Basic Features of the Liturgy with Especial Reference to the East Syrian Eucharistic Liturgy -Rev. Archdeacon William Toma

Modern Assyrian Hymns: The Introduction of the Vernacular in the Liturgical Services of the Church of the East

David G. Malick

50 Years of Service in God’s Light: A Commemorative in Honour of His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV

Socotra: The Mysterious Island of the Assyrian Church of the East

Stephen Andrew Missick


The Nestorian Christians of Socotra

Socotra is an island off of the coast of east Africa that is governed by Yemen. For centuries all the inhabitants of the islands of Socotra belonged the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East, which was known as the Nestorian Church. The Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of the East was a missionary church that founded Christian communities in Mongolia, China, and India while Western Europe was sleeping through its ‘Dark Ages.’ The Assyrian Church of the East thrived for centuries in these lands yet most of its churches were eradicated by Islamic warriors, leaving only the churches of India and a community in the original Assyrian homeland of the region of modern Iraq and Iran. One of the longest lasting churches established by Assyrian missionaries, that eventually also fell victim to the Muslim Jihad, was the Nestorian Church of the Island of Socotra which endured for over a thousand years.


The Assyrian Church of the East and the Island of Socotra

While Western Christendom was slumbering through the Dark Ages in Europe, the Assyrian Christians of the Ancient Church of the East in Mesopotamia were dutifully carrying out Jesus Christ’s Great Commission to carry his message of hope and love to the distant corners of the world1. With a fervent zeal Assyrian missionaries spread the Christian gospel to India, China, Mongolia, and Socotra, an isolated island in the midst of the Indian Ocean2.

The Assyrians speak Syriac, a living form of the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus of

Nazareth3. Their ancestral homeland is northern Iraq and western Iran. The Assyrian Church of the East was founded directly by the Hebrew Christians of Jerusalem and by the evangelists who were from among Christ’s twelve apostles and seventy disciples. According to ancient traditions Thomas and Thaddeus were the first to preach among the Assyrians. Since Jesus, his disciples and the Assyrians were Aramaic speakers; Christianity came directly to the Assyrians through its original Semitic source and wasn’t filtered through Greek, Roman or any other pagan culture. The Assyrian church’s primitive Christian origins can be seen in references in the Doctrine of

Addai and the Hebrew Christian origin of the Peshitta version of the Old Testament4. Of the Assyrian Church fathers who were wholly Semitic there are Aphpharat and Ephraim. Later Syriac church fathers were profoundly influenced by the Greek thinking. Sebastian Brock notes in “An Introduction to Syriac Studies”:

The earliest major [Syriac] authors…are virtually untouched by Greek culture and

they offer us an essentially Semitic form of Christianity, quite different in many

respects from the Christianity of the Greek and Latin speaking world of the

Mediterranean littoral. From the fifth century onwards the Syriac speaking

churches underwent a rapid hellenization with the result that no subsequent

writers entirely escaped the influence of Greek culture in some form or another.

This specifically Semitic aspect of the earliest Syriac literature has been curiously

neglected, despite its potential interest for the study of primitive Christianity as a


The Assyrian Christians of the Church of the East came to be called Nestorian after Nestorius, a Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 until 432, whose Christological doctrine and method of Biblical interpretation was accepted by the Assyrians in that they mirrored those of their own ancient traditions. Nestorian Christians are not and never were heretics. The Assyrian Church of the East holds fast to the tenants of the Nicene Creed, and affirms the core doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the Holy Trinity, the Deity of Christ (meaning that Christ is God the Son as well as being the eternal Son of God), the literal and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as well as the other basic doctrines held by all Christians whether they be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant6.

Assyrians were active in world trade centered along the Silk Road (the Silk Road is the name of the caravan routes frequented by merchants who traded between Europe, China and India). Assyrian merchants and missionaries planted churches in Central Asia, China and India. The Assyrian Church of the East is one of the most dynamic missionary churches in all of Christian history. Ian Gilman and Hans-Joachim give the founding of the church in Socotra as an example of the global expansiveness of the Church of the East. In Christians in Asia Before 1500 they state that:

A further example of Nestorian expansion is provided by the church on the island of Socotra, which dates from the 6th century and was to continue its life down until destruction by the Muslims after the period which concerns us here [1500]. The traveler Cosmas Indicopleustes found Christians there in the 6th century and we have records of consecrations of bishops for the island under the Patriarch Enush in 880 and Sabr-ishu III (d. AD 1072). Marco Polo (d. 1324) reported a bishop there who owed allegiance not to the pope in Rome but to a Patriarch at Baghdad, and the Bishop of Socotra was present at the consecration of Yaballah III as Patriarch in AD 12827.

Socotra serves as an example of the zeal and rigid determination of the Assyrian Christians to take the gospel of Jesus Christ even to the most desolate and inaccessible regions on earth.


St. Thomas on Socotra

Saint Thomas is held by tradition to be the founder of the churches in Assyria, Chaldea, Babylonia, India and Socotra. On his way to India Thomas was shipwrecked on the isle of Socotra and he used the wreckage of the ship to build a church. According to the ancient account of the missionary endeavors of Saint Thomas entitled The Acts of Thomas he did visit a mysterious island while in route to India and preformed miraculous feats there8. The Socotran Christians were called Thomas Christians and belonged to the Assyrian “Nestorian” Church of the East. (The Syriac Christians of India also call themselves Thomas Christians.) St. Francis Xavier notes that the people of Socotra, with whom he visited during a sojourn on their island, “… are devotees of the Apostle St. Thomas and claim to be descendants of the Christians he converted in that part of the world9.” Several archeologists, anthropologists and historians working on the Island of Socotra have noted the ministry of St. Thomas among the Socotrans. G. W. B. Huntingford notes that

The inhabitants seem always to have been a mixed people. Some of them at one period were Christians, converted it was said by St. Thomas in AD 52 while on his way to India. Abu Zaid Hassan, an Arab geographer of the 10th century, said that in his time most of the inhabitants of Socotra were Christian… but by the beginning of the 16th century Christianity had almost disappeared. leaving little trace but stone crosses at which Alvares said the people worshipped…However, a group of people was found here by St. Francis Xavier in 1542, claiming to be descended from the converts made by St. Thomas…10


Travelers Accounts of the Assyrian Christian community of Socotra

Socotra is a land of myths and legends. The Phoenicians believed Socotra to be the abode of the Phoenix, a mythical bird believed by the ancients to fly from Socotra to Heliopolis in Egypt once every 500 years to rejuvenate itself in a sacred flame. Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and Diodorus of Sicily mention Socotra in regards to this legend. The description of Socotra by Diodorus of Sicily however, does contain authentic details about the island11. Later Arabs believed the island to be the dwelling place of the rukh, or roc, the mythological gigantic bird that has a prominent place in the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor12. The Pharaohs of Egypt also sent expeditions to Socotra to acquire Myrrh which was then as costly as gold13.

In ancient times Indians traveled to Socotra. They gave the island its name which is Sanskrit for “Island abode of Bliss”. According to Shipbuilding and Navigation in Ancient India

In those days India had colonies, in Cambodia (Kumbuja in Sanskrit) in Sumatra, in Borneo, Socotra (Sukhadhara) and even in Japan. Indian traders had established settlements in Southern China, in the Malayan peninsula, in Arabia, in Egypt, in Persia, etc. Through the Persians and Arabs, India had cultivated trade relations with the Roman Empire14.

These trade relations enabled St. Thomas to evangelize Socotra and India.

Alexander the Great is believed to have conquered the island of Socotra in order to have the aloe for his army. A Greek presence continued up past the time Socotra was converted to Christianity. Socotra is rich in myrrh and aloes. Ancient peoples recognized medicinal value of aloe. Aloe and Myrrh were even used to anoint the body of Jesus the Christ upon his removal from the cross. Socotra continues to supply the world with aloe as it did in ancient times15.

The Periplyus of the Erythraean Sea is an ancient Greek mariners manual from around the year 60 AD. This book shows that Greek sailors knew the island and it is thus entirely possible that Thomas could have made his journey there. The missionary endeavor of St. Thomas to Socotra and India is believed to have taken place in 52 AD. The author of The Periplyus of the Erythraean Sea describes Socotra by saying,

There is an island…it is called Dioscorida [meaning Socotra], and it is very large but desert and marshy…the inhabitants are few and they live on the coast towards the north, which from this side faces the continent. There are foreigners, a mixture of Arabs, and Indians, and Greeks, who have emigrated to carry on trade there16.

An important early Christian leader who was himself most likely a Socotran was Theophilus. Unfortunately he was also a heretic. He is also known as Theophilus the Arian and Theophilus the Indian. (Until the voyage of Columbus the Indies from the European viewpoint included East Africa and the islands in the Indian Ocean as well as India proper.) Theophilus was an adherent of Arianism, a heresy that was widespread through the church for centuries. Arius, the originator of this pernicious fallacy, denied the Holy Trinity and the Deity of Christ. Samuel Hugh Moffett describes the ministry of Theophilus and his missionary journeys that took place in 354AD. He states

Theophilus “the Indian” a native of the islands in the Arabian or Indian Ocean …was held in Rome as a hostage, converted to Christianity, and was sent by emperor Constantinius on an embassy that included visit to Arabia, to his homeland in the islands, and to “other parts of India17.”

Cosmas the Indian Voyager, called Indicopluestes, was a Nestorian Christian from Alexandria in Egypt. He was a merchant and traveled widely. He wrote a twelve volume work recounting his travels entitled Tropographis Indica Christiania , which translated is A Christian Topography of the Whole World. He wrote this work in 536 AD recollecting his journeys he made throughout the Indian Ocean, in Ethiopia and the coasts of India in 522 AD. He describes the Assyrian Church firmly established and growing throughout the world saying;

We found the church…very widely diffused, and the whole world filled with the doctrine of Christ, which is being day by day propagated, and the gospel preached over the whole earth. This I have seen with my own eyes in many places and have heard narrated by others. I, as a witness of the truth can relate…18

Cosmas goes on to mention the Assyrian churches in Sri Lanka and Kerela, India. He then continues, “…and in the place called Kalliana (Quilan) there is a bishop usually ordained in Persia, as well as in the isle of Dioscoris (Socotra) in the same Indian Sea…You will find priests ordained in Persia sent there, there are also a number of Christians19.” So by the early 500s we have an account by a member of the Assyrian Church establishing the fact that by that time ‘Nestorian’ Christianity had been firmly established on the Island of Socotra. The famous Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324) accuses the Socotrans of having the supernatural ability to control the weather and to cause shipwrecks. He wrote of Socotra saying:

The inhabitants [of Socotra] are baptized Christians and have and archbishop…I should explain that the archbishop of Socotra has nothing to do with the Pope at Rome, but is subject to an archbishop who lives at Baghdad [meaning the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East]. The archbishop of Baghdad sends out the archbishop of this island; and he also sends out many others to different parts of the world, just as the Pope does…I give you my word that the Christians of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world. It is true that the archbishop does not approve of these enchantments and rebukes them for the practice. But this has no effect, because they say that their forefathers did these things of old and they are resolved to go on doing them. And the archbishop cannot override their resolve20.

Arab accounts also describe witchcraft and sorcery as being prevalent among the Socotrans.

Afonso the Great, (also known as Afonso de Albuquerque) who lived from 1453 until 1515, was a Portuguese admiral and founder of the Portuguese Empire in the East. He captured Socotra from the Muslims and established Portuguese rule over the island. The memory of the Portuguese lives on among the Socotrans who have many legends about their Portuguese era. The language of Portugal also influenced the vocabulary of the Socotran language. The Portuguese saw themselves as liberators of the Christian Socotrans from Islamic persecution. The Socotrans came to look upon the Portuguese as foreign oppressors so much that they came to prefer Arab rule to Portuguese rule, especially after the Portuguese attempted to force them to adopt European Roman Catholic practices. An early Portuguese report on the island of Socotra was provided for Dom Manuel I, King of Portugal in 1505 by Diego Fernandes Pereira. Near the same time Martin Fernandez de Figuera of Salamanca wrote of the Socotran Christians with whom he dwelt for four months. Nicolau de Orta Rebelo noted that all the Socotran men were named Thomas and all of the women were named Mary. In 1527 Martin Alfonso de Melo remarked that there were many Christians on Socotra21. In 1541 Portuguese Admiral Dom Joao de Castro stated that, “the Socotrans revere the Gospel. They say that they were introduced to it by the blessed apostle St. Thomas through whom they proclaim our religion. There are many churches all over the island, each crowned with the cross of the Most High22.”

Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552) is one of the most important early Roman Catholic missionaries to the Far East. In regards to Socotra and it’s Christians he said

The natives esteem themselves to be Christians and are very proud of it. They can neither read or write, possess no books nor other sources of information, and are very ignorant. But they have churches, crosses, and ritual lamps, and in each of village there is a caciz, who corresponds to a priest among us. Having no bells, they summon the people to services with wooden clapers, such as we have during Lent23.

Other travelers contradict the statement of St. Francis and noted that the Socotrans did possess books written in Syriac characters. St. Francis and other Catholic travelers probably exaggerated the level of ignorance of the Socotrans. This is probably an exaggeration due to the contempt with which the Catholics until very recently have held members of the Assyrian Church who they viewed as ‘vile and pestilent Nestorian heretics’. It should be borne in mind that Francis Xavier himself recommended that the Holy Office of the Inquisition should be activated in India to deal with the Assyrian Christians there.

An example of the hatred of the Roman Catholic towards the Assyrian Christians is their forced conversion of members of the Church of the East in India and in Socotra. Francis M. Rogers notes in The Quest for Eastern Christians that

In the mid-1500s an adaptation of a letter from King Joao III to Pope Paul III was published in both Italian and French editions. It summarizes the conversions affected under Portuguese auspices from Socotra to Moluccas, reports military reverses in Ethiopia, and mentions St. Francis Xavier. It speaks of the “conversion” of the St. Thomas Christians in a manner suggesting the same classification as Saracens [Muslims] and pagans24.

Arabs also wrote important accounts of the Nestorian Christians of the Isle of Socotra. In 1488-1489 Ibn Magdid commented that Socotra was a Christian island ruled over by a woman. Al-Masudi, the famous Arabic geographer, wrote an account of the island. He died in 956 AD. Al-Hamdani, another Arabic geographer, wrote of Socotra and its Christians. He mentions monks being on the island. Al-Hammadi died in 945 AD.25 Yaqut writing in the thirteenth century described the inhabitants as “Christian Arabs”.

Yaqut al-Hammadi also notes that some of the Nestorian Christians of Socotra were Greeks and says,

The Masih, son of Maryam [Jesus Christ] appeared — peace be upon him – and the Greeks who stayed there [on the Isle of Socotra] adopted Christianity and remain Christians until the present time. Allah knows that there is no other place in the Universe except Socotra Island where there would live a population of Greeks which would retain its lineage without having anybody else mix with it26.

Ibn Battutah (1304-1369), the famous Arabian traveler, also traveled by the Island of Socotra27. Later England attempted to dominate Socotra because of its strategic location. In 1886 Socotra became a British Protectorate. During de-colonization Socotra was given to Yemen. In Socotra, the Island of Dreams Ibrahim Al-Ashwami and Abdul Wali Al-Muthabi state that Socotra’s “strategic importance…rises from the fact that its location is in the mid-center of all Arab and African coasts, related to Asia and Africa continents.28


The Land That Time Forgot

Socotra is also called Asqo’tra, Sou’qatra and Soqotra. Other spellings include Suqutra and Socotora. The names derives from the Sanskrit word Sukhadara or Dripa Sukhadara which means ‘Island abode of Bliss’ The Ancient Greeks called it Dioskourdiou or Discordia. Socotra is also called the Isle of Mists and the Island of the Dragon’s Blood Tree. The Socotra Archipelago consists of Socotra and three outlying islands, Abd al-Kuri, Samha and Darsa. Socotra is the home of rare liquid products frankincense, black oblillnum and Dragons Blood. It exports aloes and herbal remedies. Socotra is the largest island in the Arab World. The deep waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean surround the island yet the waters immediately around the island are shallow and infested with sharks and pirates.

Socotra is an extremely isolated island due to the monsoon winds that make it impossible to reach for half of the year. Due to its isolation unique plant life lives there, life-forms survive there that became extinct elsewhere in the world tens of thousands of years ago. The best article on the island of Socotra is Soqotras Misty Future written by Diccon Alexander and Anthony Miller and published in the July 1995 edition of New Scientist. This article is available on the Internet on the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh Soqotra page. This site features an awesome virtual reality tour of the island through several panoramic photographs that gives a 360-degree view in which you can zoom in and out of with close-ups.29 Dr. Robert Mill of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburg Scotland wrote me and said, “The small Indian Ocean island of Socotra contains one of the richest and best preserved dry tropical floras in the world, over one third of the plant species and endemic and it is internationally recognized as a centre of exceptional biodiversity.31“The United Nations declared in Soqotra: Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Soqotra Island: Present and Future, “The Island of Socotra is undoubtedly a most precious natural asset. It has been nominated as a ‘World Heritage Site’ and as a ‘Man and Biosphere Reserve’. It has a rich and unique biodiversity that is unrivalled in the Indian Ocean and in the Arabian Region31“.

Socotra is often compared to the Galapagos, the South American island whose unique wild life provoked Charles Darwin to invent the theory of evolution. The World Wildlife Federation declared, “The Socotran Archipelago has such a unique assemblage of animal and plant species that it has been described as an Arabian Eden. The islands are known for their plant diversity, including the dragon’s blood tree and a variety of succulents…While currently relatively pristine, the ecoregion has had along history of human occupation and over 50 endemic plants are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Socotran Archipelago remains vulnerable to increased human activity and tourist and industrial development.”32 Strange animals have also been found on Socotra.

The Socotra Kurst Project has reported the recent discovery of more unusual life forms discovered by speleologists, including that of long tailed bats33. Socotra’s plants, which are living relics of the prehistoric world, are often described as ‘most bizarre’ as ‘weird vegetation’ and ‘grotesque’. There are also many examples of gigantism in these relics of ancient flora. The most important odd plants are the Dragon’s Blood Tree, also known as the ‘inside out umbrella tree’, and the grotesque bottle shaped Adenium tree. Socotra was a forgotten island until Quenton Cronk’s botanic expedition in 1985. Diccon Alexander noted that, “Off the Horn of Africa lies the forgotten island of Socotra, for centuries home to some of the worlds most bizarre plants…Relics of ancient species are so abundant that the island looks like most people’s idea of a prehistoric world34” or a strange other-worldly landscape created by a more imaginative writer of science fiction. He further states that, “Until at least 10 million years ago Socotra was part of the African mainland and before that a part of the African-Arabian tectonic plate. Today the ancestors of plants from these ancient landscapes and still be found growing on the island.36

The island is approximately 72 miles long and 22 miles across from north to south, and it lies over 500 miles south-east of Aden and about 300 miles from Mukalla, port of the Hadramawt. The island of Socotra lies in the Indian Ocean near the ancient sea routes from the Red Sea to India and East Africa. Travelers and scholars have long considered it to have great archeological potential. Socotra has also been a source of interests to linguists; in addition there is a wealth of material for specialists in the fields of botany and ornithology36.

Flora of the Arabian Peninsula and Socotra Volume I by A. G. Miller and T. A.Cope relates that;

The Socotra archipelago consists of four islands-Socotra, ‘abd al Kuri, Semhah and Darsa-situated in the northern part of the Indian Ocean due east of Somalia… the climate of Socotra is influenced by both SW and NE monsoons. The SW monsoon blows from April until October bringing hot, dry winds which are generally desiccating but bring a little orographic rain to the mountains. Most precipitation occurs from November to March; during this period the SW winds are replaced by much lighter rains from the NE… Rainfall is very sporadic and in some years the costal areas receive none. Average measurements for the plain are around 150 mm and the mountains probably receive around 500 mm. Most rain falls in winter. The mountains are frequently shrouded in clouds and heavy dews are common37.

Topographically the island can be divided into 3 main zones; the coastal plains, the limestone plateau and the Hagghier Mountains.

According to AYTTA (The Association of Yemen Tourism and Travel Agencies) the best period to visit the island is from 15 October until 15 May. The winds sweep some parts of the island in the remaining period of the year38. According to Island of the Dragon’s Blood

It was a rugged country, with an overall limestone plateau averaging 1,500 feet in height, through which projected a central mountain range, the Haggier Massif, reaching nearly 5,000 feet. These mountains constituted one of the oldest land structures in the world and had been an ark of refuge for many strange and primitive forms of plants and lower animal life, found nowhere else. Frankincense, myrrh, dragon’s blood, cucumber and pomegranate trees grew there, …People lived on this island and they were of two sorts: on the coast were a mixed lot of Arabs and Africans; in the mountains lived the true Sokotri, who were aboriginals isolated on the island “from time immemorial”, living in caves, talking a unique language that nobody knew, subsisting on dates and milk39.


The Socotra Tribesmen

Socotrans speak a Semitic language distinct from Arabic. It is called Soqotri. The Enchanted Island: Socotra Reveals Its Secrets it is mentioned that,

The traditions of the Socotran natives differ from those of other Yemenis in that they are influenced by all of the nearby major regions: the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa and India. The Socotran people have their own language, which is a holdover from the ancient Himyaritic language. They share this language or variations of it with the people of Al-Mahara in Yemen and Dhofar in Oman40.

The Socotrans are impoverished and isolated. The population of Socotra is estimated to between 20,000 and 80,000. Many of the mountain dwellers are troglodytes, living in caves. The coastal people are fisherman and pearl divers and are of African origin. They live in shacks made from palm leaves and tree limbs. Arab nomads dwell in the wadis. The Bedouin are shepherds and subsistence farmers41. There is racial diversity on the island. White Arabs live in the mountains and some Africans live on the coast. Tribal culture there is so strong that the people cannot even chop down a tree without consulting the tribal counsel. Socotra is isolated and inaccessible. Its people manage to eke out a wretched and poverty stricken existence. Socotrans are largely cut off from the rest of the world for five month of the year. Indian Ocean monsoon storms whip up violent seas making it impossible for the island to be resupplied by sea. (Socotra is usually reached by Dhow, an Arab sailing boat, from the coast of Yemen)42. The winds also make it dangerous to be reached by plane or helicopter.


The Assyrian Christians of Socotra

What were the practices of the Socotran members of the Church of the East? They recited the Syriac liturgy and memorized it even though they didn’t understand the language. According to Douglas Botting

On this outpost of the Arab world a race of people impervious to the great tide of Islam, who had retained some remnants of the Christian faith for nearly a thousand years after the birth of Mohamet. But such remnants had been strangely corrupted. As one Portuguese ship’s writer had noted in the sixteenth century: “The Socotrans call themselves Christians but lack instruction and baptism, so that they have nothing but the name of Christians…” At this time the Socotrans still revered the cross, placing it on altars and hanging it round their necks. Every village had a minister who repeated prayers antiphonetically in a forgotten tounge [probably Edessan Syriac], scattering incense. Words like “Alleluia” often occurred and instead of ringing bells they shook wooden rattles. A century later a Carmelite friar, P. Vincenzo, observed the last vestiges of Christianity on Socotra. The people, though they still professed Christianity, had no real knowledge and practiced a strange jumble of rites-they sacrificed to the moon, abominated wine and pork, circumcised, regarded the Cross with ignorant reverence and carried it before them in processions. They assembled in their low, dark, dirty churches three times a day and three time a night. They burned incense, and anointed their altars with butter. Placing a Cross and candle on top of them. Witchcraft was practiced, and the people often committed suicide in old age. Each family had a cave in which it buried its dead. They were all strictly monogamous.43

The continued rejection of the Islamic practice of polygamy is probably the only Christian custom preserved by the Socotrans44.

Are there old books and are archeological remains pertaining to the Assyrian Church in Socotra? There are remains of churches and shrines and there are several inscriptions bearing the cross. Christian burial was practiced by the Socotrans. In Socotra: island of Tranquility the discovery of Christian tombs is described in the following manner.

Caves in the limestone rocks have been filled with human bones from which the flesh had previously decayed. These caves were then walled up and left as charnel houses, after the fashion still observed in the Eastern Christian Church. Among the bones they found carved wooden objects that looked as if they had originally served as crosses to mark the tombs…45

Most Christian remains have been destroyed by Muslem extremists. Several books deal with archeological excavations that have been undertaken on the island.

Douglas Botting in Island of the Dragon’s Blood

We found traces of this past Christianity on the island. Not in the beliefs of the people but in the enigmatic stone remains dotted all over the island…There was nothing about these buildings which indicated that they were specifically Christian but they were much larger and more elaborate than the houses of the present-day Bedouin, and it seemed reasonable that they were the work of a more energetic and technically advanced people-in fact, the Christian ancestors of the came-dwellers of today…Here they sat chanting in choir alternately the uncomprehended language [Syriac], repeating three times a day the strange warped vestiges of the faith their ancestors had been taught by Thomas46.

Islamic fanaticism brought to the people of Socotra, as it has in many other places, a great decline. Many structures bearing Christian symbolism have been defaced. Ruins that have been confirmed to be the remains of churches have been excavated by archeologists. Several inscriptions of crosses have been preserved. D. Brian Doe in Socotra: An Archeological Reconnaissance in 1967 reports excavations of churches and notes that

My aim was to visit Kalleesa, a name which here indicates a strong link (ekklesia, Greek) with a Christian Church, in this case presumably a very early one. However, if Kalleesa was a village, the name could have also been vested in the district. One might wonder is the families in this area represent the descendents of those people…who, under the guidance of St. Thomas are thought to have built the first Church in Socotra…47

Researchers have tried to search out ancient Syriac manuscripts on Socotra. In Socotra: Island of Tranquility Brian Doe describes his failed attempt.

At as late a period as when the Portuguese visited Socotra they found on it books, written in the Chaldean character [the East Syrian Syriac script]. I hoped consequently to be able to procure some manuscripts or books that might serve to throw light on the history of the island; but in answer to repeated inquiries regarding such, I was assured that some, which they acknowledge to have possessed they left in their houses when they fled into the hills, and that the Wahhabees, during their visit, destroyed or carried them off. The former is most probable, as these sectaries, in the genuine spirit of Omar’s precepts, value only one book.48


The Demise of the Church of the East on Socotra

According to Bethany world Prayer Center

The Socotrans remained faithful to their [Christian] beliefs as late as 1542, when St. Francis [Xavier] visited them on his way to India. Sadly, by 1680, Christianity was virtually extinct, due to oppression by the Arabs and the neglect of the Nestorian patriarchs to support the mission on the island.49

The patriarchs are not entirely to blame due to the crisis and persecution they were facing at the time they were unable to support the mission. The Socotrans continued devotion to their Christian identity while they had neither ecclesiastical leaders nor religious education is to be admired. Despite the isolation and loss of contact with it’s mother church, the Socotrans remained committed to their Christian identity. It took an armed attack by Muslim fanatics from Arabia to deal the deathblow the Nestorian Church on Socotra.

According to Vitaly V. Naumkin in The Island of the Pheonix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra.

In the Mid-17th century there were still traces of Christianity on Socotra,

according to Vincenzo , and Carmelite monk and Samuel Purchas…In 1800 the

Wahhibis landed on Socotra, destroying the cemetery and the churches in the

coastal area around Hadiba and establishing control over the Muslem ritual by the


Douglas Botting in Island of the Dragon’s Blood states that, “The Bedouin [of Socotra] are well aware that their ancestors were Christian There is no indication of Christian practices at the present day.51

The non-Arab Semitic island of Socotra is now ruled over by the Arabs of Yemen. In historical overviews of the island the disingenuous Yemenis omit any reference to the existence of Christianity on the island. Typically the Arabs not only discount the Socotrans former tenacious Christian faith but also their current distinct ethnic identity. The language is misleadingly described as “Arabian”, (it may be ‘Arabian’ but it is not directly related to Arabic). Yemen Exploration Tours states that, “The inhabitants of the mountains…are nomads and descendants of an old South Arabian tribe speaking still the old Arabian dialect Soqotri related to the Mahri dialect.52” These languages are not dialects of Arabic as implied but distinct Semitic languages. The Island is described as the largest island in the Arab world it would be more accurate to describe it as the largest non-Arabic island in the Arab world. Assyrians, Berbers and Kurds receive similar treatment in other parts of the Arab world. These ethnic minorities suffer their culture denigrated, their historical and cultural contributions ignored and their very existence denied. The cultures of the indigenous peoples are under serious threat in these lands. Also Christian artifacts that are discovered may be vandalized by Muslim fanatics. We should remember the fate of pre-Islamic antiquities in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This is why we must document our history so we can at least preserve records of it before Islamic extremists attempt to erase the memories. The Assyrians should begin a museum that documents the achievements of the Church of the East to serve this purpose.



Currently Yemen is very welcoming to all scientists interested in doing field work on Socotra and may also welcome an Assyrian expedition, but the expedition if it ever sets off should be discreet and thorough in its documentation53. The prospects of finding additional remains are slim. Botting states

In 1800 the fanatical and puritanical south Arabian tribe, the Wahabees, attacked Socotra, destroyed tombs, churches, and graveyards on the coast around Hadibo, and terrified the Bedouin into formally accepting the Mohammedan faith54.

After his expedition in 1880 Professor Balfour declared

What has been done by this expedition is but a fragment of what is there to be accomplished…It happens that on this island within but three weeks’ journey from England, there dwells a people whose origin is lost in myth, and of whose speech the true relations are undetermined, who according to received reports, having obtained some degree of civilization and embraced Christianity have gone back from their advance position to the lower state in which we now find them and thus present to us a feature of great interest to the history of mankind. There is now on Socotra alone a wealth of material for explanation and investigation, which would amply reward the work of another expedition55.

Though technological advances have reduced travel time drastically, his words hold true today, much work remains to be done on Socotra. Recently environmentalists, spelunkers, biologist, biochemists, algologists, ichthyologists, ethnologists, botanists, ornithologists, philologists and speleologists have descended on Socotra for various scientific pursuits. Assyrians should also support research to find and preserve relics from the past of the Church of the East.


Special Thanks

Special thanks to Johanna Sidey of the World conservation Monitoring Center, Dr. Robert A. Mill of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland and Bette Craig of the Inter-library Loan Office of Sam Houston State University.




1 Matthew 28:19 “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and

of the Holy Spirit , teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded thee.” See also Mark 16:15-

18 and Acts of the Apostles1:8. Scripture taken from The Holy Bible: 21st Century King James Version (KJV21)

Copyright 1994 Duel Enterprises, Inc. Gary , SD 57237, and used by permission.

2 Concerning the missionary accomplishments of the Assyrian Church see Marin Palmer The Jesus Sutras:

Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity (Ballatine Wellspring, New York 2001) This is a good

collection of Assyrian Christian texts discovered in China and Central Asia. It is useful but I take offense at Mr.

Palmer calling the holy Church of the East “Taoist Christian”. Mr. Palmer attempts to take a radical departure from

orthodoxy based on his misinterpretations of these texts. I will explore the ‘Jesus Sutras’ and the Assyrian Church in

China and its contributions in an upcoming paper.

3 Assyrians speak Neo-Aramaic today which is sometimes called Syriac yet distinct from Classical Syriac of Edessa.

According to S. G. Pothan in The Syrian Christians “Aramaic was the language of Jesus Christ and his apostles.

Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic and became the language of the mother church of Persia.” S. G. Pothan The Syrian

Christians of Kerala (Asia Publishing Company, New York 1963) p. 36 For more information about the Syriac

Christian heritage see: W. Stewart McCullough A Short History of Syriac Christianity to the Rise of Islam (Scholars

Press, Chiro, CA 1982) and also Sebastian P. Brock and David G. K. Taylor The Hidden Pearl: The Syrian

Orthodox Church and its Ancient Aramaic Heritage Volume I: the Ancient Aramaic Heritage Volume II: The Heirs

of the Ancient Aramaic Heritage Volume III At the Turn of the Third Millennium , the Syrian Orthodox Witness

(Trans World film, Italia, 2001) accompanied with 3 videotapes.

4 For the issues concerning the origin of the Assyrian Church and of the Peshitta Bible see Han J.W. Drijvers “Facts

and Problems in Early Syriac Speaking Christianity” East of Antioch: Studies in Early Syriac Christianity (Variorum

Reprints, London 1984) p. 157-175 M. P. Weitzman The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: An Introduction

(Cambridge University Press) George Howard trans. The Teaching of Addai (Scholars Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan,


5 Sebastian Brock “Introduction to Syriac Studies” J. H. Eaton, Ed. Horizons in Semitic Studies: Articles For the

Student (University of Birmingham 1980) p.4-5.

6 The Roman Catholic pope cleared the Assyrian Church of the heresy libel in “Common Christological Declaration

Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East” in November 11, 1994 presented in The

Messenger: The Official Publication of the Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East Issue Number 11 March 31,

  1. However, the theology of the Assyrian Church was declared orthodox by the western church several times in

the past. According to Samuel Hugh Moffett this occurred during the times of Acacius (485-496 AD), Mar Aba

(early 6th century), Yeshuyab (early 7th century) and during Rabban Sauma the Mongol’s delegation to Europe in

  1. It should also be noted that Nestorius declared the Tomeof Pope Leo as an expression of his own position.

Samuel Hugh Moffett A History of Christianity in Asia Volume I: Beginnings to 1500 (Harper San Francisco 1992)

  1. 196,219,256 & 434.

7 Ian Gillman and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit Christians in Asia before 1500 (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor,

Michigan1999) p.81.

8 According to The Acts of Thomas, after embarking by ship to India Thomas’ boat stops at Andrapolis, presumably

an island in route. J. K. Elliot The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in

English Translation (Claredon Press, Oxford 1993) p. 488-454.

9 S. G. Pothan The Syrian Christians of Kerala (Asia Publishing Company, New York 1963) p.29.

10 G. W. B. Huntingform ed. Trans. The Periplus of the Eryphraean Sea (The Hakluyt Society, London, 1980) p.103.

11 Vialy V. Naumkin Island of the Pheonix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra (Ithaca Press 1993) p.


12 Tim Severin “In the Wake of Sinbad” National Geographic July 1982 p.2-40.

13 Charles K. Moser “The Isle of Frankincense” National Geographic March 1918 p. 267-278.

14 Shipbuilding and Navigation in Ancient India .

15 History of Aloe Vera .

16 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited, London, 1992) p.9.

17 Samuel Hugh Moffett A History of Christianity in Asia (Harper San Francisco 1992) p.267.

18 S. G. Pothan The Syrian Christians of Kerala (Asia Publishing Company, New York 1963) p.27.

19 Ibid.

20 Ronald Latham Trans. The Travels of Marco Polo (Penguin books, London, 1958) p. 296-298.

21 Vialy V. Naumkin Island of the Pheonix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra (Ithaca Press 1993)


22 Vialy V. Naumkin Island of the Pheonix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra (Ithaca Press 1993)


23 S. G. Pothan The Syrian Christians of Kerala (Asia Publishing Company, New York 1963) p.29.

24 Francis M. Rogers The Quest for Eastern Christians: Travels and Rumor in the Age of Discovery (University of

Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 1962) p.169.

25 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited, 1992) p.136-144.

26 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited) 1992) p. 137.

27 Thomas J. Abercrombie “Ibn Battuta: Prince of Travelers” National Geographic December 1991 P. 5-49.

28 Ibraham Al-Ashmawi & Abdul Wali Al-Muthadi “Socotra: Island of Dreams” Tiaz Magazine No. 796. March

19,1998 Concerning the British presence on

Socotra, John Farrar served in the British Royal Air Force and Army Expedition on the island during 1964-1965 and

has created a wonderful website dedicated to Socotra and its people at .

29 Diccon Alexander and Anthony Miller “Socotra’s Misty Future” New Scientist Vol. 147 No. 1988 29 July 1995 p.

32-35 Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh The Flora of the Arabian Peninsula and

Socotra .

30 Personal correspondence of the author dated 2/23/1996.

31 From book description. Soqotra: Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Soqotra Island: Present and

Future (United Nations, New York 1998).

32 Socotra Island xeric shrublands (AT1318)

33 Socotran Karst Project: Flemish Caving Expeditions For other interesting creatures see Simon Aspinall

International Research on Socotran Cormorants

34 Diccon Alexander and Anthony Miller “Socotra’s Misty Future” New Scientist Vol. 147 No. 1988 29 July 1995 p.


35 Ibid.

36 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited, London, 1992) p.5.

37 A. G. Miller and T. A.Cope Flora of the Arabian Peninsula and Socotra Volume I (Edinburg University Press in

association with Royal Botanic Gardin Edinburg, Royal Botnaic Gardens, Kew, 1996) p.7,11.

38 AYTTA .

39 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958) p.22-23.

40 The Enchanted Island: Socotra Reveals Its Secrets .

41 Yemen Exploration tours: Socotra .

42 Marion Kaplan “Twilight of the Arab Dhow” National Geographic September 1974 p. 330-351.

43 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958) p. 215.

44 M. A. AL-Dailami “Socotra: the Forgotten Diamond of Yemen” World Magazine No. 609 12 Feb 1998 .

45 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited, London, 1992) p.33.

46 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958) p. 216.

47 D. Brian Doe Socotra: An Archeological Reconnaissance in 1967 (Field Research Projects, Miami, Florida 1970)


48 Brian Doe Socotra: Island of Tranquillity (Immel Publishing Limited, London, 1992) p.214.

49 “The Socotran of Yemen” .

50 Vialy V. Naumkin Island of the Pheonix: An Ethnographic Study of the People of Socotra (Ithaca Press 1993)

Samuel Purchas in 1625 wrote Purchas, His Pilgrims, a collection of travel narratives. In it he mentions William

Rubrucks travels among the Nestorians in Mongolia as well as the accounts of the Nestorians of Socotra..

51 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958) p. 214.

52 Yemen Exploration Tours Also in a recent article on Socotra Saleh

Abdulbaqi seems incredulous towards the possibility that Christianity was ever known on the island and cynically

makes a true statement, “This issue still requires more studies”. The condescending attitude towards non-Arabs also

appears in his comment, “Despite the spread of education in the island, Socotri unique language is still most used by

its inhabitants.” Using a non-Arabic language such as Soqotri or Assyrian must mean one is uneducated! This shows

that in some Arab countries ‘education’ is used as a tool of cultural genocide. Saleh Abdulhaqi “Socotra: The Island

of Wonders” Yemen Times 5 November 2001, Vol. XI .

53 Yemen does have many ancient ruins, unique architecture, and a past of glorious civilizations, such as that of the

Biblical Queen of Sheba. The Yemenites are a proud and hospitable people who are eager to share their fascinating

heritage with the rest of the world. On the other hand there are serious terrorist threats in Yemen and practically the

entire population is addicted to a drug called qat. A bulk of the population spends most of the day procuring large

quantities of qat which they chew until they reach the drug-induced stupor. Nevertheless, a visit to Yemen would be

a rewarding experience to a cautious and intrepid traveler.

54 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958)p.125 Unfortunately the

Wahibis are still around and are particularly active in Saudi Arabia. They are behind many of the acts of religious

terror carried out in the name of Islam in many parts of the world today from the Philippines to the United States.

55 Douglas Botting Island of the Dragon’s Blood (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1958) p.23.

Planting the Church of the East In Beth Kokheh

Philimon Darmo


We have two important historical facts which confirm the founding of the Church of the East in the Southern region of Beth Nahrain (Mesopotamia), in Babylon during the early years of the spread of Christianity.


  1. The first letter written by St. Peter[1] the Apostle

We read the first proof in the New Testament, at the end of St. Peter’s first letter where he wrote:

“The chosen church which is at Babylon and Mark, my son, salutes you.” (5: 13)[2]

When reading this plainly worded passage from St. Peter’s first letter, the reader is entitled to conclude that St. Peter wrote his letter from Babylon. However, a number of biblical scholars and academics say that this interpretation of this biblical passage is incorrect and is no more than a popular tradition that has had its roots and has evolved in the teachings of the Church of the East over the past two thousand years. They further add that the interpretation is not based on a historical fact, and that St. Peter went straight from Antioch to Rome where a few years later he received the crown of martyrdom between the years of 64 and 68 AD, and that he at no time went to the Church of the East territory in Bet Nahrain. These interpreters of the Bible say that the word ‘Babylon’, which St. Peter used in this particular passage of his letter, referred symbolically to the city of Rome, a city which at the time was known for its evil and ungodliness, just as the ancient city of Babylon had been depicted in the Old Testament.

There are many who view this interpretation as strange and somewhat fanciful, because St. Peter clearly wrote in his letter: “The chosen church which is at Babylon…” which clearly specifies the geographical location of the Church from where the greetings were conveyed.

Even if we, for one moment, think that St. Peter did not physically go to our forefathers’ homeland in Bet Nahrain, it is not beyond the realm of probability that he may have received a letter from a Church leader or from a faithful member of the Church of East residing in Babylon in which the sender would have asked St. Peter to convey their greetings to their brothers in Christianity who resided in various provinces of the Roman Empire which at that time were located in what is now modern Turkey.

It is pleasing to note that the probability of St. Peter’s journey to Babylon in Beth Nahrain has not been completely dismissed by all biblical scholars and academics. For example, Dr. J. Barton Payne, A.B., M.A., B.D., Th.M., Ph.D., Late Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri USA, wrote in Young’s Bible Dictionary[3]:

“When Peter fled from Herod Agrippa I in AD 44 (Acts 12:17) he may have removed to Babylon (Pet. 5:13), unless this last is merely a symbolic name for Rome as the corresponding harlot-city of that day (compare Rev. 17:3-6). (J.B.P.)”[4]


  1. The Church of Beth Kokheh

The second proof relates to Mar ( ܡܵܪܝ – Syriac for ‘my lord’, but generally translated into English as ‘Saint’) Mari’s visit, during the second half of the first century of Christianity, to the city of Seleucia[5] (Sliq or Saliq – ܣܠܝܼܩ\ܣܵܠܝܼܩ in Syriac) situated on the Western side of the River Tigris in Southern Bet Nahrain. Mar Mari was one of the disciples of Mar Addai (also known as St. Thaddeus). It was Mar Addai who sent Mar Mari from Edessa to Bet Nahrain.

The book of Acts of Mar Mari[6] teaches us that Mar Mari spent some time in the Kingdom of Urhai (Edessa). He left Urhai, on instructions from his teacher Mar Addai, and headed to Nisibin and then on to Adiabene (Arbil of present day). He continued his journey southwards through Beth Garmai (situated between the Little Zab and Diyala rivers and centred around Karkha Beth Slokh which is Kirkuk of the present time) until he and his companions reached the city of Saliq[7] on the River Tigris in Babylon.

At the beginning Mar Mari and his companions did not get a friendly reception from the pagan citizens of the city. A group of the citizens crossed the River Tigris and went straight to King Artabanus IV[8] of Parthia’s palace in Qtispon[9] (or Ctesiphon) and complained about these strange intruders in their midst.

King Artabanus wanted to know how true was the new faith which Mar Mari and his companions were preaching to his citizens. The King asked Mar Mari to cure his sister who was suffering from the dreadful leprosy. Mar Mari cured the King’s sister. The King was duly impressed with this and other miracles that Mar Mari performed in the locality. The King rewarded Mar Mari with a piece of land in the area called Kokheh which was located to west of his capital Qtispon. This piece of land already had a pagan temple on it which Mar Mari duly converted into a small Church and which became known as the Church of Kokheh throughout the history of the Church of the East.

The word ‘Kokheh’ – ܟܘܼܟ݂ܹ̈ܐ – is the plural for ‘kokha’[10] ܟܘܼܟ݂ܵܐwhich means a hut normally built from clay or cane or from twigs. That area contained a number of huts where the King’s servants and farmers lived.

The small Church of Kokheh was enlarged and modified as years went by, especially during the reign of Catholicos Mar Awa the Great ܡܵܪܝ ܐܵܒ݂ܵܐ ܪܲܒܵܐ (552 – 540).

Until about the end of the first century AD, Kokheh was located on the eastern side of the River Tigris, not far from Qtispon. However, a change in the course of the river occurred between the years 79 and 117 AD which altered the flow of the river. The river changed its course eastwards for a short distance and ended up cutting off the suburb of Kokheh from the city of Qtispon. This meant that Kokheh was now located on the Western side of the river, and all that now separated it from the city of Saliq was the dried up bed of the river before it shifted its course eastwards.


The Spread of Church of the East under the Sassanids

When the Sassanid King Ardashir I (224 – 241 AD) defeated the Parthian rulers in the year 224 and adopted the city of Qtispon as his capital, he respected the Christian followers of the Church of the East which had spread in that region. He included Beth Kokheh as a part or suburb of his capital Qtispon. He at the same time renewed and rebuilt Saliq which had been destroyed by the Romans in 165 AD and changed its name to ‘Weh Ardashir’ which means Ardashir’s good deed.

The cities of Saliq and Qtispon were joined together by two rivers. These two historical cities, together with a few other cities in the neighbourhood, were later given the collective name of Al Mada’in المدائن (Cities). Al Mada’in is the plural of المدينة (city).

The Church of the East was not only spread in the Saliq Qtispon region during those early centuries of Christian era. History teaches us that at the beginning of the third century AD the Church of the East had also centres in Adiabene (Arbel of present day), and in Karkha D’Bet Sloq (Kirkuk of the present day), and in Nisibin and also in Beth Lappat (presently located in Khuzestan in South/West Iran).


Autonomy of the Church of the East during the early Centuries

There was only one Christian Church in the early centuries of Christianity. The Church of the East used to receive guidance from the Church in Antioch or Antakya which was located within the sphere of the Roman Empire. All of the bishops of the Church of the East used to be consecrated by the Patriarch in Antioch. However, communications between the Church of the East, which was spread to the east of the Roman Empire and within the boundaries of the Persian Empire (ruled by the Parthians and later by the Sassanids), and the Church Fathers in Antioch, which fell within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, were at times difficult and dangerous due to the political situation of that era as well as the wars and disagreements that happening between the Roman and Persian rulers. This situation created the necessity for the Church of the East to be given a certain amount of autonomy. Thus, by the end of the third century the bishop of the Church of the East in Saliq Qtispon, or Bet Kokheh, was granted the title Catholicos (الجاثليق in Arabic which means general, universal) and also the administrative power over the Church affairs in the East as well as the power to consecrate bishops.


The Catholicos of the Church of the East invited to the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD

The close ties that existed between the Church of the East and the Christian Church in the Roman Empire are well recorded in The Concise Collection of Synodical Canons which was compiled in early 14th century by Mar Audisho Bar Brikha, Metropolitan of the Church of the East, diocese of Nisibin and Armenia, who died in 1318.

We read on page 22 of the handwritten Classical Syriac edition of the book King Constantine, the Roman Emperor, sent a letter in about 324 AD to all of the Bishops in the world inviting them to a Council which was to be held in Nicea (ܢܝܼܩܝܼܵܐ in Syriac) in the region of Betonia[11].

One of the bishops who received the Emperor Constantine’s invitation was Mar Shimun Bar Sabba’eh, Catholicos of the Church of the East in Saliq Qtispon or Beth Kokheh. Mar Shimun Bar Sabba’eh could not go the Council due to the disturbances that prevailed in the neighbouring lands. But he wrote to the Emperor Constantine saying:

“If it was not for fear from the heathens who are thirsty for our blood, I very much wanted to attend the Council in order to be blessed by the sacred Council and by your victorious kingdom. However, I shall be happy to abide by all decisions made by the Council…”

The Council of Nicea did convene in 325 AD and between 270 and 318 bishops were able to attend. Only five of the attendees came from the Western regions. The rest came from the lands that were situated to the east of the Mediterranean Sea.


Separation of the Church of the East from the Western Church

The first attempt at establishing the Church of the East as independent from the Church in the West happened in the Synod of Mar Iskhaq (Isaac) Catholicos which was convened in the Church of Kokheh in Saliq Qtispon in 410 AD.

The Synod was organised with the help of Bishop Marutha of Maipherqat[12] who brought with him letters from the Church fathers in the West. One of the letters was for Mar Iskhaq Catholicos and another letter was for the Persian King Yazdegerd I. Mar Marutha and Mar Iskhaq went to see the King to seek royal permission to invite all of the bishops of the Church of the East in Beth Nahrain and Persia to attend a Synod in the Church at Beth Kokheh in Saliq Qtispon. Mar Marutha was a skilled physician and had managed to gain the King’s favour through medical services he had provided to the King. The King gave his permission to go ahead and convene the Synod.

Forty bishops of the Church of the East attended the first such Synod held in the East. Mar Marutha, the ambassador of the Church in the West, was also present at the Synod which became known as the Synod of Mar Iskhaq. A set of canons, which included a number which Mar Marutha brought with him from the Western fathers, were enacted by the Synod[13]. It was also at this Synod where the creed of Nicea was adopted by the Church of the East.

Shortly after the Church of the East gained its independence and autonomy, the Church began sending missions to spread the message of Christianity in the various regions in the Persian Empire and in Central Asia and China, to the Gulf region, Yemen and various corners of the Arabian Peninsula.


Beth Nahrain under Arab Muslims

Beth Nahrain fell under the rule of Arab Muslims after the battle of Al Qadesiya[14] which was fought in the year 636 between the Arab Muslim army and the Sassanid Persian army. Following this historical battle, Beth Nahrain was governed by the Umayyad Caliphate from the city of Damascus in Syria till the year 750 when the Abbasid dynasty of caliphs took over and moved the centre of power to Iraq. The Abbasid kings set up their initial capital in Kupha until their new capital of Baghdad was built in 762.

The Church of the East continued to prosper and expand during the first three centuries of Islam, even though the number of its followers continued to drop as a result of the harsh rules[15] enacted for non-Muslims which consequently forced many Christians to convert to Islam. For example, Mar Temateous I (Timothy) who occupied the Patriarchal See of the Church of the East for 43 years (from 780 to 823) worked under five different caliphs and maintained cordial relations with each one of them. During his Patriarchate the Church of the East had 230 dioceses and 27 Metropolitans (Archbishops), including a new bishop for Yemen.


What became of the Church of Beth Kokheh

The name of the Church of Beth Kokheh is mentioned many times in the history of the Church of the East. The Church was the main centre for the Catholicos of the Church who was later given the title of Patriarch. In the year 544 Mar Awa Gabbarah (the Great) decreed that the consecration of a Catholicos would not be legitimate unless the consecrations ceremonies were conducted in the Church of Beth Kokheh.

As mentioned earlier in this paper, the Church was built by Mar Mari in about the year 100 AD. It was renovated and enlarged and rebuilt several times over the years and centuries. The Church remained the main centre of the See of the Catholicos, and later of the Patriarch, until the year 780 when Mar Temateous I moved the Patriarchal See from Saliq Qtispon to the new city of Baghdad. However, the great Church of Beth Kokheh retained its revered sanctity. Even though the Patriarchal See moved to the city of Baghdad in 780, the Church of Beth Kokheh retained its status as the place for the consecration of the Catholicos Patriarch. It also remained the venue for a number of Church Synods. Its holy grounds contained the graves of 24 Catholicoses, the first of whom was Mar Abris (121 – 137) and the last one was Mar Khnaneshoo II (774 – 779) in the year 779.

The last Patriarch to be consecrated in the Great Church of Beth Kokheh was Mar Temateous II (1318 – 1328).

In the year 2000 the Assyrian Church of the East conducted a church service in the approximate location of the Church of Kokheh, as part of the celebrations conducted by all of the Eastern Churches to welcome the third millennium of Christianity.

Of the few ruins of the Saliq Qtispon which remain standing to this day is the Tak-i-Kisra, or Arch of Kisra (ancient Qtispon) at Salman Pak which is located approximately 25 kilometres to the south of the city of Baghdad. The shape of this historical arch has been incorporated into the logo of the magazine Church of Beth Kokheh as a symbol of the historic spot that Saliq Qtispon and Kokheh hold in the glorious history of the Assyrian Church of the East.



  1. The Old and New Testaments – in English and Classical Syriac
  2. Young’s Bible Dictionary, General Editor Dr. G. Douglas Young, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois USA 1984
  3. Christianity in Iraq, Suha Rassam – Gracewing UK 2006
  4. A number of the issues of the magazine نجم المشرق (Star of the East) which was published in Arabic by the Chaldean Church Patriarchate in Baghdad, Iraq in the 1990s. The various issues of this valuable magazine contained a number of articles by the celebrated and renowned author and historian of the Church of the East, Father Alber Aboona. The articles were taken from Father Aboona’s book تاريح الكنتسة السريانية الشرقيت (The History of the Syrian Church of the East) which was published in 3 volumes by the Librairie Orientale (المكتبة الشرقية) in Beirut, Lebanon
  5. The Concise Collection of Synodical Canons by Mar Audisho Bar Brikha – the handwritten Syriac edition.
  6. The History of the Syrian Church of the East – Volume One: during the era of the Sassanid Kings   ܟܬܵܒ݂ܵܐ ܕܡܲܟ݂ܬܒ݂ܵܢܘܼܬ ܙܲܒ݂ܢܹ̈ܐ ܕܥܹܕܬܵܐ ܡܲܕܢܚܵܝܬܵܐ ܕܣܘܼܪ̈ܝܵܝܹܐ – ܒܲܡܕܲܒܪܵܢܘܼܬܵܐ ܕܩܵܬܘܿܠܝܼܩܹ̈ܐ ܕܲܣܠܝܼܩ ܘܲܩܛܝܼܣܦܘܿܢ – ܐܲܨܲܚܬܵܐ ܩܲܕܡܵܝܬܵܐ: ܒܕܵܪܹ̈ܐ ܕܫܘܼܠܛܵܢܵܐ ܕܡܲܠܟܹ̈ܐ ܣܲܣܲܢܵܝܹ̈ܐ – ܐܸܬܚܬܸܡ ܒܲܡܕܝܼܢ݇ܬܵܐ ܕܐܘܿܪܡܝܼ ܒܡܲܛܒܲܥܬܵܐ ܕܲܫܠܝܼܚܹ̈ܐ ܕܐܲܪܟܐܲܦܸܣܩܘܿܦܵܐ ܕܟܲܢܬܸܪܒܘܿܪܝܼ ܒܫܲܢ݇ܬܵܐ ܡܫܝܼܚܵܝܬܵܐ ܐܨܙ 1907.

This volume was published in the vernacular Syriac in 1907 in Ormi by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Assyrian Mission.

  1. A book in the Arabic language called: السريان – الاسم الحقيقي للاراميين والاشوريين والكلدان – موفق نيسكو – بيسان للنشر والتوزيع والاعلام, بيروت لبنان – 2012

(Al Siryan – The true name for the Arameans and Assyrians and Chaldeans – by Muwafaq Nisko, published by Bissan Bookshop in Beirut, Lebanon in 2012).




The ruins of Tak-i-Kisra at Salman Pak, approximately 25 kilometres to the south of the city of Baghdad




ܢܢܨܵܒ݂ܬܵܐ ܕܥܹܕܬܵܐ ܕܡܲܕܢܚܵܐ ܓܵܘ ܟܘܼܟܹ̈ܐ

This map of Iraq shows the approximate location of Saliq, Qtispon and Kokheh




[1] Also called Simon – see Mathew 10:2

[2] Taken from Holy Bible, From Ancient Eastern Manuscripts, Containing the Old and New Testaments Translated from the Peshitta, The Authorised Bible of the Church of the East, by George M. Lamsa,– Published by A. J. Holman Company, Philadelphia USA 1967.

The Peshitta (from the Syriac word ܦܫܝܼܛܬܵܐ which means simple, straight) is the Classical Syriac version of the Bible which was translated from the Hebrew in the 2nd Century AD. By the 5th century AD it became the standard bible among numerous divisions of the Syriac Christianity. Some New Testament scholars argue that Aramaic, which later became widely known as Syriac, was the original language in which portions of the New Testament were written (see Overview to Leiden Peshitta on the Logos Bible Software website).

[3] Young’s Bible Dictionary was published in 1984 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois USA. Its General Editor was Dr. G. Douglas Young, S.T.M., Ph.D Institute of Holy Land Studies, Jerusalem.

[4] See page 77 of Young’s Bible Dictionary.

[5] The ancient city of Seleucia (I have referred to it as ‘Saliq’ as most members of the Church of the East know it) was situated on the Western side of the river Tigris. It was modernised and expanded by Seleucus I Nicator, one of the Alexander the Great’s officers. He ruled over the Seleucid Empire from 311 BC to 280 BC. A few years later he moved his capital to Antioch in Syria, but Seleucia remained an important cultural and trade centre. During the third and second centuries BC, its fame matched that of Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria.

[6] The Acts of Mar Mari is a book which records the itinerary and preaching of Mar Mari in Mesopotamia until he reached Kokheh which ended up being the patriarchal seat of the Church of the East for many centuries. A copy of the book, which contains the Acts of Mar Mari in Syriac and a relevant account from Kitab al-Majdal in Arabic, both of which have been translated into English by Professor Amir Harrak (who was born and raised in Mosul, in the vicinity of Nineveh in Bet Nahrain and teaches at the University of Toronto, Canada) can be obtained on the internet.

[7] People within the Church of the East community often use the two names of Saliq and Qtispon joined together as ܣܵܠܝܼܩ ܘܲܩܛܝܼܣܦܘܿܢ (Saliq and Qtispon). The two cities are also referred to as ܡܕܝ̈ܢܵܬ̈ܐ ܩܵܬܘܿܠܝܼܩܝܼ (the cities forming the See of the Catholicos).

[8] A list of Parthian kings printed in the scholarly book The Cambridge History of Iran contains the name of a king called Artabanus IV of Parthia who ruled from 80 to 81 AD. This confirms that Mar Mari and his colleagues arrived in the region at around the same time.

[9] Qtispon or Ctesiphon was also already an ancient city at that time. Some biblical scholars and historians say that Qtispon was first mentioned in history in the Old Testament, Book of Ezra (Ezra 8:17) under the name Casiphia. The Book of Ezra was written sometime between 460 BC and 440 BC. The Armenians had the name ‘Tizbon’ for Qtispon.

[10] The classical Syriac word for singular Kokha is ܟܘܼܪܚܵܐ with the plural being ܟܘܼܪ̈ܚܹܐ.

[11] The present day town of Iznik situated in North West of Turkey.

[12] The city of Maipherqat was located in the Roman Empire between Syria and Armenia.

[13] Jean-Baptiste Chabot, a leading French Syriac scholar, published in 1902 in Paris a volume which included the proceedings of the first 13 Synods held by the Church of the East from the year 410 to 775, including the Synod of Mar Iskhaq held in 410 AD. The volume was titled Synodicon Orientale, copies of which can be obtained from various sources including Atour Publications. The volume is an important source of the history of the Church of the East during those early centuries of Christianity.

[14]Al Qadesiya is a historical city in southern Beth Nahrain located southwest of al-Hillah and al-Kūfah in Iraq.

[15] Rules enacted in accordance to the Islamic Sharia laws that applied to non-Muslims (referred to as the Al-Dhimma – people enjoying the protection, which referred mainly to Christians and Jews).

Christ “The Hostage”: A Theme in the East Syriac Liturgical Tradition and its Origins

Dr Sebastian Brock

This article originally appeared in Logos. Festschrift fur Luise Abramowski, ed. H.C. Brennecke, E.L. Gramsuck, and C. Markschies (= Beiheft, ZNTW 67). Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1993Sebastian P. Brock is widely acknowledged as the foremost and most influential academic in the field of Syriac language today. Dr Brock is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute and a Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. Dr Brock completed his BA degree at the University of Cambridge, and a DPhil at the University of Oxford. He has been a prolific authour in the field of Syriac studies and his numerous publications are widely available.

Sebastian P. Brock is widely acknowledged as the foremost and most influential academic in the field of Syriac language today. Dr Brock is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute and a Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. Dr Brock completed his BA degree at the University of Cambridge, and a DPhil at the University of Oxford. He has been a prolific authour in the field of Syriac studies and his numerous publications are widely available.

On a number of occasions in the East Syriac liturgical book known as the hudra (approximately a Festal Hymnary) one encounters passages which speak of “the hostage from our race” (hmayrā d-men gensan), where the reference is to the “homo assumptus”1. Thus in two passages which each recur several times we have:2

“O Lord, … Who in Your compassion lowered Yourself to Your flock, and Who, out of Your love, took from our race a peace hostage (hmayrā d-Šaynā, lit. hostage of peace) and made Him a choice for Yourself for the purpose of Your economy.”


“Blessed is the Good One … (Who) came from heaven for our salvation and took from our mortal race a hostage for His3 glory, and He granted Him to become leader and head.”

The phraseology is of course entirely in harmony with the East Syriac christological tradition with its sharply diphysite character. As it happens, in both the passages quoted the wording has been altered in the Chaldean (Eastern Rite Catholic) edition of the hudra by P. Bedjan4 and in the second one the term “hostage” has been removed altogether, reading “… and took human nature from our race and united it with His qnōmā, and He became leader and head.” Bedjan’s edition excises “hostage” on two further occasions,5 but in others it has been left; his hesitance in dealing with such phraseology in fact turns out to have been unnecessary, for (as we shall see) it can be traced back to roots respected by Chalcedonian as wel as by strictly East Syrian tradition. Before turning to these roots, however, it will be important to look at the wider background of the term “hmayrā,” or “hostage.”

Syriac “hmayrā” is a loanword from Greek ὃμηροϚ, and the borrowing must have taken place very early in the history of Classical Syriac for it already features a number of times in the Peshitta Old Testament.6 Although by no means a common word, it occurs in native Syriac writers of all periods7 and still features in two recent dictionaries of Syrian Orthodox provenance, thus representing twentieth-century usage.8

Greek ὃμηροϚ and Syriac “hmayrā” started out with entirely different connotations from those that the term “hostage” has acquired in the present century, above all in the light of events of recent years in the Middle East. In antiquity9 the hostage was not seize by violence, but was handed over by one side to another as a pledge that the first side would honour an agreement into which it had entered.10 Very often the relationship between the two sides would be that of a vassal kingdom and an imperial power (i.e.m in late antiquity, Roman or Sasanian), but on occasion the two sides might be equals who exchange hostages (as happened after the peace treaty between Persia and Rome in 363.)11

Where there is imparity in the status of the two parties (and this is of course the model behind the theological use of the imagery) the hostage concerned would be selected, mostly from among younger members of the royal family, by the hostage-giving side;12 furthermore (and again in total contrast to modern times) the hostage was well treated13, and very often the hostage would benefit from an education that would probably be far superior to what he might have received at home.14 The results of such an education can be observed in the pretentious verse epigram which Antonius, son of Abgar IX., put on the tombstone of his brother who had died in Rome:15 we learn from Dio Cassius16 that Abgar IX. had been detained in Rome by Caracalla, and though Dio does not specify that his two sons were kept there as hostages, it seems likely that this was the case, given the evidently rather tense relationship between Rome and the Kingdom of Osrhoene at the time (in 213 Edessa was made into a colonia).17

“Hmayrā” in the literal sense occurs a number of times in surviving Syriac literature. Aphrahat speaks of Hezekiah’s children being “led off as hostages to the King of Babylon” (sic)18; likewise Daniel “was led off as a hostage on behalf of his people”.19 Elsewhere, referring to events in the fourth century AD, we hear of daughter of a king of Armenia held “in hostage” (ba-hmayrā) at some stronghold in Media who nevertheless managed to steal the corpse of the martyr Aqqebshma20, while the so-called “Julian Romance” mentions Roman hostages which the Persians took in the peace settlement of 363.21 Temporary hostages, taken from Edessan nobility by Kawad a hundred and forty years later, are mentioned in the Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite.22 A particularly instructive passage in the Chronicon ad annum 123423 tells how, at the end of the siege of Constantinople in 626, the Persians “sent to heraklios and made an accord and peace with him, and they gave him hostages to confirm the agreement that had taken place between them, the hostages being selected by the emporor from among the children and brothers of the Persians, among whom was also the son of Shahbaraz.” Here, remarkably, the normal pattern of Byzantine-Sasanian parity is evidently broken, and the hostages are selected by the receiving party.

More of direct interest for the background of “hmayrā” in a christological context are various metaphorical uses of the term. In Ephrem the children killed by Herod are “slain hostages, clothed in symbols of the killing of the Slain King”;24 probably taking his cue from this passage Narsai says that “the children became, through their slaughter, peace hostages, and the King in His love received them as firstfruit.”25 Dead children are likewise referred to as “hostages” by Jacob of Serugh;26 in this case they are Job’s, and Jacob has Job rebut Satan with the words “Blessed is (God) who has taken off for Himself ten hostages from His householder, and now they are looked after by Him, for He is going to make them live in His royal palace.” In another memra by Jacob27 we find Abraham telling Isaac, as he prepares to sacrifice him, “I am going to send you off as a hostage to the great King; set off, and wait for me in the Kingdom on high until I come myself.”

In these passages the hostages’ future home at the court of the heavenly King is clearly seen as being to their own advantage, as well as to that of those who provide them. The paradox of the hostages being killed, or dead, no doubt has its roots in the paradox of the Christian proclamation of the “Slain King.” The connection between hostages and death in these literary uses of the metaphor also turns up in a somewhat different context, where the hostages instead escape from death. In his homily on Enoch and Elijah Narsai says of Enoch that “the Lord of the universe took him as a peace hostage and preserved him in life in order that he might prolclaim life to the members of his race.”28 Similarly, in another of his homilies Narsai states that God took Enoch and Elijah as “hostages of love, for the peace of humanity; and as long as they are in the abode of life our hope is assured.”29 It may well be that Cyrus of Edessa had this passage in mind when he said concerning Elijah “that he would be taken from this temporal abode as a hostage of immortal life, and he would be preserved in the spiritual treasury as a pledge (rahbōnā, ὰρραβών) of the resurrection.”30 “Hostage” in the context of escape from death is also used in connection with the three people whom Christ raised from the dead; thus Narsai writes that Christ “led off three hostages from Death, the corruptor of humanity, until He should demand from him the entire creation, at the end of time.”31

The last passage is very close to another context in which Death is envisaged as handling over a hostage to Christ. In his series of poems on the Descent of Christ to Sheol Ephrem speaks of Death as finally offering to hand over Adam as a hostage for Christ to take off to His kingdom:32

(Death Speaks) “O Jesus the King, accept my petition,

and with my petition take for Yourself a hostage:

lead off Adam as a noble hostage,

for in him are buried all the dead, just as, when I received him,

all the living were hidden in him.

As a first hostage I have given You the body of Adam;

ascend now, and reign over all:

when I hear Your clarion-call

I will bring out the dead with my own hands, for Your advent.”

A variation on the same theme is found in Ephrem’s Sermo de Domino Nostro XXV: “The heavenly King put on armour of humility and vanquished the embittered one, leading off from him, as a hostage, word of good conduct.”

The transition from Adam as the hostage led off by Christ from Death to the “body of Adam” which the divine Word “put on” is surprisingly enough provided by an archaic Syrian Orthodox baptismal ordo, where in a long series of adjurations, the priest addresses Satan as follows:33

“I adjure you by Him who put on the body of Adam, and ascended and sat at the right hand of Him who sent Him, and He made it (sc. the body of Adam) a hostage between heaven and earth, breaking down the barrier of enmity (Eph 2,14) and effecting peace between Father and His creation.”

This passage neatly illustrates how easy it was to move from Adam, the hostage taken off from Death by Christ, and to shift to “the body of Adam,” assumed, or “put on” by the Word, which is itself now described as a hostage, and at the same time is separated from the theme of the Descent. In the aftermath of the christological controversies of the 430s such language of (in modern terminology) the “homo assumptus” was confined to the Church of the East, and so it is no surprise to find Narsai have God tell Abraham:34

“I am asking of you a sacrifice of love, Abraham My friend,

offer it up to me as the right ordering of love demands.

I intend to take from his daughters a hostage for peace;

tread out a path for truth by means of a sacrifice in symbol.”

or again,35

“You have led off a peace hostage from our race that is riddled with wrongdoings

now He (sc. the “homo assumptus”) is escorted with the glories of Your divinity.” 

Similarly (but reverting to the Descent theme) Cyrus of Edessa speaks of “those things which God, with His divine power, has brought about with us by means of the resurrection from the dead of the hostage who brought about (lit. of) our reconciliation, our Lord Christ.”36

No doubt it is writers like Narsai and Cyrus of Edessa who provide the more immediate background to the imagery of Christ has a hostage that we encounter in the hudra. But, as the occurrence of the theme in an archaic Syrian Orthodox baptismal ordo suggests, its roots go back a long way in Syriac tradition, and the usage can be found already in both Aphrahat and Ephrem in the fourth century.

We have already seen that Aphrahat introduces the term “hostage” into a biblical context. In one such passage which has already been quoted37, after saying that Daniel was led off as a hostage on behalf of his people,” Aphrahat goes on “and the body of Jesus was a hostage on behalf of all peoples.” He introduces the same theme in three other passages, particularly important among which is Demonstration XXIII, 5138, where the association with Adam is also found:

“Great is the gift of the Good (God) towards us, for there has been led off from us a hostage by the King, one who is appropriate to Him, and He has made Him a friend and guardian of the border – that is to say, the Son of Adam, the body from Mary which was taken from among us to the region of life; and (that) weak body became strong, and it received a glory greater and more wonderful than that which Adam stripped off at his (fall to) low estate.”

Another passage in Demonstration XXIII, dated 345, is also worth quoting at some length, since it provides the key to interpreting what would otherwise be an obscure passage in Demonstration VI, written nearly a decade earlier, in 337. Demonstration XXIII, 50 reads:39

“When He (sc. the King) came, He took a pledge (rahbōnā) from us and went (back) to His place; and He said to us, “You are in Me, and I am in you” (John 14:20), and the Apostle said “He raised us up and sat us with Him in Heaven” (Eph 2:6). The “head” of our resurrection is the body which He put on from us; and He freed it from subjection and raised it up to Himself; He confirmed His promises to us, that we should be with Him, openly saying, “Where I am, you too shall be” (John 14:3). Henceforth let us rejoice in the hostage which has been led off from us and (now) sits in glory with the glorious King.”

“Putting on the body” is of course a standard metaphor for the incarnation in early Syriac writers;40 what is important to recognise is the freedom and variety of terminology in connection with the metaphor of “putting on”: the Word (in Aphrahat’s language here, “the King”) may put on the body, the body of Adam, our body, humanity, or even Adam. It seems clear that Adam typology is rarely far away from the mind of these authors, and it is this close connection between Adam’s body as the hostage given by Death to Jesus the King (Ephrem) and Adam’s body which the Word puts on at the incarnation that provides the origins of the sort of language we encounter in the East Syrian hudra.

The passage from Aphrahat just cited is also of interest in that it describes the body which the King puts on as a “pledge” (rahbōnā, ὰρραβών) as well as a “hostage”; this provides us with our sole link with Greek tradition, for, whereas ὃμηροϚ never (to my knowledge) is used of Christ’s body, ὰρραβών occasionally is.41

Aphrahat’s quotation of verses from John 14 in the course of this passage enables us to unravel a rather dense sentence in Demonstration VI, 10,42 where Aphrahat exhorts his readers with the words “Let us bring up/magnify (nrabbe, a double entendre is intended)43 well the King’s Son who is with us, seeing that a hostage in exchange for Him (hlāpaw[hy]) has been led off from us.” In the light of Demonstration XXIII, 50 we can see that “the King’s Son who is with us” is the indwelling presence of Christ in believers, while the hostage is the resurrected body of Adam which the King’s Son (simply a variant title, alongside King, for the Word) had put on. Aphrahat can thus be seen to be pointing to the idea of complementarity in salvation history: at the incarnation the King’s Son puts on the body of Adam, and then at the Resurrection He takes this “hostage” from humanity and enthrones Him at the right hand of the King, His Father; in exchange for this hostage, who is brought up in the court of Heaven, we are to bring up (in the sense of allow to grow, as far as His presense within us is concerned) and magnify the King’s Son whom we have ourselves “put on” at baptism. Elsewhere, of course, the indwelling presence of Christ is spoken of as ὰρραβών,44 so that we then have the fully balance picture: Christ’s human body is the hmayrā from the subordinate human ream taken to the Kingdom of Heaven, while Christ’s indwelling Spirit is the rahbōnā/ὰρραβών which baptised humanity receives in exchange (Aphrahat in this passage expresses it the other way round).45 Exactly the same scenario is envisaged by Ephrem in two passages. The clearest is in the Commentary on the Diatessaron XXI, 33:

“Seeing that a pledge (rahbōnā) of life (or, salvation) had been taken by Him from those subjected to death, and from (human) nature over which death had come to reign, He was raised up and He enthroned him, the hostage from (lit. of) those below, at the right hand: and he furthermore sent them a true pledge (rahbōnā) from His own nature, (namely) the Spirit, the Paraclete, (as) the pledge of life/salvation.”

Even though the Commentary on the Diatessaron may not be exactly from Ephrem46 in its present form, much of its thought is in harmony with that of the genuine hymns, and the gist of the present passage is closely paralleled in one of the Nativity hymns (XXII, 40):

“Depth and Height stood amazed that Your Nativity has subdued the rebels; for we have provided a hostage47 for You, You have given us the Paraclete: a hostage went up from us, the Commander, descended to us. Blessed is He who took and who sent.”

In the previous stanza Ephrem had provided the background of clothing imagery and the idea of exchange:

“… You put on our visible body: Your hidden power will clothe us!48

Our body became Your garment, Your Spirit has become our robe,

Blessed is He who has adorned – and adorned us.”

It is noticeable how earlier writers, and especially Aphrahat and Ephrem, usually introduce the idea of God as King whenever they employ hostage imagery: the position and role of hostages in power politics of their time was clearly very much a reality in their minds. By contrast, in the passages in the hudra where Christ’s body, the “homo assumptus,” is described as a “hostage,” the connection between hostages and kings has evidently faded into the background for in only in one of these passages (no. 7) is the Father or the Word described or addressed as King, even though this title is frequent enough elsewhere.49

Early Syriac theological writing is characterised by a wealth of imagery, intended to point to the variety of the different aspects of the mystery of the incarnation. With the advent of the christolotical controversies, certain images became suspect in the eyes of one side of the theological divide and so were dropped by that party, and left to survive only in the writing of their opponents.50 Such was the fate of the imagery of the hostage, a notable feature of the fourth-century Syriac writers Aphrahat and Ephrem, but dropped by the subsequent West Syriac tradition.51 Even in the East Syrian tradition its survival is almost entirely confined to a verse or liturgical texts, being entirely absent from such writers as babai the Great; nor is this surprising, for prose writers by then were primarily concerened with the theological agenda and terminology that originated in the Greek tradition.

It is a particular pleasure to offer this brief exploration of a distinctive metaphor belonging the East Syrian christological tradition to a scholar who has illuminated that tradition with such acumen, insight and distinction.


In the printed editions of the East Syrian hudrahmayrā” evidently occurs only in christological context; the following list provides all the passages which I have noticed. H denotes Darmo’s edition, and BC refers to the Chaldean form edited by Bedjan (for references, see notes 1 and 4. I have deliberately kept the translations rather literal).

The first two passages feature on several occasions.

  1. “O Lord … who lowered Yourself to it (= Your flock) in Your compassion, and who took from our race a Hostage of peace, out of Your love, 1and made him a choice abode for Yourself for the intention of Your economy1.”

11 “and You united him with Your divine qnŌmā for the fulfilling of Your economy” BC.

H I, 221 = BC I, 130 (2nd Sun. After Epiphany); H I, 227 = BC I, 134 (Mon. Epiphany week 2); H I, 492 (Tues. Epiphany week 7; BC different); H II, 120 (Sun. Entry of Fast; BC omits); H II, p. 372 (Sat. Fast week 5; BC different); H III, 578 = BC III, 404 (Mon. Consecration of Church, week 1); H III, 605 = BC III, 427 (Fri. Consecration of Church, week 3); H III, 620 = BC III, 439 (Thurs. Consecration, week 4).

  1. “Blessed is the Good One … and He came from heaven for our salvation, and took from our mortal race1 a Hostage for his honour2, and He gave him to become1 leader and head.”

11 “human nature, and united it with His qnŌmā, and He became” BC III, 116, 120.

2 “for His qnŌmā” BC I, 125.


Consonant with this passage is the gloss “izgaddā” which is given to ” hmayrā” in Bar ‘Ali’s Lexicon (see R. Payne Smith, Thesaurus Syriacus I, col. 1020).

H I, 215 = BC I, 125 (Tues. Epiphany week 1); H I, 226 (Mon. Epiphany week 2); BC different); H III, 135 (Pentecost; BC different); H III, 199 = BC III, 116 (Sun. Apostles week 3); H III, 204 = BC III, 120 (Tues. Apostles week 3); H III, 700 (Exaltation of Cross; BC different).

  1. “Blessed is the Hostage from our race who revealed His glory in our humanity, and who was baptised, in order to sanctify us, by John His best man (hdŌgeh).”

H I, 638 = BC I, 413 (Epiphany).

  1. “The Father cried out, the Son was baptised, and the Spirit descended1 on the member of our race (bar gensan), the Second Adam, the Hostage who was from (among) us1.”

11 “in the type of a dove the Spirit descended and remained with Him” BC.

H I, 242 = BC I, 147 (Sun. Epiphany week 4).

  1. “In fear all heavenly and earthly beings stand amazed, not daring to look upon Him, upon the Mystery, the Hostage who (is) for their salvation (or, life.”

H II, 468 = BC II, 344 (Wed. Fast week 7).

  1. “Mighty salvation has taken place for us, for our Saviour has arisen from the tomb. Let all peoples send up glory1 to the hostage which he took from us1.”

11 to Jesus the King, member of our race” BC.

H II, 537 = BC II, 397 (Resurrection).

  1. “Praise to our King, full of mercy, who saved us in (the person of) the Hostage who was from us; O Lord of all, praise to You.”

H III, 667 (Transfiguration, BC different).

  1. “To the Hidden One who dwells in the heights, who bent down in His love towards our race in order to enrich us with the wealth of His divinity, and to make us heirs in His Kindgom; and he took from our race a hostage to his honour, and made him a temple (ναὀς) for His hidden nature, by (means of) the equal union in which there is no split or division.”

H III, 676 (Transfiguration; BC different).

  1. “And You, O Lord, (are) the Hostage who is from our race, in the first firstfruits (1 Cor 15:20) which You took from us.”

H I-III, 80 of appendix = BC I-III, 74 of appendix (Qala 9).

  1. “… who lowered Himself to humility in order to raise up our fallen state to the exalted rank of His divinity; and in (the person of) the Hostage He took from us, He associated us in the glory of His majesty.”

H I-III, 147 of appendix = BC I-III, 131 of appendix (Qala 16).


One final passage is worth noting, even though the “hmayrā” does not occur there:

“Had you not, O Lord, profited us on high in heaven with the fugitive (srīdā) from us, who pleases You continually, we might have resembled Sodom in the wickedness of our actions.”

H III, 515 (Tues. Moses week 1; om BC III, 351-352). The passage based on Isaiah 1:9 where the term “srīdā” occurs in the Peshitta, both in the Old Testament and in the verse’s quotation in Rom 9:29 (Greek σπἑρμα; the Syriac translator here, as elsewhere, deliberately adopts the phraseology of the Syriac OT).




1 I use the edition of the hudra edited by T. Darmo, Ktābā da-qdām wad-bātar wad-hudra wad-kaškōl wad-gazzā w-qālē d-‘udrānē ‘am ktābā d-mazmūrē (3 vols.), Trichur 1960-62 (= H); the relevant passages are collected and translated in the Appendix.

2 For references, see Appendix, passages no. 1 and 2.

3 It is not clear to whom the suffix refers: it could be “the Good One “(i.e. joining the hostage to his own glory), or the hostage (i.e. for his glory, or “our mortal race” (i.e. its glory); the first is perhaps the most consonant with the East Syrian christological tradition is general.

4 P. Bedjan, Breviarium iuxta ritum syrorum orientalium id est Chaldaeorum (3 vols.), repr. Rome 1938 (= BC). For the alteration to the first passage, see the Appendix (no. 1).

5 See Appendix, passages 4 and 6

6 Num 21:29 (Hebrew pe-lēt(īm); Isaiah 18:2 (Hebrew Şīrīm); I Macc 1:10; 7:7; 9:53; 10:6-9; 11:62; 13:16.

7 Examples from Aphrahat, Ephrem, Liber Graduum, Narsai, Jacob of Serugh etc. are quoted below; some further references can be found in the standard lexica. For Aphrahat, see also A. Schall, Studient Über griedscische FremdwÖrter im Syrischen, Darmstadt 1960, 100.

8 It is present in S. Atto’s SuryaniÇe-TurkÇe SÖzluk, Enschede 1990, and in Kyrillus Jacob and Asmar Elkhoury’s The Guide: the First Literacy-Colloquial Syriac Dictionary, Stockholm 1985. For the background to these dictionaries see my “Some observations on the use of Classical Syriac in the late twentieth century”, ISSt 34 (1989) 363-375.

9 For hostages in the Late Antiquity see A. Aymard, Les otages barbares du début de l”empire, JRS 51 (1961) 136-142; D. Braund, Rome and the Friendly King, London 1984, 12-16; J. Matthews Hostages, philosophers and pilgrims, and the diffusion of ideas in the Late Roman Mediterranean and Near East, in; F.M. Clover and R.S. Humphreys (eds.), Tradition and Innovation in Late Antiquity, Madison 1989, 29-49, esp. 37-41; A.D. Lee, The role of hostages in Roman diplomacy with Sasanian Persia, hist. 40 (1991) 366-374. From the linguistic point of view; R. Roos, Oἱ ὁμηρεύοτες. On the terminology of ancient hostages, in: S.-T. Teodorsson (ed.), Greek and Latin Studies in Memory of C. Fabricius, SLS 54 (1990) 158-164.

East Syrian Liturgy as an Expression of Christology – With Special Attention to the use of the “Exchange of Predicates”

The Late Chorbishop M. J. Birnie


The question addressed in this paper is whether the Christology reflected in the liturgical prayers and anthems of the Church of the East expresses and nurtures a faith in the unitary person of the incarnate Logos, the Son of God. With attention to the axiom set forth by Celestine I, “The rule of prayer determines the rule of faith,” it will be demonstrated, through extracts from the various offices of the church as contained in the Order of the Hallowing of the Apostles and the Cycle of Offices and Propers, that the official prayers and anthems, when they deal with Christological themes, are directed to, or speak of, a single subject in the person of Christ, and nourish a faith in the undivided incarnate Word.

Since the initial “cause of scandal” which led to the first Council of Ephesus concerned the propriety of the use of the “exchange of predicates” between the divine and human natures of the person of Christ, it will be demonstrated through the above named sources that the exchange of predicates has a distinct place in the worship life of the faithful community of the Church of the East, notwithstanding the suspicion its use has occasioned in the church and among its theologians. The appearance of the “exchange” in these texts, and their long history without revision, testify to its acceptance by generations of worshippers in the church. And with Celestine’s axiom in mind, consideration will be given to the practical consequences this may have for the conceptualisation of the worshipper as he visualises the object of his worship.


The Exchange of Predicates

It is typical in liturgies of the Church of the East for prayers and anthems

to be addressed to God or to the Lord God, including those that are addressed to Christ and contain Christological descriptive matter. The divine Logos, the Son of God (though not conceived apart from His humanity), is intended as the one to whom those prayers and anthems are addressed. And though the exchange of predicates is seldom employed directly to express the unitary person of Christ, its use has acquired a qualified synodical approval, that is, it may be employed occasionally “and by way of the economy”1. This official qualified acceptance of the propriety and practical use of the exchange is evidence that the Church of the East finds it useful as a legitimate, if sometimes controversial, means of addressing and confessing the unitary person of Christ, and its use in liturgical settings, though limited, is nonetheless significant.

When we look for a striking and obvious use of the exchange of predicates in prayers of the Church of the East, we must confess that it is rare. But it does occur, and its occurrence is sometimes startling. One may consider this example from the Evening Office for Wednesday, which the rubrics emphasise must be said every Wednesday of the year:

Equip us, O our Lord and our God, with mighty and invincible armour, by the prayers of Your blessed Mother, and give us  portion and fellowship with her in Your heavenly bride-chamber. . .2

Because the Nestorian controversy emerged in the first instance over the propriety of the term Theotokos, and because the Church of the East eventually aligned itself with those who questioned its use and its implications for Christology, when this anthem is singled out it usually provokes scepticism and a scurrying for verification. In fact, though, the veneration given the holy Virgin among members of the Church of the East is intense and proportionally similar to that given her among other Christians and Christian bodies, and the historical survival of a prayer such as this should not be surprising to those familiar with the piety of the Assyrians. The unique place of the mother of Christ in salvation history, and her singular relationship to her Son, the “Son of the Most High”, are the subject matter of much hymnody in the Church. The placement and emphasis given to this prayer make it to stand out all the more.

Furthermore, as a frequently overlooked but useful example of the use of the exchange of predicates one may note the Litany of the Eucharist. A series of

petitions begins with the address, “O merciful God who in mercies governs all, we beseech you.”3 The following petitions, all beginning with the relative pronoun “who” or “to whom”, requiring an antecedent referent and contemplating no change of subject, without distinction speak of divine and human attributes or experiences:

Who is rich in His mercies and overflowing in His compassion, we beseech you . . . Who in His nature is good and the Giver of all good things . . . Who is glorified in heaven and worshipped on earth . . . Who by His birth (or epiphany, etc.) gladdened the earth and cheered the heavens . . . To whom immortality belongs naturally, and who dwells in gladsome light . . .

The sequential petitions which begin, “who by His birth, etc.” and “to whom immortality belongs naturally”, address their antecedent, “merciful God”, as the subject appropriate to both descriptions, and generations of worshippers in the Church of the East have comfortably and piously joined their voices and sentiments to them without compunction. An intellectual distinction of the divine and human natures of the “merciful God” to whom they make petition is possible, of course, as it is in any use of the exchange of predicates, but this is not, I believe, very likely to happen in the course of common prayer.

But it is not only in Marian references or in the above-named deacon’s litany that the Church of the East makes use of the exchange of predicates, but also in other Sacramental contexts. In the Anthem of the Bema4 for Epiphany we find this example:

Through water and the Spirit we have been sanctified; by Your body and blood we have gained life. O Good One who fashioned us from dust, You renewed our image through water and the Spirit; through water and the Spirit You fashioned us anew. Glorious is Your renewal, and lovely is Your coming.5

The words “Your body and blood” can have no other referent than the “Good One who fashioned us from the dust.” And here, as above, the subject of address is the second person of the Holy Trinity, incarnate in the manhood He took from us. The adoration is of the Word made flesh who gave us His own sanctifying body and blood, not another’s.

The evocative power of the singing of the Anthem of the Bema is significant in its formative influence on the worshippers’ faith and conceptualisation. The familiar tunes and rhythms of these relatively short and easily remembered hymns aid in fixing them in the memory of the worshipper, who is apt to sing them at home and at work as well as in church and, in times past, to understand and assimilate their message as well6. On the memorial of St. Stephen the Protomartyr the worshipper intones: “Let us sing glory and receive the body of the Son of God and His living blood.”7 On the memorial of the Syrian Doctors: “Come, let us take delight in the glorious Mysteries of the body and blood of the Son of God.”8 On the second Sunday in Lent: “Come, let us receive the body and blood of the First-born9 of the Godhead. . . . Come, let us receive the body of the Son who was sent from above.”10 And decisively, from the Anthem of the Bema for Thursday after Easter:

The eternal and everlasting Son, begotten of God and coessential with him, who gave His own body, which wicked men sacrificed upon Golgotha, that He might give life to all, died as He willed, revived as He sought, and gave His body and blood to His church. Hallelujah!11

In the latter anthem the subject, the Son, begotten of the Father and of the same essence, is described as not only willing death and resurrection for His own body, but dying and rising in the same.

These examples all refer what is characteristic of the human nature of Christ to his divinity, but in some cases of prayer the name of the addressee to whom the exchange of predicates refers appears reversed. In the first of a series of “sealing” prayers at the conclusion of the evening office for ordinary days, the opening sentence reads as follows:

Glory to you, Jesus, our victorious King, the Effulgence of the eternal Father, begotten without beginning beyond times and origins, for we have no hope and expectation except for You, the Creator.12

The significance of this prayer to our discussion is the typical way that names are viewed and commonly used in the Church of the East. In his Book on the Union Babai the Great has this to say concerning the name Jesus:

The Son of God is called “Christ”, both according to the series of [divine] names which we previously set down above . . . and according to the name which Gabriel ordained beforehand for Him, that is, “Jesus,” which indicates the special title of His human qnoma in the Union, which was taken from the nature of the blessed [and] holy Virgin, Mary. . . . Although this name Jesus, “Saviour,” makes known what He is going to become, yet it is the name of the qnoma of His manhood.13

This standard explanation, applying the name “Jesus” to the human nature of Christ, makes it all the more noteworthy that the address to Jesus should describe Him as the Effulgence of the eternal Father, begotten without beginning beyond times and origins, and the Creator. Thus, while the previous examples I have given ascribe human attributes to the Godhead in the economy, here the reverse takes place, as the properties of the divine Word are referred to the “human” name, Jesus. A unitary subject is contemplated, here under the name of His manhood. Both the human nature and the name which it bears belong to the subject of the Incarnation, the divine Word, the “Effulgence of the eternal Father”.


The Language of Prayer and Praise, and the Faith It Expresses or Evokes

The language of prayer and praise is formative in the worshipper, both through the images and sentiments it evokes, and through the faith it builds upon and reinforces by its repeated expression. In the liturgies of the Church of the East, in prayers specifically addressed to God or the Lord God, where Christ is meant, the language employed to describe His human experiences directs the worshipper’s mind to the Deity as antecedent. The subject of those experiences is conceptualised as one and not as one and another. Whatever “duality” may emerge in the course of polemic discussion or theoretical contemplation disappears in hymnic wonder and prayerful certitude in the Assyrian Christian as he, in his ordinary worship, addresses his Lord and God, the Word become flesh. The relationship thus conceived and acknowledged between worshipper and Worshipped is one to one. The suggestion of an internal, independent relationship of the divine nature to the human in the united Christ is absent from the worshipper’s adoration, who acknowledges only the ontic unity which the Incarnate One is perceived to be in His person and in His relationship to His people.

To approach the divine Son of God through the veil of his flesh; to honour His mother because of the relationship of His flesh to hers, and therefore His own relationship to her; to adore Him and receive Him intimately through the mediating elements of the sacraments—His own body and blood—these acts of devotion, through cumulative effect on the worshipper, leave not the slightest room for separation to be contemplated, either by implication or through inference, in the unique and absolute union of humanity and divinity in the person of Christ. The language of worship and adoration in the liturgies of the Church of the East does not lead the worshipper to conceptualise a human person existing by Himself in relationship with the Logos. The personal identity of the complete and undiminished manhood taken by the Logos is that of the eternal Son of God, “begotten without beginning beyond times and origins”, who is the sole object of petition and praise. Like the worship of his Christian brothers and sisters who have been taught to confess the union in philosophical terms foreign or suspicious to him (or to his ancestors), his own worship is of the one Son of God incarnate, both Suffering Servant and King of Glory.




1 Synodicon Orientale, ed. J. B. Chabot, (Syr. text) p. 136.

2 Khudra, p. 22.

ܙܲܝܸܢ ܠܲܢ ܡܵܪܲܢ ܘܐܲܠܵܗܲܢ ܒܙܲܝܢܵܐ ܚܲܣܝܼܢܵܐ ܘܠܵ‍ܐ ܡܸܙܕܲܟ̣ܝܵܢܵܐ: ܒܲܨܠܵܘܵܬ̣̈ܵܗ̇ ܕܐܸܡܵܟ̣ ܡܒܲܪܲܟ̣ܬܵܐ: ܘܲܥܒܸܕ ܠܲܢ ܥܲܡܵܗ̇ ܡܢܵܬ̣ܵܐ ܘܫܵܘܬܵܦܘܼܬ̣ܵܐ ܒܲܓ̣ܢܘܿܢܵܟ̣ ܫܡܲܝܵܢܵܐ: ܡܵܪܵܐ ܕܟ̣ܠ.

3 Ktaba dTurgame, pp. 84-85.

4 An anthem sung at the time of the reception of the Sacrament during the Eucharist.

5 Khudra, p. 424.

6 The modern Assyrians’ lack of understanding of the classical Syriac language is a barrier to understanding and a problem yet to be addressed.

7 Khudra, Vol. 1, p. 740.

8 Khudra, Vol. 1, p. 778.

9 ܒܘܼܟ̣ܪܵܐ ܕܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ

10 Khudra, Vol. 2, p. 194.

11 Khudra, Vol. 2, p. 570.

12 Khudra, p.13.

13 CSCO, “Book on the Union,” Paris, 1915, ed. A. Vaschalde, pp. 208, lines 25- 26,28-31; 209, lines 11-13.

Is the Theology of the Assyrian Church Nestorian?

His Beatitude Dr Mar Aprem Mooken

This paper was originally given at the First Non-Official Consultation on Dialogue within the Syriac Tradition, held in Vienna between June 24th – 29th 1994 under the auspices of the Pro Oriente Foundation. It was later published in the record of proceedings of the Consultation and edited on behalf of the Pro Oriente Foundation by Alfred Stirnemann and Gerhard Wilflinger.

His Beatitude Mar Aprem is the Metropolitan of Malabar and India. The Metropolitan holds a Master of Theology from the United Theological College (Serampore, 1966) and a Master of Sacred Theology from Union Theological Seminary (New York, 1967). He later undertook postgraduate theological studies graduating with a Doctorate of Theology from Serampore University (1976). He completed and was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Syriac by Mahatma Gandhi University in 2002. His Beatitude has also been a student at St Boniface College (Warminster, England), St Augustine’s College (Canterbury, England) and at the Ecumenical Institute (Bossey, Switzerland). His Beatitude has published almost 70 books and numerous monographs largely focused on church history, theology, biographies and travelogues in both English and Malayalam. Since his consecration as Metropolitan in Baghdad in 1968 His Beatitude has been intimately active in the ecumenical movement both in India and abroad. This has included ecumenical dialogues via the Pro Oriente Foundation (Vienna, Austria) and other bi-lateral theological consultations. He was previously co-chairman of the Joint Committee for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. Most recently, a second edition of His Beatitude’s PhD dissertation entitled The Assyrian Church of the East in the Twentieth Century (Kottayam: SEERI, 2003) has been published.



The question whether the Theology of the Church of the East (known as the Assyrian Church, East Syrian Church or the Nestorian Church) is Nestorian has been debated in the present century by some individual scholars. One problem in finding a suitable answer to this question is the difference in understanding the word Nestorian.

The Churches who accept the council of Ephesus of 431AD presided over by Cyril of Alexandria consider Nestorianism as a heresy because they thought that Nestorius taught two personalities in Jesus Christ and Jesus was born as a human being to Whom divinity was joined later at the time of baptism or so. But the truth is that Nestorius did not teach any such heresy. He believed like all bishops in his time that Christ was God and Man.

How exactly was this union of two nature, divinity and humanity in Christ, united in one person in Christ, this was the burden of the council of Chalcedon twenty years after the council of Ephesus of 431AD.

The Church of the East does not recognise the council of Ephesus presided over by Cyril of Alexandria. The history of the two rival councils held at Ephesus in June 431AD is ery complicated and unfortunate.

The anathematisms and counter-anathematisms have been discussed by the present writer in his M.Th. Thesis submitted to the Senate of Serampore in 1966 (Published by Mar Narsai press, Trichur, Kerala, India in 1978).

A short evaluation of the Council of Ephesus of 431AD would bring us to the conclusion that the Council of Ephesus of 431AD was guided also by the personal enmity of Cyril against Nestorius, rather than the Christological issue which was evidently the cause according to the “official version.” Moreover, the help of the Pope of Rome given to Cyril resulted in the ultimate victory.

It appears that unless and until one is able to produce the documents redeeming

1) the lack of authority in Cyril of Alexandria to convene the Council in spite of the protests of the Imperial Commissioner,

2) the absence of right intention in Cyril of Alexandria who presided over it,

3) the irregularity of the procedure of the Council when the accuser himself was the judge,

4) the absence of the patriarchs or authorised representatives of Constantinople and Antioch,

5) the incompleteness of the Council as the anticipated joint session of the Council could not take place even after the union of 433AD,

6) the lack of form in the manner of conducting it and,

7) the lack of integrity of the sayings of Nestorius cited,

the validity of the Synod of Ephesus of 431AD as an ecumenical Council of the universal church and its subsequent acceptance by the Church of the East remains doubtful.

The reasons for the refusal of recognition to this Council by the Church of the East are many. The Church of the East was neither invited nor present in this Council. The Council of Cyril was declared null and void, as per the oder of the Imperial Commissioner in June 431AD and the repeated orders of the Emperor till the “political” settlement, and such a settlement did not affect the Persian Church as it was beyond the jurisdiction of Theodosius II. Moreover, the Council of Cyril did not settle any issue, but, on the contrary, created more problems as seen the Eutychian heresy which was a development of the mia physis thought of Cyril of Alexandria. Aoart from the dangerous use of the ambiguous title Theotokos, the Christology of the Church of the East was much similar to that of the Council of Chalcedon, two decades later.

These factors demand a change of outlook by the other churches in regard to the recognition of the council of Ephesus of 431. Individuals have come out with statements in sympathy with, and in favour of, the stand of the Church of the East. Adolf Harnack and many others challenged the propriety of calling the Council of Ephesus the ecumenical council[1].

The French Roman Catholic theologian, Pére J. Mahe, who made a fresh examination of the writings of Theodoret, was led to the conclusion that the two Christologies of Antioch and Alexandria, in spite of notable differences, were alike perfectly orthodox[2]. If Theodoret, who wrote against the twelve anathematisms of Cyril against Nestorius, was considered orthodox in the Council of Chalcedon, Nestorius also would have been considered orthodox if he had been present. What is required is not individual opinions, but official statements by the Churches.


The Necessity for a “Nestorian Christology” Today

The relevance of Nestorianism for today is the appreciation of the humanity of our Lord. Such an emphasis was necessary at the time of Nestorius became of the influence of the Appollinarians. It is just as relevant today. G.L. Prestige says:

           “Redemption requires a human response and human appreciation, God Himself supplied a perfect human agent to lead the response and a perfect human instrument to convey the means of appropriation[3].”

Donald Baille argues that if the human nature of Jesus Christ lacks a human person (a human centre, subject and principal of identity) it is incomplete[4]. Cyril C. Richardson in his article “A Preface to Christology,” states that only Nestorians can answer the question “Wherein lies the reality of Jesus’ temptation? Wherein is His human freedom?[5]” The Christology of the Church of the East is relevant to modern times because of its teaching of perfect human nature. The Nestorian Christ is one who was subject to the conditions of life of the first century, tempted, triumphant and obedient and thereby being a perfect example to mankind of every nation for all times.

The necessity for a “Nestorian” Christology becomes inevitable when we think of the greatest position ascribed to Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic Church. The fear expressed by Nestorius against the use of Theotokos should not be ignored. It is one of the positive contributions of Nestorius to have exposed the ptoential danger of this title.

As far back as our records of history go there was nobody to speak against this title before 428AD though it was used by certain individuals. Perhaps it would have become the standard expression of all Christians if Nestorius did not wage such a crusade against this title. Till the Reformation in the 16th century, the Church of the East was the only Church which shared the concern of Nestorius against the use of Theotokos. Since the Reformation, however, many churches share this attitude and thus the position taken by the Church of the East singularly, down through the centuries, is vindicated.

In these days, when the announcement such as the “Immaculate Conception of Mary,” Assumption of Mary to Heaven, Proclaiming Mary as the Queen of Heaven, are made, the Christians have begun to open their eyes to the dangers of the over-emphasis of the imprtance of Mary. The opposition to excessive Mariology demonstrated at the Vatican II and the opposition to a seperate Schema on Mary from many bishops at the Council show that even in the Roman church some at least are beginning to see the dangers of the title of Theotokos. Therefore, the position explained by Nestorius and consistently maintained by the Church of the East, deserves the appreciation of Christians.

Now many protestants have reocognised that the fears expressed by Nestorius against the use of the title Theotokos were genuine. This justifies the stand that the “Nestorian” Christology is relevant for today. The “Image of Nestorius” has changed considerably in the recent years. Bethune Baker proved that Nestorius was not a Nestorian![6] Wigram could see the Christological formula of the Church of the East as free from any charges of heresy[7].

F. Loofs, who did not give much importance to the “transactions of Ephesus” of 431, showed considerable sympathy to Nestorius and his Christology. Against the charge of dualism in Nestorianism, he argued that Nestorius emphasised the unity of the Person of Christ[8].

A.R. Vine, who felt it impossible to comprehend the meaning of the Christology of Bazaar of Heracleides, without a “metaphysical and Christological system” endeavoured to formulate a system by “working backwards and forwards,” and claimed to have succeeded in the “evolution of a self consistent metaphysics and Christology[9].” He reached the conclusion: “There are elements in the thought of Nestorius which provide a helpful mode of approarch to the Christological problem[10].” At present many take a position, which was long ago taken by Mosheim even before the “discovery” of the Bazaar, that “Nestorianism” is an error in words rather than in thought[11].

The present writer has gone a step furhter. The Christology of the Church of the East, as well as that of Nestorius himself, is not far from the Chalcedonian formula. Though the words are different the teaching is very much the same. The Christology of Chalcedon is Antiochene in emphasis. In other words, the Chalcedonian formula was the triumph of Nestorian Christology.

In 1907, William Edward Collins, Bishop of Gibraltar, made the first Angilcan episcopal visit to the Assyrian Church to meet the Patriarch Mar Benyamin Shimun with a view to discuss the terms of inter-communion, During the interesting interview Bishop Collins explained the Anglican position in regard to the doctrinal requirements if such an inter-communion was to be made possible and frequent. Regarding Assyrians living in an area where there was no church of their denomination there ought to be no difficulty. Bishop Collins writes:

          “Not that we should ask them to disavow their fathers, not that we should ask them to revise their doctrinal books or to make a new creed, for but simply that we should say, ‘This is the faith as we hold it. Is this what you believe?[12]’


Three years later the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Davidson, following a resolution by the Lambeth Conference of 1908, wrote to the Patriarch of the Church of the East to clarify the doubts regarding the Christology of the Church of the East. After consultation with his bishops, the Patriarch replied on June 13, 1911, accepting the statement of faith propounded to him (the Quicunque vult) as expressing the belief of the Church of the East. The statement was sent by W.A. Wigram, head of the Archbishop’s Assyrian Mission, who in a covering note to the Archbishop remarked:

          “I venture to hope also that the letter of Mar Shimun to your Grace will suffice to clear this church from the charge of heresy, that has been levelled against it for so long.[13]”

His wish was fulfilled, for the Commission set up by the Lambeth Conference was completely satisfied by the explanation given to the use of the term Christokos. Due to the outbreak of war in 1914 the attempt for inter-communion could not immediately bear fruit, but the following Lambeth Conference[14], received the report from the Committee. The report reads:

          “… The watchword Theotokos is absent from their service books, and in one place is repudiated; on the other hand, its equivalent in other words is several times found, and strong instances of the language known as communicatio idiomatum occur.[15]”

Even the problem of two Qnome did not seem to be an obstacle to this Committee. The report states:

          One phrase which has caused some perplexity, that which asserts that there are in Christ one parsopa (prosopon), two qnome, and two natures. The word qnoma is equivalent of “Hypostasis” and if used in the later sense of that word, i.e. as meaning “person,” it would imply real Nestorianism; but research had made it plain that it is used in the earlier sense of “hypostasis,” namely, “substance,” and this makes the phrase, if redundant, at least perfectly, orthodox[16].

This report strongly recommended that if the “present” authorities of the Church of the East adhered to their statement of June 13, 1911, occasional inter-communion should be established. It is a matter of regret to read in the report of the following Lambeth Conference, a decade later, that “it has not been possible, owing to political and other conditions, to obtain the authoritative statement recommeded in 1920[17]”

While the Lambeth Conference Report of 1948 expressed the hope that the relations between these two churches may be strengthened[18], the report of 1958 mentioned only the political and material aspets of the Assyrian Church[19]. It does not mean that the Assyrian Church is in disagreement with the doctrinal position explained in 1911 statement. Neither does it mean that the Anglican church had “Second thought.” The council of Foreign Relations of the Church of England at Lambeth agrees with this view[20].

A word is necessary on the position of the Council of Chalcedon in the Church of the East. Monseigneur Chabot deserves the credit for the information that Synodicon Orientale included the Council of Chalcedon and “Tome of Leo” as officially accepted by the Church of the East. Though he did not print the texts of these documents in the edition, his announcement that these documents were approved documents of the Church of the East took the scholary world by surprise[21]. Wigram who took pains to investigate this question, was able to find the manuscript of Synodicon Orientale in Mosul and happened to see the formula of Chalcedon in it[22]. The Church which recognises the formula of Chalcedon deserves the recognition of the western Churches. The Church of England took a right step in proper direction.


The Prospects of these Aims

“If the broken unity of the Church Catholic is ever to be knit up once more,” Wigram wrote, “it must be by full recognition of these national differences which are national heritages which are so treasued by the nations who hold them that they went into separation rather than surrender them[23].”

As far as the Assyrian Church of the East is concerned, it will never forsake their hero. The Protestant Church, which do not accept the title “Theotokos” though used in the Council of Ephesus of 431 ought therefore to say officially whether they regard the approval of the condemnation of Nestorius by Cyril and his followers as a necessary test of orthodoxy.

The Anglican scholars expressed their willingness to accord official recognition to the Church of the East without insisting u[on the condemnation of the three Greek doctors, provided they cease to repeat the anathema on Cyril of Alexandria.

It is extremely unlikely that the Church of the East will cease to mention the names of the three Greek doctors in their Litany. Wigram suggested to use an alternate bidding found in the litany to avoid the names of the Greek doctors[24] with the hope that “the change would not be felt, as the people are all the while occupied in singing an anthem[25].” Whether the change will be felt or not, the Church of the East will never agree to any “change” in this matter. A change of attitude of other churches in regard to their recognition of the Council of 431AD will pave the way for the reunion of this once far-reaching Church which is the first major schism of the Christendom.

The prospects of a “Nestorian” Christology are much brighter today than ever before. The Protestant theologians who have begun to emphasise the reality of the suffering of Christ, as an example of his perfect humanity, can play a part in it. The present writer has gone further than the previous students of Nestorianism in suggesting without hesitation that Bazaar of Heracledies answers most of the charges levelled against Nestorius.

Sympathy towards Nestorius is being shown even in orthodox circles. M.V. Anastos, a Greek orthodox theologian, has shown that the Christology of Nestorius was not very different from that of Cyril. He argues:

          “… The Christology of Nestorius, if orthodox, should be reconcilable, not withstanding angry denials on both sides, with Cyril’s. In truth, it must be admitted, the line which separates them on this, as on all other issues, is either very thin or nonexistent[26].”

The results of the Arrhus consultation of August 1964, in a way, are discouraging, if a unilateral declaration of a Christological compromise is made from the East, they may have to go its own way and the “Church of the East” may find more affinity with the West than the East from the christological point of view. If the “eastern ecumenism” is based on Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus “western ecumenism” will be based on the Tome of Leo and the Council of Chalcedon.

As the non-Chalcedonian Churches insist on the reunion with the orthodox Churches without recognising the Council of Chalcedon of 451AD, the Church of the East has a legitimate claim to insist on the reunion without recognising the Council of Ephesus of 431AD, presided over by Cyril.

Even Cyril treated the decision of the Council of 431 with such a scant respect that within two years he swept that decision absolutely on one side, and made, on his own authority, a compromise with his rivals. It is possible for the churches to follow the example of Cyril and to rethink the importance they have attached to this as the third ecumenical council – an idea, which perhaps did not occur ever to Cyril[27].


A Final Word

The present writer had claimed his M.Th. Thesis to be an impartial study of the Council of Ephesus. Impartiality, however, does not consist in refusing to form any opinion or in a futile concealment of the dangers of the thought of the man concerned, but in treating them scientifically and sincerely and attempting to discover objectively the thought in the historical background in which it was developed.


This, then, the present writer hopes to achieve in this consultation. Men have thought about all the conceivable forms of the conception of the union of the divine and human natures of Christ. How exactly has this union taken place? It is open to conjectures. To a certain extent, it is beyond human speculation.

There was a period when these terms were only “in the making.” Such a beginning, though unfortunate, was necessary for an adequate understanding “Nestorianism” was necessary to prevent any notion of deification of human nature as an entity, thereby losing sight of the historical Christ. As Bethune Baker warns us the teachings against which Nestorius protested “would have made of the Saviour of men a person not really human, and Redemption a magical, instantaneous, rather than ethical, gradual, process[28].”

The “re-discovery” of the Bazaar was a “dispensation of God, in an age in which the doctrine of the Incarnation is exposed to dangers from opponents and defenders alike which are at least as dissolvent as those against which he cried unheard[29].” Modern thought can best profit from this controversy by attempting a synthesis of the apparently opposed but really complementary views.

The christology of the Church of the East, i.e. one person, two qnome and two kyane, when it is translated as one person, two concrete natures and two abstract natures, is perfectly orthodox. As A.R. Vine has pleaded we should give Nestorius the benefit of doubt with regard to the technical terms. If we attempt to understand exactly how Godhead and manhood are united in the one person Jesus Christ, we reach the inevitable conclusion that the problem of Christology is insoluble.



The Syriac manuscripts and printed books found in this Church teaching the Christology of one person, two qnome and two natures. Having examined this Christological formula this thesis upholds the theory put forward earlier by Professor J.F. Bethune Baker that Nestorius was not a “Nestorian.”

In understanding the qnoma, this writer rejects the translation given by some scholars as person and puts forward an alternative view that it should be understood as “the individuated nature” or concrete nature, if the word kyana (nature) is understood as “abstract nature.” Qnoma is also translated in this thesis as hypostasis. This is done so because several other writers have done likewise; for instance, in their useful work “A Nestorian Collection of Christological Texts,” Luise Abramowski and Alan Goodman translate the word as hypostasis. But hypostasis does not convey the true meaning of qnoma as used by Nestorian Fathers. The present writer is of the opinion that some better word could be coined in order to convey the true meaning which the members of this Church attributed to this controversial, but crucial, term qnoma.

This writer does not argue that this Christology, even if it is understood properly, agrees completely with the Christological formula of the Council of Chalcedon AD 451 though the Nestorian Christology has several points of agreement with Tome of Leo, as Nestorius himself has claimed, over against his opponent Cyril of Alexandria, the observations made by V.C. Samuel, quoted in the present writer’s D.Th. dissertation, give us a new direction to explore further the points of agreement between Cyril’s Christology and the Christology of Nestorius.

Though this Church considers Nestorius as a saint, this is not a Church founded by Nestorius. Nestorius did not know Syriac and the East Syrian Church of the Persian empire know no Greek. There was no contact between the East Syrian Churches of Persia and the “heretic” and his supporters in AD 431. Only after the death of Nestorius, when the East Syrian Church had not part in the Christological battles between Nestorius and Cyril, nor had any knowledge of this unhappy controversy during the life time of the champions, has been unjustly described as the Church founded by Nestorius.

The separation of the East Syrian Church from the rest of the Christendom and particularly from the jurisdiction of Antioch had taken place before the Christological controversy had sprung up in AD 428. A canon of the Synod of Dadisho’ in AD 424 forbade the bishops of this Church to have any ecclesiastical jurisdictional contact with the West. This fact itself leads us to the conclusion that the separation of the East Syrian Church was motivated by political, cultural, linguistic or personal considerations rather than any theological reason for there was none such existent in AD 424.

The important Pauline ideas of self-emptying, image of God, form of servant, historical Jesus etc., have been founded in Nestorius too. It was from his biblical foundation Nestorius formulated his theory of prosopic union.

The Christological formula of this Church is that of the prosopic union rejecting the formula of hypostatic union accepted by both Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian etc.). This prosopic union is a three tier Christology where the union is not at the first level of natures, nor at the second level of the hypostases but at the third level of the prosopon. To the members of this Church, the idea of perfect God and man is understood only if Christ has both natures and qnome of both God and man and the union has taken place only at the level of prosopon.

As for the Mariology, it refuses to call Mary “Theotokos” unlike the Orthodox Church. However, this writer believes that despite the refusal to use the title Theotokos to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the “Nestorian” Churches throughout the world, is in general agreement with the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox (non-Chalcedonian) Churches in giving respect and veneration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. A Nestorian is an orthodox without theotokos.

This Church does not overdo the respect due to Mary as the Roman Catholics seem to do, nor does it underestimate the honour due to the Blessed Virgin Mary as some of the Protestant Churches have admittedly done. The prayers of this Church about Virgin Mary would lead to the inevitable conclusion that this Church tries to give a proper place to the Blessed Virgin Mary avoiding the excesses and at the same time trying to save the Church from the danger of ignoring the Mother of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. In this context, it must be stated further that nobody in this Church as never questioned the Virgin Birth, as some modern theologians in various Churches do today. She is ever virgin before, in and after the birth of Jesus Christ.

The special emphasis of the Nestorian Christology on the humanity of our Lord is the statement that in jesus Christ there are two distinct qnome, divine and human. This emphasis on the humanity of the Saviour of the mankind saved the Church in the fifth century from the heresy of the followers of Apollinarius who were still in the capital city of Constantinople where Nestorius worked as the head of the Church during the period AD 428-31. This emphasis on humanity is generally recognised today in the contemporary theological debate throughout the world. The East Syrian Church therefore, the present writer hopes, will have a definite contribution to make in the development of a Christian theology utilising the initiatives provided by some emerging dynamics in the religious and cultural context in the world today.

By the denial of the title Imme d’Alaha (Mother of God) the Assyrian Church never denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. They believed like all fathers of the Council of Nicea 325AD and the Council of Constantinople 381AD that the expressions used in those Councils and the Nicene creed are good enough to guarantee the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Imme D’Msheha (Mother of Messiah) is proper expression as all Christians believe that Messiah is perfect God and perfect man. Is the theology of the Assyrian Church Nestorian? The answer is both Yes and No. If Nestorius himself was never a Nestorian, why should anybody bother whether the reply is Yes or No? It is “Nestorian” to the extent that the Assyrian Church considers him a Saint and Greek doctor (Malpana Yawnaya) of the Church. The answer is “No” if the questioner thought that Nestorianism is the denial of the divinity or the total separation o the divine and human natures in Christ.



[1]                 Adolf Harnack calls Cyril’s Council “this petty assembly” in contrast to what he calls the “legal council under the presidency of the Imperial Commissioner.” (Harnack op. cit; p.187)
[2]                 Pére J. Mahe in the Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique vol. VII, No. 3, July 1906, quoted from Bethune Baker, op. cit; p. 198
[3]                 G.L. Prestige; Fathers and heretics, London, S.P.C.K., 1948
[4]                 Donald Baille; God was in Christ, New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1948
[5]                 Cyril C. Richardson; “A Preface to Christology,” Religion in Life, Vol. XXVII No.                                      4. p. 508
[6]                 Bethune Baker, Nestorius and His Teachings, Cambridge, University Press, 1908
[7]                 W.A. Wigram, The Doctrinal Position of the Assyrian or East Syrian Church,                                             London, S.O.C.K. 1908, p. 289
[8]                 F. Loofs, Nestorius and His Place in the History of Christian Doctrine, Cam                                                 bridge 1914 p. 126
[9]                 A.R. Vine, The Nestorian Churches, London, The Independent Press, 1937, p. 53
[10]               Ibid; p. 54
[11]               J.L. Mosheim; An Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and Modern, (ed) Murdock                                                James; London; William Tegg & Co., 1876, p. 633
[12]               A.J. Mason; Life of William Edward Collins, Bishop of Gibraltar, London: 1912,                                         p. 125
[13]               W.A. Wigram, Letter addressed to Dr. Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury,                                                dated August, 1911. (From the Archives of Lambeth Palace Library, London)
[14]               Lambeth Conference of 1920
[15]               Lambeth Conferences (1867, 1930); London: S.P.C.K., 1948, p. 132
[16]               Ibid.
[17]               Lambeth Conference, 1930, London: S.P.C.K., n.d. p. 146
[18]               Lambeth Conference, 1948, London: S.P.C.K., 1948, Part II, p. 71
[19]          Lambeth Conference, 1958, London: S.P.C.K., 1958, p. 251
[20]               Letter to the present writer, dated 3rd November 1965
[21]               The Church of the East officially has not made any statement about this announcement
[22]               Wigram informs us that the word “Theotokos” is translated as “Mother of Christ” who is both God and man; and one Qnoma is altered as two Qnome. The “blessed Cyril” is changed to “accursed Cyril” and the phrase “to rebuke the folly of Nestorius” is omitted! (cf., Wigram, op. cit; p. 296)
[23]               W.A. Wigram; Doctrinal Position of the Assyrian Church, London: S.P.C.K., 1908, pp. 63-4
[24]               The bidding is not an alternate one in the litany as Wigram states.
[25]               W.A. Wigram; Doctrinal Position of the Assyrian Church, op. cit; pp. 25-26
[26]               M.V. Anatos; “Nestorius was Orthodox.” Dumbarton Oaks Paper XIV, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1962, p. 139. He concludes that Nestorius was the “dyophysite par excellence” (Ibid. p. 140)
[27]               W.A. Wigram; Doctrinal Position of the Assyrian Church; op. cit; p. 35
[28]               F.J. Bethune Baker; op. cit; p. 207
[29]               Ibid; p. 196


A Survey of the Christology of the Assyrian Church of the East as Expressed in the Khudra

Mar Awa Royel, Bishop

His Grace Mar Awa Royel is the Bishop of California, Secretary of the Holy Synod and President of the Commission on Inter-Church Relations and Education Development (CIRED). He Grace was consecrated to the episcopacy at Mar Zaia Cathedral, Modesto, California in November 2008. A native Chicagoan, His Grace graduated with a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois in 1999. He later undertook postgraduate theological studies in Rome graduating with a Licentiate of Sacred Theology (2001) and a Doctorate of Sacred Theology (2007) from the Pontifical Oriental Institute, specialising in Eastern Liturgy. He also represents the Assyrian Church of the East as a member of the Forum Syriacum (Pro Oriente Foundation, Vienna) and has been active in a wide variety of international symposia and ecumenical consultations to date. His Grace’s latest publication is Mysteries of the Kingdom: The Sacraments of the Assyrian Church of the East (California: CIRED, 2012).


The question of the Church’s Christological expression finds its roots in the question of the Lord Jesus posed to his Disciples in Caesarea of Philippi: “Who do you say that I am,” Matthew 16:15. That is really at the foundation of every, and any, discussion concerning how the Church confesses the one Son, Jesus Christ. The response of Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” constructs a framework for later Christological expressions of the Church. Later, one of the Lord’s Post-Resurrection appearances, the apostle Thomas equally gives a highly Christological expression to the Risen Lord whom he experienced and truly handled after the resurrection—“My Lord and my God,” John 20:28.  In the Synoptic Gospels, the blessed Evangelists speak of Jesus ‘Son of God,’ ‘Christ’ and ‘Lord’ ( ܡܪܝܐ Marya in Aramaic, or Kyrios in Greek), while the Johannine tradition is more emphatic in its expression of the Eternal Son as ‘Word’ (or ܡܠܬܐ  Meltha)—Logos—the very Mind and Wisdom of God.[1] Theologians will speak of a ‘Christology from Below’ (identifying the Synoptic Gospels tradition) or a ‘Christology from Above’ (in reference to the tradition of St. John, the Beloved Disciple).

Although the Gospels express a christological faith that is complete and sufficient in its own right, the emergence in the early centuries of the Church of various heresies which denied either the complete humanity of Christ (such as Docetism[2] of the late third century and Apollinarianism[3] of the early fourth century) or the Lord’s complete and true divinity (such as Arianism[4] of the early fourth century) necessitated an expounding of the pure and simple Christological expressions of the New Testament. The influence of Hellenistic culture and the use of philosophy by the early Fathers of the Church also contributed to the development and growth of a Christological parlance and expressions that were much more complex than the Christology expressed in the New Testament texts.

The apostolic kerygma, therefore, is foundational for dogma—the Church’s official expressions and formulas of faith; without the apostles, there can be no apostolic faith, nor can there be an Apostolic Tradition, as such. Without the living Tradition of the apostles, there can be no valid apostolic expression. This living Tradition of the apostles, in turn, is outwardly expressed and experienced by the faithful in the Church’s life of worship and prayer—her Liturgy. For the Assyrian Church of the East, the main liturgical formulary is the Khudra, or ‘Cycle,’ which contains the offices and prayers for all Sundays of the liturgical year and the Feasts of our Lord and commemorations that are observed on Sundays.[5]

A very important and continuously viable principle expressive of the importance of the Church’s liturgical nature, and indeed the very content of the liturgy, is the famous axiom “the law of prayer establishes the law of belief.”[6]


The Formation of the Khudra

The major formularies with regard to the liturgical prayer are the Khudra, Gazza and the Kashkol; these have been formulated and organized at the Upper Monastery at Mosul.[7]   The Khudra, an Syriac term meaning ‘cycle’, is the principal liturgical formulary of the Church of the East.  It has already been effectively studied by Anton Baumstark and William Macomber.[8]  The oldest extant copy of the Khudra (10th-11th century),[9] which has come to be known as the ‘Mar Eša‘ya Khudra’ (belonging to the parish at Mosul under this name), was effectively discovered by W. Macomber, who writes concerning the Khudra:

[the Khudra] contains the variable chants of the choir for the divine office and the Mass for the entire cycle of the liturgical year.  The compilation of the Khudra is traditionally attributed to the Catholicos Patriarch Išo‘yahb III of Adiabene (648/9-648/9) and his collaborator, the monk ‘Enanišo‘, and there is no compelling reason for doubting he attribution.[10]

We have already discussed the redaction of the Khudra initiated by Išo‘yahb III, whose liturgical reforms actually began while he was yet metropolitan of Adiabene.[11] The fact that the recension of the Khudra standardized by Išo‘yahb while he was already patriarch, residing at the Upper Monastery, has gained for the name of this formulary, “according to the order of the Upper Monastery of Mar Abraham and Mar Gabriel at Mosul.”[12] The manuscript tradition almost always refers to this work as the “Khudra dam-dabranootha,” i.e., the Khudra ‘of the dispensation.’[13]  This refers to the whole liturgical year, with its different seasons and feasts in between, as celebrating the divine economy or mdabraootha—the economy of salvation authored by God the Father and realized in his Son, Jesus Christ.

The early history of this most-important formulary is not known.  Whether some sort of ‘primitive’ recension of the book prior to the seventh century reforms ever existed cannot be known.  The earliest witnesses to the Khudra outside the book itself are the Liber Superiorum (Book of Governors)[14]  of Thomas of Marga and the Expositio Officiorum of Pseudo-George of Arbel (ܢܘܗܪܐ ܕܬܫܡ̱ܫܬܼ̈ܐ ܥܕܬܢܝܬܼ̈ܐ).[15] The author refers to the penqīthā made by Išo‘yahb a number of times. At first glance, the title penqīthā, no doubt coming from the Greek πινακιδίον seems to refer to a lost work of Išo‘yahb which describes the various reforms he effected and an explanation of the rubrics he had stipulated.[16] According to Baby Varghese the penqīthā:

…was a commentary on the ceremonies of the eucharist, daily office and other liturgical rites.  This work seems to have given a theological rational for the liturgical actions.  The theological explanation given to the liturgical actions by an influential patriarch invested them with ‘a sacrosanct quality to change.’  This liturgical commentary, now lost, is used in an anonymous commentary on the anaphora and other liturgical ceremonies probably written in the ninth century.[17]

However, according to Pseudo-George of Arbel, the penqīthā in question seems to be none other than the Khudra:

Why is it that since the beginning of the year is Tishrin II, and that there is no feast from Tishrin to Kanon I, the blessed Išo‘yahb kept the Annunciation and the beginning of the penqīthā until Kanon, and did not make its beginning [to be] from Kanon?  The Church celebrates four beginnings in counting the year, and every one of them has a day and month, I mean the beginning of the year and the beginning of the penqīthā, and the beginning of the books and the beginning of the governors.  The beginning of the year is Tishrin I; the beginning of the penqīthā is Kanon I; the beginning of the books is the beginning of the season of the Fast of the Passion; and the beginning of the governors is the beginning of the season of Resurrection…and the second [of the beginnings] is that of the dispensation, i.e. the penqīthā…[18]

Thus, according to the usage of penqīthā in the Expositio, it could refer to none other than the Khudra itself.   Again, the author of the Expositio writes:  “Why is it that since the [period of] Consecration of the Church is before all of the liturgies, including Baptism [Epiphany], the blessed Išo‘yahb ordered the beginning of the penqīthā [to be] the Annunciation, and placed the baptism at Resurrection, and after all of the Khudra, ordered the Consecration of the Church…”[19]

The so-called penqīthā of Išo‘yahb is also mentioned by ‘Abdišo‘ of Nisibs in his Catalogus Auctorum. Concerning the writings of Išo‘yahb he mentions that he ordered the penqīthā d- Khudra, or the ‘volume of the Khudra.’[20] Here the understanding in clear—the penqīthā and the Khudra are one and the same volume.

It seems that in the period lasting from the christological controversies to the reforms of Išo‘yahb III, the East Syrians used to refer to the Khudra as the Penqīthā, in agreement with the West Syrian usage which is in sway to this very day. A Khudra manuscript of 1607/08, Cambridge Add. 1981, has this interesting rubric for the commemoration of ‘One Person’ (celebrated on the second Friday preceding the beginning of Lent): “The Commemoration of ‘One Person,’ and it is also known as that of Mar Aba the Catholicos.  And know, O sir reader, that in the ancient penqyāthā [pl.] it is assigned [the commemoration] of Mar Bar Sawma of Nisibis.  However, the Catholicos Ezekiel assigned it to the honor of ‘One Person,’ that is of Mar Aba the Catholicos his master.”[21]

It is highly likely that even after the period of Ezekiel’s pontificate (570-581), the Khudra was in fact referred to as the Penqīthā, and that its name was changed most probably by Išo‘yahb III once elected patriarchate, the reason being the aversion of the Church of the East to a name which the West Syrian ‘adversaries’ were utilizing for their main prayer book as well and a need to distinguish themselves from the ‘heretics.’ In conclusion, upon noting that the West Syrian equivalent to the Khudra is in fact a huge volume referred to as the Fenqīthō, and that there are many rubrics contained in the Khudra itself, one is led to believe that in fact, the penqīthā of Išo‘yahb and the Khudra are one and the same.

The final formative period of the Khudra comes with the redaction of the Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Elia I (1028-1049).[22] The Khudra underwent a revision sometime around 1250 AD.[23] According to Adolf Rücker, the last of the most famous master of the Upper Monastery to be mentioned by name was  Mar Yahb’Alaha II (1190-1222); it is most likely that this reform of ‘around 1250’ mentioned by George Percy Badger is in reference to this patriarch.[24]


A Precursory View of the Christology of the Khudra

The Christology of the Khudra is expressed, obviously, in the ecclesiastical compositions of this liturgical formulary. The very opening of the Khudra, which begins with the four Sundays of the Annunciation (Subara), in the first ‘Antiphon of the Basilike’ (ܥܘܢܝܬܼܐ ܕܒܼܣܠܝܩ̈ܐ), which is the main vesperal antiphon for Sundays, Feast Days and Commemorations, begins on a very high note, christologically speaking. The ecclesiastical compositions for the opening of the liturgical year recall the dispensation of God which was begun in Abraham, with whom the promises concerning the Christ began: “God the Word [who is] from the Father, did not take the form of the servant from angels but from the seed of Abraham. And He came [by means of] or humanity in His goodness, that He might save our race from error.”[25] The first of the Old Testament readings is, in fact, very much tied to this antiphon, for all of Genesis 17 is to be read. It recalls the election of Abraham and the giving of the Covenant and its sign (between God and Abraham) to his and his children after him.

Similarly, for the Second Sunday of Annunciation, the same antiphon proclaims: “The great mystery which was hidden from centuries and generations, was revealed to us at the end of times: for, the Only Begotten who is in the bosom of his Father came and was clothed with the form of the servant in his goodness. He has recounted and revealed to us concerning the fullness of the faith of the Trinity.”[26] This second antiphon is based on Ephesians 3:9, where St. Paul speaks of the revelation of the hidden mystery of Christ among the nations: “…and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ…”

The ‘Antiphon of the Basilike’ for the Third Sunday of Annunciation is equally Christological and incarnational in nature. The antiphon proclaims: “He who is incomprehensible and not confined by creatures fulfilled his economy by our humanity. For, the divine nature was joined to the human nature which was assumed, while not undergoing change. The Virgin gave birth in a holy manner to Christ—the Power and Wisdom of God. This [same] One we worship while we all proclaim one Son—he who is the Savior of the world.”[27] This antiphon recalls the words of St. Paul in I Corinthians 1:24, “…but to those who are called, both Jews and Arameans, Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God.”

Finally, the season of Annunciation closes with the Fourth Sunday, which the major verspertine antiphon again recalls the message of the annunciation of the eternal Son in his humanity: “The Radiance from the Father who was revealed in our humanity was seen from the house of David, and he reigns over the house of Jacob and there is no limit to his dominion. The angel announced to Mary and gave greetings full of mercy to the Virgin, and the hope which is full of good things he announced to the Holy One: ‘Peace be to you, O Blessed among women, full of hope; peace be to you and blessed are you, O who gives birth without intercourse. For, from you shall shine the Master of the height and the depth and that is in them—glory be to him from every mouth. Glorious, O my Lord, is the day of your Annunciation.”[28]

For the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension, the ‘Antiphon of the Basilike’ is even more expressive of the Church of the East’s understanding of ‘christology from above.’ This antiphon is based on Philippians 2:7, Romans 5:18 and ending with Galatians 1:8-9: “He who in his essence is God the Word, increased his compassion towards our crippled state and put on our image that it might be a dwelling for his Godhead. And he took it [= our image] and affixed it to the Cross and gave it up to death that by it he might give us life. And he made it to ascend and seated it in the heavens, above the principalities and powers. That in the manner of the First Adam we were made guilty, through the Second Adam we were justified—who can recount his marvelous generation! In this manner do we glorify and we believe with knowledge and give thanks in wonder, even as we have learned in truth. For, neither an angel from heaven if he were to come and persuade us and change us by his [own] Gospel, outside of that which we were evangelized—we shall not reject his humanity nor shall we ascribe passion to his Godhead.”[29]

The christological expressions of the Khudra are for the most part simple, yet theologically rich. The main focus is the duality of the natures, in keeping with the strict diaphysite christological creed of the Church of the East, and the unity of the natures of the Godhead and humanity in the one person of Sonship. The classic hymn ‘Blessed is the Compassionate One’ (ܒܪܝܟܼ ܚܢܢܐ) by Mar Babai the Great (ca. 551-628) is really the only ecclesiastical composition in the Khudra which expresses in a liturgical manner the Church of the East’s position concerning the duality of Qnoma in Christ.


A Brief Note on the Meaning of Qnoma

The ecclesiastical compositions of the Khudra very rarely make use of the term Qnoma in the antiphons. The duality of natures in our Lord Jesus Christ, yet stressing the unity of the natures in the one Son of God is of essential importance. ‘Qnoma’ is defined as “individual nature” or “unique nature.” In his synodical letter which deals with Christology, Patriarch Mar Isho’yahb II of Gdhala (628-646) speaks about the meaning of Qnoma in the Christological position of the Church of the East. He became patriarch in the very year that Mar Babai the Great died (i.e. 628); he is the well-known author of the Book of Union (ܡܐܡܪ̈ܐ ܕܡܪܝ ܒܒܼܝ ܥܠ ܐܠܗܘܬܼܐ ܘܥܠ ܐَܢܫܘܬܼܐ ܘܥܠ ܦܪܨܘܦܐ ܕܚܕܝܘܬܼܐ).[30] Babai the Great is the first to formally express the Church of the East’s Christological formula of two natures (ousia), two qnoma and one person of Sonship.

Isho’yahb II presented the orthodox faith contained in his Letter to Rabban Abraham d’Beth Madaye,[31] concerning how one ought to confess the only person of Christ, and which in the ancient codices was contained in the ‘Eastern Synods’ or Synodicon Orientale.[32] Concerning the definition of Qnoma, Mar Isho’yahb II writes: “And how would it be possible for the nature of the Father to be seen in his Son, if ‘qnoma’ were not in every place the definition of [a] nature and its demonstrator. On account of this, it was also fittingly named ‘individual nature’ (ousia), that is, a singular nature…”[33] Mar Isho’yahb further states that qnoma is the “genuine nature” which as the individuated nature is ‘self-subsistent.’ He concludes when speaking about the duality of natures in Christ: “…they do not constitute two Gods nor two Sons, but rather one is Christ in all things pertaining to him—one Son, one Only Begotten, one Firstborn, one Lord, one High Priest, one God—one in his being numbered with his Father, and one in his being numbered with us. This is what the union has accomplished, this is the unsearchable mystery of the economy of our Savior…”[34]



At the heart of the Church’s christological expression is the mystery of the Incarnation—that the Son of God became Man for our salvation. The Assyrian Church of the East ardently holds to the duality of natures in Christ—the divinity and the humanity—yet clearly expresses the unity of the natures in the singularity of the person of Christ the Son. The communication idiomatum is found not in the Qnoma but in the one person of the Son of God incarnate. The main liturgical formulary of the Church of the East, the Khudra, is replete with christological expressions that demonstrate the orthodoxy of her faith. I conclude with yet another antiphon, found in the night office (lelya) for the Fourth Saturday of the Resurrection: “We have gained great pride without limit over death by the Cross of Christ. By his resurrection from among the dead, he wiped out the judgment of death which entered upon us through his Passion. With great praise that is limitless we all cry out and say: ‘O Only Begotten, God the Word, he who wore our mortal body, have pity upon your servants who have confessed in your Cross.’”[35]




[1]           See John 1:1; I John 1:1.
[2]           ‘Docetism,’ from the Greek dokein (meaning, ‘to appear/seam’) was the heresy that arose first in the letter of Serapion of Antioch (bishop 197-203), who held that Jesus only ‘seemed’ to be human and that his physical body was only a phantasm.
[3]           Apollinaris of Laodicea (died 390) held that Christ did not have a human mind, but a human lower soul and a divine mind. Along with Eutychianism, Apollinarism is the extreme form of monophysitism.
[4]           ‘Arianism’ was the heresy espoused by Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria (ca. 250-336). He held and taught that Christ as the Son of God did not always exist (eternally) with the Father, but was created, and as such distinct from the nature of the Father. Thus, for Arius the Father was greater than the Son (an idea based on John 14:28). Arius’ teaching was condemned as heretical at the first ecumenical council of Nicea (325), and the condemnation was reiterated at the second ecumenical council of Constantinople I (381).
[5]           The Khudra was printed between the years 1960-62 in Thrissur, Kerala, South India by the Mar Narsai Press and with the express permission of the late His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII (1908-1975), Catholicos-Patriarch. This being the first Assyrian edition of this liturgical formulary, the other two liturgical books—the Gazza (containing the offices for feasts of our Lord and commemorations of the saints which are not based on the Sunday-cycle) and the Kashkul (containing the propers for the night, morning and evening offices for the ferial days, excluding all Sundays, feasts and commemorations)—were combined into one volume, and are now collectively referred to as the Khudra. Hereafter abbreviated as Khudra.
[6]           Stated by Prosper of Aquitaine (ca. 390-455), in the eighth book of his concerning the grace of God and free will: “Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the apostles are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing.” See Patrologia Latina 51:209-210.
[7]           Cf. W. C. Van Unnik, Nestorian Questions on the Administration of the Eucharist by Isho’yahb IV (Haarlem 1937; reprinted Amsterdam 1970) 148.
[8]           See: A. Baumstark, Geschichte der syrischen Literatur mit Ausschluss der christlich-palästinensischen Texte (Bonn 1922) 198. W. F. Macomber, “A List of the Known Manuscripts of the Chaldean Hudra” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 39 (1973) 275-306; Idem., “The Oldest Known Text of the Anaphora of the Apostles Addai and Mari” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 32 (1966) 335-371; cf. Idem., “A History of the Chaldean Mass,” Worship 51 (1977) 112.   Cf. B. Varghese, “East Syrian Liturgy During the Sassanid Period,” Harp 15 (2002) 216.
[9]           It seems that an even older extant Khudra exists in the collection of the Syriac and Soghdian Christian manuscripts found at Turfan. For my discussion this Khudra fragment, possibly older than the Mar Esha’ya manuscript by one century, see my forthcoming article: “From Mosul to Turfan: The Hūdrā in the Liturgy of the Assyrian Church of the East. A Survey of its Historical Development and its Liturgical Anomalies at Turfan.” Lecture delivered at the VIII Christianity in Iraq Seminar Day, May 2011, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. My thanks to Dr. Erica Hunter for her invitation and for providing me with digital copies of the Turfan fragments.
[10]          W.F. Macomber, “Manuscripts of the Hudra,” 120-121.  For a description of the contents of the Mar Eša‘ya Khudra see: P. Yousif, Appunti sulla preghiera liturgica del rito caldeo (commune) [= Notes on the Common Liturgical Prayer of the Chaldean Rite], (unpublished class notes at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, Rome 1982-1983) 3.
[11]          Cf. E. Tisserant, “(L’Église) nestorienne,” Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. 11.1 (Paris 1931) column 319.
[12]          Cf. A. Baumstark, Geschichte, 198.
[13]          See for example manuscript Borgia Syriac 150 (fol. 1r) and Borgia Syriac 85 (fol. 1r).
[14]          See Earnest A. W. Budge, The Book of Governors: The Historia Monastica of Thomas, Bishop of Margâ A.D. 840, volumes I-II, London 1893.
[15]          R. H. Connolly (editor & Latin translation), Anonymi Auctoris Expositio Officiorum Ecclesiae Georgio Arbelensi vulgo adscripta. Accedit Abrahae Bar Lipheh Interpretatio Officiorum, vols. I-II. Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 64, 72 – 71, 76 = Scriptores Syri 25, 29 – 28, 32, Paris-Rome 1913, 1915; reprinted Louvain 1960-1961. Hereafter abbreviated as EOE I/II.
[16]          See J.-M. Fiey, “Išo‘yaw le Grand. Vie du catholicos nestorien Išo‘yaw III d’Adiabène (580-659), Orientalia Christiana Periodica 35-36 (1969-1970) 11; P. Yousif, Appunti sulla Messa caldea [= Notes on the Chaldean Mass], (unpublished class notes at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, Rome 1982-1983) 15. Cf. BAUMSTARK, Geschichte, 198.
[17]          VARGHESE, “East Syrian Liturgy,” 217-218.
[18]          See EOE I, 25-26.
[19]          EOE II, 116-117.
[20]          J.S. Assemani (editor & Latin translation), Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana de Scriptores Syri, vols I-III/1-2 (Rome 1719-1728; reprinted Hildersheim/New York 1975; Piscataway, NJ 2002) vol. III/1, 139.
[21]          f. 94r:                         ܘܕܥ ܐܘ ܡܪܝ ܩܪܘܝܐ. ܕܘܟܼܪܢܐ ܕܚܕ ܦܪܨܘܦܐ ܘܡܬ݂ܝܕܥ ܕܡܪܝ ܐܒ̣ܐ ܩܬܼܘܠܝܩܐ؛ ܕܒ̣ܦܢܩܝܬ̈ܐ ܥܬܝܩܬ̈ܐ ܕܡܪܝ ܒܪܨܘܡܐ ܕܨܘܒ̣ܐ ܪܫܝܡ. ܒܪܡ ܚܙܩܝܐܝܠ ܩܬܘܠܝܩܐ ܣܡܗ ܠܐܝܩܪܐ ܕܚܕ ܦܪܨܘܦܐ. ܘܐܝܬ̣ܘܗܝ ܕܡܪܝ ܐܒ̣ܐ ܩܬܘܠܝܩܐ ܪܒܗ.
[22]          W.F. Macomber, “Manuscripts of the Hudra,” 122-123; Idem., “Oldest Known Text,” 342.  Cf. A. Baumstark, Geschichte, 198.  The Syriac text of all of these rites may be found in J.E.Y. KELAITA (editor), The Liturgy of the Church of the East, Mosul 1928.
[23]          Based on information “according to the historical notices found in the prefaces to this [Khudra] ritual…made in the Deir Alleita…;” see G.P. Badger, The Nestorians and Their Rituals. With Narration of a Mission to Mesopotamia and Coordistan in 1842-1844, vols. I-II (London 1852; reprinted London 1987) vol. II, 22.  Badger does not cite the alleged manuscripts from which he has extracted this historical note.  Cf. D.G. Bickel, Conceptus rei Syrorum literariae (Munich 1871) 88; J. Moolan, “The History and Structure of the Syro-Malabar Liturgical Seasons,” Christian Orient 25 (2004) 89.
[24]            A. Rücker, “Das ‘Obere Kloster’ bei Mossul and seine Bedeutung für die Geschichte der Ostsyrischen Liturgie” Oriens Christianus, third series, 7 (1932) 181 note 2; cf. C. Van Unnik, Nestorian Questions, 149.
[25]             Khudra, vol. I, 114.
[26]             Khudra, vol. I, 127.
[27]              Khudra, vol. I, 138.
[28]              Khudra, vol. I, 148-149.
[29]               Khudra, vol. II, 681.
[30]               See the Syriac text in: A. Vaschalde (editor), Babai Magni: Liber De Unione, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 79 = Scriptores Syri 34, Louvain 1915. The English translation of this text, made by the late Cor-bishop Michael J. Birnie (†2013) with an introduction by S.P. Brock, is in preparation by the Assyrian Church’s Commission on Inter-Church Relations and Educational Development (CIRED), and is due to be published late 2013/early 2014.
[31]               Founder of a monastery in the village of Ba Mada, near Mosul, who lived during the patriarchate of Mar Isho’yahb I of Arzon (582-595).
[32]              The Syriac Synodicon was edited with a French translation by J.B. Chabot in 1902. However, this letter of Mar Isho’yahb II is omitted in Chabot’s edition. For the Syriac text and French translation see: L. R. M. Sako (editor & French translation), Lettre christologique du patriarche Syro-Oriental Īšō’yahb II de Gdālā (628-646). Étude, traduction et edition critique, published doctoral dissertation, Rome 1983.
[33]              Sako, Lettre christologique, 172.
[34]               Sako, Lettre christologique, 187.
[35]               Khudra, vol. II, 634.