The «Messalian» Myth of the 4th and the 5th Centuries and the Debates on Ascetic in the Iranian Church of the East in the 7th Century

Muraviev Alexei V.

The article tries once more to rethink the notion of «the heresy of worshippers» or mṣalyanē as they were called in Syriac, cf. «Messalianism». After summing up the soursces and latest research tendencies (M. Kmosko, A. Guillaumont, K. Fitschen, C. Stewart) the conclusion seems to be imposing: the encounter of the Graeco-Roman Christianity with the native Syriac ascetic practices ended in a misunderstanding. Some ascetic trends (incessant prayer, aksenayutha, dépaysement) were interpreted in the 4th cent. as signs of anti-intellectual popular beliefs. The list of messalian heresies came from Theodoret and Epiphanius down to John Damascene. It reflects a practical absence of positive information on the teaching of the presumed ‘heretics’ completed with idiosyncratic myths and fantasies of Byzantine heresiologists. In the 7th cent. this myth was re-used in the Iranian Church of the East in the struggle between mar Babai the Great and the monastic communities of Izla. Babai and some of his allies tried to stigmatize their opponents as msalyane using the notion coined in Byzantine circles in the 4th–5th cent. The irony of the situation was that the Messalian myth was born as a repulsion of the native Syrian asceticism but returned as polemical weapon against ascetics who tended toward a more synthetic (and perhaps closer to the Byzantine ascetic) tradition like Ishaq of Niniveh, Joseph Hazzaya, John of Dalyatha and other. Their works however returned to the Greek-speaking Byzantium in the 8th–9th cent. as a yardstick of Orthodox asceticism.

Keywords: Syrian christianity, patristics, late antiquity, heresies, Messalianism