Syria: A Thriving Center for Early Christianity?

Most astute readers of the New Testament understand that Jesus and his first followers were Jews who came from Palestine, specifically the Roman province of Judea as well as the Herodian tetrarchy that included Galilee. But after Jesus’ crucifixion, the new Jewish sect of the Nazarenes quickly spread beyond the traditional borders of Israel into what is called the Diaspora, where Jews were dispersed across the Gentile nations. The Acts of the Apostles lists the home countries for many Jews who heard the preaching of the apostles while visiting Jerusalem (Acts 2:9-11). Acts also relates how, following their early persecution in Jerusalem (8:1), Greek-speaking Jewish-Christians fled to the Diaspora and brought word of their new faith in the messiah Jesus. Among these fruitful missionary fields was the Roman province of Syria.

Though the boundaries often shifted, Roman Syria had at various times stretched from the Mediterranean Sea in the east to beyond the Euphrates River in the west, from Damascus in the south to the borders of Armenia in the north. Once known as the kingdom of Assyria, and called Aram in the Bible, this region was largely pagan. Nevertheless, certain metropolitan centers featured large Jewish communities. One of these was Antioch on the Orontes River in eastern Syria. Christian Jews fleeing Jerusalem arrived at Antioch in the early to mid-thirties finding a home there among the indigenous Jewish population (Acts 11:19). They also encountered a large group of Gentiles who were attending the local synagogues having become fascinated with Judaism. Many of these pagans, not wishing to fully convert (largely due to the requirement of circumcision), proved highly motivated to join a Jewish sectarian movement that did not require full compliance with the law in order to be counted as citizens of the Kingdom of the Jewish God. It was in Antioch, so Acts tells us, that these sectarians were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).

Damascus, too, was an early focus of Christian evangelism. Paul, originally working to stamp out the new sect, chased the Greek-speaking Jewish-Christians out of Jerusalem and followed a group of them as far as Damascus. There he encountered a population of believers already established in the city since the early 30s (Acts 9:1-19).

Though Antioch and Damascus are the only two Syrian cities mentioned by Acts as being occupied by converts to the new faith, they were by no means the only ones in the province. In fact, one of the most active communities of Christians in the early centuries of the Common Era was to be found in the city of Edessa at the furthest western reaches of the province just across the Euphrates River. Located on the famous Silk Road that led to the Orient, Edessa was a frontier town with a mixed population of Greeks, Arabs, Syrians, and Armenians. It was the capital of the kingdom of Osrhoene, an area fought over and alternately acquired in turn by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Persians.

It is not easy to pinpoint exactly when the new faith arrived in Edessa. Legends, recorded in texts that do not predate the fifth century, may give some clues. According to the Teaching of Addai the Apostle, Agbar V (4 B.C.E. – 7 C.E., 13 – 50 C.E.), king of Edessa at the time of Jesus, had heard of the new messiah and sent a letter to him requesting his presence in Edessa for the purpose of healing him from leprosy. In exchange, Abgar offered Jesus sanctuary from the Jewish authorities who threatened him. Jesus reputedly told Abgar’s emissary that, though he could not personally visit the king, he would, after his ascension into heaven, send an apostle in his stead. The emissary supposedly returned to Agbar with Jesus’ written response as well as a portrait he had made of the messiah while in Jerusalem.

According to the Teaching, Jesus spiritually instructed (Judas) Thomas to send someone to preach the gospel in Edessa. Thomas sent Addai (“Thaddeus”?) who healed the king and began converting the populace. The legendary attributes of this tale may hide a historical core that reflects very early Christian missionary work by Judeans in Edessa, possibly as early as the first century. Historically, however, we can only be confident that the faith had reached the city by the mid-second century when Tatian (active c. 160 C.E.), a Syrian native, journeyed to Edessa following his sojourn in Rome where he converted to Christianity. When he arrived, there was already a Christian community to greet him. Antioch, as well as Arbela, the capital of the kingdom of Adiabene to the east, home to a recently converted Jewish royal house, are alternate points of origin for Christianity’s introduction into Edessa.

Scholars are uncertain, however, whether these first Christians in Edessa were Jewish or pagan. There was a small Jewish population with several synagogues in the city in the first century but no historical record of Jewish-Christian missionary activity (the Abgar legend notwithstanding). Nevertheless, Christians in Edessa were heavily influenced by their Jewish neighbors and incorporated Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Bible into their own treatises and theological writings. Among the early Christian texts believed to have originated in Edessa are the Acts of Judas Thomas, the Gospel of Thomas, the Odes of Solomon, parts of the pseudo-Clementine literature and the Didascalia Apostolorum (“Teaching of the Apostles”).

Tatian himself authored a number of Christian works that were highly influential in Syria and elsewhere. One of the most important was the Diatessaron (“four-fold”) a narrative harmony of all four canonical gospels. His brand of Christianity, referred to as encratite, encouraged asceticism and celibacy.

Another very influential Christian theologian arising in Edessa was Bar Daysan (also written as Bardaisan and Bardesanes). Bar Daysan (154 – 222 C.E.) was prompted to produce many of his numerous written works in reaction to a brand of Christianity he highly opposed, that expounded by the proto-gnostic Marcion (d. 154 C.E.).

Marcion, from the province of Pontus by the Black Sea, relocated to Rome where he preached a gospel that thoroughly rejected any Christian dependency on Jewish scripture or teaching. In his effort to strip out all things Jewish, Marcion developed his own Christian canon of authorized texts. These included ten of Paul’s letters and an edited version of the Gospel of Luke. (In fact, this may have been the first Christian effort to produce a “New Testament”.) Marcion did not reject the truth of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, he took it literally and from it discerned that the God of the Jews was not the God that Jesus preached. The Jewish God, whom he called “the Creator,” was a flawed being who fashioned Creation out of evil matter. Jesus, on the other hand, was sent by a higher, perfect being, an ultimately unknowable God, in order to release men’s souls from its evil trappings and return them to heaven. Marcionism was widely popular not only in Rome but as far as the Orient. Bar Daysan, schooled in Greek philosophy as well as Babylonian astrology, wrote against Marcion’s notion of dual gods. Nevertheless, he had his own curious ideas about the effect of the cosmos on man’s free will.

Another syncretistic theologian whose impact on the religious world was far greater than either Marcion or Bar Daysan was Mani (216 – 276 C.E.). Not a Syrian, Mani was born in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire. Educated among Jewish-Christian Elkesaites and influenced by the work of Bar Daysan, Mani’s religious thought combined elements from Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Jewish Christianity. He was a dualist believing in a lower creator god (darkness) and a higher, supreme God (light). Only with meditation that led to inner knowledge (bodhi, gnosis) could man hope to become enlightened. Manichaeism was a hugely popular religion and spread from the eastern Roman Empire to western China. (African theologian St. Augustine was a Manichee for nine years.) One of the best known missionaries of Manichaeism in Syria was a preacher named Addai. It may be that the “Addai” of the Abgar legend represented a deliberate effort by later orthodox Christians to blunt the impact of Mani by incorporating the name of its popular evangelist into its own myth of origins. The popularity of Mani in Edessa was also challenged, as were all “heretical” modes of Christian thought, by the proto-orthodox religious leader Ephrem, called “the Syrian”.

Ephrem (306 – 373 C.E.) was born in Nisibis, further east than Edessa and for a time part of the province of Syria. In Ephrem’s day, the city was ceded to the Persians and many intellectuals, including Ephrem, fled. Upon arriving in Edessa, Ephrem began to write prolifically, in instructional song verse called madrasha, against Marcionites, Bardaisanites, and Manichees. He also fought against the continuing fascination of Christians with Judaism. Many Christian and non-Christian gentiles in Edessa were intrigued by Judaism. This Semitic faith with its ancient origins, its single, invisible God, and its mysterious history of prophecy was compelling. Jewish rabbis, too, were well-regarded as healers, prophets, and magicians. Ephrem worried that any adoption of Jewish ways by Christians represented a step backward from a faith that he believed had freed them from dependency on the Torah and the participation in Jewish customs in order to achieve salvation. Ephrem is regarded as among the first representatives of Nicene “orthodox” Christianity in Syria.

At the fourth-century council held at Nicea, which was called to order by the first Christian emperor Constantine, were a number of Syrian bishops. But by the fifth and sixth centuries, Syrian Christians were being castigated by their more orthodox western brethren who referred to them disparagingly as Melkites (eastern or Byzantine Christians) or Jacobites (Syrian Orthodox Christians). Finally, the seventh century rise of Islam in Syria resulted in the inevitable isolation of the remaining Christian communities there.

Though it is sometimes forgotten these days, with the civil war in Syria being fought by a largely Muslim population, the former province of Syria reflected a wide variety of Christian theologies in the early centuries of the Common Era and produced a number of brilliant Christian theologians. Modern Christianity owes much to the developmental steps taken by these early Syrian Christians.

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