st josephs in Kurdistan

E. J. Wilson D.O.


"And it came to pass in the fourth year of the king Hezekiah, which was the seventh year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against Samaria, and beseiged it. And at the end of three years they took it: even in the sixth year of Hezekiah, that is the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel, Samaria was taken. And the king of Assyria did carry away Israel unto Assyria, and put them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes: because they obeyed not the voice of the Lord their God, but transgressed his covenant, and all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded, and would not hear them, nor do them." (II Kings 18:9-12)

This account of the deportation of the northern tribes in the year 721 B.C. indicates the geographic areas where those tribes were resettled by the Assyrians. The areas specifically designated correspond to areas in modern Turkey and northern Syria as well as the northern portions of modern Iran. We may note that these are precisely the areas where Syriac (i.e. Aramaic) speaking Christians have lived for two thousand years. While there are some such Christians still living in those areas, especially in the more eastern reaches, many of them have been driven out of their traditional homelands during this century. Persecution has been worst in Turkey, where both the nationalist movement spawned by the Young Turks on the one hand, and political aspirations of the Kurds on the other hand have resulted in many massacres, with a resulting reduction in the number of Aramaic speaking Christians and also the development of a Syriac Diaspora in the US and in European countries.

The geographical continuity alone might make us suspicious that these people could represent remnants of the ancient Israelites who were relocated by the Assyrians; but there are two other connections to further strengthen that suspicion. One of these concerns the language. The modern Christians in those areas have spoken Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) for as long as there has been any literature from that area that we can trace. While it is true that the population in that region was speaking Aramaic even before the northern tribes were sent into captivity, that language has special significance for the northern tribes, because there is evidence that they might have adopted that language as their common means of communication even before they were uprooted from northern Israel.

Although Akkadian was still the official, i.e. chancellory language, Aramaic had become the most common spoken language in most of the region of the Levant by the time of the dispersion of the northern Tribes. In fact, the finding of the bilingual inscription from the region of the Habur river suggests that it was necessary to communicate in Aramaic already in the ninth century B.C. To be sure, the inhabitants of Judah still spoke Hebrew, but in the same chapter of II Kings from which the above quote was taken we have a hint that the northern tribes, located as they were immediately adjacent to Aramaic speaking areas, might have begun using that language themselves, rather than Hebrew. Thus we read in II Kings 18:17ff. that the Assyrian king sent Tartan and Rabsaris and Rabshakeh from Lachish to king Hezekiah - apparently in Hezekiah's fourteenth year, i.e. only eight years after the exile of the northern tribes - and began speaking to them outside the walls of Jerusalem. In verse 26 Eliakim asked these Assyrian emissaries to speak in the "Syrian" (i.e. Aramaic) language, and not in the "Jews' language." so that the common people on the wall would not understand them. 1

This pericope contains two valuable indicators of the linguistic geography of the time. First, we see that the populace in Judah still spoke Hebrew, because the bulk of them would not have understood Aramaic. The second indicator, however, is more subtle, but also more significant for our current purposes. The fact that Eliakim called Hebrew the "Jews' language" only eight years after the dissolution of the northern kingdom (an earlier designation for the Hebrew language may be preserved in the term "language of Canaan" used by Isaiah in Isa. 19:18) may suggest that the northern tribes had already lost Hebrew as the common spoken language long before their exile. 2

This is quite conceivable because of their geographic location and political exigencies. Moreover, we may note that Tartan and Rabshakeh had been stationed in Lachish, so that they had had the opportunity to learn Hebrew during their time in Judah, meaning that they had not necessarily learned the language from any time spent in the northern areas. If we had not been told that they were stationed in Judea, we might have assumed that they had learned Hebrew from the northern tribes, because there was more contact between the northern kingdom and the Assyrians; but now we need not make that assumption. The fact that they had learned Hebrew therefore does not contradict our assumption that the northern tribes may have already been speaking Aramaic.

A third connection between the northern tribes of Israel and the modern Aramaic (or "Syriac") speaking Christians is the fact that most of the early converts to Christianity in the geographic areas of the re-settlement of the northern tribes were people who were identified as Jews. 3 We must remember that the term "Jew" by that time would have been adopted by any Israelites who were maintaining a separate identity from the local pagans, because Jews from Judah had spread out into northern Mesopotamia and even down into Egypt, and the remnants of northerners in those areas would have been more or less absorbed into the Jewish communities and therefore also have received the generic designation of "Jews". In other words, it is possible that many of the "Jews" who joined the Christian movement in northern Syria were really Ephraimites by blood.

Since these Syriac speaking Christians were in southern Turkey and northern Syria at least two thousand years ago, and since we have reason to suspect that they represent remnants of the population put there by the Assyrians, it would be good to look at the pronouncements of the prophets concerning the fate of peoples from these areas in the latter days.

Isaiah (27:13) mentions a special group of people to be gathered in the last days and calls them those who are "ready to perish in the land of Assyria." We know that the ancient empire off Assyria took in the area we have been discussing, i.e. northern Syria, south eastern Turkey, and northern Iraq - precisely the area of distribution of the population of the Syrian Orthodox Church until recent decades. Of course, we might want to assume that Isaiah is speaking of Jews, and therefore not apply that prophecy to the Syriac speaking population there now. There is ample evidence, however, that he is speaking of Ephraimites. This evidence appears in the tenth chapter of Zechariah, verses 6-10. There, Zechariah is speaking specifically of Ephraimites and proceeds to tell us that they will be gathered from Assyria and Egypt (Isaiah had also mentioned a group in Egypt) and re-settled in Gilead (northern Jordan) and Lebanon. This is also consonant with the account that Jeremiah gives of the return of Ephraimites to the land of Israel in the latter days (Jer. 31).

Jeremiah even gives us an indication of the route these returnees will take. Anciently, to get from northern Israel to the Habur region, the journey could be divided into two legs: a southern leg, and the northern leg of the journey. The southern leg went from Israel to Aleppo. There were three ways to get to Aleppo: the route along the sea, the route through the Bekah valley, and the route on the eastern side of the ante-Lebanon mountains up from Damascus. All three routes then converged on Aleppo, because travelers then had to cross the Euphrates river near Aleppo. From that crossing, there were then two routes possible eastward: one along the rivers (the longer route), and another route somewhat further north along the piedmont trail. Which of these routes will the returnees take? Jeremiah (31:21) tells us they will return the same way they left, and he even points out that the northern leg will be along the rivers (Jer. 31:9). Therefore, we know the northern route of the returnees, and there is some indication that the ancient exiles left by way of Damascus, so we may assume that the southern leg will be along the eastern edge of the ante-Lebanon range, through modern Syria.

We may note in connection with this, that there are also many parallels between the Syriac speaking Christians of today and the Jews of the last century. Just as a Zionist movement with its aim of establishing a homeland for scattered Jews spread among the Jews of Europe, Russia, and the US in the 1800's, so now there is a nationalist movement spreading among the Syriac speaking Christians who are in their own Diaspora in Sweden, Germany, and the US. Having said that, we should now examine the history of these people.


Who took Christianity to Edessa?

Edessa, which has the modern name of Urfa, is situated in southern Turkey just north of the Syrian border. It was the Greeks who gave it the name Edessa, but the Aramaic name was originally Urhai, from which the Greeks formed the name Oshroene for the name of a district, and from that comes the modern name of Urfa for the town (Burkitt, 1904:6f.). The Roman general Lucius Quietus sacked the city during the wars of Trajan in 116 A.D. and one hundred years later (216 A.D.) the Romans took possession of it and absorbed it into the empire.

Eusebius (ca. 260 - ca. 340) wrote in his Ecclesiastical History (1.13) that a certain king by the name of Abgar, who ruled beyond the Euphrates, was very ill and had heard of the miraculous cures being effected by Jesus. He therefore wrote him a letter asking him to come to Edessa to cure him. Jesus declined, but sent a letter back to him, promising salvation to him and his house. 4 After the resurrection, the Apostle Thomas sent Thaddeus, one of the seventy disciples, and all the previous promises (made by Christ in his letter to Abgar) were fulfilled. Eusebius apparently saw the records of these things in Edessa himself. He includes a translation of the letter from Abgar and the reply from Jesus. He also adds the material that says that Judas, called Thomas, sent Thaddeus, who lodged with Tobias, son of Tobias. Thaddeus then went about healing all manner of diseases. Abgar heard of it and summoned Tobias, and then asked him to bring Thaddeus, which he did on the following day. Eusebius reports that immediately upon the entrance of Thaddeus, a great vision appeared to Abgar, who then prostrated himself before Thaddeus, telling him of his belief in Jesus; whereupon Thaddeus placed his hand upon Abgar and healed him in the name of Jesus. 5 It is possible, however, that this story was invented by the Antiochene clergy at some point to give themselves increased legitimacy through a line of authority going back to the Master himself and his original apostles and disciples.

Whether or not we can identify the first person to take Christianity to Edessa (or that region), a more important question is: what group of early Christians sent missionaries to that area? In light of an important sociological model (Stark, 1996) we might suspect that if the first Christians to missionize in Syria were Jewish converts, then they would have done the bulk of their work within Jewish communities scattered along the trade routes in northern Syria. On the other hand, if those early missionaries came from gentile groups, then we would expect them to have been most active among the pagan residents of Edessa and environs. 6

The answer to whether the early missionaries in northern Syria (at least in and around Edessa) were Jewish Christians cannot be answered by simply looking for "Jewish" elements in early Edessene Christianity, for such elements could have been maintained by Jewish converts there, even if the missionaries sent to them had been Gentiles. Furthermore, there were several branches of Judaism in Palestine at the time. Therefore, the best method is to ask which group of Jews in Palestine furnished the bulk of converts to the nascent Christian movement there, and to see whether it is possible to trace characteristics of that group northward into the early Christian communities in Eastern Syria. 7

Who were the early converts in Palestine?

The Jewish sect which apparently furnished most of the converts to early Christianity in Palestine was that of the Essenes. One link between Essenes and early Palestinian Christians is to be found in the similarities of the writings of the two groups as pointed out by Frank Moore Cross (1995:145): "The direct use of Essene or proto-Essene materials in Christian compositions, and indeed, the publication of Christian compilations of Essene or proto-Essene sources can now be documented impressively." He points to the early Enoch literature quoted in the NT and he supports those who contend that the editions of 1 Enoch and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs came from Jewish Christian hands which supplemented and reworked Essene traditions (judging from material found in Cave 4).

Actually, Cross points out three categories of possible connections: 1) Similarities in theological language, esp. to John, 2) common eschatological motifs, 3) the order and liturgical institutions of the 'apocalyptic communities.' One specific parallel he mentions is the fact that the ruling assembly of the 'many' rabbim, at Qumran is parallel to the same term in Acts 12:15, 30 and 6:2, 5 (Cross, 1995:149-170).

In speaking of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Gibson (1966:36f.) stated that the paramount value of the Scrolls is that they show that nascent Christianity put down its roots in the soil of sectarian rather than official Judaism - meaning essentially the Essenes (whom he views, however, as a heterogeneous mixture of sects).

Are there links between Essenes and Edessene Christianity?

There have also been suggestions that there are connections between the Essenes and the early Christians in Edessa. 8 In connection with this, we may note that there are Essene-like elements in some of the earliest Christian apocryphal literature, such as the Odes of Solomon. This corpus, though preserved in some cases in Greek or even Coptic, 9 was originally written in Syriac around 100 A.D. and some Syriac manuscripts are preserved. 10 This corpus has many similarities to the Hodayot of Qumran 11 and also to the Gospel of John. Moreover, if Charlesworth is right, then the composer of the Odes of Solomon may even have been a member of the Qumran sect (Charlesworth, 1985:728). This would mean that the person who wrote that work was originally an Essene, but converted to Christianity and wrote the Odes of Solomon in northern Syria in Syriac after that. This, in itself, might lend further credence to the suggestion that it was primarily Essenes who joined the Christian movement in Palestine and that some of them carried their new faith to the Jewish communities in Syria; but there are further parallels.

L.W. Barnard (1968), for example, noted two similarities between the Essenes and the early Church in Edessa. One is the fact that the Essenes considered themselves "Sons of the Covenant" and the early Christians at Edessa referred to a member of their faith as bar q'yama, which Barnard translates "son of the covenant." Another similarity he notes is the asceticism of the early Christians in Edessa. There is perhaps a third connection, and that is the fact that he thinks (contrary to Drijvers) that most of the early converts at Edessa were Jews.

Concerning the topic of ascetic tendencies among the Edessene Christians, Brock (1979:217) points out that in the early Syriac literature, the term qaddisha, besides meaning 'holy', can have the technical sense of 'continent,' and is used of married couples who abstain from sexual intercourse (whereas the term bethule, 'virgins,' is reserved for celibates)."

There is a peculiar legal prohibition in the Damascus Document (generally accepted as a document closely related to the Qumran group) which is not found in the Law of Moses, and that is the prohibition against marrying one's niece (CD 5.7b - 11a). Oddly enough, this same prohibition appears in Syriac literature, specifically in Rabbula's rules for the bnai qyama (cf. Burkitt, 1904:149).

There is also a prohibition against taking two wives "in their lifetime." This last phrase has occasioned some discussion. Davies (1987:76) notes that both Schechter and Charles assumed that "during their lifetime" referred to the lifetime of the wives, and therefore interpreted the message as prohibiting both divorce and polygamy. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, however, argued that the ending (i.e. "their") was masculine, and to be taken literally, and that the prohibition was therefore against more than one marriage in the lifetime of the man. 12 Davies (1987:83) then points out that there was a sect mentioned by Josephus (Wars II, 160-161) that only had one wife per lifetime, and that was the Essenes. This is most interesting, because the Syrian Christians had the same prohibition. In fact, the Syrian Orthodox Church (which has two orders of "priests" - an order of celibates from whose ranks the archbishops and patriarch are chosen, and the order of parish priests who are allowed to marry) still forbids its parish priests to re-marry, even after the death of the first wife. Furthermore, the parish priest may eventually be elevated to the rank of bishop, but not until after the death of his wife!

Gibson (1966:31) has added that the early church at Edessa was "practically if not theologically dualistic" and this may be compared to the dualism of the Qumran sect.

Who were the first converts?

If the Essenes furnished the majority of the converts to the early Christian church in Palestine, then we may perhaps assume that it was these Essene converts who also carried their new religion northward into Syria. The next question, however, is whether their audience in Edessa was mainly Jews or Gentiles. Neusner states unequivocally that "Christianity took root in the Jewries in Edessa and Adiabene..." (Neusner, 1971:1). That needs some support, however.

According to Stark's model (noted above) the first converts in Edessa would have come mainly from the Jewish community. While that conclusion was based on sociological considerations, others have reached the same conclusion via alternate routes. Gavin, for example, believed that the first Christians at Edessa and environs were Jews, and he derived that position from considerations of the Peshitta Old Testament (Gavin, 1966:14).

Another scholar, Brock (1979:212), noted that Syriac Christianity has three sources: Jewish, Greek and Mesopotamian, but in the 4th century the first and the third predominate. From the fifth century on, Greek influence predominates. This is compatible with Burkitt's assessment (1904:34) that the first Christian community at Edessa contained a large number of Jews. 13

In any case, there was an important Jewish community in Edessa and many of its members were active in the silk trade and had access to the court (Drijvers, 1970:10). In view of that fact, and in view of Stark's sociological model for conversion, it ultimately makes more sense to assume that the bulk of the early converts to Christianity in Edessa were in fact Jews. Moreover, it would not be too far-fetched to assume - particularly in view of Stark's information - that the development of Christianity in Edessa would have paralleled the development of Christianity in Egypt in terms of who the early converts were; and the early converts in Egypt were mainly Jews according to Eusebius. 14


When dealing with the question of what represents the stand of the earliest Christianity in Edessa, Drijvers says the following are to be examined: The Gospel of Thomas, the Odes of Solomon, Bardaisan, the Quqites, Tatian, the Acts of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip (Drijvers, 1970:13). While this is probably true, for purposes of a brief introduction, we shall examine a few of the main characters and the better-known features of their doctrines, beginning with Tatian.

Tatian was a second century cleric who is best remembered for his Diatessaron, which was a harmony of the gospels. He was educated in Rome, but returned to the east around 170 AD. He has often been accused of having some Gnostic tendencies, and the evidence given is the reduction in references to the incarnation and humanity of Christ in the Diatessaron. Drijvers, however, contends that there is no mention of incarnation or crucifixion in Tatian's theology because it derives from the anthropological concepts of contemporary Middle Platonism (Drijvers, 1992:130).

In Tatian's theology, man is made up of body, soul (the life-giving principle) and mind (the divine entity). The first man made wrong use of his free will and lost the divine mind, also called the "light robe" and consequently became mortal and therefore sexual. Abstinence was the only way of undoing the fall, by making the body so pure that Jesus, as the logos and divine mind, can dwell in man's soul and bring him back to immortality.

Concerning Tatian's soteriology Drijvers states: "Salvation is recuperation of Man's original immortal condition, in which soul and spirit were united and Man knew the truth and lived in kinship with God, wearing the heavenly garment of immortality, and free from the demons. That salvation is accomplished by the Holy Spirit's indwelling in the human's body as in a temple. One gets the impression that the Holy Spirit is identical with the Logos and His manifestation. Salvation was possible because a spark of the spirit was left in the soul, which was awakened by the servant of the suffering God (15,2). Salvation, therefore, is a timeless process. It has a beginning in the creation of the world by the Logos and is brought about every time that Man, using his free will in the right way, stirred and awakened by God's Spirit, His Logos, which is active during the whole of world history, wins the truth" (Drijvers, 1983:9).

According to Drijvers (1983:15f.), the christology of Tatian is reflected in the Gospel of Thomas - a text preserved in Coptic, but originally a Syriac document. In that text, there is mention of a heavenly bridal chamber, but Drijvers says that the union that takes place there is the Tatianic concept of the joining of the soul and spirit, and not any marriage in the usual sense of the term.

Another figure of importance in any discussion of early Edessene Christianity was Marcion. Though he left the Church in 137 A.D., he was very influential in the East. His heresy was the doctrine of two Gods: the highest God, and a Creator God. According to Drijvers, "...Marcion's interpretation and purification of the Christian Gospel were a consequent attempt to emancipate the Christian sect from its Jewish origins. Marcion made use of the Platonic distinction between a highest god and a demiurge to differentiate the gracious stranger God from his Jewish evil antagonist" (Drijvers, 1992:131).

Bardaisan was an important cleric who lived 154-222 A.D. He was supposedly a childhood friend of Abgar, the first Christian king of Edessa (Chabot, 1934:21). He composed 150 psalms, but none remain. He is also responsible for a work called by Eusebius "The Laws of the Land," which was actually written by one of his disciples in 196 A.D. It is the oldest extant Syriac secular text (Chabot, 1934:22). He thought men were controlled by three agents: nature (subject to certain immutable laws), destiny (determined at birth), and free will (which applied to those things not controlled by nature or destiny). He was eventually declared a heretic, but it is not certain why.

Another figure worthy of attention is Aphrahat (or Aphraates). If we wish to learn something about early Edessene Christianity by examining the writings of one of the early theologians directly (rather than relying on reports by third parties, as is necessarily the case with the characters mentioned thus far), Burkitt suggests looking at the Homilies of Aphrahat, a fourth century writer (Burkitt, 1904:80f.). 15 The first ten of his homilies were composed in the year 337 and the rest in 344 (Burkitt, 1904:81). For Aphrahat, the Holy Spirit was feminine, and this accords with the Gospel According to the Hebrews as it is quoted by Jerome and Origen where Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as his mother.

Baptism, according to Aphrahat, was a privilege reserved for celibates, usually older folks whose spouse had died and who were ready for a contemplative lifestyle. Indeed, the Christian community was divided by Aphrahat into two groups: the b'nai q'yama ("children of the covenant") and the "penitent." The former were those who had been baptized. Such a division was not peculiar to the Edessene Christians; the Marcionites also only baptized celibates and the Manicheans divided their followers into the "Elect" (who were celibate and ascetic) and the "Hearers." The Albigenses in southern France also continued the distinction between the ascetic elect and the ordinary disciples (Burkitt, 1904:141f.).

After Christianity was no longer persecuted, people wanted the benefits of baptism during the whole of their lives, and they even began baptizing infants. At that point, the b'nai q'yama became a sort of monastic order living within the community, rather than the community itself. By the time of Rabbula, bishop of Edessa 412-435, it was necessary to draw up rules for this special group.


Controversies within the Church in Syria began during the period of 270-370 A.D. These began with Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch (260-271 A.D.). He thought that the Logos dwelt in Jesus, who remained only a man, although a temporary tabernacle of the Logos. This may have been related to a revival taking place among the Ebionite sects during the same period. Paul's doctrines were formally condemned, chiefly through the efforts of Malchion, and he was deposed as a bishop (de Lacy O'Leary, 1909:47). The Arian controversy, which had arisen in Alexandria, soon spread to Syria as well. Arius was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

The Nestorian Controversy 16

In 428 the emperor Theodosius made Nestorius Bishop of Constantinople. Nestorius, like other Antiochians, adhered to the idea of Theodore of Mopsuestia that the divine and human natures in Christ were "connected", not fused into a "union" like the Alexandrians asserted. 17 He and his protégé, Anastasius, also attacked the use of the term "theotokus" as applied to Mary, because they said that she was the mother of his body, but that the divine part entered after birth. In other words, Nestorius and his followers rejected the transmutation doctrine inherent in the Alexandrian position, that the Logos became flesh. He taught that the Logos attached itself to the man Jesus at the time of birth, and that Mary therefore gave birth to a man, and it was also the human nature of Christ that suffered, not the divine nature.

Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, began refuting the teachings of Nestorius in 429. The controversy now centered around the use of the term "theotokus" because Nestorius had admitted the use of the term "union", so the issue now was whether Christ was born divine, or became divine after birth. The issue ultimately became a debate over whether a God or a man had suffered on the cross. Cyril thought that the view of Nestorius suggested that only a man, and not a God had suffered, and Cyril wanted to emphasize that the Logos itself had suffered. Rome actually sided with Antioch, but insisted that Nestorius be removed nevertheless, because he had become too suspect to continue in office.

In 431 a council was called to meet at Ephesus by the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian to end the controversy. The council opened on June 22, not waiting for John, Bishop of Antioch and other Syrian bishops who had been delayed. Those present, almost all aligned with Alexandria, took only a few hours to declare the deposition of Nestorius. When the Syrian bishops arrived five days later, they were furious and declared the deposition of Cyril. Both sides appealed to Theodosius who upheld the Alexandrians.

Within two years the Bishop of Antioch compromised and made peace with Alexandria, and Nestorius was banished to Arabia, causing a split within the Syrian Church. This essentially ended the "Middle School" in Antioch as those members loyal to Diodorus and Theodore of Mopsuestia left and took refuge in Edessa. They founded a new school at Edessa which became Syriac-Persian, just as the school at Antioch had been Greek. This group in the east organized themselves and eventually became the dominant church in the east. Indeed, it was this Nestorian group who translated the main sources of Greek philosophy, theology and Church history into Syriac. The remaining group at Antioch became firmly allied with the Alexandrian position.

The victory of the Alexandrians at Ephesus allowed them to strengthen their position and intensify their doctrinal statements. Ultimately, their doctrine became too extreme for Rome and another council was held in 451, this time at Chalcedon. There formulas were adopted which seemed to the Alexandrians, and the group that remained at Antioch after the split occasioned by the Council of Ephesus, to be stressing the two natures of Christ to the point of almost vindicating Nestorius. That was not the intent, but the reaction by the Alexandrians and the new Antiochian group resulted in a split with Rome. The Alexandrian doctrine was known as monophysitism and the groups who sided with them were known thereafter collectively as monophysites. The Syrian group of monophysites, in particular, were also known as Jacobites (as opposed to the "Nestorians" who were the Syriac speaking Christians further east who had split off after the Council of Ephesus in 431).


Some of the main groups of Syriac speaking Christians who are active today include the following:

Syrian Orthodox Church

Christians who trace their descent to the Patriarchate of Antioch that refused to accept the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon on the grounds that it made too many concessions to the Nestorians. They are monophysites, like the Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian churches. Their numbers were greatly reduced in the 14th century by the Mongol invasions, and again at the end of the 18th century when some of them split off to join with Rome (Syrian Catholics), and at the turn of the last century when many were massacred by the Turks. In 1974 [according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church] there were about 300,000 in the Middle East, 50,000 in North and South America, and about 1/2 million in India, who rebelled against the authority of the "Catholicos of the East" and placed themselves under the authority of the patriarchate of Damascus.

According to Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion (NY: Macmillan 1987) the two Syrian Orthodox churches in Syria and India, the Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian churches belong to "Oriental Orthodox" (as opposed to "Eastern Orthodox") churches and are wrongly called monophysite, because they affirm the perfect humanity of Christ as well as his perfect divinity, but they refuse to speak of the two natures as having separate existences in Christ after incarnation. In 1985 there were around 2 million, of which about 1.8 million were in India. The Indian group has headed at that time by Mar Thoma Mathews I in Kottayam, Kerala, India.

Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35 to ca. 107 AD) is regarded as the first bishop of the Syrian Church (and the immediate successor of Peter). The Council of Chalcedon was viewed as an attempt to impose Hellenic domination. "By the end of the fifth century the Syro-Egyptian revolt found a great champion in Severus, patriarch of Antioch (c. 465-538), under whose influence the Synod of Tyre (513-515) formally rejected the Chalcedonian formula. This was seen as a revolt, and Byzantium crushed it through ruthless persecution." Severus had to flee to Egypt in 518.

In the 19th century there were massacres by Kurds against Syrian Christians in 1843, 1846 and 1860. "In Turkey, since 1909 with the beginning of the Young Turk movement, which was hostile to all non-Muslim elements, Syrians, along with Armenians, have been persecuted on more than one occasion by Turks or Kurds." (still Eliade sub Syrian Orthodox Church) During WW I the patriarchate shifted from Mardin to Dayr-as-Zafran, then to Homs (ancient Emesa), and later to Damascus in 1959. Eliade's article estimates the membership at 200,000. In the 1970's however, about 1/2 million of the Indian group rebelled against the Indian catholicos and came under the Damascus patriarchate.

Malabar Christians

A group in Kerala in SW India. Many of them joined with Rome in 1599, but there was a breach in 1653 because of Jesuit interference. Nevertheless, many returned to communion with Rome in 1662. Those who did not, joined with the Jacobites and adopted the West Syrian Antiochene liturgy (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church).

According to Eliade's article, it was Portuguese imperial power that forced the Thomas Christians of Malabar into communion with Rome at the Synod of Diamper in 1599. (Eliade sub Syrian Orthodox Church)


A group of Roman Catholics (since the 16th century, prior to that they were Nestorians) mainly from Iraq. There are about 60,000 of them in the Detroit area, with a bishop, Mar Ibrahim Ibrahim, who lives in Southfield, Michigan. Of the 18 million inhabitants in Iraq, 3% are Assyrians and 4% Chaldeans (Internet).

Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East

This is also known by its members simply as the "Church of the East" and is the Assyrian Church which was also called "Nestorian." The Patriarch is Mar Dinkha IV, who lives in Teheran. In 1994, he and Pope John Paul II signed the "Common Christological Declaration." There is an attempt at reconciliation on the part of the Assyrians apparently.


Old Testament

There are really two questions concerning the Old Testament of the Peshitta, the first concerns when it was written, and the second question is by whom? Burkitt thought that the Old Testament of the Peshitta was not revised by Rabbula (d. 435 AD), because the quotations by Ephrem and Aphrahat (Aphraates) and the allusions in the Acts of Thomas all agree with its text; therefore, the latest date we can assign to the Peshitta Old Testament is the end of the second century A.D. (Burkitt, 1904:70; Chabot, 1934:19).

The next question is who translated the Peshitta - Jews or early Christians? He thinks that the Peshitta OT was translated directly from Hebrew by Jews. "Whatever revision the version may have received at later times, it is almost impossible to conceive the elements in the Peshitta which betray Hebrew knowledge as the work of Christian Syrians. The Old Testament Peshitta must have been, in the first instance, the work of Jews" (Burkitt, 1904:71). There are, however, those who reject the idea that the OT Peshitta was the work of Jews, and attribute it to early Christians. One of these is Drijvers, who bases that assumption, at least in part, on an examination of the Peshitta of the Wisdom of Solomon (Drijvers, 1986).

As one example of the Jewish knowledge reflected in the Peshitta OT, Burkitt (1904:71) notes that the name for Bashan in Nahum 1:4 and I Chron. 5:16 is not related to the word Batanaea (the Greek name for it, and the only term that would have been known among non-Jews in the area), but rather is matnin, precisely as in the Targumim. He therefore assumes that the Peshitta OT was originally the vernacular reading of the Hebrew scriptures made by Jews for Jews resident at Edessa and speaking the language of the country. Nevertheless, he assumes that we do not have the OT Peshitta in its original form; some revisions have been made over the years to make it agree with the Septuagint (i.e. the accepted Bible).

Brock (1979:213ff.) says that though there are links between the Peshitta and Onkelos, the precise relationship is uncertain. There are also connections between Syriac (as an Aramaic dialect) and the language of the Targumim of Psueudo-Jonathan, Job and the Psalter (Kaufman, 1994:1125). Moreover, there are Jewish traditions in the Syriac Pentateuch, but also in the Peshitta Chronicles and even in the New Testament. As noted above, there is a connection between the Peshitta and the Targumim in place names, which are updated in the Targumim as opposed to the Hebrew text; but sometimes the Peshitta goes beyond the Targumim in updating place names.

The question of the Vorlage of the Peshitta has not been totally resolved. Earlier writers assumed that it was translated from the Septuagint, but Vööbus (1958:8) thought it was not translated from either the Masoretic Hebrew text or from the Greek text of the Septuagint, but rather was an Eastern Aramaic rendition of a Western Aramaic biblical text that had been in use in the synagogues of Palestine. Gibson, writing in the early 1960's, thought that this assertion of Vööbus might be substantiated when the Neofiti, the Aramaic Pentateuch found in the Vatican in the 1950's, was published. The Neofiti text has now been published, but I know of no definitive statement on the relation of that text to the Peshitta. 18

The New Testament

A Syriac edition of the four gospels in continuous narrative, known as the Diatessaron, was prepared by Tatian around 150-160 AD. We know of it from a commentary on it by Ephrem Syrus in the 4th century which survives only in an Armenian version, from two late manuscripts of an Arabic translation of the work, from the Latin Codex Fuldensis, where the order of the Diatessaron has been preserved, and from a medieval Dutch Harmony of the Scriptures that was dependent on the Diatessaron. 19

Burkitt (1904:69) thought that the Diatessaron preceded the Old Syriac version of the gospels in Edessa. He also assumed that the New Testament Peshitta was first published in the time of Rabbula, bishop of Edessa, because quotations by Syriac writers earlier than Rabbula do not agree with its text.

Concerning the text of the New Testament in Syriac, Burkitt says, "The text of the Gospels underlying the Syriac Diatessaron, where it can be recovered in its original form, represents the Greek text as read in Rome about 170 A.D. The text of the Gospels in the Old Syriac version, represents, where it differs from the Diatessaron, the Greek text as read in Antioch about 200 A.D. Finally, the text of the Peshitta Gospels, where it differs from the Old Syriac and from the Diatessaron, represents the Greek text as read in Antioch about 400 A.D." (Burkitt, 1904:78).


1. The Hebrew text is even clearer. It calls the two languages in question literally "Aramaic" and "Jewish."
2. One could argue that the term yəhudit could have been injected by a later redactor, but then we have to doubt the integrity of the book of Isaiah as well, for the same report - essentially word for word - appears in Isaiah 36. This incident is also reported in II Chron. 32:18. The only other occurrence of yəhudit in the Hebrew Bible is in Neh. 13:14 where it is contrasted to the language of Ashdod.
3. This will be discussed further below.
4. It is interesting to note that by the time of the heptarchy in England in the 7th and 8th centuries, many Englishmen had copied the letter of Jesus and were wearing it as a talisman (Burkitt, 1904:15).
5. That material ultimately came from a Syriac document called the Doctrine of Addai, which was found during the last century and published by William Cureton in 1864. It is apparent that Eusebius transformed the name Addai into a name that was more familiar to him, viz. Thaddeus; but there is no likelihood that the early missionary in question was in fact Thaddeus, because that name would not be converted into Addai in Aramaic. Quispel (1968:86) states that Addai is a form of the Jewish name Adonya.
6. After observing patterns of conversion among modern proselytizing groups, Stark found that conversion is not usually for primarily theological reasons. It tends to occur after the attachments to members of a particular religious group become stronger than attachments to non-members. Moreover, the new members tend to come from groups which are similar in background, often related by blood, and not deeply involved in any other religious movement. Based on these observations, he believes that it was the Jews in the Diaspora who provided the initial basis for church growth during the first and early second centuries, and continued as a significant source of Christian converts until at least as late as the fourth century (see esp. Stark, 1996:49).
7. It is assumed here that the majority of early Christians in Palestine were Jewish converts. This was disputed by some earlier writers, such as Burkitt, but Quispel (1968:81) writes: "Scholarly research has shown convincingly that Jewish Christianity in Palestine remained alive and active even after the fall of Jerusalem A.D. 70 and was instrumental in bringing Christianity to Mesopotamia and further east, thus laying the foundations of Semitic, Aramaic speaking, Syrian Christianity." We may accept his statement as being now generally accepted, so the question is not whether Christianity was carried to Syria by Jewish Christians or by Gentile Christians, but rather, from which group of Jews in Palestine did the Jewish converts derive?
8. Drijvers (1970:30) notes that J. Daniélou (Théologie du Judéo-Christianisme I, Tournai, 1958, p 68ff. and also Das Judenchristentum und die Anfänge der Kirche, Köln, 1964, pp 11ff.), O. Cullmann ("Das Thomasevangelium und die Frage nach dem Alter der in ihm enthaltened Tradition",Vorträge und Aufsätze Tübingen, 1966 pp 566-588), J.C.L. Gibson ("From Qumran to Edessa or the Aramaic Speaking Church before and after 70 A.D." The Annual of Leeds Oriental Society V, Leiden 1963-65, pp 24-39), G. Quispel (Makarius...p. 81-93 see bibliography) and A. Vööbius (A History of Asceticism I, pp 4ff.) assumed a Palestinian origin for the earliest Edessene Christianity, with some influence from Jewish sects from Qumran. Others, such as J. Leroy, assumed an Antiochene genesis. Neusner (Aphrahat and Judaism: The Christian-Jewish Argument in Fourth-Century Iran, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971, p. 3) make the interesting observation: "The eastern Christians drew on the heritage of the Essenes and Qumran, the rabbinical Jews on the legacy of first-century Pharisaism."
9. The Bodmer papyrus XI in Geneva (Greek) and some portions of the Codex Askewianus in the British Museum (Coptic).
10. Mainly the Harris Manuscript which is now Codex Syr. 9 in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, England, but also the Codex Nitriensis in the British Museum.
11. See, for example, J. Carmignac, Les affinités qumraniennes de la onziéme Ode de Salomon, in Revue de Qumran 9, 1961, 71-102; K. Rudolph, "War der Verfasser der Oden Salomos ein 'Qumran-Christ'? Ein Beitrag zur Diskussion um die Anfänge der Gnosis" in Revue de Qumran, 1964, 523-555.
12. Mentioned by Davies (1987:76), but in Murphy-O'Connor's article "An Essene Missionary Document? CD II, 14 - VI, 1" Revue Biblique 77 (1970), p. 220.
13. A contrary opinion is expressed by Drijvers (1985:96 and 1992:141), who thinks that most of Edessa's Christian population was of pagan origin. In an earlier paper, however, Drijvers had expressed the opinion that it would be difficult to say whether the population of the early church in Edessa consisted mainly of converted pagans or of converted Jews, because the Jews were so Hellenized at the time that it would be virtually impossible to separate Jewish Christians from non-Jewish Christians. The bulk of evidence, however, seems to be against Drijvers.
14. See his Ecclesiastical History I.16 and II.17 2-3. This is pointed out by A.F.J. Klijn in "Jewish Christianity in Egypt" in The Roots of Egyptian Christianity, ed. Pearson and Goehring (Phil.: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 164.
15. On the previous page (p. 80) Burkitt had noted that we cannot really look at the sermons of Addai as the earliest examples, because they contain some late material.
16. Much of the historical material in the next few paragraphs are taken from de Lacy O'Leary, 1909:90-94, but supplemented from Tillich, 1967:76-88.
17. The stance of the Alexandrian school (most radically represented in Apollinarius) was that the two natures of Christ - divine and human - were fused, but that the divine essentially swallowed up the human nature. As opposed to the ethical and historical concerns of Rome and Antioch, Alexandrians were given to mysticism and allegory, and the idea of a divinity walking the earth was very appealing. This concept was naturally watered down by the western theologians after the Council of Nicaea, where the adoptionist doctrine of the logos was slightly favored.
18. Though that specific issue is not addressed, there is helpful material on the dialects of Aramaic involved in those texts in Edward Cook, "A New Perspective on the Language of Onquelos and Jonathan" The Aramaic Bible: Targums in their Historical Context (=JSOT Supplement Series 166, Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 142-157.
19. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. edited by F.L. Cross, Oxford Univ. Press, 1974.


Barnard, L.W.
1968 "The Origins and Emergence of the Church in Edessa during the First Two Centuries A.D." Vigiliae Christianae 22, pp 161-175

Brock, Sebastian
1979 "Jewish Traditions in Syriac Sources" Journal of Jewish Studies 30, pp 212-232

Chabot, J.B.

1934 Litérature Syriaque, Paris: Bloud & Gay

Charlesworth, James H.

1985 ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2, New York: Doubleday

Davies, Philip R.

1987 Behind the Essenes: History and Ideology in the Dead Sea Scrolls (=Brown Judaic Studies 94), Atlanta: Scholars Press

Drijvers, H.J.W.

1970 "Edessa und das jüdishe Christentum" Vigiliae Christianae 24, pp. 4-33, Amsterdam

1983 "East of Antioch: Forces and Structures in the Development of Early Syriac Theology" Main Lecture given at the Ninth
International Conference on Patristic Studies, Oxford 5- 10 Sept. 1983

1985 "Jews and Christians at Edessa" Journal of Jewish Studies 36, no. 1, pp 88-102, Oxford reprinted in Drijvers' History and Religion in Late Antique Syria, Aldershot, Great Britain: Variorum, 1994

1992 "Syrian Christianity and Judaism" The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, ed. J. Lieu, J. North and T. Rajak, pp 124-146, London/N.Y.:Routledge

Gavin, Frank

1966 Aphraates and the Jews: A Study of the Controversial Homilies of the Persian Sage in their Relation to Jewish Thought (=Contributions to Oriental History and Philology IX), New York: AMS Press

Gibson, J.C.L.

1966 "From Qumran to Edessa or the Aramaic Speaking Church before and after 70 A.D." The Annual of Leeds University Oriental Society V 1963-65, pp 24-39 (Leiden: E.J. Brill)

Kaufman, Stephen A.

1994 "Dating the Language of the Palestinian Targums and their Use in the Study of First Century CE Texts", The Aramaic Bible: Targums in their Historical Context (=JSOT Supplement Series 166) ed. D.R.G. Beattie & M.J. McNamara, pp 118-142

de Lacy O'Leary

1909 The Syriac Church and Fathers (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) Quispel, G.

1968 "The Discussion of Judaic Christianity" Vigiliae Christianae 22, pp 81-93

Stark, Rodney

1996 The Rise of Christianity, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press

Tillich, Paul

1967 A History of Christian Thought, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster