Orthodoxy, Greek

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ORTHODOXY, GREEK. The life of the Greek Orthodox Church (i.e., the Greek-speaking part of the Orthodox Christian Church) changed significantly when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in May 1453.


The Greek Orthodox Church had not only been the official religion of the now defunct empire, it had identified with it so completely that it saw the Byzantine state as the political incarnation of the Christian church. Less than a century before the last Byzantine emperor died on the barricades in 1453 (and the empire with him), Patriarch Anthony of Constantinople, head of the Byzantine Church, had announced that it was impossible to have the church and not have the emperor. In an attempt to save the Christian empire, the hierarchy of the Byzantine church had even agreed to unite with the Roman Church, from which it had been separated for centuries, and to submit to papal authority in the vain hope of military aid to save the empire from the Ottoman Turks, but that union, angrily and almost universally condemned by the Orthodox faithful as well as by most of the bishops, was short-lived. Now the Orthodox Church had to contemplate life without a Christian emperor in an Ottoman Empire ruled by Muslims.

Not very long after the Ottoman Turkish sultan Mehmed II had taken possession of Constantinople (called Istanbul by the Turks) in 1453, he enunciated his policy of toleration for the existing non-Muslim communities. Greeks (also Armenians, Jews, and some other ethnic groups) were invited to take their places in the new empire, not in full equality with Muslims, for this was officially an Islamic state, but on a lower level, as protected minorities. Because non-Muslim religious affairs could not be judged according to Muslim religious law, Christians and Jews were made subject to their religious leaders in groups called millet s (literally, 'communities'), which were granted a certain amount of autonomy. The Muslim Arabs had used a similar system for ruling the non-Muslim populations of the lands they had conquered earlier. In 1453 Sultan Mehmed II himself invested a new patriarch of Constantinople, Gennadius (George) Scholarios, with his staff of office and put him in charge not only of the Greek population of the Ottoman Empire, but also of all members of the Orthodox Church in the empire, including the Serbs and Bulgarians, who had earlier had their own independent churches. Even the ancient patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem and their Orthodox faithful were subordinated to the Constantinople patriarch for the convenience of the new government. The patriarch and his clergy were thus made responsible for police and legal matters among the Orthodox population and, importantly, for collecting their taxes, including the special tax that minorities paid in lieu of contributing otherwise to the defense of the realm. Because these were functions with which the Christian clergy had had no prior experience, they were forced to find laymen to do these jobs at all levels. These lay officials of the church, particularly the Phanariots of Constantinople, became very powerful. The Phanariots, so called because they tended to live in close proximity to the patriarchal headquarters, which eventually migrated to the Phanar (Turk. fener, 'lighthouse') district, grew very wealthy by skimming from the taxes they collected, through bribes and trade, and as official administrators appointed by the Ottomans.

After the death of Sultan Mehmed in 1481, a system of bribes came to dominate all the higher clerical offices. Candidates for the patriarchal throne vied with each other in making gifts to the sultan, and bishops in the provinces were forced to bribe local Ottoman officials. The money for these gifts and bribes had to be recouped by extorting money from the Christian millet or sought from foreign powers with an interest in supporting the church for their own reasons. Alms came in massive amounts from Orthodox Russia, for example, and in 1598 its church was recognized as an independent patriarchate. Ottoman officials quickly realized that the more often the patriarchal office changed hands, the more opportunities there were for receiving quite substantial "gifts." Thus, in the hundred years between 1595 and 1695, the patriarchal throne changed hands sixty-one times (passing among thirty-one individuals). As a seventeenth-century English visitor to Istanbul put it, the continued existence of Orthodox Christianity in the Ottoman Empire, given the conditions under which it lived, was "a miracle." The church fared somewhat better in the following century both because of a more efficient Ottoman state apparatus and the increased interest of the Russian Empire in the Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule. Indeed, in 1774, the Russo-Ottoman treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji officially recognized Russia's special interests in the Orthodox community of the Ottoman Empire.

Although, by definition, all of the people in the Greek Orthodox millet shared the same faith, there were clear tensions within the community. The Slavs included now in the patriarchate of Constantinople chafed under the Greek hierarchs appointed from Constantinople, and the Serbs and Bulgarians lobbied for independent churches. In 1557 the Serbs actually succeeded in obtaining an independent patriarchate in Peć, thanks to the influence of a Muslim grand vizier of Serbian background, but the Greeks eventually succeeded in having it reduced to a metropolitan province in 1755 and reintegrated into the Constantinople patriarchate in 1766. In the early eighteenth century, Arab Orthodox in Syria became so frustrated at cultural domination by the Greeks that many of them joined the Catholic Church as Uniates (the so-called Melkite Church). In general, however, there was considerable cultural unity in the Orthodox millet; the perceived distinctions were between subject Christians and privileged Muslims.


With the exception of the urban elite of Phanariots, tax farmers, religious dignitaries, and Greek merchants in Istanbul and some port cities, the majority of the Orthodox community in the Ottoman Empire lived either in poverty or in modest circumstances at best. For the masses, schools essentially did not exist, or taught only the most basic literacy. The major exception to this rule was the constantly struggling Patriarchal Academy in Constantinople, which trained the higher clergy. International merchants, many of them from Phanariot families, of necessity learned foreign languages and traveled abroad, and were eventually responsible for the establishment of higher schools for the Greeks, most notably in the Romanian principalities, Moldavia and Walachia. Because these states had surrendered to the Ottomans instead of being conquered, they enjoyed considerable autonomy within the empire. Wealthy Greek families of Istanbul invested their money in these areas and intermarried with the local aristocracy until they came to dominate the economics and politics of the principalities and successfully sought the sultan's patent to rule there. Once in control, they founded schools for Greeks on the western model they had seen in their travels to western Europe. Particularly important in this regard was the Academy of Iaşi (Jassy). These schools supplied some young Greeks with a Western-style education, and these Western-educated Greeks would eventually inspire the Greek national revolution in 1821. The Romanian-based Phanariots also established Greek printing presses, which were less subject to the closures and restrictions that plagued the press in Istanbul. The few clergymen who had any significant secular education got it in European universities (most often Padua), often after temporarily converting to Catholicism. This was particularly true of Greeks from Crete and the Ionian islands, which were controlled by Venice.

The Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Catholic Counter-Reformation turned out to be important catalysts for intellectual developments among Orthodox Greeks. Both sides in the Protestant-Catholic debate sought support for their theological positions from the ancient church of the East. Such appeals for support awakened long dormant theological thinking among the Greeks. The end result of this religious confrontation was that the Orthodox Church spelled out carefully the specifics of its beliefs and doctrinal system in a series of documents. For centuries the Eastern church had argued against a number of Roman Catholic teachings and practicesmost notably, the Western addition of the words "and from the son" (filioque) to the description of the procession of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed; the doctrine of purgatory; the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist; withholding the cup from the laity; baptism by sprinkling, and, most importantly, the doctrine of papal supremacy, which countervened the democratic-conciliar understanding of the nature of the church held by the Orthodox. The Protestant reformers thus tended at first to see in the Orthodox Church a possible ideological ally against Rome.

Already during the Hussite movement in Bohemia in the fifteenth century, tentative approaches were made to the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, but real dialogue came only with the advent of Lutheranism. By 1559, Philipp Melanchthon, a close associate of Martin Luther, had forwarded a translation of the Augsburg Confession to the Greek patriarch, asking for his comments on the Lutheran faith enunciated therein. A response finally came in 1576 through Stephen Gerlach, an embassy Lutheran chaplain in Constantinople. In the name of the Holy Synod, the governing body of the patriarchate, the erudite Patriarch Jeremias II politely explained where the Lutheran confession of faith differed from the ancient beliefs of Orthodox Christianity. Besides the "errors of the Latins" that the Lutherans shared, such as a changed Nicene Creed and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, Jeremias pointed out that among the Orthodox, not only faith, but also good works, were important for salvation; that Christ's body and blood were actually, not just symbolically, present in the Eucharist, and that there were seven, not just two, sacraments. He also rejected the implied doctrine of predestination in the Lutheran document, and endorsed the invocation of saints, particularly the Mother of God. The theological discussion between the Orthodox and Lutherans essentially ended there.

In the following century, Calvinism was more successful in its approach to the Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, Patriarch Cyril Lukaris (d. 1638) published a Calvinist Confession of Faith that argued for predestination, justification by faith alone, the sole authority of the Scriptures in matters of faith, and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist depending on the faith of the recipient. He also railed against the veneration of images. Although Cyril had a degree from the University of Padua, he had become extremely anti-Catholic while fighting Catholic missionaries attempting to convert Orthodox Christians in Polish-run Ukraine. His exposure to Calvinism seems to have been the result of his long friendship with Cornelius van Haag, at one point the Dutch ambassador to the Ottoman Porte, and of a long correspondence arranged by van Haag with Calvinist divines in the Netherlands. Cyril's pro-Protestant stance was so obvious that the French embassy in Istanbul worked with the Jesuits in the city to have the sultan force his retirement. He was replaced (temporarily) by a pro-Catholic Greek bishop, thanks to bribes from the French and the Habsburgs, but soon returned to the patriarchal throne, probably because of bribes from the Dutch. Indeed, competing bribes from Catholic and Protestant powers determined much of the patriarchal succession in this century. Cyril's days as patriarch, however, were numbered. His enemies persuaded the sultan that Cyril had had treasonous contacts with Russia, and he was strangled at the government's order in 1638. His Confession, the first modern Eastern Orthodox attempt to enunciate clearly the content of the Orthodox faith, is distinctly Calvinist in much of its teaching, and was condemned as heretical by the Holy Synod of Constantinople and by several church councils.

Cyril Lukaris's Confession, however, inspired a series of such statements of faith that were, in fact, Orthodox in content and are recognized as such by the Orthodox Church to the present day. The first of these expositions of the Orthodox faith was written around 1640, not in the Ottoman Empire, but in Polish-controlled Ukraine, by a Romanian scholar, Peter of Mogila (Mohyla), who had become metropolitan (chief bishop) of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Intended as an aid to the faithful in combating Jesuit Catholic propaganda meant to destroy the Orthodox Church in Polish territory, Peter's Orthodox Confession was couched in the neo-Scholastic categories and vocabulary of Counter-Reformation Catholic thought. Although the apologetic usefulness of explaining Orthodox beliefs within a Western philosophical system was seen as practical, outside of the areas where Western cultural influence was widespread, doing this was considered inimical to the apophatic spirit of Eastern Christian thought, which preferred to avoid unwarranted precision in explaining divine mysteries. Thus a revised edition of the Peter of Mogila's Confession was produced at a council in Iaşi (Jassy), Moldavia, in 1642. Thirty years later, the learned Patriarch Dositheus of Jerusalem reworked and expanded Mogila's Confession, excising Latin influences, and submitted his text to a church council called for that purpose in Jerusalem, where the document was promulgated as an authoritative statement of Eastern Orthodox beliefs.


The vast majority of the Greek people had no real contact with the intellectual movements discussed above. To them religion was essentially fulfilling the required rites of the Orthodox Church, and keeping the fasts and holidays. Church rituals seemed to have given meaning to the life of the peasantry during what they called the Turkokratia (Turkish rule). The community gathered together in its church each Sunday for the eucharistic liturgy; there also were performed the rites accompanying the birth, marriage, repentence, and death of each of the villagers and the community consecration of the planting and the harvesting. In the church, villagers offered their prayers and venerated the holy icons that played such an important role in their worship. Their spirituality was rife with superstition; folk customs intermingled with Christian traditions, which was not suprising given the rudimentary education of the country priest, a married villager chosen by the community to be their religious guide. Once chosen, he was sent off to an older priest or a monastery for a few months to learn the services (and often to learn to read). Preaching disappeared in the villages, to be replaced by processions and ceremonies to honor holy icons and sacred springs.

The spiritual heroes and guides for the people were monks and nuns. The Ottoman lands inhabited by Christians were dotted with monastic foundations, large and small, where ascetics devoted themselves to constant prayer. It was to such institutions that the faithful repaired for spiritual advice and solace, making pilgrimage to holy monks and nuns and to the miracle-working icons that were so popular and were usually found in monasteries and convents. Eastern Christian monasticism had never emphasized scholarly activities, as was the case in the West; learning was seen as a distraction from prayer. The hesychast movement, which came to dominate monasticism in the last century of the Byzantine Empire's existence, with its emphasis on individual wordless contemplation of the awesomeness of the Divinity, led to the decline of communal life in the monasteries and an almost complete breakdown of intellectual life in monastic foundations. Uneducated monks clung to remembered tradition and stood only as a conservative force in the Greek Christian millet, preserving the faith as they understood it, but blocking development. By the eighteenth century, however, on Mount Athos, a colony of monasteries covering a peninsula northeast of Thessalonica, a revival of monastic thought began that saw, for example, the creation of an important collection of mystical writings of the fathers of the church, the Philokalia. But by that time the cultural schism between the Westernized elite of Constantinople and the Romanian principalities and the anti-intellectual monastic establishment held in such high regard by the common people was unhealable. The former were working for a modern Greek national state, the latter for restoration of a Christian Byzantine Empire.

See also Orthodoxy, Russian ; Ottoman Empire .


Primary Sources

Covel, John. Some Account of the Present Greek Church. Cambridge, U.K., 1722. An unsympathetic account by a onetime chaplain at the British Embassy in Istanbul.

Papadopoullos, Theodore H. Studies and Documents Relating to the History of the Greek Church and People under Turkish Domination. Brussels, 1952. A very rich collection of materials.

Robertson, J. N. W. B. The Acts and Decrees of the Synod of Jerusalem, Sometimes Called the Council of Bethlehem. Reprint. New York, 1969. Originally published in 1899. Includes an English translation of the "Confession" of Dositheus, the Creed of the Council of Jerusalem.

Rycaut, Paul. The Present State of the Greek and Armenian Churches. Reprint. New York, 1970. Originally published in 1670. A sympathetic treatment by a British Embassy chaplain.

Secondary Sources

Hadjiantoniou, George A. Protestant Patriarch: The Life of Cyril Lucaris (15721638), Patriarch of Constantinople. Richmond, Va., 1961. A good treatment of the Calvinist Orthodox hierarch.

Pantazopoulos, Nikolaos. Church and Law in the Balkan Peninsula during the Ottoman Rule. Reprint. Amsterdam, 1984. Originally published in 1967. On the legal system in the Greek millet.

Runciman, Steven. The Great Church in Captivity: A Study of the Patriarchate of Constantinople from the Eve of the Turkish Conquest to the Greek War of Independence. Cambridge, U.K., 1968. A thorough and fundamental study.

. The Orthodox Church. 2nd ed. London, 1993. A superb introduction to the faith, history, and ritual of the Orthodox Church.

. The Orthodox Churches and the Secular State. Auckland, 1971. Has an excellent chapter on the Greek church in the Ottoman Empire.

Ware, Timothy. Eustratios Argenti: A Study of the Greek Church under Turkish Rule. Reprint. Willits, Calif., 1974. Study of a pivotal figure in Greek Orthodoxy in the eighteenth century set in a broad perspective.

George P. Majeska