Syriac

One of the languages I have taught is called Syriac, an obscure dialect of Aramaic. Syriac is a Semitic language, related to both Hebrew and Arabic in the same way that German is related to English. An English speaker will recognize that some German resembles what he knows in English, but he is not likely to find a German newspaper enlightening unless he spends a few years learning German first, no matter how well he might know English. Likewise with Syriac. A knowledge of Hebrew is only marginally helpful in learning to figure out Syriac. And unlike German, which now uses the same alphabet we use in English, the Syriac alphabet bears no resemblance whatsoever to Hebrew or anything else.

Syriac, like most of the languages I know, is a dead language. This means that either there is no one left alive who uses the language at all, or, as is the case with Syriac, it is used in a frozen, traditional way akin to the Roman Catholic Church’s use of Latin prior to Vatican II. Thus, Syriac is a language whose only use now is to intone the liturgy of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

At one time Syriac was a living, vibrant language belonging to a dynamic community that had converted to Christianity within the first couple of centuries after Christ. Syriac was a major literary language throughout the Middle East from the second to the eighth century AD. It spread throughout Asia as far as Eastern China and was the medium of communication and cultural dissemination for Arabs and, to a lesser extent, Persians. Primarily a Christian medium of expression, Syriac had a fundamental cultural and semantical influence on the development of Arabic which replaced it towards the end of the eighth century when the Moslems roared out of Arabia and conquered the Middle East. They killed many Christians who refused to convert, then imposed backbreaking taxes upon those who remained. The Moslem conquerors forbade the remaining Christians to build new churches or to repair their old ones. Although it is popular today to decry the Crusades (AD 1095-1291), it needs to be pointed out that the Crusades happened as a reaction to centuries of Moslem imperialism, aggression, and atrocities. The First Crusade was launched in response to a call from the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire for help against the expansion of the Moslems into what is today Turkey. The Crusades were unsuccessful and so the city that had been known as Constantinople is today called Istanbul, and one of the most beautiful churches ever built, the Haggia Sophia, was transformed into a mosque. In fact, most “traditional” Moslem lands were Christian until the Moslems conquered them militarily and imposed Islam on their populations.

One of the consequences of the Moslem conquests is that today the bulk of Syrian Orthodox Christians are living in the West, with most in the United States.

As part of my graduate program at UCLA I was required to learn several dialects of Aramaic, including Syriac. Since that time, I had not done much work with the language. However, one summer I was approached by an old Orthodox priest and one of his deacons. They asked me if I could offer a class in Syriac, since their church uses the language in its liturgy, but they didn’t even know the alphabet and had to do the liturgy each Sunday by reading it in transliteration.

They were both American converts to the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, commonly referred to as the Mar Thoma Church. They are a Reformed offshoot of the pre-sixteenth century undivided Saint Thomas Christians, one of several groups of Saint Thomas Christians tracing their origins to St. Thomas the Apostle who, according to tradition, came to India in AD 52. Anglican missionaries—supported by the English colonial rule in India—encouraged doctrinal, liturgical and ecclesiastical reforms in the Church which were viewed as heretical by the majority of Syrian Orthodox bishops. For instance, in common with Protestantism, the reformers sought to return to the gospel message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. They also emphasized the primacy of the Bible in the life of believers, and they encouraged their members to actively preach the Gospel to the world.

The reformers broke from the Syrian Orthodox Church when they were excommunicated for refusing to recant their changes. Prior to 1996 (when the Ukrainian Luthern Church was established), it was the only Eastern rite Church in the world to add elements of Protestant thinking to its theology.

The Mar Thoma Church is headed by a Metropolitan bishop who lays claim to the Malankara Throne of St. Thomas. The current Metropolitan is Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma, who lives in India. He is the twentieth Malankara Metropolitan to occupy the Holy Apostolic Throne of St. Thomas after the re-establishment of the episcopacy in the seventeenth century.

The majority of the members of the Mar Thoma Church are located in the southern Indian state of Kerala, although it has spread with the Indian diaspora to North America, Europe, the Middle East, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

The Mar Thoma Church is in full communion with the Anglican Church, Church of South India and Church of North India.

And that’s how I, a Southern Baptist deacon, wound up teaching an Eastern Orthodox priest and Eastern Orthodox deacon the ancient language of Syriac for more than a year.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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