The SYRIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH OF ANTIOCH (part One)
BY Rev. Fr. Dr. JOSEPH TARZI
1- WHO ARE THE SYRIANS ?
The Syrians are the Arameans themselves, the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent region (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, and Southeastern Turkey). They came from the Syrian desert in the 14th century B.C, and settled in the urban centers founding many kingdoms. The strongest of these Aramean kingdoms were the kingdoms of Damascus, Nahreen (Mesopotamia), Sobah and Padan-Aram. They imposed their language on the whole region and became the masters of the land for about 5 consecutive centuries. Their sovereignty ended in 732 B.C. with the fall of Damascus in the hands of the Assyrians. Even though their political sovereignty vanished, they continued to constitute the majority among the population of the region, playing a major role in the events.
Their Aramaic language remained reigning unchallenged over the entire Middle East in all aspects of civilization, particularly in the many fields of learning, and was to remain so until long after the Arab Islamic invasion in the 7th century. Aramaic still survives in the names of hundreds of cities and villages in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The use of the terms: "Syria" and "Syrians", to denote the land of Aram and Arameans, began before the birth of Christ, in the Seleucid era, precisely, after the completion of Septuagint version of the Old Testament in the year 280 B.C., where the word "Aram" was translated as Syria, a synonym to "Aram". From here, the name "Syrian" began to replace Aramean, gradually. After the birth of Christ, this new name began to spread until it nearly eliminated the Aramean name in the entire geographical Syria. Because the Arameans, who now became Christians, were very much devoted and firmly adhered to their new religion, and proud of their forefathers the Apostles, they abandoned their old name "Arameans" and adopted the new name "Syrians" in order to detach themselves from their kindreds, the pagan Arameans.
Nevertheless, a group of writers continued to use the term "Aramean" instead of "Syrian" treating them as synonyms. They would say for instance, He was an "Aramean Syrian writer", and "the Aramaic Syriac language". However, it is never said "The Aramean Church" but rather "the Syrian Church"; the term "Suryani" or "Syrian" in Syriac Aramaic is "Suryoyo" and its exact translation is "Syrian", i.e, a national of Syria (the geographic Syria). Universally, however, the term "Syrian Church" means all the Churches whose Liturgical language is or was Syriac, and were or are under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch.
2- THE BIRTH OF THE SYRIAN CHURCH
The Syrian Church started in Jerusalem consisting of the Apostles, Evangelists and converted Jews. It was later grafted in Antioch, and then Urhoy, (Edessa) with converted Arameans and other gentiles. It was established in Antioch by St. Peter the head of the Apostles, who is considered the first Patriarch of the Holy and Apostolic see of Antioch. St. Peter himself ordained St. Aphodius and St. Ignatuis the Luminous as successors. They did succeeded him after he fell martyr in Rome. Antioch, thus, became not only the first, oldest and most famous Christian Church, but the base of Christendom too. It was in Antioch where the Apostles were first called Christians.
3- THE DOCTRINE OF THE SYRIAN CHURCH
The faith of the Syrian Orthodox Church can be summarized as follows: The Church believes in one composite person of the Lord Jesus, and one composite nature that consists of two natures: divine and human, which cannot be mixed, separated or transformed. In other words, the two natures are united into one nature with no mixing, no blending no changing no transformation, and no confusion. This applies to all divine and human attributes. Based on this definition, divinity was united with humanity, or the body, when Jesus was nailed on the cross, and never departed the body, not even for a moment. Therefore, it is wrong, and a departure from the universal Christian faith to say that: "Christ was crucified in flesh". It must rather be said: "God the Incarnate the Lord of glory was crucified"; however, we do say "He suffered and died in flesh", because divinity is never subject to suffering or death. As a consequence, Mary is "the mother of God", and the phrase "Thou who was crucified for us" stands true in the Trisageon which is directed to the second person, i.e., Christ. To this faith adhered the Antiochian Syrians and the Alexandrian Copts who rejected the council of Chalcedony and the document of Leo of Rome (The tome of Letter of Pope Leo) adhering to the faith defined in the three holy ecumenical councils of Nicea 325 A.D., Constantinopole 381 A.D., and Ephesus 431 A.D. From here, the name "Orthodox" was coined to mean "True faith" which is common to Syrians, Copts, Armenians and Ethiopians. These Churches are called "sister Churches". They endured together severe sufferings and violent persecutions waged against them by the Chalcedonian Byzantine Empire.
4- THE SYRIAC LlTURGY
It is an established fact that the language spoken by Jesus and by many generations B.C. and early Christianity, and until the 5th century A.D. was Aramaic. Furthermore, Jews Wrote some of their holy books in Aramaic or in Aramaic characters, as evidenced by the dead sea scrolls discovered in 1974 by His Eminence Mar Athanasius Yeshu Samuel, then Archbishop of Jerusalem (Archbishop of the United States and Canada at present). Thus, it becomes evident that the disciples and their early successors spoke Syriac. Therefore, it is only common sense that their worship be conducted in Syriac. Since the evangelists who preached the Gospel in Antioch came from Jerusalem where worship was in Syriac, it would only be natural that Syriac be the Liturgical language of the church of Antioch, and that she uses the Syriac liturgy of St. James the brother of the Lord and first bishop of Jerusalem. It is well known that the church of Jerusalem used St. James's Liturgy until the days of the last of the first fifteen Syrian bishops. However, when envoys from Constantinopole started assuming its leadership, they replaced, St. James's Liturgy with that of Baselius of Caesaria 379 A.D. and St. John the Chrysostom 407 A.D. translated into Syriac. St. James's Liturgy, nevertheless, remained in the church of Antioch. That is why the Syriac Liturgy is called the Liturgy of Antioch. To this Liturgy are traced all church Liturgies. The church of Antioch, therefore, is proud that her Liturgy is in Syriac, the language made holy by the Lord's divine tongue, and honored by the tongue of His mother Mary and his Apostles. In this language, St. Mathew wrote his Gospel, and in this language evangelical events were proclaimed first in Judea, Syria and neighboring regions.
5- THE SERVICE TO THE GOSPEL
The Syrian Church played an important role in the field of Bible literature. Her scholars dived deep in its vast ocean and uncovered its mysteries. They first translated it to their own Syriac language. Then, they conducted in-depth studies and enriched the libraries in the East and West with countless large volumes of commentaries and interpretations despite catastrophes and misfortunes that struck their homeland, grave losses caused by World War I, and the deliberate destruction of thousands of invaluable manuscripts by her adversaries. After they studied the Bible in their own Syriac language, they exerted endless efforts to translate it into other living languages. Thus, around the year 404 A.D. the Malphan Daniel the Syrian, and Mesrope the Armenian worked together translating it into the Armenian language. Syriac scholars of Arabian origin of Bani Tay, Tanookh and Aqoola (Al Koofa) translated the Gospel into Arabic according to the order of the Syrian Patriarch St. John II in response to the wishes of Omaiyr Ibn Saad Ibn Abi Waqqass Al Ansari, prince of the Jazirah. Yohanna Bar Yawsef, a Syrian priest from Taphliss (southern Russia), translated the Bible into the Persian language in 1221 A.D. In the first decade of the l9th century, Raban Philipos the Syrian from Mallabar, India, translated it to Mallealem, the language of Southern India. In the present 20th century, Chorepiscopus Matay Konat the Syrian from Mallabar, translated the whole of the new Testament except the book of Revelation, into this language.
A good number of manuscripts of this invaluable heritage still survive. They constitute the oldest manuscripts in the world, especially those removed from the treasury of the Syrian Monastery in Egypt and taken to the libraries of Vatican, London, Milan, Berlin, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and others. Some of these manuscripts were scribed in the fifth and sixth centuries. Furthermore, the oldest version of the holy Gospel is a Syriac manuscript written by the Edessan (of Urhoy i.e Urfa) scribe, Yacub, in Urhoy in the year 411 A.D. It is kept in the British Museum. In this regard, Father Martin enumerated 55 Syriac Gospel manuscripts written in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries, compared to 22 Latin manuscripts and only 10 Greek manuscripts. The Syrians were so ardent in their love to the Bible that they sought perfection in scribing and decorating it. They were meticulous, elegant and skillful in doing so. Their works can only be described as dazzling. They used both calligraphic styles, the Strangelo and the Western Serto. Among the best known manuscripts is the Gospel of Raboola of Urhoy (Edessa or Urfa) completed in 586 A.D.
6- EVANGELIZATION ACIIVlTIES
The Syrians carried the torch of the Gospel first to all the regions of the East. They guided with its light, to Christianity thousands of thousands of peoples and nationalities, i.e., Arabs in their different tribes, Persians, Afghans, Indians and Chinese. They took part in the evangelization of Armenians. In the 6th century, the Syrians guided to the sheepfold of Christ huge crowds of Ethiopians and Nubians through the efforts of Father Julian, and 70-80 thousand people from Asia Minor, Qarya, Phrygia and Lydia through the efforts of Mar Yohanna of Amed, the famous bishop of Ephesus. Syriac was the liturgical language of all the churches of the East despite the diversity of their people's origin. The Armenian church, for example, in addition to the fact that it was using Syriac, in which some Armenian bishops excelled, it wrote its spoken Armenian language in Syriac characters, until Mesrope, one of its scholars working with Malfan Daniel the Syrian, invented the Armenian Alphabet.
7- THE STRUGGLE OF THE SYRIAN CHURCH
The Syrian church of Antioch endured, as a price for her adherence to her doctrine of faith, unbearable atrocities and sufferings with content and exceptional determination. From the moment of her birth, she was subject to Jewish and then to pagan persecution. This was followed by Nestorian persecution in the 5th century. At the end of the Chalcedonian council that convened in 451 A.D, she faced severe persecution from the Chalcedonian Byzantine Caesars. In addition, she suffered grave atrocities and afflictions by the Crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Jewish persecution lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Among the martyrs of this Jewish persecution were: St. Stephany the head of Deacons 37 A.D, apostle James the son the Zebadee-one of the 12 disciples and St. James the brother of the Lord and the first bishop of Jerusalem in 62 A.D. Other apostles were imprisoned tortured and insulted. Persecutions were waged against Christians by Pagan Roman Caesars. Among the most severe were 10 persecutions covering the whole Roman Empire remaining in effect throughout the first three centuries, the first two decades of the 4th century and throughout the whole of the 5th century. Among the martyrs of these long lasting persecutions were St. Peter 67 A.D., St. Ignatius the Luminous, the 3rd Patriarch of Antioch, Babola the Patriarch 250 AD, Sts. Sargis and Bakhos 279 A.D., St. George 303 A.D, St. Barbara 303 A.D., St. Ciryacus the infant and his mother Juliette 304 A.D., and the 40 martyrs in Sebastia. Persian kings inflicted on Christians bitter atrocities. The longest and the worst was the persecution instigated by Shabour, from 339-379 A.D. During those 40 years, more than quarter a million Syrians, were massacred.
This was followed by the persecution instigated by Behram II from 420-438, in which Simon, the son of Sabbagheen the bishop 329 A.D., Bar Baashameen the bishop, Mar Behnam and his sister Sarah and the 40 cavalries, Yahanna son of Najjareen, St. James Muqatta and Mar Ahodemeh were killed. The Persian rulers took advantage of the theological disputes among the Syrians and started a persecution campaigns against the Orthodox Syrians supported by Nestorian Syrians and Magians. In these campaigns hundreds of Bishops and priests and thousands of Syrian lay people were massacred, including the Catholicos Babaweih 480 A.D. Because of their rejection of the faith defined by the council of Chalcedony, the Syrians were the victims of a long and agonizing persecution instigated against them by Chalcedonians. This persecution lasted more than 200 years, from 452 A.D. until early seventh century A.D. when Arab Moslems conquered Syrian land with the help and cooperation of Syrians. The Byzantine persecution against the Syrians, thus came to an end with the end of Byzantine hegemony over Syrian land. During this long persecution, thousands of bishops, monks, priests and lay believers fell martyrs. As of the year 512 A.D. when St. Severus the Great was installed as Patriarch of Antioch, the Chalcedonian persecution became fiercer. In that period, great men of struggle and makers of history rose to defend the true faith. They were known in Christian circles by their strong faith, righteousness and being thoroughly versed in Theology. They were: St. Simon of Arshem 450 A.D., Mar Phelloxenos of Mabug 523, Mar Severus of Antioch 538, Mar Yacub Baradeus 578, and Theodora, the Syrian Queen .