The Assyrian Church of the East: A Panoramic View of a Glorious History
Rev. David Royel, S.T.L.
Apostolic Origins and Beginnings
The beginnings of the Assyrian Church are to be found in the very first decades of the apostolic era. With the revelation of the Son of God in the flesh, the salvific message of the Gospel was open to all peoples of diverse tongues and cultures. The Gospel-writer St. Luke records in the book of Acts the events of the growth and spread of the Christian Gospel in the Holy City and abroad, to the outer limits of the Roman Empire.
We read in the Acts 2 the wondrous happenings surrounding the Pentecost feast celebrated at Jerusalem by our Lord’s disciples. The promise of the Holy Spirit given to disciples before Jesus was taken up to the Father gave hope to the fledgling Christian community at Jerusalem (cf. John 16:13; Acts 1:4). This promise was fulfilled on the day of the Jewish feast of the Pentecost, which took place at Jerusalem 50 days after the Lord’s Resurrection. Luke records:
And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another. Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judea and Cappodocia in Pontus, and Asia. (Acts 2:5-9)
Among those who had gone up to Jerusalem in order to be present in the Holy City for the Pentecost feast, there were Jews from Mesopotamia. Those who received the Gospel on the day of Pentecost early on spread it among the Assyrians who were dwelling in Mesopotamia: “…then they that gladly received his word were baptized; and the same day they were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
Another ancient tradition recorded in the Gospel of Matthew tells of the wise men who had come from the East—certain Magi who had followed the star which led them to the Holy Child in Bethlehem. The evangelist Matthew tells us: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying: ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him,” Matthew 2:1-2. According to the tradition of the Fathers of the Church, such as St. John Chrysostom (died 407) these wise-men were Persians who had come from the East searching for the Child born under the star, thus following the ancient tradition of their prophet Zoroaster.
The Spread of the Gospel to Mesopotamia
Missionaries from the Holy City of Jerusalem came to preach the Gospel among the Jews in the Diaspora present in Mesopotamia and the Persian Empire. The Acts of the Apostles only records the first Christian missions within the limits of the Roman Empire. Therefore, it is the holy tradition of the Assyrian Church, couples with historical evidences, that records the spread of the Gospel outside of the limits of the Roman Empire, namely within the Persian Empire—the second superpower of its day.
The missionary work of Addai came about through a promise given by our Lord to its vassal king Abgar the Black. According to the annals of Church history recorded by the great historian Eusebius the bishop of Caesarea, Abgar had sent emissaries to Jerusalem asking that Jesus—the good healer whom he had heard about—would come and cure him from his illness.
Abgar’s Letter to Jesus reads:
“Abgar Ukkama [the Black], the Toparch, to Jesus the good Savior who has appeared in the district of Jerusalem, greeting. I have heard concerning you and your cures, how they are accomplished by you without drugs and herbs. For, as the story goes, you make the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, and you cleanse lepers, and cast out unclean spirits and demons, and you cure those who are tortured by long disease and you raise dead men. And when I heard all these things concerning you and I decided that it is one of the two, either that you are God, and came down from heaven to do these things, or are the Son of God for doing these things. For this reason I write to beg you to listen to me and to heal the suffering which I have…”
Thus, the apostle Addai was sent to Edessa about 3 years after the Resurrection and preached the Gospel not only to the Jewish inhabitants of the city, but the divine Message was received by citizens who were descendents of the ancient Assyro-Babylonians. The emissary of King Abgar, Hannan, had brought back with him an image of the Lord known as the ‘Image of Edessa’ which was miraculously composed.
Another early tradition of the Church attributes the evangelization of the Assyrians to the missionary activity of the apostles in the region of Adiabene, modern-day Arbil in northern Iraq. This area, in essence the whole strip of land between the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers mentioned in Genesis, was called ‘Assyria’ by the famous Greek topographer Strabo of Amasia (64 BC-23 AD) in his famous work of the year 20 A.D.—the Geographica. He mentions Assyria and the Parthian Persia east of Asia ‘whose eastern provinces touched the borders of India.’ Here was a thriving Jewish community that early on received the Gospel message from apostles sent to Edessa from Jerusalem. Almost a century following Strabo, the Roman emperor Trajan conquered Mesopotamia in 115, thus making it a Roman province, calling it ‘Assyria.’
By the end of the first Christian century, according to ecclesiastical tradition, St. Mari had founded over 300 convents and churches in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, and he was buried in the church of Deir Qunni.
In essence the presence of Jews in the thriving cities of Edessa, Nisibis and Adiabene—connected by the Silk Road—provided fertile ground for the planting of the seed of the Christian Gospel. In these regions, not only were there communities of Jews dispersed throughout Mesopotamia since the Babylonian Exile (589-539 BC), but the descendents of the ancient Assyrians who inhabited Mesopotamia for millennia, having adopted the Aramaic language, were ardent to receive the preaching of the Jewish missionaries who came to proclaim the revelation of the Son of God.
Ecclesiastical Organization and Expansion
The Assyrian Church of the East began to grow at an enormous pace. By the year 325, the episcopacy of the Assyrian Church—variously known as the ‘Church of Persia’ since it was the only Christian Church within the limes of the Persian Empire—was organized around Papa, the bishop of the royal cities of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. In 410, the first synod of the Persian bishops took place under the presidency of the Catholicos Mar Isaac. It was at this council that the Creed and canons of the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) were received by the Assyrian Church. The Church was by now distributed in all parts and major cities of Mesopotamia. It was still within the limits of the Persian Empire. It enjoyed close ecclesiastical ties with the see of Antioch, which was the nearest, major Christian see existing within the Roman Empire.
In 345 AD the bishop Thomas Knanay, along with some 70 families, migrated from Babylon to South India, thus settling there and strengthening the Christian community by effecting contact between the Church of the East and the Indian Christians. Later contacts with Byzantium at the turn of the seventh century further proved to expand this Church. After the Council of Ephesus (431), when the Nestorius the patriarch of Constantinople was condemned for his views on the unity of the Godhead and the humanity in Christ, the Church of the East was branded as ‘Nestorian’ on account of its refusal to anathematize the patriarch.
The Church enjoyed alternate periods of rest and persecution after the move of the caliphate to Baghdad from Damascus in 752 AD. In around 780, the seat of the patriarch moved to Baghdad, the new capital of the Islamic empire, from Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The monks and clergy of the Assyrian Church served the royal court in the capacities of the court physicians and scribes. Many of the Greek works of philosophy were translated into Arabic by these Nestorian scholars; these works later were translated into Latin and found their way again into the West.
Before the end of the first Christian millennium, the Church of the East counted some 25 metropolitan sees and over 300 episcopal sees in all of the Near and Far East. The Church enjoyed a catholicity in which Assyrians, Turks, Mongols, Uigers, Arabs, Indians and Chinese were members of this glorious institution.
With the capture of Baghdad in 1258 by Hulagu Khan and the end of the Arab Muslim caliphate, the Christians of the royal city and the East in general enjoyed a period of rest and calm from persecution. The Christians hailed the entrance of the troops of Hulagu and his devoutly-Christian wife Tokuz Khatoun in the former capital of the caliphate as the dawn of a new age for Christendom. This royal couple was seen as the new ‘Constantine and Helen’ for the Christians living under Mongol rule. Countless monks, priests and deacons were to be found among the Mongol Christians, not to mention the tens of episcopal and metropolitan sees. In fact, in 1281 a Mongol monk Yahwalaha (‘God has given’) was elected to the highest ecclesiastical office of the Assyrian Church.
A Period of Survival and Decline
The Church entered a period of decline around the year 1400 with the persecutions and massacres of the Assyrian Christians of Iraq, Iran and Turkey under the Mongol warlord Tamur Lang. Upon capturing the capital of Baghdad in 1399, he began a campaign of murder and decimation of the Christian population of the region. Records tell of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people: young and old, men and women. This caused the great majority of the Assyrian Christian populace to flee to the northern parts of Mesopotamia, in particular the region of modern-day Iraq, and find refuge among the mountainous caverns of the area. Nonetheless, theologians of the Church of the East continued there.
Already by the mid 15th century the patriarchate was hereditary, being handed down from uncle to nephew; the majority of the metropolitan and episcopal sees were also hereditary. This caused a split in the Assyrian Church in the year 1552 when three bishops and the abbot of the St. Rabban Hurmizd monastery in Alqosh applied to Rome for help in electing a new patriarch.