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The Church of the East

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Mesopotamia — from the Greek meaning, “land between the rivers” — is the cradle of civilization. There, the development of agriculture and commerce, law and government, the arts, cities, culture, written language and the division of labor and skilled trades converged, creating the world’s first complex human society. While this cradle roughly corresponds to modern-day Iraq, Mesopotamia included all of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, which extends from eastern Turkey to northeastern Syria and southwestern Iran.

It is less commonly known that Mesopotamia is also the cradle of the Christian faith. In its fertile soil, the seeds of Christianity took root quickly and eventually spread like wildflowers throughout Asia, reaching Afghanistan, China, India and Mongolia.

The Church of the East, the community of faith whose missionaries took the Gospel East via the Silk Road, has all but vanished. Today, a handful of communities — calling themselves Assyrians — survive in India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. But the head of the church, Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, leads his community of some 400,000 people not from the Fertile Crescent, but from a Chicago suburb. While more than a third of those who belong to the Church of the East live in North America, the fastest growing Assyrian community is in Australia.

Patrimony. Assyrian Christians consider themselves the descendants of the indigenous Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia: Sumerian, Akkadian, Amorite, Babylonian, Assyrian and Chaldean. The destinies of these peoples and their neighbors to the West — the Jews — are intricately woven together. Based in Nineveh, near the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, the ancient Assyrians waged war on the Israelites, forcing tribute from the king of Judah. The prophet Jeremiah also prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) and the subsequent exile of the Jews in Babylon.

Some five centuries before Christ, Cyrus the Great conquered Mesopotamia and established a Persian empire that, for more than 1,200 years, linked the East with the Greco-Roman culture of the West. The Persians established their capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the banks of the Tigris (near modern Baghdad) and employed Aramaic as the administrative language of the domain. Eventually, Aramaic, with its many dialects and variants, became the lingua franca of the Middle East, supplanting even Hebrew among the Jews.

The origins of the Christian faith in Persian Mesopotamia are obscure. Some credit St. Thomas the Apostle with evangelizing the region’s Jewish merchant communities as he traveled to India. An ancient legend recorded by the fourth-century church historian, Eusebius, connects a sickly king of Edessa to Christ, who promised to send a disciple after his ascension. The Apostle Thomas sent Addai (Aramaic for Thaddeus, perhaps one of the 70 disciples of Jesus) and his assistant, Mari, who consequently cured the king and established the church.

That Edessa is the likely source of the faith in Mesopotamia is supported by historic and linguistic evidence: the Aramaic dialect of Edessa, commonly called Syriac, became the literary language of the non-Greek-speaking Christian community throughout the region.

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Tags: Christianity Chaldean Church Church history Church of the East