The Maphrian (Syriac: ܡܦܪܝܢܐ Maphryānā, also rendered as mafriano, etc.) was historically the prelate in the Syriac Orthodox Church who ranked second in the hierarchy after the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. The Maphrian, whose title literally means "one who bears fruit", i.e. "consecrator", was originally the head of the church in Persia and the lands outside of the Roman Empire. Eventually he bore the additional title of Catholicos of the East, signifying a connection to the Catholicate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the seat of the Patriarch of the Nestorian Church of the East. The position is somewhat similar to an exarch in other churches. The title was resurrected in the 20th century, and is now given to the Catholicos of India, leader of the local Jacobite Syrian Christian Church and the second highest prelate of the wider Syriac Orthodox Church.
The ecclesiastical dignity goes back certainly to the seventh century and perhaps to the closing years of the sixth. After the Nestorian Schism, when the teaching of Nestorius were branded heretical at the First Council of Ephesus in 431, the School of Edessa in Mesopotamia was closed for its Nestorian teachings, and moved to its original home in Nisibis, in the Sassanid Empire. At the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, with the approval of the Sassanid king, a formal Patriarchate was established (see List of Patriarchs of the Church of the East).
Nestorianism flourished, forcing the few remaining Persian Miaphysites, like Xenaias (Philoxenus) of Tahal, into exile. Xenaias became Bishop of Mabug (ancient Hieropolis). In Persia, the Mesopotamian town of Tagrit (Modern Tikrit, Iraq) alone did not adopt the prevailing religion; it became the centre of the Miaphysite missions at the commencement of the sixth century. The energetic James Baradaeus ordained for the Persians bishop Ahudenuneh, who died a martyr in 575. But the efforts of Marutha of Tikrit were to be crowned with greater success. At one time from the monastery of Mar Mattai (near the ancient Assyrian capital Nineveh), at another from Tagrit itself, he undertook fruitful missionary work among the Arabs and throughout the valley of the Tigris. He relied on the influence of Chosroes II's physician, Gabriel de Shiggar, who had completely won the confidence of the Christian queen Shirin.
From time to time the Persian armies, which invaded the Roman territories so often at this period would bring back a multitude of captives, Byzantines, Egyptians, Euphratesians or Edessans, mostly Jacobites. So in 628-9 it was judged suitable to organize the Miaphysite Church in Persia. The Jacobite patriarch Athanasius I saw that it would be necessary to grant the Syrians in the Persian Empire a large ecclesiastical autonomy. In fact one of the most serious objections raised by the Nestorians against the Miaphysites was that the latter obeyed a spiritual head residing in Byzantine territory and that they were therefore inclined to become the subjects of the Emperor of Constantinople. Hence the Miaphysites were frequently denounced at the court of Seleucia as conspirators favouring the Romans; the thus incensed Sassanides would persecute the Jacobites.
The relations between the Maphrian and the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch were frequently strained, though broad agreement was eventually reached on their relative status and areas of jurisdiction. In 869 it was decided that just as the patriarch consecrated the Maphrian, the consecration of a new Patriarch would be reserved to the Maphrian. Within their own circumscriptions, the Maphrians had often disputes with the metropolitan of the monastery of Mar Mattai (near Nineveh), who was jealous of the preponderating influence of Tagrit.
In 1089, the churches of Tagrit having been destroyed by the Muslims, the Maphrians abandoned it and settled in Mosul.
From A.D. 1155 they generally resided at Mar Mattai while retaining an immediate jurisdiction over Tagrit and Nineveh. One of the Maphrians worthy of special mention is the celebrated Gregory Abulfaradj, surnamed Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286), the most highly cultured man of his age. There has been preserved a history by him of his predecessors. This work was continued by his brother, and later by unscholarly annalists, and stops in the fifteenth century (1496).
In time, the number of Syriac Orthodox Christians in Mesopotamia decreased, and the maphrianate lost its original significance. It became largely a titular designation for the Syriac Orthodox Church's second highest office until being abolished altogether in a synod of 1860. In the 20th century the title was resurrected in the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, the part of India's Malankara Church that remained under the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch after an internal split; it is given to the church's local leader, the Catholicos of India. The current Maphrian is Baselios Thomas I.