Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch

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SYRIAC ORTHODOX CHURCH OF ANTIOCH . The Syriac Orthodox Church and its dependency in India, along with the Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Malankara, and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, make up a communion now called Oriental Orthodox, erroneously called "Monophysite" in the past. These churches did not accept the Council of Chalcedon (451 ce) and its Christological definition that proposed two natures in Christ and so fell out of communion with the rest of the Christian world. But they never accepted the classical Monophysite position of Eutyches, who affirmed that the humanity of Christ was absorbed into his single divine nature. They affirm the perfect humanity as well as the perfect divinity of Christ, inseparably and unconfusedly united in a single divine-human nature of Christ's person. In Christology these churches follow Severus of Antioch and also Cyril of Alexandria, who spoke of the "one incarnate nature of the Word of God." Long known as Syrian Orthodox, in April 2000 this church's Holy Synod changed its official name in English to the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch in order to avoid confusion with Syrian nationality.


Antioch was one of the largest cities in the ancient eastern Mediterranean and became an important political, military, cultural, and commercial center after it was incorporated into the Roman Empire in 64 bce. It became the Greek-speaking capital of the Roman province of Syria, where most of the inhabitants in the countryside spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. A Christian community formed at Antioch early in the common era; according to Acts 11:26, it was here that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, and a strong case has been made that the Gospel of Matthew was composed in the city. Both Peter and Paul spent time in Antioch; Paul and Barnabas later set out from the city on their missionary journeys after the local prophets and teachers agreed with the undertaking.

Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35c. 107 ce) provided in his writings the first evidence of a monarchical episcopacy at Antioch, although the Antiochians themselves have traditionally viewed Peter as their first bishop. In the second and third centuries ce a number of heresies arose and caused unrest in the community, including Gnosticism, docetism, Montanism, and Novatianism. Yet these early centuries also saw great scholars and thinkers, such as Paul of Samosata (third century ce), Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350428 ce), and Diodore of Tarsus (d. 394 ce), all three of whom the Syriac Orthodox now regard as heretics. John Chrysostom (c. 354407 ce) came from the Greek-speaking city church.

The leadership of the Syriac Church was decimated by the persecution that broke out under Diocletian around 304 ce. But by the time of the Council of Nicaea (325 ce) the metropolitanate of Antioch had largely recovered, having six Roman provinces under its jurisdiction (Palestine, Phoenicia, Coele-Syria, Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Cilicia) with sixty-six bishops and ten rural bishops. Edessa, rather than Antioch, was now the center of Syriac Christianity, and its catechetical school, called the Athens of the Aramaic world, flourished until the Byzantine emperor Zeno destroyed it in 489 ce. The center then moved to Nisibis.

Increased efforts by the Byzantine emperors to Hellenize the Syriac-speaking population in the countrysidewhere the "one nature" Christological formula was widely acceptedmet with stiff opposition there and also in Egypt. Resistance began in 449 ce with the Second Council of Ephesus (called the "Robber Council" in the West) and exploded after Chalcedon's adoption of the "two nature" formula in 451 ce. In spite of efforts by the Byzantine emperors to impose Chalcedonian orthodoxy, in the end only about half of the faithful of the ancient Antiochian Patriarchate (located mostly in the Hellenized urban areas) accepted Chalcedon. They eventually adopted the Byzantine rite and become what is in the twenty-first century the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. The other half, more representative of the Syriac-speaking faithful of the interior, never accepted Chalcedon, retained their Syriac liturgical tradition, and evolved into the Syriac Orthodox Church.

By the end of the fifth century ce the Syro-Egyptian revolt found a great champion in Severus, patriarch of Antioch (c. 465538 ce), under whose influence the Synod of Tyre (513515 ce) formally rejected the Chalcedonian formula. Byzantium sought to crush the movement through ruthless persecution. In 518 ce the Second Council of Constantinople deposed and anathematized Severus, who then fled to Egypt.

In 521 ce Emperor Justin expelled all non-Chal-cedonian monks and clergy and drove the Syriac Church into the wilderness. This contributed to a renaissance of Syriac monasticism, which was characterized by devotion to vigorous asceticism and solitude. One Syriac monastic, Saint Simeon Stylites (c. 389459 ce), had spent years alone on top of a column, introducing a unique form of Syriac asceticism known as stylitism ; this practice continued well into the Middle Ages.

In 544 ce the Syriac priest Jacob Baradeus was ordained bishop through the influence of ārith ibn Jabalah, king of the Arabs (c. 529569 ce), with the support of Empress Theodora (a Syrian) in Constantinople. Bishop Jacob Baradeus is credited with reviving the Syriac Orthodox hierarchy by ordaining some twenty-seven bishops and hundreds of priests and deacons. Because of Bishop Jacob's pivotal role in preserving the church for future generations, its detractors began much later to call the church "Jacobite." But this name was never accepted by the Syriac Orthodox themselves because of its suggestion that Jacob had been the founder of their church.

The Persian invasions began when Chosroes I (reigned 531579 ce) sacked Antioch in 540 ce and were repeated in 614 ce; by 616 ce both Syria and Egypt had fallen to the Persian Sassanids. The Persians deported large numbers of Syriac Christians to Mesopotamia, where they were joined by Christians disaffected from the local (Nestorian) church of the East. The Syriac Church reorganized itself during this period, and great centers developed at Seleucia-Ctesiphon (Mesopotamia) and again at Edessa. In 629 ce the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, who was an Edessan, drove out the Persians and resumed persecution of the Syriac Orthodox.

In 636 ce the Arabs conquered Syria. The new Islamic Empire, cultured and tolerant, especially after Muʿāwiya, the first Umayyad caliph (661680 ce), shifted its capital to Damascus, improved the legal status of the Syriac Orthodox, and allowed them to organize themselves separately in Mesopotamia with their own metropolitan with authority over all the faithful east of the Euphrates. Marutha of Tagrit (629649 ce) was the first bishop to hold this office, having received from the patriarch the title "maphrian of the East." These metropolitans were elected by the bishops of the area and enjoyed a high level of autonomy, even for a time ordaining the patriarchs. (The maphrians were nominated by the patriarchs after 793 ce, and the office became defunct in 1848.) The great center of the church's scholarship was now at the monastery of Kenneshre on the Euphrates. Perhaps its most famous graduate was Jacob of Edessa (633708 ce), the ascetic scholar and exegete who revised the Syriac Old Testament and the Syriac liturgy.

The Umayyad caliphate of Syria was replaced in 750 ce by the Abbasid caliphate, and in 762 ce the capital was moved to the newly founded city of Baghdad. Under the Abbasids, and also from 969 to 1043 ce, when the Fatimid caliphate ruled Syria from Egypt, there was periodic persecution of Christians and some signs of corruption in the hierarchy and the monasteries. Many Christians converted to Islam. Seljuk Turks conquered Jerusalem and Damascus in the eleventh century. In 1092 the Turkish Empire collapsed, and from 1098 to 1124 the Latin Crusaders occupied Antioch and Jerusalem.

Nevertheless in the twelfth century the Syriac Church had 20 metropolitan sees, 103 bishops, and millions of believers in Syria and Mesopotamia. Sultan alā al-Dīn (Saladin), who defeated the Crusaders and took over Palestine from them, was supportive of culture and encouraged learned Christians. An outstanding leader and scholar at this time was Patriarch Michael the Great (11261199), whose Chronicle remains an important source of Syriac Orthodox history. The turbulent thirteenth century, wracked by invasions of Latin Crusaders from the West as well as of Mamluk Turks and Mongols from the East, also produced a number of pivotal figures, including the chronicler and philosopher Gregory Bar Hebraeus (12261286), maphrian of the East. The Syriac Orthodox Church grew to more than two hundred dioceses at this time; decline set in around 1401 with the attack by Tamerlane, the Turkic conqueror.

In the seventeenth century a majority of the Thomas Christians of the Malabar Coast in India turned to the Syriac Orthodox Church and asked it to send them bishops in reaction to the reforms and Latin practices that the Portuguese had imposed on them at the Synod of Diamper in 1599. This had led to the Coonen Cross revolt in 1653 and an effort to receive pastoral oversight from a church that would allow them to maintain their ancient traditions. This new relationship was formalized during the visit of Mar Gregorios, Syriac metropolitan of Jerusalem, to India in 1664. The group then formed an autonomous church within the Syriac Patriarchate.

By this time the church in Syria had dwindled to about twenty bishops from probably more than two hundred in the thirteenth century. Capuchin and Jesuit missionaries began to work among the Syriac Orthodox and received many of them into the Catholic Church. The Catholic group chose Bishop Andrew Akhijan as its patriarch in 1662, but he had no successor after his death in 1702. A Catholic patriarchate was permanently established only in 1782, when Syriac Patriarch Michael Jarweh declared himself Catholic and took refuge in Lebanon. The Orthodox then elected a new patriarch of their own, and the two lines have continued into the twenty-first century.

In the nineteenth century, in the Ottoman Turkish Empire, Kurds assaulted Syriac Christians with large-scale massacres in 1843, 1846, and 1860. In 1861 the Levant came under the protection of the French, who worked to strengthen the Catholics. During and immediately following World War I, as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, tens of thousands of Syriac Orthodox died as a result of massacres and expulsions.

Protestant missionaries in the Middle East since 1819 have also drawn many Syriac Orthodox into their faith communities. Migrations to Europe and the Americas further depleted their numbers, with many of the émigrés joining other churches, Protestant or Catholic.

Modern Times

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were turbulent times for the Syriac Orthodox in the Middle East, and the struggle for survival became more and more intense. The headquarters of the Patriarchate, which had been in Antioch until 1034, at Mar Barsauma monastery until 1293, and at Der Zafaran monastery until 1933, moved to Homs in 1933 and then to Damascus in 1959. Headed in 2003 by Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas (b. 1933, elected 1980), the church has a total of 25 bishops and about 500,000 members. The Syriac Orthodox Church in the twenty-first century has an established hierarchy in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, India, the United States, Canada, and Australia. There is also an Archdiocese of Central Europe and the Benelux countries based in the Netherlands, an archdiocese and patriarchal vicariate within the Metropolitanate of Sweden and Scandinavia based in Södertälje, Sweden, and an archdiocese in Germany.

Some theological education is still provided by the monasteries, but Saint Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Seminary is the Patriarchate's major theological school. It was founded in Zahle, Lebanon, but moved to Mosul, Iraq, in 1939. It moved back to Zahle in the 1960s and relocated to Atchaneh, near Beirut, in 1968. The outbreak of civil war in Lebanon forced the removal of the students to Damascus, Syria. New facilities for the seminary at Sayedniya, near Damascus, were consecrated by the Syriac patriarch on September 14, 1996.

The Syriac monastic tradition, nearly wiped out by the invasions of Tamerlane, survives in the Tur Abdin region of southeastern Turkey. There are two sizable complexes at Der Mar Gabriel and Der Zafaran with a total of about fifteen monks and four communities of nuns in the area. There are monasteries in Jerusalem, near Mosul in Iraq, in the Netherlands, in Germany, and in Switzerland. There is also a monastery with about sixty monks connected with the seminary in Sayedniya, Syria. The Syriac patriarch has also created a new order of nuns, the Virgins of Saint Jacob Baradeus, which has about fifteen members. The order's headquarters is in Atchaneh, Lebanon, and there are additional communities in Damascus and Baghdad.

The Syriac Church in India suffered a split in 1912, when a group composing about half of its members declared itself autocephalous (independent) of the Syriac Patriarchate and elected its own catholicos. They and those who had remained loyal to the Patriarchate were reconciled in 1958, when the Indian Supreme Court declared that only the catholicos subject to the Syriac patriarch and bishops in communion with him had legal standing. But in 1975, after the catholicos broke relations with Damascus, the Syriac Patriarchate excommunicated and deposed him and appointed a rival, causing the community to split again. In June 1996 the Supreme Court of India rendered a decision declaring that, whereas there is only one Orthodox Church in India whose spiritual head is the Syriac patriarch, the autocephalous catholicos alone has legal standing as the head of the church in India. Unfortunately this did not reconcile the two communities, whose dispute has become embittered. In 2003 the two sides were more or less evenly divided with about one million adherents each.

Ecumenical Activity

The Syriac Orthodox Church has been an active participant in the modern ecumenical movement; it has been a member of the World Council of Churches since 1960 and was a founding member of the Middle East Council of Churches. In most of the theological dialogues it has acted in concert with the other Oriental Orthodox Churches. It has had a long-standing relationship with the Anglican Communion in the Middle East and India; the Oriental Orthodox and Anglicans reached a Christological agreement in 2002.

The Syriac Orthodox Church also participated in unofficial consultations with the Eastern (Byzantine) Orthodox Churches from 1964 to 1971 and in an official joint commission from 1985 to 1993. In addition the Syriac Orthodox patriarch signed a joint statement with the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Antioch on November 12, 1991, that sanctions much closer relations between the two churches, including a substantial level of sacramental sharing.

Relations with the Catholic Church have improved dramatically, as was shown by the signing of common declarations by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Ignatius Jacob III in 1971 and by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas in 1984. The second declaration states that past schisms and divisions concerning the doctrine of the incarnation "in no way affect or touch the substance of their faith." It also authorized their faithful to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick in the other church when access to their own clergy is materially or morally impossible and outlined broad areas of pastoral cooperation. In addition a direct bilateral theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church began in 1989. It issued an agreement on interchurch marriages in 1993.


The Syriac Orthodox liturgical tradition, often called West Syrian, drew upon translations of Greek texts from Jerusalem and Antioch and added Syriac-language material from Edessa, largely poetry and hymns. It is one of the richest ancient Christian liturgical traditions, with about one hundred Eucharistic prayers, three baptismal liturgies, and poetic sets of daily offices and festal liturgies now available in English (few of which are in use). The choir has not replaced the congregation in worship, as it has in the Byzantine tradition. The principal anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) is that of Saint James, which is rooted in the Jerusalem tradition and attained its present form at the end of the fourth century ce. Many of the hymns in use come from Ephraem the Syrian, the great fourth-century ce ascetic and poet.


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Ronald G. Roberson (2005)

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