Was the Persian Catholicos the Successor of Apostle Peter?

One often hears that the doctrine of the primacy of the Apostle Peter and, as a consequence, the primacy of the See of Rome, which according to the tradition was founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul, is a tradition of Roman Christians that is not shared in the East. This article will show that in the extreme east of the Christian ecumene, in the Iranian Orthodox dioceses of the early 5th century, there was a teaching about the primacy of the Apostle Peter, which, however, was claimed by the Persian Primate.

The Situation in Iran

Many Christian communities in Iran emerged from various groups of captives during the Roman-Persian wars. There were many bishops among them, and as a result, one could find several bishops in the same city who recognized each other and enjoyed Eucharistic fellowship. Many people were satisfied with this situation, but at the beginning of the fourth century an attempt was made to unite fragmented Persian dioceses under the leadership of Pope Bar Aggaia, bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of the state of Sassanids. The attempt failed. Pope Bar Aggaia fled to the West and was replaced by the future martyr St. Simeon Bar Sabbaia († 345). Soon the great persecution of Christians under Shah Shapur II (309-379) paralyzed Christian life in Iran.

The Unification Council

Shah Yazdegerd I established friendly relations with Byzantium, stopped the persecution of Christians and even allowed the bishop of Seleucia to convene the Council of the Persian Church in 410. The Council made some very important decisions: it adopted the Nicene Creed, approved the canons of Nicaea and, most interestingly, defined the position of the capital’s bishop, declaring him “Catholicos, Archbishop of the whole East, Great Metropolitan and Head of all bishops who should obey him as Christ Himself” (Synodicon Orientale/ Ed. et tr. Chabot J.-B. Paris, 1902, pp. 254-255). One might think it was simply a matter of granting honorary titles to a formal head of the local church who did not have much authority, but subsequent events will show that it was not. The Shah, copying the Councils held in the Christian Empire, approved the canons of the Council as laws for the Christians of Persia, threatening to bring to justice anyone who would dare not obey the Catholicos, who also acquired the status of a public official in Iran. As we can see, while in Byzantium the system of patriarchates was just beginning to take shape, and the popes of Rome were making the first cautious attempts to justify their superiority, the Persian Patriarchate was established on the easternmost outskirts of the Christian world, where the power of a simple bishop and a Catholicos was radically different. The Catholicos was considered not just the head of the local Church, but also the sacred source of the hierarchy, whom other bishops had to obey as sons obey the father. (Ibid. pp. 271-273).

The Challenge of Antioch

Despite the strict prohibition of the Shah, some metropolitans of the western Iranian regions were in opposition to the new power structure. Firstly, many did not like the strict hierarchical order, and secondly, it was not pagan Seleucia with its overwhelming Zoroastrian population that had been the spiritual center of the Eastern Christians since ancient times, but such ancient church towns as Beth Lapat, Nisibin, where the apostles had preached and martyrs had died. There were strong communities and their own theological school, which spiritually and culturally gravitated towards the largest Orthodox center of the region, that is, Antioch. It was from here that calls to unite with the See of Antioch came out for the reason that this was the only See of the Apostle Peter, and one could not break away from it (Ibid. pp. 289-292). A council was convened in 424 to settle the tensions in the Persian Church, strengthen the position of the Catholicos, and defend the Church’s independence from Antioch. It ruled that the First Hierarch of Iran also had “the authority of the Apostle Peter and therefore could not be under the authority of any of his subordinates”. No one is entitled to judge him, including the great Western patriarchs, who were declared equal to him, while he “may judge all who are below him, and his judgment is confirmed by Christ himself, who chose him, exalted him, and put him at the head of His Church.” (Ibid. pp. 294-296).

Thus, even before the idea of the primacy of the Pope as the successor to the Apostle Peter was finally formalized in Rome itself, the Persian Catholicoi had already anticipated this doctrine on a conciliar level, defending their autonomy from Antioch, which also appealed to the authority of its founder. The Catholicos was declared the successor of Cephas, and his see was said not to be under the jurisdiction of anyone but God. This indicates that in the ancient Church, the doctrine of Peter’s high status among the apostles was widespread, but this authority was not confined to Rome alone: other important sees also sought to claim it.

John Nichiporuk

About the author

John Nichiporuk,
a Bachelor of Theology, specialized in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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