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Church development. Sandwiched between two opposing empires, Persian and Roman (the eastern half of which developed into Byzantium), Christian Edessa prospered. Home to one of the greatest theological centers in late antiquity, the church in Edessa and nearby Nisibis (modern Nusaybin, Turkey, near the Syrian border) nurtured scholars and monks, hermits and poets. This includes Mar Aprem, known today as St. Ephrem the Syrian.

From Edessa developed a family of eucharistic liturgies – celebrated in Aramaic – that, in a number of forms, is used today by more than 17 million Christians of the Syriac tradition, Catholic and Oriental Orthodox. One form of worship in particular, the Liturgy of Mar Addai and Mar Mari, preserves elements of the liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Those Christians who celebrated this liturgy eventually turned away from the world of Byzantium and looked East, placing themselves by the year 410 under the leadership of the metropolitan archbishop of the Persian capital city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

Commonly referred to as the Church of the East, this community at first remained in communion with the churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, though it developed under the watchful eyes of the pagan Persians, who doubted the loyalty of the Church of the East.

Discord and schism. The early years of the church were tumultuous. Because the church became intimately linked to the state, especially in the Byzantine world, questions regarding the person and nature of Jesus Christ were politicized. As the church embraced converts from the Greco-Roman and Semitic worlds, these Christological questions were exacerbated by cultural and linguistic differences. These issues, coupled with the frequent wars between Byzantium and Persia, compromised the position of the Church of the East. And by the late fifth century, the Church of the East parted ways with the rest of the Christian world:

  • A synod of the Church of the East in 410 confirmed the primacy of the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon as “Catholicos of all the Orient” and equal to the sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch
  • In 424, the synod of the Church of the East asserted that their Catholicos-Patriarch was no longer subject to Antioch or Rome
  • The Church of the East gravitated toward a form of Christology – frequently described as “Nestorian” after Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople – condemned by the Council of Ephesus (431)
  • In 486, the Church of the East officially adopted Nestorian Christology and affirmed the right of priests and bishops to marry.

Growth and decline. Cut off from the rest of the church, the Church of the East nevertheless prospered. Its theological school in Nisibis became renowned throughout the Christian world. And its monks traveled deep into Asia, reaching as far as Japan. By the 14th century, the Church of the East spanned much of Asia, with some 30 metropolitan sees and more than 200 dioceses.

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