Friday, May 19, 2023

Claiming Tradition

While the potent Christian presence in Asia is remarkable enough in its own right, these churches also had a claim to a direct tradition from the apostolic age at least as strong as those boasted by Rome and Constantinople.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

…Eusebius claims that missionaries speaking Aramaic or Hebrew had already reached [India] before the second century and had left an original manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew.

I start with this opening, as it speaks directly to one of my…let’s call it…pet peeves.  The more I have gone into Church history, the more I have concluded that anyone claiming to be following the (as in “the only”) apostolic tradition, and to be following it consistently for 2000 years, is talking nonsense.

Every tradition, a thousand miles west, east, and south of Jerusalem, lays claim to an apostle and lays claim to following the teaching of the apostle.  Yet, there are differences – meaningful enough that the Church divided – as early as 431 at Ephesus, at 451 at Chalcedon, and, as almost an afterthought, 1054 in Constantinople. 

So, stop with this nonsense. 

And now that is off my chest…at least for today.

Some statements apply across the various theological traditions, from the Orthodox to the Nestorians and Jacobites, and the Copts.

Strongly liturgical churches that displayed foretastes of heaven; hierarchical in organization; appeals to all the senses – sound, sight, smell, taste, touch.  And genuine antiquity:

…the Syriac Anaphora of the Apostles Addai and Mari is the oldest Christian liturgy still in use.

OK, who…and what? Per Wikipedia, Addai was a disciple of Thomas, and Mari was a disciple of Addai. From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

This is an Oriental liturgy, sometimes assigned to the Syrian group because it is written in the Syriac tongue; sometimes to the Persian group because it was used in Mesopotamia and Persia. It is known as the normal liturgy of the Nestorians, but probably it had been in use before the rise of the Nestorian heresy.

It is still used today, and not just by “heretics”:

At the present time this liturgy is used chiefly by the Nestorians, who reside for the most part in Kurdistan. It is also used by the Chaldean Uniats of the same region, but their liturgy has, of course, been purged of all traces of Nestorian tenets. Finally, it is in use among the Chaldean Uniats of Malabar, but it was very much altered by the Synod of Diamper held in 1599.

Returning to Jenkins, he notes that all of these eastern churches saw monasticism as the highest form of Christian life, just as did the churches to the west of them. 

…the ascetic fathers went forth into the wilderness…to battle against principalities and powers and with the evil spirits which are under heaven.

We could use a few of these right now. 

As previously noted, scholarship flourished in the east.  Syriac scholarship found its home in Nisibis; in the sixth century, this city, in the southeastern part of modern Turkey and bordering Syria, possessed the closest thing to a great university as held anywhere in Christendom.  It was here that much of the ancient world’s learning was translated and kept alive.

Syriac Christian scholars could stand toe to toe with the best scholarship produced anywhere else in Christendom.  Jacob of Edessa, from the late seventh century, has been compared to Jerome in the West.  There is the Jacobite Gregory Bar-Hebraeus of the thirteenth century, who can be justifiably mentioned in a sentence that includes Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. 

A catalogue of Syriac writers dating from around 1300 includes over a hundred authors, with one listed as having written eighty-three books.  Sadly, little of such writing exists today, suggesting the devastation that later overwhelmed this culture.

In this regard, the Syriac churches were not unique in the east during this period:

Georgians recall the late twelfth century as the age of Queen Tamara, who subdued neighboring Muslim states and presided over the great age of Georgian writing and poetry.  Armenians, too, spoke of a renaissance, a Christian cultural resurgence, led by clergy like the catholicos Nerses IV…

Mkhitar Gosh, a representative of this Armenian renaissance in the thirteenth century, earned the title of Doctor of the Armenian Church.  A monk and teacher, he codified Armenian law and wrote an influential volume of fables.  His codified law was even used in Poland regarding the Armenians living in Lviv and Kamianets-Podilskyi from the early 16th century until 1772, per the order of king Sigismund the Old.


In the year 1639 [AD 1328] that is the dragon year.  This is the grave of Pesoha the renowned exegetists and preacher who enlightened all cloisters through the light – extolled for wisdom, and may our Lord unite his spirit with the saints.

-          Syriac grave inscription from Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan butts up to western China.  The distance from Jerusalem to Bishkek, the capital of modern Kyrgyzstan, is about 2,300 miles as the crow flies, about 3,000 as a car drives, and I have no idea how far as a monk walks.  It apparently is the country farther than any other from any sea, so sailing wouldn’t help much. 

The geography is mountainous, as is much of the geography between Jerusalem and Kyrgyzstan.  The climate – both in Kyrgyzstan and most points coming from Jerusalem – is not very hospitable – temperatures range from below freezing in winter to over 100 degrees F in the summer…and even more extreme in many of the regions in between.

And 1300 years after Christ, one finds this inscription.


  1. The only thing I can objectively tie to the apostles is the writing they left behind. That is why I don't have any problem with different liturgies or customs. My main concern is doctrine because I can go back to what the apostles wrote and judge for myself.

    I had a huge blind spot to the East after the great schism in my church history. I even read two volumes used at universities, but it focused West after 1054.