«Neither beginning nor end»: The Messalian Imaginaire and Syriac asceticism

Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Syriac ascetic society was the arena of a steady stream of condemnation of the Messalians in late antiquity, which may have created a sense of religious crisis within the Eastern Church and in monastic circles specifically. In this study, which deals with the Messalian controversy in the seventh and eighth century, I suggested leaving aside the use of Messalianism as a label in Syriac monastic conflicts, as well as the question of historicity, seeking to shift instead to a discussion of the perception of Messalianism and the power of the imaginaire in the Syriac ascetic milieu. One of the main questions here is how one should approach the formal refutations and the scornful language concerning the Messalians in the long history of their galling presence in the Eastern Christian heresiological context. The first part of this paper traces how several imageries associated with the Messalian heresy, particularly those relating to contemplative prayer, functioned in shaping Syriac ascetic tradition as reflected in the writings of Babai the Great and Isaac of Nineveh. It is argued that Mesalianism in this phase was used as a pedagogical tool and a rhetorical mechanism for refining the limit of the mystical layer in Syriac ascetic society. The second part is devoted to the decisive struggle of Timothy I, the Catholicos of the Church of the East, against the mystical school of the East Syriac Church in one of its culminating moments. He used the anti-Messalian rhetoric for exercising his ecclesiastical power, aiming to control the philosophical and mystical tendencies prevailing in the Nestorian Church, and to impose his theological doctrines on his Church.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)222-239
Number of pages18
Issue number19
StatePublished - 2013


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