The Origins of Middle Eastern Arab Christianity

Author: Dr. George Khoury

The Origins of Middle Eastern Arab Christianity

By Dr. George Khoury

1- Introduction:

The Christian church was born in Palestine at a time when the Roman Empire was in its youth and when Palestine had been incorporated into at empire. Palestine was governed in the first century by a Roman procurator who in turn was countable to the legate of the Roman procurator province of Syria.

Jerusalem had the apostle James "the Minor" as first bishop, and while not much is known about the life and career of the other apostles, Peter, after the Council Jerusalem (Acts: 10, 15; Gal: 2:11), apparently went to Antioch in order to confirm the nascent church there. Soon after, the Christian faith spread to Ephesus, Edessa (today's Urfa), Alexandria, and Rome.

It was natural, therefore, that the teaching and the worship of Christ spread first in his homeland, i.e., in Palestine, and extended slowly to the neighboring countries. The Acts of the Apostles gives us a vivid account of the progress of the faith and its success Judaea, Samaria, and Galilee. This progress was slow, and the Gospel seems to have had more effect in the hellenized, maritime cities than inland. The Acts of the Apostles informs us that the mission of the Apostle Philip took him to the pagan cities along the Mediterranean shore. He proclaimed Christ in Caesarea and Lydda, and it was near Gaza that he baptized a Jewish proselyte of Ethiopian origin Acts 8:27). Peter, we are also informed, followed Philip to these areas; first to Samaria, then to Caesarea, Gaza, and Lydda. Anyway, we see Christians living on the shore of Palestine at the end of the second century.

2- Paul Apostle to the Nations

Paul became the great missionary to the Gentiles. He was by no means the only such missionary, but we hear more of him than of any of the other apostles. Through him the faith was proclaimed and planted in several cities in present-day Turkey and in Greece. There were, however, communities of Christians which had arisen quite independently of Paul, notably in Antioch and in Rome. We also know that the faith had an early spread among the Syriac- speaking peoples in Syria and Mesopotamia. As for Arabia, which became a Roman province in A.D. 106, it probably received the Christian faith from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. In the land of Saba -present-day Yemen- once the hub of Arabian civilization, it had arrived from Abyssinia and for a time during the preceding century had been the religion of the state, until the country was overrun by the Persians.

3- The Ghassanids

The Ghassanids were the first to convert to Christianity. Nestorian Christianity came early to Hira, where a monastery was built in A.D. 410. A bishop is recorded in the same year.

Al-Mundhir III (d. 554) was a pagan though he had a Christian wife some of the notables were Christians. Bishops are recorded in Uman in 424 and in the district of Bahrain in 575. When the Persians conquered South Arabia they favored the Nestorians and there was a bishop of Sanaa as late as 800. From these borders Christianity filtered through into the interior. There were bishops in Aila, Duma, and Taima', and most of the tribes of the North had some knowledge of the faith.

4- Christian Egypt

How Christianity infiltrated Egypt is not clear. The church in Alexandria traditionally been ascribed to Evangelist Mark, once a travelling companion of Paul declared by early report -though this not historically a sue thing -to have been Peter in Rome and to have written down the memories constituting the body of the teaching of that Apostle, which we have as Gospel of Mark. It seems though up until the third century it had meagre Christian population despite the presence of many Christian communities. However, at the Synod of Alexandria (320-321) which convened in order to condemn Arius, there was already a thriving church with an imposing ecclesiastical hierarchy. The historian Duchesne states in his 'Early History of The Christian Church, vol. II, pp.385-386.

Since the fourth century Egypt was the sanctuary of orthodoxy and the classic ground of confessors of faith.. It was also the fatherland of the monks. To the revered name of Athanasius were united in pious stories the names of Antony and Pacomius, of the two Macarii, of Ammon, and those of many other personages in whom piety soon embodied the ideal of Christian heroes.

5- Antioch and Edessa

Antioch, whose Christian beginnings date from the first century (Acts 11:19-21), became at the end of the third century an important Christian center. In fact, as early as the second century it considered the Apostle Peter to have been its first bishop. One can hardly exaggerate the importance of Antioch for the ancient Eastern Church. Because of its privileged position, given its biblical connections with the early Jerusalem community, and especially with the Apostles Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, Antioch early on raised the claim of teaching and leading the other churches. The region of Edessa, in Northern Syria, already teemed with Christians at the end of the second century. In fact, Christianity became the state religion around the year 200, and while, according to Hitti, Antioch rose to a position of leadership in the Greek speaking part of Syria, Edessa was getting a corresponding position in the Aramaic (i.e.,Syriac) speaking world. This city was the earliest seat of Christianity in Mesopotamia. It was also the cradle of Syriac literature. The chief versions of the Syriac Bible were probably made there in the second century. The school of Edessa was founded by Saint Ephrem (320-373). Around the year 489 the emperor Zenon closed the school of Edessa and its students fled to Persia where they founded instead the school of Nisibis which became a Nestorian center.

6- Arius and Nestorius

In the fourth and fifth centuries Christological controversies split Syrian Christianity into a number of divisions. Arianism taught that God is without beginning but that the Son had a beginning and is not a part of God. The council of Nicaea rejected and condemned Arianism in 325. As to the relation of the divine to the human in Jesus, Apollinaris, a friend of Athanasius, maintained that in Jesus the Logos was the rational element. That position left the divine nature complete but made Christ less human, for a human being, it was held, had body, soul, and reason. The Ecumenical Council of Constantinople condemned in 381 the views of Apollinaris and maintained that in Jesus both the divine and the human natures were complete. In 431 the Council of Ephesus rejected the views of Nestorius who preferred for Mary the title Mother of Christ to the term Mother of God. And in 451 the Council of Chalcedon adopted a creed which was influenced by the Tome of Pope Leo, a document prepared by the then bishop of Rome. The creed of Chalcedon declared Christ to be "perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, of rational soul and body. "Thus the distinctive views ascribed to Apollinaris, Eutyches, and Nestorius were condemned.

The decisions of Chalcedon did not produce peace in the church and among the contending parties. On the one hand most of the members of what was to become the Catholic Church, East and West, adhered to them, as did the Greek-speaking majority in the East who looked to the bishop of Constantinople as representing the teaching of Chalcedon. There were on the other hand, elements in the East who either rejected Roman rule or were restless under it as symbolized by Constantinople. Most of these professed their adherence to the decisions reached in Nicaca in 325 but rejected the definition in the creed of Chalcedon of the relation of the divine and human in Christ. Since they stressed the divine in Christ, those who adhered to Chalcedonian Christology labeled their opponents monophysites (of the one nature), with the implication that they regarded Christ as wholly divine and not human. The dissenters from Chalcedon repudiated the term monophysite, insisting that they recognized both the divine a human in Christ but maintaining that the relationship was not as described in Chalcedon. These passionate controversies among the Eastern Churches created continuing strife, thus weakening them and making easy the spread and triumph of Islam seventh century.

Copyright (C) by Al-Bushra January 22, 1997

Al-Bushra (from Arabic, means good news), is created by Rev. Labib Kobti from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Jerusalem)

Courtesy of: Catholic Information Network (CIN) -