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Aphrahat the Persian Sage.
1. Name of Author of Demonstrations long Unknown.—The author of the Demonstrations, eight of which appear (for the first time in an English version) in the present volume, has a singular literary history. By nationality a Persian, in an age when Zoroastrianism was the religion of Persia, he wrote in Syriac as a Christian theologian. His writings, now known to us as the works of Aphrahat, were remembered, cited, translated, and transcribed for at least two centuries after his death; but his proper name seems to have been for a time forgotten, so that in the mss. of the fifth and sixth centuries the Demonstrations are described as composed by “the Persian Sage,” or “Mar Jacob the Persian Sage;” and a writer of the eighth century, who had made a minute study of these writings and ascertained their date, admits that he has been unable to find out “who or what he was, his rank in the Church, his name or abode.” Not only so, but the name Jacob assigned (rightly or wrongly) to him has led to a 153confusion of identity. His works have been ascribed for many hundred years—from a date not long after their composition down to quite recent times, to an earlier Jacob, the famous and saintly Bishop of Nisibis in the days of Constantine the Great. It is not until the tenth century that the true name of “the Persian Sage” emerges to light as Aphrahat, by which he is unhesitatingly designated by several well informed and accurate authorities of that and the three succeeding centuries., and under which he is known to modern scholars.
2. Their Subjects, and Arrangement.—The Demonstrations are twenty-two in number, after the number of the letters of the Syriac alphabet, each of them beginning with the letter to which it corresponds in order. The first ten form a group by themselves, and are somewhat earlier in date than those which follow: they deal with Christian graces, hopes, and duties, as appears from their titles:—“Concerning Faith, Charity, Fasting, Prayer, Wars, Monks, Penitents, the Resurrection, Humility, Pastors.” Of those that compose the later group, three relate to the Jews (“Concerning Circumcision, the Passover, the Sabbath”); followed by one described as “Hortatory,” which seems to be a letter of rebuke addressed by Aphrahat, on behalf of a Synod of Bishops, to the clergy and people of Seleucia and Ctesiphon; after which the Jewish series is resumed in five discourses, “Concerning Divers Meals, The Call of the Gentiles, Jesus the Messiah, Virginity, the Dispersion of Israel.” The three last are of the same general character as the first ten,—“Concerning Almsgiving, Persecution, Death, and the Latter Times.” To this collection is subjoined a twenty-third Demonstration, supplementary to the rest, “Concerning the Grape,” under which title is signified the blessing transmitted from the beginning through Christ, in allusion to the words of Isaiah, “As the grape320320 So in Peshitto; “unripe grape,” in LXX.; “new wine,” in A.V. and R.V., with the Hebrew; but the Latin Vulgate agrees with Peshitto. is found in the cluster and one saith, Destroy it not” (lxv. 8). This treatise embodies a chronological disquisition of some importance.
3. Dates of Composition.—Of the dates at which they were written, these discourses supply conclusive evidence. At the end of section 5 of Demonstr. V. (Concerning Wars), the author reckons the years from the era of Alexander (b.c. 311) to the time of his writing as 648. He wrote therefore in a.d. 337—the year of the death of Constantine the Great. Demonst. XIV. is formally dated in its last section, “in the month Shebat. in the year 655” (that is, a.d. 344). More fully, in closing the alphabetic series (XXII. 25) he informs us that the above dates apply to the two groups—the first ten being written in 337; the twelve that follow, in 344. Finally, the supplementary discourse “Concerning the Grape” was written (as stated, XXIII. 69) in July, 345. Thus the entire work was completed within nine years,—five years before the middle of the fourth century,—before the composition of the earliest work of Ephraim of which the date can be determined with certainty.
4. Extent and Limits of their Circulation.—These Demonstrations, though they fell far short of attaining the unbounded popularity which was the lot of the countless Hymns and Homilies of Ephraim, appear to have won for themselves a recognized place in Syriac literature. It is true that, in striking contrast with the overwhelming numbers of mss. containing portions, great or small, of Ephraim’s works, which are to be met with in nearly every collection of Syriac written remains, one complete and two incomplete copies are all that have reached us of this series of twenty-three treatises; and extracts or quotations from them very rarely occur.321321 In Rosen-Forshall’s and Wright’s Catalogues of Syriac mss., British Museum, while but few mss. (Add. 14619, Add. 17182, Orient. 1017. Rich. 7197) contain any portion of Aphrahat, the list of mss. of Ephraim’s works and fragments nearly fills three columns. Yet it is clear that com154positions which were thought worthy at an early date of translation into at least one foreign tongue, must have had some considerable reputation in the country of their origin; and it may be presumed that these two or three mss. (of the fifth and sixth centuries), are the survivors of a fairly large number of which the majority have perished.
The Armenian translation is probably the earliest evidence now extant of the circulation (though under a wrong ascription of authorship) of the Demonstrations, of which it comprises nineteen. Armenian scholars seem to agree in the belief that it was made in the fifth century, before its original was more than a hundred years in being. An Ethiopic translation of the discourse “On Wars” is extant, but there is no evidence that it formed part of a version extending to all or any of the remaining twenty-two, nor is its date even approximately determinable.
The manuscript evidence hardly reaches so far back as that of the Armenian version. The oldest extant ms. of these discourses (Add. 17182 of the British Museum) contains the first ten, and is dated 474. With it is bound up (under the same number) a second, dated 512, containing the remaining thirteen. A third (Add. 14619) of the sixth century likewise, exhibits the whole series. A fourth (Orient, 1017), more recent by eight centuries, will be mentioned farther on. Of the three early mss., the first designates the author as “the Persian Sage” merely, as does also the third: the second prefixes his name as “Mar Jacob the Persian Sage.”
Among Syriac authors, the first to show an acquaintance with these treatises, at a date prior to that of the earliest of these mss., is Isaac of Antioch, known as “the Great,” whose literary activity belongs to the first half of the fifth century. In his works passages have been pointed out322322 Forget, De Vita e Scriptis Aphraatis (1882), pp. 139–148; also (cited by him S. Isaaci Antiocheni Opp. (ed. Bickell, 1873). which are evidently borrowed with slight change from the Demonstrations,—especially from that Concerning Fasting, and (though less distinctly) from that Concerning Faith. The imitation, however, is tacit, and Isaac nowhere names the work (or its author) whence he derived the illustrations and even the expressions he uses in treating of these topics.
Before the close of the same century, we find evidence that they were known—by repute, though apparently no farther—to a Latin writer of Western Europe, Gennadius of Marseilles, the continuator of St. Jerome’s work De Viris Illustribus, who wrote about the year 495. Though mistaken (as will presently be shown) about their parentage, and incorrectly informed as to their number (which he supposes to be twenty-six), Gennadius states their titles with such an approach to accuracy, as to leave no room for doubt that the discourses he describes are those of which we now treat. He shows himself aware that they are in Syriac, but gives no hint that he has ever seen them, or that he is able to read them.323323 The titles given by Gennadius do not number 26; some titles he omits; others he divides, treating as two what is really one, in several instances.
In the seventh century, or (however) early in the eighth, tokens appear of a revival of interest in them. Georgius, “Bishop of the Arabs,”324324 See the text in Wright’s Aphraatis, pp. 29 ff.; in Lagarde’s Analecta Syr., pp. 108 ff.; or Forget (as above) pp. 8 ff. a Jacobite prelate, having been applied to by one Joshua an anchorite for information concerning the “Epistles” (as he styles them) of “the Persian Sage” and their authorship, wrote (in Syriac) in the year 714 a very full and elaborate reply, in which he cites at length passages from several of them, including those (above referred to) in which the dates of writing are stated with precision,—and he infers from these dates, that the author, of whose name he professes himself to be ignorant, wrote too early to be a disciple of Ephraim. To 155this inference we may safely assent, even though we hold that Ephraim wrote and taught earlier in the century than Georgius endeavours to place him. The point to be noted is, that this learned and acute writer, though he had by careful study made himself familiar with the Demonstrations, neither knows, nor can guess at, the name of their author, nor can he record any tradition concerning his identity. He can only tell what he has learned from their contents, that they were written from 337 to 345, by one who was a monk, and a cleric; and that they were characterized by certain peculiarities of doctrine.
5. Ascribed to Jacob of Nisibis.—Thus it appears that the series of discourses now known as the Demonstrations of Aphrahat, were imitated, and transcribed, and translated, into Armenian, and their titles cited by a Latin biographer, and their contents minutely investigated by an able critic, within the four centuries that followed the time of their composition; while through all that long period the name of Aphrahat had passed out of memory, and the “Persian Sage” simply, or else with the addition of an ambiguous and misleading name, “Jacob, the Persian Sage,” was the designation by which their author was usually known. As we have seen, the scribes of two mss., of the fifth and sixth centuries, and Georgius in the early eighth, confine themselves to the former; and the scribe of the sixth, thirty-eight years later than the earlier of the other two, uses the latter. Misled by it, the Armenian translator, and Gennadius in his biographical work, fell into the error of identifying the Jacob who wrote the Demonstrations with a namesake, the earlier and more conspicuous Jacob of Nisibis, of whom we have had occasion to speak in treating of the life of Ephraim. But of this celebrated personage no writings are recorded, nor was he a Persian,325325 The Armenian Menologium, subjoined by Antonelli to the Armenian version, as printed by him, makes Jacob to have been sister’s son to Gregory the Illuminator, the Apostle of Armenia, to whom that version (impossibly) ascribes the letter prefixed to Demonstr. I. But this statement is probably an invention, devised in order to connect Jacob with the Armenian Church. but a native of Nisibis (in his time a city of the Roman Empire), in 338, seven years before the completion of the treatises in question. As Jacob of Nisibis is thus too early to be the author of them, so, on the other hand, Jacob of Sarug, whom Assemani suggested in correcting the mistake of Gennadius,326326 Biblioth. Orient. I., p. 5. A note in ms. Orient. 1017, suggests Jacob of Tagrit,—ignorantly, for he was of the 13th century. is too late; for he was not born till more than a century after the date of the last Demonstration.
6. Reappearance of the Name of Aphrahat.—It is not until some years after the mid-die of the tenth century, that the “Persian Sage” first appears under his proper name,—of which, though as it appears generally forgotten in the Syriac world of letters, a tradition had survived.—The Nestorian Bar-Bahlul (circ. 963) in his Syro-Arabic Lexicon, writes thus:—“Aphrahat [mentioned] in the Book of Paradise, is the Persian Sage, as they record.”—So too, in the eleventh century, Elias of Nisibis (Barsinæus, d. 1049), embodies in his Chronography, a table, compiled from Demonstr. XXIII., of the chronography from the Creation to the “Era of Alexander” (b.c. 311), which he describes as “The years of the House of Adam, according to the opinion of Aphrahat, the Persian Sage.”327327 For this extract, see Wright’s Aphraates, pp. 38, 39.—To the like effect, but with fuller information, the great light of the mediæval Jacobite Church, Gregory Barhebræus (d. 1286), in Part I. of his Ecclesiastical Chronicle, in enumerating the orthodox contemporaries of Athanasius, mentions, after Ephraim, “the Persian Sage who wrote the Book of Demonstrations;”328328 The ms. of Barhebræus which Wright (Aphraates, pp. 2, 3), follows in treating of this notice, seems to identify the “Persian Sage,” with one “Buzitis,” who is mentioned immediately before; and he conjectured therefore that “Buzitis” was a scribe’s error for Parhatis (=Aphraates). But other mss. insert the copulative particle so as to distinguish “the Persian Sage” from the “Buzitis,” whose name precedes. and again in 156Part II., supplies his name under a slightly different form, as one who “was of note in the time of Papas the Catholicus,” “the Persian Sage by name Pharhad, of whom there are extant a book of admonition [al., admonitions] in Syriac, and twenty-two Epistles according to the letters of the alphabet.”329329 Part I., s. 26, c. 83; Part II., s. 10, c. 33. Here we have not only the name and description of the personage in question, but a fairly accurate account of his works, under the titles by which the mss. describe them, Epistles and Demonstrations;—and moreover a sufficient indication of his date, in agreement with that which the Demonstrations claim: for one who began to write in 337 must have lived in the closing years of the life of Papas (who died in 334), and in the earlier years of the life of Ephraim. So yet again, a generation later, the learned Nestorian prelate, Ebedjesu, in his Catalogue of Syrian ecclesiastical authors,330330 Ap. B. O. III. i. (see p. 95). writes, “Aphrahat, the Persian Sage, composed two volumes with Homilies that are according to the alphabet.” Here once more the name and designation are given unhesitatingly, and the division of the discourses into two groups is correctly noted; but the concluding words appear to distinguish these groups from the alphabetic Homilies. Either, therefore, we must take the preposition rendered “with” to mean “containing,”—or we must conclude that Ebedjesu’s knowledge of the work was at second-hand and incorrect. Finally, in a very late ms.,331331 British Museum, Orient. 1017. dated 1364, is found the first or chronological part of Demonstration XXIII., headed as follows:—“The Demonstration concerning the Grape, of the Sage Aphrahat, who is Jacob, Bishop of Mar Mathai.” Here (though the prefix “Persian” is absent) we have the author’s title of “Sage”; and the identification of the “Aphrahat” of the later authorities with the “Jacob” of the earlier is not merely implied but expressly affirmed. Here, moreover, we have what seems to account for the twofold name. As author, he is Aphrahat; as Bishop, he is Jacob—the latter name having been no doubt assumed on his elevation to the Episcopate.332332 The alternative explanation has been suggested that Jacob was the name received by Aphrahat at baptism. This is refuted by Wright’s objection, that, if the name Jacob had been given so early, the name Aphrahat would have been entirely disused or forgotten. Such changes of name, at consecration, which in later ages of the Syrian Church became customary, were no doubt exceptional in the earlier period of which we are treating. But the fact that Aphrahat was a Persian name, bestowed on him no doubt in childhood—when he was still (as will be shown presently) outside the Christian fold—a name which is supposed to signify “Chief” or “Prefect,” and which may have seemed unsuited to the humility of the sacred office—supplies a reason for the substitution in its stead of a name associated with sacred history, both of the Old and of the New Testament. Here finally we have the direct statement of what Georgius had justly inferred from the opening of Dem. XIV., that the writer was himself of the clergy, and in this Epistle writes as a cleric to clerics.
We have now brought together all the known authorities who yield information concerning this collection of treatises, and its author. It remains that we should put into a connected form the facts to which they testify, and point out the inferences yielded by their notices, and by the treatises themselves.
7. His Nationality Persian, and Probably Heathen.—That the author was of Persian nationality, is a point on which all the witnesses agree, except the fourteenth-century scribe of the ms. Orient. 1017, who however is merely silent about it. The name Aphrahat is, as has been already said, Persian—which fact at once confirms the tradition that he belonged to Persia, and helps to account for what seems to be the reluctance333333 Basil (Homil. in Hexaem. II. 6) shows alike avoidance of the name of the foreigner Ephraim, and designates him as “the Syrian.” See above, p. 128. 157of early writers to call him by a name that was foreign, unfamiliar, unsuited to his subsequent station in the Church, and superseded by one that had sacred associations. As a Persian, he dates his writings by the years of the reign of the Persian King: the twenty-two were completed (he says) in the thirty-fifth, the twenty-third in the thirty-sixth of the reign of Sapor.334334 Demonstr. XIV. 50; XXII. 25; XXIII. 69.—Again: as a Persian of the early fourth century, it is presumable that he was not originally a Christian. And this is apparently confirmed by the internal evidence of his own writings; for he speaks of himself as one of those “who have cast away idols, and call that a lie which our father bequeathed to us;” and again, “who ought to worship Jesus, for that He has turned away our froward minds from all superstitions of vain error, and taught us to worship one God our Father and Maker.”335335 Ib. XVI. 7; XVII. 8.—But it is clear that he must have lived in a frontier region where Syriac was spoken freely;336336 Philoxenus of Mabug, likewise a Persian, and a writer of pure Syriac, came from the border-region of Beth-garme (B. O. II. p., 10). or else must have removed into a Syriac-speaking country at an early age; for the language and style of his writings are completely pure, showing no trace of foreign idiom, or even of the want of ease that betrays a foreigner writing in what is not his mother-tongue. It is clear also that, at whatever age or under whatever circumstances he embraced Christianity, he must have taken the Christian Scriptures and Christian theology into his inmost heart and understanding as every page of his writings attests.
8. Evidence that he was a Cleric, and a
Bishop.—We have already seen that Georgius in his study of
the Demonstrations perceived the indications which prove the
writer to be of the Clergy. He goes farther, and notes that the
sixth (Concerning Monks) is evidently written by a monk.
He might have added, what is yet more important, that the fourteenth
(which he rightly fixes on as evidently written by a cleric) can hardly
have been written by one of lower rank than that of Bishop. The
translation of the opening sentence of this discourse (which is an
Epistle to the Bishops, Clergy and people of the Church of Seleucia and
Ctesiphon) is disputed; for “we being gathered together have
taken counsel to write this Epistle to our brethren…the Bishops,
Priests, and Deacons, and the whole Church” (XIV. 1) may be read
so as to make the “Bishops, Priests, etc.,” either, the
“we” who write,—or, the
“brethren” who are written to.337337 Some prefer
the latter construction; but Wright (Aphr., pp. 8, 9), Forget
(pp. 82 ff.), and Parisot (Patrologia Syr. I., Tom. I.,
p. xix) seem to be right in maintaining the former. Another
passage of Dem. XIV. (25) is translated by Wright (Ib.),
Parisot, and Antonelli (Opp. S. Jacobi Nis., p. 423), “The
laying on of hands which certain men receive of us;” but
by Forget (pp. 100, 101).…“which certain men of us
receive.” If the former are right, the writer speaks as
a Bishop; but Forget’s seems the true rendering. Whichever construction is
adopted, the fact remains that Aphrahat here writes on behalf of a body
of men assembled in council, who through him admonished their
“dear and beloved brethren” whom they designate (farther
on) as “the Bishops, Priests and Deacons…and all the people
of God who are in Seleucia and Ctesiphon.” It is not
conceivable that any body of men but a synod of Bishops (with their
clergy and people present and assenting) would, in that age of the
Church, have taken upon itself to meet and consult and address such an
epistle of admonition and implied rebuke to that great see, the seat of
the “Catholicus of the East,”338338 This
ancient title is still borne by the Head of the Nestorian Church:
the Jacobites from the sixth century downwards have substituted that of
“Maphrian” (Maphrino-fructificator), i.e.
propagator of the Episcopal succession; which continues in use to the
present day. the prelate who in the oriental
hierarchy was inferior in dignity to the Antiochian Patriarch alone,
and in authority almost coequal with him. And it may be safely
assumed that the writer of the Epistle was one—probably the
chief—of the Bishops in whose name it is written. If we
accept the late, but internally probable, statement of the Scribe of
ms. Orient. 1017 158(above mentioned), that “the Persian Sage” was “Bishop of the monastery of Mar
Mathai,” we arrive at a complete explanation of the circumstances
under which this Epistle was composed. For the Bishop of Mar
Mathai was Metropolitan of Nineveh, and ranked among the Bishops of
“the East” only second to the Catholicus; and his province
bordered on that which the Catholicus (as Metropolitan of Seleucia)
held in his immediate jurisdiction. The Bishop of Mar Mathai
therefore would properly preside in a Synod of the Eastern Bishops, met
to consider the disorders and discussions existing in Seleucia and its
suffragan sees. It thus becomes intelligible how an Epistle of
such official character has found a place in a series of discourses of
which the rest are written as from man to man merely. The writer
addresses the Bishops, Clergy, and people of Seleucia and Ctesiphon in
the name of a Synod over which he was President, a Synod probably of
Bishops suffragan to Nineveh, and perhaps of those of some adjacent
sees. Thus the admonition comes officially from “Mar Jacob
Bishop of Mar Mathai;” but the thoughts, and language, and
literary form are the production of Aphrahat personally, and he
accordingly embodies it as fourteenth in his alphabetic series of
twenty-two treatises, in which it is duly distinguished by its initial
letter nun, the fourteenth of the Semitic alphabet. It
certainly breaks the sequence of subjects, coming after and before
treatises relating to Judaism: but for the alphabetic sequence it
is essential.—This alphabetic arrangement was overlooked or
ignored (as it seems) by the Armenian translator, who has omitted four
of the twenty-two and transposed others, placing the fourteenth apart
from the rest,—although in Demonstr. XXII. (which however
is not included in the Armenian version) the author recites all their
titles, arranging them in their order, and noting that it is the order
of the alphabet.339339 The Roman
Editor (Antonelli) of the Armenian text (1756) was misled by the
displacement of Demonstr. XIV., and its omission from the list
of Gennadius, as well as by its synodical character, to reject it as
spurious. Had he known Demonstr. XXII., or had he been
aware of the alphabetical arrangement of the series, he would have been
guarded against this error. The Synod however in whose name
Demonstr. XIV. is written cannot have been (as Wright supposed)
that of 334; for it was written in 344. In the
Syriac original the fact is beyond question that Demonstr. XIV.
is an integral part of the series; and we may rely with confidence on
the internal evidence it yields of the high ecclesiastical rank of the
writer340340 See also
Demonstr. X. (below); especially s. b., where he exhorts
“pastors” (evidently Bishops) as one set over them, in
other words, their Metropolitan.—evidence confirmed by, and in its
turn confirming, the statement of the fourteenth-century scribe who
makes him Bishop of the second see of the East.341341 An examination of this ms. leads to the conclusion that its
scribe was probably well informed in this matter. Its principal
contents are, the “Book of Rays” of Gregory Barhebræus
and three of his minor works. Between the first named and that
which follows is inserted the extract from Demonstr. XXIII.,
above specified (p. 156), headed as we have seen with the
author’s names and additions,—“Aphrahat, the Sage,
who is Jacob Bishop of Mar Mathai.” Now Gregory himself, as
Maphrian, was Bishop of Mar Mathai, and died and was buried in that
monastery in 1286. It may be conjectured that this ms., written in 1364 (not 80 years after his death), may
have obtained this passage of Aphrahat, and the heading which assigns
his see, from some collection made by Gregory, among whose writings it
here finds place. If so, the statement that he was Bishop of Mar
Mathai rests on the authority of Gregory, who would no doubt have
within his reach authentic lists of the names of his predecessors in
For the monastery of Mar Mathai, see Rich, Koordistan, Vol. II., ch. xv., pp. 73 ff.; Badger, Nestorians, Vol. I., ch. ix., pp. 95 ff. The former visited it in 1820; the latter in 1843 and 1850; and his account is illustrated with an engraving of the monastery, and a plan of the Church. He found the Metran residing there, with two monks; and five villages, with some 350 families, formed his diocese. In 1880 Sachau visited Mosul, and records (Reise, ch. iv., p. 352) that a Bishop still resided in this monastery.
Reverting to the subject of the Persian nationality of Aphrahat, we note that this monastery of Mar Mathai was on the eastern, that is, the Persian, side of the Tigris, not far from what once was Nineveh and is now Mosul, on the precipitous mountain Elpheph (now Maklob) where it still stands, though ruinous, and is known by the name of Sheikh Matta, and is occupied by the Metram (or Metropolitan) and a few monks.
9. His Writings little Concerned with Current Controversies.—To the remoteness of his 159see, and probably of the place of his obvious origin and abode, from the centres of religious thought and controversy, is probably due the notable absence from these discourses of all reference to the great theological questions that had employed, and in his time were engrossing, the leading minds of Christendom. He began to write within ten years after the Nicene Council and the Arian controversy, and the disputations that grew out of it were still ripe, and continued to abound long after. The writings of Ephraim show how vehemently in Aphrahat’s lifetime, or possibly a few years later, the theologians of Nisibis and of Edessa deemed themselves bound to strive for the Faith against Arians, Anomœans, Apollinarians,—and not less against the surviving or revived heresy of home-grown production—that of Bardesan.342342 See Ephraim’s words, cited above, pp. 129, 136. But in Seleucia and Ctesiphon it is not heresy, but strife, self-seeking, and neglect of duty, that are censured by the Synod through the letter which we know as Demonstr. XIV., and the errors which the Bishop of Mar Mathai combats for the benefit of those whom he addresses are the errors of the Jews who refused and resisted the creed and the customs of the Church. There is in one place (Demonstr. III. 9) a passing reference to the heresiarchs of the second and third centuries, Valentinus, Manes, and Marcion; but it merely amounts to a brief statement in which the false teaching of each is summed up in a sentence, each followed by the question, Can one who holds such doctrine find acceptance before God by his fasting? No later heresy is even mentioned.
These facts not only confirm the tradition which places him at Nineveh, but they go far to account for the obscurity in which his name and his writings lay so long. In an age of excited controversy, these quiet hortatory discourses, marked by no striking eloquence of style or subtlety of reasoning, dealing with no burning question of the time, nor with any disputes more recent than those of the two previous centuries, or those between Jew and Christian, would hardly attain to more than a local circulation; and when they penetrated to Edessa or other such centres of Syriac theological life, would awaken but a languid interest. That they did so penetrate is certain; for of the existing mss. whence we derive their text, one (the oldest) was written in Edessa in 474, and Isaac of Antioch, who knew and imitated them, before that time, was a disciple of Zenobius of Edessa. But the paucity of such mss., and still more the oblivion which so long covered the name of Aphrahat, prove, either, that the work failed to attain popularity—or, that it provoked some prejudice which led to its practical suppression. It would be difficult, however, to point out anything in it to which exception could be so seriously taken as to be a bar to its acceptance. None of the errors which so keen a critic as Georgius detected in its theology—even if we admit the justice of his censure—is such as to shock the orthodoxy of the fourth or fifth century.
10. Possibly Suspected of a Nestorian
Tinge.—Yet it is possible that theological prepossession may
indirectly have brought about the disfavour or at least disuse into
which the Demonstrations fell. In Edessa there was an
institution known as the “School of the Persians,” to which
as it seems disciples from Persia resorted for theological
instruction. From Ibas, Bishop of Edessa (435–457), who was
infected with Nestorianism, the Nestorian taint passed to Maris, a
Persian (and through him to Persia generally), and likewise to Maro, a
teacher in the school. After the death of Ibas, the Persian and
others who had followed him were expelled from Edessa, by Nonnus his
orthodox opponent and successor; and the school was finally closed by
the next Bishop, Cyrus, in the reign of Zeno343343 Simeon of
Beth-Arsam, ap., Assem, B. O. I. 346, is our authority
for this narrative.
(who died 491). These facts may well be supposed to have raised a
prejudice against all writings coming from a Persian source; and the
works of “the 160Persian Sage,” absolutely free though they are from any thought or phrase which could be construed as
favouring or tending in the direction that led to the errors of
Nestorius, may have come undeservedly under the ban issued against the
School of the Persians and all that was connected with it, by the
orthodox zeal of Cyrus. It is probable that his writings were
read in that school, and that he himself may have studied them in early
life. Prescribed in Edessa, the centre of Syriac theology, these
discourses would be effectually checked in their circulation in all
churches of Syriac-speaking Christendom that were
anti-Nestorian.344344 Note that the authorities who know the author as Aphrahat are of “the
East” (in the ecclesiastical sense—namely, the regions
beyond the Tigris). Bar-Bahlul and Ebedjesu are Eastern, as being
Nestorians. Of the Jacobites, Elias Barsinneus was of Mosul
originally, and Gregory Barhebræus as Maphrian had his see in
Mosul and the whole East under his rule. The scribe of the
ms. Orient. 1017 wrote indeed in the
Jacobite convent of Kartamin, but he was merely the copyist of a
ms. of the works of Barhebræus, obtained
no doubt from Mosul. On the other hand, of the three scribes of
the earlier mss., who knew him only as
“the Persian Sage,” or as “Mar Jacob,” one was
of Edessa, and all were presumably Jacobites of the same regions; as
likewise Georgius (also connected with Edessa), and his correspondent
(Joshua, of Anab). Isaac of Nineveh was Eastern, and Nestorian;
but as he nowhere mentions the author of the works with which he was
evidently acquainted, he does not come here into consideration.
Nor does Ennadius; inasmuch as we have no means of discovering how he
came to hear of their existence, or to attribute them to Jacob of
Nisibis: we can only conjecture that his informant may have been
As to Barhebræus, the significant fact is farther to be noted that in Part I., where he treats of the Patriarchs and the western provinces, presumably drawing from Western documents, he only speaks of “the Persian Sage:” and the name Aphrahat first appears in Part II., where the writer records, as Maphrian, no doubt, from the tradition of his own church at Mosul, the names of the notable persons of the time of his predecessor, Papas the Catholicus of the East.
11. Their Popularity in the Armenian Church.—How the book made good and held its footing in the Armenian Church is perhaps more difficult to explain. It is not indeed the only instance in which an author, of whom no works are extant in their original tongue, has survived and been widely known in a translation. A notable example is that of Irenæus, of whose great work on Heresies, so well known in its early Latin dress, but a few fragments have reached us, through citations, in Greek. There is no obvious ecclesiastical channel through which the knowledge of the writings of Aphrahat can be supposed to have reached Armenia, unless by way of Edessa, before they fell (as above suggested) into discredit in that city. But it is to be borne in mind that from and after the close of the fourth century “greater (i.e. Eastern) Armenia was ruled as a dependency of Persia, by Persian Kings.”345345 See Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. xxxii. (p. 392, Vol. III. of Prof. Bury’s edition; also his Appendix 25, p. 504). Of these the earlier at least were Christians, and their policy led them to promote the Syriac language and literature, as against the Greek, among their people; until, under the Catholicus Isaac (d. 441), the Armenian tongue was reduced to writing (in the characters then invested by Mesrob), and a beginning made of an Armenian sacred literature by the translation of the Scriptures into Armenian from the Syriac. Versions of the works of Syriac divines would naturally follow before long. That among these Ephraim’s Commentaries were conspicuous we have already mentioned (p. 147): that those of a Syriac Divine of Persian nationality should be passed over is unlikely—a Divine too of such repute as to have won the honourable title of “the Persian Sage,” and who as occupant of a great Persian see was also known as Jacob of Mar Mathai, metropolitan of Nineveh. How readily his assumed name would lead to his being confused with his far more widely known namesake of Nisibis, we have already pointed out; and it is obvious that the name, once attributed and accepted, would lend fictitious vogue to the book.
12. First Printed in an Armenian Version.—The mistake of the Armenian translator became, in later times, the means of first making the work—though not the name—of Aphrahat known to European scholars. The Armenian version, containing nineteen of the Demonstrations (XX. being omitted), was printed at Rome in 1756, edited, with a 161Latin version, by Antonelli. Its text is derived from a transcript made in 1719, after an ancient copy in the Armenian Monastery at Venice, by order of the Abbot Peter Mechitar, and presented by him to Pope Clement XI. for the Vatican Library. In this edition, entitled S. Patris Jacobi Episcopi Nisibeni Sermones, the discourses are not merely ascribed to Jacob of Nisibis, but the theory is advanced by the editor, that the Armenian text is the original. It is hardly necessary to point out that the alphabetic arrangement of the twenty-two discourses—which is not and could not be reproduced in Armenian,346346 In the Armenian alphabet the number of letters is 38. a language with an alphabet of thirty-eight letters—is alone sufficient to expose the impossibility of this idea.
13. Recovery of the Post-Syriac Original.—The Syriac text, so long forgotten, was first discovered among the mss. of the great Nitrian collection in the British Museum, by Dr. Cureton, whose name is so honourably known as a great Syriac scholar, and editor of Syriac documents. He did not live, however, to accomplish his desire of publishing it, but bequeathed that task to his still more eminent successor, in the leadership of Syriac studies in England, the late Dr. William Wright, then assistant keeper of mss. in the British Museum, and afterwards Professor of Arabic in the University of Cambridge. To him is due the admirable editio princeps of the Syriac text of all the twenty-three Demonstrations (from the mss. 14617 and 17182), issued in London, 1869. He did not, however, carry out his intention of adding to this work a second volume, containing an English translation of the whole.
Since then, another edition of the series of twenty-two has been published in Paris (Firmin-Didot, 1894), as the first volume of a Patrologia Syriaca, under the general editorship of Dr. R. Graffin, lecturer in Syriac in the Theological Faculty of the Catholic Institute of Paris. This excellent work includes a Latin Version, and is preceded by a learned and copious Introduction, in which all questions relating to Aphrahat and his writings are fully treated,—both of which are the work of Dom Parisot, Benedictine Priest and Monk.
14. Was Aphrahat Prior to Ephraim?—In thus placing Aphrahat first as their projected series of Syriac Divines, the learned editors follow the opinion which, ever since Wright published his edition, has been adopted by Syriac scholars—that Aphrahat is prior in time to Ephraim. This is undoubtedly true (as pointed out above) in the only limited sense, that the Demonstrations are earlier by some years (the first ten by thirteen years, the remainder by five or six) than the earliest of Ephraim’s writings which can be dated with certainty (namely, the first Nisibene Hymn, which belongs to 350). It is then assumed that Ephraim was born in the reign of Constantine, therefore not earlier than 306, and that Aphrahat was a man of advanced age when he wrote (of which there is no proof whatever), and must therefore have been born before the end of the third century—perhaps as early as 280. It has been shown above (p. 145) that even if we admit the authority of the Syriac Life of Ephraim, we must regard the supposed statement of his birth in Constantine’s time as a mistranslation or rather perversion of the text. Thus the argument for placing Ephraim’s birth so late as 306 disappears, while for placing Aphrahat’s birth no argument has been advanced, but merely conjecture; and the result is, that the two may, so far as evidence goes, be regarded as contemporary. It is true that Barhebræus, in his Ecclesiastical History, reckons Aphrahat as belonging to the time of Papas, who died 335; but it is to be noted that in the very same context he mentions that letters were extant purporting to be addressed by Jacob of Nisibis and Ephraim to the same Papas,—and though he admits that some discredited the genuine162ness of these letters, he gives no hint that Ephraim was too young to have written them. In fact he could not do so, for in the earlier part of this History he had already named Ephraim as present at the Nicene Council in 325, and had placed his name before that of Aphrahat in including both among the contemporaries of the Great Athanasius.347347 Cp. Eccles. Hist. II. 10, cc. 31, 33, with I. 26, cc. 83, 85.
15. His Use of Holy Scripture.—Concerning the canon and text of the Books of the Bible as used by Aphrahat,—a subject hardly within the scope of this Introduction—a few words must suffice.
In citing the Old Testament, he shows himself acquainted with nearly all the Books of the Jewish Canon, and with some, but not all, of the deutero-canonical books commonly called Apocrypha—with Tobit, Ecclesiasticus (and perhaps Wisdom), and Maccabees, but not Judith, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, or Baruch. He follows the Peshitto rather than the Greek, but not seldom departs from both; and he shows a knowledge of the Chaldee Paraphrase.
His New Testament Canon is apparently that of the Peshitto;—that is to say, he shows no signs of acquaintance with the four shorter Catholic Epistles, and in the one citation which seems to be from the Apocalypse, it has been shown to be probable that he is really referring to the Targum of Onkelos on Deut. xxxiii. 6.348348 See Demonstr. VIII, 19 (also VII. 25), and cp. Apoc. II. 11. (Parisot, Introduction, p. xliii.) But he omits all reference also to the longer Catholic Epistles, except 1 John. He also passes over (of St. Paul’s Epistles) 2 Thessalonians, Titus, and Philemon. But as regards the last, its shortness accounts for the omission; and as to the former two, he can hardly have been unacquainted with them, inasmuch as he knew 1 Thessalonians and 1 and 2 Timothy. He designates the writer of Hebrews as “the Apostle,” probably meaning to ascribe it to St. Paul.
In citing the Gospels, he seems sometimes to follow the Diatessaron, which, as we have said, was in the hands of his contemporary Ephraim, and which is known to have circulated largely in the East until far on in the following century. Sometimes, however, his references seem to be to the separate Gospels as commonly read. It cannot be claimed for the Peshitto that he always or even usually follows its text; nor yet does he uniformly agree with the Curetonian, or with the probably earlier form of the Syriac Gospel recently discovered by Mr. Lewis. With each of these last, however, his text has many points of coincidence. In the rest of the New Testament, we can only say that he must have had before him a text which diverged not seldom from the Peshitto.349349 It is important to note that he quotes in full three (16, 17, 18) of the disputed “Last Twelve Verses” of St. Mark’s Gospel. (Demonst. I. 17.)
16. Literary and Theological Value of his Writings.—From the Demonstrations, eight have been selected for the present volume, viz.: I. Of Faith (with Letter of an Inquirer prefixed); V. Of Wars; VI. Of Monks; VIII. Of the Resurrection of the Dead; X. Of Pastors; XVII. Of Christ the Son of God; XXI. Of Persecution; XXII. Of Death and the Latter Times. Of these, one only (XVII.) is controversial,—directed against the Jews: it is painfully inadequate in the treatment of its great theme,—so inadequate as to suggest the surmise that doubts may have arisen about the orthodoxy of the writer, such as to discredit his works, and to account for the neglect in which they lay (as we have seen) for centuries. But in all his writings his mastery of the Scriptures, of the Old Testament especially, is conspicuous; and in many of them, especially in those of a hortatory character, there is much force of earnest persuasiveness, rising at times into eloquence.
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