Early History of the Maronites

By Dr Margaret Ghosn

 Lebanon is a small Middle Eastern country which boasts an extensive history and extraordinary landscape. With the Mediterranean Sea lapping its coastline, its inland consists of rugged, snow capped mountains, waterfalls amid lush vegetation, endless olive fields, deep valleys and the enduring cedars. This naturally beautiful country, today the place of political unrest, has been the fertile soil for many religions, one of them the Maronite Catholic Church.

Christianity in Lebanon began with Christ who addressed the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon in South Lebanon:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (Mt 15:21-28)

In fact it was the call of the Syro-Phoenician woman that marked in Matthew’s Gospel the beginning of a change in the scope of Jesus’ ministry.

Following on from Jesus, Paul the Apostle visited Tyre around 58 CE and stayed with the disciples:

We came in sight of Cyprus; and leaving it on our left, we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home. (Acts 21:3-6)

As Harb notes, significant events in the history of Lebanon’s Christians included the building of the first Christian cathedral and the participation of the Bishops of Lebanon in the early Church Councils that laid the foundation of Christianity. Yet the faith was still to reach to the heartland of Lebanon, the mountains and deep valleys. This was the undertaking of the followers of Saint Maroun.[1] 

Saint Maroun led a monastic life in the latter part of the fourth century in the Cyrrhus region of Syria Secunda. His hermetical way of living attracted disciples who formed the nucleus of the Maronites. These disciples consecrated themselves to worship and austerity, in a life of seclusion and silence.  

The Maronite movement reached Lebanon when St Maroun's first disciple Abraham of Cyrrhus who was called the Apostle of Lebanon, realised that paganism was thriving in Lebanon, so he set out to convert the pagans to Christians by introducing them to the way of St Maroun 

In 451 CE the Fourth Ecumenical Council was convened at Chalcedon and professed the dual nature of Christ’s divinity and humanity. This led to a schism in the Church with the Pope in Rome as Head of the WesternChurch, the Patriarch of Constantinople and Byzantine Romans, Melkites, Orthodox and Maronites, following the Diocese of Antioch. Those who opposed the Chalcedon theological stance included the Monophysites or Jacobites, Copts, Abbyssinians, Syriac Orthodox and Armenian Gregorians. The divisions still exist today.

Since the fourth century, the hermitic life has been an uninterrupted chain in the Maronite Rite and hermits have always been held in great esteem. In the eighth century, more than 300 hermitic cells were to be found around the Monastery of Saint Maroun in Syria. For centuries, this kind of life was evident among the Maronites who desired silence and solitude. By the fifth century the Maronites, with the Arab invasions, left Syria to seek refuge in the mountains of North Lebanon.[2] Many retreated to caves and hermitages, particularly in the Qadisha Valley, where its natural serenity and ruggedness, offered the hermits and recluses an ideal setting for contemplation, asceticism and prayer.[3] Here the community flourished with more Maronites in the seventh and eighth centuries moving to this location of safety. The Maronite people led a daily eremitical life in work, prayer, obedience and devotion to spiritual authorities. They became known as monastic people as it was around the monasteries that the Maronite community continually re-formed.[4] In the Quadisha valley today, there are over two hundred hermit cells excavated in the rock of the mountains. The monastery there was for centuries the Patriarchal Residence of Qannoubin and it is there that numerous bishops and Patriarchs, especially in the 15 to the 17 centuries, came from.

As a result of the Arab conquest of Antioch in 638, no Chalcedonian Patriarch resided in the city, having moved to Constantinople. Pope Martin appointed an Apostolic delegate to monitor the religious affairs. For forty years, from 702 to 704, Antioch was without a Catholic Patriarch. Under these circumstances the Maronites proceeded with the election of their first Patriarch John Maroun, who was consecrated by the Papal Legate and later in Rome confirmed by the Pope, as the first Maronite Patriarch and 63rd Patriarch of Antioch. The Maronites filled an ecclesial vacuum created by Melkite Patriarchs.[5]

While the spiritual and monastic roots of the MaroniteChurch go back to Maroun in the fourth century, the ecclesiastical organization of the Maronite Patriarchate of Antioch dates to the eighth century. From this time the Maronites became a self-governing (sui iuris) Church of the Antiochene Tradition. The Maronite Patriarchs took the name ‘Peter’ demonstrating the continuous link to the faith of Peter the Apostle, who resided for a time in Antioch.

 Antioch, in north western Syria, was an important political and cultural centre after Rome and Alexandria, in the Roman Empire. It was significant in the development of early Christian expansion. Paul writes about his travels to Antioch, Peter evangelized there, and it is where the followers were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26). Antioch also became an influential centre of Christianity, where a famous theological school was established. It eventually became the centre of an important Eastern Church Tradition, the Antiochene Tradition, which includes the three West Syriac Churches including the MaroniteChurch. It later became the seat of the Maronite Patriarchate. Antioch produced famous figures including Ignatius and John Chrysostom.[6]

 The full name of the MaroniteChurch is the ‘AntiochianSyrianMaroniteChurch.’ The Maronite Synod (2003-2006) distinguished aspects of the Maronite Catholic Church.

…she is firstly, an Antiochene Syriac Church, with a special liturgical heritage; secondly, a Chalcedonian Church; thirdly, a Patriarchal Church with an ascetic and a monastic aspect; fourthly, a Church in full union with the Apostolic Roman See; fifthly, a Church incarnated in her Lebanese and Eastern environment, and the Countries of Expansion.[7]

The Maronite Catholic Church has a Syriac tradition which is the closest continuous Christian representative of the cultural background of the Bible and it belongs to the same historical and geographical milieu as did Jesus Christ. Maronites believe that their isolation in Mount Lebanon contributed to their independent character as a Church and as a society, and their identity is consequently identified strongly with the identity of Lebanon.[8]

 [1] Antoine Harb, The Maronites and History Constants (Centre Libanis D’Information, 1985), 24, 26, 34.

[2] Seely J. Beggiani, Early Syriac Theology. With special reference to the Maronite Tradition (Lanham: University Press of America, 1983), xiv.

[3] Paul Sfeir and Guitta Hourani, ‘The Maronite Hermits: From The Fourth To The Twentieth Century,’ Journal of Maronite Studies 3 (1999).

[4] Guita G. Hourani and Antoine B. Habchi, ‘The Maronite eremitical tradition: a contemporary revival,’ Heythorp Journal 45(2004): 452, 455.

[5] Wadih Peter Tayah, The Maronites, (Florida: Bet Moroon, 1987), 49-50.

[6] Anthony J. Salim, Captivated by your teachings. A resource book for adult Maronite Catholics (Arizona: E. T. Nedder Publishing, 2002), 389.

[7] Maronite Patriarchal Synod, ‘Identity, Vocation and Mission of the MaroniteChurch,’ Text 2, 2006: paragraph 5.

[8] Ken Parry, David J Melling, Dimitri Brady, Sidney H Griffith and John F Healey, editors, The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity (UK: Blackwell Publications, 1999), 305.

[9] https://www.olol.org.au/the-maronite-tradition/early-history-of-the-maronites