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.

Early Syriac Christianity
Dr. Lucas Van Rompay, professor of Eastern Christianity and director of Duke University’s Center for Late Ancient Studies, kicked off the series on 10 March with a lecture titled “Early Syriac Christianity.” Focusing on the pre-Islamic period (200-600 ad), when Syriac Christianity absorbed aspects of Greek culture, Van Rompay showed slides of mosaics and wall paintings that blend Syriac and Greek elements, such as script in both languages. Notably, one wall painting features Abgar Ukkama and the Roman emperor Constantine, supposedly the first two rulers to convert to Christianity. Tradition holds that King Abgar of Edessa, a Mesopotamian city that became a center of Christianity in the fourth century ad, exchanged letters with Jesus, resulting in the conversion of Abgar and his entire city. This tradition, along with Greek language and philosophy, was the primary shaping influence of Syriac Christianity, Van Rompay said.

Christianity under Islam
On 17 March, Dr. Sidney H. Griffith, professor of Semitic languages at The Catholic University of America, spoke on the topic “Christianity under Islam in the Pre-Modern World.” Griffith is a specialist in Syriac and Arabic Christianity, and he chairs the advisory board for BYU’s Eastern Christian Texts series. He began by noting that the Qur<an, which presumes familiarity with the Old Testament and related lore, offers a critique of Christianity, referring to Christians vaguely as “people of the book” and viewing Jesus Christ as one of God’s messengers but not as his Son. He then spoke of the challenges that Christianity posed to Islam in the pre-Modern period (from the time of Mohammed to the Crusades). For example, after the Abassid revolt in ad 750, Christians in the Middle East gradually became enculturated into the Islamic community. Muslim scholars took notice of the three primary Eastern Christian groups (Melchites, Jacobites, Nestorians) and set about trying to refute their beliefs.

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.

History of Eastern Christianity
The final lecture in the series, on 31 March, was by Bishop Mar Bawai Soro of the Assyrian Church of the East. Six years ago, Bishop Soro was instrumental in helping to open a dialogue between CPART (part of the Institute) personnel and ecclesiastical authorities overseeing the archives of the Vatican Apostolic Library in Rome. This led to an agreement between Brigham Young University and the Vatican authorizing CPART to digitize 28 ancient Syriac documents from the library’s excellent collections.

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.