Nestorian Church

views updated May 21 2018


NESTORIAN CHURCH . The proper name of the church that is called Nestorian or Assyrian is the Ancient Church of the East. Nestorian is an appellation dating from the fifth century and Assyrian from the nineteenth. By East is meant those ancient territories lying east of the former Byzantine empire comprising modern-day Iraq, Persia, and the southeastern part of Turkey. These territories had their religious center at Edessa (Orhoi in Syriac), known as Urfa in present-day Turkey. Edessa was the capital of a small Syriac-Aramaic principality ruled by Syriac toparchs (rulers or princes), known also as Abgarites. According to the Doctrine of Addai, a late fourth-century church document attributed to Thaddaeus (known in Aramaic as Addai, one of the seventy evangelists and the twin of the apostle Thomas), Thaddaeus, following the Resurrection and at the behest of Christ, went to Edessa and healed its toparch, Abgar V (d. 50 ce). Thaddaeus stayed to preach the gospel, made converts, and ordained his disciple, ʿAggai, a bishop. He then journeyed to and preached the gospel in Mesopotamia, southern Turkey, Iraq, and southwestern Persia.

By the second century, Christianity had spread throughout the East, from Najran in southwestern Arabia, through southern Turkey and Iraq, to southwestern Persia. In the third century, Christianity also spread to the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean and to Riyordashīr, the capital of Fars in extreme southern Persia, as well as to the Sasanid capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, where the bishopric was founded under Phafa. By the latter part of the fifth century, the bishops of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (by that time followers of Nestorius) were claiming that the see had been established by Thaddaeus and his disciple Mari.

The bishop (metropolitan) of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was recognized as being under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Antioch. At a synod convened in 410 by Marutha of Miya-farqin, who was sent by the emperor and the patriarch, the metropolitan of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was made a catholicos (a church position higher than a metropolitan and lower than a patriarch). Given the authority to ordain bishops in the name of the patriarch of Antioch, and using his new powers to advantage, the catholicos was able to bring under his jurisdiction all the dioceses in the East except the metropolitan see of Riyordashīr. This see remained independent until the ninth century when Catholicos Timothy I (d. 823) brought it under his aegis after offering its metropolitan some special privileges.

Meanwhile, under the Sasanid kings Shāpūr II (309379) and his brother Ardashīr II (379383) the Ancient Church of the East suffered persecution and martyrdom because of its ties to the Byzantines whom the Persians considered enemies. Persecution continued sporadically until the conquest of Persia by the Arabs in the first part of the seventh century.

In the first half of the fifth century the Church of the East was rocked by a theological controversy so serious that it resulted in schism. This was the so-called Nestorian controversy. Nestorius, a Syrian by origin, became patriarch of Constantinople in 428. Fully developing the theological implications of the school of Antioch, he taught that Jesus Christ had two distinct natures: divine and human. Nestorius was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 but his teaching spread, and by 451 most of the eastern part of the Church of the East had become "Nestorian," rejecting the Council of Ephesus. By 451 the Nestorians were almost completely cut off from the rest of the patriarchate of Antioch, and Nestorians controlled the see of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

Between 484 and 486 Bishop Bar Sauma convened several councils that issued new canons for the foundation of the new Nestorian church. Those bishops in the East who did not accept Nestorian teachings met in 487 and ordained Accacius as their catholicos. However, through threats and coercion by Bar Sauma and his group, Accacius yielded to the Nestorians. What gave added strength to the Nestorians in the East is that many students of the celebrated school of Edessa became Nestorian partisans. When the emperor Zeno, in retaliation, closed it in 489, many of these Nestorian students left for Persia, where they spread their beliefs under the protection of the Persian state. Thus, the Church of the East came also to be known as the Persian church. By 498, at the Council of Seleucia, the Nestorians severed forever their ties with the patriarchate of Antioch.

After the Arab conquest of Iraq in the beginning of the seventh century, the Nestorians, like other Christians, became dhimmī s under the protection of the Muslims. Under the Abbasid caliphs (7501258) the Nestorians enjoyed relative peace, and in 762 their catholicoi moved their see to Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. In Baghdad, the Nestorians were the first to promote Greek science and philosophy by translating Greek texts into Syriac and then into Arabic. They were highly favored by the caliphs and were the first to introduce Greek medicine into Baghdad.

Although the Nestorians were generally favored, there were times when they, like other Christians, were persecuted or humiliated by the caliphs. The Nestorian church generally prospered until the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258, when the widespread disruption in the Middle East drained its vitality. The Nestorian catholicoi left Baghdad and settled in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) in the vicinity of Mosul and Alq̣osh.

The most detrimental effect of the Muslim conquest on the Nestorian church in the countries lying between Persia and China was that its missionary activity, begun among the Mongols, Turks, and Chinese, was cut off. Eventually the early blossom of Christianity in China died. The inscriptions in both Syriac and Chinese on the stone at Chou-chih, fifty miles southwest of Sian Prefecture, China, containing a long list of Nestorian clergymen, is evidence of the expansion of the Nestorian church in China. Nestorianism also reached the coast of Malabar in South India and made converts among the Christians there. The new converts used the Syriac liturgy and honored the memory of Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia. From 1599 to 1663 they were reconverted to Roman Catholicism through the efforts of Jesuit missionaries. Many however returned to Nestorianism when the power and influence of the Portuguese empire began to fade.

In the fifteenth century the small Nestorian community on the island of Cyprus joined the church of Rome. Power struggles within the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the mother Nestorian church also caused large segments of it to join Rome. The struggle in the East began in 1450 when the catholicos, Shimon Baīdi, restricted the election of future catholicoi to men of his own family. This interdiction continued for the next hundred years. After the death of the catholicos in 1551, a group of Nestorians who opposed his successor met in Mosul and chose a monk, Yūanna (John) Sūlāqa, to send to Rome to be ordained. Arriving in Rome, Sūlāq̣a professed the Roman Catholic faith before Pope Julius III, who ordained him a bishop and then a catholicos in April 1553. It is most likely that it was Julius who gave the name Chaldean (in reference to ancient Chaldea) to Sūlāq̣a and his followers; thus was born the "Chaldean" church. Sūlāq̣a returned to Diyarbakır, Turkey, where he made few converts. He was assassinated by the Kurdish chief of ʿAmadiyya, allegedly at the instigation of his rival, Shimon Bār Māma. Several catholicoi served at Diyarbakır, not all of whom were ordained by popes and whose loyalty to Rome was dubious.

About this time, a Nestorian bishop, Shimon Dinbah, united his congregation with Rome, and the Chaldeans made him their catholicos. He moved his seat from Diyarbakır to Urmia in northern Persia where many Nestorians lived. In 1670 one of his successors renounced the church of Rome, returned to Nestorianism, and was accepted as catholicos by the Nestorian catholicoi, one in Urmia and the other in Alq̣osh.

In the middle of the eighteenth century a Nestorian bishop, Mar Yūsuf (Joseph) of Diyarbakır, joined the church of Rome and was ordained by the pope as a successor to the line of Sūlāq̣a as catholicos of the Chaldeans in Diyarbakır. In 1778 a Nestorian bishop, Yūanna (John) Hormizd, embraced Roman Catholicism and began to contend for the office of catholicos with his cousin, Mar Eliyya XI of Alq̣osh. Rome could not ordain Hormizd catholicos of the Chaldean community because Mar Yūsuf was already catholicos in Diyarbakır. When Yūsuf died in 1779, Rome entrusted the Chaldean church to his nephew, Augustine Hindi. Finally, after long waiting and through the machinations of Roman Catholic missionaries, Hormizd was confirmed by Pope Pius VIII as the catholicos of the Chaldean community. By then most of the Nestorians of the plains of Mosul had become Roman Catholics. Since then, the Nestorian community has retreated into the mountains of Kurdistan.

Since 1820 the Protestant churches in the West have taken a rather special interest in the Nestorian communities of the East. The American Presbyterian church became the first to organize missions among them when, in 1830, the Presbyterian Board of Missions sent the first missionaries. The mission headquarters were located in Urmia, where there were doctors as well as a printing press.

The Church of England became involved with the Nestorians when in 1842, George P. Badger, chaplain of the East India Company, was sent to Iraq. He wrote two volumes (published in 1852) on the Nestorians and their church. The interest of the Church of England continued until after World War I and the establishment of the national government of Iraq (1921).

For more than a hundred years (18301933), the Nestorian community in Kurdistan and Iraq suffered continuous tragedies. Being Christians they were always prey to Kurdish chieftains, who plundered their villages. The activity and existence of Western missionaries among the Nestorians most probably motivated the Kurds and their patrons, the Ottomans, to agitate against them.

The outbreak of World War I saw the Nestorians hopeful of an eventual Allied victory. This happy consequence would certainly alleviate the persecution aimed at them by both Kurds and Ottomans. Encouraged by the Russian advance into eastern Turkey in 1915, the Nestorians revolted against the Turks and assisted the Russians. But when the Bolshevik revolution erupted and Russia withdrew from the war in 1917, they were in great danger. Consequently, about twenty thousand Nestorians struggled to reach the British lines in Iraq to avoid reprisal by Kurds and Ottomans. With fear of reprisal haunting the rest of the Nestorians of Urmia, in the summer of 1918 some hundred thousand of them attempted to reach the Kermānshāh-Qazvīn region, which was then under British occupation. Less than half made it through; the rest were rounded up and settled by the British authorities in the mountains of northern Iraq.

As a result of their association with the British, the Nestorians ("Assyrians") developed nationalistic feelings. They asserted that the northern part of Iraq, the ancient land of Athur, was their ancestral and rightful home. They fostered the hope of an independent Assyrian state in Iraq. This dream was probably encouraged by minor British army officers, and, in 1919, a group of Assyrians, including many from the United States, submitted a petition to the peace conference in Paris outlining their nationalistic aspirations. There was no response.

After the establishment of national rule in Iraq in 1921, the Iraqi government granted autonomy in internal and religious affairs to the Nestorian community (in northern Iraq) led by their catholicos, Mar Ishā Shimon XXI. But Mar Shimon, barely thirteen years old, was ill advised by members of his household and demanded complete independence from Iraq on the premise that northern Iraq was the ancestral land of the Assyrians. This demand was not acceptable to either Iraq or Britain. The Iraqi government tried to dissuade Mar Shimon from acting as if he were head of a state within a state but failed. Finally, in 1933 it notified the Assyrians either to behave as Iraqi citizens or leave. About a thousand Assyrians decided to leave and crossed the Euphrates into Syria, which was occupied by the French. The French authorities turned them back, where they faced an Iraqi army force. A stray shot was fired, and the Iraqi army used the occasion to massacre most of the Nestorian contingent. Subsequently, Mar Shimon was stripped of his Iraqi nationality and deported to Cyprus. From Cyprus he went to England, and then to the United States, where he became an American citizen.

In 1973 Mar Shimon resigned because of a conflict with his community over his violation of some church rules. After his death in 1975, he was succeeded by Mar ānania Dink̲h̲a IV, who was installed in London in 1976 as catholicos patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East. The Assyrian community, which numbered about 500,000 in 1980, still has many members living in Iraq and Iran, but their greatest concentration is in the United States, especially in Chicago, Illinois. This latter group is mostly composed of immigrants who left Iraq after 1933 and their descendants.

The Nestorian church in the latter part of the twentieth century forms the extreme eastern branch of the Syriac-speaking church of Antioch. Its liturgical language is Syriac-Aramaic with a distinct dialect and script. It recognizes only the first two ecumenical councils and rejects the Council of Ephesus, which condemned Nestorius. Its rite is the Old Eastern Syriac rite, and it has three main liturgies: those of the evangelist Thaddaeus and his disciple Mari, of Nestorius, and of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Other liturgies, such as those of Bar Sauma, Narsai, and Diodore of Tarsus, are presumed lost. The liturgy begins with the practical making and baking of the bread for communion but does not contain the words of institution. The communion is given in both elements, bread and wine. The hierarchy consists of the catholicos, also called patriarch, who always takes the name Mar Shimon. Under him come the metropolitans, bishops, priests, and deacons. The church is essentially iconoclastic, although the Cross is revered. Through the vicissitudes of time, schism, persecution, and apostasy, this once grand church of the East has been reduced to a tiny community, living for the most part in a Western diaspora. It has become a member of the World Council of Churches.

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in Asia; Nestorianism; Nestorius; Theodore of Mopsuestia.


Perhaps the most important ancient source on the theological teaching and views of Nestorius is the Bazaar of Heracleides, translated by Godfrey R. Driver and Leonard Hodgson (Oxford, 1925). Other sources are the "Opera and Literae" of Cyril of Alexandria in Patrologia Graeca, edited by J.-P. Migne, vols. 126127 (Paris, 1859); the Acts of the Council of Ephesus in Sacrorum counciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, edited by Giovanni Domenico Mansi, vols. 4 and 5 (Florence and Venice, 17581798); Giuseppe Simone Assemani's Bibliotheca Orientalis, vol. 3, pt. 2 (Rome, 1728); and Friedrich Loofs's Die Fragmente des Nestorius (Halle, 1905) and Nestorius and His Place in the History of Christian Doctrine (Cambridge, 1914).

The earliest sources on the Nestorian catholicoi are The Chronicle of Mshiha Zkha, in Sources syriaques, edited by Alphonse Mingana (Leipzig, 1907); Chronique de Michel le Syrien, edited by Jean-Baptiste Chabot (Paris, 1890); Bar Hebraeus's Chronicon ecclesiasticum, 3 vols., edited by J. B. Abbeloos and T. J. Lamy (Paris, 18721877); and Chronique de Seert, histoire nestorienne (in Arabic and French), edited by Addai Scher, in Patrologia Orientalis, vol. 4 (Paris, 1907).

For the role of the Nestorians in spreading Christianity among the Turks, Mongols, and Chinese, see Alphonse Mingana's "The Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia and the Far East," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 9 (1925): 297371; Adolf von Harnack's The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, vol. 2, 2d ed. (New York, 1908); and The Nestorian Monument: An Ancient Record of Christianity in China, with Special Reference to the Expedition of Frits V. Holm, edited by Paul Carus (Chicago, 1909). For the Nestorians in India, consult John D. Macbride's The Syrian Church in India (Oxford, 1856) and William J. Richards's The Indian Christians of St. Thomas, Otherwise Called the Syrian Christians of Malabor (London, 1908).

For the general history of the Nestorians, old and modern, see Asahel Grant's The Nestorians, or The Lost Tribes (1841; reprint, Amsterdam, 1973) and History of the Nestorians (London, 1855); George Percy Badger's The Nestorians and Their Rituals, 2 vols. (London, 1852); Henry Holme's The Oldest Christian Church (London, 1896); Jerome Labourt's Le christianisme dans l'empire perse sous la dynastie sassanide, 224632 (Paris, 1904); William A. Wigram's An Introduction to the History of the Assyrian Church, or The Study of the Sassanid Empire, 100640 A. D. (London, 1910); George David Malech's History of the Syrian Nation and the Old Evangelical-Apostolic Church of the East (Minneapolis, 1910); Adrian Fortesque's The Lesser Eastern Churches (1913; reprint, New York, 1972); William C. Emhardt and George M. Lamsa's The Oldest Christian People: A Brief Account of the History and Traditions of the Assyrian People and the Fateful History of the Nestorian Church (1926; reprint, New York, 1970); Eugène Tisserant's "Nestorienne (L'église)," in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, edited by Alfred Vacant and Eugène Mangenot (Paris, 1931), vol. 2; George Graf's Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, "Bibliotica Apostolica Vaticana," vol. 2 (Rome, 1947); and John Joseph's The Nestorians and Their Muslim Neighbors: A Study of Western Influence on Their Relations (Princeton, 1961).

New Sources

Coakley, J. F. The Church of the East and the Church of England: A History of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Assyrian Mission. Oxford, 1992.

Ferguson, Everett, Michael P. McHugh, and Frederick W. Norris. The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. New York, 1990.

Hill, Henry, comp. and ed. Light from the East: A Symposium on the Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Churches. Toronto, 1988.

Kannookadan, Pauly. The East Syrian Lectionary: An Historico-Liturgical Study. Rome, 1991.

Moffett, Samuel Hugh. A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. I: Beginnings to 1500. San Francisco, Calif., 1992.

Thottakara, Augustine, ed. East Syrian Spirituality. Rome, 1990.

Yousif, Patros. An Introduction to East Syrian Spirituality. Rome, 1989.

Matti Moosa (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 11 2018


A follower of the doctrine of Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, who taught that there were two persons in Christ, the man and the son of God. Condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431, the Nestorians rallied in Syria-Mesopotamia, from where they evangelized some of Asia.

SEE ALSO Christianity.