The Jacobites have been referred to historically as members of the "West Christian Church," also of the "Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and all the East." Jacobite missionary activity, dating back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, led to the establishment of a branch in the Malabar region of southwestern India. The apostle Saint Thomas is credited with laying the foundation for the Malabar church.
The Jacobites came into being under this name as a consequence of the intense Christological controversies that took place during the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Arian heresy—which stressed that only the Father was the true God, the Son being subordinate—prevailed (not to be overturned until the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381). Grounded as they were in the Aramaic culture and history of the Syro-Iraqi region, it was inevitable that they would be drawn away from the Greco-Roman church, which eventually triumphed as the official religion of the empire.
The Jacobites were one of the Eastern churches that espoused Monophysitism, a by-product of the Council of Chalcedon of 451, which was declared heretical when Emperor Justin I caused fifty bishops who espoused Monophysitism to be excommunicated at the Synod of Constantinople, in 518. Monophysites henceforth were to be suppressed at the highest level of the state church. Reprieve was gained under the Empress Theodora, who urged a policy of reconciliation on her husband, Emperor Justinian, and who was therefore hailed as a champion of Monophysitism. This policy changed quickly under Justin II, however.
The Monophysites of Syria came to be known as Jacobites, probably named after Jacob Baradai, a monk who lived in a monastery near Edessa (present-day Urfa). He journeyed to Constantinople in 540 to plead the cause of Monophysitism. Imprisoned for fifteen years with other bishops who shared his convictions, he was subsequently consecrated bishop of his sect and sent to Syria to organize it. He later consecrated Servius, who was to succeed Severus as patriarch of Antioch in 512. Some say he ordained two patriarchs, eighty-nine bishops, and countless members of the clergy. He is often called "Bishop of Edessa," but, as attested by the chronicler Gregory Bar Hebraeus, he had no fixed see. According to another tradition, the name derived from Jacob, the biblical patriarch. One Jacobite deacon alleged that his people were descendants of Jewish converts to Christianity, and still another source claims that the name came from Saint James, brother of Jesus and first bishop of Jerusalem. Regardless of the name's origin, before long the Arab tribes in the region that had been Christianized came under the leadership of this church, including the two dominant ones—the Taghlib in lower Iraq and the Banu Ghassān in lower Syria. They anchored the see of their faith at Antioch and, like the Syrian Orthodox and Byzantine-rite patriarchates, refused to surrender to the dictates of Constantinople.
Antioch had been the preeminent seat of early Christianity (it was the place where Christians first declared themselves), and it remained so until the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which sought to diminish its centrality by elevating the bishopric of Jerusalem to a patriarchate. The Jacobites were driven from Antioch after the death of Severus in 538. The term "Jacobite" was not even their own choice, but was given to them by their Greek Orthodox rivals. They readily accepted it, however.
The Jacobites' conflict with the Greeks, as with the other Eastern Christians who were opposed to them, was both theological and national, or ethnic: it was a contest between Syriac thought and Hellenistic culture. Moreover, the Christianity of Antioch was greatly influenced by the Jewish faith, as preached and practiced by Jesus, his disciples, and followers. The schism of Chalcedon stimulated the rise of Syriac as a religious and ecclesiastical language, whereas the Orthodox Antiochans pursued a Greek liturgy. The Greek version of Christianity persisted under the Byzantine Empire and even after the Ottomans had conquered their capital in 1453. The Jacobite version, on the other hand, was most powerful during the time when the Muslim Umayyad Empire thrived in Syria (661-750). The Jacobites and the Nestorians were favored by the Muslims over those who owed allegiance to Constantinople.
In Syria proper, there was an ongoing contention between Jacobite and Orthodox Christians that lasted over a hundred years after the Council of Chalcedon. The patriarchs of Antioch were sometimes Orthodox and sometimes Monophysite. Most famous of the latter was Severus, who controlled the city itself from 513 to 518. He was an author who wrote in Greek, a great admirer and quoter of Ignatius's Epistles, and a leader of the Monophysite party until his death, following which there was to evolve a double patriarchate: one at Antioch for the Jacobites, and the other for the Syrian Greek Orthodox.
The final breach between Monophysitism and Orthodoxy took place during the reign of Justinian's successor, Justin II, who, according to a contemporary account of John of Ephesus, persecuted the Monophysites. John hailed from Amida (present-day Diyarbakir) and served as bishop during the sixth century. He wrote in Syriac, thus earning the distinction of being the first Syriac historian. Even when driven from Antioch, Jacobite patriarchs continued to style themselves "of Antioch," although they now resided elsewhere, in Malatya, Diyarbakir, and, since the twelfth century, at the monastery of Zaʿfarān (Saffron) near Mardin.
Jacobites were intellectually active and demonstrated their historically close affinity with Hellenistic culture. The principal writer of the period was James (Jacob) of Edessa (d. 708), a poet, commentator, and letter writer, as well as a voluminous translator of Greek works into Syriac. Most eminent among all Jacobite writings in the medieval era is the Chronicle, of Gregory Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286), a brilliant scholar of Jewish parentage who served as metropolitan of Mosul after holding other sees. A lesser-known writer was Dionysius BārSalība, metropolitan of Amida, a theologian and commentator of the eleventh century. Jacobite writers gained prominence under the Muslims in science, medicine, and literature, to whose Islamic civilization they contributed in no small measure.
The Crusades and the reliance of the Crusaders in Edessa, Antioch, and Jerusalem on native Christian sects—no matter how "heretical"—served in the long run to damage the Jacobites' native-church status with the Muslims. Unlike the Armenians and Maronites, however, the Jacobites did not strike up military alliances with the Crusaders, nor did they fight in their ranks, which enabled them to escape significant Muslim vengeance under the Mamluks. A temporary reprieve from persecution came with the Mongols, who conquered Baghdad in 1258 and ended the ʿAbbāsid caliphate, because of the strong influence of Nestorian Christianity among them.
Following the defeat of the Mongols, native Christian churches were once again chastised by the Mamluk sultans, who issued Jacobite patriarchs strict orders not to have any traffic with foreign Christian leaders. Jacobite communities sustained the greatest damage of all when Timur Lang (Tamerlane) conquered the area in the late fourteenth century and caused the death of the majority of Jacobites in the region of Tür ʿAbdīn; they were reduced to the status of a minority sect in the region between Mardin and Mosul, where they once were a majority.
Henceforth Jacobites were to be concentrated east of Aleppo and west and north of Mosul, with Tür ʿAbdīn becoming their strongest center. From northern Mesopotamia, they spread into Iran, where Nestorianism was flourishing. Carmelite missionaries discovered Jacobite communities in Shīrāz and Eşfahān in the seventeenth century and quickly turned them (some six hundred households) into Catholics. Aleppo (ancient Beroea) had had a Jacobite archbishop since 543, and, after the Arab conquest, Maronite and Melchite Christians also anchored bishoprics in the city, which had become an important center of anti-Chalcedonian Christians. As the city developed into one of the richest trading centers of the Ottoman Empire, attracting a large foreign commercial presence, the Catholic missions that had been established there succeeded in turning the anti-Chalcedonian Christians into followers of Rome. These Uniates, as they were then called, were to be known after the eighteenth century as "Syrian Catholics," to distinguish them from their brethren, who were now termed "Syrian Orthodox" (not to be confused with the Byzantine-rite Orthodox).
Jacobites spoke a vernacular Syriac in the early centuries; following the Arab conquests, they switched to Arabic and took Arabo-Islamic names. Indeed, they had adopted the language even before its alphabet. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jacobites formed important elements in cities like Mosul, Mardin, Urfa, Diyarbakir, Aleppo, and Baghdad. Interfaith relations were cordial and respectful, because the Jacobites were loyal to local administrations. One Episcopal missionary, Horatio Southgate, claimed that Muslims frequented Jacobite churches and even shared in revering their "holy men" and saints, most probably because of the Christian ancestry of those who had converted to Islam. Mardin served at this time as the center of the sect.
Administratively, the Jacobites were subject to their own clergy in civil as well as in spiritual matters, a system that derived from the millet (autonomous unit) structure that they had enjoyed under the Ottomans. Their link with the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman sultan's ministerial government) came via the Armenian patriarchate, and it was not until 1882 that they achieved a separate millet status, thanks largely to pressures from Great Britain. Theologically, they shared more with Coptic Monophysites than with Armenian Monophysites.
Oswald Hutton Parry, a Western observer, has described firsthand (Parry 1895) the organizational hierarchy of the Jacobite church, which was based in the nineteenth century in Mosul (or Mar Mattai), with bishops at Jerusalem, Damascus, Horns (Emessa), Edessa (Urfa), Amida (Diyarbakir), and Tūr ʿAbdīn (Jabal Tūr). The bishop of Mär Mattai had no independent see, and his entourage in 1887 consisted of only one monk in residence.
According to Parry, the patriarch was elected by the people, and the election was confirmed by the bishops who resided near Mardin. It was not uncommon for the maphrian to be promoted to the position of patriarch. The patriarch consecrated the bishops, who had to be either monks or widowed priests. Those chosen from the rank of monks were called matrān; those chosen from widowed priests were known as asgaf: they held a slightly lower rank than matrān and did not qualify for the patriarchate or maphrianate. Patriarchs and bishops were legally permitted to serve as judges for their own people in cases governed by personal law (i.e., marriages and divorces). Bishops had to be at least 35 years old to be ordained; deacons could be 20 or younger if they were able to read the Psalms in Syriac. Parish priests were elected by the parish councils. Deacons engaged in secular work during the week.
Jacobite monasteries were widespread; each came under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop unless it contained the tomb of a patriarch or archbishop, in which case it came under the governance of the patriarch. Monks were often laymen.
The Jacobites share the Syriac liturgy—with some variations—with Maronites, Uniate Syrians, and Malabar Jacobites. Leavened bread is used in the Mass, and the leaven is handed down from generation to generation. The Eucharist is reserved for the sick, but only for communion on the same day. Upon baptism, a child is blessed with myron (from Greek: lit., "sweet oil"; consecrated only by the patriarch and other primates of the church) immersed in water thrice, annointed all over the body with oil, clothed, and confirmed. Confession is mandatory before communion on Maundy Thursday, Christmas, and Pentecost. Lent and Advent are observed as strict fasts; other such fasts include the Apostles' Fast, Pentecost, Mary's Fast (1-15 August), and those held on Wednesdays and Fridays during each week of the year (from sunset to sunset).
Today Jacobites still inhabit an area encompassing northern Iraq and Harput and Diyarbakir in Turkey. They number over two hundred thousand in Turkey, with almost an equal number in Iraq and Syria. There are sizable numbers around Mosul and Damascus, with the largest groupings in Jabal Tūr, north of the Mardin-Jazīra-Nusaybin line. They have important businesses (largely jewelry) and churches in Istanbul. Syriac is spoken vernacularly in southeastern Turkey, where Jacobites are heavily concentrated, and where some of the oldest and best-known churches are located.
The Uniate branch of the Jacobite church resulted from the work of Jesuits when they first came to Mesopotamia, in 1540. After the Union of Florence in 1439, many Jacobite clerical leaders became affiliated with Rome through their patriarchs. The split that took place between Mardin and Tūr ʿAbdīn at the beginning of the seventeenth century contributed to the move. Mardin, with its important cultural center at Zaʿfarān, drew Diyarbakir and Aleppo into its orbit. The permanent split began with the visit of André Akhijian, a young Jacobite monk from Mardin, to Rome in 1642. He was consecrated bishop in 1656 at the special request of the French consul, Victor Piquet, and succeeded Patriarch Sham un in Aleppo in 1659. A patriarchate in that city dates to 1646.
Maronites of Lebanon were instrumental in the creation of the Catholic patriarchate among the Jacobites, as they had been in creating one among the Nestorians, but this action intensified the opposition of their Orthodox brethren, and, between 1702 and 1755, the Jacobites were forced to endure many hardships, in spite of the support of the Maronite patriarch and his bishops. Often they could not elect their own patriarch, obliging Rome to appoint a vicar for them, which in turn obligated him to reside in Shabbaniya, in Lebanon, in order to enjoy the protection of the Maronites, who built a home there for him.
It was not until the election of Michael Jarwah as patriarch in 1738 that the Catholic branch took hold. Jarwah had endured much suffering and exile, ending up as a refugee at Saint Anthony's Maronite monastery in Bayt Shabāb (Lebanon). He was given a school in Sharia by the Maronite patriarch, Estepahn al-Duwayhi, and, through a generous endowment of the Maronite Khāzin feudal family, he was able to establish his patriarchal see as the most important Syrian Catholic center in the East.
In 1831 Armenian Catholics were represented by a patriarch who was not affiliated with the Latin church. The Sublime Porte recognized this patriarchate as being independent of Rome, thus establishing the precedent for other independent Catholic communities to break away from the jurisdiction of their patriarch. "Latinization," a controversial issue, was resisted by most native Catholics. The Sacra Congregatione della Propaganda Fide of Rome, in a decree dated 20 November 1838, permitted the sultan's Catholics to choose one of the rites for themselves and barred them access to the Latin rite, in order to satisfy their resentful bishops. The door was thus opened to all Ottoman subjects who had embraced Catholicism to receive legal status of their own. So the "Jacobite" Catholics were formally recognized as a separate and distinct community when Peter Jarwah was granted civil as well as spiritual jurisdiction over his flock in 1843.
Atrocities in their Anatolian habitat and the promise of economic opportunities drew a larger number of Jacobites to Lebanon after 1890. They settled in key cities like Beirut, Zahlé, and Tripoli, as well as in the Bekáa Valley. After World War I, the Syrian Catholic patriarch established his residence in Beirut, his predecessor having left Mardin under pressure from the Orthodox Jacobites. One of them, Jibrā'īl Tabbūni, was made a cardinal of the Roman Catholic church in 1929.
Horatio Southgate was sent to the region by the Board of the Episcopal church in 1835 with the view of founding a mission to the Jacobites; a one-man mission was established in 1839, with residence at Mardin. The Episcopal missionary worked his way into the grace of the patriarch by alleging that there were no theological differences between Jacobites and Episcopalians. His purpose, as he declared it, was to rescue the Jacobites from absorption by the Roman church.
In consequence of the increased Protestant missionary activities among the Jacobites and other native Christian churches in the East, coupled with the intense pressures upon the Ottoman government by European Protestant powers, first Grand Vizier Resid Pasa, in November 1847, and then, in November of 1850, Sultan Abdülmecid himself, issued charters declaring Ottoman subjects espousing Protestantism to be a separate community, entitled to the same rights accorded other non-Muslim subjects of the sultan.