Our Roots Run Deep
The Syro-Chaldean Church of North America roots are not Roman Catholic or Protestant. So where does she come from; from what tradition may she more properly be known? Below you will get a view beneath the branch to see our roots, our genesis. Join me as I take you on a short trip through the earliest history of our Church, a Church which spoke the language of Jesus, the Aramaic, Biblical and Jewish Church of Israel and the Middle East.
Adiabene (Syriac: ܚܕܝܐܒ, Ḥaḏy’aḇ or Ḥḏay’aḇ) was the last province of the Assyrian Empire. The Prophet Jonah was sent by God to preach to the capital of that Empire - Nineveh. Remnants of that Empire were still in existence in the first century A.D. The capital of its last province was Arbel (modern "Irbil" in Iraq).
In 70 A.D. its queen Helena, who had converted to Judaism with her son Izetas and leading people of the government, was buried in her new holy city of Jerusalem. Her recently found magnificent tomb complex on Salah Iddin street in East Jerusalem was long considered the Tomb of the Kings of Israel, until the right identification of “City of David” was made elsewhere (the hill on which is the Arab village of Silwan outside the Dung Gate).
The Aramaic speaking province of Adiabene first heard the Gospel of Jesus from Jewish believers from Galilee in Israel. Adaibene's capital of Arbel (modern Irbil in Iraq) became the “sending station” of the Aramaic Church eastward eventually to reach southern India, where the “St. Thomas” Christians are still using Aramaic as their liturgical language today. China also heard the message of Jesus Christ through this Church.
This Aramaic Church of the East soon became cut off from the Church of the West for this reason: Arbel and Adiabene were within the Parthian empire which was at war with the empire of the West, the Roman Empire. But the Aramaic Kingdom of Adiabene did keep a special bond with Judea with its capital, Jerusalem - just as the Aramaic Church of the East kept its bond with the Church in Jerusalem. The Jewish general and historian of the first century, Josephus, records that Adiabene was the only foreign country to send contingents to fight at the side of the Jews against the occupying Roman legions during the Jewish revolt of 66 AD.
Among the first bishops of the Aramaic Church of the East, starting with Mar Pekidah, ordained by the Galilean Jewish Christian from Caesarea Phillipi, Addai, one of the Seventy (perhaps the same as Thaddeus, one of the Twelve), were the bishops of Adiabene. The church at Adiabene, together with nearby Edessa, exhibited the early Church of the East's understanding that the Aramaic church was the continuation of the earliest Jewish Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Romans.
This Jewish orientation of the early Church of the East can also be shown in its self-understanding as to its founding and early leadership under its bishops. Aside from its understanding that its earliest founders were Jewish apostles and their disciples (Thomas, Addai-Thaddeus, Mari, Aggai-Haggai), the next three bishops directing the church were also considered to be both Jewish and, what is more, in the blood line of the Messiah Himself (Abris = "Ivri = Hebrew", a relative of Jesus' mother Mary, Avraham, a relative of James, and Yaakob, a relative of Joseph). This physical descent from the family of Jesus, perpetuating the seed and dynasty of David in the Church's leadership, is startling different than the outworkings of the “Gentile Church” within the Roman Empire.
The Orthodox Jewish Aramaic scholar Jacob Neusner contends that if the Palestinian Jews had won the war against Rome, the newly converted to Judaism Adiabenian dynasty would have become a strong candidate for inheriting the Jewish throne in Jerusalem. This enlightens the matrix of the understanding of the Church of the East as perpetuating the dynasty of David in the leadership of the Church.
An example of the “easy” self-identification of the Aramaic Church with the continuation of physical Israel, is evident in the “Chronicles of Arbela”* with its natural allusion to earthly Israel and its events and its phrasing. Speaking of the events of the episcopacy of Isaac (the bishop's name itself bespeaks continuity with Israel), we find in a description of an attack on a believer in Jesus who was both a military commander and ruler of a province:
“But God, who is good to Israel and to the simple of heart, did not allow the wicked arrows which they fixed upon the string to harm...”, “...and he fell, after delivering himself, like Judas Maccabeus, a sacrifice to the Lord for the salvation of his people.” And, describing his death, “... they wept for him like David for Jonathan: ‘How the mighty have fallen in battle. O Jonathan, upon your high places are the slain. I am distressed about you, O my brother Jonathan. You were greatly beloved by me.”
The above thought and biblical allusions breathe the love of Scripture and the Land and People of Israel. It is as if the Bible had not ended and now in the Church of God, the Holy Seed continues!
In the understanding of Adiabenian Christian thought as well as all the earliest Aramaic Church, there does not seem to be a distinct line between physical Israel and the Church, between physical Israel and spiritual Israel. Peoplehood carries on!
Bishop (Mar) Bawai Soro contends the reason that Jews and then Jewish Christians streamed into the Parthian Aramaic kingdoms and Empire after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was that it was evident that to have fled westward into Roman controlled territories would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The Parthian empire, until the Sassanids, and Babylon (which indeed became built up as the Jewish center) was more tolerant that persecuting Rome.
It is clear that the term, signifying the dynasty of David (House of David - Isaiah 7:13), and the rule of the dynasty of David (Throne of David - Isaiah 9:7), perhaps had a concrete application to the times they were spoken and written, but also had a fulfillment for the future - to Messianic times. That is why Scripture speaks of David in present and future tense terms, though he had long since died (Ezekiel 37:24).
And it is also clear that Jesus being the Son of David and the inheritor of David's throne is prominent in both the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament. But these lively themes both in the beginning Church of the East inAdiabene, and in the Adiabene aristocracy and its relationship to Jerusalem, even to the extent that Jacob Neusner suggests (Adiabene ascending the throne of Jerusalem if the Jews - and they- would have won in the war against Rome) gives an authenticity and realism to these otherwise “religious” concepts.
The Chronicles of Arbela, written or compiled in Syriac by Meshiha zekha ("Victory of the Messiah") to Pinkhas is from the 6th century. This document is very illuminative and shows that the Jewish orientation of the Church was still a fact 500 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Though it was written down hundreds of years after the event, it is accurate in how it describes the earlier century’s events and background. For example, contrary to the times of its composition, the ordained clergy orders of Adiabene and the early Church of the East were as bishops and deacons only, rather than bishops, presbyters and deacons (presumably, the “elders” as a distinct order from the “overseers” was not well defined). This is consistent with the Epistle to the Philippians, where St. Paul writes “...to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.”
I trust that as you have briefly traveled this ancient road with me, you have gained a deeper understanding of who we are. And as I said in the introduction, the Syro-Chaldean Church of North America has deep roots that originate in the earliest history of the Church, a Church which spoke the Aramaic language of Jesus, which is a profoundly Biblical Church, and which finds its religious identity in the ancient Jewish Church of Israel and the Middle East.