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    Characteristics of Aramaic Christianity

    March 28, 2016

    The Beginnings

    The Church of Jesus Christ began at Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus and ten days after His ascension to the right hand of the Father from whence He sent the Holy Spirit.  We call Pentecost the Birthday of the Church. The Holy Spirit was poured out on a small group of men and women gathered together in Jerusalem—most likely hiding out from the authorities. Empowered and emboldened by that Holy Spirit, they went outside and began to praise God as loudly as they could.  People were gathered in Jerusalem from all over the Roman Empire and points east to celebrate the feast commemorating the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai and the constitution of the People of God in covenant relationship with their Creator.  Those that were gathered spoke the many languages of the many nations making up the Empire as well as lands beyond.  They were Jews of the great diaspora as well as converts to Judaism.  As they listened to this newly emboldened group of people they realized that they were hearing the glories of God being proclaimed in their many languages.  Each person heard the wonderful news in his or her own mother tongue. Peter preached a mighty sermon and the Holy Spirit brought conviction on the multitude.  Three thousand people believed, repented and were baptized.  The renewed People of God found the Law written in their hearts as Jeremiah had prophesied (Jer. 31:33).  It was no longer on stone tablets that could not be internalized. The fire of God that had been on the top of Mount Sinai had now come down on each and every believer gathered in that upper room.  God had not only come to men, he had now come into the hearts of men.

     

    Peter most likely preached his sermon in Aramaic, the common language of the lands of Judea, Galilee and Syria. It was the everyday language used by Jesus and His disciples.  It was also the trade language for the area east of the Roman Empire extending to Mesopotamia, the Persian Empire and the borders of India and China.  Greek was the language of business and government throughout the Roman Empire.  Latin was the language of the common people of the West and of the Roman Legions.

     

    As the people who were added to the Church on that amazing Pentecost Day returned to their homes, they began spreading the Gospel wherever they went.  Within a short time, the Apostles and others, including Paul, went out starting churches throughout the world.  The Book of Acts records St. Paul’s missionary journeys to Asia Minor and Europe.  Early writings by the next generation of Christians let us know more about the spread of Christianity south to Africa and east throughout Asia.  Within a couple of centuries, the Church had gone throughout the Roman Empire and had moved eastwards into the Persian Empire and beyond.

     

    Three Languages, Three Distinct Sets of Characteristics

    As Christianity spread and more gentiles were added to the original Jewish believers, the Church began to take on distinctive character based on the common languages and cultures of the people. Latin, Greek and Aramaic covered all the regions around the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia.  As we think of the early Church, it is useful to think in terms of these languages.  

     

    Eventually, the Roman Empire split between East and West.  The Western Empire spoke largely Latin, the Eastern was Greek-speaking.  It was the Latin Church that spread further into Western Europe and to the British Isles.  This became the Roman Catholic Church and out of it came Protestant Christianity.  Some Roman characteristics that can be seen in both Western Catholic and Protestant Christianity are things such as law, hierarchy, planning and organization, a technical, “engineering” approach that seeks specificity, eschewing ambiguity.  The Greek speaking Church of the Eastern Empire became the center of theological debate following in the footsteps of the Greek philosophers and debaters.  In the Holy Land and further east, the language of the Church was Aramaic.  It was a sister language to Hebrew. It was a language of Semitic culture and outlook—practical, human-oriented, relational.  The early Aramaic Christians did not see themselves as being all that distinct from the original Nazarenes—as Jewish believers in Jesus were called. Because Aramaic was the language of the strong Babylonian Jewish community as well as other Jewish communities in the East, Aramaic Christianity spread quickly to and among these Jews.  There was also the remnant of ancient Assyria, the Kingdom of Adiabene, which, under its queen Helena and her son, Izetas had already converted to Judaism then became the first kingdom to adopt Christianity, even before the Armenians.

     

    It is this “Aramaic” branch of the Church Universal on which we focus.

     

    Being Aramaic, that is speaking the language of Jesus and His Disciples, a cognate language of Hebrew, a Semitic tongue, it is natural that there was a great deal of direct influence from the Judaism of the time of Christ—the time of Yeshua ha Meshiakh or (in Aramaic) M’shikha—and the next few centuries.  The liturgy of the Church of the East, in its earliest form, the Liturgy of Addai and Mari, was influenced directly by the Jewish meal and synagogue prayers.  Jewish liturgical practices from the Temple worship such as the antiphonal singing of the Psalms, etc. were preserved in the Church of the East and transmitted to the rest of the Church. The earliest, post-Biblical, distinctive Christian collection of hymns, The Odes of Solomon, was composed in Aramaic in the region of Syrian Antioch towards the close of the First Century, even as portions of the New Testament were still being compiled.  Their flavor is distinctly Semitic and Biblical.

     

    The Humanity of Christ and the Importance of Scripture

    This Semitic, Aramaic worldview kept the Church focused on Scripture and the humanity of the M’shikha.  This strong focus on Jesus’ humanity and the conservative nature of a strongly Bible-based faith contributed to the earliest division within the Catholic Church that resulted in the anathematizing of Nestorius, Patriarch of Antioch at the Council of Ephasus, AD 431.  It was its conservatism that kept this Church from adopting the “new fangled” term Theotokos (Bearer or Mother of God) while preserving the earlier term Christotokos (Bearer or Mother of Christ).  This led to misunderstanding that resulted in the condemnations of Ephesus.  The Church of the East never received the acts of this council and continues to revere Nestorius as a Doctor of the Church.  It was not until 1994 that representatives of the Church of the East and the Western  Roman Church accepted that the division was largely the result of misunderstanding, “The Lord’s Spirit permits us to understand better today that the divisions brought about in this way were due in large part to misunderstandings.”[1]  The signers of the Christological Agreement, Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Mar Dinkha IV stated that they thank God “for having made us rediscover what already unites us in the faith and sacraments…”[2]

     

    With its Semitic and conservative background, the Aramaic Church maintained throughout the centuries a strong reliance on Holy Scripture and less on developed theology or ecclesial canon.  It also drew special strength from that perspective that in no way denies the divinity of Jesus but treasures especially His humanity.   This is not to say that there were no efforts to develop theology or that there were no canons, only that these were much less important than in either the Greek or Latin Church.  The Aramaic Church’s theology is contained largely in its liturgical and sacramental expression rather than in doctrinal statements.

     

    Peoplehood

    The Aramaic Church is also the Church of a People.  Like in Judaism, there is a strong Semitic consciousness of “peoplehood.”  This can be seen clearly in the strong sense of Assyrian identity in Mesopotamia and as Mar Thoma Christians in India.  The Indian Church looks back to the Apostle Thomas as its founder and all branches of Eastern Christianity indigenous to Southern India—Protestant, Uniate (united with Rome), Syrian Orthodox and the Chaldean Syrian Church of the East (in communion with the Assyrian Church) identify themselves as “Mar Thoma (St. Thomas)” Christians.

     

    I believe that it was also, at least in part, this sense of peoplehood that led the first general council of the Church of the East, the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in AD 410 to, on the one hand, accept the doctrinal statements for the first two Ecumenical Councils (Nicea, AD 325, and Constantinople, AD 381) and certain aspects of the liturgy in use within the Roman Empire while, on the other hand, clearly establishing a hierarchy independent of the Church of the Roman Empire but encompassing the Church of the Persian Empire, the Aramaic Church.[3]

     

    I also think that it was this same sense that contributed to the monks and priests of the Church of the East frequently working together on the mission field despite belonging to different communions such as Byzantine, Jacobite and Assyrian.

     

    We see this same sense of peoplehood at work in the present as Aramaic Christians from various modern denominations suffer together and pray for each other indiscriminately in the face of Islamist ISIS persecution.

     

    Liturgy, Prayer and Sacrament

    Aramaic Christianity is devoted to prayer.  As such, it is strongly liturgical.  The basic Eucharistic liturgy of the Church of the East is the Liturgy of Addai and Mari.  Addai is considered to be the Apostle Thaddeus and Mari one of the 70 (or 72) sent out in pairs by Jesus (Luke 10:1).  Addai may have also been a different person and one of the 70.  The core of this liturgy, the Eucharistic prayer of consecration is understood by scholars to be the oldest form of the liturgy still in use.  It is clearly derived from Jewish meal and Synagogue prayers.  Through the centuries of upheaval, persecution and, at times, great confusion, the Church held fast to this liturgical heritage.

     

    Along with liturgy, Aramaic Christianity is suffused with poetry and song.  Much of the various liturgies in use are largely poetry.  Turgammas (targums) or interpretive poems abound in the Liturgy to explain and comment on the Scriptures.  These are really poetic sermons.

     

    Starting with the Odes of Solomon, the Church has sung its faith and the glories of God.  Even to this day the majority of the Church continues to sing the Liturgy from start to finish.

     

    Perhaps the greatest poet of all the Christian Church was the Deacon Mar Aprem (St. Ephraim the Syrian), AD 306 to 373, of Nisibis and Edessa.  He composed countless commentaries on Scripture and other theological expressions in the form of poetry.  Some of these are still used liturgically.  He was the first to establish choirs of women to sing hymns to Almighty God.  It was this poetry that helped preserve the liturgy and teachings of the Church through almost two thousand years of turmoil.

     

    Bit by bit, this rich heritage of Aramaic poetry is being translated into English and other modern languages to bless the Church Universal in the 21st Century.  It is a treasure trove well worth exploring.

     

    The monks of the Aramaic Church were men of prayer and powerful evangelists of the Gospel.  It is said that they would pray all night and preach all day.  Eastern monks would stand in their cells reciting the Psalms and praying, sleeping only in snatches, then, when day had come, go out and proclaim the Good News.  They carried the Gospel along the Silk Road most certainly as far as China and, as evidence suggests, even to Korea and Japan.  In AD 781, a monument was erected in Xian, China, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, to commemorate 150 years of Christianity in China.  While the text was all in Chinese characters, many of the names inscribed on it, the names of the monks involved, were carved in Aramaic script.

     

    From the very beginning, the Church laid great stress on the importance of the Sacraments, especially Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.  In addition to these two primary ones, a number of others, generally totaling seven in number, have been recognized.  Different documents have slightly differing lists of Sacraments.  In any case, they were considered supremely important and the work of the Church in obedience to Jesus Christ.  There are some differences between the Aramaic Church and the more theologically and “engineeringly” oriented Latin and Greek Churches in terms of attitude towards the Sacraments.  Aramaic Christianity is much more comfortable with ambiguity than Western Christianity.  There has always been a simple acceptance of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper that “this is my body, this is my blood” without trying to understand how it is so.  Since the Lord said it and it is recorded in Scripture, it is true regardless of how we understand it.  The Church of the East has not defined any doctrine of transubstantiation, consubstantiation or anything else.  Why define what is a mystery and what is beyond our limited ability to comprehend?

     

    At the same time, the Sacraments are intrinsically a part of the life of the Church, of the Community, of the People.  They provided the strength needed throughout the Centuries to preserve the Church.  They are seen as the work of the Holy Spirit through the Church.  They are commanded by Jesus.  Mar Abdisho (Odisho, “Slave of Jesus”), Bishop of Nisibis, published a simple theological work in AD 1298 entitled The Pearl or, in Aramaic, Marganitha.  Here is what he states about the Sacraments:

     

    "…these three things sanctify [the Sacraments]:  First, a true priest, who has attained priesthood rightly, according to the requirements of the church.  Secondly the word and command of the Lord of Sacraments, whereby He ordained each of them.  Thirdly, right intention and confirmed faith on the part of those who partake of them, believing that the effect of the sacraments takes place by a heavenly power."[4]

     

    Not only does this quote demonstrate the importance of the Church in providing efficacy to the Sacraments but we also see that, in addition to the Church and the command of Christ, it is necessary that the recipient have a right intention and faith for the Sacrament to be effective.  There is no sense of “magic” about the sacraments that causes them to work even if we disbelieve.  The Lord, the Church and the Believer—all come together in the Sacraments.  At the same time, we can see a great leniency in terms of what this “faith” might be, actually a greater focus on “right intention” than on comprehension.  The Aramaic Church has always baptized and provided communion to infants—no period is known where this was not practiced.  Certainly infants have little knowledge or understanding but they can be brought or come with right intention.  And, the Eastern perspective would also be that who of us as mature and informed adults can ever comprehend the height or depth, the breadth or greatness of God Almighty and the mysteries of His work among men.  It would be better to come to them in the innocence of infancy than with the understanding of age. (cf. Mat. 18:3)

     

    A Servant Church

    The Church of the East has never had any sort of political or national authority such as the Roman Catholic, Byzantine, Anglican, Lutheran, Puritan, Calvinist and other churches have had.  It has always been a church that lived under governments that followed other religions such as Zoroastrianism, Islam, Confucianism and Buddhism. This has bred into its fabric a certain humility. Throughout much of its history, Eastern Christians were known for their scholarship, honesty and work ethic.  As a result, they often rose to high positions of service in non-Christian governments.  This sense of being a servant church in but not of the world has shaped its culture and ethos in important ways.

     

    In the 8th Century, Caliph Harun al-Rashid founded the famous library in Baghdad known as the House of Wisdom.  He brought scholars from around the Abbasid Empire to share their knowledge.  Many of these were Aramaic Christian monks and scholars who brought knowledge of the Greek classics, mathematics and history.  Their knowledge was preserved there and passed on to Arab scholars then eventually made its way back to Europe leading to the Renaissance.  Europe owes its knowledge of the Greek classics, mathematics, etc. to these Church of the East scholars.

     

    There is much more that I could share on what I see as precious and distinctive characteristics of Aramaic Christianity but this little essay has already grown too long.  I shall end here with a word of thanks to our Lord and Savior for preserving this special part of His Body throughout the years and who has blessed me through it.  Amen

     

     

    References

    [1] Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East signed by His Holiness John Paul II, Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic Church and His Holiness mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, November 11, 1994.

    Pg. 230

    Syriac Dialogue: First Non-Official Consultation on Dialogue Within the Syriac Tradition

    Stirnemann, Alfred and Wilflinger, Gerhard editors

    Foundation Pro Oriente, Vienna 1994

     

    [2] Ibid. pg. 231

     

    [3] Cf. Canon 21 of The Synod of Mar ‘Ishaq 410 AD translated into English by Michael J. Birnie

    http://www.fourthcentury.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/thecouncilofmarishaq.pdf

     

    Also: The Church of the East: A Concise History

    Baum, Wilhelm and Winkler, Dietmar W.

    RoutledgeCurzon, London and New York 2010

    Pg. 19

     

    And

    The Church of the East: Apostolic & Orthodox

    Mar Bawai Soro

    Adiabene Publications,  San Jose, CA 2007

    Pg. 164

     

    [4] Maganeetha, Memra IV, Kepaleon I

    Mar Abdisho

    Mar Narsai Press, Trichur, 1955

    Pg. 40

    As quoted in Sacraments of the Church of the Eastt

    Mar Aprem

    Mar Narsai Press, Trichur, 1978

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