Book Reviews

Peppard, Michael, The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria (Yale University Press, New Haven & London: 2016) xi + 320 pp. + illus. 50$ US (£35 Amazon)

The full extent of the destruction of many ancient religious and archaeological sites by Isis is still not entirely known but, providentially, the photographic and documentary evidence gathered before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the rise of Isis, has ensured that the efforts of these fanatics to obliterate totally the records of previous civilisations, has not been entirely successful.

The ancient city of Dura-Europos, located near the village of Salhiyé, in modern Syria, was a Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman border city built on an escarpment 300 feet above the right bank of the Euphrates river. In 113 BC, Parthians conquered the city, transforming it into an important provincial administrative centre.  The Romans decisively captured it in 165 AD and greatly enlarged it as their easternmost stronghold in Mesopotamia. In 211 AD the Emperor Septimius Severus granted it the title of “Colonia” and, in 216 AD, a small amphitheatre was built in the military quarter. Its location on the edge of empires made for a co-mingling of cultural and religious traditions; with a Mithraeum; a synagogue, completed in 244 AD, and Christian house-church. The last two were embellished with frescoes of important characters wearing Roman tunics, caftans and Parthian trousers. These splendid paintings that cover the walls testify to the richness of the Jewish and Christian community.

It was captured by the Sassanians led by Shapur I, after a siege in 256-7 AD, who deported the entire surviving population after killing all the Roman defenders. The good state of preservation of many buildings and their frescoes was due to their location, close to the main city wall facing west, and the military necessity to strengthen the wall. The Sassanid Persians had become adept at tunnelling under such walls in order to undermine them and create breaches. As a countermeasure the Roman garrison decided to sacrifice the street and the buildings along the wall by filling them with rubble to bolster the wall in case of a Persian mining operation, so the Christian house church, the synagogue, the Mithraeum and many other buildings were entombed. They also buttressed the walls from the outside with an earthen mound forming a glacis and sealed it with a casing of mud brick to prevent erosion.

Left abandoned, it was covered by sand and mud and disappeared from sight. Nothing was built over it and no later building obscured the architectonic features of the ancient city. The Christian house church, was located by the 17th tower and preserved by the same defensive fill that saved the synagogue.

Recent satellite imagery shows a cratered landscape inside the city’s mud-brick walls, evidence of widespread destruction by looters and it is estimated that more than 70% of Dura-Europos has been destroyed by looters during the ongoing  Syrian Civil War, especially by Isis.

Professor Michael Peppard of the Department of Theology at Fordham University provides an outline history of some of the historical excavation, beginning with its accidental discovery by which British soldiers in 1920, shortly before the change of border placed it under French supervision. He outlines the duccessive work done by French archaeologists and the significant input by American archaeologists.  The site’s importance was recognised early as the only extant non-funerary ritual space from pre-Constantinian Christianity, providing a rare parallel record with the fragments to be found in the Roman catacombs. The construction of the house dates from around 232/33 and it is believed to have been renovated for church use in 240/41 and then was only in use for some fifteen years before the city’s fall.

The rooms were all constructed around a central courtyard with a portico, with flights of steps leading to the other rooms, which included an Assembly Hall on the south (capable of holding around 75 people) with a raised platform on its eastern edge. This is believed to been used for the Eucharist and the agape. In the north-west corner a smaller room with a large basin under a pillared canopy, decorated with wall paintings on all four sides, is believed to have been the baptistery, although it was not large enough for immersion of adults.

The wall paintings, which are artistically inferior to those in the neighbouring synagogue, are in the Hellenistic Jewish iconographic tradition and show that this early community was not iconoclastic, but the fragments of the wall paintings, which include a woman at a well; a procession of three women to a large sarcophagus; figures walking on the water; the healing of a paralytic; David & Goliath; Adam and Eve and a shepherd carrying a sheep, all resonate with well-known Christian iconography. Peppard, however, reminds us that as the canon of scripture was still not settled, we must also look to other texts than the Bible for inspiration. Although the book contains a large number of diagrams and line-drawings in addition to photographs, regrettably their quality leaves something to be desired.

Peppard challenges several traditional Christian interpretations of the rituals and beliefs of this early community, drawing on a wide range of scholarly and artistic studies. Drawing on the fragments of art which have survived, his contention that the Eucharistic baptismal ritual practised here may not primarily embody notions of death and resurrection but rather show empowerment, healing, marriage, and incarnation,  challenges traditional Christian understanding. Early on in his study, however, he suggests the possibility of influences by Valentinianism or other Gnostic movements, which might explain why this church may appear to vary from mainstream Christianity emphasis.

Twenty-first century Orthodox Christians may not immediately recognise parallels with our contemporary church life, but this is to be expected when examining the transition between the first few generations between the Apostolic Age and the Constantinian Peace of the Church; whilst the enduring message of the Christian gospel, handed on by oral tradition before it was written down, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sent in the Son’s name, has nevertheless taught us and brought to the Church’s remembrance all things He spoke.

Abba Seraphim

Grass, Tim, The Lord’s Work. A History of the Catholic Apostolic Church (Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon: 2017), xiv + 366 pp. Pbk.

The history of the Catholic Apostolic Church has always been a source of fascination because of its unique and highly developed ecclesiology which defies easy attempts to classify it among religious movements of its period. Contemporary with the rise of Mormonism, its early origins arising from the charismatic manifestations in a variety of British churches, did not result in the establishment of another radical millenarian sect, offering new doctrines to counterbalance old and stagnant traditions. On the contrary, though erroneously labelled ‘Irvingites’, because of the significant involvement of the fashionable Scot’s Presbyterian preacher, Edward Irving, the Catholic Apostolics vigorously eschewed sectarianism, believing that the ministry of the Restored Apostolate was directed to the entire Christian Church in order to bring it to unity in preparation for the imminent Second Coming. Under prophetic guidance revealing deep typological symbolism, traditional liturgical worship and sacramental life was established to prepare the church for the coming of the Lord. The Apostles claimed great authority, but when their number dwindled and was diminished by death and the Lord appeared to have tarried in His promised return, they still refused to perpetuate their ministry by man-made stratagems; humbly overseeing the dismantling of what they believed to have been the re-established perfect order rather than fall into the error of making provision for their continuance.

Tim Grass has made a comprehensive and sympathetic study of the Catholic Apostolics for over a quarter of a century and his evaluation does not avoid difficult or critical issues, but essentially allows the Apostles to speak for themselves.  As he states at the outset, he focuses on the narrative itself rather than any particular interpretation of it. Since the 19th century there have been a number of books published by outsiders, mostly critical, but often with a desire to impose their own insights. Tim Rice, however, has a single agenda, which is to provide the narrative based on thorough and balanced facts, so that his readers can draw their own conclusions. These are ably set against the wider view of church history which influences events. The great different between this and earlier histories is that Tim Grass has tracked down and drawn together a truly impressive number of primary sources. A widespread complaint of those who wrote about the Catholic Apostolics was the paucity of available resources, but the full bibliography provided here directs those desiring further study to primary sources which have long been inaccessible. Rather modestly, he suggests that his work should not be treated as definitive – and its historical rather than theological approach is just such a reason for others wishing to write more about this extraordinary episode in church history, but there can be no doubt that they will all owe a debt of gratitude to Tim Grass’s sedulous and meticulous research.   

Abba Seraphim

Dinno, Khaid S. The Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Late Ottoman Period and Beyond. Crisis then Revival (Gorgias Press, Piscataway: 2017), xx + 506 pp. + illus.

This is a substantial historical work, the first since Patriarch Mar Ignatius Aphrem I Barsoum (1887-1957) wrote his own church histories in Arabic and Syriac,  many of which were published posthumously. Based on unprecedented access to the Patriarchal archives in Damascus, as well as those preserved in other ancient monasteries, Dr. Dinno has been part of the team working on the digitalisation of these archives since 2010.           

This book is a revised version of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation and adopts the standard scholarly format of introducing his study with a thorough outline of Syriac Church history, which is itself a solid and valuable historical contribution, as well as a survey of the archival sources quoted.

Chapter one covers the relations of the church under the Ottoman Empire and the way in which the Millet system functioned. Until the late 19th century the Syrian Orthodox came under the umbrella of the Armenian Millet, who rather than defending their Syrian co-religionists, used their position to misappropriate properties belonging to them in the Holy Land and elsewhere. This was also a period marked by the rise in nationalism and the conflicting tensions this generated. Things were at a low ebb and Syrian Orthodoxy’s once glorious heritage, both religiously and culturally, suffered severally from the combined oppression of successive Turkic dynasties and intense aggressive proselytism by Catholic and Anglican missionaries, which involved interminable battles over church properties. At Tur Abdin, in the heartland of Syriac Orthodoxy, an internal schism with a rival Patriarchate, lasting some 475 years  further weakened the Church. Added to this were ongoing attacks on Syriac communities by Kurdish tribes, who occupied the monasteries – sometimes for decades, during which numerous priceless ancient manuscripts were lost to posterity.

It was during the energetic pontificate (1872-1894) of Patriarch Mar Ignatius Peter IV (III) – whom Dr. Dinnmo calls “A Patriarch with Resolve” – that the tide began to turn whilst his visits to England and India not only brought the Syrian Orthodox Church to the wider attention of other Christian communities but also strengthened the Patriarchal authority. Sadly, under his successor, Mar Ignatius Abdul-Masih (1895-1903), the Hamidian massacres, precursors to the later Sayfo and Armenian Genocide Kurdish broke out with grotesque violence, which the Patriarch personally witnessed first-hand. The effects on his mental health, combined with the rivalry among the hierarchy led to his early deposition as patriarch.

Not only had the political situation rapidly deteriorated following the death of Patriarch Peter, but much of the progress made under his patriarchate, rapidly unravelled. His successor, Mar Ignatius Abdullah II Sattuf (1906-1915), had a chequered history, having been dismissed and reinstated as a bishop by Patriarch Peter and had defected for many years to the rival Syrian Catholic Church. During Abdullah’s pontificate the wars of independence and the Genocides were endured alongside World War I,  but the Patriarch’s extended absence in England, India, Egypt and Jerusalem, where he eventually died, effectively left the church leaderless and the Patriarch a much despised figure.

The Revival that followed the crisis took place amidst the social and political instability following the Great War and saw the Patriarchate expelled from its centre at Mardin in Turkey, where it had been settled for a thousand years, but the leadership of Patriarchs Mar Ignatius Elias III Shakir (1917-1932) and Mar Ignatius Aphrem I Barsoum (1933-1957) marked a steady growth in ministry, education and external relations, with the next two patriarchs and contemporary bishops growing up in this more fruitful and promising era.

Dr Dinno quotes from a number of key documents to show the impact of these reforms and the transformation of church life generally. The extensive bibliography provides an invaluable and authoritative source for future historians and the appendices include translated texts of importance documents as well as some hundred photographs of original documents reproduced in full.    

Abba Seraphim

Alexander, George, The Orthodox Dilemma. Personal Reflections on Global Pan-Orthodox Conciliar Unity (OCP Publications, Kerala, India: 2017), xl + 346 pp.  & illus. Pbk.

George Alexander makes it clear that he does not claim to be a theologian, but that he writes from the perspective of his personal thoughts and reflections and extensive personal contacts. As a devout member of the Indian Malankara Orthodox Church and through his active membership of the Orthodoxy Cognate Page Society (OCP), he is passionately concerned with global pan-Orthodox Conciliar Unity. However, this goes beyond the mainstream dialogue between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches to encompass a desire to see the ancient Assyrian Church brought back into the Orthodox fold, alongside Old Believers, Old Calendarists, non-canonical and new generation, unrecognised Traditional Orthodox Churches. He does not see Orthodoxy as merely one of the major churches or “denominations”, affirming that it is the true Church of Christ; nor does he see it as a Religion, because Orthodoxy is not there merely to cover the psychological needs of man, but to heal spiritually ailing humanity and bring it to sanctification.

He views Pan-Orthodox unity as reconnecting with our own family members, with whom we are not in communion because of various unfortunate events in history, among which he includes theological interpretation, certain misguided terminologies, words, language and politics, which have brought about separation, using the words of Saint Athanasios as inspiration, “Disputes merely about words must not be suffered to divide those who think alike.“

George Alexander notes that there are two languages of dialogue: the theological and the-day-to day practical, and offers various realistic examples from his own experience as an Indian Orthodox working in the Gulf of loving acceptance as well as hostility, sometimes born of racism and ignorance. He quotes the late Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios contrasting between the “unsanctified, power-hungry, quarrelsome, self-preoccupied and selfish life in the world” with the “evangelical and eucharistic sanctity in ordinary life, manifesting the love, freedom and wisdom of God to mankind”, both of which are attributes to be encountered among Orthodox.

The purview of his thesis ranges over an extensive and diverse compass of conflicts, both historical and contemporary: Macedonians versus Serbs; Armenians versus Georgians; Ukrainians versus Russians; the political interference in the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches and Jerusalem, where internecine strife has been commonplace for centuries. In looking closer to home at the Old Church of Thozhiyoor and the Malabar Marthoma Syrian Church of Malabar, whilst admitting that they have a Protestant nature, he desires to encourage dialogue not alienation because “the very essence of their origin is none other than Orthodox”.

The first edition of this book received some criticism for its attitude towards the Roman Catholic Church, which some even described as “polemical”. George Alexander rejects this view and reiterates that he is not against ecumenical dialogue with Rome, with its undeniable political and financial influence, but fears that sometimes the Orthodox have adopted a “false” approach. He asks how it is possible to forgive Rome for some of its past behaviour towards the Orthodox, yet for Orthodox churches not to be forgiving in their treatment of their own “schisms”.  

If this book has a weakness, it is that it attempts to chronicle such a wide range of current and historical issues, but its strength is the honest and open way in which they are approached. It is partisan only inasmuch as it is written by a committed Orthodox Christian, but the fact that he even dares to raise attitudes and behaviour impartiality and without prejudice gives his argument greater credibility. This is a passionate cry from the heart by someone who desires peace and reconciliation and although it offers no easy solutions it confronts us with realities which challenge us to show a willingness to listen and an openness to dialogue.

Abba Seraphim

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