presented by Dr Sebastian Brock
Former Reader in Syriac Studies, University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford.
- this stone lectern stands outside the national museum in damascus
- on it is an inscription in syriac which says "may thou be a good memorial for the priest abraham and for john and for his mother who perished"
- 1) the language - syriac - its a dialect of aramaic (a language related to hebrew and arabic). aramaic was the main language of the middle east until it was replaced with arabic. it was the everyday language of jesus in the 1st century palestine and his disciples and his earliest followers
- but since greek was the language of government - and was widely spoken in towns - it was in greek that the 1st records of jesus were written down in the 4 gospels. whilst christianity spread westwards in greek - and then in latin - it spread eastwards in aramaic using syriac as its literary language
- by the 4th century syriac christianity was already well established in the persian empire (modern iraq and iran) beyond the eastern borders of the roman empire. it also spread at an early date to india where - according to an early tradition - st. thomas himself had preached. several churches of syriac tradition continue to flourish in southern india
- by the early 7th century syriac christianity had even reached western china travelling across asia along the so called silk route - and its arrival is recorded in a monumental inscription dated 781 - and syriac christianity was to remain a presence in china until the 14th century when foreign religions were thrown out
- 2) the place - syria - the split in western christianity between roman catholic and reformation churches in the 16th century - and that between the latin catholic west and the greek orthodox east that developed in the early middle ages are well known
- long before this - in the course of the 5th and 6th centuries - a major 3 way split had taken place in eastern christianity in the roman empire (largely forgotten today by western christianity)
- the split was the outcome from 2 church councils which were highly controversial at the time - ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) - at stake was the search for a doctrinal formula that would satisfactorily describe the relationship between the divinity and the humanity in the incarnate christ
- the chalcedon council came up with a formula of faith that gave rise to a great deal of controversy at the time - but eventually by the 6th century the formula was imposed by the emperors as the official church's doctrine. it was one of several possible formulae of faith - all of which - if rightly understood - were (and are) perfectly acceptable and orthodox
- many in syria and egypt disagreed with the chalcedon formula - and in due course separate hierarchies developed (not recognised by the roman state) - today these hierarchies are represented by:
a) the syrian orthodox church (along with the armenian, coptic, ethiopian and eritrean orthodox churches (collectively known as the oriental orthodox churches - as distinct from the eastern orthodox greek and russian churches) and
b) the church of the east - today represented by the assyrian church of the east and the ancient church of the east
- 3) the words - "who have perished" - the memory that there is an indigenous christian tradition in the middle east has largely perished (much like the memory of those on the inscription) as today most people in the western churches think the middle east is inhabited by muslims
- why is this so? - the answer is that the arab conquest of the early 7th century effectively cut off the syrian orthodox church from the late roman empire in which the chalcedon formula was the only one recognised
- thus from the 7th century the non chalcedon churches - living under islam rule - largely vanished from the general conciousness of the greek east and the latin west
- sporadic contact was made during the crusades - and later through western missionaries in the middle east - but it was not until our own times that the situation has begun to change (owing to 2 traumatic events that have happened to the syriac church in the last 100 years)
- firstly - the large scale massacres in eastern turkey during the 1st world war not only of armenian christians but also of syriac christians
- secondly - the massive waves of immigration from the middle east - beginning with those escaping from the 1915 massacres, and most recently with the huge flight of christians from iraq arising from the invasion of 2003 by usa and uk forces
- so now large numbers of syriac christians are in western european, american and australian territories (e.g. syriac cathedral in east acton London uk) - and western christians have an opportunity to reconnect with such - one largely missing for some 14 centuries
- so christianity ought to be properly viewed as not just consisting of the latin west and greek east but also of a 3rd tradition - which can be termed the syriac orient - each tradition having something to contribute to the others
- so what might the latin west and greek east learn from the syriac orient?
first - in the western tradition theology is a discipline practised in prose - in contrast one of the most profound theologians of the syriac tradition expressed his theological vision in poetry (st. ephrem - died 373)
second - in syriac liturgical text and literature christ is very often described as the good doctor - and it is primarily medical (rather than legal) imagery that is used in the context of dealing with human sinfulness
third - the syriac churches - being indigenous churches of western asia - provide a non european form of christianity possibly more conducive to african and asian culture
conclusion - perhaps - if you imagine christianity as a table - with only the western and eastern traditions as legs - it is never going to be stable - but with the syriac orient as a 3rd leg .....