The term “Nestorian” is used to describe both a religion and Syriac-speaking linguistic minority. The Nestorians were based primarily in what is now Iraq and southern Turkey. They had a great school in Edessa (present-day Urfa in south-central Turkey). Their early followers included Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Persians and Arabs. After they became Christianized they were called “East Syrians” to distinguish them from the “West Syrians” — Monophysites or the Jacobites.
Today there are about 400,000 Nestorians living around Orumiyeh around Lake Urmiah in northwestern Iran. They also live in the plains of Azerbaijan, the mountains of Kurdistan in eastern Turkey and in the plain around Mosul in northern Iraq. They have often lived in close proximity to the Kurds, with whom they have had an variable relationship with over the centuries.
Nestorian Christianity today is largely extinct but at one time it was quite a powerful Christian sect and was at the center of important doctrinal controversies. The Nestorians emphasized the duality of being between man and divine. They were regarded as heretics by other sects for their belief that there were two separate persons in the incarnate Christ and their denial that Christ was in one person both God and man. They went on to argue that Mary was either the mother of God (a blasphemous concept to many Christians) or the mother of the man Jesus; but she couldn't have it both ways.
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Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “In practice, the Assyrian Church has much in common with the Eastern Rite and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The term ‘Nestorian’ refers to their Christological doctrine that stresses the reality of the human nature of Jesus and that distinguishes it from his divinity. The word ‘Nestorian’ comes from Nestorius (c.381-451), the Patriarch of Constantinople who enunciated these doctrines. Nestorius held that Christ’s human and divine natures were distinct.” [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012]
“Nestorius’s belief that Christ’s human and divine natures were distinct “caused his opponents to falsely accuse him of believing Christ had two personalities. The controversy arose over Nestorius’s opposition to the expression ‘Mary the Mother of God’. The word in Greek is Theotokos, meaning ‘Birthgiver to God’. Nestorius felt this was inappropriate because Mary is the mother of Christ’s human nature and physical body but not his divinity. Nestorius taught that Mary should be called ‘mother of Christ’ or ‘mother of God, mother of Christ’ but never just ‘Mother of God’. “
Nestorius, Theodore and the Origin of the Nestorians
Some say the Nestorians were the first people to adopt Christianity. It is said they did so after St. Thomas visited Assyria within a few years after Christ’s death. There is no real historical evidence to back up this claim.
Lance Jenott of the University of Washington wrote: “Christianity in the first century CE was disseminating both to the West and to the East...through connections with already existing Jewish communities dispersed in the lands outside of Israel. After continual growth, the population of Christians east of Palestine was further augmented by Greek and Syriac speaking Christians who were relocated to the East as a result of the Persians' successful invasion of eastern Roman territory in the mid-third century. As the Church in the West became more interwoven with imperial politics after Constantine's conversion, the eastern churches, many of which were established beyond Roman borders, became more autonomous from the West. In 424, a synod of eastern Bishops declared their sees "administratively" independent from the Western Church. [Source: Lance Jenott, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]
Nestorian Christianity is named after Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople from A.D. 428 to 431. Of Persian origin, he became a monk and lived in a monastery in Euprepius near Antioch. His skill as a speaker helped earn him his appointment to bishop. He was an activist bishop who launched campaigns against heretics and promulgated beliefs that later became associated with Nestorian Christianity. His efforts won him the scorn of other powerful bishops who declared Nestorious a heretic.
The person who really defined Nestorian Christianity was Theodore (died 431), bishop of Mopsuestia in Colicia and a pupil of Diodorus, bishop of Tarsus. Theodore emphasized the humanity of Jesus and argued that he acquired his state of sinlessness by uniting with the Person of the Divine Word. which he received as an award for attaining a state of sinlessness. The Word, he insisted, dwelt in the man Christ. Nestorians thus rejected the union of God and man and Mary was considered the mother of a man not a god.
Theodore’s doctrines were influenced by 4th century Christian scholars from Antioch, who emphasized Christ’s humanity and its inherent imperfections. It was not until Nestorius came to Constantinople that Theodore’s teachings became popular and thus was named after Nestorious. At the Council of Constantinople in 553 Theodore’s doctrine was formally condemned.
Nestorians and the Great Councils of Christianity
In the 3rd through 12th centuries, great councils were called to address Christian theological and doctrinal issues. The Council of Ephesus in 431 was called in part to address the policies of the Nestorians and address the issue of whether Christ was dualist (human and divine) or singular (two in one). Nestorian beliefs lost out. At the council several sects were forced to split from the Christian church. Afterwards the Nestorians were persecuted and exiled. Nestorius was banished to Egypt, where he died in exile. The Nestorians were formally removed from the Orthodox-Catholic church after the Muslim conquests in the 7th century.
Lance Jenott of the University of Washington wrote: ““The "Nestorian" identification of the eastern churches sprouted from the theological and political disputes of the fourth and fifth centuries. One of these disputes was over proper terminology for Mary, the mother of Jesus, which was, in turn, the result of a dispute over the nature of Jesus himself. Within the early church philosophical schools of interpretation were often associated with geographic centers. Antioch in Syria and the churches in the East tended to view Jesus as having two distinct natures, one fully divine and the other fully human, culminating in the person of Jesus (thus the term diophysitism from the Greek words for "two" and "nature"). Thus, they argued, Mary should be spoken of as "the bearer of Christ." An opposing interpretation was offered by the school of Christians associated with Alexandria in Egypt, who insisted that Christ was of one nature only: fully divine (monophysitism), and thus Mary should be termed "the mother of God." [Source: Lance Jenott, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]
“When a Syrian bishop named Nestorius was appointed to the prestigious and influential position of Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, he continued to propagate his natural Antiochan (diophysite) position. Fierce resistance came, however, from Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, who through political influence with the Emperor's sister was able to have Nestorius removed from office and have the diophysite position proclaimed a heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The eastern churches refused to attend the council. Rejecting the authority of Cyril and the monophysite position, they distanced themselves still further from the Western Church. They proceeded to establish a new Episcopal seat in the Sassanian Persian capital at Chestiphon and thus became further associated with the Persian world of the East while the Western Church remained associated with Byzantium. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the Western Church proposed a sort of compromise, but the measure was not enough to reunite the divisions. A synod of eastern bishops in 486 declared the Eastern Church's Nestorian identity and upheld their diophysite position.” *\
Early History of Nestorian Christianity
Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “The Egyptian Patriarch Cyril accused Nestorius of heresy. Nestorius was condemned as a heretic and banished to a monastery near Antioch. From there he was exiled to the Great Oasis in the Sahara Desert. After the storm of controversy abated, the Byzantine Emperor Marcion decided to pardon and release him, but the news arrived as Nestorius was laying in his deathbed. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012]
“Many Christians who spoke Syriac were attracted to the teaching of Nestorius and those of his teachers, Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. The Church of the East adopted Diodore, Theodore, and Nestorius as the authorities of church doctrine. Theodore of Mopsuestia is now recognized as one of the greatest Bible scholars in church history. Today many Assyrian Christians object to being referred to as Nestorians. The reason, they argue, is that Nestorius did not found the Church of the East and that the term ‘Nestorian’ sometimes refers to a heresy that was never held by Nestorius nor by the Church of the East, that being the belief that Christ’s human and divine natures were two separate persons within Christ. However, until recently, Assyrians referred to themselves as Nestorians. Also not all members of the Nestorian Church were Assyrians; in fact, many were Indian, Mongol, and Chinese and only used Syriac as a liturgical language.
“Being accused of heresy by the west was beneficial to the Nestorian Church. Before Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire many Christians sought refuge in the Persian Parthian Empire, Rome’s traditional enemy. When Constantine ended the persecution of Christians and claimed to be a Christian himself, Persia began to suspect the loyalty of its Christian subjects. When the Assyrian Christians demonstrated that the church in the west had condemned them as heretics, the Persians once again showed the East Syrian Church tolerance. With Persia as its base, the East Syrian Church began to spread out across the Silk Road and throughout all of the Far East.
“The West Syrian Church is the other branch of the Syriac speaking Church. This church is also known as the Jacobites and the Syrian Orthodox. A Jacobite is a member of the Syriac Church tradition that rejected the teachings of Nestorius, they believe that Christ’s human nature was insignificant and was absorbed into and overwhelmed by his divinity. They are called Monophysites. The term Jacobite comes from Jacob Baradaeus [died 578]. The East Syrian Church was dominant in the East, but wherever Nestorians went the Jacobites often followed. The Jacobite church has survived as the Syrian Orthodox Church.”
Later History of the Nestorians
Nestorians lived in large numbers in Persia and Iraq after they were persecuted in the Christian west. Around the time of the Muslim conquest in the early 7th century they began traveling eastward on the Silk Road to Turkestan, India, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. They had penetrated deep into China, where a Nestorian church was founded in 638, in Changsan (Xian). See China
Wherever the went Nestorians continued to use the Syriac language. It was estimated that around the end of the A.D. first millennium there were more Nestorians than Catholics and Orthodox Christians combined. Among the Asian who were converted to Nestorian Christianity were Kublai Khan’s sister in law. The Nestorians prospered in the Mongol Empire but were nearly wiped out by Tamerlane. See Mongolia.
The surviving Nestorian church was weakened further by internal struggles in the 15th century that were brought about in part because the patriarch was required to be celibate and his nephews or uncles generally succeeded him but this practice ith Nestorian canons that restricted hereditary succession.
Beginning in the 19th century many Nestorians in Turkey, Syria and Iraq were reawakened by European and American Protestant missionaries, which led to persecution by their Muslim neighbors. Nestorians were massacred in 1843. After this many migrated to the Lake Urmia area of Iran, where their presence was more readily tolerated. Many of those that remained converted to Protestantism.
Nestorian Christianity and the Silk Road
Lance Jenott of the University of Washington wrote: “For Christians living in Persia, persecutions were intermittent and usually resulted from a particular ruler's ties with the native Zoroastrian priests who often strove to elevate their native faith over such non-traditional religions as Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Manichaeism. Most of the time Nestorians lived peacefully under rulers who favored religious diversity within their realm. At times, Nestorians even served in the Persian military against the Christian Byzantine West. [Source: Lance Jenott, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]
“From Persia, the Nestorian church continued to grow eastward along the Silk Roads. Situated on the crossroads of Asia, the region of Sogdiana (modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) was a chief center of commercial and cultural exchange bringing together merchants from nearly all regions of Asia. Through their long existent commercial ties with the Persian merchants, Sogdians began to convert to Nestorian Christianity and played a key role in its transmission east. Often multilingual, Sogdian merchants served as capable translators of Nestorian texts. In the Tarim Basin--a well known hot-spot of diverse religious beliefs--a cache of Nestorian texts translated from Syriac (the official language of the Nestorian church) into Sogdian was discovered in the early twentieth century. Although translations, some of these texts were previously unknown. By 650 an archbishopric existed in Samarkand and even further east in Kashgar. Sogdian merchants, along side Syrian missionaries, also contributed to the conversion of nomadic Turkish tribes living in the steppe of Central Asia. The Nestorian faith by the Mongol period (13th century), intermixed with indigenous religious practice, is thought to have been quite prosperous among the nomads. *\
“The success of the Nestorians in China is mixed. A monument erected in 781 in the Tang capital Chang'an (Xian) relates the story of Syrian and Persian missionaries bringing the faith to China in the seventh century. Much of the early Tang rulers, themselves of a semi-foreign origin, promoted religious diversity in China to help legitimize their rule and therefore welcomed the Nestorians along side other non-Chinese religions such as Buddhism. After being granted an audience with the Tang Emperor Tai Zong (r.626-649), the Syrian missionary Alopen was allowed to establish a monastery in Chang'an and was asked to translate the Christian scriptures into Chinese. Later persecutions of non-Chinese faiths, however, led to the virtual disappearance of Nestorians in China by the tenth century. For a brief time under the Mongols (in the 13th and 14th centuries) the Nestorian church had a resurgence in China, but was again suppressed under the Ming Dynasty, which ascended in 1368." *\
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018