Theodore Abū Qurra and the Instability of “Heresy”

in Medieval Encounters
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Theodore Abū Qurra, a Chalcedonian bishop in late eighth- and early ninth-century Harran, attempts to defend Christianity rationally against the new intellectual power of Islam. However, in his classification of the world’s religions, he places non-Chalcedonian Christians in a strange category called “heresy.” They are both within Christianity and without, sitting precariously on the border between Theodore’s Christianity, the “one true religion,” and its false counterparts. Nevertheless, Theodore reserves some of his harshest rhetoric for these heretics, viewing them as a sickness infecting the Church; he even implies that it is acceptable for the emperor to persecute them, though he elsewhere writes that Christianity is never spread by power or force. This paper addresses this odd term, “heresy,” and its ability to destabilize Theodore’s neat classification of religions. Perhaps this destabilization itself leads to his harsh attacks, as he seeks for stability in a world newly destabilized by the advent of Islam.

Theodore Abū Qurra and the Instability of “Heresy”

in Medieval Encounters



  • 2

    For more see Raymond Le CozL’Église d’Orient: Chrétiens d’Irak d’Iran et de Turquie (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf1995) 41–51; D.S. Wallace-Hadrill Christian Antioch: A Study of Early Christian Thought in the East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1982): 9–10. The word “Melkite” comes from the Semitic word meaning “king” as this sect was favored by most Byzantine emperors; see Sidney H. Griffith “Muslims and Church Councils: the Apology of Theodore Abū Qurrah” Studia Patristica 25 (1993): 296–297.

  • 3

    Kenneth CraggThe Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press1991) 57; Jean-Pierre Valognes Vie et mort des chrétiens d’orient: Des origines à nos jours (Paris: Fayard 1994) 39; Sidney H. Griffith The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (Princeton n.j.: Princeton University Press 2008) 129 134–135.

  • 4

    Ware“Christendom” 138–140; Griffith Church 134–135.

  • 10

    Griffith“Muslims” 273; Sidney H. Griffith “Commending Virtue and a Humane Polity in 10th Century Baghdad: The Vision of Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī” Islamochristiana 38 (2012): 99.

  • 19

    Abū QurraTheodore9. See also Griffith “Muslims” 270–274. Most of Theodore’s Arabic works can be found in the edition of P. Constantin Bacha. See Theodore Abū Qurra Les œuvres arabes de Theodore Aboucara évêque d’Haran ed. P. Constantin Bacha (Beirut: Imp. Alfawaïd 1904).

  • 20

    Abū QurraTheodore55.

  • 21

    Abū QurraTheodore55.

  • 22

    Griffith“Faith” 29–35. For this illustration see Abū Qurra Theodore 6–9.

  • 24

    Griffith“Faith” 10–23.

  • 25

    Abū QurraTheodore1–6.

  • 26

    See Tamara M. GreenThe City of the Moon God: Religious Traditions of Harran (Leiden: E.J. Brill1992) in which Green discusses the continuing presence of many of these traditions in Theodore’s own bishopric of Harran. With some of the traditions (e.g. Samaritans) it is possible that Theodore encountered them during his monastic stay in Palestine if there is indeed a historical basis to this event. Others (e.g. Zoroastrians) may have been known to Theodore from their presence elsewhere in the empire even if they were not present in Harran itself. Of course some (e.g. Marcionites) may have been known to Theodore only from old heresiographies although it is possible that some contemporary Syrians continued to hold their views.

  • 27

    Abū QurraTheodore18–23. For more on this parable see Guy Monnot “Abū Qurra et la pluralité des religions” Revue de l’histoire des religions 208 no. 1 (1991): 49–71.

  • 28

    Griffith“Faith” 29–38. Of course Theodore is not actually neutral in this discussion—it is a proof for the truth of Christian doctrine a truth to which Theodore is already committed at the outset. However he presents himself as neutral in order to engage more effectively with a religiously diverse audience. On John’s list of heresies and especially his inclusion of Islam among them see Daniel J. Sahas John of Damascus on Islam: The “Heresy of the Ishmaelites” (Leiden: E.J. Brill 1972) 51–95 132–141. For an earlier example of the genre that was influential on John see Epiphanius of Salamis The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Book i (Sects 1–46) trans. Frank Williams (Leiden: Brill 2009) xiii–xxxiv.

  • 29

    Griffith“Faith” 32.

  • 31

    Abū QurraTheodore41–57.

  • 32

    Abū QurraTheodore50 45. Even if it is contended that Theodore’s primary emphasis in his denial of evangelistic force is on the age of the apostles and the pre-Constantinian spread of Christianity his arguments that Christianity stopped the militaristic expansionism of the Roman/Byzantine empire are highly questionable historically and the tension with his later valorization of imperial force against heretics persists.

  • 33

    Abū QurraTheodore42. See also Abū Qurra Theodore 35 where Theodore discusses Judaism in particular.

  • 36

    Abū QurraTheodore62.

  • 37

    Griffith“Muslims” 275–299.

  • 38

    Abū QurraTheodore61. John C. Lamoreaux the editor of this anthology believes that this anti-heretical text and the anti-Jewish polemical work were originally separate treatises that became conjoined in the process of transmission; he has separated them accordingly in his translation. See Lamoreaux introduction to Theodore xxxii–xxxiii. The Julianists were an offshoot of the Syriac/Coptic Orthodox (“Jacobite”) Church who followed Julian of Halicarnassus (d. 527) in asserting the incorruptibility of Christ’s body. Like the other sects they maintained an independent Church hierarchy for several centuries. See Ute Possekel “Julianism in Syriac Christianity” in Orientalia Christiana: Festschrift für Hubert Kaufhold zum 70. Geburtstag ed. Peter Bruns and Heinz Otto Luthe (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag 2013) 393–394. This sect is mentioned nowhere in Theodore’s corpus except here.

  • 40

    Abū QurraTheodore62.

  • 41

    Abū QurraTheodore62.

  • 42

    Abū QurraTheodore62. “Judaism” has a long history in heresiographical literature and can be used to accuse “heretics” of a great many often quite disparate beliefs and practices. This accusation of “Jewish” reliance on meaningless formulaic words is just one of many potential options. See Daniel Boyarin Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia pa: University of Pennsylvania Press 2004) 12–29 37–44 72–73; Robert M. Royalty Jr. The Origin of Heresy: A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity (New York ny: Routledge 2013) 74–79; Sidney H. Griffith “Jews and Muslims in Christian Syriac and Arabic Texts of the Ninth Century” Jewish History 3 no. 1 (spring 1988): 69–70. The verb used here ṣayyara/صير indicates that Theodore is concerned about these heretics changing the Church causing it to become something other than true Christianity—in this case Judaism.

  • 43

    Abū QurraTheodore63. It is not at all clear just how much Christology must be different in order to say that two Christians are worshiping different christs. It is likely that there were many different opinions on certain points about Christ within the Chalcedonian community but because they all accepted the points set forth in the six ecumenical councils they were apparently considered to be worshiping the “same” Christ. Any disagreement on those points however even alongside substantial agreement on other points created an irreconcilable difference.

  • 44

    Abū QurraTheodore63.

  • 45

    Abū QurraTheodore64.

  • 46

    Abū QurraTheodore65; Griffith “Muslims” 285–286. “Council” translates the Arabic jamʿ/جمع or majmaʿ/مجمع which Theodore uses interchangeably.

  • 47

    Abū QurraTheodore65.

  • 48

    Abū QurraTheodore65. Theodore also notes that this council would be found “in the place that God would choose for the invocation of his name” that is Jerusalem; this is probably connected to his later insistence on the primacy of Peter and his successors the bishops of Rome. Theodore views Rome and especially its bishop as a stable base of Christian orthodoxy just as Jerusalem was a stable base of orthodoxy for the Israelite monarchy.

  • 49

    Abū QurraTheodore65.

  • 50

    Abū QurraTheodore67; Griffith “Muslims” 286.

  • 51

    Abū QurraTheodore68. See also Matt. 16:18; John 21:15–17; Luke 22:31–32. Theodore alludes to all of these Gospel passages in his discussion of Peter. Of course the power of the bishop of Rome is also tied to the history of the Roman Empire and this valorization of Rome’s authority has a definite imperialistic aspect to it. In passages discussed earlier Theodore claimed that Christianity was the only religion to reach to every nation of the world but this passage seems to indicate that those nations once they accept Christianity must submit themselves to the cultural supremacy of a leader located at the heart of what was once the world’s most powerful empire (that is the empire that was most powerful during the formative period of Christianity and subsequently became a Christian empire). See also Abū Qurra Theodore 128. Griffith “Muslims” 275–277 284–287 290–299 is crucial for understanding the context of Theodore’s appeal to Rome especially its relation to the Monothelite controversy as well as its varied interpretations in modern scholarship. See also C.A. Kneller “Theodor Abucara über Papsttum und Konzilien” Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 34 (1910): 419–427. For more on the relationships between the rhetoric of “orthodox” episcopal authority and Roman imperial authority in an earlier time period see Royalty Heresy 21–22 168–169.

  • 52

    See Abū QurraTheodore69–74; Griffith “Muslims” 292. The verb used for the emperors’ action (“summon” in English) is simply jamaʿa/جمع from the same root as the words for “council.” For the “command” of the bishop of Rome on the other hand amara/أمر is used.

  • 53

    Abū QurraTheodore70.

  • 54

    Griffith“Muslims” 292–293 297–298. Griffith is correct when he states that the Monothelite controversy was the primary issue for Theodore “within the Chalcedonian community in the Oriental Patriarchates” (“Muslims” 293). However Theodore’s work on the councils addresses groups both within and without the Chalcedonian sphere and it discusses heresies beyond Monothelitism alone. Griffith notes this as well when he refers to Jacobites and Maronites as Theodore’s primary opponents (“Muslims” 297).

  • 55

    Abū QurraTheodore73.

  • 57

    Griffith“Muslims” 288.

  • 58

    Griffith“Muslims” 288. See note 42 above.

  • 59

    Abū QurraTheodore75.

  • 60

    Abū QurraTheodore75.

  • 62

    Abū QurraTheodore76.

  • 63

    Abū QurraTheodore76. Here “medicine” translates Arabic dawāʿ/دواء. “Disease” translates ʿ/داء while “sickness” translates maraḍ/مرض. These two terms appear to be interchangeable here.

  • 64

    See Abū QurraTheodore78–79; Mark 3:28–30; Matt. 12:30–32; Luke 12:8–10.

  • 65

    Abū QurraTheodore115. See also Abū Qurra Theodore 118 where the rhetoric is similar.

  • 66

    Abū QurraTheodore116. “Destroy” translates Arabic qātala/قاتل; “fight against” may be a better translation than “destroy.”

  • 67

    Abū QurraTheodore126.

  • 68

    Abū QurraTheodore79.

  • 69

    RoyaltyHeresy26–27. One other key characteristic of heresiography according to Royalty is “truth before error”: the idea that the Church was originally unified around the one true concept of Jesus’s person and mission and heretics only entered to corrupt the Church in later years. See Royalty Heresy 9–14. Theodore certainly adopts this position writing that “everyone knows (!) that the heretics only attacked the church after the death of the apostles.” See Abū Qurra Theodore 69.

  • 70

    See e.g. Abū QurraTheodore79–80.

  • 71

    See RoyaltyHeresy147–148 155–156.

  • 80

    BoyarinBorder1. See also Royalty Heresy 74–79; Alister McGrath Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York ny: HarperOne 2009) 71–72.

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