Dates are reassuring. They allow one to pin an event to a particular time and give the illusion of order and comprehension. But sometimes they are wrong, and sometimes they simply don’t apply. Despite historians’ reputation for date obsession, this historian sometimes find they obscure more than they clarify.
While reading around on the new Syrian Orthodox patriarch-elect, I came across a repeated assertion that his particular branch of Middle Eastern Christianity was founded in 452 (e.g. here). What happened in 452? Well, plenty of things happened of course, but I cannot think of any significant event relevant to the future development of the Syrian Orthodox branch of Christianity. The Council of Chalcedon, which was rejected by the Syrian Orthodox, met in 451, and so the source of this date seems to have simply added one to the date of the council. This is a bad way to date an event. If one wished to date the founding of the Syrian Orthodox after the Council of Chalcedon, why not upon the completion of the council in November of 451? Or why not years later, perhaps in 457?
But even more important than the arbitrary nature of the choice of “the following year” is the problem that this is not how many religious groups develop. If you ask the Syrian Orthodox, their church was founded by Christ and the apostles. But that can’t be right, some will say, since Christ and the apostles founded “our” church (or at least the variety of Christianity we know better, whether Catholicism or Protestantism), and since the Syrian Orthodox are not that, their history must be shorter. It always amazes me when even people who pride themselves on rejecting Christian theology adopt such a necessarily theological interpretation of the past.
Like Shi’a Islam, Syrian Orthodox Christianity was not founded in a moment of time by some particular individual. Rather what was one group with a range of different ideas and opinions before the council in 451 experienced mitosis slowly (over the course of about two centuries), and around about the rise of Islam had clearly divided into two distinct groups. Speaking both sociologically and ideologically, there was a lot of continuity between each of the latter groups and what went before. Differences developed within the two sides as they coalesced into distinct camps, and it became progressively more difficult to avoid being one or the other, although as late as the 520s the poet-bishop Jacob of Serug did not find it profitable to address these contested issues. It was only from the 530s that separate clergy were being ordained for the two groups, and only from the 550s that a complete parallel ecclesiastical hierarchy was created. And since members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy tend to be pickier about such issues than laypeople, we do not have any very clear idea when the laity considered these groups to be distinct Christian sects. In any event, the process of religious divergence is almost always messy. The emergence of the Khariji groups and the various extremist ghulat testify to the same messy divergence within Islam, and even the formation of Islam as a different sort of monotheism from Judaism and Christianity was not a smooth course. But I do not think historians need be in the business of legitimating one set of heirs over another.
The process of religious divergence is complicated, but in both the Syrian Orthodox case and the early Islamic case the religion is misunderstood if it is characterized as something new. Both groups took great pains to assert (outsiders would say fabricate) their continuity with what went before. To characterize the Syrian Orthodox as a johnny-come-lately Christian sect disagrees with their own understanding, and makes it more difficult for the scholar to understand their viewpoint. Even Islam, with its insistence upon Muhammad as the prophet of God (rasul Allah), taught equally that he was the latest and the last (the “Seal”) of the prophets, teaching what earlier prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus had (allegedly) taught. Traditional Muslim doctrine is that Islam was not a new religion, but the restoration of the original monotheism which had been corrupted by Jews and Christians in recent centuries.
This emphasis on continuity puts historians of religion in something of a bind. Not all claims to continuity are true. It is difficult to see how the Syrian Orthodox Church was founded by Christ and yet he was also a prophet of Islam. On the other hand, for historians to insist on the differences and divergences makes it difficult to understand how members of those groups reasoned and understood themselves. And yet to speak of these groups sensibly, historians must adopt distinct terminologies and determine when to apply those terminologies or the earlier labels.
In order to resolve these tensions, historians need to practice switching contexts, seeing the world (as much as possible) through the eyes of various historical actors and holding in abeyance the reflexive evaluation of an assertion as true or false (which is not to say that there isn’t a truth value to these assertions, just that our own evaluation may get in the way of our understanding those who evaluate the assertion differently). But it is also necessary to adopt a more nuanced vocabulary regarding the origin and development of religious groups: instead of insisting that every group was “founded” at some point in time, it is necessary to recognize complex and drawn out processes of mitosis which result in two (or more) groups, while both claim continuity with what went before. In other words, we must adopt the language of divergence.
(This is true not exclusively of religious groups; ethnic groups also experience mitosis, and new labels are adopted to replace old ones. In the fourteenth century, the famous Muslim world traveler Ibn Battuta would have been offended if you had called him an Arab; in his travelogue, “Arabs” were country bumpkins and bandits, and had nothing to do with his sophisticated urban self.)
Some may feel that such an approach is too complex. After all, a journalist is a busy professional who does not have time to describe the entire complex process by which two religious groups diverged, yet readers may wish some orientation to where this group fits in the grander scheme of things. I have sympathy with this complaint, although as a professional historian I have an obligation to plea for people to slow down and add nuance. Nevertheless, it is surely possible to do much better than a scurrilously precise date. The statement that his church “developed out of a fifth-century schism” is no longer-winded than the phrase “was founded in 452 after a schism” as used in the ABC article cited above. (The article’s statement that the schism was “with the bulk of the world’s Christians” is also questionable, but that’s an issue for another venue.) There are sufficiently concise ways to speak of the divergences of religious groups without sacrificing accuracy.