Lectures on Christianity in the Middle East
In March the Institute cosponsored a lecture series at Brigham Young University titled “Christianity in the Middle East.” The series provided a historical overview of the eastward spread of Christianity into the pagan Near East, a subject largely neglected in religious and sociocultural studies. Over many centuries, Christian groups maintained a presence in the region, leaving behind a notable literary, monumental, and artistic legacy that is increasingly being recognized as an important part of the world’s cultural heritage.
After describing the culture of Arabic-speaking Christians and the development of Christian theology at the hands of Christian-Arab theologians, Griffith focused on the plight of Christians living under Islamic rule: deprivation, subservience, and requirements to pay a tax for protection, to wear distinctive clothing, and to refrain from expressing their faith publicly and seeking converts among Muslims. Their lives of hardship led them to see the Islamic conquest in terms of “the apocalyptic mode” of the book of Daniel, he said–as evidence of God’s punishment of Christians who must await their deliverance. Griffith characterized Christian influence in the pre-Modern Islamic world as one of “diminution” until the irruption of Christian missionaries during the Crusades.
Bishop Soro began his lecture by acknowledging the strength of his ties with BYU and CPART and then gave a brief history of Eastern Christianity from its origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition as developed in Mesopotamia. Syriac Christianity stemmed from Jerusalem after the destruction of the temple in ad 70, he said. In Syriac Christianity one can find a cultural, spiritual, linguistic snapshot of the same society that Jesus and his apostles experienced. In the third and fourth centuries, Artistotelian logic, philosophy, and ethics began to be translated into Syriac in Syria and northern Mesopotamia by the Syriac Christians. After the rise and establishment of Islam, a number of the caliphs became interested in Greek philosophy and absorbed vast quantities of Greek learning into Arabic, often by Christian translators. Later in the Middle Ages, Greek philosophy, augmented by Arabic learning, was introduced to the West in translations from Arabic to Latin, leading to the European Enlightenment.
He concluded by noting two events that are bringing the scattered Christians of Syriac persuasions together. First is a 30-year-old initiative of the Archdiocese of Vienna called Pro Oriente–a dialogue between the Western and Eastern Churches. The second is the BYU initiative with the Vatican library, making ancient Syriac Christian manuscripts available for study by scholars all over the world.