The Church Under the Persian Empires

This is the Church of the Saintly Sisters, or Vank (meaning "monastery" in Armenian) Cathedral, built in 1606 AD for the hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christian deportees who were displaced by the Ottoman War of 1603 - 1618 and resettled in the New Julfa district of Isfahan, Iran.  Photo credit:  Rasool Abbasi17 | CC4.0, Wikimedia.   The interior, below. Photo credit: Thomas | CC2.0, Wikimedia Commons.


the church under the Persian empires

The selection of perspectives on church history in this section has been guided by three factors: (1) to demonstrate that Christianity has not been a “white man’s religion”; (2) the study of empire as a recurring motif in Scripture by recent biblical studies scholars; and (3) explorations of biblical Christian ethics on issues of power and polity, to understand how Christians were faithful to Christ or not.  Christian relational ethics continues a Christian theological anthropology that began with reflection on the human nature of Jesus, and the human experience of biblical Israel.

Books and Articles on the Church Under the Persian Empires

The Church of the East 431 AD resources exploring the Syriac-speaking church that is sometimes seen through the lens of Nestorius, a characterization which has been recently challenged

The Oriental Orthodox Church 451 AD resources exploring the churches which upheld the Miaphysite language of Jesus’ one “physis” while the pro-Chalcedonian Churches (Constantinople and Rome) upheld two “physeis.” The selections below are guided by the attempt to understand the schism that occurred at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. This includes the Egyptian Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Indian Malankaran Churches.

Peter Theodore Farrington, The Orthodox Christology of St. Severus of Antioch (Orthodox Wiki article) (c.459 - 538 AD)

Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient (Amazon book, 1987) features Mary, Niece of Abraham of Qidun; Pelagia of Antioch; the Persian Martyrs; the Women Martyrs of Najran; Mary, Euphemia, and Susan from Lives of Eastern Saints by John of Ephesus; Anastasia; Febronia; Shirin.

Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Asceticism and Society in Crisis: John of Ephesus and The Lives of the Eastern Saints (Amazon book, 1990) John's sixth century writing narrates his experiences in the villages of the Syrian Orient, the deserts of Egypt, and the imperial city of Constantinople. Harvey's examines the late antique Byzantine East, the character of ascetic practices, the traumatic separation of the "Monophysite" churches, the fluctuating roles of women in Syriac Christianity, and the general contribution of hagiography to the study of history.

William L. Petersen, The Christology of Aphrahat, the Persian Sage: An Excursus on the 17th "Demonstration" (JSTOR/Vigiliae Christianae, 1992) discusses the apparent subordinationism in Afraphat as representative of a Semitic-Judaic Christianity

Sebastian P. Brock, The "Nestorian" Church: A Lamentable Misnomer (Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 1996) discusses the historical, theological, and linguistic background to the debates around the two natures of Christ

Stephanie K. Skoyles Jarkins, Aphrahat the Persian Sage and the Temple of God: A Study of Early Syriac Theological Anthropology (Marquette University, 2005) dissertation on how Aphrahat relied on the Christian vision of the individual human person as a dwelling place of God; includes an impressive overview of other biblical and Christian literature

Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume 1 (Amazon book, Apr 1998) and Volume 2 (Amazon book, Mar 2005)

Robert Miller, Syriac and Antiochian Exegesis and Biblical Theology for the 3rd Millenium (Amazon book, Dec 1, 2008)

Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-and How It Died (Amazon book, Nov 3, 2009)

Ilya Lizorkin, Aphrahat's Demonstrations: A Conversation with the Jews of Mesopotamia (Stellenbosch University, 2009) dissertation on the likely background to Aphrahat's writings; also Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Semitic Chrisitianity: St. Aphrahat & The Sages of Babylonian Talmud (Amazon book, Aug 2, 2015) develops his earlier dissertation (above) and appreciates Aphrahat as a representative of a Jewish-Christian dialogue at the time and place the Babylonian Talmud was being written; see also the short article, Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, A Semitic Church Father (Israel Study Center, Jul 7, 2016)

Morwenna Ludlow, The Early Church (Amazon book, 2009) includes chapters on the Christian centers of Nisibis and Edessa along with Alexandria and Cappadocia

Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Song and Memory: Biblical Women in Syriac Tradition (Amazon book, 2010)

Aziz Atiya, History of Eastern Christianity (Amazon book, Jan 1, 2010) written by a Coptic Christian, surveys Copts and Ethiopians, along with other Oriental Orthodox Churches in Asia:  Syrians, Nestorians, Armenians, and Indians

Margaret Mowczko, Nino of Georgia: A Woman Evangelist “Equal to the Apostles” (New Life, Jan 14, 2011)

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Saint Isaac the Syrian and His Spiritual Legacy: Proceedings of the International Patristics Conference Held at the Sts Cyril and Methodius Institute Studies, Moscow, October 10-11 (Amazon book, Oct 1, 2015) a 7th century Christian hermit from Nineveh, in present-day Iraq

Richard E. Payne, A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity (Amazon book, 2015) Christian communities flourished during late antiquity in a Zoroastrian political system, known as the Iranian Empire. Whereas previous studies have regarded Christians as marginal, insular, and often persecuted participants in this empire, Payne demonstrates their integration into elite networks, adoption of Iranian political practices, and participation in imperial institutions.

Christopher Thornton, Last Word: Christian Iran (Commonweal, Feb 11, 2016)

Andrew Doran, When Christianities Collide: Persecuted Churches of the East Need Dialogue With the West (The American Conservative, Jun 9, 2016)

Mark Howard, The Story of Iran’s Church in Two Sentences (The Gospel Coalition, Jul 30, 2016)

Fariba Nawa, Iranians Are Converting to Evangelical Christianity in Turkey (NPR, Dec 14, 2018)

Mark Ellis, Fastest Growing Church Has No Buildings, No Central Leadership, and Is Mostly Led by Women (God Reports, Sep 11, 2019) “The Iranian awakening is a rapidly reproducing discipleship movement that owns no property or buildings, has no central leadership, and is predominantly led by women.”

the church in the middle east: Under the empires

Church and empire: faithfulness and compromise