‘THE MARONITES IN HISTORY’ by Matti Moosa – A Book Review

The Maronites in History

by Matti Moosa


The Maronites in History


I bought this very expensive book because I have always been interested in the Maronite religion of my Lebanese Grandparents, Jacob and Eva Coory. They were born and raised in the small village of Bcharre where the Maronite religion appears to have gained a strong footing around the 6th Century. There are very few books written about Lebanon’s  Maronites but I believe I have found a well written and well researched one in Moosa’s original Syracuse University Press publication The Maronites in History. Various essays on this subject can be found on many websites, but I found them to be emotive and with little basis in fact. Certainly no source documents were quoted, and most were based on hearsay passed down through generations. Still more were so badly written, it was difficult to follow the writer’s line of thought.

Matti Moosa opens the Preface of his book The Maronites in History with a question: Who are the Maronites and what is their importance to the existence of the Lebanese Republic?  This is a very good question, because so much folklore has been added to fact that it’s very difficult to know for certain. However, the author has embarked on a marathon investigation after being awarded a scholarship. He has extensively studied source documents housed in the Vatican Library as well as written testimonies from writers who lived in Lebanon from the 5th Century onwards.

The author states: In essence this book is a study and analysis of the origin of the Maronites , indeed of their whole historical heritage, an examination based on ancient and modern sources written in many languages, many of which are still in manuscript form.

Moosa goes on to explain in the preface: This book attempts to place the history of the Maronites in historical perspective. Maronites today suffer from a serious identity problem. They haven’t been able to decide whether or not they are descendants of an ancient people called the Marada  (Mardaites) or Arabs or of Syriac-Aramaic stock. Unless the Maronites solve this identity problem their conflicts with other minority religious groups in Lebanon will never be remedied. 

 Essentially, historical documents show that the Maronites originally professed the faith of Monophysitism, and later through edicts and threats of death or exile by various religious and state rulers, changed their beliefs to Monothelitism, both considered heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. Monothelitism though, is close to Catholic doctrine, so it appears the Church in Rome turned a blind eye to this heresy by Maronites for various strategic reasons which Moosa discusses at length in The Maronites. [My emphasis]

There are even disputes among Maronites and scholars over the origin of the name Maronite. The Maronite’s beloved monk St Marun and a later patriarch John Marun, have question marks over their actual existence. There is nothing in available ancient sources to indicate the name and location of the place where the ascetic Marun lived. However, the author concedes, one might be tempted, upon reading Theodoret of Cyrus, to conclude that a certain Marun lived in the vicinity of Cyrus in what was then known as Syria Prima, many miles to the north-east of Antioch. The failure to positively identify this place has caused much speculation by Maronites  as to its whereabouts. The Maronite Bishop Pierre Dib states that Marun lived on top of a mountain near Apamea  in Syria Secunda, an area far distant from Cyrus. Others claim that Marun lived in a cave near the source of the river Orontes (al-Asi) close to the Hirmil in Lebanon; they cite as evidence the name of the cave known until this day as the cave of Marun.  Other Bishops and writers state with the same certainty various other places in which the cave of Marun may have been situated.  Maronites and others cannot even agree on where or when a monastery of Marun was built but we may conclude that in Syria toward the end of the 6th or early 7th Century there existed more than one monastery bearing the name of Marun. One of them was located in or near Hama and Shayzar. It gained some notoriety in the early 7th Century when it adopted Monothelitism. The abbot of this monastery was named Yuhanna (John) and he became a Monothelite with many followers in Syria leading to the slow spread of Monothelitism into Lebanon. Those who followed him were called Maronites. Whether this monastery had any connection with the fifth century ascetic Marun is doubtful.




Efforts to date the Monastery of Marun from the 5th Century are sheer speculation. However, we have three documents which refer to a Monastery of Marun in Syria Secunda and all three documents attest that the monastery of Marun related to the doctrine of Monothelitism.

Commemorated on July 31st each year by the Maronite Church is the mythical massacre of 350 monks, ‘martyrs and disciples’ of the ascetic Marun. They were believed to have been slaughtered but this atrocity lacks strong historical substantiation. In fact there is no evidence that these were monks from the monastery of Marun.  Indeed, there is no mention of this in any pope’s correspondence of the times, nor is it mentioned in any Vatican or Church official documents.

There is no evidence that the Maronite Church ever commemorated these ‘martyrs’ before the year 1744. Even the Maronite Council assembled in Lebanon in 1736, which among other matters instituted the festivals and commemoration days for Maronite saints, did not list a commemoration day for these ‘martyrs’.

It is the author’s judgment following extensive research that the Maronites were and are closely linked to Syrian Orthodoxy. Probably for largely political reasons and the Roman Catholic Church’s need to gain a foothold in the Middle East, it overlooked the Maronite’s heretical interpretation of the Council of Chalcedon’s strict canons. [My emphasis]

In the Vatican’s push to gain a foothold in the Middle East, it allowed the Maronites to maintain their traditional patriarchs as head of their Church in Lebanon as they had done since the middle of the 8th Century. But in reality Rome considered them less than a Catholic bishop in status. It appears that only in the 8th Century did ancient church writers refer to the Maronites as a distinct Christian sect. [My emphasis]

Fortified for many generations in their mountain of Lebanon, the Maronites could claim more independence in their ecclesiastical affairs and therefore were and still are in a much more favourable position to revive their Syriac tradition and language. But instead of encouraging the Maronites to retain and cherish their Syriac heritage and revive the Syriac language  in order to become once more the lingua franca of the Maronite people the Latin missionaries (sent by Rome) discouraged the use of this language and denigrated the Syriac heritage and added more woe to the state of the already Arabised Maronites by Latinisng their Church and eventually their prayer books. The Maronites thus almost completely lost their Syriac identity. Since the 16th Century instead of taking pride in their Syriac legacy, the Maronites,in their desperation to find a legitimate origin of their Church and people have claimed that they were the descendants of  Marada (Mardaites) which is historically groundless.

Like the Nestorians the Rum (Byzantine) Orthodox, and the Syrian Orthodox People, the Maronites are of Syriac-Aramaic origin. The Lebanese Council of 1736 emphasised the use of the Syriac language first and Arabic second in the Maronite Church services. But this emphasis was not intended nor did it contribute to the revival of the Syriac language as the national symbol of the Church. Perhaps if the Lebanese Council’s recommendations had been followed, Lebanon may not be suffering the loss of identity it’s suffering from today. The least one can say for certainty is that the names of the villages and towns of Lebanon, especially Bcharre and three neighbouring villages, used the Syriac-Aramaic language as their lingua franca.

At the end of the 16th Century Maronite Patriarchs have often interfered in Lebanon’s political affairs in the belief that they were more than just the head of their Church. This has often exacerbated sectarian rivalries.

Many Maronites maintain vigorously that they have always adhered to the faith of Chalcedon and that their Church has never deviated therefrom; they were always united with the Church of Rome.

Moosa’s  research uncovers documents that clearly refute this argument. It indicates that until the 16th century the Maronites did not separate clearly and decisively from the mother Syrian Orthodox church in its beliefs, rituals and traditions. In fact, according to the calendar of festivals of the Maronite Church, whether in manuscript form or published in Rome since the 16th Century, it shares certain commemorative dates with the Syrian Orthodox Church.

Monophysitism: One incarnate nature of the divine logos – a doctrine which the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch has maintained to the present day and which ancient Maronite Syriac-Aramaic ritual and prayer books prove was also the doctrine held by the early Maronites.

Monthelitism: The Incarnation of two natures of Christ, the divine and the human, were united in one will and one energy – Until the late 16th Century Maronite ritual books contained this doctrine, at which time they were ‘purged’ by missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church to restore the Maronites to its fold. 

Catholicism (Chalcedonian): The Incarnation of the two natures of  Christ, the divine and the human, were united in one person yet  remained distinct after the union

Orthodox liturgies, prayer books and prayers themselves also caused friction between the Church of Rome and the Syrian Orthodox Church, which Moosa writes about in detail.

 Moosa sums up:

Several conclusions may be deduced from the foregoing opinions and speculations. The evidence addressed by Maronites and those who support their claims that there existed in the 5th Century in Syria Secunda a Monastery of Marun whose monks were Chalcedonians [followers of Catholicism] is untenable. Maronites (and others) cannot even agree who built the monastery of Marun or its exact location. Most of the evidence they do produce has no historical foundation. Historical fact does indicate , however, that there were several monasteries named Marun in Syria, but not that they were named after the particular ascetic Marun. More important, available evidence does not support that there was a Maronite community in Syria before the 7th or even 8th Century. While historical evidence does support the thesis that the pious anchorite named Marun lived, died, and was buried in the district of Cyrus in northern Syria, there is nothing to indicate that this Marun ever founded a religious community or inspired the name Maronite. Further, there is no evidence that he or his followers ever built a monastery in his name. Those Maronites who describe their ascetic Marun as ‘the Father of the Maronite Nation’ do so from the totally sentimental predisposition rather than assert it as a claim derived from objective fact.

Doctrines found in ancient books reveal that Maronites were of the Syrian Orthodox faith who believed in the Monophysite doctrine before they became a distinct community:

From the time of the Council of the Chalcedon in 451 to the first half of the 7th Century the first Maronites –the monks of the Monastery of Marun – became Monothelites by imposition of Emperor Heraclius. The statement is clear and positive on the point that these Maronite monks had been Monophysites (Syrian Orthodox), and though the heated controversy over the mode of the union of the two natures of Christ was finally thought to have been resolved by the Council of Chalcedon, the monks of the Monastery of Marun were recalcitrant in accepting the Council’s transactions. This recalcitrance was exhibited in anger and defiance on the part of these Monophysite monks who, like the majority of the Church in Syria, renounced the Council of Chalcedon and the definition of the faith. They remained Monophysites until the beginning of the 7th Century when they became Monothelites under the Chalcedonian formula of faith imposed on them by Emperor Heraclius in the interests of religious harmony. Though appearing to accept this faith through coercion the monks remained faithful to their Monophysite faith, which they kept intact in their ritual books. Subsequently the new creed of Monothelitism did not separate them drastically from the bulk of the Syrian Orthodox Monophysites. The point of separation was their apparent acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon under imposition of imperial power. It is through this acceptance of Chalcedon and of Monothelitism  as a doctrine that they became a distinct religious group in the middle of the 8th Century and not before.

This is a mammoth scholarly work by Matti Moosa with full bibliography and notes.

Arab, Byzantine, Ottoman and French states all played their part in the formation and divisions of Lebanon as we know it today. You will have to read this impressive work to fully comprehend 21st Century Lebanon. I can assure you, it is riveting reading. Moosa separates Maronite historical fact from fiction in a format and style that is very easy to read and follow, even allowing for the few minor grammatical and typographical errors.

© To Anne Frandi-Coory All Rights Reserved 24 April 2015

Please visit Anne Frandi-Coory’s Facebook Page here:



  1. cav12 said:

    How fascinating Anne. I’ve heard about the Maronites from your heart-rending autobiography Whatever happened to Ishtar? and now you’ve whetted my interest to learn more!
    My TBR list is growing faster than my free time!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anne said:

    Thank you Luciana…it is a very interesting book with so much information about the Middle East from the 3rd Century and the battles there between Roman Catholics and other Christians over minor doctrinal differences!


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