The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East: A History of Their Encounter with Western Christian Missions, Archaeologists, and Colonial Powers

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BRILL, 2000 - Religion - 291 pages
This is a revised edition of the author's "The Nestorians and Their Muslim Neighbors" (Princeton University Press, 1961). Early in the nineteenth century, the Aramaic-speaking "Nestorian" Christians received special attention when American Protestant missions decided to educate and reform them to help meet the challenge that Islam presented to the growing missionary movements. When archaeologist Layard further publicized the historic minority as "Assyrians," the name acquired a new connotation when other forces at work in the region - religious, nationalistic, imperialistic - entangled these modern Assyrians in vagaries and manipulations in which they were outnumbered and outclassed. The study examines Western Christendom's current position on Islam, with emphasis on the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. The revision draws on a wide variety of sources not used in the original.

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The contents of this book appeared first in 1961 under a different title - The Nestorians and their Muslim neighbors : a study of western influence on their relations. It was well-researched but highly partisan, mainly focused against both the American missionaries who introduced modern education among Assyrians and against the Assyrians who took advantage of these services to modernize themselves.
This was a period of rising nationalisms and this author blames the Assyrians for transitioning toward national consciousness. There is a distinct inability of the author, though a professor of Middle Eastern studies, to contextualize the political and cultural development of his own people. In many respects this author has fueled the exclusion of Assyrians from acceptance in Iraq itself, and made them the targets of Islamic extremists by making Assyrians appear to be the tools of Western missionaries and diplomats.
The book made this author well known as a specialist on the Syriac-based churches to which Assyrians belonged initially.
He followed that book with another one on another branch of a church in that same community.
But the most controversial part of this book, and the part that has received most attention due to its various assertions, has been the first chapter on identity. In this section the author has tapped into selective passages from early and late antiquity sources to persuade the academic community that Assyrians do not exist.
In scholarly fora where he has been offered a chance to debate this issue, he has used his position as an established scholar to bait his co-ethnics and deride them. This behavior has made him a pariah in his own community but a darling of those who also would prefer to see Assyrians drop their claims of being an ethnic group and instead become Arabs, Turks, Iranians. By extension, he blames the victims of genocide for causing the genocide (of WWI).
It is quite surprising to see this book reissued, with negligible new materials, under a title that perhaps hoped to attract Assyrian customers. He does not explain why the change was necessary but instead continues to uphold the use of Nestorian historically and claims that it became pejorative only with the intrusion (information provided) by the West. This is patently untrue though it has been the case that members of the Church of the East have succumbed to the ease of using a term widely used in the West but redolent of the anathema under which the Church of the East still suffers among other churches, especially the Coptic and Armenian churches. In fact the Church of the East has been excluded from the Middle East Council of Churches precisely because of the pejorative and anathemizing efforts of neighboring churches.
Tellingly, the author has ignored considerable information that has emerged from ancient historians of the Near East that does not support his contention that Syriac churches should be Aramaean. His assumption is that all persons who in history were identified as Assyrian have disappeared. He does not explain why they disappeared and this assertion is widely disputed by ancient historians.
The biggest surprise however is why a reputable press accepted for publication a book under a very different title, when the content has hardly been updated.



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About the author (2000)

John Joseph, Ph.D. (1957) in Middle Eastern History, Princeton University, is Lewis Audenreid Professor of History, emeritus, at Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His published works have been mainly on Christians of the Syriac tradition.

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