History of OCCA

Previous Jurisdictional Uncertainty

The Indian Background

Little is known of the first few centuries of the Christian Church in India. The Indian Christians on the Southern coasts have been called by many titles: Syro-Malabar, Indo-Chaldean, Malabarian, St. Thomas Christians, Nazrani Mapilas, and Chaldeo-Malabarian. Syro-Malabar tradition maintains that the Church was founded there by St. Thomas the apostle; local Hindu tradition corroborates this assertion. The apostle is believed to have met a martyr's death at the hands of Hindus on the Coromandel coast (the west coast of Southern India). A tomb believed to be the burial place of St. Thomas is held in veneration near Mylapore on the outskirts of Chennai. This site is corroborated by the Armenian Orthodox Church as well as the Roman Catholic Church. The Armenians having been in India for centuries, passed on the stories about the martyrdom of Saint Apostle Thomas to the Portuguese. Churches at the sites of Saint Thomas in Chennai (Mylapore) were originally Armenian and show evidence of many years of use both by the early Christians in India and by the Armenian Orthodox Church.

A number of patristic documents attest to the continued existence of Christian communities in India. Placid J. Podipara, C.M.I lists the following: Pantœnus of Alexandria (2nd c.) is said to have been in the India of the Brachmanas [Brahmins?] to dispute with the latter. The list of the Fathers of Nicœa (325) makes mention of "John metropolitan of Persia and Greater India". [sic] According to some 'Persia' is a mistake for 'Perrhe' while in certain copies of the same list there is no mention of 'India'. Thomas Cana, tradition says, led a colony from abroad (345) with a bishop, Mar Joseph, and landed in Cranganore. The distinction between Southists and Northists among the ancient Christians of Malabar is connected with this colonization. Theophilus, called the Indian, (ca. 345) visited the Maldives Islands and "the other parts of India" where he corrected certain abuses such as sitting during the Gospel. Between 295 and 390 bishop Dudi left Bassora [Basra, Iraq] for India. Daniel, an Indian priest, is said to have helped one Mar Komai (425) to translate into Syriac the epistle of St. Paul to the Romans. Ma'ana of Riwardashi (Persia) sent to India translation[s] of the works of Diodore and Theodore (470). Cosmas (520-525) saw on the island of Taprobane (Ceylon) "a Church of Christians with clergy and a congregation of believers. And such is also the case" says he "in Male where peppar [sic] grows." In Calliana (Quilon? Kalian? Calicut? Mylapore?? [sic] ) Cosmas found a bishop appointed from Persia. The Christians whom he found in Ceylon, Cosmas says in another context, were from Persia. Of the origin of those of Male where peppar [sic] grows, he says nothing. Theodore, a pilgrim of Gaul (6th c.), was in India "where the body of St. Thomas rested first." One or two colonies, according to tradition, landed in Quilon (8th, 9th c.); bishops Sapor and Aprodht ... were with one of these colonies. The Christians called Mudalial found near Quilon trace their origin to these colonies. It is interesting to note that, although St. Thomas himself is said to have established the Church in Southern India, the bishops of this Church seem to all be connected with the Persian See of Seleucia. The language of the liturgy was Syriac (a form of Aramaic) and these Christians retain their Syrian links to this day. It appears that all the bishops for this community were nominated from Seleucia until the Synod of Diamper in 1599 brought them under the Portuguese church.

Five copper plates record the privileges accorded to the Christian community and some others by a local ruler sometime near 800. The plates are in the old Tamil language, but include several unusual signatures by the witnesses. These signatures are in Pahlavi (a type of Persian), Arabic (in Kufi script), and Persian (in Hebrew script). This ruler gave slaves to the Christian community in Quilon. He also gave them the responsibility for customs, weights and measures and even the official seal of the kingdom. Though this community appears to have been foreign in origin, it became rooted in the soil of India.

Although the Syriac-speaking church that consecrated Mar Julius was the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, rather than the equally Syriac-speaking Church of the East, headquartered in Seleucia, some history of that church and its relations with India may be of interest.

This Christian community takes its name from the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon on either bank of a canal joining the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers near Baghdad. It is also known in its various divisions as the Church of the East, the Church of Persia, the Babylonian Church, the Assyrian Church, The East Assyrian Church, the Nestorian Church (for their support of Nestorius), and (especially those members who later reunited with Rome) the Chaldean Church. Tradition holds that the Seleucian Church was founded by Mar Mari, who was a disciple of Mar Addai. St. Thomas (Mar Thoma) is reported to have sent Addai to Edessa. The Seleucians maintain that their Church was visited by both the apostle Peter and the apostle Thomas. Some maintain that St. Bartholomew is also connected with the Church in Babylon. The Seleucians report that their principal prelate was consecrated by the patriarch of Antioch until persecutions and travel restrictions between the region made this impossible. At this point the Church in the West (Antioch, Edessa and Nisibis) granted them the authority to consecrate their own bishops and metropolitan. At the same time the Jacobite (Monophysite) Church was divided into two distinct parts. The Syrian patriarch of Antioch chose the ranking metropolitan of Persia to become his appointed delegate in all matters. He granted the metropolitan the right to both appoint and consecrate bishops and metropolitans and to bless the holy chrism. This person became known as the Maphrian (literally 'fructifier'; the title is unique to this hierarch who has authority in South India), who served as the principal prelate. The Maphrian, the highest cleric in the East outside of Antioch, was given the privilege of consecrating and enthroning (not appointing) the patriarch of Antioch. The connection with the Seleucian Church continued through the arrival of the Latin Church with the Portuguese in the Middle Ages.

The first historically verifiable bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was Mar Papa bar 'Aggai who exercised his ministry at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century. In 345 Papa called a synod of local bishops in Seleucia-Ctesiphon (which was at that time the administrative center of the Greater Persian Empire). Papa attempted to organize the various churches throughout Persia with himself as metropolitan. The other bishops opposed him in this. Several claimed to have older Sees (Apostolic Sees) and maintained that they had their establishment from St. Thomas himself. In 410 Maruthas of Martyropolis in Armenia called another synod with the permission of King Yazdgard I. Maruthas served as the personal envoy of the patriarch of Antioch. This synod accepted the Nicean Creed and established Seleucia-Ctesiphon as the Primary See in Persia, making it responsible for the metropolitans of Nisibis, Arbela, Beit-Selok, Beit-Laphat, Holwan, Kaskar, and some 30 bishophrics (See Apostolic Succession of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch). Another synod held in 420 subscribed to the canons as established in the West at the councils of Nicea, Ancyra, Gangra and Laodicea.

In 424 a synod called in the city of Markabta by Mar Dadiso declared the Seleucia-Ctesiphon Church to be independent of the Church of Antioch. Many scholars believe that this was to calm the fears of the Persian Emperors, who were often in conflict with the Byzantine Empire. Any interference by the Byzantine Churches of Antioch, Edessa and Nisibis into Persian affairs was looked upon with suspicion and treated as treason. It was shortly after this that the prelate of the Seleucian Church began to use the titles Catholicos, Catholicos-Patriarch and Patriarch.

During the reign of Catholicos Baboe (456-484), some Nestorian doctrines were introduced into the church. This was the work of Bar Sauma of Nisibis. In 486 a council under Acacius exhibited Nestorian tendencies while still proclaiming "perfect and indissoluble unity of the humanity and the divinity of Christ." This council also legitimized the marriage of priests. Another council in 497 extended the legitimacy of married clergy to include bishops and patriarchs. By the sixth century Nestorian theology was established as the norm. Some claim that this was a purely political response of the Church in the Persian Empire since the Empire was then at odds with Byzantium.

During the seventh-century war with the Byzantine Empire, tradition says that the true cross of Christ was in Ctesiphon (614), where it had been placed after it had been captured in Jerusalem. The Mongol and Arab invasions were later to destroy the Church in Ctesiphon as well as most of the Nestorian Church. In response to the destruction of the city, the Catholicos Henanisho II (who reigned from 777-780) moved the Apostolic See to Baghdad. The Chaldean Church is a descendant of this See and is in explicit union with the Holy See in Rome. The Nestorian (Jacobite or Monophysite) Church continues to exist. The Jacobite Patriach of Antioch supported the Syrian Christians of India during their struggles with the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

Next The Portuguese Church in India