8 April 2007

The Malsabha of yore

Malayali SyrChr freshmen like me are drawn to the history of Syrian Christians of Kerala (SyrChrs) mainly to find answers to two particular questions:
  1. What sort of Christianity prevailed here originally? That is before the arrival of the Portuguese. Were we originally Orthodox or Catholic?
  2. What does it mean to be a SyrChr? 
Lets consider the historical facts and come to a conclusion ... rather a concensus. Many SyrChrs will have difficulty accepting this given the kind of conditioning we have had all through our formative years.
So what was the Malsabha: the sabha (church/community) of Malabar or Malankara?
Was it Syro-Malabar Catholic?
No. The Syro-Malabars were labeled 'Pazhayakoor' (old party) only because they had retained the previously-prevelant Chaldean liturgy, which was then later sadly discontinued. Moreover, there are no proper evidence of "Catholicism" gaining any proper foothold in Kerala prior to the Portuguese.
Was it the Jacobite?
Not either, a large-scale formal association with this sect occurred only after the 1653 coonen cross oath. These associates are labeled 'Puthenkoor' because this section of the Malsabha after the 1653 schism changed their earlier liturgical language from Chaldean (East-Syriac) to West-Syriac. 
However most Oriental churches were supposed to be within the larger umbrella of influence under the Patriarch of Antioch, which is hard-core Syrian Orthodox (i.e Jacobite). But the reality was that these churches were left to fend for themselves most of the time. 
Was it the Latin Catholic?
Again, since there is little proof of Latin Catholic presence prior to the Portuguese the answer tends to be negative. However there is a record of at least one such station in Kerala since 13th century but little knowledge of the size of the crowd. There just might have been just a handful of Latin Catholics since then.
Was it any of these: Indian Orthodox Church, Syro-Malankara Catholic, Marthoma or the Thozhiyoor sabha?
No, all of these are new splinter groups from the Jacobite stream.
Was it Assyrian or what is otherwise called Nestorian?
Not exactly. Since the Malsabha was a kind-of disillusioned lot they accepted spiritual-leadership from whoever came in 'Syriac' (Middle-Eastern) vestments.
The Assyrian church of the East had managed to seep much into hinterland Asia (India, China etc) prior to the Portuguese. It is suspected that from 5th century most of the Malsabha were Nestorian. One research points out that the Malsabha mass, pre-Portuguese, had some oddities of both Antiochian and Assyrian rituals. Anyways, the Nestorian foothold slipped when the majority of the Malsabha discarded them in the Portuguese finger-points at heresy.
From my gatherings so far, at least from the 3rd century to the coming of the Portuguese, the Malsabha was a bunch of estranged parishes segregated across kingdom lines. It seems it was meant to be part of the Chaldean Orthodoxy and to be governed from Babylon. But since this centre positioned Nestorianism very early, the Malsabha was also infected soon (not in negative sense)

And IF there was a Malsabha before the 3rd century it should have been bunch of neo-Christian groups, led by a community pastor, paralleling the Judeo-Christian groups of early christianity.

1 comment:

John Mathew said...

One of the oldest reports on our Church was from Cosmas Indicoplaetus, and he reports finding "Nestorians" in our lands. That, combined with the fact that pre-Diamper, we used the East Syriac language (as you mention, although you refer to the West Syriac language as "Maronite" which is non-standard) and liturgy, makes a good case for the fact that we were indeed governed by the Church of the East (now called the Assyrian Church of the East) for the majority of our history.

I know that the Malankara Orthodox (Indian Orthodox) likes to advance the theory that we were historically affiliated with the Persian wing of the Syriac Orthodox Church (i.e., the Orthodox Church of the East under the Maphrian/Catholicos of the East in Mosul). But this has no basis in fact since that Church seems to have used the West Syriac language like their Western brothers under the Patriarchate. (Bar Hebraeus, from the 12th century, used the Litury of St James and the West Syriac language, whereas Malabar Christians as of the 15th century used East Syriac and the liturgy of Mar Mari and Adai.)

The Jacobites in Kerala like to advance the theory that we were always under the Patriarchate---however, this has no basis in fact for the same reasons as above. The first glimpse of the West Syriac rite/language is from the post-17th century Jacobite bishops who came to "save" us from anarchy, Nestorianism, and Catholicism (and eventually Protestantism!).

I don't think that the Malabar Christians who "discarded" their "Nestorian" roots discarded them because of any intrinsic "heresy", since we went to the Jacobite faith which is also viewed as heresy. And, from the perspective of the Jacobites and Nestorians, Roman Catholicism is viewed as a heresy.

But in general, your comment is far more accurate as sane, compared to the partisan garbage one reads from modern Church scholars in Malabar. Congrats for having such impartiality, a rare thing for a Nasrani it seems!