« Nerva, Roman emperor Nestorian Church Nestorius, bishop of Side »

Nestorian Church

Nestorian Church. This is the name given in modern times to those whom 5th-cent. writers called simply "Easterns"; by which they meant the church that existed to the east of them, outside the boundary of the Roman empire, in the kingdom that was at first Parthian, and later Sassanid Persian. The body is also called "east Syrian" (the term Syrian implying use of the Syriac language rather than residence in "Syria"), and sometimes also "Chaldean" or "Assyrian."

Foundation of the Church.—During the course of the 1st cent. Christianity spread from Antioch, not only to the west but also eastwards, and in particular it extended to Edessa, then the capital of the little "buffer state" of Osrhoene, situated between the Roman and Parthian empires. The political independence of the state ended in 216, but it had lasted long enough to give a definite character to the local church, which was marked off by its Syriac vernacular and Oriental ways of thought from the Greek Christianity to the west of it. Missionaries went out from Edessa to the east again, and founded two daughter-churches, one in Armenia and one in what was then Parthia, the latter of which is the subject of this article.

The first two "apostles" and founders of this church were Adai (=Thaddeus) and Mari. Tradition identified the former with either the disciple of Christ—a statement hard to reconcile with the recorded fact that he was still able to travel in the year 100—or with one of "the Seventy." He is known to have preached in Assyria and Adiabene before the close of the 1st cent., and to have consecrated his disciple Paqida as first bishop of the latter province, in a.d. 104 (Hist. of Mshikha-zca); while the statement of the "doctrine of Adai" that the apostle died in peace at Edessa has the ring of truth in it. The later history of the church in that place is outside our subject.

Of Mari, his companion, little is known certainly (his life is a mere piece of hagiography), but he appears to have penetrated into the southern provinces of the Parthian kingdom, to have preached without much success at the capital, Seleucia-Ctesiphon, and to have died in peace at Dor-Koni. There seems no reason to doubt the historic character of both these teachers; and later tradition added that St. Thomas the Apostle, passing through this country on his way to India, was co-founder of the church with them.

The Church under the Arsacids and Sassanids.—Under Parthian rule, which was tolerant, and where the state religion was an outworn and eclectic paganism, the new faith spread rapidly and easily. There was no persecution by the government, though converts from one special religion, Zoroastrianism, had sometimes to face it, from the powerful hierarchy of that faith, the Magians. Thus the church had more than 20 bishops, and these were distributed over the whole country when, in 225, the 2nd Persian replaced the Parthian kingdom, and the Arsacid dynasty gave way to the Sassanid. This revolution was to its authors a revival of the old kingdom destroyed by Alexander, and the Persian nation rose again with a national religion, that of Zoroaster. It made no effort to destroy the Christianity that it found existing, but, like Islam later, tolerated it as the religion of a subject race, and so put it into the position that it still occupies in those lands, though the dominant religion has changed. Christians became a melet (a subject race organized in a church), recognized by the government, but despised by it. For them to proselytize from the state faith was a crime, punishable with death, though they were allowed to convert pagans. Apostasy from Christianity to the established faith meant worldly prosperity, but there was no persecution, though there was often oppression, by the government, until the adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperor (the standing enemy of the shah-in-shah) made every Christian politically suspect. Thus Persia continued to be a refuge for many Christians from Roman territory during the "general" persecutions of the 3rd cent., and the church grew, both by conversions and by the advent of "captivities," largely Christian in faith, brought by conquerors like Sapor I. from Roman territory.

Episcopate of Papa.—Though it extended rapidly elsewhere, the church made little progress in the capital, and there was no bishop there, and only a few Christians, till late in the 3rd cent. In 270 Akha d’Abuh’, bp. of Arbela, joined with others in consecrating Papa to that see, and this man became its first bishop since the days of Mari. In later days legend supplied the names of earlier holders of what had then become a patriarchal throne, and indeed made Akha d’Abuh’ himself one of the series, and told how in a.d. 170 he was recognized by the four "western patriarchs" as the fifth of the band.

Papa, as by of the capital, soon claimed to be the chief bishop of the church, its catholicos; the claim was favoured by the circumstances of the time, as in his days all the "greater thrones" were obtaining jurisdiction over the lesser sees within their sphere of attraction, and the patriarchates so formed were soon to be recognized at Nicaea. The conditions of melet life also tend to produce some one head, through whom the government can deal with the people. Papa, however, so claimed the honour as to produce irritation, and a council met in 315 to judge his claim. It was very adverse to Papa, who refused in 750anger to bow to its decision. "But is it not written, 'He that is chief among you . . .'?" said one bishop, Miles of Susa. "You fool, I know that," cried the catholicos. "Then be judged by the Gospel," retorted Miles, placing his own copy in the midst. Papa, in fury, struck the book with his fist, exclaiming, "Then speak, Gospel!—speak!" and, smitten with apoplexy or paralysis, fell helpless as he did so. After such a sacrilege and such a portent his condemnation naturally followed, and his archdeacon Shimun bar Saba’i was consecrated in his room.

Papa, on recovery, appealed for support to "the Westerns," i.e. not to Antioch or Rome (the "Nestorian" church never deemed herself subject to either of them), but to the nearest important sees to the west of him, Nisibis and Edessa. These supported him on the whole, but their advice did not, apparently, go beyond recommending a general reconciliation and submission to the see of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, on the ground that it would be for the good of the whole church that it should have a catholicos. This recommendation was carried out, all parties being a little ashamed of themselves. Papa was recognized as catholicos, with Shimun as colleague, cum jure successionis, and the right of the throne concerned to the primacy has never since been disputed. Papa survived these events for 12 years, and so was ruling during the council of Nicaea, though neither he nor any bishop of his jurisdiction (which did not then include Nisibis) was present at that gathering. Arianism passed by this church absolutely, and the fact is both a testimony to its isolation and a merciful dispensation. Church history might have been very different had that heresy found a national point d’appui.

Persecution of Sapor II.—Shimun succeeded Papa, and in his days the church had to face the terrible "forty years' persecution" of Sapor II. The acceptance of Christianity by the Roman empire meant terrible suffering for the church outside it, in that any outbreak of the secular rivalry of the two empires meant thereafter persecution for the church in one of them. This was inevitable, and the same dilemma exists to-day. Given a state professing a certain variety of militant religion (Zoroastrianism or Islam), how can loyalty to it be compatible with profession of the religion of its rivals? Constantine, like some Czars, liked playing the general protector of Christians; and Christians looked to him as naturally as, in the same land, they have since looked to Russia.

Thus, when Sapor made war on Constantius in 338, persecution commenced almost as a matter of course. Shimun the catholicos was one of the first victims, 100 priests and clerics suffering with him; and the struggle thus inaugurated continued until the death of Sapor in 378, in which time 16,000 martyrs, whose names are recorded, died for their faith.

This greatest of persecutions was not, of course, uniformly severe at all times in all provinces, and both it and others after it were rather the releasing of the "race-hatred" of Zoroastrianism against Christianity than the ordered process of law against a religio illicita. Thus, it resembled both in outline and detail the "Armenian massacres" of a later age. Clergy, of course, and celibates of both sexes, who were numerous, were specially marked, and so were the Christian inhabitants of the five provinces about Nisibis, when their surrender by the emperor Jovian in 363 handed them over to a notorious persecutor.

Practically, though not absolutely, the trial ended with the death of Sapor; but the exhausted church could do little to reorganize herself until a formal firman of toleration had been obtained. The influence of Theodosius II. secured this in 410 from the then shah-in-shah, Yezdegerd I.

Council of Isaac.—The church was then formally put into the position that it had, previously to the persecution, occupied practically: it was made a melet in the Persian state, under its catholicos, Isaac; it was allowed to hold a council, under his presidency and that of the Roman ambassador, Marutha; and it now for the first time accepted the Nicene Creed. Canons were also passed for the proper organization of the body, and some of these are based on Nicene rules. The church shewed its independence, however, by dealing very freely with the canons even of that council.

Seemingly, the council of Constantinople was accepted also at this time, but it was not thought to deserve special mention.

A period of rapid growth followed the enfranchisement and organization of the church that had proved its power to endure, and 26 new sees were added in 15 years to the 40 existing in 410, these including Merv, Herat, Seistan, and other centres in central Asia. Internal troubles arose, however, caused by the quarrels of Christians, and by their habit of "using pagan patronage"—i.e. applying to non-Christians of influence—in order to escape censure, to gain promotion, etc. The habit was, of course, destructive of all discipline. A council held in 420 to deal with this, under the catholicos Yahb-Alaha, and another Roman ambassador, Acacius of Amida, could only suggest the acceptance of the rules of several Western councils—Gangra, Antioch, Caesarea—without considering whether rules adapted for the West would for that reason suit the East. Persecution soon recommenced, Magian jealousy being stirred by Christian progress, and raged for four years (420–424, mainly under Bahrain V.) with terrible severity. As usual, a Perso-Roman war coincided with the persecution, and the end of the one marked the end of the other also. With the return of peace another council was allowed, the catholicos Dad-Ishu presiding. This man had suffered much, both in the persecution and from the accusations of Christian enemies, and was most anxious to resign his office. There was, however, a strong feeling among Christians that their church must be markedly independent of "Western" Christianity (i.e. that of the Roman empire), as too much connexion spelt persecution. Thus they insisted that the catholicos should remain, and styled him also "patriarch," and specially forbade any appeal from him to "Western" bishops. The fact that Acacius of Amida, though actually the guest of the king at the time, was not at the council is another indication of 751their feelings. This declaration of independence is the first sign of the approaching schism, though the remainder of the catholicate of Dad-Ishu was peaceful, and the Nestorian controversy, at the time of its arising, was no more heard of in the East than the Arian controversy before it had been.

The Work of Bar-soma.—Another persecution fell on this much-tried church in 448, but otherwise we know little of its history till 480, when the Christological controversy reached it for the first time.

In the Roman empire at that period Chalcedon was past, and the Monophysite reaction that followed that council was at its height; the "Henoticon of Zeno" was the official confession, accepted by all the patriarchs of the empire with the exception of the Roman. The church in Persia, however, was emphatically "Dyophysite," and thus there was a theological force at work that hardened the independence already found necessary into actual separation.

The protagonist of the movement was Bar-soma of Nisibis, a very typical son of his nation; a quarrelsome and unscrupulous man, who yet had a real love both for his church and for learning. He was a favourite with the shah-in-shah, Piroz, who employed him as warden of the marches on the Romo-Persian frontier, and he was practically patriarch of the church. The real patriarch, Babowai, had just been put to death for supposedly treasonable correspondence with Rome, and Bar-soma had rather gone out of his way to secure that this prelate (his personal enemy) should not escape the consequences of his own imprudence. Bar-soma easily persuaded Piroz that it would be better that "his rayats" should have no connexion with the subjects of the Roman emperor, and under his influence a council was held at Bait Lapat, a "Dyophysite" (or perhaps Nestorian) confession published, and separation brought about. By another canon of this council marriage was expressly allowed to all ranks of the hierarchy.

Some say that the church was simply dragooned into heresy, but the mass of Christians seem to have at least acquiesced in the work of Bar-soma, and it must be remembered that they separated from a church that was Monophysite at the time. There was, moreover, a better side to the work of Bar-soma. He was a lover of learning, and when the imperial order brought the theological school at Edessa to an end (this had hitherto been the sole means of education open to sons of the "church of the East"), he took a statesman's advantage of the opportunity by founding at Nisibis a college that was a nursery of bishops to his church for 1,000 years.

Bar-soma's power ended with the death of Piroz (484), and Acacius became patriarch. His reign saw the breach with the "Westerns" healed more or less, as the council of Bait Lapat was repudiated (though the canon on episcopal marriage was allowed to stand) and another confession of faith was drawn up. This was not Nestorian, but was indefinite, designedly, and Acacius was received as orthodox during a visit to Constantinople, on condition of his anathematizing Bar-soma. As they were already at open feud on a minor matter, the patriarch readily agreed to this, but the memory of the schism was of evil omen for the future.

Mar Aba.—A period of confusion (490–540) followed. The whole country of Persia was disturbed by the communism preached by Mazdak, to which even the king, Kobad, was converted for a while. The strange movement was stamped out in blood, but it left indirect effects on the church, and Bar-soma also bequeathed them a bad tradition of quarrelsomeness. This culminated in an open schism in the patriarchate, lasting for 15 years, with open disorder in the whole church, a state of things that only terminated with the accession of Mar Aba to the patriarchate in 540.

Meantime, Monophysite supremacy in the Roman empire had ended with the accession of the emperor Justin in 518, and friendly relations between the church there and that in Persia had been resumed: the advantage had to be paid for by the latter, in that it implied a renewal of persecution.

Mar Aba, the greatest man in the series of patriarchs of the East, reformed the abuses in the church, going round from diocese to diocese with a "perambulatory synod," which judged every case on the spot with plenary authority—a precedent so excellent that it is surprising that it has never been followed. He was able to establish rules for the election of the patriarch which still hold good in theory, and founded schools and colleges (in particular, one at Seleucia), in addition to the one at Nisibis. His table of prohibited degrees in matrimony—a most necessary thing for Christians in a Zoroastrian land—is still the law of his church.

In his days the monastic life, which had wilted under Bar-soma and during the period of disorder, was revived, and was provided with a body of rules by Abraham of Kashkar, a pupil of Aba, while the friendship of the church in Persia with that in the empire led also (though dates are here rather uncertain) to the definite acceptance, by this "Nestorian" church, of the council of Chalcedon, which stands among the "Western synods" received by these "Easterns." This acceptance was certainly previous to 544.

Mar Aba's great work for his church was done in the teeth of great difficulties. He was a convert from Zoroastrianism, and as such was legally liable to be put to death, and therefore lived in daily peril from the Magians. The shah-in-shah, Chosroes I., would never allow his execution, but feared also to protect him efficiently, and for 7 of the 9 years of his tenure of office he was in prison, ruling his flock thence. Though he was released at last, and passed his last days in honour at court, there is no doubt that his sufferings hastened his death.

Position of the Church in the 6th Cent.—In the following half-century (550–600) there was no special incident. A series of patriarchs of the three stock eastern types (court favourite, respectable nonentity, and strict ascetic) ruled the church, and the services were arranged much in their present form. In particular the "Rogation of the Ninevites," 752still annually observed, was either instituted or remodelled by the patriarch Ezekiel, during an outbreak of plague.

The anomalous relation of the church in Persia with other parts of the Catholic church cannot be fitted into any defined theory. Several Christological confessions were issued by these so-called "Nestorians" which are certainly not unorthodox, and individual patriarchs were readily received to communion when they happened to visit Constantinople (e.g. Ishu-yahb, 585). Nevertheless, there was a growing estrangement, and a conviction on either side that the other was somehow wrong, which was strengthened as the church in Persia slowly realized that the man whom they called "the interpreter" par excellence, Theodore of Mopsuestia, had been condemned at Constantinople.

In Persia the church was a stationary melet, though beyond the frontier it was a missionary force among Arabs, Turks, and Chinese. It was numerous enough to make the king anxious not to offend it, the mercantile and agricultural classes being largely of the faith. On the other hand, the feudal seigneurs were very seldom of it, and soldiers practically never. In "the professions" doctors were generally Christian, and indeed are largely so to this day, while each faith had its own law and lawyers.

The clergy were usually married, but there was a growing feeling in favour of celibate bishops, though the law passed by Bar-soma was never repealed.

Monophysite Controversy.—The bulk of Persian Christians were Dyophysite in creed, but there was a Monophysite minority, organized under bishops (or a bishop) of their own, and including many monks. This body was recruited by the enormous "captivities" brought from Syria in 540 and 570. In 612 they were strong enough to make a daring and nearly successful attempt to capture the church hierarchy. The patriarchate was then vacant (Chosroes had been so annoyed by the substitution of another Gregory for the Gregory whom he had nominated to that office, that he had refused to allow any election when that man died in 608), and when petition was made for the granting of a patriarch, the Monophysites, whose interest at court was powerful, petitioned for the nomination of a man of their own. They had formidable supporters, for Shirin, the king's Christian wife, and Gabriel, his doctor, were both of that confession.

A deputation of Dyophysites came to court to endeavour to secure a patriarch of their own colour, and a most unedifying wrangle over the theological point followed, Chosroes sitting as umpire. Of course, neither side converted the other, but the occasion was important, for from it dates the employment of the Christological formula now used by this church, viz. "two Natures, two 'Qnumi,' and one Person in Christ," the repudiation of the term "Mother of God" as applied to the B.V.M., and the acceptance of the nickname "Nestorian" now given them by the Monophysites. Ultimately the Dyophysites saved themselves from the imposition of a Monophysite patriarch, at the cost of remaining without a leader till the death of Chosroes, and the Monophysites organized a hierarchy of their own.

During the long wars between Chosroes and Heraclius, and the anarchy that followed in Persia, the " Nestorian" church has naturally no recorded history, yet at their conclusion it was once more to have formal relations with the patriarchate and church of Constantinople.

Drift into Separation.— In the year 628 its patriarch, Ishu-yahb II., was sent as ambassador to Constantinople, and he was there asked to explain its faith, and was admitted as orthodox. He was, however, attacked on his return home, on suspicion of having made unlawful concessions, and not all the efforts of men like Khenana and Sahdona could shake the general conviction on each side that "those others" were somehow wrong. The two men named laboured to shew the essential identity, under a verbal difference, of the doctrines of the two churches, but the only visible result was the excommunication of both peacemakers.

Then the flood of Moslem conquest drifted the two churches apart, and the bulk of organized Monophysitism between them hid each from the other.

The separation of "Nestorians" from "orthodox" was a gradual process, commenced before 424, and hardly complete before 640. In that period, however, it was completed, and the "church of the East" commenced her marvellous medieval career in avowed schism from her sister of Constantinople. Whether her doctrine, then or at any time, was what the word "Nestorian" means to us, and what is the theological status of a church which accepts Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, but rejects Ephesus, are separate and difficult questions. [MONOPHYSITISM; NESTORIUS (3).]

Authorities for the History of the Church.History of Mshikha-zca. (ed. Mingana); Acta Sanct. Syr. (ed. Bedjan, 6 vols.); Hist. de Jabalaha et de trois patriarches nestoriens (Bedjan); Synodicon Orientale (ed. Chabot); Bar-hebraeus, Chron. Eccles. pt. ii.; John of Ephesus, Eccl. Hist. pt. iii. (Cureton); Amr and Sliba, Liber Turris; the Guidi Chronicle (ed. Noldeke); Zachariah of Mitylene (ed. Brooks); Socr., Soz., Theod., Evagr., Eccles. Histories; Book of Governors (Thomas of Marga, ed. Budge); Babai, de Unione (MS. only); Ishu-yahb III., Letters (ed. Duval); Tabari, Gesch. der Sassaniden (ed. Noldeke); Assemani, Bibl. Orient. iii.

Books and Pamphlets.— Labourt, Christianisme dens la Perse; Chabot, Ecole de Nisibe; De S. Isaaci vita; Duval, Histoire d’Edesse; Goussen, Martyrius-Sahdona; Hoffmann, Aussuge aus Syrische Martyrer; Bethune Baker, Nestorius and his Teaching; Wigram, Doctrinal Position of Assyrian Church; Introd. to Hist. of Assyrian Church; Rawlinson, Seventh Oriental Empire; Christiansen, L’Empire des Sassanides.


« Nerva, Roman emperor Nestorian Church Nestorius, bishop of Side »
VIEWNAME is workSection