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707 A.D. - John Maron, The Maronites Patriarch, Dies

Sometimes on the news we will see some segment pertaining to a middle eastern nation, a nation you would think of as a non-Christian nation, yet Christians will be mentioned in it.  Sometimes when I would see that, I would wonder what denomination of Christian they might be.  In looking into that a little, I learned about a group of Christians called the Maronites, or more anciently, the Maradites. 

Though little known or discussed in the Western nations, the Maradites were extremely crucial to the development and even the survival of Christianity in the Eastern Roman Empire. They were called Al-Maradah, because in Arabic the contained word 'marid' means 'giants', and it is allegedly from this word 'marid' that these men drew their most commonly remembered name - Maradites.

That's because according to some writings they believed themselves descended from or related to the Amorites of the Bible.  Amorites were a nation of 'giants' who lived in Canaan at the time the small new Israelite nation entered the promised land under the patriarch Joshua. Some ancients referred to Amorites as being '..as tall as the cedars and as strong as the oaks.' 

Amorites were a race very detested by God, the scriptures say. Particularly so.  It's almost odd therefore that they might become an important group of Christians, but then God never meant for any people to become disobedient towards Him.  And the whole Maradite/Amorite connection is a tradition that may or may not be true anyway.  The Maradites themselves don't seem to have physically included any sort of actual giants that I found mentioned.

And maybe that's good if they aren't descendents of Amorites. Early civilizations such as Chaldean and Akkadian, in referring to the Amorites, seemed to regard them as vile herdsmen who would arrogantly intrude into their land on occasion when they needed good pasture for their herds.  They said that Amorites mainly ate their food raw, did not farm, and did not even bury their dead. But, that's their enemies talking. 

It is hard to know very much about the Amorites. We know they twice were involved in defeating Babylon in ancient times, so they weren't a weak people. And again, all their ancient neighbors and the Israelites as well were in full agreement, as reported in surviving ancient writings, that the Amorites were large, even gigantic. None the less, God granted Joshua of the Israelites great victories over them, and according to scripture only a few survived into the time of King David (around 1000 B.C.) in the particular area of today's Israel.  Some scholars believe that King Herod the Great was of mixed Amorite blood though, and he lived in the early days of Jesus's life.  If so, the Amorite influence never quite flickered out in King David's day.

But, as for these Christian Maradites, their story begins later.  They historically emerged as fighters from a town called Jarjumah in North Syria in about the 5th century A.D. and lasted until about the middle of the 10th century A.D. as a fighting force. They had an 8th century Patriarch named Maron, which is who this account is mostly about, but there was also an initial founder of their faith, a monk also named Maron, from the mid 5th century. Two important men named Maron, from different centuries. 

The earlier Maron was a Christian healer, fairly well known in his lifetime, who dwelled about 25 miles north of the Orontes River in the hills, in a small cabin. Many people learned of Jesus's power to heal through this early Christian follower.  When he died, his body was literally fought over by two nearby towns, which each wanted the honor of hosting his relics. And those 'relics' have been moved 3 times since. They now apparently reside in Foligno Italy, housed inside a silver statue in a church there.

For the following three centuries the followers of this man - the Maradites - became a potent fighting force to be reckoned with. But they then became known by a similar sounding name - Maronites - because they received a certain missionary named John Maron (also called John the Sarumite) who had been sent by the Pope in Rome to this area of the eastern Roman Empire specifically to contact the Maradites.  His mission from the Pope was to try to keep the Maradites in the fold with the Christian church in Rome, rather than allowing them to join with the Eastern Orthodox Christian church.  Rome was more or less reaching into the territory of the Eastern Christian Church to establish and maintain some power there.

(I tried to find out if this Maron was named after the first monk - the 5th century monk - named Maron, but couldn't. Maybe it was just a common name at that time...?  I also tried to find out why they were not called Maronites from the beginning, but they apparently really were called Maradites, though founded by a monk named Maron, and then they later became known as Maronites in honor of this 2nd missionary - who died in 707 A.D. - who was also named Maron. How's that for confusing? But I guess that's how it goes!)

This second man named Maron, the 7th and 8th century John Maron, was a well educated missionary from the area of Antioch; in particular from a town called Sarum, which was a city just south of Antioch. He was a descendent of the Frankish royal family and was sent to very good schools. He studied Greek at Constantinople, and seems to have had some success as a scholar.  He composed a Eucharistic prayer that is still in use in some places today. He had a great interest from his early days in investigating and scripturally rebutting heresies that were springing up within the church. It was for this reason that he was assigned in 676 A.D. to Mt. Lebanon to oppose heresies that the Maradites might be exposed to.

He basically entered a combat zone when he went to the Maradite country. The Maradites believed in Jesus, but they were warriors.  They had been fierce defenders of the Christian faith for a long time already against the Persians and the expanding Arab nations.

Constantinople had an Emperor during this time, with a military force under his command.  But it is fair to say that the most formidable army Constantinople posessed were these Maradites who fought somewhat autonomously in defense of the city, not so much under the direction of the Emperor, but rather voluntarily on Constantinople's behalf, really for the sake of Christianity. They were a sort of holy army of horsemen. They were called the 'Brass Wall' by Constantinople's enemies, and were a respected fighting force.

So John Maron went to them where they were, treating their wounded, finding homes for the homeless, finding shelter for war victims, and putting himself at risk no less than them. And during this time of service, he recieved the gift of healing from the Holy Spirit, and was held in high esteem by the Maradites as someone whose prayers could heal what could otherwise not be healed, and who could save even plague victims. So many witnessed these miracles that it was not contested among them that John Maron had brought the power of the Lord with him to his mission field.

Because the Maradites military strength was so crucial to the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire, they were a power that the Emperor was somewhat jealous of. And there was the complication of their relationship to the Roman Catholic church.  There were tensions waiting to be ignited, so to speak. 

Eventually, there came a point when the Maradites somewhat unilaterally decided to declare John Maron their Patriarch, both of Antioch (the oldest 'See' in the Catholic church) but also of the entire East. The powers of the Roman church gave approval of this measure. But Justinian II, Emperor of Constantinople at the time, was incensed that so important an assignment as this was awarded without even consulting him, in territory he controlled.  It felt too much like Rome was running things in his jurisdiction, and he decided that these Maradites needed to learn to respect his power, for Constantinople had it's own army!

Accordingly, plans were secretly laid, and carried out.  Justinian's troops made a surprise attack upon the local monastery where he expected John Maron to be, and succeeded in catching the Maradites by surprise. After all, they had not expected Justinian to be an enemy of theirs. Though Justinian's forces succeeded in killing around 500 Maradite monks, John Maron escaped and succeeded in fleeing away to Lebanon.

Justinian's forces pursued Maron and his fellow escapees to Lebanon - a big mistake - and a friendly force of local Maradites headed by John's nephew Ibrahim demolished the Emperor's army and sent it back to far away Constantinople whipped and empty handed.

***Concerning this Emperor Justinian, his career as Emperor was an exciting but checkered one. He was determined and brave, but had a popularity problem.  He was deposed once by forces in his realm, and his nose was even cut off.  Then they banished him to Crimea. But, not easily phased, he was able to rally support from foreign troops and nations (chiefly 15,000 Bulgar horsemen) and assault Constantinople, sneak in through a storm drain and retake the city. He really was an action/adventure sort of Emperor. This second 'term' as Emperor ended with a revolt of his people (he was a cruel Emperor) and he was executed outside of the walls of the city. His head was paraded around by his enemies in celebration. He so rancorously ruined relations with Rome during his reign that Pope Constantine visited Constantinople in 710 A.D., but no other Pope returned to visit after him until Pope Paul the VI went to Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium) in 1967 A.D. That's a 1250 year cooling off period!! ***

John Maron settled down in the region he had fled to, and next founded a monastery called Reesh Moran (meaning 'head of our Lord') there in Lebanon, in the town of Kefer-Hay. It grew and became the center for the Christian faith in that area at that time. Having less friendly feelings now towards Constantinople, the Maradites, who soon began caling themselves Maronites, decided to retain their good relations with Rome, yet to go into a sort of isolationist posture. They became a semi-independent religious and political state within the borders of Lebanon. (Lebanon's borders have changed about as drastically as Poland's over the centuries, going from lots to little several times.)

John Maron even succeeded in convincing Rome to move the official location of the 'See of Antioch' to Lebanon, and with Rome's blessing, he became one of the founding Bishops there. Then, in 707 B.C. John Maron, this great pillar of the Maronite Church, died.

Today the Maronite faith still exists and has many hundreds of churches around the world. Their spiritual head is the 'Patriarch of Antioch' who resides not in Antioch, but in Bkerke, Lebanon. They acknowledge the Roman Pope as supreme pontiff, and have a cardinal in the College of Cardinals, and so have a voice in all things Catholic that are decided there in Rome.  

Lebanon is about 25% Maronite (Lebanon's Presidents have sometimes been Maronite) and Maronites in particular were extremely keen to have Lebanon declared an independent state. They worked hard to acheive that and are vigilant in maintaining it, as they want the freedom to continue worshipping as Christians.

Syria has a strong contingent of Maronites, as does the Island of Cyprus. There are about 1.5 million Maronites world wide. Fleeing various persecutions, mostly from Turks and Arab Muslims, some Maronite churches have sprung up in North and Central America, and Australia, and Europe. They are a Christian denomination which you are more likely to run into if you travel the Middle East or the Mediterrenean areas, however. A significant number of the Iraqi Christians are Maronites.

Depending on which area of the world their church is located in, Maronites often use a Peshitta Bible, written in Syriac, an ancient Aramean language. Some of the Old Testament books became available in Syriac beginning about the 2nd century B.C.  A New Testament in this language began to be used fairly extensively in parts of the middle east by the 500's A.D. In fact, when Christianity first spread to the Asian and Arab lands the scripture they carried with them was quite often written down in Syriac, though later Arabic began to predominate.

Syriac is spoken today as a chief language in various remote and isolated areas in around a dozen nations. Along with the unfamiliar language, a visitor might notice that Maronite churches often contain a considerable number of icons in the tradition of the Orthodox style churches.

And so, when you see Christian churches in the middle east, on the news or while traveling abroad, you can remember that they may be Maronite Christian churches, and if so, their denomination has been around for about 1,500 years, and that they number about 1.5 million believers, are the head of the ancient 'See' of Antioch, the oldest in Christendom. They have survived in some of the most Christian-unfriendly areas on earth for centuries, right in the midst of Muslim, Persian, Turkish, and fellow Christian agitations, wars, and persecutions. And you can recall that they are chiefly founded upon the work of two Christian men, both of whom had the Holy Spirit's gift of healing, but who lived about 225 years apart. And it can be a reminder to you, if you wish, of how the Spiritual gifts come into play to alter the course of human history.

©2011 Daniel Curry & 'Deeds of God' Website