The Lost Eastern Christian Empire

Western Christian orthodoxy, in which American culture is rooted, came out of the dispute with the eastern Christian Church. There was a time when Christianity was the predominant faith throughout what is now known as the Middle East and it reached all the way to modern China. The eastern Christian empire, however, did not hold to the same beliefs as the western one. Today, except for a few pockets of Christians in what is now an Islamic dominated region, Christianity in that area has all but disappeared. The eastern Christian empire and their different understanding of the nature of Christ are vital, not only to the story of Christianity, but to the understanding of American culture and reasonable expectations concerning the future of our nation given its present political course.

To better understand the chain of events that led to the growth, schism, and ultimate destruction of the eastern Christian empire one should start in the first century, before the transition from the apostolic era to the early church fathers. After Pentecost, religious persecution by the Jews caused the apostles to scatter to the known world, spreading Christianity in their wake. During the second century AD, Christianity continued to grow in all the regions of the Roman world, but, without apostolic direction to set the course for orthodoxy, disputes rose. Many of these disputes centered on the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity. By the fifth century AD, the main dispute between eastern and western branches of Christianity ranged from Christ having two separate wills to His having only one divine will, with modern western orthodoxy laying somewhere in between these two positions.

Eastern Christianity had a cultural edge over its western counterpart. Christianity had originated in Palestine, or modern day Israel, which lay in the eastern portion of the church; much of the New Testament was written in Greek, which remained prevalent in the eastern churches as compared to the western churches; and three out of the five jurisdictions of the patriarchs, by the fifth century, were located in the East. “Christianity had five great patriarchates, and only one, Rome, was to be found in Europe. Of the others, Alexandria stood on the African continent, and three (Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem) were in Asia.”[1]

Consequently, even the Papacy had a strong Eastern influence to it.

The papacy was as thoroughly Eastern in language and culture as anywhere in Asia Minor, with the dominance of Greek (which was by now known as the “Roman” language) and Syriac. Between 640 and 740, no fewer than six popes derived from Syria, in addition to several Greek natives.[2]

Eastern Christianity even produced influential theologians.

This ‘Church of the East,’ as it came to be known … had produced some very gifted leaders, teachers, and spiritual thinkers. They included not only such earlier figures as Barsumas and Narsai but also the theologian Babai the Great (d. 628), who composed a work on the union of the divinity and humanity in Christ, and a clutch of monastic writers whose works proved of enduring attraction, such as Sahdona (fl. Mid-seventh century) and Isaac of Nineveh (d. ca. 700).[3]

Eastern Christianity was so entrenched that even after the fall of the Roman Empire it retained its Eastern traditions. “After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Christianity maintained its cultural and intellectual traditions in the Eastern empire, in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt.”[4] In comparison, the fledgling western Christian empire provided no signs that its theological understanding of Christ’s nature would grow to be the most dominant and widely accepted one.

The church, leading up to the fifth century, was by no means monolithic or unified, not even among individuals within regions, but it was not until Nestorius came along that the eastern and western branches of Christianity started to solidify their differences. Unwittingly, Nestorius exposed the dichotomy of a church divided by two different languages, traditions, and understandings of the nature of Christ, which brought about one of the biggest church rifts that has lasted to modern times.

Nestorius, for whom Nestorianism is named, became the bishop of Constantinople in 428. In that same year, on the twenty-second of November, one of his bishops, Anastasius, gave a sermon in which he objected to the term “Theotokos” (“God-bearer”) as a title for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Nestorius’s defense of Anastasius started a firestorm of controversy that culminated in the Council of Ephesus (431) and ultimately the Council of Chalcedon (451). “Nestorius held that Mary could appropriately be called “Mother of Christ” (Christotokos), but not “Mother of God,” [(Theotokos)] since, he argued, this would imply that the divine nature of Christ had a birth and therefore a beginning.”[5]

Nestorius’s opponents, however, saw his reluctance to use Theotokos as a sign that he was denying the divinity of Christ and instead they thought he held that Christ was a mere man who was adopted by God as His son. In Nestorius’s defense, it seems he:

[A]ttempted to preserve the full humanity of Christ and at the same time preserve the immutability of the divine nature of Christ, by emphasizing the distinction between the two natures over against the unity of natures … Thus, like the Arians, he apparently rejected any kind of unity other than the unity of wills.[6]

Ostensibly, Nestorius believed there was a division between Christ’s humanity and His divinity in which His divinity was bestowed upon Him after His birth, whereas his opponents believed in a unity between the two natures of Christ that were circumscribed in the womb.  “The Council of Ephesus (431), [called to settle the Nestorian dispute] condemned “Nestorianism” as a heresy, but they may have attributed ideas to Nestorius that he did not hold.”[7]

To be clear about the distinction between Nestorius and Nestorianism, Nestorius held that, “The two natures are not only distinct, they are separate. … Later Nestorians [followers of Nestorius] pushed the separation of the natures to the point where it sounded like they were talking about two separate ‘persons’.”[8] The councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, on the other hand, held, “The two natures are distinct, but not separate. … The two natures are unified, but not confused.”[9]

These two distinctions, two separate natures or one unified nature, is important for its salvific implications. According to the western orthodox view, in order for Christ to be able to atone for the sins of mankind, He would need to be both human and divine without separation. Otherwise, according to this reasoning, His death would not be sufficient to satisfy God’s justice for the disobedience of mankind.

The Nestorian controversy also gave birth to an understanding of Christ’s nature that occupies the other end of the nature of Christ spectrum called Monophysitism. Monophysitism is a belief that Christ only had one nature without union. Eutyches, an abbot of a Constantinople monastery, started Monophysitism by overreacting to Nestorius and, instead, proposed “a Christology in which the divine nature completely absorbed the human nature, leaving no human nature after the incarnation.”[10]

Monophysitism became both an ecclesiastical and political problem, because it gained and maintained popularity. Its popularity not only divided the church, it divided the Roman empire and threaten the empire’s stability. It was very popular in the eastern portion of the eastern Christian empire, especially in Egypt and Syria where the knowledge of the New Testament Greek was still prevalent.  “In Egypt and Syria [around the ecumenical council of Chalcedon in 451], Monophysites were so commonplace that they were known simply as Egyptians (Copts) and Syrians (Suriani), respectively.” [11]

Although the Council of Chalcedon condemned both Nestorianism and Monophysitism, these two beliefs continued to flourish. As the western church consolidated its authority within the western empire, dissenters from the state sponsored view of Christ’s nature had to move farther east to escape the persecuting grasp of the state sponsored church.

As the church-state alliance became ever more firmly entrenched in Rome and Constantinople, so evermore Christian believers were forced to flee beyond the frontier, especially into those weakly controlled borderlands that became such fertile territory for religious innovation and interaction. The number and importance of such religious dissidents grew steadily with the fifth-century splits over the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures. Monophysite teachings dominated in Syria and Egypt, and also prevailed in the Christian states of Armenia and Ethiopia.[12]

As both Monophysitism and Nestorianism proliferated over the eastern Christian empire, the stage was set for further expansion of Nestorianism to the east. The capitol of the eastern Christian empire was Seleucia, a city on the Tigris River very close to modern day Baghdad, which was also a center for trade and communication and hence it was well positioned to spread Christianity outside of its borders. “Seleucia stood at the center of the world’s routes of trade and communication, equally placed between the civilizations that looked respectively to the Atlantic and Pacific.”[13] Significantly, the hub of communication and trade in Asia, after the Council of Ephesus, which was also the most populous city in the world at that time, followed the teachings of Nestorius, and spread that understanding of Christianity further east. “Within the Persian Empire, the main Christian church was based in the twin cities of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the imperial capital that was the successor to ancient Babylon, and the most populous city in the world at that time. This church followed the teachings of Nestorius after 431.”[14]

At the same time the teachings of Nestorius was growing in the east, the western portion of the eastern Christian empire was solidifying around Monophysitism through the efforts of Jacobus Baradaeus, the bishop of Eddessa, (modern day city of Şanlıurfa, located in Turkey close to the Syrian border approximately half way between the Mediterranean and Syria’s modern border with Iraq). “In the sixth century, Asian Monophysites also developed their own church apparatus, through the organizing ability of Jacobus Baradaeus. From his base in Edessa, Jacobus created a whole clandestine church, in which he ordained two patriarchs and eighty-nine bishops.”[15]  Jacobus’s underground parallel church became known as the Jacobites, which is now the modern Syrian Orthodox Church.[16]

Jacobus’s underground church reached past the borders of sixth-century Syria into Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, and the islands of the Aegean Sea to the west of Turkey. “Despite strong opposition from Chalcedonians, the charismatic Syrian leader Jacob Baradaeus (ca. 500-578) had already begun to engage in a highly successful program of clandestine expansion that extended a thriving ‘Monophysite’ church not only within Syria but in large areas of Asia Minor and Aegean.”[17]

Interestingly, Monophysitism expanded in the region just south of Chalcedon, the city where it had been condemned. One of the reasons for the expansion of the Monophysite church and the actions of Jacobus were the consolidation efforts of the Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565). In attempt to unify power and stability within his realm, Justinian coercively tried to bring the Monophysites in line with the findings of the Counsel of Chalcedon.

Jacob saw Justinian’s policies as threatening the integrity of the anti-Chalcedonian tradition, and he labored not only to spread the faith among potential converts but also to win over existing Christians to a single-nature position. … The consequences of Jacob’s industry were remarkable, and the non-Chalcedonian Syrian believers, who broke with the patriarchate in Antioch and came to have an Episcopal succession of their own, began to be described as the Jacobites in honor of his influence.[18]

In spite of Justinian’s efforts, Monophysitism did not, however, remain localized in Asia Minor or the Aegean, it also grew along the Nile River.

In the Nile Valley, heading toward northern Sudan, the kingdom of Nubia was evangelized by mainly “Monophysite” missionaries in the 540s, and within a generation of the three Nubian territories of Nobatia Makuria, and Alodia were officially Christian, following the conversion of the their rulers. In Nobatia at least, and probably more widely, the theology adopted was “Monophysite.”[19]

Monophysitism extended as far South as Ethiopia, “In Ethiopia, where the kingdom of Aksum became an important Christian territory in the first half of the sixth century under King Kaleb, there were strong historical links both with the Coptic Church and with Syria, and there was also a marked predominance of ‘Monophysite’ conviction.”[20]

In its expansion, Justinian was not the only obstacle with which the Monophysites had to contend. Monophysitism “encountered its most able intellectual opponent in the gifted Byzantine monk, theologian, and ascetic writer, Maximus “the Confessor” (ca. 580-662).”[21] Maximus’s arguments explaining the reason for Christ’s two natures were very convincing and difficult for Monophysites to logically refute.

In a remarkably creative fashion, Maximus was able to underscore the authenticity of Jesus’s humanity, with its real choices and temptations, while also asserting that his human nature existed as it did precisely because it was the humanity of the Son of God.  In becoming incarnate, the Word became all that humans are, yet he did so in his own unique way as a divine person, and thus it was that his human willing, while utterly genuine, was consonant with the will of God. Maximus thought that such a conception facilitated a vision of salvation as a mystical union between God and creation in which the integrity of the human is fully respected. To be saved is to be “divinized,” and such a union with God, so far from being an obliteration of the dignity of created beings, is in fact the realization of reactions true destiny.”[22]

Regrettably, Maximus was martyred for his Dyothelite views by the Roman emperor who was attempting to maintain unity in the Roman Empire by eliminating those who held views different from the region over which he was trying to maintain control. It was only later on that his understanding of Christ’s nature became politically useful and therefore acceptable to the Roman emperor.

The Dyothelite position that Maximus had championed finally prevailed at another council held in Constantinople in 680-681, the third in the city and the sixth of the general councils. The gathering took place at the behest of the emperor Constantine IV Pogonatus, who was convinced that the Monothelite stance was no longer very useful politically, as a large proportion of ‘Monophysitie’ were to be found in areas that had in any case fallen to Arab control from the late 630s onward and looked as if they would remain that way.[23]

As mentioned above, in the seventh century, the Islamic Arabs started to consolidate political control of the eastern portion of the Christian empire, which altered political considerations in the West that led to acceptance of theological positions that were previously unacceptable. At that time, in the world of theology, the geographic lines between Monophysitism, Nestorianism, and western orthodoxy were, for the most part, defined and established. “By the time of the Arab conquests in the seventh century, the Jacobites probably held the loyalty of most Christians in greater Syria, while the Nestsorians [modern day Assyrian Church of the East] dominated the eastern lands, in what we now called Iraq and Iran. The West Syrian church was Jacobite; East Syrians were Nestorian.”[24]

During the seventh century, the Monophysite and Nestorian Christian empire reached its zenith, and their forms of Christianity seemed to thrive under political masters who were adverse to its tenants. While Nestorian Christianity appeared poised to take over the world as the dominant Christian understanding of Christ’s nature, it had actually reached the point of diminishing returns and its efforts in the future would shift to survival instead of expansion.  Additionally, by the end of the seventh century,

[T]here was plainly very little prospect of reconciling the friends and foes of Chalcedon. … [T]he orthodoxy of the main Byzantine church, headed up by the four patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, which remained in communication with the churches of the West. All of these believers adhered to Chalcedon and officially to the further qualifications of its emphases as specified at Constantinople in 553 and 680-681.

The other … orthodoxy was the position of a smaller but still very significant body of dissenters: the Armenians, the Copts, the Ethiopians, and a large number of Syrians [Monophysites]. They repudiated altogether the language of “in two natures” as violating the uniqueness of the incarnate word. …

Alongside both of these groups there was also, still farther to the east and the south but with a presence in other quarters as well, a significant constituency wedded to yet another position [Nestorianism].[25]

Such was the state of the Christian world when Bishop Timothy I of Seleucia reigned. “About 780, … Timothy became patriarch, or catholicos, of the [Nestorian] Church of the East, which was then based at the ancient Mesoptamian city of Seleucia.”[26] Timothy’s reign is significant because he oversaw the church in the East at its height, during a golden age of Christianity in the East.

Timothy himself presided over nineteen metropolitans [the head of an ecclesiastical province] and eighty-five bishops … Just in Timothy’s lifetime, new metropolitan sees were created at Rai near Tehran, and in Syria, Turkestan, Armenia, and Dailumaye on the Caspian Sea.[27]

The magnitude of the eastern Christian empire can be seen in the contrast between the metropolitans that Timothy presided over and those in England at that same time. “In England to give a comparison, the medieval church had two metropolitans: respectively, at York and Canterbury.” [28] The eastern Christian empire was so expansive and so well entrenched that even under Muslim rule it remained rather large leading up to the tenth century. “By the tenth century, the Byzantine Empire still had fifty-one metropolitans, supervising a hierarchy of 515 bishops, and of these, thirty-two metropolitans and 373 bishops were still to be found in Asia Minor.”[29]

Over time, the Islamic rulers in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and other portions of Asia restricted the spread of Christianity through rules, regulations, and persecution. In addition to non-Muslims having to pay a special tax, they were also excluded from other economic activities and restricted in their evangelization efforts. Although, persecution was not consistently present, it was effective when used and it was most severe when external threats, such as western Christianity, appeared to menace the Islamic state. “The severity of persecution or enforcement varied over time but was at its worst when an established religion faced a real or perceived danger to its own existence.”[30] For this reason, the western Christian empire was detrimental to the existence of the eastern one. For all of these reasons, eastern Christianity started to erode over several centuries to the point where it is now virtually non-existent in Islamic dominated countries.

Looking back over the history of the church, and by analyzing the schism between the eastern and western branches of Christianity, one can observe how western orthodox Christianity was defined by the disputes with its eastern brethren. One can also witness the fate of any system of faith that does not maintain favor of those in political power.

It is obvious, not only from observing Christian understandings in the past, but also the diversity of denominations in modern times, that Christianity is not, and never has been, a unified belief system. Nearly every forthright person struggles to understand truth, but each of us understands truth based on presuppositions that may or may not be correct. Error in human thinking, therefore, should always be the first presupposition in any epistemological pursuit. It is for this reason disagreement among believers can be helpful, but it also can be divisive and destructive.

Disagreement causes people to justify their position and think through why they believe what they believe. For example, without the Nestorian and Monophysite controversies, the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) most likely would not have happened. Both of these councils were integral for working out what we now know as the Nicene Creed, which has been foundational to western Christian orthodoxy as a statement of faith.

Additionally, without the Monophysite controversy, Maximus the Confessor may not have been inspired to work out the logical reasons for the unification of Christ’s humanity and divinity, which has also played a major role in western orthodoxy, salvation, and our understanding of the relationship to the Trinity.

Theological disputes can also be destructive when one side resorts to using un-Christian methods to suppress opposition to their perspective, such as the use of state sponsored power. The use of state power is destructive not only for the obvious harm it does to the persecuted, but also for the harm it does to the truth of Christianity in the minds of contemporary and historical observers. Using coercive state power to put down Christian opposition to one’s Christian perspective goes against the overall teachings of Scripture, namely love thy neighbor.[31] Yet, it is interesting to note that western orthodoxy has been passed down to us by these and other non-Biblically sanctioned means.

Given what happened to the Eastern Christian Empire after Islam took over the government in their region, it would be difficult to conclude that any system of faith can survive, over a long period of time, when faced with a hostile state-sponsored political climate. A belief system must either win over the hostile political system, like in the case of Constantine I, or face restrictions to their growth and persecution that ultimately leads to near non-existence over time.

Perhaps the reason the eastern Christian empire did not endure to the present is because, in the sovereignty of God, by dismantling the eastern Christian empire, He all but eradicated an inaccurate perception of Christ’s nature. If this is true, it does not necessarily mean that western orthodoxy, as we now understand it, is the all encompassing correct understanding of Christ’s nature and of salvation. It could be a stepping stone on the road to the correct understanding of these topics.

Each individual believer is a living stone being progressively placed over time to build a spiritual house.[31] Nations will rise and fall, but the spiritual house will continue towards its completion. With this view of history, it is possible the same fate awaits the church in the West as that of the eastern Christian empire, especially since the western churches grew from support of the state and are now facing hostile secular political environments.

[1]Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 47.

[2] Jenkins, 47.

[3] Ivor J. Davidson, A Public Faith, vol. 2, From Constantine to the Medieval World (Grand Rapids: Monarch Books, 2005), 238.

[4] Jenkins, 47.

[5] James L. Papandrea, Reading the Early Church Fathers: From the Didache to Nicaea (New York: Paulist Press, 2012), 214.

[6] Papandrea, 214.

[7] Papandrea, 215.

[8] Papandrea, 240.

[9] Papandrea, 240.

[10] Papandrea, 216.

[11] Jenkins, x.

[12] Jenkins, 49.

[13] Jenkins, 14.

[14] Jenkins, 57.

[15] Jenkins, 57-58.

[16] Jenkins, x.

[17] Davidson, 231-232.

[18] Davidson, 232.

[19] Davidson, 232.

[20] Davidson, 233.

[21] Davidson, 236.

[22] Davidson, 236.

[23] Davidson, 236-237.

[24] Jenkins, x.

[25] Davidson, 237.

[26] Jenkins, 5.

[27] Jenkins, 10.

[28] Jenkins, 10.

[29] Jenkins, 49.

[30] Jenkins, 210.

[31] Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; and  James 2:8

[32] 1 Peter 2:5


4 thoughts on “The Lost Eastern Christian Empire

  1. When I went to Catholic School, we learned that the Council of Nicea, overseen by all 5 bishops, one being Hereticus, took place about 190 AD. The Nicene Code, from what they taught me, was created then, and, just as importantly, the council banned and ordered destroyed over 60% of the available gospels, leaving just a small segment of the banned, as the Apocryphia.

    Do your sources include the recently discovered gospels of Judas and Mary? I don’t recall the Vatican affirming their authenticity, but both gospels cover some of what you just wrote.

    Does this fit in with what you’ve got?

    (Still, with dhimmitude &c from the Muslim side, I gotta pretty much agree with your conclusion.)

    Otherwise, haven’t heard from you in a while, how are you?

  2. Thanks for dropping a line. I have been busy with school, so I have not written as much as I would like. I have some things I want to research, but I will have to wait until I get my school work out of the way. Other than that, I have been doing very well, thank you for asking.

    The First Council of Nicaea took place in AD 325. Prior to that time, Christianity was struggling to survive in a hostile political climate. It was not until Emperor Constantine came to the thrown that the Church was able to convene ecumenical councils.

    The Nicene Creed was initiated in that first council, but it was not completed, as we know it today, until after the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon.

    Scripture is self-authenticating, it does not derive its authority from humans or any human institution. If it did, no one should take it seriously or uphold anything it had to say, because all of humanity is powerless, flawed, and too frequently wrong.

    The ecumenical councils, with respect to the canon of Scripture, only affirmed what most Christians already knew, i.e., what was scriptural and what was not. They used four basic criteria for logically coming to their conclusion about the canon of Scripture: 1. apostolic authority, 2. widespread acceptance, 3. consistency with the Hebrew canon, and 4. self-attesting authentication. The Apocrypha, including the extra books in the Douay-Rheims Bible confirmed by the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563, does not meet one or all the above criteria.

    Too often, people confuse canonization with recognition. What is difficult for many people to understand is that Scripture was canonical from the time it was first written no matter how long it took humans to recognize its authority.

    I hope this explanation answered your question.

    • ya, thanks. One’s memory from being 12, scared to death of nuns, and studying for Confirmation is what brought up my query, although, Hereticus still sticks to mind as being the person creating heresy.

      Ya got anything on the two gospels, Judas and Mary, that I mentioned. Memory is telling me that I got that from National Geographic a few years back, but with no paper back issues on hand anymore, I’m not sure.

      Good luck with school. I’m still hoping to slow down enough to go back and get an econ phd.

  3. I am familiar with many of the early church heresies and those who held those positions, yet I have never come across anyone named Hereticus. That does not mean he was not a historical figure, but if his name is the origin of the word “heretic” one would think he would be on the radar somewhere in history.

    You are correct about National Geographic bringing the “Gospel of Judas” to light in an article. I can safely say that NG is far from a Christian supporting organization, which should give you the first clue about the authenticity of anything they claim concerning Christianity.

    The “Gospels of Judas and Mary” are Gnostic writings most likely from the 2nd century AD. Gnosticism was one of the first early church heresies that has been soundly refuted by the early church fathers in their writings.

    If you would like to understand more about why these two books are not canonical, then I recommend you apply the four criteria I wrote in my previous reply. They were not written by one of Christ’s twelve apostles or someone closely affiliated with them, they did not have widespread acceptance among the early church, they are not consistent with the rest of Scripture, and they are not self-authenticating.

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