The Origins of Middle EasternArab Christianity
By Dr. George Khoury
Paul Apostle to the Nations | TheGhassanids | Christian Egypt
Antioch and Edessa | Arius and Nestorius
The Christian church was born in Palestine at a time when the RomanEmpire was in its youth and when Palestine had been incorporated into atempire. Palestine was governed in the first century by a Roman procuratorwho in turn was countable to the legate of the Roman procurator provinceof Syria.
Jerusalem had the apostle James "the Minor” as first bishop, andwhile not much is kown about the life and career of the other apostles,Peter, after the Council Jerusalem (Acts: 10, 15; Gal: 2:11), apparentlywent to Antioch in order to confirm the nascent church there. Soon after,the Christian faith spread to Ephesus, Edessa (today's Urfa), Alexandria,and Rome.
It was natural, therefore, that the teaching and the worship of Christspread first in his homeland, i.e., in Palestine, and extended slowly tothe neighboring countries. The Acts of the Apostles gives us a vivid accountof the progress of the faith and its success Judaea, Samaria, and Galilee.This progress was slow, and the Gospel seems to have had more effect inthe hellenized, maritime cities than inland. The Acts of the Apostles informsus that the mission of the Apostle Philip took him to the pagan citiesalong the Mediterranean shore. He proclaimed Christ in Caesarea and Lydda,and it was near Gaza that he baptized a Jewish proselyte of Ethiopian originActs 8:27). Peter, we are also informed, followed Philip to these areas;first to Samaria, then to Caesarea, Gaza, and Lydda. Anyway, we see Christiansliving on the shore of Palestine at the end of the second entury.
2- Paul Apostle to the Nations
Paul became the great missionary to the Gentiles. He was by no meansthe only such missionary, but we hear more of him than of any of the otherapostles. Through him the faith was proclaimed and planted in several citiesin present-day Turkey and in Greece. There were, however, communities ofChristians which had arisen quite independently of Paul, notably in Antiochand in Rome. We also know that the faith had an early spread among theSyriac-speaking peoples in Syria and Mesopotamia. As for Arabia, whichbecame a Roman province in A.D. 106, it probably received the Christianfaith from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. In the land of Saba -presentdayYemen- once the hub of Arabian civilization, it had arrived from Abyssiniaand for a time during the preceding century had been the religion of thestate, until the country was overrun by the Persians.
3- The Ghassanids
The Ghassanids were the first to convert to Christianity. NestorianChristianity came early to Hira, where a monastery was built in A.D. 410.A bishop is recorded in the same year.
Al-Mundhir III (d. 554) was a pagan thoughhe had a Christian wife some of the notables were Christians. Bishops arerecorded in Uman in 424 and in the district of Bahrain in 575. When thePersians conquered South Arabia they favored the Nestorians and there wasa bishop of Sanaa as late as 800. From these borders Christianity filteredthrough into the interior. There were bishops in Aila, Duma, and Taima',and most of the tribes of the North had some knowledge of the faith.
4- Christian Egypt
How Christianity infiltrated Egypt is not clear. The church in Alexandriatraditionally been ascribed to Evangelist Mark, once a travelling companionof Paul declared by early report -though this not historicaly a sue thing-to have been Peter in Rome and to have written down the memories constitutingthe body of the teaching of that Apostle, which we have as Gospel of Mark.It seems though up until the third century it had meagre Christian populationdespite the presence of many Christan cornmunuties. However, at the Synodof Alexandria (320-321) which convened in order to condemn Arius, therewas already a thriving church with an imposing ecclesiastical hierarchy.The historian Duchesne states in his 'Early History of The Christian Church,vol. II, pp.385-386.
Since the fourth century Egypt was the sanctuary of orthodoxy and theclassic ground of confessors of faith.. It was also the fatherland of themonks. To the revered name of Athanasius were united in pious stories thenames of Antony and Pacomius, of the two Macarii, of Ammon, and those ofmany other personages in whom piety soon embodied the ideal of Christianheroes.
5- Antioch and Edessa
Antioch, whose Christian beginnings date from the first century (Acts11:19-21), became at the end of the third century an important Christiancenter. In fact, as early as the second century it considered the ApostlePeter to have been its first bishop. One can hardly exaggerate the importanceof Antioch for the ancient Eastern Church. Because of its privileged position,given its biblical connections with the early Jerusalem community, andespecially with the Apostles Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, Antioch early onraised the claim of teaching and leading the other churches. The regionof Edessa, in Northern Syria, already teemed with Christians at the endof the second century. In fact, Christianity became the state religionaround the year 200, and while, according to Hitti, Antioch rose to a positionof leadership in the Greek speaking part of Syria, Edessa was getting acorresponding position in the Aramaic (i.e.,Syriac) speaking world. Thiscity was the earliest seat of Christianity in Mesopotamia. It was alsothe cradle of Syriac literature. The chief versions of the Syriac Biblewere probably made there in the second century. The school of Edessawas founded by Saint Ephrem (320-373).Around the year 489 the emperor Zenon closed the school of Edessa and itsstudents fled to Persia where they founded instead the school of Nisibiswhich became a Nestorian center.
6- Arius and Nestorius
In the fourth and fifth centuries Christological controversies splitSyrian Christianity into a number of divisions. Arianism taught that Godis without beginning but that the Son had a beginning and is not a partof God. The council of Nicaea rejected andcondemned Arianism in 325. As to the relation of the divine to the humanin Jesus, Apollinaris, a friend of Athanasius, maintained that in Jesusthe Logos was the rational element. That position left the divine naturecomplete but made Christ less human, for a human being, it was held, hadbody, soul, and reason. The Ecumenical Council ofConstantinople condemned in 381 the views of Apollinaris and maintainedthat in Jesus both the divine and the human natures were complete. In 431the Council of Ephesus rejected the viewsof Nestorius who preferred for Mary the title Mother of Christ to the termMother of God. And in 451 the Council of Chalcedonadopted a creed which was influenced by the Tome of Pope Leo, a documentprepared by the then bishop of Rome. The creed of Chalcedon declared Christto be "perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and trulyman, of rational soul and body."Thus the distinctive views ascribedto Apollinaris, Eutyches, and Nestorius were condemned.
The decisions of Chalcedon did not produce peace in the church and amongthe contending parties. On the one hand most of the members of what wasto become the Catholic Church, East and West, adhered to them, as did theGreek-speaking majority in the East who looked to the bish Constantinopleas representing the teaching of Chalcedon. There w'ere on the other hand,elements in the East who either rejected Roman rule or were restless underit as symbolized by Constantinople. Most of these professed their adherenceto the decisions reached in Nicaca in 325 but rejected the definition inthe creed of Chalcedon of the relation of the divine and human in Christ.Since they stressed the divine in Christ, those who adhered to ChalcedonianChristology labeled their opponents monophysites (of the one nature), withthe implication that they regarded Christ as wholly divine and not human.Thedissenters from Chalcedon repudiated the term monophysite, insisting thatthey recognized both the divine a human in Christ but maintaining thatthe relationship was not as described in Chalcedon. These passionate controversiesamong the Eastern Churches created continuing strife, thus weakening themand making easy the spread and triumph of Islam seventh century.