Syriac Christianity

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Syriac or Syrian Christianity (Syriac: ܡܫܝܚܝܘܬܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܬܐ / mšiḥāiūṯā suryāiṯā) is a term describing the multiple Churches of Eastern Christianity whose services tend to feature liturgical use of ancient Syriac, a dialect of Middle Aramaic that is of direct relation to the Aramaic of Jesus.[1]

With a history going back to the 1st century AD, in modern times Syriac Christianity is represented by denominations primarily in the Middle East and in Kerala, India. Christianity began in the Middle East in Jerusalem among Aramaic-speaking Semitic peoples. It quickly spread to Sassanid-ruled Mesopotamia & Assyria, Roman-ruled Syria (ancient Aramea), Phoenicia, India, and Egypt. From there it spread to Asia Minor, Greece, Armenia, Georgia and the Caucasus region.

Syriac Christianity is divided into two major traditions: The East Syrian Rite, historically centered in Assyria/Mesopotamia, and the West Syrian Rite, centered in Antioch and the Mediterranean coast (the Levant). The East Syrian Rite tradition was historically associated with the Church of the East, and is currently employed by the Middle Eastern churches that descend from it, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Chaldean Catholic Church (the members of these churches are commonly Eastern Aramaic-speaking ethnic Assyrians), as well as by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church of India. The West Syrian tradition is used by the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Maronite Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, and churches that descend from them, as well as by the Malankara Churches of India, which follow the Saint Thomas Christian tradition.


Celebration at a Syriac Orthodox monastery in Mosul, Ottoman Syria, early 20th century.

Syriac Christian heritage is transmitted through various Neo Aramaic dialects (particularly the Syriac dialect of Mesopotamia) of old Aramaic. Unlike the Greek Christian culture, Assyrian culture borrowed much from early Rabbinic Judaism and Mesopotamian culture. Whereas Latin and Greek Christian cultures became protected by the Roman and Byzantine empires respectively, Syriac Christianity often found itself marginalised and persecuted.[by whom?] Antioch was the political capital of this culture, and was the seat of the Patriarchs of the church. However, Antioch was heavily Hellenized, and the Mesopotamian cities of Edessa, Nisibis and Ctesiphon became Syriac cultural centres.

The early literature of Syriac Christianity includes the Diatessaron of Tatian; the Curetonian Gospels and the Syriac Sinaiticus; the Peshitta Bible; the Doctrine of Addai and the writings of Aphrahat; and the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian.

The first division between Syriac Christians and Western Christianity occurred in the 5th century, following the First Council of Ephesus in 431, when the Assyrian Christians of the Sassanid Persian Empire were separated from those in the west over the Nestorian Schism. This split owed just as much to the politics of the day as it did to theological orthodoxy. Ctesiphon, which was at the time the Sassanid capital, became the capital of the Church of the East.

After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, many Syriac Christians within the Roman Empire rebelled against its decisions. The Patriarchate of Antioch was then divided between a Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian communion. The Chalcedonians were often labelled 'Melkites' (Emperor's Party), while their opponents were labelled as Monophysites (those who believe in the one rather than two natures of Christ) and Jacobites (after Jacob Baradaeus). The Maronite Church found itself caught between the two (allegedly embracing Monothelitism), but claims to have always remained faithful to the Catholic Church and in communion with the bishop of Rome, the Pope.

Over time, some groups within each of these branches have entered into communion with the Church of Rome, becoming Eastern Catholic Churches.

Names and ethnicity[edit]

Historical divisions within Syriac Christian Churches in the Middle East.
Historical Divisions within Syriac Churches in Kerala, India.

The term "Syrian" (and by extension "Syriac") was originally an Indo-European corruption of "Assyrian", and was used by speakers of Indo-European languages exclusively in relation to Assyria in northern Mesopotamia, from the period of the Neo Assyrian Empire onwards.[2] During the Seleucid Empire, its Greek rulers applied the name not only to Assyria proper, but also to Biblical Aramea in the Levant, which had been a colony of Assyria during the Middle Assyrian Empire (1366-1020 BC) and Neo Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC). When they lost Assyria itself to the Parthian Empire, they retained the name "Syria" but only applied it to what had been Aramea, which they still retained.[3][4] This led to the Greco-Roman and later European tradition of referring to both Assyrians/Mesopotamians and Arameans as "Syrians" and "Syriacs", despite both being historically, ethnically, linguistically, genetically and geographically distinct from one another.[5]

The Assyrians (Syriac: ܣܘܪܝܝܐ, Arabic: سُريان), that is, Eastern Aramaic-speakers in Assyria and Mesopotamia in the late 1st millennium BC, adopted Christianity very early, from the 1st century A.D. onwards. The Neo-Assyrian kingdom of Osroene was the first Christian kingdom in history.

In 431 A.D. the Council of Ephesus declared Nestorianism to be a heresy. The Nestorians, who were persecuted in the Byzantine Empire, sought refuge in Mesopotamia where the Church of the East was dominant, then part of the Sassanid Empire, From there they spread Christianity to Persia, India, China, and Mongolia. This was the beginning of the Nestorian Church, the eastern branch of Syrian Christianity. The western branch, the Jacobite Church, appeared after the Council of Chalcedon condemned Monophysitism in 451 A.D.[6]

Most members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic church as well as some Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic Christians are ethnic Assyrians, descendants of ancient Assyrians. This ethnic group speak Akkadian infused Eastern Aramaic dialects and are indigenous to Iraq, south eastern Turkey, north eastern Syria and north western Iran. Many Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholics prefer an Aramean national identity while others adhere to a religious Syriac identity. A small number of Chaldeans have also adopted a Chaldean or Chaldo-Assyrian national identity. The Maronites in Lebanon are divided between those who claim Phoenician (see Phoenicianism) or Syrian national identity and those who claim Arab national identity (see Arab nationalism).

The older Assyrian designation has almost completely replaced the word Nestorian (which is seen by Assyrians as pejorative). However, the word Nestorian continues to be used in much Western academic literature.

The use of the word Syriac (which originally referred to the Syrian language, a dialect of Middle Aramaic which arose in Assyria) instead of Syrian became common after the establishment of the modern nation of Syria after World War I. The word 'Syrian' has become ambiguous in English since it can refer now to a citizen of Syria regardless of ethnicity. In Arabic, however, the word for a 'citizen of Syria' has a different form (سوري sūrī) from the traditional word for an ethnic Syrian (سُرياني suryānī).

Churches of the Syriac tradition[edit]

The distribution of Metropolitan Sees in the Middle East and the rest of Asia

Syrian Christians were involved in the mission to India, and many of the ancient churches of India are in communion with their Syriac cousins. These Indian Christians are known as Saint Thomas Christians.

In modern times, various Evangelical denominations began to send representatives among the Syriac peoples. As a result, several Evangelical groups, including the "Assyrian Pentecostal Church" (most in America, Iran, and Iraq) have been established. However, due to their recent historical origin, such groups and others are not normally classified among those Eastern Churches to which the term "Syriac Christianity" is traditionally applied.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Allen C. Myers, ed (1987). "Aramaic". The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans. p. 72. ISBN 0-8028-2402-1. "It is generally agreed that Aramaic was the common language of Palestine in the first century A.D. Jesus and his disciples spoke the Galilean dialect, which was distinguished from that of Jerusalem (Matt. 26:73).". Israeli scholars have established that Hebrew was also in popular use. Most Jewish teaching from the first century is recorded in Hebrew.
  2. ^ ^ Rollinger, Robert (2006). "The terms "Assyria" and "Syria" again" (PDF). Journal of Near Eastern Studies 65 (4): 284–287. doi:10.1086/511103.
  3. ^ ^ Tekoglu, R. & Lemaire, A. (2000). La bilingue royale louvito-phénicienne de Çineköy. Comptes rendus de l’Académie des inscriptions, et belleslettres, année 2000, 960-1006.
  4. ^ Inscription From 800 BC Shows the Origin of the Name 'Syria'
  5. ^ ^ Yepiskoposian et al., Iran and the Caucasus, Volume 10, Number 2, 2006, pp. 191-208(18), "Genetic Testing of Language Replacement Hypothesis in Southwest Asia"
  6. ^ T.V. Philip, East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia


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