Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Nestorius and the Eastward Spread

Roughly coinciding with the partition of the Roman Empire in 293, a new dynasty began to rule Persia (beginning in 224). The Sassanids, named after an early family member called Sasan, ruled Persia until 642 when the Muslims defeated the Sassanids in the Battle of Nahavand; some five years later the last Sassanid emperor died in flight from Persia’s Muslim invaders; the Muslims completed their conquest of Persia in 651.

Lest the Sassanids produce a blank, it might be well to put them in context. The first Persian Empire was the Achaemenid (550-330 BC); they had a war with Greece and got beaten in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). The next was the Parthian (247 BC - 224 AD), the longest-lived. The Sassanids came next (224-642).  Five other dynasties ruled after the Sassanids; the last of those, the Pahlavi, ended in 1979 with the expulsion of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whom we know as the Shah of Iran.

While in full control of Persia, the Sassanids were not only expansionary—acquiring territory from the Byzantine Empire—they were also expansionary in a commercial sense. They developed trade relations with the Sui and then the Tang Dynasty and had significant influence and trade relations with India’s ruling dynasties as well, reaching well into South India. The map shows  the extent of the Sassanid rule at its greatest extent. The Striped areas represent regions the Byzantine empire lost to the Persians.

The Sassanid history is useful background for my subject today, namely the eastward spread of Christianity.  In this period already, Christianity reached all the way to China, deep into India, and regions in between, as shown in the following map. The version of Christianity that reached these lands, however, was loosely of the Nestorian variety—called that, in fact, until recent times when the term “Church of the East” has come to be applied, a part of Eastern Christianity, but, at this time not yet the Eastern Orthodox Church. That split did not take place until 1054. The Sassanids’ defeat by Muslims is also an early introduction to the event that would eventually formally end the Middle Ages, the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet in 1453.

What I’m after here is the grand pattern. It might be described as follows. Early Christianity was closely tied to major, meaning imperial, rulers. Of these we’ve already met the Byzantine emperors and  Charlemagne and his successors. Associated with the first is Orthodox Christianity, with the second Catholicism. But there was also a third empire which also functioned as a protector of religion. It was the Sassanid Dynasty. And it became the protector of  Nestorian Christianity.

In early Christianity, the most prominent centers were Rome, Alexandria in Egypt, and Antioch in Syria (but in a region that is now Turkey). With the rise of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople also became such a center, second only to Rome. Constantinople and Rome would later part in  what is known as the Great Schism (1054), Within the Byzantine Empire itself, tensions grew between Antioch and Constantinople. During the later Sassanid period, thus by 651, Antioch came firmly under the sway of the Persians. And it is in Antioch that two versions of Eastern Christianity flourished, Nestorianism and Monophysitism, the latter a theological view originating in Alexandria. And it is these two that spread Christianity into the East. The common saying, “Follow the money,” may here be applied to Christianity by saying: “Follow the ruler.” The Sassanids came to occupy both Antioch and Alexandria.

Nestorius (386-450) was a monk born in north-western Syria, now part of Turkey, in a town today called Kharamanmaraş. He was a pious sort and travelled to Antioch, some 157 miles away, to be educated in theology. He became a dedicated and ascetic monk there, famed for his preaching. On a trip to Antioch, the Byzantine Emperor, Theodosius II, met Nestorius and was evidently much impressed. Later he named Nestorius as the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius travelled the 647 miles to the north to take his new office in 428.  In the map that I show, the southernmost circle was the location of Antioch, corresponding to today’s city of Hatay in Turkey.

The rise of the Nestorian heresy, and its presence in Christianity’s eastward spread, may best be summarized as follows:

·        Antioch adhered to a slightly different theological view on the nature of Christ than did Rome and Constantinople. Alexandria held yet another view.
·         In his somewhat zealous actions to rid the church of heresies, Nestorius came in conflict with Rome as well as Alexandria. The clergy of Constantinople, furthermore, viewed Nestorius as an unwelcome intruder who suddenly had the top religious office in that city.
·         In that conflict Theodosius ultimately sided with Cyril of Alexandria. He deposed Nestorius in 431, stripped him of all his titles, and sent him back to Antioch.
·         Eastern Christianity, in Antioch, being under Sassanid protection, became separated from Western Christianity (which then still included Constantinople). It embraced the Nestorian and the Monophysite theologies (of which more below). Eastern Christianity spread to the East following the inroads created by the Sassanid political and trade relations developed with China and with India. The secular world paved the way you might say.

The theological battles all revolved about the nature of Christ, arising from the seemingly dual natures present in Christ as God and man at one and the same time. The earliest of these was Arianism. In that heresy Christ was thought to be God, but subordinate to God the Father. To give a radically simple view of these controversies—and to show what the battles turned around—I present the following table. It highlights four views of Jesus held by four major schools. Those who held them all debated about Christ’s person, substance (or essence), and nature:

Two in a Single
Two in Unity

Dyophysitism (literally “Two Natures”) was the view of the Nestorians. Monophysitism (“One Nature”) was the Alexandrian position. Miaphysitism (“Single Nature”) is the Eastern Orthodox position; it is indistinguishable from the next, the Chalcedonian view, except perhaps by wording, in that it asserts, despite the “singleness” of that nature, that that nature is both human and divine. Chalcedonianism (named after the Council of Chalcedon, 451) is the position of Western Christianity in which Christ unity is asserted at the level of essence or substance; hence it is also referred to as the Hypostatic Union; Christ has two natures (“physes”), but they are in total unity; that unity, however, is beyond human understanding.

These battles over words or concepts, which have (to the theologically blind) absolutely no bearing on fundamental faith and practice, illustrate clearly that early theologians might well have been fighting turf battles in the name of theology. There was and is no way really to settle these disputes in any genuine sense.

Much as theology rotated madly over a single word (or even the use of a letter), so also the Nestorian controversy arose over one  such word used to describe Mary, the mother of Jesus. That word was Theotokos, meaning God-bearer. Nestorius, in line with his own studies, preferred Christotokos, Christ-bearer, to avoid the possible scandal of viewing a human being giving birth to God. It was a spark that lit a fire in the vast confusions between faith and power that, alas, forever mark our dwelling place in this dimension.

Much as Arius essentially “lent his name” to a heresy, so also Nestorius may not have personally signed up to Nestorianism or Dyophysitism. But what he thought is not unambiguously clear. After his return to Antioch, he was exiled to Egypt and died there in the desert, to his last days certain of having been misunderstood.

Why didn’t Christianity entirely convert the Eastern cultures as it did the Western? Was it that it taught two distinct if barely separable heresies? Such might be the view of an orthodox zealot. Christianity spread its seeds to the entire world, except the still undiscovered Americas, but the soil was quite radically different in Asia. The culture of the west, in those days, was not quite as suited to those lands as it was in Western Europe where a great civilization had recently died.
Image credits:

Middle Ages Posts:


  1. Nice post. I particularly liked the map showing the extent of the Church of the East.

    However, one major correction: the Eastern Orthodox church accepts the Council of Chalcedon. It is the (confusingly named) Oriental Orthodox churches (e.g. the Coptics) which accept a Monophysite or Miaphysite position.

    In my personal view, while I accept the Chalcedonian position as the best formulation, in practice I think the Oriental position may just be a different language for saying the same thing. That schism ought not to have happened. Nestorianism as classically defined is a more obviously heretical denial of the Incarnation, but---while the Church of the East did accept followers of Nestorius---I don't think it's clear how much their theology was officially Nestorian. I think this is one reason why historians no longer call it "The Nestorian Chruch".

  2. What you seem to miss is the most consequential factor for Christ not being God, or being second in nature to the Father. The practical consequence is that if Christ is not ONE with God then the Church (body of Christ) is not divine, which is where it draws its authority HERE on earth. If the Church is not divine then Temporal Power (that is those who happen to be in leadership positions on earth) are not bound to even 'listen', let alone 'obey' the Church... yep, the good ol' separation from Church and State debate... i.e. it renders the Church subordinate to the Temporal Power, irrelevant. This my friend, in short, is the reason why it has to be defended, guarded, even to the point of martyrdom. Because the powers and principalities of this world, namely the Devil, seeks to undermine, discredit, ridicule, render irrelevant, etc. the voice of the Church, the Truth and Christ himself.

  3. This article completely leaves out the fact that Byzantine Christianity also spread Eastwards in the Sassanid Empire, in the Kingdom of Khwarazmia and as far as Central Asia and China. The Byzantine Patriarchate of Antioch had its own "Catholicos of the East" who was originally stationed in Baghdad ("Catholicos of Irenopolis"), then in Tashkent ("Catholicos of Romagyris"), then in Nishapur ("Catholicos of Khorasan"), then in Tabriz and Erzerum ("Catholicos of Romagyris"), then in Aleppo ("Catholicos and Exarch of all Mesopotamia"), and finally in Diyarbakir, where the title of Catholicos was demoted to Metropolitan, but he retained the title "Exarch of all Mesopotamia." During this course of history from the 7th to 19th centuries, the Byzantine Antiochian Catholicos of the East had suffragan Metropolitans and Bishops throughout Mesopotamia, Persia and Central Asia, they adhered to a Syro-Byzantine rite, canonized their own saints, and kept their own local customs, special feasts, fasts and adhered to a calendar that has been documented by the Khwarazmian historian, Al-Biruni. Of course there were also a parallel Nestorian Patriarchate of the East, and a Jacobite Maphrianate of the East, but the Byzantine Catholicate of the East did exist, and its contribution to the spread of Christianity in Asia should not be forgotten or undermined. In fact, in China, the Byzantine Church was the one that outlived the Nestorians and Jacobites. Wheres the latter two disappeared from China in the 12th century, the Byzantine Orthodox Alanians continued a presence in Beijing well into the 14th century, and were still spiritually subject to the Byzantine Catholicos of Romagyris who was at that time stationed in Erzerum.