1902 Encyclopedia > Nestorius and the Nestorians

Nestorius and the Nestorians

Nestorius and Nestorians. Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, was a native of Germanicia, at the foot of Mount Taurus, in Syria. The year of his birth is unknown. At an early age he was sent for his education to Antioch, where it is probable, though not certain, that Theodore of Mopsuestia was for some time his master. As monk in the neighboring monastery of Euprepius, and afterwards as presbyter, he became celebrated in the diocese for his asceticism, his orthodoxy, and his eloquence; hostile critics, such as Socrates, allege that his arrogance and vanity were hardly less conspicuous. On the death of Sisinnius, patriarch of Constantinople (December 427), Theodosius II., indifferent to or possibly perplexed by the various claims of the local clergy, appointed the distinguished preacher of Antioch to the vacant see. The consecration took place on April 10, 428, and then, or almost immediately afterwards, in what is said to have been his first patriarchal sermon, Nestorius exhorted the emperor in the famous words. – "Purge me, O Caesar, the earth of heretics, and I in return will give thee heaven. Stand by me in putting down the heretics and I will stand by thee in putting down the Persians." In the spirit of this utterance, steps were at once instituted by the new prelate (Socrates says five days after his consecration) to suppress the assemblies of the Arians; these by a stroke of policy which seems to have been as successful as it was bold, anticipated his action by themselves setting fire to their meeting-house, Nestorius being forth with nicknamed "the incendiary." The Novatians and the Quartodecimans were the next objects of his orthodox zeal, - a zeal which in the case of the former at least was reinforced, according to Socrates, by his envy of their bishop; and it led to serious and fatal disturbances at Sardis and Miletus. The toleration the followers of Macedonius had long enjoyed was also rudely broken, the (foreign) Pelagians alone finding any favor. While these repressive measures were being carried on outside the pale of the catholic church, equal care was taken to instruct the faithful in such points of orthodoxy as their spiritual head conceived to be the most important or the most in danger. One of these was that involved in the practice, now grown almost universal, of bestowing the epithet ____,." Mother of God," upon Mary the mother of Jesus. In the school of Antioch the improperity of the expression had long before been pointed out, by Theodore of Mopsuestia, among others, in terms precisely similar to those afterwards attributed to Nestorius. From Antioch Nestorius had brought along with him to Constantinople a copresbyter named Anastasius, who enjoyed his confidence and is called by Theophanes his "syncellus." This Anastasius, in a pulpit oration which the patriach himself is said to have prepared for him, caused great scandal to the partisans of the Marian cultus then beginning by saying, "Let no one call Mary the mother of God, for Mary was a human being; and that God should be born of a human being is impossible." The opposition, which was led by one Eusebius, a scholasticus" or pleader who afterwards became bishop of Dorylaeum, chose to construe this utterance as a denial of the divinity of Christ, and so violent did the dispute upon it become that Nestorius judged it necessary to silence the remonstrants by force; an over-zealous monk who had withstood him to his face was scourged and sent into exile, while many of the mob who sympathized were also punished with the lash. The exact chronological order of the recorded incidents in this stage of the controversy in somewhat difficult to determine, but an important part in it was taken by Proclus, bishop of Cyzicus, who, preaching in the cathedral before the patriarch, and at his invitation (429), on one of the festivals of the Virgin, asserted so firmly the propriety of the disputed epithet that Nestorius was constrained to rise and reply. Dorotheus, bishop of Marcianopolis, on the other hand, anathematized from the same pulpit all who persisted in using the expression; his audience retorted by uproariously leaving the church, while a large body of clergy and laity formally withdrew from communion with Nestorius, whose friend Dorotheus was.

Matters were soon ripe for foreign intervention, and the notorious Cyrill (q.v.) of Alexandria, in whom the antagonism between the Alexandria and Antiochene schools of theology, as well as the perhaps inevitable jealousy between the patriachate of St Mark and that of Constantinople, found an exponent of unexampled determination and unscrupulosity, did not fail to make use of the opportunity. He stirred up his own clergy, he wrote to encourage the dissidents at Constantinople, and he addressed himself to the sister and wife of the emperor (Theodosius himself being known to be still favorable to Nestorius). Nestorious himself, on the other hand, having occasion to write to Pope Celestine O. about the Pelagians (whom he was not inclined to regard as heretical), gave from his own point of view an account of the disputes which has recently arisen within his patriarchate. This implied appeal, however, was the reverse of successful, for the pope, in a synod which met in 430, decided in favor of the epithet ____, and bade Nestorius retract his erroneous teaching, on pain of instant excommuncation, at the same time entrusting the execution of this decision to the patriarch of Alexandria. On hearing from Rome, Cyril at once held a synod and drew up a doctrinal formula for Nestorius to sign, and also twelve anathemas covering the various points of the Nestorian dogmatic. Nestorius, instead of yielding to the combined pressure of his two great rivals, merely replied by a counter excommunication.

In this situation of affairs the demand for a general council became irresistible, and accordingly Theodosius and Valentinian III. issued letters summoning the metropolitans of the catholic church to meet at Ephesus at Whitsuntide 431, each bringing with him some able suffragans. Nestorius, with sixteen bishops and a large following of armed men, was among the first to arrive; soon afterwards came Cyril with fifty bishops. Juvenal of Jerusalem and Flavian of Thessalonica were some days late. It was then announced that John of Antioch had been delayed on his journey and could not appear for some days; he, however, is stated to have written politely requesting that the opening of the synod should not be delayed on his account. Cyril and his friends accordingly assembled in the church of the Theotokos on the 22d of June, and summoned Nestorius before them to give an account of his doctrines. The reply they received was that he would appear as soon as all the bishops were assembled; and at the same time the imperial commissioner, Candidian, presented himself in person and formally protested against the opening of the synod. Notwithstanding these circumstances, Cyril and the one hundred and fifty-nine bishops who were with proceeded to read the imperial letter of convocation, and afterwards the letters which had passed between Nestorius and his adversary. Almost immediately the entire assembly with one voice cried out anathema on the impious Nestorius and his impious dodctrines, and after various extracts from the writings of church fathers had been read the decree of his exclusion from the episcopate and from all priestly communion was solemnly read and signed by all present, whose numbers had by this time swelled to one hundred and ninety-eight. When the decision was known the populace, who had been eagerly waiting from early morning till night to hear the result, accompanied the members with torches and censers to their lodgings, and there was a general illumination of the city. A few days afterwards (June 26 or 27) John of Antioch arrived, and efforts were made by both parties to gain his ear; whether inclined or not to be cause of his former co-presbyter, he was naturally excited by the precipitancy with which Cyril had acted, and at a "conciliabulum" of forty-three bishops held in his lodgings shortly after his arrival he was induced by Candidian, the friend of Nestorius, to depose the bishops of Alexandria and Ephesus on the spot. The efforts, however, to give effect to this act on the following Sunday were frustrated by the zeal of the Ephesian mob. Meanwhile a letter was received from the emperor declaring invalid the session at which Nestorius had been deposed unheard; numerous sessions and counter-sessions were afterwards held, the conflicting parties at the same time exerting themselves to the utmost to secure an effective superiority at court. In the end Theododius decided to confirm the depositions which had been pronounced on both sides, and Cyril and Memnon as well as Nestorius were by his orders laid under arrest. Repressentatives from each side were now summoned before him to Chalcedon, and at last, yielding to the sense of the evident majority, he gave a decision in favor of the "orthodox," and the council of Ephesus was dissolved. Maximian, one of the Constantinopolitan clergy, a native of Rome, was promoted to the vacant see, and Nestorius was henceforward represented in the city of his former patrirachate only by one small congregation, which also a short time afterwards became extinct. The commotion which had been thus raised did not so easily subside in the more eastern section of the church; the Antiochenes continued to maintain for a considerable time at attitude of antagonism towards Cyril and his creed, and were not pacified until an understanding was reached in 433 on the basis of a new formula involving some material concessions by him. The union even then met with resistance from a number of bishops, who, rather than accede to it, submitted to deposition and expulsion from their sees; and it was not until these had all died out that, as the result of stringent imperial edicts, Nestorianism may be said to have become extinct throughout the Roman empire. Their school at Edessa was closed by Zeno in 489. As for Nestorius himself, immediately after his deposition he withdrew into private life in his old monastery of Euprepius, Antioch, until 435, when the emperor ordered his banishment to Petra in Arabia. A second decree, it would seem, sent him to Oasis, probably the city of the Great Oasis, in Upper Egypt, where he was still living in 439, at the time when Socrates wrote his Church History. The invasions of savage tribes compelled him to seek refuge in the Thebiad, where, however, the governor caused him to be dragged to Elephantis and subsequently to Panopolis. Thet ime, place, and circumstances of his death are unknown; but zeal for theological truth and retributive justice has led at least one historian to exercise his invention in providing a fit end for the friendless heretic. The followers of Nestorius found toleration under the rulers of Persia, from which empire they gradually spread into India and even into Arabia and China. They also succeeded in securing a foothold among the Tartars. Their patriarch had his see for a considerable time at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, afterwards in Baghdad, and then Alkosh. In the 13th century he is said to have had twenty-five metropolitans under him. The sect was almost extirpated by Timur.

What is technically and conventionally meant in dogmatic theorlogy by "the Nestorian heresy" has been briefly indicated elsewhere (vol. xiii. p. 671). As Eutychianism is the doctrine that the Godman has only one nature, so Nestorianism is the doctrine that He has two complete persons. So far as Nestorius himself is concerned, however, it is certain that he never formulated any such doctrine; nor does any recorded utterance of his, however casual, come so near the heresy called by his name as Cyril’s deliberately framed third anatherma (that regarding the "physical union" of the two hypostases or natures) approaches Eutychianism. It must be remembered that Nestorius was as orthodox at all events as Athanasius on the subject of the incarnation, and sincerely, even fanatically, held every article of the Nicene creed. Hefele himself, one of the most recent as well as most learned and acute of Cyril’s partisans, is compelled to admit that Nestorius accurately held the duality of the two natures and the integrity of each, was equally explicitly opposed to Arianism and Apollinarianism, and was perfectly correct in his assertion that the Godhead can neither be born nor suffer; all that he can allege against him is that "the fear of the communicatio idiomatum pursued him like a spectre." But in reality the question raised by Nestorius was not one as to the communication idomatum, but simply as to the proprieties of language. He did not refuse to speak of Mary as being the mother of Christ or as being the mother of Emmanuel, but he thought it improper to speak of her as the mother of God. and there is at least this to be said for him that even the most zealous desire to frustrate the Arian had never made it a part of orthodoxy to speak of David ___ or of James as ____. The secret of the enthusiasm of the masses for the analogous expression Theotokos is to be sought not so much in the Nicene doctrine of the incarnation as in the recent growth in the popular mind of notion as to the dignity of the Virgin Mary, which were entirely unheard of (except in heretical circles) for nearly three centuries of the Christian era (see Mary, vol. xv. p. 590-1.) (J. S. BL)

Modern Nestorians – The remnants of the Aramaean Nestorians are to be found in diminishing numbers partly on Turkish, partly on Persian territory. Since the close of the 17th century the Roman Catholic mission, with is headquarters at Aleppo, has, through the powerful support of the French consuls, met with great success among the Nestorians, and has formed the converts into the soc-called Chaldaeans, or Bestorians connected with the Roman Catholic Chruch. Those Nestorians who still adhere to their ancient creed are settled on Turkish soil mainly in the wild and inaccessible regions of eastern Kurdistan, and on Persian soil in the highly fertile plain to the west of the Lake of Urmia. In the former district Nestorians have lived along with the uncivilized Kurds (Iranians) from a very early period, and their numbers have probably been increased by immigrants driven from the lowlands of the Euphrates and Tigirs by Moslen persecution. Till quite recently they have maintained there a comparative independence in spite of the perpetual hostility of the Kurds. In those districts where the Kurds are numerically superior they have the ascendancy over the scattered Nestorian communities; but there were formerly district mainly or, as in the case of Tiyari (Tyari), almost completely occupied by Nestorians, and in these the Kurds were the subject race. as in those regions the conditions of life are the same for both, there is little difference between Christians and Mohammedans; the Nestorians wear nearly the same garb as their Kurd neighbors, the most noteworthy article being the breeches. The mountain Nestorian have generally striped jackets and felt caps, and frequently a staff (the stony mountain roads being mere footpaths, or at best only available for mules). Stock-breeding is the chief occupation; and in summer the herds are taken up to the higher regions, where, whoever, sheep and goats are exposed to the attacks of wild animals, especially bears and wolves. The alpine character of some of those districts has been greatly admired by the few travelers who, in spite of risks from brigands, have ventured to visit them. In certain valleys, as, for instance, in that of the Zab, there is luxuriant vegetation: the chief trees are the willow and the poplar; rice is cultivated, though at the risk of intermittent fever. To avoid the mosquitoes the people spend the summer nights in the open air on the top of a scaffolding of poles. Their ordinary houses are generally very wretched, often consisting of but a single room, and sometimes even being formed underground, after a fashion that becomes common in Armenia. Besides making most of their own utensils, the mountaineers work certain copper and suplur mines, and earn a little money by gathering gall-nuts. Their basket-work, for which the district of Tchelus is particularly famous, deserves to be specially mentioned ; traveling basketmakers from this region are to be found in all parts of western Asia. The mountaineers do a good deal of hand-spinning and stocking-working, even their priests engaging in these forms of industry as well as in tillage. Wooden spoons are made in the mountains. The people as a rule are very poor; many of them migrate for a time (to Mesopotamia for the mot part, but come back with their petty gains to their homes, to which they are much attached. This applies, however, only to certain districts; from the central highlands of Tiyari, for instance, emigration is rare. The supply of food in the mointains is very meagre; wheat does not thrive well, and the people depend on millet-bread, roasted meal, and dried mulberries. Great labor has to be expended in carrying soil up to the terraces which they cultivate on the mountain sides. Milk and its preparations are largely used; and bee-keeping receives some attention. the hospitality of the mountaineers stands high; they willingly share their last morsel with a stranger. Intellectually they are not unlike the Kurds; the latter are proverbially stupid, and these Nestorians also are reproached not only with ignorance but with lack of capacity. The clergy, ignorant to an extra-ordinary degree, live a miserable life, and give themselves little concern about the education of their flocks. They receive, however, no small respect from their people, who also show a touching and reverential attachment to their creed. Even the churches are objects of peculiar devotion. The accusation sometimes brought against the mountain Nestorians that they resemble the Kurds in a tendency to raiding and brigandage is not altogether without foundation; but this may be at once explained and excused by the fact that they live in the midst of a hostile and rapacious population, from whose attacks they can defend themselves only by reprisals. In warlike courage they are not behind the Kurds. Among both races the women, judged by Oriental standards occupy a high position. The mountain Nestorians are governed by hereditary village sheikhs called meliks ("kings"; compare the "kings" of the Canaanites). Great influence is possessed by the patriarch rsiding at Kotchannes near Julamerg, who always bears the name of Mar Shimun (i.e. Lord Simoen); the civil jurisdiction over the independent tribes is in his hands. The patriarchal dignity is hereditary in one family; the woman destined to be the mother of the future patriarch must refrain during her pregnancy from eating flesh, a diet which is absolutely forbidden to the patriarch himself. It may sometimes happen that the patriarch resorts to ecclesiastical excommunication against those who have opposed him in secular affairs; but the Nestorians are quite contented under their theocratic government, and have always shown a strong feeling of independence. Things went hard with them in 1846, when their independence was destroyed. In concert with the Turkish pasha in Mosul, to whom the freedom of the mountaineers was a perpetual offence, three powerful Kurdish chieftains (of whom Nurulla of Revandiz and Bedr Khan of Buhtan have attained unenviable celebrity) decided to make a common attack upon the Christians. Taken completely by surprise, and basely deserted by their patriarch, these could offer but a feeble resistance; their property was pillaged, and more than 10,000 of their number were massacred. On a small scale similar proceedings are repeated from time to time, and the Turkish Government not only remains powerless to prevent them, but if any advantage accrues to itself looks on with malignant approval. Frequently the Kurdish beys make raids with comparative impunity even in the richer lowland regions, as, for example, to Azerbijan in 1882.

The Nestorians on Persian territory (in Azerbijan) live, even the few who inhabit the mountains, under essentially different conditions; the greater proportions, however, dwell on the rich and fruitful plan which lies round the city of Urmia (Urmi). The date of their settlement in this district is not known, but Urmia is mentioned as early as 111 as the see of a Nestorian bishop. Nestorians from the mountains may have gradually advanced eastwards into the plain, where they found more favorable conditions of life. If not particularly healthy, it is abundantly watered, and the fruit which is produces in profusion forms their principal means of subsistence. Even here, indeed, they are subject to poverty, for the soil belongs in great part of Mohammedan proprietors. Catholic missions have had some success among them, and there is a Chaldaean bishopric at Khosrava; but since 1831 the field has been more especially worked by the American Board, which has sought to accomplish its purpose by utilizing through the clergy the actually existing church, and by founding schools and introducing the press. In education a decided improvement may be observed. Formerly out of two hundred Nestroians hardly one could read and write; the proportion is now much higher. The development of the moral and religious character of the people is, however, a difficult task; partly on account of their pride in their old church and old beliefs, and partly because, to some extent through Persian influence, their morale has undergone great degradation. Volatile, sensuous, intemperate, and full of all kinds of superstition, while they are certainly more talented and sharper-witted than their brethren among the mountain, they are also much less truthful and trustworthy. As their garb is similar to that of the Persians, so also are many of their manners and customs. Many intelligent countenances are to be found among them. it has even been asserted that these are of the Jewish type, and some travelers have proposed as identification of the Nestorians with the lost tribes of Israel. The ethnographic arguments in favor of this Jewish connection are, however, of no value; for many of the individual characteristics in which the Nestorians agree with the ancient Jews are common to all Oriental nations; and, what is of more importance, the type itself is not the Jewish one. The Nestorians have round heads, and frequently light hair and hazel eyes. Among the mountain Nestorians the complexion is usually a ruddy brown. That through all the centuries of nominal Mohammedan domination the national type should have been preserved must be ascribed exclusively to their isolated situation. They still speak Aramaean (Syriac); but their dialect is not a lineal descendant of the classical and literary language. In the mountains most of the Nestorians understand Kurdish, and in the low country of Azerbijan Tusdish; and both languages have exercised a great influence on their native tongue. The low-country dialect has greatly suffered from phonetic decay; that of the mountaineers preserves many of the older forms, and is pronounced with greater correctness. The Nestorians, it may be added, call themselves in their own language Surayi, and do not recognize the designation Nestorians bestowed upon them by people of other creeds. The patriarch bears the title of patriarch of the Chaldaeans.

The Nestorians have a number of peculiar customs and manners. Their marriage ceremonies are very interesting, as also are some of their other festivals, during which, at least in the Urmia plain, there is always plenty of dancing, drinking, and in the end fighting. The mountain Nestorians more particularly are fond of hunting and hawking. One custom may be mentioned as peculiarly European; not only do they kiss the hands of their clergy, but they lift their caps to them- a mark of respect nowhere else in use in the East. Blood-revenge is in full vogue both in mountains and lowlands; but there are asylums for homicides. Pork is never eaten. As to creed, the Nestorians are strongly opposed to image worship, have no auricular confession, know nothing of a purgatory, and allow their priest to marry. The Lord’s Supper is a kind of magical ceremony with them, and several curious customs are connected with its observance. As a matter of course their peculiarities are better preserved in places like Urmia on the one side or the mountain district of Tiyari on the other, where they live together in considerable numbers.

In regard to the total numerical strength of the Nestorians, authorities differ greatly. Perkins spoke of 140,000, and assigned 50,000 to Tiyari alone. The most trustworthy data are probably those of Badger, based, in the main, on information furnished by the patriarch, but with the number of families reduced one-third throughout (the figures given having, in some instances, been seen to be greatly exaggerated). The total number of families being 11,378 it may be estimated that the individuals amount to about 70,000. In the following table the enumeration of families as 4500 in Nos. 7 and 8 is purely approximate.


The first-named diocese is the most southerly; it embraces the districts of Akra, Zebur, Mesuriye, and Jebel Gara to the north of Mosul. It is there more especially that, since the date of the collection of the figures given above, there have probably been accessions to the Chaldaean Church. The second diocese, comprising Berwari, Nerwi, and Suprna, lies to the north of the first, and nearer the mountains; the third, farther to the west and northwest, is mainly occupied by independent Kurds, and is still practically unexplored; the fourth, directly subject to the patriach, contains, besides the county of Tiyari (upper and lower), almost exclusively inhabited by Nestorians, Asththa to the west, and Kotchannes, Diz., &c., to the north. North-eastward towards the Persian frontier lies the sixth diocese, including, in addition to Gawar, Albak and some other small isolated parishes; to the north of Tiyari is the (ninth) diocese of Lewun and Nudes (Nurduz?), and to the east (fifth diocese) two leading districts of the Tkhoma mountains and the inhospitable Tchelu, along with Bar, Rekan, and Tchall. The seventh diocese, called also be Shems-ud-din, lies to the east of Tchellu, and includes also Baradost, as well as Tergawer, Marjaver, &c., within Persian territory.

See G.P. Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals, 2 vols. London 1852; J. Perkins, A Residence of Eight Years in Persia among the Nestorian Christians. Andover, 1843; Asahel Grant, The Nestorians or the Lost Tribes, 2d ed. London 1843; and also compare Layard’s Nineveh and Ritter’s Asia.( A. SO)

The above article was written by:

Early History of the Nestorians
Rev. J. Sutherland Black


Modern Nestorians
Prof. Albrecht Socin.

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