Archive for the 'Media' Category

What did you do on #elevennine?

Every generation has days where they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. John F. Kennedy’s assassination was one for my parents. The earliest one I remember is the Challenger explosion; also Princess Diana’s death, maybe. 9/11 is, of course, one of those days as well, and still very much in recent memory.

11/9 is, I think, going to be another one. It already has been a day of note in past years; 9 November 1938 was Kristallnacht, and 9 November 1989 was the fall of the Berlin Wall. It remains to be seen just what kind of a marker 9 November 2016 will be remembered as; one way or the other, though — as I tell other historians — we are seeing periodization in action. This is close of one chapter and the beginning of the other; 11/9 is a day we will see as a dividing line of some kind.

So where was I and what did I do on 11/9?

We had been up watching the returns since the first polls closed Tuesday night. We watched his speech, and at 3:30 in the morning turned in. I got up to go chant Orthros and Divine Liturgy for St. Nektarios of Aegina, praising God and his saints with my voice as best I could, and then I went to go teach the undergraduates taking my Ancient Greek History survey course.

I walked in and saw a lot of low, low faces. Some of them were gathered around a laptop. “She’s speaking right now,” one of them said.

“Right,” I said. “I’ll put it up on the projector screen.”

We watched her concede.

I had a lesson planned for the day. I thought to myself, screw it.

“Okay, folks, obviously today is going to be a little different –”

“The next four years are going to be a little different,” one of my students said.

“Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you what.” I pulled up an article from “Patriotic Folks dot Com”, one of the alt-right sites to which some of my ultra-conservative Facebook connections are always posting links, and put it up on the projector screen. “You know why I’m always harping on questions like audience, genre, agenda, view of the past, and so on? Because of pieces like this.” I show them the article, which seemed to assert that some famous Hollywood actor had posted a picture of himself holding up a pro-Trump sign, and then aggregated tweets from both right and left showing their reactions. Of course, the headline presented it as “Liberal Twitter melting down”. Of course the picture is fake, and the article even acknowledges that it’s fake, at the very end. The only point of the piece is to point out how the image punks the “other side”, while naturally ignoring that “their” side got punk’d, too.

“I make you think about those questions precisely because we all get bombarded with this stuff every day, and unlike the tabloids when I was a kid, where you could distinguish based on format and location in the store, everything looks equally authoritative when shared as a Facebook link. You have to evaluate based on content, not format, and if you can’t do that, we’re all going to be in trouble. My generation has not been well-educated about this, neither has the generation before mine. You have to figure it out. The point isn’t really whether Thucydides is ‘more reliable’ as a ‘scientific historian’ than Herodotus; the point is, that’s an exercise that will help you evaluate garbage like this. If a historian five hundred years from now sees this website and can’t answer those kinds of questions, then this is going to be useless as a source; but if you can think about it and answer those questions, then it can tell you a lot.”

A Mexican woman told me, We’re not rapists and criminals. And nobody gets “sent” here in the first place.

An African American woman told me, I grew up in Boston. I had heard about racism and xenophobia as issues, but I had never really seen the extent to which they were things real people actually did.

“See, for eleven years, I lived twenty minutes south of the birthplace of the KKK, right on the edge of what is, for all intents and purposes, rural and culturally Southern. That’s an experience that means I’m surprised by this outcome, but not blindsided. I’ve seen this face to face.”

Then I showed them the video from Monday night of Pres. Obama in New Hampshire telling the story of the woman in Greenwood, South Carolina, one of twenty people at one of his early 2008 campaign meetings, who got the room excited for him by saying “All fired up! Ready to go!” This was the woman, he said, who made him realize that “…one voice can change a room… And if it can change a room, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation. And if it can change a nation, it can change the world.”

Be the voice that changes the room, I told them.

Then I went to a rehearsal and sang beautiful music as best as I could.

That is how I spent 11/9. What did you do?

And then, today, on 11/10, the real question — what are you and I going to do? Because there’s a lot to be done.


Review Essay: The Oecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church

maxresdefaultA couple of years ago, I contributed this piece to the sadly-now-defunct Red Egg Review. It seems quite relevant now, so I repost it in full here.

I find it curious that, amidst a series of heavier news reports of import to Orthodox Christians being covered in American media, such as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and the civil war in Syria, the recent synaxis of the Orthodox primates at the Ecumenical Patriarchate made the Huffington Post via a Reuters story (although somebody at the HuffPo concocted an ill-informed headline on the piece, announcing that the synaxis had planned a new “ecumenical council” for 2016, and I’m not the only one who noticed this).  As can be typical, the writers of the piece seemed to stumble a bit when it came to explaining the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch; +Bartholomew is “the spiritual leader” of the Orthodox, the “senior-most Orthodox leader” who has a “prestige” position but a “tiny” church, with “no authority over other churches” and “none of the resources the large Russian church enjoys”.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is often a lightning rod for confusion and criticism by Anglophones, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. Not only is the American media not certain in what box to put him, but online chatter about the Patriarchate among American Orthodox converts is often sharply negative. He is critiqued for his support of environmental concerns and framing of them as a matter of Christian stewardship, for his willingness to interact with the Pope, for what the critics portray as a penchant for consolidating his own power, for a willingness to embrace political expediency in Turkey rather than bravely face martyrdom (as was at the heart of some critical reviews of his book, such as those by Rod Dreher and Charlotte Allen), and for a lack of concern for American issues besides shoring up support for the position of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Fr. Peter Gillquist’s allegation of the EP’s (+Demetrios in those days) poor treatment of the delegation from the Evangelical Orthodox Church is a story that is not easily forgotten, and it is trotted out with some regularity. Others offer the hypothesis that the Patriarchate seeks to establish itself as the “Orthodox papacy” specifically so that, when (so this line of thinking goes) +Bartholomew enters into reunion with Rome, it will be no conceptual difficulty to hand that authority over to the Roman Pope. Uncompromising reassertions of the primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate by Metropolitan Elpidophoros (Lambrianides) of Bursa have not helped the matter (at the same time, neither have similarly aggressive-sounding words from Moscow).

There are parallels here to the situation in 1970s. Greece had just emerged from its military dictatorship in 1974, the same year as the coup in Cyprus and subsequent Turkish invasion Lebanon’s civil war started in 1975; Soviet Russia was at its height – and the Orthodox world was preparing for a council. Preparatory meetings had been held since 1961, at Rhodes and at Chambesy, and in 1972, the same year that Patriarch Athenagoras passed away and a year after the Theological School in Halki was closed, a collection of the introductory reports of the Preparatory Commission were published under the title Towards the Great Council, the introduction to which contains the rather charming and confident statement that “[t]he Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church is planned to be held in all probability some time during 1974[.]”

The same year, Metropolitan Maximos of Sardes of blessed memory published a work of historical theology titled The Œcumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church: A Study in the History and Canons of the Church, published by the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies (Thessaloniki). The work begins in the Apostolic era, tracing the historical development of the office of the bishop through the Council of Nicea in 325, at which point +Maximos looks specifically at the episcopate as it developed in Constantinople. He spends quite a bit of time on the Council of Chalcedon, and then studies the way the role of the Patriarchate, as articulated at Chalcedon, was realized from the end of late antiquity up until the twentieth century. The book appears to have been conceived of in the context of an impending Great Council; +Maximos specifically has as his framing device the (then) recent memory of the first Conference at Rhodes in 1961, at which he was a delegate:

The conference was held primarily to demonstrate the unity which has held the Orthodox Church together in faith and service throughout the centuries, despite what at times has been considered as its injurious decentralization and the independence of the individual churches…  No doubt as a result of [such] misunderstandings, some curious articles have been published… about antagonism between the Oecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Church, and about the victory of one over the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one scored a victory at Rhodes. Rhodes saw but one victory; the triumph of Orthodoxy (p. 15).

Space only permits a brief summary of +Maximos’ 327 pages’ worth of observations and conclusions; in a nutshell, the Church is a divinely-instituted, mystical (as in sacramental) Body; at the same time, it is a historical reality, with visible power and authority being given to the Apostles. The episcopate is a charismatic office that is derived from Apostolic origin but is not, essentially, apostolic in character; in other words, the Apostles had a fundamentally missionary role, whereas the episcopate has a fundamentally liturgical and pastoral role. Ultimately it is Christ who is the divine founder of the Church; it is the bishop who is the earthly – that is to say, historical – head; this power is properly considered to be within, rather than over, the Church, and the bishop is the personification of the organic unity of the Church.

As Christianity spread, and the need for bishops to decide things in synod developed, a system of precedence emerged out of necessity, with preference being given to the “mother church” of a given synod. As new communities started emerging in the periphery rather than the metropolitan centers, this practice of customary precedence came to represent concrete administrative power, but these prerogatives were accompanied with a “reciprocity” of obligation. As the 34th Apostolic Canon prescribed, the bishops in a given synod are not to do anything without their head, but neither is the head to act without his bishops, “because harmony and love must prevail amongst the bishops as an example to the clergy and people and for ‘the glory of God, through the Lord, by the Holy Ghost’” (322).

Within this system emerged metropolitans, then patriarchs of autocephalous churches, then the patriarchates of Rome and New Rome. This is a historical development that still must be seen as an organic necessity:

[O]nly in this organization can the Church continue to exist in the midst of human societies… Thus even the highest institutions of its historical development, such as the emergence of the office of patriarch in the oecumenical Church, must be seen as vitally necessary phenomena, deriving in ecclesiastical life by a gradual and continuous process from the ecclesiastical idea of order, organization, and perfection in administration, under the same conditions as those under which the whole administration of the oecumenical Church has evolved; phenomena fully in accord with the internal presuppositions of ecclesiastical order as these were recognized by the Church itself and were developed in its legislation… Thus even if all the bishops are equal by divine institution, enjoying to the same degree the gift of the episcopal grace and share the same unbroken Apostolic succession, they are not all equal-in-honor in the canonical system of the ecclesiastical administration… Some bishops emerge as senior to the others…Enjoying special privileges, they take the initiative in general ecclesiastical issues. (324-25)

In this context, the Patriarch of Constantinople has a precedence of honor that is related to his administrative function. This is not, +Maximos insists, a supremacy in all aspects of ecclesiastical life (the way he would define “neo-Papism”), but an authority in the context of the dual principles of “conciliarity and collegiality” and “non-intervention in the internal affairs of other churches” (326).

History does interfere, however. The Ottoman takeover of the former Empire is well-covered territory; more recently, +Maximos examines the problem of the rise of nationalism in the Balkans and Europe, where the boundaries of local churches were now being drawn according to self-consciously secular and political criteria – division by tribe; that is to say, racism. It was in this context that the Patriarchate condemned ethnophyletism in 1872: “We renounce, censure, and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds, and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which ‘support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it, and lead it to divine godliness’.” (300-309)

+Maximos also spends some time on the question of the diaspora (a loaded word for some in 2014 that presumably was assumed merely to be descriptive in the 1970s). He acknowledges the problem that the emphasis on national origins has posed in Europe, Canada, Australia, and North America: “This makes Orthodoxy appear divided and at odds with itself… with disastrous consequences when it comes to projecting its unity to the outside world” (309). +Maximos here suggests that the diaspora represents three problems to be solved: what the local principle in the organization of the Church means as an issue of dogma, the canonical jurisdiction of Constantinople over Orthodox Christians outside of the boundaries of established churches (per Chalcedon 28, which +Maximos deals with at great length in his fourth chapter), and the “so-called psychological question of ecclesiastical unity” (311). An article of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s, dating from 1954 – sixteen years before Moscow’s granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America – is brought to bear in support of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s role in establishing unity in the diaspora. Apparently Schmemann was for the EP before he was against it.

The legacy of +Maximos’ book, particularly in Anglophone literature, is curious. The English translation was published in 1976. The Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies had commissioned Gamon McLellan, an Anglican who had been a student of +Kallistos Ware’s (now Metropolitan of Diokleia) and who was working with a team of paleographers at the Institute at the time of the commission. In preparation for writing this piece, I was fortunate enough to speak with Mr. McLellan by Skype, and I am indebted to him for his comments and his help in providing useful historical context for his work. He had a great deal of personal access to +Maximos, and they discussed his translation extensively. Mr. McLellan’s work was also reviewed by a team of senior theologians at the Patriarchal Institute. As much care as was put into the publication of the translation, however, it is unclear what the reception to the work was amongst English readers. WorldCat lists only forty-one libraries worldwide with a copy of Mr. McLellan’s translation in circulation, and the Patriarchal Institute in Thessaloniki has let the English edition go out of print. Indeed, while a second edition of the book was published in Greece in 1989, three years after +Maximos’ repose, no English translation has been published of that, and the Greek edition has proven impossible to acquire via Western interlibrary loan systems. On the whole, +Maximos does not appear to have been cited very much in English, save for a very small handful of scholarly works and a couple of essays on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website. And yet, a note of inquiry to +Elpidophoros of Bursa regarding the current appraisal of +Maximos’ study by the Patriarchate yields the following response: “…it does not merely reflect the thinking of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it describes the Ecumenical Patriarchate as it is. After saying that I do not see any space for any Patriarch to change something about that.”

The book is, to be sure, a dense read. +Maximos’ command of historical sources is exhaustive. At the same time, Mr. McLellan’s translation renders the recounting of canons and Councils into English that is as readable as it could be, and it is rewarding and informative reading. While it is a different world today in terms of Anglophone scholarship than it was in 1976 – the translation of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamum’s ecclesiological studies into English has been monumental all by itself (and +Maximos relies on him greatly in the early chapters) – surely a refreshed translation of the 1989 second edition, along with perhaps a scholarly afterword bringing the study up to date, would be a worthwhile project for a publisher like Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

A thought that emerges in my reading of this work is the applicability of the Byzantine love of paradox;[1] certainly, +Maximos is careful to acknowledge the paradoxical nature of the picture he paints. “Power and service are indeed mutually contradictory,” he writes, “power usually destroying any idea of service… However, when the Oecumenical throne exercises the power given it by the canons and by history, the aspect which predominates is that of offering service in the entire Orthodox economy, thus imitating and carrying on the unique example of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (327). Mutual contradiction – that is to say, paradox – does not represent an impossibility; it represents the chance for Christ to make Himself known (and one need only attend a Salutations service during Great Lent to hear the manifold ways this is expressed regarding the Mother of God in the Akathistos hymn).

+Maximos’ presentation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on its own terms serves as a useful corrective to the all-too-convenient picture that can be presented of a weak, ethnocentric, would-be Pope, and for that even if for no other reason, it is a work that deserves more of a hearing amongst Anglophone Orthodox than it seems to have received. Seen in the light of the picture +Maximos paints, +Bartholomew is an Ecumenical Patriarch who is trying to serve the oecumene – that is, the civilized world – not take it over and hand it to Rome in a neatly-wrapped package. Even if the reader, after giving him a fair hearing, still disagrees with +Maximos’ conclusions, it will be an exercise that, by the end, will make the reader more informed about Orthodox ecclesiological theology and the historical nature of Orthodox ecclesiastical structure, and will also be greatly illuminating in terms of where the Patriarchate and Patriarch are locating themselves in the scheme of Christian history.

[1] See, for example, Anthony Kaldellis’ exploration of this theme with respect to the Mother of God: ‘“A Union of Opposites”: The Moral Logic and Corporeal Presence of the Theotokos on the Field of Battle,’ in C. Gastgeber et al., eds., Pour l’amour de Byzance: Hommage à Paolo Odorico (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2013) 131-144.


Hey! Kids! Byzantine music books!

There’s a story here to be told another time, but this is another venture I’m helping out with. Interested in buying Byzantine music books in North America without the retail import and shipping premiums? Talk to us. Visit, and e-mail me at richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus SPACE org.

byz chant books flyer

A new Thing


I’ve kinda sucked as a blogger the last year.

Life has been complicated. I will explain in detail later, but for now what I’ll say is that the Barretts have stayed in Boston, the Barretts have broadened our brood with a baby girl, and the rest… well, it’s still up for negotiation. I’ve been writing, and I’ve continued to contribute pieces elsewhere, but a lot of other things I’ve wanted to work on, like this blog, have rather sat collecting dust since May of last year.

I’m trying to pull my mojo back together. I’m still planning on finishing my dissertation. I’m also still planning on doing the Boston series (I’ve even written a large chunk of a draft of the first segment, it’s just that — to repeat myself — life has been complicated).

I will be honest and say that I’m very intentionally looking for ways to make some amount of money from the blogging effort; I’ve historically found this very challenging (I’ve always teetered between laughing hysterically and sobbing at the moment in Julie and Julia where Julie’s friends tell her, “Oh, you know, you can just put a PayPal button on your site and everybody will start sending you money”), but I’d like to crack it if I can.

(As an aside, I’ll mention a very weird conversation I had a couple of months ago with somebody who does make a living as a blogger. We were put in touch by a mutual friend who thought that he might be able to be of some help to me; we kind of sat there in awkward silence for a few minutes until he said, essentially, I really hope you aren’t waiting for me to talk, because I’m not interested in telling you anything helpful. We don’t stay in business by telling everybody else how it’s done, sorry.)

Anyway, as part of this undertaking of mojo reconstitution, I have started a Patreon, and I think I may have also coined I appear to have appropriated the term “jotcasting”.

Ideally, this will feed into the ongoing effort here. Please, if you can, support the Patreon; I’ve structured it as a monthly subscription starting at $1, and for that $1, you get daily posts of jokes, weekly rough drafts of essays, and monthly random other things. Some of that stuff may get polished and repurposed here and elsewhere; some of it may become still other stuff entirely. In any event, I’m shooting for it to be interesting if nothing else, and hopefully interesting enough for you to be willing to ante up a dollar a month for it.

Okay. More soon, promise.

A pitch that never even got a rejection: Surprised By Nachos – Making Friends, Building Community, and Creating Family Through Food in Bloomington, Indiana

Last spring I proposed the following as a magazine article. It never even generated a “no”, alas, but it’s a piece that I still think could be worth writing, even though ten months later I’d have to re-think parts of it. Anybody want to read this story?

The reader of [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED] will know that food culture is passed on by communities and families as a way of reinforcing bonds within those groups — but can it work the other way, where somebody builds family and community from scratch, in a place he was unlikely to end up at and where he knows nobody, with food?

In 2003, when we were in our mid-20s, my wife and I left busy, cosmopolitan Seattle — and all of our friends and family — for what we thought would be a brief stint in Bloomington, Indiana, a town most famous for a basketball coach who threw chairs into the court, so that I could finish a degree at Indiana University’s prestigious School of Music. Life took some unexpected directions, however (as well as added a few more university degrees) and Bloomington became home for over a decade. Far away from the people we knew, the strategy we stumbled upon for making friends was, put simply, “feed the neighborhood”. This helped make friends, yes, but the regular gathering of people around our dinner table, combined with at once a strong local food movement, a restaurant scene that’s expensive for small town Indiana, and a diverse, rotating company of omnivorous guests, turned those friends into family over the years, even as they moved away and we stayed behind.

My story starts with the world’s most awesome nachos being made once a week for what was ultimately 20-30 people, and this going on for a year and half; as our circle of friends grew, so did our repertoire (often inspired by a gift subscription to [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED] my mother-in-law gave us). Dry-aged prime rib for a late winter dinner party and a Hungarian lamb stew for St. Patrick’s Day. An Italian Easter feast one year followed a Greek-style spit-roast lamb the following year. A standing commitment for a 3-day New Years celebration with a different themed menu every year. We made excursions into everything from butter-churning to home brewing to bread baking to coffee roasting to raw milk. Breakfast could be anything from eggs benedict with from-scratch Hollandaise and crumpets to the nothing-from-a-can biscuits and gravy a Kansas transplant taught us how to make when she moved here. People came to our table for celebratory nachos (and still do; there are people who have sung principal roles on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera who come back here and ask me to make nachos for them), for a convivial cocktail (usually something whiskey-based), and sometimes to cry in their soup (Tuscan kale and white bean). You don’t have to knock — the door is open, let me get you something. Are you hungry?

Time has gone by — Bloomington is a university town, so people have moved on. My wife and I now have a son. And, eleven years after arriving, we’re finally leaving. The coming New Years theme menu celebration will be in Boston — but with the same people. It’s a destination now, it’s family, it’s not just a relationship of convenience. Unlikely as it would have seemed when we got here, it’s what wanting to make good food for the people who came through our door — even when we didn’t know them — allowed us to build during our time here. Probably, though, when we get settled in the new place, I’ll offer to make somebody nachos.

My name is Richard Barrett, and I want to tell this story for [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED]. I have published magazine features, poetry, and academic articles on a range of topics from religion to technical theatre. Matthew Murray at PCMag can tell you what I’m like to work with on assignment.

Thanks very much for your consideration.


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.)

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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