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Beyond Religious Dogmatics

Apology of Patriarch Timothy before Caliph Mahdi

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One of the greatest of the East Syrian patriarchs elected for the post during the Islamic Caliphate rule after the rise of Arab Empire in Syria and Persia was Timothy, who’s occupied the post from 780 through 823. Timothy was one of the most ministry-minded church leaders who was engaged in administrative ecclesiastical affairs beyond the Persian boarders to the east [1] and this patriarch took part in a two-day interreligious dialogue with the third Abbasid caliph, Mahdi in 781 and described their interchange with the caliph in his Apology. 

First of all, we may notice how respectfully and honorably the patriarch treats the caliph that is expressed in the way he calls him: “And our King of Kings said to me…” or “O our God-loving King…” or “I replied to his exalted Majesty…[2] On the second day of their conversation, the caliph starts questioning the patriarch firstly, on the topic of who gave the Bible to the Christians challenging if it were just an apostles who wrote it. On what Timothy answered with the parallel to the Qur’an that was given to the Muhammad by God and the Muhammad was just an instrument through whom God did his work. This parallel indicates, in a sense, that patriarch acknowledged the special role of Muhammad in the world’s religious history and considered him as one of the prophets of God.  When the caliph asked him directly about what Timothy thought about Muhammad, patriarch gave him, in my view, very diplomatic and careful answer making sure that it would be satisfying to the follower of Muhammad but at the same time, he didn’t attach any personal attitude or belief to his explanation giving pretty general observation or description of Muhammad that any one would agree following the common sense, saying that he was the one who walked in the path of all prophets comparing him with Moses and Abraham. Afterwards, Timothy expresses his scornful attitude toward the Romans who brought about the heresy versus the loyal attitude toward Muhammad who fought for the truth of God demonstrating his loyalty to the caliph himself.

Most of the time during the second day conversation, caliph and Timothy spent discussing the notion of Trinity that Caliph obviously couldn’t comprehend coming from the logical common sense. He asked several questions about how God can be one and three at the same time. Timothy was giving various answers bringing about several analogies either with the sun, its heat, light and the body itself, then with the dinarii and its 3 sides, or fire, or apple and its scent. He even went into the discussing the mystical side of the number 3 in particular. Then he compared the Father-God, his Word and his Spirit with the human soul that has intelligence and mind but that is still one in itself. But the main way he used to engage the caliph theologically into the discussion of the Trinity and other themes, was using most of the time the Christian scriptures as the authoritative ground to base his arguments on, saying that this or that is said and confirmed in the Bible (“By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all His hosts by the Spirit of His mouth” – Ps. 33:6)[3]. In my view, it didn’t really work well because it assumes that the representative that he was speaking to was also accepting the Christian Bible as an authoritative scripture to refer to. But it was not the case in the conversation with the Caliph and such an argumentation might not make any sense or have value in kind of the same sense as I would talk to the atheist and prove the existence of God through the Bible, when the atheist or agnostic do not believe or not sure if it was inspired by God. Caliph, on the other hand, seems to ask his question or commenting on something going from the common sense that is understandable to everyone regardless of any religious or non-religious affiliation (“It is very easy for your tongue, O Catholicos, to prove the existence of that Lord and God, and the existence also of that consubstantial servant, and to draw conclusions sometimes or to abstain from them some other time, but the minds and the will of rational beings are induced to follow not your mind which is visible in your conclusions, but the law of nature and the inspired Books.”)[4] With this, Caliph moves to the person of Jesus Christ saying that he was the servant of God, and how came that Christians started claiming that he is the Son of God and equal to God. Again, the Patriarch draws on several passages from the New and Old Testaments of the Bible where the words “Son of God” are being used – Ps. 2:12, 110:3 etc. and then he also goes to the Qur’an to demonstrate that even in the Qur’an Jesus is called the Word and the Spirit of God saying: “The above is written in the Gospel [referring to the references he brought before]. I heard also that it is written in the Qur’an that Christ is the Word and the Spirit of God (Qur’an 4:169; cf. 3:40), and not servant. If Christ is the Word and the Spirit of God, as the Qur’an testifies, He is not a servant but a Lord…”[5] Timothy was conveying this argument about Jesus being the Word and the Spirit of God through the whole conversation and he believed that in the Qur’an, Jesus is also represented in the same way. Probably, his knowledge of the Qur’an wasn’t sufficient enough, although, he demonstrated pretty good knowledge of it throughout the conversation as well as the caliph of the Christian Bible. But it still wasn’t that well; otherwise, he would know that in other place Qur’an warns people not to follow the teaching of Trinity calling Jesus Christ an Apostle of God: “O, Followers of the Gospel! Do not overstep the bounds [of truth] in your religious beliefs, and do not say of God anything but the truth. The Christ Jesus, son of Mary, was but God's Apostle - [the fulfillment of] His promise which He had conveyed unto Mary - and a soul created by Him. Believe, then, in God and His apostles, and do not say, "[God is] a trinity". Desist [from this assertion] for your own good. God is but One God; utterly remote is He, in His glory, from having a son: unto Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth; and none is as worthy of trust as God.”[6] In the same way in the Bible itself, we might find a lot of contradictions with the notion of the Trinity or with Jesus being God as He never claimed himself to be the One.

The conversation between Muslim Caliph and Christian Patriarch had a very sophisticated character; although the opponents seemed to talk from different angles – the Caliph from more logical, rational, common sense not appealing too much or not at all to the Qur’an, while Patriarch based all his argument on the Christian scriptures. Hence, if Timothy sees the answer about Trinity as a mystery he does not effectively communicate such an idea and when he tries to give a logical explanation of the Trinity to the Caliph – obviously, a practical, political and logical man, it also impossible to comprehend the notion of Trinity. The leaps of logic that Timothy makes do not convince the Caliph, partly, as I mentioned before, because they are based on the assumption that one has accepted other parts of Christian doctrine, and partly because they are based on conjecture and opinion.

 

 

 

Bibliography:

-          Digital Version of Qur’an at: http://www.islamicity.com/QuranSearch/

-          John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004)

-          Dale T. Irvin, Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement (New York: Orbis Books, 2001)

 

 

 



[1] Dale T. Irvin, Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement (New York: Orbis Books, 2001) p. 285

[2] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004) p. 231

 

[3] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004) p. 234

 

[4] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, p. 240

 

[5] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, p. 240

[6] Qur’an 4:171 An-Nisa – Digital Version at: http://www.islamicity.com/QuranSearch/

Created December, 2007