The Syriac culture and church are found in northern Mesopotamia, between the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers, dominated by the cities of Edessa, Nisibis, and Mosul (from west to east). Syriac, a form of Aramaic, was spoken throughout this area from the time of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth to the 13th century c.e., when Arabic prevailed.
Its culture is often traced back to the Aramaic and Assyrian civilizations. Sebastian Brock, a noted Oxford scholar, calls the Syriac culture and church an authentic Semitic descendant of the biblical world and an ancient voice of early Christianity.
Beginning in the first century c.e. Christianity spread quickly in the Syriac region. The fifth-century Doctrina Addai tells of the disciple Addai sent by Thomas the Apostle to convert the people of Mesopotamia.
There are second-century Christian writings in Syriac such as the Odes of Solomon and the Acts of Thomas, and there is likelihood that other books only available in Greek or Coptic, such as the Pseudo Clementines and the Gospel of Thomas, were composed originally in Syriac.
The famed teachers Bardesanes and Mani, who founded their own widespread sects, began in the Syriac-speaking Christian communities. Many other groups and movements had their beginning here as well: the Elkesaites and the Mandaeans of southern Iraq and the Christian ascetics called the Encratites, the celibate and elusive "Sons and Daughters of the Covenant".
The principal Roman city of the region, Antioch, was its link to the West, while its link to the East was Persian Ctesiphon (Baghdad). Thus, the cradle of Syriac culture was on the frontier between the two empires and civilizations.
The effects of this geographic position were dramatic: The Syriac Church split in 484 according to its location, with the establishment of an autonomous (Assyrian) church in the Persian domain and the remaining (Syrian) church in the Roman domain.
Another split occurred in the sixth-century Syrian Church, with one side identifying with the adherents of Council of Chalcedon (Melkites), the other side dissenting (Syriac Orthodox).
All three Syriac-based groups claimed their biblical roots in Antioch, the city out of which Peter and Paul launched their missions. Their political affiliations varied: the Assyrians identified with the Persians, the Melkites with the Romans and Byzantines, and the Syriac Orthodox somewhere in the middle.
Among the Syrians, the Melkites were concentrated in urban and Hellenized areas (Antioch, Alexandria, and the Mediterranean coast), while the Syriac Orthodox were in the countryside and hinterlands.
The Syriac Orthodox adherents were not alone in their resistance to the Council of Chalcedon: Together with the Egyptians, the Armenians, the Georgians, and the Ethiopians, they formed the core of the ancient Oriental Orthodox Churches.
The divisions between the Melkites and the other Syriac churches were mainly a result of cultural, linguistic, and political factors rather than theology. The Syriac churches formally rejected the Chalcedonian Creed that Christ has two natures, divine and human, in one person as an innovation of the ancient traditions.
Their Byzantine (Melkite) opponents incorrectly held them to be Monophysites, heretics who believed that Christ had only one nature. In fact, the Syriac position was that "Christ is perfect God and perfect man" and was only slightly different from the Chalcedonian formula.
The fourth through the sixth centuries were the most prolific era for Syriac writers. During this time the language came to flourish in its classical forms of Jacobite (serto) and Eastern (Nestorian), together with Estangelo, the common written language.
The Syriac Bible, called the Peshitta, was written early enough in the development of Judaism and Christianity that it was one of the oldest witnesses to the scriptural text. The Diatessaron, attributed to Tatian, is an indispensable witness to the gospel texts of the New Testament.
Some of the notable religious writers of this period include Aphraates (fl. 336–345), Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373), Narsai (d. c. 503), Jacob of Sarug (d. 521), and Philoxenus of Mabbugh (d. 523). Their elevated prose and poetry manifest in metrical homilies and hymns, some of which spread into the Greek Church and the Latin Church.
The secular chronicles and histories of Syriac origin are valuable for filling in the gaps left by Latin and Greek works. Some of the outstanding early historians include John of Ephesus (c. 575–585), Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor (c. 580), and Jacob of Edessa (d. 708).
By the early 600s Syriac missionaries had spread their religion as far east as China. The Assyrian Church maintained valuable connections to the silk and spice routes, so they were able to carry their religion into far-flung areas.
Syriac Orthodox villages and churches were oftentimes swallowed up by the Persian Empire as the Romans and Byzantines retreated toward the Mediterranean Sea. But they did not fight the new regime because they had experienced disparagement and persecution from their Melkite coreligionists and former Byzantine rulers.
By contrast, the Assyrians and the Syriac Orthodox often took positions of influence in science, administration, and education among the Persians, Muslims, and Mongols. Many scientific and philosophical books, otherwise lost to the West during the early Middle Ages, were transmitted from their Greek origins to the Arabs by way of the Syriac scholars.
Syriac missionaries are legendary for spreading Christianity into India, where their descendants are called Thomas Christians (because of their purported link to the mission of Thomas the Apostle). They follow customs that show affinities with Judaism. In fact the largest group of Syriac Christians resides in contemporary India.