The Syrian Churches

By Sebastian Brock

Syriac literature is closely tied to church history, and the variety of names in use for the various Syrian churches, coupled with the popular misconceptions which are current (even in otherwise reliable modern works) about their theological position, combine to increase the bewilderment of the outsider and the newcomer to the subject. First of all it will be helpful to clarify the confusing terminology by means of a Table:

Official name Also known as Other (European) sobriquets Unite counterpart sobriquets (in communion with Rome)
Syrian Orthodox Church West Syrians Monophysite, Jacobites Syrian Catholics
Church of the East (more recently “Assyrian Church of the East”) East Syrians Nestorians, Assyrian Chaldeans


The terms “Nestorian” and “Monophysite” were originally devised as opprobrious Epithets, and imply the holding of heretical opinions; as such they are misleading and should be avoided. “Jacobite” derives from Jacob Baradaeus who reorganized the Syrian Orthodox Church in the mid sixth century at a time when the emperor Justinian was trying to suppress its hierarchy. “Assyrian,” very popular today in the Middle East and émigré communities (since it provides a much sought for “national” identity) seems to originate, as far as its present day connotations are concerned, with the conjecture of some nineteenth century archaeologists and missionaries that the modern Christian population of North Iraq (mostly East Syrians) are descendants of the ancient Assyrians. For nationalist reasons some Syrian Orthodox laity now also like to call themselves Assyrian, to add to the confusion (popular names to give children nowadays include Sargon, Hammurabi etc.).

In their essentials the divisions that exist today between the various eastern churches originate in the different stands taken over the Christological controversies of the fifth century. Convenient touchstones are provided by the two main councils of that century: the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The mainstream of Christian tradition represented today by the Eastern Orthodox 28 Churches (Greek, Russian etc.), the Maronite and the Roman Catholic Church, and the various derived western Churches, accept both councils, whereas the Church of the East rejects Ephesus and accepts Chalcedon, and the Syrian Orthodox Church (along with the other “Oriental Orthodox” Churches, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic) accepts Ephesus but rejects Chalcedon. Looked at theologically, the Church of the East represents one end of the theological spectrum, making a sharp distinction between the divine and human natures in Christ (with the consequence that they do not allow Mary the title of Theotokos, “bearer of God,” but only Christotokos); the mainstream Christian tradition stands more in the middle, but still makes a real, albeit lesser, distinction between the two natures; while the Syrian Orthodox represent the other end of the spectrum (but by no means the extreme end), for they see only one nature in the incarnate Christ, “composed” out of two: to them, the presence of any duality in the incarnate Christ would vitiate the full reality of the incarnation. Ironically the Chalcedonian definition of faith, which ended up by declaring that the incarnate Christ existed “in two natures,” had in the text of its earlier draft “out of two natures” — a formula which is perfectly acceptable to the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Here it should be emphatically stressed that, contrary to widespread western opinion, the Syrian Orthodox do not hold that the one nature in Christ is only the divine, having “swallowed up” the human: this is the Eutychian position, which the Syrian Orthodox has always condemned as completely heretical. Thus the term “Henophysite,” rather than “Monophysite,” would be a much more appropriate one by which to describe the Oriental Orthodox Churches in contrast to the “Dyophysite” Churches which accept Chalcedon.

A few words should be said about each of the three Churches, which belong to the Syriac cultural world.

The Syrian Orthodox Church

The Syrian Orthodox Church only gradually became separated from the mainstream church in the course of the late fifth and the sixth century, and it was not until the first half of the sixth century that a separate hierarchy developed as a result of the deposition, by the emperor Justin, of the anti-Chalcedonian patriarch of Antioch, Severus. Since then their patriarch (one of five patriarchs of Antioch today) has never resided at Antioch; the present patriarch, His Holiness Mar Ignatios Yakub III, lives in Damascus. Syrian Orthodox communities are now chiefly to be found in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey (Tur Abdin in the SE, and Istanbul), Iraq and India (Kerala); there is also a sizable Diaspora in western Europe (Germany, Holland, Sweden) and the Americas (the present Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of America, Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, was one of the first owners of the famous Isaiah scroll from Qumran; he gives a fascinating account of this episode in his life in his Treasure of Qumran: My Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls (London, 1968)).

The Uniate Syrian Catholic Church, with its own Patriarch (in Beirut), has its origins in the late 18th century.

The twentieth century has witnessed two great scholar patriarchs, the Syrian Catholic Ephrem Rahmani (died 1929), and the Syrian Orthodox Ephrem Barsom (died 1957).

The Church of the East


This Church was based in the Sassanid Empire and so its history has always been distinct from that of the churches within the Roman Empire. It is indicative of the poor communication between Christians in the two empires that it was only in 410 that the Council of Nicaea (325) became known to and was officially accepted by the Church of the East. Whereas martyrdom was effectively brought to an end in the Roman Empire by the conversion of Constantine, it was only in the mid fourth century that Persian Christians experienced their first serious bout of persecution from the Zoroastrian authorities; persecution was to continue intermittently right up to the collapse of the Sassanid Empire in the seventh century. A remarkable feature of the history of this Church is its missionary expansion across Asia, reaching China by 635—an event recorded on a bilingual Syriac-Chinese stele erected in 781, and discovered at Sian-fu in 1625; one unexpected by-product of this missionary enterprise has come down to us in the form of a diary of a thirteenth century East Syrian monk from Peking, Rabban Sawma, who traveled to Europe as an emissary of the Mongols (there is an English translation by E.A.W. Budge, The Monks of Kublai Khan: The History and Travels of Rabban Sawma (London, 1928)).

Although European writers have derogatively called this Church “Nestorian,” its connections with Nestorius are rather tenuous: only in the sixth century did any of Nestorius’ writings get translated into Syriac. As a matter of fact, beside their own great theologian, Babai (died 628), the East Syrian Church’s main source of theological inspiration was provided by the writings of the Greek Theodore of Mopsuestia (died 428).

The Patriarch (or Catholicos, as he is more frequently called) has always had as his titular see Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the Sassanid winter capital, known to the Arabs as the “twin cities” (al-Mada’in), to the south of Baghdad. In the last hundred years or so their history has been a particularly tragic one; their previous Patriarch, Mar Shiman, was a refugee from Iraq, and lived in America (where there is a considerable émigré community). The present Patriarch, Mar Dinkha (who was consecrated in St. Barnabas’ Church, Ealing on October 17th, 1976) for the moment lives in Tehran, but hopes to be able, to move his permanent residence to Baghdad. His flock are chiefly to be found in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and south India (Kerala). As well as in the United States there is also a small émigré community in London.

The vigorous unite Chaldean Church goes back to 1550; its Patriarch resides in Baghdad.

The Maronite Church

St Maroun

The origins of the Maronites as a separate church are obscure, although they are evidently tied up somehow with the monothelete/dyothelete controversy of the seventh and early eighth century. The Maronite Church has accepted the authority of Rome since the time of the Crusades and their Patriarch Jeremiah II assisted at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Maronite Patriarch (one of the five Patriarchs of Antioch—the remaining two being the (Chalcedonian) orthodox and Uniate Melkite Patriarchs)—now resides outside Beirut; over the last century or so, in particular, the Maronite patriarchate has played an important role in Lebanese politics.

At Kaslik, just south of Jounieh in the Lebanon, there is a Maronite university, L’Université Saint Esprit, which produces a valuable periodical largely devoted to Syriac studies, Parole de l’Orient.

Maronites have played an important role in the history of Syriac scholarship in Europe ever since the establishment in Rome, in 1584, of a Maronite College. In the seventeenth century it was a Maronite, Gabriel Sionita, who was largely responsible for the Syriac text in the great Paris Polyglot Bible, while in the eighteenth century the Assemani family produced a notable succession of Syriac scholars, chief among whom was Joseph Simon Assemani (died 1768): his Bibliotheca Orientalis, a survey of Syriac literature based on the riches of the Vatican Library, in three fat volumes (Rome, 1719–28), is still an important work of reference for the Syriac scholar (a photographic reprint was published in 1975).

Some literature

A recent historical survey of the various oriental churches is given in A.S. Atiya, A History of Eastern Christianity (London, 1968). For the modern situation D. Atwater’s The Christian Churches of the East (2 volumes; London, 1968) gives information on ecclesiastical matters, while R.B. Betts’ Christians in the Arab East (London, 1979) is concerned more with demography and politics.

A particularly fascinating account of the Syrian Orthodox Church at the end of the nineteenth century is given by O.H. Parry, Six Months in a Syrian Monastery (London, 1895)—the monastery was Deirez Zafaran, on the edge of Tur Abdin in SE Turkey; At that time it was the seat of the patriarch.

Thanks to the Anglican educational missions to the Church of the East there are several readable accounts of this Church and its people, notably A.J. Maclean and W.H. Browne, The Catholicos of the East and his People (London, 1892), and W.A. Wigram, The Assyrians and their Neighbors (London, 1929). The older work by G.P. Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals (two volumes; London, 1852) has become something of a classic. A scholarly account of the traumatic history of the Church of the East in the nineteenth and twentieth century is provided by J. Joseph, The Nestorians and their Muslim Neighbors (Princeton, 1961).

Sebastian Paul Brock (born 1938, London) is generally acknowledged as the foremost and most influential academic in the field of Syriac language today. He is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute and currently a Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. He is the recipient of a number of honorary doctorates and has been awarded the Medal of Saint Ephrem the Syrian by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch. He is a widely published author on Syriac topics.

Originally (re-)published in 2009 in Sbouthan Magazine (“Our Cause”) by the Universal Syriac Union Party in Lebanon.