Archpriest Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel: “The Legal Decree / Akhtiname”
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MEMRA – WORDS, Meaning  And Faith
A new 2018-19 series of articles shared on the roots and the prospects that unite Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions to the realm of Jewishness and Hassidism,
Compared semantics and exegetical “paysages” by archpriest Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel (Patriarchate of Jerusalem).

There is a Roman Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem. The head of the the Greek Eastern rite local Church is Makariotate Theophilos, the name chosen by Ilias Giannopoulos when he received the Holy Orders. He kept, of course, the name when was elected as Patriarch of Jerusalem and All Palestine, Syria, Arabia, beyond the Jordan River, Cana of Galilee, and Holy Zion in 2005. Thus he is the 141st patriarch of Jerusalem, officially recognized as the successor of Saint Yaakov/Yakub/Yakovos “Brother of the God (Jesus) and protohierarch of Jerusalem”, celebrated on November 5 (October 23) according to the Julian calendar in use locally.

His titles show the extent of the “traditional territories” of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem that was created as the last of the five initial patriarchates (Pentarchia) along the Roman Empire of the East and of the West. This explains why the patriarchate is called “Rum Orthodox” in Arabic (and in Hebrew too). “Hellenorthodox – ελληνορθοδοξος/Greek Orthodox” is a special title that evolved through centuries of dramatic historical and spiritual hardships. To begin with, the Rum Orthodox Church of Jerusalem expressed the “Hellenistic and Greek” linguistic and spiritual roots of the Christian faith as it has been conveyed throughout the then one Roman Empire. Indeed, it is and remains profoundly rooted in the Semitic linguistic and cultural Jewish – both Scriptural and Talmudic – translation. The Septuagint written by the Jewish Greek-speaking Sages at Alexandria – deeply impacted the Greek language of the New Testament, just the same way the Greek tongue has penetrated the Synagogue prayers and preaches in Greece and even Rome along with Latin during the development of the Early and apostolic Church.

The same influence was to be felt very early in the growing and spreading Church from Jerusalem to the West and to the East and the Near- Middle-East. Though the Assyrian Divine Liturgies of Mar Addai and Mari and Theodoros of Muepseste do show original Semitic and Aramaic if not Hebrew expressions, the Syrian Orthodox Syriac language used in the Church follows a sort of “word to word” style inherited from the Greek phrases of the Scriptures, thus drifting away from true Semitic expressions.

This deep imprinting of the Greek expression of the monotheistic faith which is not limited to the New Testament, then to the Writings of the Holy Fathers (whose versions exist in different tongues, e.g. Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, i. a.) – has most strongly shaped the “Catholic/καθ ολων = “open to the fulfillment/totality and Orthodox/ορθοδοξος = authentic, correct, glorious Faith) when it got spread from Jerusalem to all continents over the two past millenia.

Scholars often underscore that Ireneus of Lyons used to preach in Greek and wrote in this language, not in Latin. As the Western and Eastern parts of the “collapsing Roman Empire” got apart and estranged linguistically, they also progressively drifted away from the common or usually accepted interpretation of the words of the Bible, the Gospel and the Epistles.

The Church, born of the Nativity, preaching and the rising of Jesus of Nazareth according to the teaching of the disciples and apostles that spread the Word of the Christian Revelation, slowly split. There were problems raised by the constant will to exercise power over souls and hierarchs. Still, most misunderstandings rose from the translations of words. The words could be interpreted at various levels of challenging meanings, which subsequently could question the unity of the Church, the phrases and meaning of the “faith”. This led to a series of theological, linguistic breaches in the unity with the ancient traditions as Coptic, Syriac/Aramaic, Armenian but also Georgian, Gheez (Church Ethiopian ancient language). There were no smartphones, no faxes, no internet at these key periods of the development of Christendom. On the other hand, as it remains the case at the present, there were swindling activities of translation inside each “local Church”, disputes were frequent and often viewed as positive because of a frentic search for Truth.

The Kerygma was announced in two ways with regards to the Mediterranean and “Pentarchial” tradition”: in Greek and Latin. For example, the translation made by Bishop Ulfila into Gothic (close to the Germanic tongues) is obviously marked by the impact of the Arian heresy. The few texts of his Gothic version of the Gospel are kept in Uppsala (Sweden). He was seemingly born in a half-Greek, half-Gothic family and he translated the New Testament for his flock that lived close to Bulgaria (cf. Cyrill and Methodios, Apostles of the Slavs).

While the Latin tradition of the Church strongly opposed the persistence of local Church rites (Celtic, Mozarabic, i.a.) the Hellenistic Church favored the translation of the Scriptures and the Liturgies into the local native tongues, while maintaining the priority and leadership of the “original” Greek way of considering the Word of the Lord.

Thus, we know from Egeria, the woman – probably a nun – who described her pilgrimage to the Holy Sites of Palestine (AD. 384) in a vivid and realistic way that show that celebrations were conducted in Greek and still translated into Aramaic.

The expression of faith was “bred” from the Hellenistic style in the East and in Latin and a centralized way in the West. Nonetheless, the result is quite amazing at the present: while Latin structured a specific style of Christian and Western civilization, it only recently accepted translation into native and local tongues, on a universal basis, since the end of the 19th and definitely after the Second Vatican Council.

The Greek civilization allowed the process of local and native translations; still they strictly follow the Greek “pattern and linguistic phrasing style”. Consequently, most translations from the Greek Church texts openly show evidence that they consist in using “local and native linguistic words and expressions” while maintaining the rhythm of the “leading and original phrase in Greek”.

Some scholars have shown that the concerned Greek tongue evolved throughout the ages and also got a strong Semitic (both Aramaic and Hebrew) imprinting due to the Septuagint and the roots of the liturgical texts. It is easy to monitor in the Four Gospel and the Epsitles as they have been transmitted until now (cf. Nestlé-Aland Greek-Latin New Testament texts).

The Slavonic (Church Slavic) language was created by the Apostles of the Slavs on the model of Ulfila’s style because they were Greeks from the Bulgarian border but working with the consent of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Bishop of Rome, shows the same process. Until now, the liturgical texts and expressions follow the Greek pattern. Slavonic remains much “Greek”for most of the Liturgies and Services, Menologion and other ecclesiastical texts. Things have only slightly changed with the Schism of the Old believers.

It is very impressive when the Arab Orthodox claim that they like to get apart from the Greek “primacy”.  Actually, it hardly works for two opposite reasons: the Greek hierarchs do not trust the Arabs who are at the Rum Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem and consider that the Greek texts are definitely correct and cannot be changed, in particular in Arabic. Then, the Greek clergy does not master the Arabic language to such an extent that they would be able to get to the numerous “root” possibilities suggested by Semitics as the cross-roads between Jewish and Muslim diversified lexica.

The ZITO [Live!] Independence Day of Greece commemorates the uprising of the people and is celebrated on the 25th of March, corresponding with the feast of  the Annunciation – i.e. the call to the spiritual liberation of the Greek nation from the Ottoman yoke. This is a major feast that sounds a bit special if not even “bizarre” when it is celebrated in the midst of the Holy Sepulcher Katholikon, the Greek Orthodox nave inside of the Basilika. Normally, it should be a local building composed over the centuries. It includes many layers that trace back to centuries of faith and splits. Is it only a matter of nationalism that will be repeated in Fall, on October 28 when the Greek nation marks the second Independence Day of Greece? It appears very “Hellenistic”. The Arab clergymen use to abstain to be present.

There maybe more. The Greek people – or people who have been in depth hellenized – have been present in the Near and Middle-East for centuries before the occupation by the Romans. They intermingled with the native populations and brought the prestige of the Greek ways of living, culture, linguistic apprehension of the world and reflection, philosophy. The shock occurred during the 1915 assassination of the Armenians, Assyrians and the Pontic Greeks. This meant tremendous alteration of the traditional presence and influence, relationships with the Turks, the Ottomans, the Russians, the Black Sea coastal area (South of Ukraine and Crimea, Romania and Georgia on the other side).

No Greek would accept to be considered as “xenoi/Ξενοι” (foreigners, aliens) to the Holy Land. The Anastasis is “Greek”, a part of the in-born Evangelical and New Testament heritage. Curious it also relies upon the seizure of the Septuagint, a Jewish version of the Hebrew Scripture, which implies that the Byzantine tradition is grounded on the Jewish interpretation of the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Chronicles that canonically include the Deutero-canonical Books not officially accepted by the Jewish tradition. There is a sort of speech ambiguity that surfs along the Indo-European Greek lexicon and the Semitic way of  Hellenistic inculturation between Jews and Gentiles and vice versa.

Are the Greeks to be considered as “strangers” in the midst of Jerusalem, at the Golgotha and the Tomb, Place of resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? By the way, the Georgians were also in Jerusalem before Saint Helena and they created their alphabet and Christian texts.

There is a special Greek longing after these old times when they were present till the limina of the Empire and the first marches of Persia where Christendom was more linked to the Aramaic and Syriac dialects. In Jerusalem, Greeks did marry to some natives of different backgrounds, but they never got considered as “locals”. On the other hand, the language develops with strong parallels to the rebirth of Modern Hebrew, creating new words and expressions taken from the common Scriptural thesaurus.

The Greek nation has journeyed through tragedies from the time of the first Turkish/Muslim rule after the fall of Constantinople (1453) till the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

It means that, at a level that we often cannot imagine that, in the regions of traditional Aegean areas, some parts of Turkey, the Greek nation has been harshly persecuted because of their powerful faithfulness to the Christian Orthodox faith, the Greek language. Numerous martyrs died along the centuries and refused to convert to Islam, till the victims of the genocide in 1915 in the Euxine and Black Sea area.

Many priests who came to serve at the Patriarchate of Jerusalem are the descents of those families that were murdered for their fighting for maintaining and saving the Greek culture and more than that because they did witness to their living faith according the the East Roman Empire Orthodox faith that had gone through constant denial from the West and from Islam.

Subsequently, there are several points that should really be taken into consideration at the present, both in terms of Religion and Politics and Economics.

From 1821 till 1829 and the final Treaty of Andrianople that confirmed the independence of Greece, the uprising was definitely supported by the Orthodox Church of Greece. They developed many and multi-faceted ways to fight the Ottoman rules, esp. the Cryphia Scholia (crypto-schools, hidden institutions) to safeguard the Greek cultural and spiritual identity. The impact of the Greek culture, as a whole, had also deeply influenced the world civilization.

It is very moving to see men and women crying openly on this day. There is a sort of instinctive certitude that the Theotokos/Holy Mary did spare the country and gave it back respect and national recognition after centuries of “low status”.

This is not evident for the rest of the European countries, nor for the Arab world or the Middle-Easterners. The European Community would hardly get to the core of the isolated situation of the Orthodox “Mother of the European Churches” where the apostles Andrew, Bartholomaios, Peter, Paul, Barnabas and so many other disciples brought faith in the One God and the Holy Trinity, the joy of the Resurrection.

In Jerusalem, the Decree/Akhtiname was  granted to Patriarch Sophronios of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Land and the East. He was the “Primus inter pares” of all the Christian communities at that time (Copts, Ethiopians, Armenians, Syrian/Jacobites, Nestorians). It constitutes a “firman/rule” that is still recognized by the State of Israel after the British Mandate and is also a part of the State relations with the neighboring countries (Kingdom of Jordan, Syria, Arabia and the Emirates).

Saint Sophronios (Safrûn), of Arab descent, was the Patriarch of Jerusalem who, in AD. 636, could convince Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab to grant a Akhtiname/Decree that confirmed that the Authorities depending on the Spirit of the Prophet (Muhammad, 15th year of his rise) would not destroy the Holy Sepulcher nor the Basilika of the Nativity at Bethlehem.  We do know that, from the very beginning, the Decree was disputed. In AD. 637, the Church of Jerusalem was even sacked. But, every year, the Akhtiname granted by General Omar Ibn-al-Khattab is published in Greek and Arabic (now in Russian) in the “Ephemerides, new Church calendar of the patriarchate of Jerusalem”. This aspect of “submission or dependence” of the local traditional Churches toward Islam is rarely taken into account by former colonial super-powers and Christian jurisdictions.

Thus, Saint Sophronios remains a major actor and Church protector aty the present; it is not known and most of the tourists and pilgrims are not aware of the related problems. The Decree is a unique document. The original has been destroyed after it was brought to Constantinople but some copies are kept at the Saint Ekatherina Monastery in the Sinai.

The Muslim Umma, led by General Omar Ibn-al-Khattab, entrusted a special responsibility to then-Hellenized Church of Jerusalem, till the end of the time of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24), the Second Coming of the Lord and the descent of the New Jerusalem of God that encompasses all in the oneness of God and mankind.

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About the Author

Jivko Panev

Jivko Panev

Jivko Panev, maître de conférence en Droit canon et Histoire des Églises locales à l’Institut de théologie orthodoxe Saint Serge à Paris, recteur de la paroisse Notre Dame Souveraine, à Chaville en banlieue parisienne.

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