Monday, May 22, 2023

Neither Rome nor Constantinople

The deep conservatism of these churches, so far removed from papal or imperial control, makes nonsense of claims that church bureaucracy allied with empire to suppress unpleasant truths about Christian origins.

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

It is a curious claim, but one heard often.  Why curious?  Well, what has come to us as canon is already problematic enough: not quite aligned accounts in the different Gospels or in the history of the kings of Israel and Judah, to start.  The disciples often shown as clueless, Jesus seemingly praising the servant who cheated his master.  Stuff like that.

But the real troubles come with some of the heterodox accounts of Jesus’s life – heterodox only because of the emperor, according to many.  But Jenkins suggests that such criticisms aren’t valid.

The problem with this is that the Eastern churches had a long familiarity with the rival scriptures, but rejected them because they knew they were late and tendentious. 

With no pope or emperor to pressure them.  Through the Middle Ages, no Nestorian or Jacobite was under coercion from either pope or emperor.  They were free to include whatever gospels they liked.  Instead of adding, actually they pruned: some from Peter, some from John, Jude, and Revelation.

Even as early as the second century, the Diatessaron assumes four, and only four, authentic Gospels.

 Yes, the same four.  Some background on this work:

The Diatessaron (c. 160–175 AD) is the most prominent early gospel harmony, and was created by Tatian, an Assyrian early Christian apologist and ascetic.

Tatian harmonized the four Gospels, ending with a work that was about 75% as long as the four Gospels in total – having removed duplications, but also not including the two different genealogies of Matthew and Luke, and also not including Jesus’s encounter with the adulteress.  Also, where there were conflicting accounts he chose one or the other in his narrative.  Most scholars agree that he did, from the beginning, include the longer ending of Mark – chapter 16 beginning with verse 9.

The work does not survive, but was reconstructed in 1881 by Theodor Zahn from translations and commentaries. It was used extensively in Eastern churches, until abandoned due to Tatian’s heretical leanings.

Then there is the task of interpretation.  The Syriac churches inherited the approach associated with Antioch: the text must be put in proper historical and cultural context.  The Syriac church was well placed to do just this, given the cultural and language similarities to Jerusalem and Aramaic.

This isn’t to say that it all aligns with what we in the West might understand, nor will I make any theological claim.  My intent is to examine the history, so here goes: the gates of hell, the fires of hell, souls being weighed in the balance.  Per Solomon of Basra, “only stupid men invent” the idea that this means there are actual gates and fires and scales. 

Satan.  The Syriacs involved a bit too much wordplay in understanding this word.  Sâtânâ: he turned aside from the right path; he was cast out; he lost the apparel of his glory.  And this, as an aside, on the second hour of the sixth day of creation.  Yet, the Hebrew word Satan and the Arabic Shaitan imply “accuser,” or “enemy.”

At the same time, there was an understanding that the Old Testament pre-figured Christ – in other words, the Old and New Testaments were woven seamlessly together. 

Like the churches further west, these churches also adopted something of the new cultures they encountered.  Buddhist and Christian monasteries would stand side by side.


Around 1275, two Nestorian monks from China began a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  One, Markos, to his horrified surprise, was elected patriarch in Baghdad when the seat fell vacant in 1281.  The other, Bar Sauma, had a diplomatic career.  Sent by the Mongol overlord of the Middle East, and with allegiance to the catholicos in Mesopotamia, his mission was to enlist Christian Europe for a joint invasion of Muslim Egypt. 

At the courts of Catholic Europe, Bar Sauma created a sensation.  European kings and bishops were amazed to find that this strange creature was a Christian bishop, who seemed perfectly orthodox.

Despite the Nestorian label, he said his creed in a way found perfectly acceptable.  They came to learn that Christianity had spread to the Pacific., and that many fathers went to the lands of the Turks and Mongols. The king of England even took communion from his hand. 

This, at the precipice of the Asian churches facing annihilation.


  1. The canon of Scripture had near universal acceptance before any formal list was put together. Usually a bishop had an extra book or left out another. But the vast majority of what we have in our Bibles today were unanimously accepted by the early. The characteristics the bishops looked for were that they were apostolic, early, and consistent.

    I remember reading about the Diatessaron. It was an interesting idea, but I think Tatian took some significant liberties editing it. It was roundly rejected in its day. He was correct to leave out the women caught in adultery though. That story is most likely not original.

    Also read a book about the years of rule of the kings in 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Chronicles. It takes some work and understanding about time reckoning and culture, but the supposed issues have been resolved. Really interesting stuff.

    Rothbard actually gives the kernel of a defense for IP protection.

  2. Tangentially related, saw this today and thought you might like it. Apparently a very early portion of a Syriac translation of Matthew was found via UV light on reused parchment.