While it has been carefully demonstrated that the Roman Catholic Church has “schismed” from the Orthodox Church, what is to be said about the Oriental Orthodox? Here, using the research provided by Yonatan Moss’ Incorruptible Bodies, I endeavor to demonstrate that the Miaphysite (Oriental Orthodox) schism had a blatantly extra-canonical origin. The importance of this is that this would mean by the standards of the Oriental Orthodox themselves, who hold to the same canons at issue, their origins would be ecclesiastically illegal.

The “false start” to the schism. There were splits and schisms immediately after the Council of Chalcedon. Dioscorus of Alexandria was canonically deposed for failing to answer three summons at the council and so the Alexandrine synod ordained a replacement for Dioscorus, Proterius of Alexandria. Anti-Chalcedonians, not recognizing the fact that Dioscorus was deposes considered him Patriarch until he died. They then formed a counter-synod to ordain Timothy Aelurus as Patriarch despite Proterius still being alive at the time. Shortly afterwards Proterius was killed, likely by an anti-Chalcedonian mob though one ancient historian blames the local Roman/Byzantine garrison (which if this was true, was certainly incited by anti-Chalcedonian pressure due to the Emperor Leo “the Great” having a more friendly policy towards Miaphysites).

While the preceding certainly is a schism, it was soon healed as Byzantine policy was to recognize whomever was Patriarch there, whether he be Chalcedonian or not. The same policy applied in other Patriarchates. So, the Church was “one” though there existed the tension of there being partisans who asserted different doctrines within the same body. Hence, when attempting to identify the true beginning of the Miaphysite schism, one has to go considerably after Chalcedon–despite some contentious and violent episodes. Because mere rivalries are not schism–an alternate Church structure has to exist to qualify as an actual one.

Severus’ mainstream ecclesiology. For those asserting the non-Chalcedonian cause there initially was not a strong temptation to establish an alternate Church structure. After all, beginning in 482 with the Henotikon, not only official toleration of their views existed within the Byzantine Empire; but full blown support for their ideology by the Miaphysite emperor Anastasius I. Imperial support was given to local synods to elect Miaphysite Patriarchs. Severus of Antioch became Patriarch after imperial pressure forced the deposition of its Chalcedonian Patriarch, Saint Flavian II.

While it is popularly imagined that Severus was a fiery proponent of Miaphysitism and condemned Chalcedonianism at every corner, the truth is Severus viewed both Miaphysites and Chalcedonians as parts of the same Church body. He was against the rebaptism and rechrismation of Chalcedonians upon joining the Miaphysite fold. (Moss, Incorruptible Bodies, p. 67-68) Additionally, he was against uprooting imperial policy concerning ordinations. He expected Miaphysites to tolerate the installation of Chalcedonian bishops and forbade ordaining clergy without permission of the synod. The only time he believed there to be an exception to this rule, as Frend observes, was when ordaining individuals in monasteries. (The Monophysite Movement, p. 261) This was not as inconsistent as it was in keeping with standard practice that monasteries were regularly established at locales far away from their ecclesiastical hierarchy, as Latin monasteries in the east were a testament to.

However, the “problem” of local synods not granting permission for Miaphysite ordinations only increased the longer the rules of Dyophysite emperors Justin and Justinian’s persisted. Synods became increasingly Dyophysite due to imperial policy. Severus himself was deposed and replaced by a Chalcedonian. Despite not viewing the deposition as legitimate, according to Moss:

The last thing Severus wanted to do in this situation was to lend his support to an independent ordination campaign…For it appears that Emperor Justinian had explicitly asked him, and the other anti-Chalcedonian bishops who held talks with him, to desist from ordinations outside of their ambits. (Incorruptible Bodies, p. 60)

Many may fail to appreciate why Severus would listen to such a request. There were a few reasons. First, being politically reliable brought with it the hope that the political situation may change, thereby being in a good place to pick up where one left off if imperial policy supported Miaphysitism once again. Second, it would not be the first time that a deposed emperor of Antioch was kept in “retainer”, as this occurred during the Councils of Ephesus II and Chalcedon, when Domnus II was replaced by Maximus II. During Chalcedon, Domnus’ rank was not officially “bishop” because he was not identified as such, but neither was he deprived of his rank. The question purposely left unresolved and he was given a stipend. (Price and Gaddis, Chalcedon, Vol 2, p. 312) Severus, as he saw it, was not completely “in the outs.” Third, Severus viewed himself as a standard-bearer of tradition and was well aware that the second canon of Constantinople I forbade any campaign that would install Miaphysite bishops and altars where there were already Chalcedonian ones. This is because for an ordination to be canonical, it needed to be performed either locally or with the permission of local prelates:

The bishops are not to go beyond their dioceses to churches lying outside of their bounds, nor bring confusion on the churches; but let the Bishop of Alexandria, according to the canons, alone administer the affairs of Egypt; and let the bishops of the East manage the East alone, the privileges of the Church in Antioch, which are mentioned in the canons of Nice, being preserved; and let the bishops of the Asian Diocese administer the Asian affairs only; and the Pontic bishops only Pontic matters; and the Thracian bishops only Thracian affairs. And let not bishops go beyond their dioceses for ordination or any other ecclesiastical ministrations, unless they be invited. (Canon 2 of Constantinople I)

Severus himself explicitly exegeted the above canon to disallow for the creation of a parallel episcopate. He wrote on it as follows:

The canon that forbids a bishop to perform an ordination in provinces or parishes which do not belong to him comes into play in cases where he forces himself upon other men’s countries in a disorderly fashion and without an invitation from anyone, not when he is persuaded to ordain by the bishop of the country or city and by the orthodox clergymen, especially in time of persecution. (Severus quoted in Moss, p. 60)

Due to local churches being under the control of Chalcedonians, they were not going to invite Severus and other Miaphysites from outside their boundaries to perform ordinations and create a rival church within their own territory. Due to the preceding, Moss doubts the hagiographic legend that Severus “on the down low” granted permission to John of Tella in order to perform precisely the sort of ordination campaign that the aforementioned canon explicitly forbade. Evidence of this can be gleaned from the fact that Severus required “Eastern monks in exile in Egypt” to “receive ordination at the hands of local Egyptian bishops rather than at the hands of their own archimandrites who were in exile with them.” (Ibid., p. 62)

While someone may assert that Severus only followed canon 2 when it pertained to fellow non-Chalcedonians, this is an inference without any backing from the vast written works of Severus. In fact, the earliest hagiographic source to assert that Severus had granted permission to ordain Miaphysite bishops in opposition to the Chalcedonians (the Life of John of Tella by Elias) contains an account quite inconsistent with this. It more likely preserves the truth:

The [Chalcedonian] bishops . . . gathered around him and said to him: “What canon law allows you to do the thing you are doing?” He [John of Tella] said to them: “When there is a state of confusion such as this, the church does not observe the exactitude of the canons.” (Ibid., p. 63)

As one can see, it shows even if John of Tella never explicitly made such a statement, the movement he represented was mindful that their episcopal expansion was extra-canonical. According to Moss, “Volker Menze and Nathanael Andrade have convincingly demonstrated” that both John of Tella and Jacob Bar Addai “sparked the development of a separate anti-Chalcedonian church.” (Ibid., p. 63) Compare this with Severus’ explicit policy of not granting permission to do such ordinations and interpreting Canon 2 to be in force “especially in time of persecution,” what one sees is an obvious contradiction. This is why Moss infers that Severus officially opposed the sort of measures which John of Tella and then Jacob Bar Addai followed in creating Miaphysitism’s episcopal component.

The extra-canonical origins of Syriac and Coptic Orthodoxy. The establishment of the Syriac Orthodox Church as one knows it today stems from an origin which contravenes an ecclesiastical canon they share with the Orthodox Catholics. This is compounded by the fact that the Coptic Orthodox Church itself was established by the same Syriac Orthodox Church. Paul of Antioch, himself ordained by Jacob Bar Addai, chose a Syrian to be Alexandria’s new Patriarch in opposition to the local synod (who had clearly not invited his meddling in their affairs). According to Frend:

[T]he Egyptian Monophysite church was nearing extinction. As a means of securing canonical election Paul [of Antioch, ordained by James Bar’adai in 564] persuaded Longinus to return from Nubia to assist at the consecration of the new patriarch. Unfortunately, the choice fell on a Syrian archimandrite named Theodore and he [Peter IV of Alexandria] was consecrated in the desert (between 25 June and 25 August 575). The reaction of the Alexandrians could have been anticipated. They had delayed making their own choice [of Patriarch] and now they would not accept Paul’s. An aged deacon named Peter [IV] who had been an associate of Theodosius [of Alexandria] was persuaded to accept consecration, and his first act was to consecrate a veritable Sanhedrin of seventy bishops which put the Monophysite church in Egypt on a firm footing once more under an Egyptian patriarch. (The Monophysite Movement, p. 576)

While the preceding does not cover the history of the Armenian Church nor the period of re-established communion with the Miaphysties in the 630s, it does demonstrate one important point. The episcopal line of succession in Egypt and Syria, which made up the majority of the Miaphysite movement, has extra-canonical origins. The ecclesiastical canon repeatedly broken in its establishment was well understood, even by the chief of their saints, to not allow for the establishment of a parallel church–even when under persecution. The creation of a parallel church, where there already was one, is the very Scriptural and Patristic definition of schism. One cannot help but think of the origin of the Oriental Orthodox Church as inauspicious to say the least.

Conclusion. As the preceding shows, the majority of the Miaphysite movement’s origins would violate their own ecclesiastical standards. This is proven by the fact they observe Canon 2 of Constantinople I as being in force and the chief of their saints, Severus, interpreting this very canon in such a sense which would classify the work of later Miaphysite saints as schismatics. Additionally, at least with the Coptic Church, it appears their whole hierarchy was entirely constituted in this extra-canonical fashion. While the Miaphysite schism from Orthodox Catholicism is less of an open and shut case as it is with the Roman Catholic schism, it is a topic with more research will likely reveal similar activities and contraventions of canons typical of any historical schism.