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Archive for February, 2015

Who are the Assyrian Christians?

(Once again, this post is intended for a more general audience than what I usually do. You can see yesterday’s post for some helpful background; unfortunately, current events dictated a more immediate followup than I really had in mind.)

CNN reports that ISIS militants are presently holding as many as 150 “Assyrian” Christians hostage and are threatening to kill them. Yesterday, there were news stories that ISIS militants took some 90 Assyrians in northeastern Syria as they retreated from Kurdish forces, but the number appears to have been underestimated. The BBC’s account says that the incident took place in a town called Tal Tamr, which it locates on a map as shown to the left.

The BBC describes the “Assyrian” Christians thusly:

Assyrians, of whom there were about 40,000 in Syria, are Nestorian Christians and speak Syriac, a form of Aramaic, the language of Christ.

The largest concentration of Assyrians in Syria is in Hassakeh province, but there are also smaller communities in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.

Again, as I tried to explain in yesterday’s piece on Coptic Christians, this is not altogether wrong, but neither is it as clear as would be ideal about who they are or why they are considered a separate group. The short version is that the Assyrian Church of the East is the modern Middle Eastern Christian group that claims continuity with the so-called Church of the East or Catholicosate of Seleucia-Ktesiphon of antiquity, a Christian group that was isolated from the Roman mainstream by the seventh century, although more because of geography and political boundaries than because of theological disputes.

To recap a couple of things from yesterday: Christianity in the early centuries emerged in a Mediterranean, Roman context where two things mattered — what major city you were in or closest to, and how close to the sea that city was. Egypt’s Alexandria and Syria’s Antioch were cities that pretty much ruled the roost as far as intellectual culture and theological thought were concerned, and represented the major poles that governed the development of orthodox (intentional lower-case “o”) Christianity. The major common language of education in this period was Greek, a language that already had a well-developed vocabulary and rhetorical approach for talking about complicated and nuanced philosophical ideas. At the same time, Latin was the language of the state, and there were of course local languages. Semitic languages were the linguae francae in the eastern part of the empire with their own gravitational pull, including Aramaic (the so-called “language of Jesus”) and its dialects, like Syriac. These languages were often employed for monastic writing and other kinds of sacred literary production, although it was not at all uncommon for authors in these languages to borrow Greek theological terminology outright rather than attempt to translate them.

Another point is that from the standpoint of this Mediterranean, Roman world, the other major player of importance was the Persian Empire. Maps are always tricky, and the nature of frontier borders is that they’re contested and always moving, but here’s a broad — if simplified — sense of the parameters of the Roman Mediterranean in the first part of the fourth century:

Basically, in terms of present-day national identities, it was England, Spain, and North Africa on the Western side to Egypt, and Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria on the Eastern side, with the Mediterranean Sea smack dab in the middle — “frogs around a pond”, as Plato put it. To the north were various Germanic tribes; to the south was desert; to the East were a handful of small kingdoms, and then Persia. Again, maps are tricky, but here’s a pretty good one showing what the Roman-Persian frontier looked like over time:

Based on what I said earlier about proximity to major cities and proximity to the sea, it should be evident that, while the Roman/Persian frontier was of strategic importance, it wasn’t really anyplace anybody from the big cities would have been excited about being in, it was pretty far removed from the Greco-Roman culture of the area more central to the Mediterranean, and local languages like Syriac were far more prevalent than Greek. And, despite its strategic importance, it was at times a hard place for emperors to justify the cost of defending; Arab the sixth century saw the frontier left to its own devices on more than one occasion when Justinian was too busy trying to reclaim the Italian peninsula. It fell to allied Arab tribes and border kingdoms to defend Roman territories in the frontier.

Christianity on the frontier was intellectually and spiritually vibrant nonetheless, even if life on the border was uncertain. The fourth century produced one of the greatest Christian poets in history, Ephrem the Syrian, who worked first in the border town of Nisibis and then moved to the somewhat more centralized Syriac city of Edessa when Nisibis was surrendered to the Persians in 363 and the Christian communities expelled.

At the same time, there were Christian communities that emerged in Persia in antiquity, and the Persian capital of Seleucia-Ktesiphon was home to its own bishopric starting in the third century. This church was obviously isolated, and while Christian communities appear to have formed there in the first couple of centuries AD, it doesn’t seem to have been until 280 that visiting bishops were able to establish a working ecclesiastical structure there. Still, they were isolated, and tended be focused further East than towards the Mediterranean centers of ecclesial activity. (How far East? They sent missionaries to the Mongols in Central Asia and to China starting in the sixth and seventh centuries.) As such, many of the theological arguments swirling around Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch simply weren’t terribly relevant to the churches on the border or in Persia, and the remained loyal to what they saw as their own tradition. They identified with the Council of Nicea, perhaps, since that was everybody’s major point of reference following Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, but beyond that it got a little obscure.

There was a thread of intellectual continuity that made it from Byzantium to Ktesiphon, to be sure, but the supply lines were a bit tangled and on the thin side. A major theological figure of the Syrian East, the fourth/early fifth century Theodore of Mopsuestia (close to the southeastern border of modern-day Turkey), had been the student of Libanius, a major teacher of rhetoric in Antioch. Theodore appears to have had significant influence on the thought of Nestorius, whom you may recall from yesterday’s post as the Constantinopolitan bishop on the losing side at the Council of Ephesus in 431. In the aftermath of the Christological disputes of the fifth century, Nestorius’ followers relocated to Persia; the Persians perceived in their position a fundamental continuity with Theodore and their own strongly Antiochene perspective, and they welcomed the Nestorians with open arms.

There continued to be some awareness and mutual sympathy between Persian and Roman Christianity; as late as 614, the Persian Emperor Khosroes appears to have had a Christian wife (“but after the heresy of Nestorius”, the witness is clear to specify) who did much to aid Christian prisoners of war after Khosroes’ sack of Jerusalem. The writings of the seventh century Christian ascetic figure Isaac of Nineveh (modern Mosul, in Iraq), despite Isaac formally being a part of the Persian church, were nonetheless eagerly received in Byzantium and translated into Greek. (And, as the best sign of admiration, Greek authors wrote spurious works under Isaac’s name.)

Still, in 644, the Arab invaders under Umar overthrew — or perhaps subsumed — the Persian Empire, and the church under Seleucia-Ktesiphon was permanently isolated. Over time the Persian church came to be known variously as the Nestorian Church, the Church of the East, and the Assyrian Church of the East. Syriac (more about which in a moment) remains their predominant liturgical language, and like the Copts, they have a distinctive liturgical tradition. You can get a sense of it from this video (which is in English):

From the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, the Church of the East was at the center of the intellectual life in the Islamic world and played an important role in the translation of Greek texts into Arabic. Following the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258, they retreated to the relative safety of the mountains of Northern Iraq. Their period of flourishing and expansion was over, and they were isolated again in northern Mesopotamia. Since then, their relatively small size, internal divisions, shifting ecclesial ties, and political instability in the region have meant that they’ve been forced to move around a lot over the last several centuries, and they have been largely concentrated in pockets of Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Their patriarch, or chief bishop, is at present in exile in Chicago.

A last point for the moment. Concerning language: Syriac is often referred to in Western media as “the language of Christ”. This is fundamentally misleading, but it also reveals a certain myopia of our media outlets and worldview. Jesus, as a Jew in Roman Judea, probably spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic as his native language, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and modern Arabic. More than likely, he spoke some Greek as well, since that was the common language of business and society for a Roman province. Classical Syriac began as the dialect of Aramaic of the city of Edessa, and it developed into a key literary and liturgical language perhaps in the second century; certainly the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Syriac in the second century (although a complete New Testament has murkier origins, without a clear appearance until the fifth century). It should be clear, however, that a form of Syriac remains a living, albeit endangered, language in some Assyrian communities, which means that it has developed and evolved from its classical iteration. Much as calling Modern Greek “the language of Homer”, or modern Italian “the language of Virgil”, or modern English “the language of Beowulf” misleadingly elides centuries of language change, calling Syriac “the language of Christ” does the same. It also ignores the far more interesting linguistic relationship between ancient Aramaic, classical Syriac, and the modern language known by its speakers as Assyrian, and also implies that these people, their culture, their history, and their language are only of secondary interest to an imaginary reconstruction of the world of the New Testament. That is to do sufficient justice neither to the Syriac/Assyrian people and heritage, which are under significant and immediate attack now (besides the kidnapping, there’s also Sunday’s burning of Mosul’s library), nor to Christianity and its history, nor to the history of the Roman East and the Roman/Persian frontier in antiquity as its own fully-qualified subject of interest. There is far more going on in current events with far deeper roots than these one-paragraph summaries would have you believe, and pithy statements like “Syriac is the language of Christ” do nothing to illuminate that.

Lord have mercy on the Assyrian Christians!

(I am grateful to Sam Noble, Eric Jobe, David Maldonado-Rivera, Fr. Andrew Damick, and Lucas Christensen for their helpful comments on yesterday’s piece as well as today’s. Any errors that remain are, of course, my own.)

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Who are the Copts?

Icon the 21 Coptic New Martyrs of Libya, painted by Tony Rezk.(Note: this piece is intended for a general audience, not necessarily my normal two readers, whom I would expect would be familiar with at least some of the issues discussed here.)

On or before 14 Feburary, an “affiliate” of ISIS beheaded 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians on a beach in Libya, as depicted in a video the ISIS affiliate released to the public. The story made international news, and the Coptic Pope Tawadros (Theodore) II declared that they were to remembered as martyr saints and added them to the Coptic Synaxarion, the book that lists the saints commemorated by calendar day. Their future commemoration will be on 15 February.

CNN’s story on the beheading had this brief statement explaining Coptic Christian identity:

Coptic Christians are part of the Orthodox Christian tradition, one of three main traditions under the Christian umbrella, alongside Catholicism and Protestantism. Copts split from other Christians in the fifth century over the definition of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Well, that’s not entirely wrong, but it could do with some unpacking. The short version is that Copts are the modern Christian group that count themselves as the present-day successors of the historic Church in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the five major episcopates in late antiquity, the others being Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Copts are generally understood as belonging to the so-called Oriental Orthodox tradition, as opposed to the Greek or Eastern Orthodox tradition; The Oriental Orthodox communion includes the Syriac, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Armenian, and Indian Orthodox Churches. Oriental Orthodox recognize the first three Ecumenical Councils — Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus; by contrast, the Greek Orthodox are normally said to recognize the first seven, and Roman Catholics recognize twenty-one, up to Vatican II in the 20th century. Copts remain principally Egyptian in terms of modern national heritage. They have their own distinctive liturgical tradition that is separate from the Byzantine and Roman/Frankish rites, and you can get a sense of the current practice of it here.

Why do the Copts exist as a separate group? To make a complicated story a little shorter, Christianity in the early centuries emerged in a Mediterranean, Roman context where two things mattered — what major city you were in or closest to, and how close to the sea that city was. Egypt’s Alexandria and Syria’s Antioch were cities that pretty much ruled the roost as far as intellectual culture and theological thought were concerned, and represented the major poles that governed the development of orthodox (intentional lower-case “o”) Christianity. The major common language of education in this period was Greek, a language that already had a well-developed vocabulary and rhetorical approach for talking about complicated and nuanced philosophical ideas. At the same time, Latin was the language of the state, and there were of course local languages. Semitic languages were common in the eastern part of the empire, including Aramaic (the so-called “language of Jesus”) and its dialects, like Syriac. Egypt still spoke Egyptian, with a major literary dialect known as Bohairic, commonly known as “Coptic”. This dialect had been used continuously going back to the pharaohs, and for historical reasons, it adopted the Greek alphabet and some Greek vocabulary. These local languages were often employed for monastic writing and other kinds of sacred literary production, although it was not at all uncommon for authors in these languages to borrow Greek theological terminology outright rather than attempt to translate them.

In 325, Constantine started to build his New Rome at the site of Byzantium, a port town that straddled the western edge of Europe and the eastern edge of Asia Minor. Constantinople may have been the new capital by fiat, but it had to earn its intellectual credibility, and while the first two ecumenical councils were held in or near Constantinople, the theological and ecclesial powers at play were Antiochene and Alexandrian. The arguments were certainly about the nature of Christ in content; inter-city Roman politics were part of the context nonetheless.

In the early decades of the 400s, Constantinople was ready to try its hand at theology, and it was a disaster. Nestorius, the capital’s archbishop, got involved in a Christological argument, and in 431 at the Council of Ephesus (the third Ecumenical Council) he got his head handed to him by Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria and heavyweight champion of theological disputes. Incidentally, it is because of the Council of Ephesus that the Virgin Mary’s status as “Mother of God” is a dogmatic point for Oriental and Greek Orthodox, as well as for Roman Catholics; the base question, despite an awkward appellation in English (the Greek word, Theotokos, is more literally, if woodenly, rendered as “One who carried God in her womb”), is strictly whether the child to whom Mary gave birth was God from conception or not, not a matter of Mary as the source of Christ’s divinity.

In any event, the memory of Cyril as the voice of authority at Ephesus was powerful, and over the next twenty years there was jockeying for control of his memory amongst successors and putative successors in Constantinople, Rome, and Alexandria. In addition, there were residual issues left over from Ephesus, as Cyril’s Christological formulations that dogmatized the Virgin Mary as Theotokos also raised new questions. A council in 449 convened by Emperor Theodosius II to address the new theological disputes seemed inclined to favor Dioscorus, Cyril’s successor as Patriarch of Alexandria, and to do at the expense of Flavian, Constantinople’s own patriarch. Then Theodosius died, and his successor, Marcian, convened a council in Chalcedon (modern-day Kadıköy in Turkey) that favored Rome and Constantinople at Dioscorus’ expense. Dioscorus was exiled, and Constantinople appointed their own Patriarch of Alexandria. He didn’t last long; the Alexandrians forced him out to elect whom they wanted as Dioscorus’ successor.

The disputes were made worse by the linguistic issues; the Christological formulations relied on specific vocabulary in Greek that was difficult to render in other languages. Monks in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria felt that the faith of their beloved Cyril was being sacrificed at the altar of politics in favor of settled heresy being rehabilitated by sophistry. The so-called Tome of Pope Leo I, a sort of “friend of the court” briefing for the Second Council of Ephesus (although not read until Chalcedon) that was written in Latin, only made things worse in its (possibly deliberately) clumsy approximation of Greek theological vocabulary. Imperial fiat did not fix the problem either; a compromise decree by the Emperor Zeno in 482 made nobody happy, and hardened the division between those who adhered to Chalcedon and those who were, by now, fairly described as anti-Chalcedonian.

Emperors and bishops continued waging these internal battles for another century before the non-Chalcedonians became a separate ecclesial entity; the sixth century emperor Justinian held several “heretical” bishops from Alexandria and Syria under house arrest in Constantinople, and they consecrated a monk named Jacob as a bishop. Jacob traveled in rags throughout the regions sympathetic to Alexandria, consecrating close to a hundred bishops and perhaps thousands of priests. An ecclesial structure parallel to, but separate from, the Church of the Roman Empire had been established.

Whatever hope there may have been at reunification and reconciliation was lost in the seventh century, when the Rashidun Caliphate captured Alexandria, Antioch, and other major regions in the East where there had been anti-Chalcedonian sentiment and a non-Chalcedonian church structure. Egypt remained predominantly Christian for some time, but by the 12th century the Christian community was a minority.

The Oriental and Greek Orthodox remain separated and “out of communion” in the present day; there have been theological discussions in the last several decades to attempt to resolve the issues once and for all, but the division remains an official reality. In the Middle East, however, there is a great deal of practical cooperation between Christian groups, regardless of official structural division.

In modern Egypt, Coptic Orthodox make up perhaps 7-10% of the country’s population, and in recent years there have been a number of reports of violent attacks in Alexandria. A bomb at the Coptic church of Al-Qiddissin on New Year’s Day 2011 killed twenty-one people, for example, and there have been additional attacks throughout the cities and countryside.

In Libya, where the beheadings took place, Copts are the largest Christian group.

Coptic New Martyrs of Libya, pray for us!


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