The Christology of the Church of the East

Dr Sebastian Brock
Traditions and Heritage of the Christian East, ed. D. Afinogenov and
A. Muraviev. Moscow: Izdatelstvo “Indrik”, 1996.


Introduction. The classic formulations of the Christology of the Church of the East are primarily to be found in the medieval compendia such as the Pearl (Marganita), by Abdisho of Nisibis (†1318), where he sets out in formulaic fashion the conflicting definitions of the three ecclesiastical communities of the Near East, the Syrian Orthodox; (Jacobites), for whom there was one kyana (ܟܝܢܐ nature) and one qnoma (ܩܢܘܡܐ hypostasis) in the incarnate Christ; the Chalcedonians (Melkites) for whom there were two kyane and one qnoma; and the Church of the East (Nestorians), who taught that there were two kyane and two qnome1 (all were agreed in one proposon). Since the origins of this formulation go back to the fifth and seventh centuries, the present paper will be confined to that formative period. Here our most important source is the collection of synods of the Church of the East, put together c.800, and generally known today as the Synodicon Orientale2. In the course of these synodical documents we have a considerable number of credal statements3; of these, the first one relevant to our purpose belongs to the year 486. In view of the paucity of other sources for the second half of the fifth century, the writings (in the form of verse homilies) of Narsai are of particular importance; several of his homilies are polemical in character and so contain many passages of christological interest4. Probably sometime after the peace with Persia near the end of Justinian`s reign, there were official discussions in Constantinople between the Greek and Persian Churches, for which a record has been preserved in a Syriac manuscript of monothelete provenance5. By far the most detailed exposition on the christology of the Church of the East from this period is the Liber de Unione by Babai the Great. (†628)6 and it was his position (advocating two qnome in the incarnate Christ) that eventually became the official teaching of the Church of the East. A number of other seventh-century Syriac writers are of relevance, notably the catholicoi Isho’yabh II7, Isho’yabh III8, and George9. Finally, mention should be made here of the florilegium of christological texts of somewhat later date, edited and translated by Abramowski and Goodman10.

Historical setting. Syriac-speaking Christianity took root outside, and to the east of, the Roman Empire from an early date, although it is only from the fourth century onwards that we begin to have reasonably good sources for the history of the Church as it developed in the Sasanian Empire11. The very fact that the Church of the East belongs geographically outside the Roman Empire had a consequence of utmost importance: since the great church councils of the Roman Empire were officially convened by the emperor, these gatherings were confined to bishops from within the Roman Empire, and so the term ecumenical in this context needs to be  understood in the sense of belonging to the Roman oikoumene. Consequently these councils were of no direct or immediate concern to the Church in Persia, that is, the Church of the East. In the course of time, however, it is not surprising that the Church of the East should have expressed an opinion on the main councils that had emerged as landmarks in the history of the Church within the Roman Empire. Thus the Council of Nicaea was officially accepted by the Church of the East at a synod held in Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 410 – a full eighty-five years after the Council had taken place.

At another synod held in 420 approval was given to the canons of a whole series of western councils, namely, Nicaea (for the second time!), Ancyra, Neocaesarea, Gangra, Antioch and Laodicea. The disorderly conduct of the Council of Ephesus, and the shabby treatment accorded to John of Antioch and his followers, naturally ensured that this Council was never received by the Church of the East12. The Council of Chalcedon was a different matter, since it was seen at least as a move in the right direction, though its doctrinal definition of faith was seen as both inadequate and illogical. The comment of the Catholicos Isho’yabh II (628-46) is typical13:

“Although those who gathered at the Synod of Chalcedon were clothed with the intention of restoring the faith, yet they too slid away from the true faith; owing to their feeble phraseology they provided a stumbling block for many. Although, in accordance with the opinion of their own minds, they preserved the true faith with the confession of the two natures, yet by their formula of one qnoma (hypostasis), it seems, they tempted weak minds. As an outcome of the affair a contradiction occurred, for with the formula of one qnoma (hypostasis) they corrupted the confession of two natures, while with the two natures they rebuked and refuted the one qnoma. Thus they found themselves standing at a crossroads, and they wavered and turned aside from the blessed ranks of the orthodox, yet they did not join the assemblies of the heretics; they both pulled down and built up, while lacking a sure foundation for their feet. On what side we should number them I do not know, for their terminology cannot stand up, as Nature and Scripture testify: for in them many qnome can be found in a single nature but it has never been the case, and it has never been heard of, that there should be various natures in a single qnoma.”

We shall be returning later to Isho’yabh’s complaint about the illogical use of the term qnoma in the Chalcedonies Definition. In the decades prior to the Council of Chalcedon, knowledge of fourth-century western synods had been brought to the synods of 410 and 420 by bishops from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire who were also serving as imperial envoys to the Sasanian court14. At the synod of 424, however, we encounter a ban imposed on appeals to western bishops, evidently since some bishops had been appealing to them as a means of undermining the authority of the bishop of Seleucia—Ctesiphon. This left the Persian School at Edessa, so named from the many students from the Persian Empire who studied there, to become the main channel through which the Church of the East became aware of theological developments in the Roman Empire. Since the School favoured a strict dyophysite position on christology, it is not surprising that from early on in the christological disputes the Church in Persia tended to see the issues at stake from an Antiochene perspective, and to have little sympathy for the Alexandrine tradition of christology.

Furthermore, it was at the Persian School of Edessa that several works of Theodore of Mopsuestia were translated into Syriac already in the 430s. Thanks to these translations, Theodore was to become, for the Church of the East, the most influential of all the Greek Fathers in matters of theology and exegesis. Babai the Great went so far as to call him the perfect disciple of the apostles and the shrine of the Holy Spirit15. After the closure of the School of the Persians by the emperor Zeno in 489, the school was effectively transferred across the border to Nisibis. Thus, during the course of the sixth and early seventh century, when the School of Nisibis16 was at its apogee, a strict form of Antiochene christology came to be widely propagated within the Susanna Empire.

The place of the Church of the East within the theological Spectrum. All too often in the past the history of doctrine has been presented by means of a threefold model, where orthodox Chalcedon is seen as flanked on one side by heretical Monophysites and on the other by heretical Nestorians. Both modern scholarship and ecumenical dialogue have shown how perverse and misleading such a simplistic model is. It is thus of urgent importance that an alternative model, more sensitive to the gradations between the Antiochene and Alexandrine poles of the christological spectrum be adopted. For our present purposes I would propose a sevenfold model (see the accompanying table). Starting at the Alexandrine end of the spectrum the first position would be that of Eutyches, who supposedly held that Christ was consubstantial only with the Father. For this clearly heretical position one could keep the term monophysite. Very sharply to be distinguished from Eutychian position is that of Severus of Antioch and others17; this second position is of course that of the Oriental Orthodox Churches today, and this makes it all the more important avoid using, with reference to this position, the ambiguous, and hence misleading, term monophysite; I would suggest instead the term miaphysite18. The third position, as we move across the spectrum, would be that of the Neo-Chalcedonians, with their acceptance of both the Chalcedonian in two natures and the Cyrilline one incarnate nature of God the Word.

Next we have the position of silence concerning Chalcedon, represented by Zeno’s Henoticon and the Corpus of writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. Moving over from the Alexandrine to the Antiochene christoligical tradition we have two positions which are clearly very close, firstly the strict dyophysites within the Roman Empire, represented by such people as Theodoret, the Akoimetai monks and the Roman Church, and secondly the dyophysites outside the Roman Empire – in other words, the position of the Church of the East. Then finally, we have the extreme Antiochene position, teaching two prosopa, which may or may not have been held by Nestorius.

With such a model it can readily be seen that different theological criteria will lead to different groupings. If the Council of Chalcedon’s definition of faith is taken as the yardstick of orthodoxy, then only the middle three positions are acceptable; if, however, one were to adjudicate on the basis of the combination of two other criteria of orthodoxy, namely a single subject in Christ, and Christ as consubstantial both with the Father and with humanity, then one would have much more comprehensive picture, for this would allow the inclusion of both the Oriental Orthodox and the Church of the East.

Seen against this broader spectrum, then, it should begin to be clear that it is hardly satisfactory to pronounce judgment on the christological teaching of either the Church of the East or that of the Oriental Orthodox Churches solely by using the Chalcedonian Definition as the yardstick of orthodoxy. In this connection two further important points need to be remembered: first, the mode of theological discourse used at the Council of Chalcedon is by no means the only one appropriate for expressing the mystery of the Incarnation, and, secondly, the terms nature and hypostasis were open to several different understandings, and this problem of ambiguity only became more pronounced when they were translated into Syriac. It is to these problems of terminology that we should now turn.

Technical terms. In the fourth century two very different modes of theological discourse existed side by side: one, characteristic of the Greek-speaking world, was analytic in character, and during the course of the Arian controversy and its aftermath, this had adopted some of the tools of Greek philosophy; the other, more characteristic of the Syriac-speaking world, was suspicious of definitions of faith, in that these were seen as setting boundaries (fines) to, and thus attempting to contain, the Uncontainable second approach, of which Ephrem is the most prominent proponent, preferred instead to use the language of poetry, paradox and metaphor. Although in the course of the fifth century it was the Greek theological agenda and mode of discourse that dominated the scene in both languages, the other approach by no means disappeared (it survived above all in the context of liturgical poetry). As far as the Church of the East is concerned, the preservation of phraseology characteristic of this earlier Syriac tradition accounts for some of the distinctive features of its christological discourse: these features are in fact archaic survivals which had been dropped elsewhere in the Christian world, but, owing to its isolation, have been preserved in the writers of the Church in Persia. A single example will help to illustrate this.

The earliest surviving Syiac writers regularly, use as a metaphor for the incarnation, the phrase He put on the body(ܠܒܫ ܦܓܪܐ)19 and it was only natural that this phrase should have been the one chosen to render ὲσαρκώθη in the earliest Syriac translation of the Nicene Creed20. The metaphor is of course by no means confined to Syriac writers, for it can also be found in many early Greek and Latin Christian writers. In the course of the fifth century, however, this and related phraseology came to be dropped, above all by writers in the Alexandrine christological tradition, since it was considered to be open to misunderstanding; thus Philoxenos of Mabbug complained that its use in certain places in the Peshitta translation of the New Testament inclined to the position of Nestorius who cast the body on to the Word as one does a garment on to an ordinary body, or as purple is put on an emperor21 (it was because of misleading renderings such as these that Philoxenos sponsored the revision of the Syriac New Testament known by his name). Already at the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 Ibas had come under attack from his enemies for using the imagery of purple in connection with the incarnation22, yet only a few decades earlier it had been perfectly acceptable in the Doctrina Addai, Edessa’s famous foundation legend23; and before that, such language had freely been used by authoritative writers like Ephrem24. The ancient Syriac metaphor of clothing in connection with the incarnation thus only continued in widespread use in the Church of the East, and throughout the sixth and seventh centuries we find numerous reflections of it, such as the garment of humanity in Mar Aba’s Letter of 54425, or the robe of His humanity in the Synod of 57626.

The christological language of the Church of the East had an archaic flavor in another respect, as well. Over the course of the fifth to the seventh century an enormous amount of Greek patristic literature was translated into Syriac; needless to say, most of this took place in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, rather than in the Persian Empire, and so the Church of the East became aware of this material at first in chiefly through its main point of contact with the Church in the Roman Empire, namely, the Persian School in Edessa, which (as we have already seen) had already provided Syriac translations of many of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s works in the 430s. Owing to the ever-increasing influence and prestige of Greek in the Syriac-speaking Church27, translators from Greek into Syriac moved, over the course of two and a half centuries, from a rather free and paraphrastic form of translation to a more and more literal style which, by the beginning of the seventh century, aimed to reflect as many details as possible of the Greek original. This shift in translation practice can readily be observed in both biblical and patristic translations made during this period, and over the course of time the various translators developed more and more sophisticated techniques of literal translation28. Thus, in the case of Greek texts where we have two Syriac translations, the later one if often a revision of the earlier, and time and time again one can observe the reviser replacing dynamic renderings of his predecessor by formal equivalents. This process can above all be seen in the treatment of terms for the incarnation. Whereas early translators had translated ὲσαρκώθη by the standard Syriac phrase of the incarnation ܠܒܫ ܦܓܪܐ,  He put on the body, in the course of the fifth century this was replaced by ܐܬܓܫܡ He was embodied, and finally by ܐܬܒܣܪ He was enfleshed, a direct calque on the Greek verb. A particularly significant innovation was the introduction of the neologism, ܐܬܒܪܢܫ He was inhominated, to render ένανθρωπέω; this seems to be associated with Philoxenos’ concern for accurate Christological terminology in Syriac, and its introduction probably belogs to c.50029. These new terms in due course became familiar to writers of the Church of the East, and are all found in Babai’s Liber de Unione; however, it is significant that, while the synod of Isho’yabh I (585) uses the terms ܐܬܓܫܢ and ܡܬܓܫܡܢܘܬܐ, Mar Aba (544) still uses the native Syriac terminology, ܐ݉ܢܫܘܬܐ ܕܠܒܫ the humanity which He put on30; the verb ܐܬܒܪܢܫ, and the noun ܡܬܒܪܢܫܢܘܬܐ inhomination, never feature the credal statements of the sixth-century synods (ܐܬܒܪܢܫ does, however, occur in the secondary East Syrian revision of the translation of the Nicene Creed).

The Greek terms physis and hypostasis, so central to the christological debates of the fifth and sixth centuries, posed their own problems, both in Greek and in Syriac. We have already seen the Catholicos Isho’yabh II complaining about the illogicality of the Chalcedonian Definition, speaking of two natures and one hypostasis31. Exactly the same complaint was made from the other end of the theological spectrum by no less a theologian than Severus of Antioch, who wrote32:

“It is obvious to all who have just a modicum of training in the teachings of true religion that it is contradictory to speak of two natures with reference to one Christ, he being on hypostasis. For whenever one speaks of one hypostasis one must necessarily also speak of one nature.”

Severus and Isho’yahb of course have two different starting points, the former with his emphasis on the oneness of the incarnate Christ, the latter with his concern for the full reality of the two natures, divinity and humanity, in the same incarnate Christ. But besides having different starting points, the two men have different understandings of what the two technical terms imply, and here the ambiguity is to be found in both Greek and in Syriac, though the latter there is a further problem, due to the say that, for Severus, physis is virtually synonymous with hypostasis, and with this understanding of the term, the dyophysite formula of Chalcedon is manifestly unsatisfactory. For Isho’yahb, however, kyana/ϕύσιϚ is far closer in sense to ousia than it is to hypostasis, and accordingly, a strict dyophysite position is essential if Christ is to be consubstantial with both the Father and with humanity. This understanding of kyana in the Church of the East was in fact bolstered by the earliest Syriac equivalent for homoousios by bar kyana, son of, i. e. belonging to, the same nature. The term ܒܪ ܟܝܢܐ remained in currency in the Church of the East long after it had generally been superseded in the us of the Syriac-speaking churches of the Roman Empire, where more literal renderings, such as ܒܪ ܐܝܬܘܬܐ of the same being, ,ܫܘܐ ܒܐܝܬܘܬܐ equal in being, ܫܘܐ ܒܘܣܝܼܐ equal in ousia had taken over33.

Although hypostasis was always rendered into Syriac as qnoma, the term qnoma has much a wider range of sense than does hypostasis, and in any discussion of the christology of the Church of the East, it would seem advisable to retain the Syriac term qnoma, rather than retrovert it as hypostasis. This is especially important when dealing with the distinctive teaching of the Church of the East which emerged in the course of the sixth century concerning the two qnome. (We shal return to this development in due course). In early Syriac qnoma simply means self, and can sometimes be translated person, as in the phrase, ܒܲܩܢܘܿܡܹܗ in his own person. It never, however, renders πρὀσωπου, and in a christological context it should never be translated person, though a number of scholars have, at least in the past, most misleadingly done so. For most writers of the Church of the East in the sixth century qnoma represents the individual example, or manifestation, of a kyana, or nature – a term which, as we have seen, they understood as having a generic or abstract sense.

Development in the texts of the fifth to seventh centuries.
Thanks to the witness of Narsai, the Synodicon Orientale and Babai, to name only the most important sources, it is possible to trace in outline the development of the christological teaching of the Church of the East in this formative period.

Narsai has a number of verse homilies which touch on christology. It is clear that these were written in the context of polemic against those who failed to keep the distinction between the divinity and humanity in the incarnate Christ. Narsai himself points out that, because of this polemical context34,

the zeal of foolish men
… has compelled me to distinguish the natures:
although I have distinguished the natures,
the glorious things from the lowly,
yet in my confession I have not made any split,
for it is in the one Son that I confess;
a single Lordship do I believe,
a single authority do I recognise,
as I worship equally
the Word and the habitation which He chose;
I acknowledge the King Who put on
the purple of the body of Adam;
I worship the Lord Who made great
our nature, together with His greatness.
(If) I have distinguished the one from the other,
this was not through division of mind,
but so that the accursed may not consider
that the Son is created, as they have imagined.

In this short passage it is easy to pick up echoes of the language of Theodore, notably in the metaphor of indwelling35. Significant, too, is the reappearance of two archaic features, the term body of Adam to describe Christs human nature, and the imagery of a king putting on a purple robe to portray the process of the incarnation.

Later on in the same homily Narsai specifically rejects any idea that there are two prosopa in the incarnate Christ36:

Let not the hearer suppose
by the fact that I have distinguished the natures
that I am speaking of two prosopa
which are distant from one another.
I am talking of one prosopon,
of the Word and the temple he chose (cf. John 2:21),
and I confess one Son,
but I preach in two natures:
the venerated and glorious nature of the Word,
the Being (ܐܝܼܬܝܐ) from His Father,
and our nature which He took
in accordance with the promises He made.
Perfect in His divinity,
for He is equal with His Begetter,
and complete in His humanity,
with soul and body of mortal beings.
Two that became, in the union,
a single love and a single will…

A point of contention between the Antiochene and Alexandrine christological positions lay in the interpretation of John 1:14, the Word became flesh and tabernacle in us. To theologians in the Antiochene tradition, any idea that the Word became, i.e. changed into, flesh, was anathema; instead, Narsai paraphrases the beginning of the verse as there came into being flesh, and He (the Word) dwelt (ܥܡܪ) in us; he then comments, it was not that (the Word) was lowered to a state of coming into being (ܠܘ ܠܗܘܝܐ ܐܬܗܬܝ),… but that He fashioned (lit. composed) for Himself flesh, and dwelt (ܥܡܪ) in His good will37. It is interesting to note that a centur or so later babai reiterates this interpretation in his Liber de Unione38.

There were two main reasons for Narsai’s rejection of the Alexandrine interpretation of John 1:14; in the first place, by imputing change to the Word it failed to preserve the utter transcendence of the divinity (that is why, at the end of the first passage quoted, Narsai accuses his opponents of holding that the Son is created). But perhaps even more important is Narsai’s soteriological concern, which comes out in another homily39:

If the Word became flesh,
let us enquire whose flesh it was:
did He bring it down with Him from the height,
or is it the flesh of a human being?
If He Himself (ܒܲܩܢܘܿܡܹܗ) became flesh,
and He did not take flesh from Mary,
what did His becoming flesh in what belonged to Him (ܒܕܝܼܠܹܗ)
help our (human) nature?
…how were mortals benefitted
by the Word Who became flesh,
Seeing that He came flesh in His own nature (ܒܲܟܝܵܢܹܗ),
while our nature remained in its low estate.

For Narsai (and the tradition of the Church of the East in general) salvation is effected through the assumed human nature of the incarnate Christ, and so it is essential to keep this nature distinct from the divinity if salvation is going to be effective for humanity. As we shall see, the Alexandrine christological tradition has a different conception of how salvation is effected in Christ.

It is not possible to give any precise dating to Narsai’s homilies, but presumably they will belong to the last decades of the fifth century. The first synod of the Church of the East subsequent to the Council of Chalcedon whose doctrinal statement survives is that of 48640. The language is strictly dyophysite, confessing the two natures, of the divinity and of the humanity, while none of us shall dare to introduce mixture, mingling of confusion into the differences of these two natures, though there is a single Lordship and a single (object of) worship. The union of the two natures is described as a nqiputa (corresponding to Greek synapheia). Anathema is pronounced on all who teach that suffering and change apply to (lit. attach to) the divinity of our Lord, and on all who fail to preserve, with respect to the unione of the prosopon of our Saviour, a confession of perfect God and perfect Man. As in Narsai, so here we can observe the unmistakable influence of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and the same concern to maintain the separate identity of the humanity and the divinity. I have quoted from the credal statement of this synod of 486 in some detail, since in most western textbooks the unwary student is told that it was at this synod that the Church of the East adopted Nestorianism41. Such an interpretation of the synod’s statement of faith can only be described as perverse and utterly misleading.

The short statement of the synod of 55442 reaffirms that we preserve the characteristics (ܕܝܠܝܬܐ, corresponding to ἰδιότητεϚ) of the natures, thereby getting rid of confusion, disturbance, alteration and change. At the same time, anyone who speaks of two Christs or two Sons, is anathematized. In subsequent credal statements we find such phrases as single union of the divinity and the humanity of Christ, Jesus Christ in the unification of His natures (Synod of 585)43, in an indivisible union, prosopic union (confession of faith by Isho’yahb I)44, (the divinity and the humanity are united in a true union of the one person (πρὀσωπου) of the Son, Christ (Synod of 605)45, the wonderful conjunction (ܢܩܦܐ) and inseparable union that took place from the very beginning of the fashioning (Assembly of bishops in 612)46. Significantly, the term qnoma in these credal statements of the sixth century is confined to a Trinitarian context (thus in the Letter of Mar Aba (544), the synods of 576, 585, 596, 605), and it is only in the document produced by the assembly of bishops that we first find the term qnoma used in a christological context, in the phrase the qnoma of His humanity47 – to be joined, in a related document, by its counterpart qnoma of the divinity48. This second document (which constitutes a reply to the theological opponents) also contains the phrase Christ is two natures and two qnome. It is to this development that I now turn.

The teaching of two qnome is primarily associated with the theologian Babai the Great49, and it was probably under his influence that we find this phraseology in the document of 612. For Babai, qnoma certainly does not have the sense of self-existent hypostasis. It is significant that the phrase he most frequently used is the two natures and their qnome. For him kyana, nature is the abstract, i.e. divinity, humanity, while qnoma is the individual instance of a particular kyana, an individuated nature. Such a qnoma does not necessarily have to exist independently, and in the case of Christ this is definitely not the case: here the qnoma of the divinity is Christ’s divinity, and the qnoma of the humanity is Christ’s humanity. Babai emphasizes on a number of occasions that these two qnome have been united since the very moment of conception of the one Son50.

It is unclear how this teaching concerning the two qnome emerged as the official doctrine of the Church of the East: it certainly did not originate with Babai (who improbably claimed it went back to Theodore of Mopsuestia). In any case qnome already feature in the report of the theological discussions with the Chalcedonians in Constantinople, arranged by Justinian (probably soon after 561)51, and a possible earlier witness is to be found in Homily 17, attributed to Narsai52. Though the attribution to Narsai cannot stand53, it is very possible that the homily belongs to the sixth century. In Babai’s own time there were certainly opposition to the formula of two qnome, as we know from the controversies surrounding Hnana, head of the School of Nisibis, and Sahdona, bishop of Mahoza d-Arewan (in Beth Garmai)54, furthermore, Babai recognized that many former Fathers had used qnoma in the sense of parsopa, and that this was still the case, so they say, in Byzantine territory; this, however, he goes on, should be avoided, in order to counter theopaschite teaching55.

Soteriology. Two main concerns can be identified as underlying the Church of the East’s insistence on duality in Christ, and its firm distinction between the two natures. First is the concern to maintain the utter transcendence of the divinity, and the abhorrence of the idea that suffering could touch the divinity (here it should be noted that suffering, hasha/πάθοϚ, evidently had overtones of fallen human nature for them). More important from our present point of view, is the second concern, which is a soteriological one. This concern has already come to our notice in the third of the passages quoted from Narsai. Exactly the same concern emerges clearly from a Letter on christology written c.68O by the Catholicos George56

“If Christ had not been truly human and accepted death in His humanity for our sake, – being innocent of sin – and had not God Who is in Him raised Him up, it would not have been possible for us sinners, condemned to death, to acquire hope of resurrection from the dead; for if it had been God who died and rose – in accordance with the wicked utterance of the blasphemers – then it would only be God, and those who are innocent, like Him, who would be held worthy of the resurrection, and He would have provided assurance of resurrection only to those who were consubstantial with Him (ܒܢܝ ܟܝܢܗ), and not to our guilty mortal nature.”

From these, and other passages, it is clear that, for the theologians of the Church of the East, salvation was effected for humanity through the human nature of Christ (expressed sometimes as ܒܪܢܫܐ the Man, rather than ܐ݉ܢܫܘܬܐ humanity): this was raised up in glory (Babai indeed Says, divinized)57 at the resurrection. Given this model, it is obvious that it is essential to lay the emphasis on the duality of the natures in Christ; at the same time, it becomes readily understandable why the Church of the East had such a horror of the Cyrilline teaching of the one incarnate nature of God the Word, seeing that this would wreck the hope of salvation for humanity. The Alexandrine conception of how salvation for humanity is effected was, of course, quite different: for them, what was essential was to express the full reality of the incarnation of God the Word, for what is not assumed is not saved. As a consequence of this understanding of salvation it was necessary to emphasize the aspect of oneness in Christ, since duality implied that God the Word had not become fully Man. For both poles of the christological spectrum Christ was completely God and completely Human, and consubstantial both with the Father and with humanity, but because they had two quite different conceptual models of how salvation for humanity was effected by Christ, they necessarily adopted two different christological formulations that on the surface are mutually contradictory, but which, at a much deeper level, were both trying to express, from different standpoints, the same ineffable mystery. If one keeps in mind the Church of the East’s view of how salvation is effected, it furthermore becomes obvious why the term θεοτοκοϚ/ܝܠܕܬ ܐܠܗܐ never came to be adopted in this Church: since salvation comes through the humanity, taken by God the Word from the Virgin, it is hardly appropriate to speak of her giving birth to God, since this would at best obscure, at worst imply the denial of, the reality of human salvation. With the Alexandrine understanding of salvation, on the other hand, the title simply emphasizes the full reality of the incarnation of God the Word, and so is entirely fitting.

Nestorius? I have deliberately left the question of Nestorius to the end of my paper. Already in the Middle Ages Abdisho complains about the injustice of the designation of the Orientals as Nestorians, pointing out that Nestorius was not their patriarch, and they did not know his language58. A very similar point was made by the present Catholicos, Mar Dinkha, at his consecration (in London) in1976: Nestorius was a Greek, and has nothing directly to do with the Church of the East.

In the theological polemic of the fifth and sixth centuries the term Nestorian was used as a way of denigrating one’s opponent, and to the miaphysites all dyophysites tended to be seen as Nestorians, or at best, crypto-Nestorians. It was a means of condemning by association, and accordingly the term in texts of that period meant little more than dyophysite, or at most, strict dyophysite. The question of Nestorius’ own teaching, of such great interest to modern scholars59, is actually of very little relevance to the Church of the East, for whom Nestorius is primarily a symbolic figure of someone who was a martyr to the Antiochene christlogical cause. This can be clearly seen from the earliest document from the Church of the East to refer to him, the verse homily on the Three Doctors by Narsai60. The three doctors in question are Diodore, Theodore and Nestorius. Narsai clearly knows something about Diodore, quite a lot about Theodore (whom he had clearly read in Syriac translation), but extremely little about. Nestorius. The only work of Nestorius to get into Syriac was his second apology, the Liber Heracleidis61, and this was only translated c.540 and had little influence on any Syriac writer apart from Babai. Nestorius does not receive a single mention in any of the fifth and sixth-century synods of the Church of the East, and the Anaphora under his name certainly does not belong to him.

Thus there exist two conflicting conceptions of Nestorius and Nestorianism: on the one hand, for both the Chalcedonian Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches Nestorius has traditionally been seen as an arch-heretic who preached two prosopa in Christ, while for the Church of the East he was little more than a name to be honoured on the grounds that he had suffered at Cyril`s hand for the cause of the Antiochene dyophysite christological tradition. Whatever may be the truth about the nature of Nestorius’ teaching, it is clear that the term Nestorian, like the term Monophysite, is open to two very different understandings, and so serves as an open invitation to misunderstanding. Accordingly it would seem imperative to drop both terms in connection with the non-Chalcedonian Churches to which they traditionally, and opprobriously, been applied by the Churches in the Chalcedonian tradition.

In modern times ecumenical dialogue between the Chalcedonies and non-Chalcedonian Churches has primarily been concentrated on discussions with the Oriental Orthodox Churches, that is, those belonging to the Alexandrine end of the christological spectrum. In this area notable advances in removing past misunderstandings on each side over the other’s christological teaching. The Church of the East, representing the opposite end of the spectrum, has, by contrast, been rather left out of consideration62. In very recent years, however, some attention has been paid to this matter in the Middle East Council of Churches (of which the Church of the East has not yet been accepted as a member), and the Pro Oriente Stiftung in Vienna has now initiated informal consultations on the christology of the Church of the East, at which representatives of all the Churches of Syriac liturgical tradition are present. A number of significant papers were presented at Pro Oriente’s consultation held in Vienna last June, and it is to be hoped that future meetings will continue to remove misunderstandings in due course produced concrete results.



1 `Abdisho`. Marganita III.4; the text is given in Assemani J. S. Bibliotheca Orientals, III.1, Rome, 1725. p. 354-355. In both Assemani`s Latin and in the English translation by Badger G.P. The Nestorians and their Rituals. Vol. II, L., 1852, p. 399-400, qnoma is most misleadingly translated as person. Regrettably this perverse rendering has also been adapted by certain more recent western scholars as well.

2 Edited with French translation by Chabot J. B. Synodicon Orientale. P., 1902. There is also a German translation by Brown O. Das Buch der Synhados oder Synodicon Orientale. Stuttgart-Wien. 1900 (reprinted Amsterdam, 1975). An English translation by M.J. Birnie is in preparation.

3 An English translation of these is provided in my: The Christology of the Church of the East in the Synods of the fifth to early seventh centuries // G. Dragas (ed.), Aksum-Thyateira; a Festschrift for Archbishop Methodios. L., 1985, p. 125-142, reprinted in my: Studies in Syriac Christianity. L., 1992, ch. XII.

4 Particularly relevant here are the Homilies on the Nativity, Epiphany, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, edited with an English translation by F.G. McLeod in Patrologia Orientalis 40.1 (1979). Two other important homilies, no. 56 on the Dedication of the Church, and no. 81 on John 1:14, are available only in the rare photographic edition published by the Patriarchal Press (San Francisco, 1970), I, p. 581-95, and II, p. 206-18; an analysis of the homily on John 1:14, by J. Frishman, is shortly to be published in The Harp (Kottayam).

5 Edited with French translation by Guillaumont A. Justinien et l`Eglise de Perse // Dumbarton on Oaks Papers 23/24. 1969/70, p. 39-66.

6 Edited with Latin translation by A.Vaschalde, CSCO 79-80 = Scriptores Syri 34- 35 (1915). There is a very helpful general presentation of Babai’s christology by a Syro-Malankara scholar: Chediath G. The Christology of Mar Babai the Great, Kottayam, 1982; and important discussions by L. Abramowski in her; Die Christologie Babais des Grossen // [I] Symposium Syriacum (Orientalia Christiana Analecta 197), 1974, p. 219-245; and Babai der Grosse; christologische Probleme und ihre Losungen // Orientalia Christiana Periodica 41, 1975, p. 290-343. Unfortunately there are no reliable extant sources for the christological teaching of Babai`s theological opponent, Hnana.

7 Edited with French translation by Sako L. Lettre christologique du Patriarche syro-oriental Isho’yahb II de Gdala. Rome, 1983. Also of interest is the case of Maryrius, or Sahdona, who was deposed from his see as a result of his Christological teaching: see de Halleux A. La christologie de Martyrios/Sahdona dans l’evolution du nestorianisme // Orientalia Christiana Periodica 23, 1957.  p. 5-32.

8 Edited with Latin translation by R. Duval. Isho’yahb Patriarch. Liber Epistularum, CSCO 11-12 = Scriptores Syri 11-12 (1905). Isho’yahb III follows Babai in his Christology.

9 Letter to Mina, edited with Latin translation by J.B. Chabot, Synodicon Orientale (Paris, 1902),

p. 227-244 (tr. 490-514).

10 Edited with English translation by Abramowski L. and Goodman A. A Nestorian collection of Christological Texts, I-II Cambridge, 1972.

11 The standard work on the early history of the Church of the East remains Labourt J. Le christianisme dans l`empire perse sous la dynastie sassanide. P., 1904; supplemented by: Fiey J.-M. Jalons pour une histoire de l`église en Iraq // CSCO 310 (1970). A helpful general survey can he found in: Young W. G. Patriarch Shah, and Caliph. Rawalpindi, 1974. There is also a brief overview in my; Christians in Sasanian Empire: a case of divided loyalties// Studies in Church History 18, 1982, p. 1-19; reprinted in: Syriac Perspectives on Late Antiquity. L., 1984, ch. VI

12 There is an interesting study of this Council by a metropolitan of the Church of the

East, Mar Aprem, The Council of Ephesus (Trichur, 1978). For an important study by A. de Halleux on the first session of the Council, see his: La premiere session du Concile d’Ephese (22 juin 431) // Ephemerides THeologicae Lovanienses 59, 1993, p. 48-87.

13 Ed. Sako [n. 7], sections 42—49.

14 For this role of bishops, see Garsoian N. Le role de l’hierarchie chrétienne dans les rapports diplomatiques entre Byzance et les Sassanides // Revue des Etudes Armeniennes, NS 10, 1973, p. 119-38, reprinted in her: Armenia Between Byzantium and the Sassanians. L., 1985, ch. VIII; and Sako L. Le role de la hierarchie syriaque orientale dans les rapports diplomatiques entre le Perse et Byzance aux Ve-VIIe siècles. P., 1986).

15 Liber De Unione, p. 246.

16 On the School of Nisibis, see especially: Voobus A. The School of Nisibis // CSCO, Subsidia 26, 1965; also Wolska W. La topographie chretienne de Cosmas Indicopleustes. Theologie et science au. Vle siècle. P., 1962, ch. II Cosmas et l’ecole de Nisibe

17 These from the beginning have regularly condemned Eutyches’ position.

18 Or the more anglicized form henophysite (by analogy with henotheist), which I have used in: The Christology of the Church of the East…[n. 3].

19 See my: Clothing metaphors as a means of theological expression in Syriac tradition // M. Schmidt (ed.). Typus, Symbol, Allegorie bei den ostlichen Vatern und ihren Parallelen im Mittelalter. Regensburg, 1982, p. 11-38, reprinted in my Studies in Syriac Christinaity. L., 1992, ch. XI.

20 See Gribomont J. Le symbole de foi de Seleucie-Ctesiphon (410) // R.H. Fischer (ed.)., A Tribute to Arthur Voobus. Chicago, 1977, p. 283-294; and de Halleux A. Le symbole des eveques perses au synode de Seleucie-Ctesiphon (410) // G. Wiessner (ed.)., Erkenntnisse und Meinungen II (Gottinger Orientforschungen, Reihe Syriaca, 17), 1978, p. 161-190.

21 Philoxene de Mabbog. Commentaire du prologue johannique / ed. A. de Halleux; CSCO 380, Scriptores Syri 165, 1977, p. 53. For the background, see my: The resolution of the Philoxenian/Harklean problem // New Testament Textual Criticism: Essays in Honour of B.M. Metzger. Oxford, 1981, p. 325-343.

22 Flemming J. Akten der Ephesinischen Synode vom Jahre 449 Syrisch (Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissnschaften in Gottingen, phil.-hist. KI., NF 15,1, Berlin, 1917, repr. Gottingen, 1970, S. 46.

23 Phillips G. the Doctrine of Addai. L., 1876, p. 19/20* (the English translation misleadingly renders argwana as vestment, rather than purple). On the Edessene milieu to which the Doctrine of Addai belongs, see my: Historical fiction in the fifth-century Edessa. The Teaching of Addai and some related texts // forthcoming in the proceedings of the Syriac Symposium held at Brown University in 1991.

24 E.g. Hymns on the Nativity 21:5, Hymns on Faith 91:2.

25 Synodicon Orientale, ed. Chabot [n. 2], p. 542; English translation [n. 3], p. 135.

26 Synodicon Orneitale, p. 113; English translation, p. 136. In his Liber de Unione [n. 6] Babai points out that the image of a garment and its wearer was intended to illustrate the voluntary character of the conjunction of the two natures, (p. 233), and to point to the existence of two kyane (p. 241).

27 I have tried to sketch out this development in my: From antagonism to assimilation: Syriac attitudes to Greek learning // N. Garsoian, T. Matthews and R. Thomson (eds.)., East of Byzantium: Syriac and Armenia in the Formative Period. Washington DC, 1982, p. 17-34, reprinted in my: Syriac Perspectives on Late Antiquity, ch. V.

28 See for further details my: Towards a history of Syriac translation // III Symposium Syriacum (Orientalia Christiana Analecta 221), 1983, p. 1-14, reprinted in my: Studies in Syriac Christianity, ch. X.

29 See de Halleux A. La philoxenienne du symbole // II Symposium Syriacum (Orientalia Christiana Analecta 205), 1978, p. 295-415; also Gribomont J. La catechese de Severe d’Antioche et le Credo // Parole de l’Orient 6/7, 1975/6, p. 125-158.

30 Babai uses the rlated phrase lbesh ‘nashutan, He put on our humanity (Liber de Unione, p. 48), though elsewhere he normally uses terminology of Greek origin.

31 See note 13.

32 Severi Antiocheni orations ad Nephalium / ed. J. Lebon, CSCO 119, Scriptores Syri 64, 1949, p. 16.

33 Thus Babai normally uses bar kyana (Liber de Unione, p. 202, 207, 264, etc.); bar kyaneh, alongside bar ituteh, features in the Synod of 585.

34 Narsai, Homily 56 (ed. Patriarchal Press), I, p. 594.

35 E.g. in his Commentary on John / ed. J.B. Chabot, CSCO 115 Scriptores Syri 62, 1940, p. 33. The phraseology also occurs in the Letter of Ibas, a document accepted at the Council of Chalcedon.

36 Narsai, Homily 56 (ed. Patriarchal Press), I, p. 588-589.

37 Narsai, Homily 81 (ed. Patriarchal Press), II, p. 209.

38 Babai, Liber de Unione, p. 126. Philoxenos polemicizes against this exegesis on a number of occasions; see further my: From Annunciation to Pentacost: the travels of a technical term // Eulogema: Studies in Honor of Robert Taft SJ (Studia Anselmiana 110), 1993, p. 71-91, esp. p. 75-76.

39 Narsai, Homily 81 (ed. Patriarchal Press), II, p. 212

40 Synodicon Orientale [n. 2], p. 54-55; English translation [n. 3], p. 133-134. W. Macomber, in his: The christology of the Synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon AD 486 // Orientalia Christiana Periodica 24, 1958, p. 142-154, tends to interpret the phraseology inmalam partem, though he has to concede that it is also true that the words used can be taken as materially orthodox.

41 Thus even so great a scholar as W. de Vries, in his: Die syrisch-nestorianische Haltung zu Chalkedon // Das Konzil von Chalkedon, I, Wurzburg, 1951, S. 603, wrote Das offizielle Annahme des Nestorianismus durch die persische Kirche geschah auf der Synode von Seleukia des Jahres 486.

42 Synodicon Orientale, p. 97; English translation, p. 135.

43 Synodicon Orientale, p. 134; English translation, p. 136.

44 Synodicon Orientale, p. 195; English translation, p. 138-139.

45 Synodicon Orientale, p. 201; English translation, p. 140.

46 Synodicon Orientale, p. 565; English translation, p. 141.

47 Synodicon Orientale, p. 567; English translation, p. 141.

48 Synodicon Orientale, p. 575; English translation, p. 142.

49 See the literature cited in n. 6.

50 Thus Liber de Unione, p. 59f., 88f.

51 See n. 5; for a discussion of the date, see Lee A. D. Evagrius, Paul of Nisibis and the problem of loyalties in the mid-sixth century // Journal of Ecclesastical History 44, 1993, p. 569-585, esp. p. 576-577.

52 A. Mingana omits the passage in his edition (I, p. 282), but mentions it in his introduction, p. 10 n. 2: Two natures, it is said, and two qonme is our Lord, in one prosopon of the divinity and the humanity. Cp also the English translation by R. H. Connolly, The Liturgical Homilies of Narsai. Cambridge, 1909, p. 14.

53 See my: Diachronic aspects of Syriac word formation: an aid for dating anonymous texts // V Symposium Syriacum (Orientalia Christiana Analecta 236), 1990, p. 321-330, esp. p. 327-328. It is in fact possible to see from a passage of genuine Narsai how the two qnome teaching could have arisen in Syriac writers: in the Homily on the Nativity (ed. McLeod), lines 413-144, Narsai writes, with reference to John 1:14, It is possible for one to tabernacle in another in perfect love, but how is it possible for one to tabernacle in himself/in his/qnoma?.

54 For Sahdona, see the reference in note 7. The general context of the development of the two qnome teaching is well brought out by Reinink G. Tradition and the formation of the “Nestorian” identity in 6th-7th century Iraq // forthcoming in the proceedings of the Fourth Workshop (London, 1994) on Late Antiquity and Early Islam. At an unknown date the text of the Chalcedonian Definition of faith was tacitly altered so that it incorporated the Church of the East’s two qnome doctrine: see de Halleux A. // La falsification du symbole de Chalcadoine dans le Synodicon nestorien // Melanges offerts e J. Dauvillier. Toulouse, 1979, p. 375-384.

55 Babai, Liber de Unione, p. 305-306.

56 Synodicon Orientale, p. 237. The curious imagery of Christ’s body as a hostage which can be traced back to Aphrahat and Ephrem, likewise points to the central importance of Christ’s human nature in the Church of the East’s conception of salvation; for detals, see my: Christ “the Hostage”: a theme in the East Syriac liturgical tradition and its origin // H. C. Brennecke, E. L. Grasmuck and C. Markschies (eds.), Logos: Frestschrift fur Luise Abramowski (Beihefte zur ZNW 67), 1993, p. 472-485.

57 Babai. Liber de Unione…, p. 299.

58 See reference in n. 1.

59 An important recent study is given by de Halleux A. Nestorius. Histoire et doctrine // Irenikon 56, 1993, p. 38-51, 163-77.

60 Edited with French translation by F. Martin in Journal Asiatique IX.4 (1899), p. 446-492, and IX.15 (1900), p. 469-525.

61 On the various documents, not all by Nestorius, in the Liber Heracleidis, see Abramowski L. Untersuchungen zum Liber Heraclidis des Nestorius // CSCO, Subsidia 22, 1963.

62 An excellent and perceptive study of the christology of the Church of the East from an Orthodox point of view is given by D. Miller, in the Epilogue to The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Boston, 1984, p. 481-541.