Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Last Communion

In AD 628 Shiroye (Kavad II) took the Persian Throne but died soon after and his wife, Queen Boran succeeded him. Both were favorable to the Persian Christians of the Church of the East. Either Shiroye or Boran called upon the patriarch, Mar Isho-yahbh II, to select a group of fellow prelates to accompany him on a voyage to the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, Heraclius. The purpose was to solidify the peace forged between the two empires. This was the first time since the Persian Patriarch, Mar Aqaq (Acacius) made a similar voyage to the Roman Empire and served upon the altar of Hagia Sophia in 485-486 (this account shall be treated in a latter blog-post). In the turbulent years between Mar Aqaq's embassy to Constantinople and that of Mar Isho-yahbh II much confusion had developed between the "Western Church" of the five patriarchs and the Church of the East, especially regarding Christology. Here's the story of the last time the two local churches really met and what transpired during that meeting. Let's start from The Book of Governors by Mar Thomas, Bishop of Marga, written in the 9th century:

When Sheroe rose in the kingdom, he desired and wished to live in his kingdom in peace...and by command and permission of his pacific majesty there was rest to all the churches that were under the dominion of the Persians. And [when] Mar Isho-yahbh from Beth-Arbhaye was appointed Patriarch, King Sheroe persuaded the Catholicus to select from the dominion of the East certain Metropolitans and bishops, that they might go up to the territory of the Byzantine Greeks...bearing his letters and greetings...Mar Isho-yahbh being obedient to the command of the good King Sheroe, gathered together Mar Cyriacus, the Metropolitan of Nisibis, and Mar Paul, Metropolitan of Adiabene, and Mar Gabriel of Karkha dhe Beth Selokh (Kerkuk) and certain other Bishops...and with them were also our holy Isho-yahbh of Nineveh and Sahadona. And thus through Christ our Lord, the Lord of the worlds and Governor and Guardian of the two countries and of the whole world gave these shepherds mercy in the sight of the Greeks, and they received their assembly and their petition as if they had been the angels of God. (Budge, E. A. Wallis. The book of governors: the Historia monastica of Thomas, bishop of Marga, A.D. 840, edited from Syriac manuscripts in the British museum and other libraries. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1893.(123-127))

The tale of the voyage gets more interesting when we turn to the same episode in history as recorded in the Chronique de Seert (my translation):
Isho-yahbh presented the proposal of Boran...also he presented him the gifts they had brought with them. Heraclius was surprised to learn that a woman had gained the crown. He was also amazed at the high bearing of the Catholicos, of his intelligence, and of his clear-sighted and scientific nature. The claimant [of the Roman Throne], interrogated [Isho-yahbh] about his faith, which he presented and described to him publicly, declaring that his profession of the faith is the same as that of the 318 [Fathers of Nicea]. [Isho-yahbh] also wrote for him the profession of faith of saint Mar Nestorius. The emperor favorably accepted the purpose of the embassy...he bestowed upon him all he desired, and commanded him [Isho-yahbh] to celebrate the liturgy en his presence that he may receive communion from [Isho-yahbh]. This he did.(Scher, Addai. Histoire nestorienne inédite: Chronique de Séert. Seconde partie. Patrologia Orientalis, 13.4 (1919) (557-558)).
The three sources for this account are uniform in describing a warm reception of the patriarch of the Church of the East, the exchange of gifts, a discussion of theology, the Persian Patriarch's writing and presentation of a statement of faith and the emperor's consequent request that Mar Isho-yahbh II serve the liturgy that the emperor receive communion at his hands. Note that "the profession of faith of Mar Nestorius" means the christological statement written out by Mar Isho-yahbh, which he takes to be the same as that of Nestorius. Belief in two natures in one person was seen as a Nestorian stance by the writers of the Church of the East in this period (more on this in latter posts). The details of how the theological discussion went and why it ended with Orthodoxy and the Church of the East in communion is found in the Chronique de Seert as well as De patriarchis nestorianorum by Mar Mari ibn Suleiman [11th century]. The Chronique de Seert provides the following bit of dialogue (my translation):

Why, said [Heraclius], you go astray of the clearest manner in which to describe a thing, and instead of saying: Mary who bore God [Theotokos], you say: Mary who bore Christ who is God and man? We do not rule out the truth, replied the Catholicos, or the clear proof of it. By saying that Mary bore Christ, we imply that birth belongs to Christ, in which humanity is reunited to the eternal Word, who came down and lived in it. But if we say: Mary bore God, we reduce the name of humanity, by overtaking its nature. (Scher 559)

Then the emperor accepted the written profession of faith of Mar Isho-yahbh II and presented it to his "learned hierarchs" who approved the faith of the Church of the East and affirmed that there was no type of obstacle (Chronique 559). Now we turn to Mari ibn Sulaiman's De patriarchis nestorianorum for a final sense of where our two churches left off the last time we met. The emperor requested a libeleus of the faith of the Church of the East, which the patriarch provided. The emperor demanded that the bishops serve liturgies across the land, starting with a liturgy immediately celebrated there that Heraclius may commune from the hand of Isho-yahbh II. This happened, but first the patriarch needed to resolve the issue of the commemoration of Nestorius. The Emperor uttered these salient words (my translation):
If Nestorius had believed as you wrote the faith, he is by no means excommunicated, but if [he believed] another [faith] he is surely anathemized. It does not matter whether you commemorate him: we are yours and you are ours. (Maris, Amri et Slibae De patriarchis nestorianorum commentaria. Romae: De Luigi, 1896. (50))
Practically, the two resolved to not commemorate Nestorius and other controversial figures (Chronique de Seert 559). It is interesting to note, as the Chronique de Seert testifies, that not only did Heraclius study and approve the confession of faith produced by Mar Isho-yahbh II but also many "learned hierarchs". This was a group of the Church of the East's most learned meeting with divines and emperor of Rome. The startling question that is left by the facts of the embassy of Mar Isho-yahbh II is what transpired since then that leaves us out of communion? The answer to this question will come in time, but first we must understand the politics of the century that follows. Next time, we'll deal with the great Saint of Christianity, venerated in every apostolic church, Mar Isaac of Nineveh (St Isaac the Syrian) who, having reposed around AD 700, marks a hagiographical point of union 72 years after the Mar Isho-yahbh II's journey.


  1. I stumbled onto this blog and just from your self-introduction and your two posts, I can already tell that this is going to be one of my favourite resources concerning the Church of the East! Please, continue! In addition, I'd be happy to spread your blog amongst my Orthodox and Catholic friends.

    ~ JA

  2. Thanks for throwing some light on what is to me an interesting point in the history of the Church of the East. The English-language resources for studying this history are limited, so I appreciate your translations.

  3. Dear father, please continue your blog, the events in Syria these days make this even more critical! I look forward eagerly to your answer to your point- " The startling question that is left by the facts of the embassy of Mar Isho-yahbh II is what transpired since then that leaves us out of communion?"