Magazine article The Christian Century

The Nestorian Faithful

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Nestorian Faithful

Article excerpt

I had the opportunity to meet members of one of the world's oldest and most heroic churches recently when I spoke to the national youth conference of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East. The meeting was held, of all places, in San Jose, California.

Now there is no reason why Assyrians--as they call themselves--should not meet in San Jose or any of the other American cities where they have a presence. San Jose, though, is so associated with the technological cutting edge that it was slightly jarring to be there engaging a church that harks back to the earliest years of the Jesus movement and to eras when the church still had a powerfully Semitic character.

San Jose is home to a church dedicated to Mar Yosip, which is the name of St. Joseph (San Jose) in the form that might have been used by the Syriac Fathers. Throughout that church's liturgy one repeatedly hears words that might be more at home in a Hebrew context, such as the Syriac forms of ruach (spirit) and kadosh (holy). Your mind keeps slipping from Silicon Valley to the eastern marches of a still-vibrant Roman Empire.

These Assyrians are more than just Iraqi exiles. They are what Western churches have pejoratively labeled Nestorians--followers of a patriarch of Constantinople whose christological views were declared heretical in 431.

Whether or not the name Nestorian is valid historically (and Assyrians never accept it), history has made the name glorious Nestorians were members of the great Church of the East that flourished in Mesopotamia and Persia in the later Roman Empire, and that formally declared its independence from the Orthodox/ Catholic world in 498. The Nestorian faithful led one of the greatest missionary ventures in Christian history; by 800 their church extended deep into Central and Eastern Asia and was firmly rooted in southern India. Perhaps a quarter of all Christians adhered to the Nestorian tradition.

The church fell into a steep decline during the later Middle Ages, and it vanished entirely in what had been its Asian strongholds. Although Indian Christians continued unmolested, they kept only sporadic contact with the church in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq. By the 16th century, the Church of the East split into two communions, divided over the issue of loyalty to the Roman papacy. Those who accepted Roman authority became the Chaldean church; the Assyrians remained independent. …

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