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The Syriac Orthodox Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Resilient best describes the Syriac Orthodox Church. Persecuted by Byzantines, murdered by Mongols, massacred by Ottoman Turks and caught in the Kurdish-Turkish crossfire, Syriac Orthodox Christians, nevertheless, have managed to endure, preserving their legacy while enriching the entire church.

Antioch and Edessa. The Syriac Orthodox Church shares in the heritage of ancient Antioch, the commercial, cultural and political center of Rome’s eastern Mediterranean provinces. (Now a provincial city in southern Turkey with just 145,000 people, Antioch’s population at its height in the first century A.D. totaled more than 500,000.)

Though inhabited by Greeks and Jews, Macedonians and Syrians, Nabateans and Romans, Antioch was culturally and linguistically Greek, the predominant culture of the Classical era. Those who lived in Syria’s rural interior, however, spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic that developed in the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in southeastern Turkey).

Founded and nurtured by the apostles Peter and Paul, the Church of Antioch - where the followers of Jesus Christ first were called “Christian” (Acts 11:26) — emerged as the center of the church of the East. Though Antioch eventually served as the seat of the metropolitan bishop — who as patriarch presided over the entire church of the East, including those churches outside the Roman world — Edessa and nearby Nisibis became known as the cradle of the Syriac Christian community.

An ancient legend claims Christ personally responsible for Edessa’s evangelization, instructing the Apostle Thomas to send a disciple to cure Abgar, Edessa’s sickly king. Bearing a cloth featuring a miraculous image of Jesus, Addai (Syriac for Thaddeus, one of the 70 disciples of Jesus) and his assistant, Mari, cured the king, won disciples and established a church.

Christological controversies. The development of the Antiochene Church coincided with the confluence of cultures in the eastern Mediterranean world of late antiquity. As Christianity grew and embraced converts from the Greek, Roman and Semitic cultures, debate raged as to how to interpret and practice the teachings of Jesus. Even more divisively, Christians explored a number of concepts regarding the nature of Jesus and his relation to the Father (Christology).

Antiochene Christians cultivated contrasting schools of theology and philosophy, one cosmopolitan and Greek-speaking and the other provincial and Syriac-speaking. Yet, these schools did not develop in isolation — cross-pollination was the norm.

Ultimately, Antioch fashioned a particular image and understanding of Jesus (usually described as literal) that stressed his humanity. This countered the Christology developed by Christians in Alexandria, whose neo-Platonic theologians and philosophers utilized allegory to explain Jesus’ divinity and humanity.

Though now understood as complementary, these Christological approaches clashed as Alexandria and Antioch competed for preeminence.

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Tags: Monastery Syriac Orthodox Church Byzantium Syriac Christians Antiochene church