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 Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, being the 123rd 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, Europe, Americas 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 India, 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.
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