The First Eastern Footholds

The question of when the Church of the East began, defined as the start of missionary activity east of the Euphrates, leads directly to the conflict between Nestorian tradition and the testimony of textual criticism. No fewer than ten names appear among those who claim to have been the first to carry the Good News to the east. Tradition and scholarship do concur, at least, regarding where Christianity first took hold, namely in Edessa (Urfa) and Adiabene (northern Iraq). Reports that the Three Kings or the pilgrims who had been in Jerusalem at Pentecost were the first missionaries to the Parthian Empire clearly belong in the realm of myth. Likewise, we must not concern ourselves with the traditions about Peter, Benjamin and Bartholomew, who are associated with India, as well as Lycaonia, Ethiopia, and Arabia and Armenia. Abha was, for his part, simply a companion of Mar Mari. The names of St Thomas, Mar Addai, Mar Aggai and Mar Mari however, ought to be taken seriously, especially since they occupy the first four places in the official chronology of the patriarchs of the Church of the East.

Baumer, the Church of the East, pp. 14-15

I actually disagree with the author here about the pilgrims from Pentecost being only a possibility in the realm of myth. We have a precedent in Acts in the example of Antioch for normal believers leading the way in witness, with apostolic leaders being called for once a community of Christian faith has taken root. If it happened that way for Syrian Antioch, why not for the two of the major cities on the highway East of Antioch, Edessa and Adiabene (Arbela)?

But there does seem to be some evidence for the early arrival and work of Thomas, Mar Addai (St. Thaddeus), Mar Aggai (St. Haggai), and Mar Mari (St. Mares). Notice how the Aramaic-ization (is that a word?) of these names and titles makes them feel a little foreign to the Greek-icized names of the New Testament – and how, at least for me, seeing the familiar forms of the names makes them feel more at home as the successors of what we read about in the book of Acts. These language shifts are actually a fitting example of what was likely the gospel’s first departure from the Greco-Roman world into a neighboring cultural and linguistic sphere. Not that Greek wouldn’t have had some speakers in Mesopotamia, but it was definitely majority Aramaic-speaking. It’s not surprising then that the first evidence we have of the gospels being translated out of Greek and into another language takes place in Adiabene.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

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