The purpose of this brief article is to review several authoritative sources of the Byzantine centuries (330-1453) that bear on the origins, development, jurisdictional responsibilities, and authority of today's Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Christian Church.

The Patriarchate's origin can be traced back to the fourth century of our era, even though the establishment of the Christian Church in the region where the patriarchate originated belongs to the apostolic age, to a time when Byzantion was a small Greek city-state. By the fourth century Byzantion had become Constantinople, the 'prokathemene ' in the words of Gregory the Theologian, Patriarch of Constantinople, the first among the cities in the Greek-speaking half of the Roman Empire. Pagan Byzantion was metamorphosed into Christian Constantinople. When Constantine moved his court and capital to the East of the Roman Empire, he came into lands where language, literature, culture, thought were all Greek, some from as early as the eighth century before Christ. There was no plan to transform the Hellenistic part of the Roman Empire into a Latin state. Constantine's world was both old but also very new; old because it was a continuation of the Hellenistic world as it had evolved after the death of Alexander the Great, and new because it was reorganized and adopted a new religion. The fourth century was a century of continuity but also a century of metamorphosis.

The fourth Ecumenical Synod, which brought together 630 representatives of the Christian Church, is one of the most important events in the history of Christendom. It was held in 451 in the city of Chalcedon, across from Constantinople. Among other most important doctrinal and canonical decisions, the twenty-eighth of its canons (rules) is of absolute significance because it determined the future and significance of the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate of Constantinople and "New Rome." First, it stated that the Fathers of the second Ecumenical Council, held in 381 in Constantinople, rightly gave equal privileges (isa presbeia) to the most holy throne of New Rome [Constantinople] as it had granted to the throne of old Rome, the old capital of the Empire. Secondly, judging that Constantinople is now the new capital, the Council of Chalcedon decreed that the ecclesiastical throne of Constantinople should "enjoy equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is so that, in the Pontic, the Asian, and the Thracian dioceses, the metropolitans only and such bishops also of the Dioceses aforesaid as are among the barbarians, should be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople..."

The text is very clear and allows no ambiguities. The twenty-eighth canon of Chalcedon gave the bishop of Constantinople a large jurisdiction and vast authority. This canon was renewed by the thirty-sixth canon of the sixth ecumenical council of 692 (second phase of the council, known also as the council in Trullo) and in terms of honor it confirmed the equality between the bishops of Rome and Constantinople. It is on this background that the Patriarch of Constantinople developed his ecumenical authority in the Christian East as the Pope of Rome had developed his own authority in the Christian West. As the Patriarch of old Rome was addressed ecumenical (oikoumenikos archiepiscopos kai Patriarches) [1] the Patriarch of New Rome began to be addressed as ecumenical (oikoumenikos patriarches).

It was soon after the council of Chalcedon that Patriarch Akakios (471-489) was first called oikoumenikos. A few years later, in a council held in Constantinople in 518, Patriarch Ioannis the Cappadocian (518-520) was addressed as oikoumenikos patriarches[2] Soon after, Patriarch Menas (536-552), too, was designated as oikoumenikos. Justinian's new legislation (the nearai-novels), too, speak of the Patriarch of Constantinople as ecumenical. By the end of the sixth century the rank of Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and new Rome, with jurisdiction over dioceses as described by canon twenty-eighth of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod, was well established. It was used by Patriarch Ioannis the Nesteutes (Faster) (582-595). The authority and privileges of the Ecumenical Patriarchate had been accepted to the extent that by the ninth century the title "Ecumenical" had entered the state's and the church's official protocol. And it was not simply a honorific title.

Episcopal lists known as Notitiae Episcopatuum[3] but also patriarchical documents reveal that not only dioceses in Asia Minor and the Illyricum, but also of Southern Italy, Sicily and dioceses among developing nations [the barbarians] were under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Even dioceses in the eastern regions under Muslim rule continued to be under the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

On the basis of canons and their application in the life of the Church, tradition and praxis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate from the fourth century to the twelfth, Ioannis Zonaras, theologian, canonist and historian (d. 1159) Theodoros Balsamon (d. after 1195), a leading canonist and Patriarch of Antioch (1185-1190), and Alexios Aristenos (d. after 1166) a canonist and megas oikonomos of the Church in Constantinople, upheld the authority, the rights and privileges given to the Ecumenical Patriarchate by the canons of the second, fourth, and sixth ecumenical synods.[4]

While the second Ecumenical Council through its third canon accorded a priority of honor to the Patriarch of Constantinople, now, the fourth Ecumenical Synod, bestowed upon the Patriarch of Constantinople priority of authority. The question has been raised concerning the meaning of the canon which refers to "the barbarians," that the bishops and metropolitans among them should be ordained by the Church of Constantinople. Who are the barbarians? Are they foreign tribes settled within the boundaries of the Empire; natives such as the Phrygians, who were less Hellenized and had killed four of their bishops because they had been appointed by Constantinople [5]; non-Greek speaking minorities in the Empire, such as Armenians; or tribes and nations living outside the Empire's borders?

In the history of ancient and medieval Hellenism, barbarian (barbaros) meant a person who did not speak Greek. Thus even civilized people, such as the Persians and the Latins, were called barbarians. In the language of Church Fathers and Church Councils, too, barbarian meant "non-Greek speaker," "foreigner", anyone who spoke an unintelligent language. "Barbarismos" meant the use of a foreign language. The term "barbarians" in the canon under analysis refers to tribes and nations outside the boundaries of the Empire. Byzantine commentators, who commend on the subject, were closer to the events they describe, and spoke from personal experiences as members of the church which was active in its relationships with the outside world. All three canonists cited above agree that the ecumenical Patriarch's authority to ordain metropolitans is extended not only to ecclesiastical provinces within the Empire but also outside of it. In speaking of episcopal jurisdictions in lands of the "barbarians," the canon includes the "Alans, the Russians, and others."

The ecumenical authority and privileges of the Church of Constantinople were taken for granted in the later centuries of the Byzantine Empire and during the centuries under Ottoman Turkish rule. In a letter to Demetrios, the grand duke of Russia issued in 1370, the ecumenical Patriarch Philotheos (1354-1355; 1364-1376) emphasized that he was "a common father, who received his authority from God on high, to look after the welfare of Christians wherever they may be found on earth" (koinos pater anothen apo theou katastas eis tous apantahou tes ges euriskomenous Christianous).[6] The metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia was appointed by the Ecumenical patriarch.[7] Elsewhere, with a sense that the Ecumenical Patriarch had jurisdiction over Orthodox Christians beyond Constantinople, Philotheos issued a Pittakion (Patriarchal Document) addressed to the Metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia and expressed his pastoral concerns "as an ecumenical shepherd and teacher of all ordained by God."[8] Philotheos was fully conscious of his ecumenical responsibilities and the role that Constantinople had played in the conversion of Slavic tribes and Russians. In a letter addressed to reges (princes) of all Russia, Patriarch Philotheos appeals to them to receive the metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia the proper honor, respect and obedience as genuine sons of the Church. The metropolitan was ordained by the ecumenical patriarch who was "the leader of all Christians found anywhere on the inhabited earth (oikoumne) as guardian and protector of their souls. All of them depend on me, the father and teacher of them all."[9] If the ecumenical character and authority of the ecumenical Patriarch was not recognized by the princes and churchmen of Russia, Patriarch Philotheos would have been rejected outright. Instead we continue to see that the Patriarchate enjoyed its ecumenical ministry.

Several years after Philotheos, patriarch Antonios IV (1389-1393) in a letter to Prince Basil of Moscow stressed his ecumenical privileges and ecumenical authority by reminding the prince that he was occupying the throne of Christ and that he was acting on Christ's behalf. The Patriarch adds that he is a teacher of all Christians [Katholikos eimi didaskalos panton ton Christianon ].[10]

In another letter addressed to the people, clergy, lay leaders, and the bishop of Novgorod, Patriarch Antonios reiterated that he wrote his synodic letter because of the duty he had toward all Christians, wherever on earth they may live [ton apantahou tes oikoumenes Christianon]. He writes as father and spiritual master, who received from God his authority over all Christians of the inhabited earth [os pater kai despotes pneumatikos para theou katastas ton apantahou tes oikoumenes Christianon].[11] It was in full agreement with canon law and ecclesiastical practice that the ecumenical patriarch Jeremias II (1572-1579, 1580-1584, 1586-1595) visited Russia and in 1589, he consecrated Job, the metropolitan of Moscow, as the first patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.[12] This, of course was nothing new. For several centuries all the metropolitans of Kiev, the first capital of the Rus, were canonically dependent on the patriarchate of Constantinople.

From as early as the sixth century when the title ecumenical was adopted by church and state law, the authority and the ecumenical responsibilities of the Patriarch of Constantinople had been accepted by both ecclesiastical and secular authorities.

Imperial legislation, guaranteed and exalted the unique position of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Emperor Justinian (527-565) issued special legislation which emphasized the equality between Church canons and state laws [Thespizomen toinyn, taxin nomon epechein tous hagious ekklesiastikous kanonas, tous ypo ton hagion synodon ektethentas e vevaiothentas . . . ][13] Justinian's legislation was upheld by the legislation of Emperor Leo VI (886-912) and achieved a permanent position in Byzantine jurisprudence of later centuries. Notwithstanding some of the early reservations of certain popes of Rome concerning the ecumenical title of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Gratian, the twelfth century Italian professor of canon law in Bologna, and legal consultant to a papal judge, writes: "We define that no secular power shall hereafter dishonored any one of these who rule over patriarchal sees, or attempt to move them from their proper throne, but shall judge them worthy of all reverence and honor; chiefly the Pope of Old Rome, the Patriarchs of Constantinople, and of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem."[14] The rights and special privileges of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Christian world were recognized and respected by the Ottoman Turkish sultans and rulers for many centuries, and affirmed by international conventions and courts of international Justice.

When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and all provinces of what used to be the Byzantine Empire [many outsiders such as Western Europeans, Russians, Khazarian Jews, Armenians, Georgians called the Byzantine Empire Graecia-Greece or Yavan, Yunastan, that is Ionia] fell under Ottoman Turkish rule, the Ecumenical Patriarchate became the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

From the very beginning of Ottoman Turkish occupation, the rights, priviledges and authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate were recognized. Muhammed the Conqueror said to Gennadios, the first ecumenical patriarch after the fall of Constantinople: "Be Patriarch with good fortune, and be assured of our friendship, keeping all the privileges possessed by your predecessors." The Patriarch was given the Turkish title "Rutbetlu," [Kudsiyet] which means "His Holiness." The official Ottoman Turkish policies toward the Patriarchate are primarily found in several Turkish documents issued between 1483 and 1567.[15] What is important to remember is that there was an inconsistency between what was written by the Sultans and what was practiced by his subordinates. Nevertheless the Patriarch is recognized as such, including the authority to appoint metropolitans both in the West (Rumili) and the East (Anadolu) and administer institutions and properties of the Church.[16] The Ottoman government's policy toward the Patriarchate can be checked against the Ieros Kodix (Sacred Codex) of the Patriarchate which traces its origin to the beginning of the fourteenth century.[17]

Following World War I, the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) affirmed the international status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and Turkey guaranteed respect and the Patriarchate's full protection.[18] Thus the stature of the Ecumenical Patriarch, his right to travel, to convene clergy-laity congresses and carry out his duties in accordance with Christian Orthodox doctrine and tradition, must be respected and fully supported.

In conclusion, the evidence from historical and legal sources, ecclesiastical praxis and the tradition of the Church, that support the authenticity and canonical claims of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is so overwhelming that no serious person, religious organization, or secular state would attempt to dispute. Its privileges and ecumenical responsibilities must be upheld by all. In asserting its authority the Ecumenical Patriarchate carries a legacy that history has imposed upon it, and a powerful inheritance from a time when Byzantion, Constantinople, the New Rome, the Polis-Istanbul, was the cradle of civilization for Eastern Europe and the Near East. History confirms that the Ecumenical Patriarchate must be respected and supported to carry on its spiritual and humanitarian mission.


* D. J. Constantelos is Charles Cooper Townsend Sr. Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Religion, and Distinguished Research Scholar in Residence at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He is the author of several books and many studies on Byzantine history and civilization.

[1] J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, 31 vols. (Florence and Venice 1759-1798), 6:1005, 1012

[2] Mansi, ibid., 8:1038.

[3] J. Darrouzes, Notitiae Episcopatuum Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae. Paris 1981. Hans Georg Beck, Kirche und Theologische Literatur im Byzantinischen Reich. München 1959. pp.32-35.

[4] See G. A. Ralles and M. Potles, Syntagma ton Theion kai Ieron Kanonon, 6 vols (Athens 1852), 2:282-286.

[5] Loannis Malalas,, Chronographia, Logos XIV, ed. L. Dindorf (Bonn 1831), pp. 361-362; D J Constantelos, "Kyros Panopolites, Rebuilder of Constantinople," Greek.Roman. and Byzantine Studies vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 454-455

[6] Franciscus Miklosich et Josephus Müller, Acta et Diplomata Graeca Medii Aevi, 6 vols (Vindobonae 1840), 1:516.

[7] Ibid, p. 517.

[8] Ibid., 582.

[9] Ibid., 5:520-521.

[10] Ibid., 2:189.

[11] Ibid., 2:181,182.

[12] See John Meyendorff, The Orthodox Church (London 1962), pp. 102-109.

[13] Justinian, Novellai, no. 6

[14] Decretum, part 1, Dist. xxii, c. vig. cited by Henry R. Percival, editor, The Seven Ecumenical Council of the Undivided Church (Grand Rapids, 1956), p. 288.

[15] Elizabeth A. Zachariadou, Ten Turkish Documents concerning the Great Church, the original Turkish documents with a Greek translation (Athens 1996), pp. 91-97.

[16] ibid., see the firman of Bayezit II, the son of Mehmet, issued in 1483, pp. 157-159 and the firman of Suleiman the Magnificent, issued in 1525, who stressed that no one shoul ddefy the authority of the patriarch.

[17] See Demetris G. Apostolopoulos, O "Ieros Kodix" tou Patriarchiou (Athens 1996), pp. 91-97.

[18] For more see Basil S. Giannakakis, International Status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Cambridge, MA 1959), especially ch. 2, pp. 4-12; Steven Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1968), pp. 168-169.