The Syriac Orthodox Church
A Brief Overview
Few Christian denominations can claim the antiquity of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, whose foundations can be traced back to the very dawn of Christianity. The Church justifiably prides itself as being one of the earliest established apostolic churches. It was in Antioch, after all, that the followers of Jesus were called Christians as we are told in the New Testament, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” (Acts 11:26).
According to ecclesiastical tradition, the Church of Antioch is the second established church in Christendom after Jerusalem, and the prominence of its Apostolic See is well documented. In his Chronicon (I, 2), the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that St. Peter the Apostle established a bishopric in Antioch and became its first bishop. He also tells us that St. Peter was succeeded by Evodius. In another historical work, Historia Ecclesiastica, Eusebius tells us that Ignatius the Illuminator, “a name of note to most men, [was] the second after Peter to the bishopric of Antioch” (III, 36).
In the mid of the 5th century, the Bishop of Antioch, and his counterparts in Alexandria, Byzantium and Rome, would be called patriarchs. The Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch used to be known by his own name; however, since 1293 the patriarchs of Antioch adopted the name Ignatius, after the Illuminator. The See of Antioch continues to flourish till our day, with His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I, being the 122nd in the line of legitimate patriarchs.
The patriarchate was forced to move from Antioch in ca. A.D. 518, after a period of turbulent history, to various locations in the Near East until it settled in the monastery Dayro d-Mor Hananya (also known as Kurkmo Dayro, Deir az-Za’faran–Syriac and Arabic respectively for Saffron Monastery) in Mardin, Turkey, during the 13th century. After another period of heinous violence during and after World War I, which took the lives of a quarter million Syriac Orthodox faithful, the patriarchate was transferred to Homs, Syria, in 1933, and later to Damascus in 1957.
The Syriac Orthodox Church is quite unique for many reasons. Firstly, it presents a form of Christianity, which is Semitic in nature, with a culture not far from the one Christ himself experienced. Secondly, it employs in its liturgy the Syriac language, an Aramaic dialect akin to the Aramaic spoken by Christ and the Apostles. Thirdly, its liturgy is one of the most ancient, and has been handed from one generation to another. Fourthly, and most importantly, it demonstrates the unity of the body of Christ by the multiethnic nature of its faithful: A visit to your local Syriac Orthodox Church in Europe or the Americas would demonstrate, for example, the blend of Near Eastern and Indian cultures in the motifs and vestments of clergy. The Syriac Orthodox faithful today live primarily in Middle Eastern countries and the Indian State of Kerala, with many communities in the diaspora.
The Syriac Orthodox Church has been a member of the World Council of Churches since 1960, and is one of the founding members of the Middle East Council of Churches. The Church takes part in ecumenical and theological dialogues with other churches. As a result of these dialogues, the Church has issued two joint declarations with the Roman Catholic Church and another with the Eastern Orthodox churches.
In Syriac, the proper name of the Church is `idto suryoyto treeysath shubho. In the past, the name of the Church had been translated to English as “Syrian Orthodox Church”. The Holy Synod of the Church approved the translation “Syriac Orthodox Church” in its session of March 28-April 3, 2000.
Throughout Syria and Mesopotamia, Aramaic, in its many dialectical forms, was the language of the land, and Syriac, originally the Aramaic dialect of Edessa in Northern Mesopotamia, must have been the most influential literary form of Aramaic. When we speak of Syriac Christianity, we refer to Christians whose native tongue was Syriac and those who employed Syriac as their liturgical language.
Syriac Christianity was not centered just in Antioch, the Roman capital of Syria. In fact, Syriac Christianity can be traced further East in Mesopotamia. As local tradition tells us, Christianity was received in Edessa during the time of the Apostles. This is reported in a number of documents including Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History. He gives us the text of a correspondence between the city’s king, Abgar Ukomo, and none other than Jesus Himself:
Abgar Ukomo, the toparch, to Jesus the good Savior who has appeared in the district of Jerusalem, greetings. I have heard concerning you and your cures, how they are accomplished by you without drugs and herbs … And when I heard of all these things concerning you I decided that it is one of two things, either that you are God and came down from Heaven to do these things, or are the Son of God for doing these things. For this reason I write to beg you to hasten to me and to heal the suffering which I have …
The reply from Jesus to King Abgar, according to the same tradition, was carried by a certain Ananias and read:
Blessed are you who believed in me, not having seen me … Now concerning what you wrote to me, to come to you, I must first complete here all for which I was sent, and after thus completing it be taken up to Him who sent me; and when I have been taken up, I will send to you one of my disciples to heal your suffering and give life to you and those with you.
The story continues to describe how one of the Seventy Disciples, named Adai, was sent to King Abgar to heal his disease.
Historical literary sources tell us that by the second half of the second century there was an established church in Edessa, though probably most of the inhabitants remained pagan. The Chronicle of Edessa tells us that in the year 201, a disastrous flood destroyed the church of the Christians in the city. However, it took only about a century until most of the city was under the umbrella of Christianity. Edessa, home of the Syriac form of Aramaic, indeed prides itself as the first kingdom that officially accepted the new faith.
Syriac Christianity has had a long history in India. According to tradition, Christianity in India was established by St. Thomas who arrived in Malankara (Kerala) from Edessa in A.D. 52. The close ties between the Church in Malankara and the Near East go back to at least the fourth century when a certain Joseph of Edessa traveled to India and met Christians there. The church in Malankara today is an integral part of the Syriac Orthodox Church with the Patriarch of Antioch as its supreme spiritual head. The local head of the church in Malankara is the Catholicos of the East, consecrated by and accountable to the Patriarch of Antioch.
Syriac Christianity spread rapidly in the East. The Bible was translated into Syriac to serve as the main source of teaching as early as the second century. Till our day, the antiquity of the Syriac biblical versions is upheld with high esteem by modern scholars. In the words of Dr. Arthur Vööbus, “In our search for the oldest translation of the Greek original [of the New Testament] we must go back to the Syriac idiom” (Studies in the History of the Gospel Text in Syriac, p. 1). The Syriac Church Fathers made no less than six translations and revisions of the New Testament and at least two of the Old Testament. Their scholarship in this domain has no equal in Church history.
The Church of Antioch was thriving under the Byzantine Empire until the fifth century when Christological controversies split the Church. After the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, two camps of the one Church emerged: The Greek Church of Byzantium and the Latin Church of Rome accepted Chalcedon, but the Syriac and Coptic (later Armenian as well) Churches rejected the council. The former group professed that Christ is in two natures, human and divine, whilst the latter adopted the doctrine that Christ has one incarnate nature from two natures. It is worth noting that the drafts of the Council were according to the position of the Syriac and Coptic Churches. The final resolution, however, was according to the doctrine of the Western Churches and was rejected by the Syriac Church. This schism had sad consequences on the Syriac Church during the next few centuries.
As the Emperor supported the Chalcedonian camp, the Syriac Church came under much persecution. Many bishops were sent to exile, most notably Patriarch Mor Severius, who was later given the epithet togho d-suryoye, ‘Crown of the Syriacs’. Mor Severius died in exile in 538. By the year 544, the Syriac Church was in an abysmal situation with only three bishops remaining. It was at this time that Mor Yacqub Burd`ono (Jacob Baradeus) emerged to rejuvenate the Church. Mor Yacqub traveled to Constantinople for an audience with Empress Theodora, the daughter of a Syriac Orthodox priest from Mabbug according to Syriac Orthodox sources, and wife of Emperor Justinian. Theodora used her influence to get Jacob ordained as bishop in 544. Later, Mor Yacqub would travel across the entire land reviving the Church. He managed to consecrate 27 bishops and hundreds of priests and deacons. For this, the Syriac Orthodox Church honors this saint on July 30 of every year, the day of his death in 578. A few centuries later, adversaries labeled the Syriac Orthodox Church ‘Jacobite’ after St. Jacob. The Syriac Orthodox Church rejects this belittling label which wrongly suggests that the Church was founded by Mor Yacqub.
Aside from their ecclesiastical role, Syriac Churchmen have contributed to world civilization. As early as the fourth century, academies and schools were set up in monasteries throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. Monks and scholars where busy studying the sciences of the Greeks, commenting on and adding to them. It is no surprise that when the Arabs, who conquered the Near East at the end of the seventh century, wanted to acquire Greek knowledge, they turned to Syriac scholars and churchmen. Arab caliphs commissioned Syriac scholars to translate the sciences of the Greeks into Arabic. In his film Forgotten Christians, Christopher Wenner describes the impact of Syriac scholars and Churchmen when he describes the school at Deir az-Za’faran monastery, “It was through the monks here that the Arabs received Greek learning, and it was the Arabs of course who passed it back to Europe. Had it not been for the Syriac monks, we in Europe might never have had a renaissance.”
The Syriac Orthodox Church survived under the dominion of many empires in the centuries that followed. Under the Arabs, Mongols, Crusades, Mamluks and Ottomans, the Syriac Orthodox Church continued its survival. Neither intimidation nor oppression could suppress the faithful, but the Church diminished in size to a fraction of what it was.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Syriac Orthodox Christianity was confined mostly to mountainous rural areas, such as Tur Abdin, and various towns in the Ottoman Empire. The worst of the persecutions was yet to come. During World War I, massacres and ethnic cleansing befell the Syriac Orthodox Christians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks and the neighboring Kurds. The year 1915 is known in Syriac by sayfo, or ‘[the year of the] sword’. It is estimated that a quarter of a million perished; villages were emptied; monasteries and Churches were destroyed. This resulted in what the Syriacs call (in Turkish) sefer berlik ‘the collective exodus’, a migration to the newly established countries of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. Some left the Middle East all-together, forming new communities in the Americas.
As a result of further immigration that ensued, the Syriac Orthodox Church today has faithful not only in the Middle East and India, but in Europe, the Americas and Australia as well.
Faith and Doctrine
The faith of the Syriac Orthodox Church is in accordance with the Nicene Creed. It believes in the Trinity, that is one God, subsisting in three separate persons called the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The three being of one Essence, of one Godhead, have one Will, one Work and one Lordship. The special aspect of the First Person is His Fatherhood, that of the Second Person His Sonship, and that of the Third Person His Procession.
The Syriac Orthodox Church believes in the mystery of Incarnation. That is, the Only Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, took to Himself a body and became man. It further believes that at the time of Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit came upon her and cleansed her of all natural impurity, filling her with His grace. Then the Only Son of God came down and entered her immaculate womb, and took to Himself a body through her, thus becoming a perfect Man with a perfect Soul. After nine months, He was born of her and her virginity was maintained contrary to the laws of nature. It further believes that His true Godhead and His true Manhood were in Him essentially united, He being one Lord and one Son, and that after the union took place in Him, He had but one Nature Incarnate, was one Person, had one Will and one Work. This union is marked by being a natural union of persons, free of all separateness, intermixture, confusion, mingling, change and transformation.
The Syriac Orthodox Church calls Mary yoldath aloho, ‘Bearer of God’, because she gave birth to Christ, God truly incarnate.
The Syriac Orthodox Church believes that the death of Christ was the separation of His soul from His body, but His deity did not at any time leave either His body or His soul. It further believes that by His death for us, He conferred upon us salvation from eternal death and reconciliation with His Heavenly Father.
The Syriac Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit of Truth, proceeding from the Father. The Holy Spirit is equal with the Father and the Son. (Note. The word for ‘spirit’ in Syriac, ruho (which is also the word for ‘wind’), is grammatically feminine. Holy Spirit is referred to with the feminine pronoun in almost all early Syriac writings, though later writings refer to it in the masculine.)
Concerning the Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church believes the Church is the body of true believers in Christ, and that the Head of the Church is Our Lord God Jesus Christ. The Chief Bishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church is the Patriarch of Antioch.
With regards to Sacraments, the Syriac Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Sacraments are tangible signs designated by the Lord Christ to proclaim divine grace, which He gave for our sanctification. The Sacraments of the Church are: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Repentance, the Priesthood, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. Holy Sacraments are offered by the Bishops and the Priests. Only believers can receive the Sacraments. All but four of the Sacraments are essential for salvation: Baptism, Confirmation, Repentance and Eucharist. Of the sacraments, Baptism, Confirmation and the Priesthood may be received only once.
The Syriac Orthodox Church conforms to the teachings of the Three Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (A.D. 325), Constantinople (A.D. 381) and Ephesus (A.D. 431). It rejects the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451).
Form of Worship
In accordance with Psalm 119, verse 164, “Seven times in the day have I praised thee for thy judgments, O Righteous One,” the Syriac Orthodox Church set the times for prayer to seven: Evening or ramsho prayer (Vespers), Drawing of the Veil or Sootoro prayer (Compline), Midnight or lilyo prayer, Morning or saphro prayer (Matins), the Third Hour or tloth sho`in prayer (Prime, 9 a.m.), the Sixth Hour or sheth sho`in prayer (Sext, noon) and the Ninth Hour or tsha` sho`in prayer (Nones, 3 p.m.). The Midnight prayer consists of three qawme ‘watches’ (literarily ‘standing’).
The ecclesiastical day begins in the evening at sunset. For example, Monday starts at sunset on Sunday evening. Hence, Monday’s evening (ramsho) and compline (sootoro) prayers, are actually performed on Sunday in our modern reckoning. Today, even in monasteries, the evening and compline prayers are said together, as also the Midnight and Morning prayers, and the Three, Six and Nine O’Clock prayers, reducing the times of prayer to three.
During prayers, the worshipper stands facing the East, holding his hands stretched out. (For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man – Matthew 24:27.)
The sign of the cross is made with the right hand. The thumb, first finger and second finger are brought together and the first finger is extended further than the thumb and second finger, indicating that Christ is the One and Only Savior. The sign of the cross is drawn starting from the forehead, down to the breast and then from the left to the right shoulder. This tradition symbolizes that the Lord Christ, came down to earth from the heights, and redeemed our earthly body from the gloomy paths of darkness (left), to the paths of truth and light (right).
Public prayer is important in Syriac Christianity. Traditionally, the Holy Qurbono, i.e. Eucharist, is celebrated every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Presently, only monasteries observe the Wednesday and Friday Holy Qurbono. Monasteries, and some churches, observe daily prayers known as shhimo ‘simple [prayers]’.
Apart from sermons, all prayers are sung in the form of chants and melodies. Thousands of tunes and melodies existed, most of which are unfortunately lost. Still hundreds of melodies remain and these are preserved in the Treasury of Tunes known in Syriac as Beth Gazo. Since a musical notation system was not developed, the tunes were transmitted down the ages as oral tradition. As a result a few schools of music emerged, most notably Mardin, Edessa, Tur `Abdin, and Kharput, to name a few.
During the celebration of the Eucharist, priests and deacons put on elaborate vestments which are unique to the Syriac Orthodox Church. Whether in the Middle East, India, Europe, the Americas or Australia, the same vestments are worn by all clergy.
The supreme head of the Syriac Orthodox Church is the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East. He also presides over the Holy Synod, the assembly of all bishops.
The local head of the church in Malankara (India) is the Catholicos of the East. The Catholicos is under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch and is accountable to the Holy Synod and the local Malankara Synod. He is consecrated by the Patriarch and presides over the local Holy Synod.
The local head of every archdiocese is an archbishop. He is under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch and is accountable to the Holy Synod. The archbishop is ordained by the Patriarch and at least two bishops. Some archdioceses are ‘patriarchal vicarates’; the patriarchal vicar, regardless of ecclesiastical office, is accountable directly to the Patriarch.
Each parish is assigned a vicar. He is under the direct jurisdiction of his archbishop and is directly accountable to him. The parish is run by a board of trustees (or a committee) which is elected by the parishioners and approved by the archbishop.
Deacons assist the priest in the administration of the liturgy. Each archdiocese may have one archdeacon who is called “the right hand of the bishop.” Only qualified and learned deacons are elevated to this office.
There are three ranks of priesthood in the Syriac Orthodox Church:
- Episcopate: Within it there are the ranks of Patriarch, Catholicos, archbishop, and bishop.
- Vicarate: Within it there are the ranks of chor-episcopos and priest or qasheesho.
- Deaconate: Within it there are the ranks of archdeacon, evangelical-deacon, subdeacon, lector or qoruyo and singer or mzamrono.