The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources

By Thomas, David | The Catholic Historical Review, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources


Thomas, David, The Catholic Historical Review


The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources. Edited by Samuel Noble and Alexander Treiger. [Orthodox Christian Series.] (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. 2014. Pp. x, 375. $35.00 paperback. ISBN 978-0-87580-701-0.)

The Christian communities of West Asia are in the news almost daily, as they live out the latest bleak episode in their long history. Thanks to the obdurate sadism of so-called Islamic State, for some of them it could be their last. This history is almost unknown in the West, as are the culture and distinctive beliefs of these communities or their stirring experiences of living under Muslim rule and devising means to survive.

In the early centuries after Christ, Christians in the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire developed doctrines along their own lines, particularly concerning the nature of Christ. When the early church councils prescribed the mode in which his humanity and divinity came together, significant numbers in the East vehemently dissented. Then, just as the main points of doctrinal difference had been identified, these Eastern provinces were overrun by the new power of Islam. From the seventh century onward Eastern Christians continued as client communities, experiencing pressure to convert, adverse social and economic relations, and sometimes active persecution. The story of how they survived and rallied, and particu- larly how they responded to the challenge of Islam, deserves a full telling. Equally, the theologies they worked out in the context of the strict monotheism promoted by Muslims include masterpieces of apologetic that show both continuity with patristic precedents and also responsiveness to the questions and criticisms they met on a daily basis.

The main Christian communities that have continued for most of their history under Islam are commonly known as Nestorians, Jacobites (Copts, in Egypt), and Melkites. As Islamic rule became established, and Arabic became the normal language of conversation and scholarly writing, so they moved from their former languages of Greek and Syriac (a form of the language that Jesus had used) to Arabic. In this new context they had to find new idioms and terminologies, as well as a new logic in which to express their beliefs. The results, although definitely recognizable as descendants of their patristic forebears, show sensitivity to the new context set by Islamic religious discourse. Exploring their theological world is a stimulating and instructive experience. This book goes some way to make this possible.

Recognizing the impossibility of covering the whole range of surviving writings from 1300 years of Christian religious thinking expressed in Arabic, the two editors decided to bring together selected works from the first millennium of the Melkite tradition, those churches that remained loyal to the Christological formula defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and endorsed by the emperor (hence their name Melkite, "the king's followers"). They have collected writings from twelve Arab authors, many translated expressly and a few others taken from earlier publications, to present a sample of how this church continued in conditions where communication with the Byzantine mother church and its culture was no longer practicable, and where Christian authors fashioned distinctive explanations and arguments to answer questions from other denominations and from Muslims alike.

The book starts with a relatively brief but surprisingly comprehensive introduction in which the Melkite Church and something of its culture are set out. …

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