7th century, the church had grown to have two Nestorian archbishops, and over 20 bishops east of the Iranian border of the Oxus River.
Patriarch Timothy I (780–823), a contemporary of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, took a particularly keen interest in the missionary expansion of the Church of the East. He is known to have consecrated metropolitans for Damascus, for Armenia, for Dailam and Gilan in Azerbaijan, for Rai in Tabaristan, for Sarbaz in Segestan, for the Turks of Central Asia, for China, and possibly also for Tibet. He also detached India from the metropolitan province of Fars and made it a separate metropolitan province, known as India. By the 10th century the Church of the East had a number of dioceses stretching from across the Caliphate's territories to India and China.
Nestorian Christians made substantial contributions to the Islamic Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, particularly in translating the works of the ancient Greek philosophers to Syriac and Arabic. Nestorians made their own contributions to philosophy, science (such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Qusta ibn Luqa, Masawaiyh, Patriarch Eutychius, Jabril ibn Bukhtishu) and theology (such as Tatian, Bar Daisan, Babai the Great, Nestorius, Toma bar Yacoub). The personal physicians of the Abbasid Caliphs were often Assyrian Christians such as the long serving Bukhtishu dynasty.