Aramaic Church

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Origin and Early Mission to the East

As Paul and the other Apostles and missionaries took the message of Jesus Christ to the West, to the synagogues first, and then to Greek culture and language peoples of the Roman Empire, The Apostle Thomas and his followers took the message to the East, to the Aramaic language and varied cultured peoples of the Parthian (Persian) Empire. These two Empires were at war with each other which tended to cause the two Christian communities to develop independently of each other - the Western Church to eventually be aligned with the Roman Empire, the Eastern to remain always subservient to the Persian Empire. The major Western border Kingdom was Osrhoene with its capital city Edessa. 400 miles to the east of Edessa was the small Persian Kingdom of Adiabene with its capital city of Arbela (modern Irbil on the Tigris river in Iraq). Adiabene was the last existing province of the hostile-to-Israel Assyrian empire.

The Peshitta

In 36 A.D., both the Queen of Adiabene, known in Greek as Queen Helena (not the mother of Constantine), and her son King Ezad were converted to Judaism. Queen Helena was buried in the grand tomb complex in East Jerusalem - formally thought to be the Tomb of the Kings. Her palace complex takes up the full half of the Hill of the City of David as reconstructered by Israeli archaeologist, Mikhael Avi-Yonah (reconstruction now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem). Queen Helena's conversion, as wiell as others of the Kingdom, furthered the already developing translation of the Hebrew Scriptures in her Kingdom's language -Aramaic. That developing (on up to 5th Cent. redactions) translation came to be known as the Peshitta - meaning simple or common speech, in much the same way as the Hebrew Bible would be translated into Latin by Jerome, with extensive help form a Rabbi,and the resultant translation would be called the Vulgate - meaning simple or common speech. The Peshitta, retaining elements of the then Jewish "targumic" (interpretive) and other Jewish understandings of the Hebrew Bible, is primarily based on the Pre-Masoretic Hebrew Scriptures - though certain books, such as the Prophet Isaiah,are translations primarily from the Septuagint (The Peshitta Book of Proverbs, however, and the Targum of Proverbs are almost identical). (A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume l, Samuel Hugh Moffett,orbis, 1998, pg. 70). See Targum for the early centuries Rabbinic interpretive literature and its application to both Old and New Testament studies. (The development of the Old Testament Peshitta translation is held by some to have taken place alternatively in Adiabene's nearby neighbor Edessa).

As Thomas and his followers went to India, others (possibly Adai (Thaddeus), the Galilean from Caesarea Phillipi among them) arrived in Adiabene, and having gone (probably to the synagogues first, as did the Apostle Paul), they found already, if not a populous, then an elite governmental element, conversant with the biblical message in Aramaic. From these people, hearing the preaching of the messengers from Israel, came believers in Jesus Christ, and soon after, came the translation of the Greek New Testament Scriptures into Aramaic, and so the Peshitta was added to by inclusion of the New Testament in Aramaic. Unlike the Greek canon of the New Testament Scriptures, the Peshitta originally did not include the following books: the Second Epistle of Peter, the Second Epistle of John, the Third Epistle of John, the Epistle of Jude and the Book of Revelation. But these books translated into the Syriac (as Christian Aramaic is known) are part of the Peshitta now and used by the Aramaic-based churches, primarily in India and the Middle East - the Syrian Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East (Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East), the Indian Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syro-Malabar Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Adiabene and its surroundings then became the sending center for a mission to the East that would eventually, taking advantage of the newly rediscovered monsoon winds blowing for months across the Arabian sea, making it possible for ships to no longer hug the coasts, and taking advantage of the "Silk Road" all the way from Antioch in Syria to China, take the message of Jesus Christ to India (bringing about the Aramaic (Syriac) language churches of Kerala) and even to China itself.

The Worship of the Early Aramaic Church

What is known about the life and worship of the earliest Aramaic community, is derived from an Aramaic (Syriac) document, once thought to be from a later "Judaizing" element within the Church, but now known, by comparison with linguistic affinities to the Dead Sea Scrolls in conjunction with the Gospel of John, to come from the first century, from the time that the church was still Jewish. This document is the "Odes of Solomon".

The Odes have been called the "earliest Christian hymnbook" (The Odes of Solomon: The Syriac texts Edited with Translation and Notes, J. H. Charlesworth, Oxford, Clarendon, 1973). They are 42 biblical style psalms, each psalm usually in three sections - a first narrative style about the Lord, a middle section in which, often, Jesus speaks in the first person, and a last section offering a doxology of praise.

The Odes are contemporaneous with some of literature of the New Testament, but exhibiting an earlier phase of development of the Church. In the New Testament (Romans), Gentile Christians are exhorted to be tolerant, less rejecting and caring for the "Old People of God" and, by implication, the remaining early Jewish believers in their midst (now a minority). Here in the Odes of Solomon, Jewish believers (gently rebuked) are urged to be tolerant and caring for the Gentiles who had come to faith and were now coming into their midst. "And the Gentiles, who had been dispersed, were gathered together; But I [Jesus speaking] was not defiled by My love (for them); Because they had praised Me in High Places. (Odes Sol. 10:5). They went out early each morning before work and prayed together with arms outsteched, the fashion of worship of a slightly later gentile prayer position, considering this outstretching the "sign of the cross" - "I extended my hands and approached my Lord, For the expansion of my hands is His sign, And my extension is the common cross; That was lifted up on the way of the Righteous One." (A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. l., Samuel Hugh Moffett, Orbis,{Odes Sol.42:1,2,}, 1998, pg.52). The Odes, have either a joining of Biblical passages, or the thought of such passages prior to their writing. An example is Ode 41:12-15 bringing together the prologue of the Gospel of John and Philippians 2. "His word is with us on the way; The Saviour who gives life and does not reject (us); The Man who humbled Himself, but was exalted because of His own Righteousness...;And Light dawned from the Word, that was before time in Him."

There is little to be said in the Odes about the organization of this early Aramaic Church. The "Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons" of the roughly contemporaneous New Testament are not mentioned, but that may not mean much. As Samuel Moffett wrote about this matter, "[hymns]are rarely required to sing of bureaucracies". The closest to a list of ministries is from Ode 12:4 - "...the interpreters of His beauty, and the narrators of His Glory, and the confessors of His purpose, and the preachers of His mind, and the teachers of His works."

The Aramaic church of today

The Church of the East, sometimes known as the Nestorian Church or sometimes as the Assyrian Church uses the Aramaic Language in their liturgy [1]. This is true also of the Church of the East in India, also known as the Syro-Chaldean Church, though its people speak an Indian dialect and not Aramaic. The Aramaic translation of the Bible for this Church is the Peshitta, the earliest of the translations for both the Old and New Testament after the Greek Septuaginta of the Hebrew original for the Old and after the Greek original for the New. Jesus spoke Aramaic as well as Mishnaic (1st century common) Hebrew and some of his utterances in the Greek New Testament are transliterations of the Aramaic. Examples of these are Talitha Kum(i)-"Get up ,Young girl!", Eloi, Eloi, lama Shvaktani- My God, My God, why have you left Me." In the book of Revelation of the New Testament, the word "Maranatha" appears, as it does in the liturgies of the early church. Maranatha means either (according to its accent), "The Lord has come" or "O Lord, come!"

Church of the East members from the "Assyrian" group still speaking Aramaic, are dispersed to several countries since their World War l persecution and flight from Turkey - along with the Armenians. They are settled today in various countries and in the United States are found in numbers in Flint Michigan, Modesto California, and Yonkers New York.

A few modern Churches such as the Syro-Chaldean Church of North America, now known as the Evangelical Apostolic Church of North America (Syro-Chaldean) derive their Apostolicity and general theological outlook from the Aramaic Church of the East though their membership is "Anerican" rather than ethnically Assyrian [2].

The Chaldean Catholic Church represents a part of the Church of the East which has recognized the Pope and the jurisdiction of the Western Catholio Church. This Church also uses the Aramaic language in their liturgy. These are the churches, some under the Pope and some independent (autocephalous - "self heading") that use Aramaic as part of their liturgy nowadays - the Syrian Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East (Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East), the Indian Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syro-Malabar Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

See also