Diarmaid MacCulloch has an extremely interesting LRB review of Forgery and Counter-Forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, by Bart Ehrman, that makes a nice follow-up to the Bible reading I’ve been doing recently; in fact, he includes a brief plug for a book I recently read (but don’t seem to have posted about), When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible, by Timothy Michael Law:

Another fresh perspective is Timothy Michael Law’s When God Spoke Greek, a study of the Septuagint, the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture or Old Testament.​ Law has much to say that will be news even to many students of church history, if their specialism is in a later period. He points out that the Septuagint became the authoritative Bible which Mediterranean Christians used once they cut their links with Judaism, and often this is traceable in New Testament quotations from Hebrew scripture which seem ‘wrong’ in comparison with the Hebrew. They are wrong because they are earlier: the long accepted Hebrew Bible which Jews and Christians have commonly referred to is actually a redaction of variant earlier texts, as has become apparent from the mass of earlier scriptural fragments known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it postdates most of the New Testament by perhaps half a century. When, in the 16th century, Protestant scholars excitedly returned to the Hebrew Bible, to expose popish error in understanding God’s word, they were unwittingly consulting a text later than the Greek Septuagint which lay behind the Latin Vulgate version of the Old Testament. Law thus brilliantly turns accepted wisdom about the nature of biblical text on its head. This trio – Ehrman, Moss and Law – kicks away the supports of both conservative Protestant and Roman Catholic scholarship, and leaves some old-fashioned liberal biblical scholars looking a little uncomfortable. All three are aware that good history is a solvent for lazy and often harmful promulgations of traditional ecclesiastical authority; they all write with an implicit moral purpose.

But what drove me to post was a reference to “the mysterious sixth-century Miaphysite Syrian Christian who pretended to be Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian friend of Paul of Tarsus in the first century.” Miaphysite? That appeared to mean ‘one nature,’ but surely that was monophysitism? Had MacCulloch or Ehrman or somebody decided that since physis was a feminine noun it should have the feminine mia?? Confused, I turned to Wikipedia, where I found a whole article about miaphysitism, “sometimes called henophysitism,” which “holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one or single nature (‘physis’), the two being united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration. Historically, Chalcedonian Christians have considered Miaphysitism in general to be amenable to an orthodox interpretation, but they have nevertheless perceived the Miaphysitism of the non-Chalcedonians to be a form of Monophysitism. The Oriental Orthodox Churches themselves reject this characterization.” Now, I like a subtle distinction as well as the next man, but my brain refuses even to attempt to parse the difference between the single-nature miaphysite and the single-nature monophysite. If anyone can provide an explanation in terms suitable for an ignorant observer, I will welcome it; otherwise I’ll just bear in mind that there is such a thing as a miaphysite and go about my way.


  1. You’ve at least commented about it 🙂

  2. Further complicating things is English Wikipedia’s practice of referring to the Chalcedonian churches of the east as “Eastern Orthodox” and the non-Chalcedonian ones as “Oriental Orthodox”. Surely there’s got to be a better way to express that?

    As a religious descriptor rejected by those it describes, “Monophysite” reminds me of “Hinayana” (“lower/debased vehicle”), the term traditionally applied to Theravadin Buddhism by Mahayanists. Older Western texts tended to use “Hinayana” as if it were a neutral term, but there now seems to be a consensus against it.

  3. J. W. Brewer says

    Lazar: that is the traditional terminological distinction made in most English ecclesiastical (and perhaps scholarly) writing, for good or for ill. The main coordinating body of the non-Chalcedonians, at least in the U.S., has the vaguely menacing acronym SCOOCH. http://www.scooch.org/.

    “Miaphysite” seems to be the preferred self-designation in contemporary English discourse of the Christological position of the churches which had traditionally been called “monophysite” by the rest of us, and is sometimes used by others (even me, and I’m a guy who still says “the Ukraine”) who are feeling polite. As best as I can tell, one reason for the preference is their sense that “monophysite” is wrongly thought by the Chalcedonians to imply the Eutychean heresy, which the non-Chalcedonians deny that they presently hold or historically held at any point back to the Late Unpleasantness of the 5th century. From a Chalcedonian perspective, the problem with saying the incarnate Christ has only “one” nature is that it immediately raises the question – well, which one is it, the human nature or the divine nature? The miaphysite position is that that’s the wrong question, because the single (“mia”) physis of the incarnate Christ is somehow both-at-once (I think there’s a technical Greek word for it that escapes me at the minute that might translate as something like “blended’ or “compound”). By contrast, the Eutychean position, which the miaphysites deny holding, is commonly taken to be that the “one nature” is divine, with the humanity having been somehow subsumed or swallowed up into it.

    I only myself started following the sort of theological/ecclesiological discussions on the internet where it became relevant to know what “miaphysite” meant, and who might be using it as a shibboleth in preference to some seeming synonym, about a decade ago, so I don’t have much sense of how far back the usage goes. Probably a substantially higher percentage of discourse between miaphysite and dyophysite Christians takes place in English these days (even if only as a mutually intelligible L2) than was the case even a generation or two back.

  4. Um, I also had no clue that Miaphysitism existed, but I consulted the Russian mirror of the Wikipedia page you linked, and they seem to draw a clear distinction:

    Miaphysitism is a polemical antithesis to Nestorian Dyophistism, teaching that Christ existed in two separate hypostases: Jesus the man and Logos the divine idea.
    Miaphysitism posits that the two natures of Christ form the single hypostasis, in which the two sides are inseparably merged but without ceasing to exist as separate natures (doh!).
    Monophisitism OTOH has the two natures merged into one, divine nature (the human nature is fully absorbed and sort of disappears inside the divine nature; e.g. as taught by Eutyches, His human nature was “dissolved like a drop of honey in the sea”)

    So Miaphysitism is about “divine and human sides connected together”. Technically it would have aligned Eastern Miaphysites with the Orthodox Church of Byzantium, but the Greeks wanted to find bad labels for non-aligned Orthodox Churches, and chose to confuse the matters by labeling pre-Chalcedonian Miaphysite Orthodox churches “Monophisite” too. That’s what English wiki seems to stumble upon – what you call them totally depends on whose point you want to make.

    These Miaphysite Churches are called Oriental Orthodox in English, or Ancient Orthodox in Russian. There are 6 of them if you do not count the (ancient and oriental but dyophisite) Assyrian Church of the East.

    Syrian Miaphysites, or Jacobites (after St. Jacob Baradaeus), are formally known in English as Syriac Orthodox Church. Although Syriac Orthodox are present in the Levant where the church originated, the vast majority of today’s adherents are in South India, and Malayalam is used for liturgy alongside with Syriac.

  5. J. W. Brewer says

    To give a somewhat parallel example, you’d think on strictly compositional grounds that “miaphysite” and “monophysite” would be exact or close-to-exact synonyms, just as you’d think the same, absent contrary knowledge of actual usage, about “colored person” and “person of color.” But language doesn’t always work that way.

  6. So, here’s my understanding, though this is a complicated bit of church theology and isn’t one of the areas I’ve studied at length. There’s three sides to this argument and I think including the third might help clarify the contention between the other two.

    To start, we have the duophysites (or dyophysites), which you didn’t touch on but are important to the discussion. Their position is that the Christ has two natures, both a human and a divine, in one person. They then reconcile his two natures in the hypostatic union. Both the monophysites and miaphysites reject this doctrine, claiming the Christ has only one nature, but differ on the definition of this one nature. The monophysites claim that the Christ only has a divine nature, while the miaphysites claim that the Christ has a combination of a human and divine nature (making them closer in view to duophysites). That’s still a bit too simple, but it stresses where the views differ, so hopefully it provides some clarity.

    Serious discussion aside, this reminds me of the (joke) speed dating sheet our hall made in bible college, which started: “What are your thoughts on the hypostatic relationship of Jesus, the Christ?”

  7. Hat: Easy-peasy.

    The dyophysite position, held by the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches, is that Christ is a single person with two natures, a human nature and a divine nature. The miaphysite position, which the Oriental Orthodox church holds, is that he has a single nature which is both entirely human and entirely divine. The monophysite position, which the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches have historically held that the Oriental Orthodox church holds, is that Christ had a single nature which was either divine or a mixture of human and divine. The consensus of the four, insofar as they have one, is that both the dyophysite and the miaphysite position approach the ineffable truth, though from opposite directions. “Entweder transsubstantiality oder consubstantiality but in no case subsubstantiality.”

    The Assyrian Church of the East asserts as against either mono- or miaphysitism that Christ has not only two natures but two qnome, which they say is Syrian for hypostasis. Exactly what the difference between a physis and a hypostasis is escapes me. The ACE denies that it is “Nestorian” in the sense that the West has historically understood this term; that is, they reject any dual personhood of Christ, just as the OO churches deny they are “Monophysite”.

    Lazar: You’d think there would be a better way, but there isn’t. In Greek, of course, the distinction is easy to make: “the True Church” vs. “infamous heretics”.

  8. You are all the best, and when I establish the Church of Hat you shall be patriarchs all. I think I now grasp the distinctions as well as I am ever likely to.

  9. You’ve at least commented about it

    Thank you! I was sure I’d mentioned it somewhere.

  10. J. W. Brewer says

    Um, in the initial block quote, it is misleading w/o a whole lot of qualifiers to say that the LXX “lay behind” the Vulg. The ENTIRE POINT of the Vulg OT compared to the earlier Latin versions was to translate directly from the Hebrew rather than the LXX, and Jerome got the gig because he invested the time to learn Hebrew when there were very few Christians from the Latin half of the Empire who could say whether he was translating it right or wrong. Now, whether the Hebrew text Jerome had in front of him as his vorlage is identical to the Masoretic Text as it has come down to us in later manuscripts is an interesting question on which I assume there is a voluminous literature with which I am not acquainted, but he was doing his damnedest to ignore the LXX. Most-to-all Eastern Orthodox (it’s always hard to make unanimous statements about the Orthodox position on anything) are at least formally still committed to the position that the LXX is the definitive OT, with the paucity of English translations of it being something has been worked on in recent decades. The 16th-century points of agreement v. disagreement between different squabbling factions of the heterodox in foggy and barbarous islands far from Constantinople are of little interest to the True Church, even though they may be MacCulloch’s own scholarly focus (or “specialism”).

  11. John Emerson says

    Considering that we’re dealing with one paradox (the divinity and humanity of Christ) inserted into a different paradox (the three-in-one God) it’s not surprising that these questions are hard to answer.

    Some of the differences in terminology are the result of some churches to accomodate themselves to Chalcedonian Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant theology. (An Armenian-American friend tells me that Armenians are Unitarians.)

    Once you get into this question, you start dealing with Latin translation from the Greek, which is an additional can of worms and is said to have been sloppy.

    TAny attempt to understand these doctrines is a big stepi n the direction of atheism.

  12. Any attempt to understand these doctrines is a big step in the direction of atheism

    Fair enough. Although those of us who grew up in the Eastern Block are probably no strangers to very similar parsing of fine distinctions of party lines in the History and Theory of Communism courses which have been mandatory in colleges. So on the atheist side of the things, the dogmatic labels and the split hairs could get equally convoluted, and we still had to navigate through the courses to pass, suspending the disbelief in the process.

  13. Thanks, Hat! I hereby apply (or rather do not apply; nolo episcopari, y’know) for the post of Patriarch of the Hiberno-German (or in the Greek language, Agnostic) Rite, under the protection of SS. Pyrrhon and Huxley. Until my elevation, you may refer to me as Doctor Obviosus.

  14. J. W. Brewer says

    FWIW, after some follow-up I think the Greek adjective I couldn’t previously recall used by some theologians of the miaphysite tradition (it seems to go back at least to Severus of Antioch but may not have been used by Cyril of Alexandria, who had coined or at least popularized the “mia physis” NP) to describe the both-human-and-divine-ness of the mia physis is “synthetos,” usually Englished in this context as “composite” rather than my earlier vague recollections of “compound” or “blended.”

  15. J. W. Brewer says

    Whereas by contrast subsequent writers in the Chalcedonian tradition (e.g. the Emperor Justinian and St. John Damascene) insisted that it was the hypostasis rather than the physis of the incarnate Christ which was synthetos.

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