East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by CSS & ISPCK, India, 1998.This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 2: Christianity in Edessa
In the VERY early centuries of the Christian era, Rome was also an Asian Power. (One region of Asia, west of Euphrates was under the Roman rule.) Roman Syria extended from the Mediterranean up to Euphrates in western Mesopotamia. In AD. 194, the Roman emperor Septimus Severus divided this enormous territory into two -- Syria Coele in the north and Syria Phoenicia in the south. Christians in this area were predominantly Greek speaking.
Beyond the borders of the Roman empire was the Parthian (Persian) empire. The Parthians were Iranians who originally came from the steppes of Central Asia. They made themselves independent of Greek Selucids in about 250 BC. and founded an independent kingdom in Parthia under the Arsaces dynasty. In the second century BC it expanded its borders to the west all the way to Euphrates and to the east to Punjab in India. The capital of Parthia was Ctesipbon on Tigris. There were a number of buffer states such as Armenia and Edessa between the Roman and Parthian Empires. There were constant wars between Rome and Parthia for the control of border areas.
Christianity as it grew in the Iranian region came to be known by different names -- Assyrian Church, Persian Church, East Syrian Church or the Church of the East. For the sake of clarity, we shall first deal with the Church in Edessa and its neighbourhood (Western Mesopotamia) and then the church in Persia proper.
The expansion of Christianity in ‘Asian’ Asia is a very fascinating story. About this Moffett writes:
Before the end of the first century the Christian faith broke out across the borders of Rome into ‘Asian’ Asia. Its roots may have been as far away as India or as near as Edessa in the tiny semi-independent principality of Osrhoene just across the Euphrates. From Edessa, according to tradition, the faith spread to another small kingdom three hundred miles further east across the Tigris River, the Kingdom of Adiabene, with its capital at Arbela, near ancient Nineveh. By the end of the second century, missionary expansion had carried the church as far east as Bactria, what is now northern Afghanistan, and mass conversions of Huns and Turks in Central Asia were reported from the fifth century onward. By the end of the seventh century, Persian missionaries had reached the ‘end of the world’, the capital of T’ang dynasty in China. (Moffett op cit., pp xiv-xv.)
Three earliest centres of Christianity in the East were Osrhoene with its capital Edessa; Adiabene with its capital Arbela, and India. Whether Christianity came to these places independent of one another and which one of them was the first evangelised are difficult questions for the Asian church historians to decide.
Origins of Christianity in Edessa
Osrhoene was a buffer State between the Roman and Parthian empires till AD. 216 when it became a Roman colony. When did Christianity come to Edessa and who brought it? There is an Assyrian tradition that the wise men who came from the East to visit infant Jesus were from Edessa and that they went to Bethlehem in fulfillment of a prophecy made by Zoroaster in the seventh century BC. On their return to Edessa they had told of the wonderful things they had seen and heard and this prepared the minds of the Edessians for the reception of the Gospel.
Eusebius of Caesarea (Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History 1.13.), the church historian of the fourth century tells of another tradition about the coming of the gospel to Edessa. It tells of an invitation sent by King Abgar V (Ukkoma, the Black) of Edessa to Jesus himself to visit Edessa and cure him of leprosy. In Jesus’ reply to the king, he promised that after his ascension, he would send one of his disciples to cure the king of the disease. The tradition is that according to the promise made by Jesus, the apostle Thomas (Didymus) sent Thaddeus (Addai), one of the seventy, to Edessa. Addai on coming to Edessa first preached to the Jews there and thus began the church in Edessa. The king was healed and he became a Christian. (The tradition of Addai’s mission is narrated in great detail in a Syriac document called Doctrine of Addai. According to this Addai’s mission took place in AD. 29. See W.Cureton, Ancient Syriac Documents.) There are considerable differences of opinion among the historians as to the historicity of this tradition. Several of them have pointed out that the tradition concerning the correspondence between King Abgar and Jesus is only apocryphal and hence spurious and that the king who became Christian in Edessa was not Abgar V but Abgar VIII (called the Great) who came to the throne in AD. 177. They also reject the claim made by Eusebius and others that Christianity came to Edessa in the first century. Today, however, on the basis of new historical evidences available, it is possible to establish the fact that there was indeed a Christian church in Edessa in the first century; not only in Edessa but also in other places in Mesopotamia. J. Danielou writes:
The Christianity which developed in Osrhoene and Adiabene was certainly a product of the Judeo Christian mission. Though the legend, reported by Eusebius, that Christ himself has sent missionaries to King Abgar of Edessa is based in reality on the conversion of a different Abgar at the end of the second century, it is nonetheless true that the region of Edessa had been evangelised by the Apostle Thomas has some foundation of historical fact. The earliest documents we have on Edessean Christianity -- namely the Gospel of Thomas, and the Odes of Solomon -- go back in part, to the end of the first century and display the characteristic features of Judeo Christianity. (Danielou. "Christianity as a Jewish Sect", op.cit.. p. 277.)
S. H. Moffett comes to the conclusion that it is not unlikely that Edessa was evangelised by Addai. Moffett points out that the Addai traditions were as persistent in the early Church of Mesopotamia as the Thomas traditions were in India. He says that the fact that so strong a centre as Edessa was content with one of the lesser known seventy rather than with one of the original twelve, supports the view that the history of Addai’s mission was too well known to be easily set aside. (Moffett, op.cit., p. 50) The church in Edessa believes that Christianity was brought to Edessa by Addai who is said to have been sent there by St. Thomas. For this reason, among others, the Edessians believed that their church stood in a peculiarly close relationship to St. Thomas. Judas Thomas, as he is called in the Doctrine of Addai, was looked upon in a special sense as their own apostle. One of the treasures of the Edessian church, according to the Doctrine of the Apostles, was a letter said to have been received by them from St. Thomas from India.
Arthur Voobus, the famous Syriac scholar and historian also upholds the Addai tradition. He points out that the Christian mission in Mesopotamia was the work of Jewish Christians and the Jewish settlers in Mesopotamia were a great help in the spread of Christianity. When Addai came to Edessa, he contacted at first the Jewish community there thus establishing the first Christian nucleus before the end of the first century. (Arthur Voobus, History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient, Louvian, 1958, pp. 3-10. The Doctrine of Addai, a Syriac document written between 390-430 tells how Addai came to Edessa and as in the case of other apostles sought our the Jewish community. Having heard of his arrival, the king assembled all his people to hear Addai and all the city rejoiced in the doctrine and the king also believed. The Doctrine of Addai states, "After Jesus was ascended, Judas Thomas sent to him [Abgar] Thaddaeus, the apostle. one of seventy, and, when he was come, he lodged with Tobias, son of Tobias.")
According to Voobus we should discard the view that the beginning of Christianity in Mesopotamia was due to a process of the early expansion of Christendom developed in the general framework of Hellenistic Christendom. "The information that Antioch became a part of the scene so early is a free fabrication." (Arthur Voobus, History of Asceticism, p.6.) On the basis of information in the Chronicle of Arbel, he paints out that by the year AD 100, the Christian faith spread not only in Arbel in Mesopotamia but also in the villages near by on the mountains, lie concludes: "If, by the beginning of the second century, the Christian faith had already won converts among the inhabitants of the mountain village in Hadiab, then there can be no doubt that the Christian faith had been established before the end of the first century in Edessa and also in Osrhoene, which were on the high way connecting Arbel with Palestine and Syria." (Ibid., p.7.)
Voobus states that the origin of the Christian message in Mesopotamia must have been related to Aramaen Christianity in Palestine. "This appears quite natural when we consider the fact that in other eastern countries the Jewish community appears to be the channel through which the first seed of the Christian Kerygma was transplanted, even where Christian community was not particularly strong. (Ibid., p.8.) With regard to the Christian community in the mountains near Arbel, Voobus says that the earliest Christian mission here was of Jewish Christian provenance and the earliest figures of primitive Christianity in this mountainous area, "however dimly they appear, were Christian Jews who held close to the areas where there were Jewish communities." Further Voobus points out that it was neither the Greek Old Testament which became scriptural authority for Hellenistic Christianity nor the Hebrew original text which was translated into Syriac but the scriptures of the Palestinian synagogue, namely, the ancient Palestinian Targumim which came to be used among the Jewish Christians. Also the tradition of scriptural interpretation in the ancient Syrian church bears the mark of Jewish interpretation. Moreover, the ancient Christian art bears close resemblance to the Jewish art. All these point to the real nature of the Christian beginnings in the lands of Euphrates and Tigris.
Thus the pioneer work in the expansion of the Christian faith in the lands of the Euphrates and Tigris was carried out not by the Greek speaking Hellenistic Christians from Antioch but by Aramaic speaking Christians who possessed the lingua franca of the contemporary Orient. In this, important Jewish communities in Mesopotamia, must have performed a significant function in the processes of initiating the Christian faith in the Syrian Orient.
Characteristics of Early East Syrian Christianity
When Christianity came to the east, Edessa was the capital of an independent state of Osrhoene in western Mesopotamia, a buffer between the Roman and Persian empires. Though an independent buffer state it was under the Parthian influence till the end of the second century when Septimus Severus, the Roman emperor, conquered it in AD 199 and made it a tributary of Rome . In AD 216 it became a Roman colony. It was the first Christian city in the world, Christianity having been brought there by Addai, a disciple of St. Thomas. Christianity flourished in Edessa and became the centre of Syriac speaking Christians for a time. In the year AD 363, after the death of emperor Julian, the frontier between the Roman empire and the Persian empire came to be clearly marked. Edessa was the principal city in the western or Roman Mesopotamia as Nisibis was in the eastern or Persian Mesopotamia. Though Edessa was politically Roman, its cultural and religious ties were with the Syriac speaking peoples of Persian Mesopotamia and not with the Greek speaking centres in the Roman empire.
Constant wars between Rome and Parthia made the expansion of Christianity in this area very difficult. (W.Stewart McCullough, A Short History of Syriac Christianity to the Rise of Islam, Chicago, Scholars Press, 1982, p.53.) It is also probable that the Christians in Edessa and elsewhere in Roman Mesopotamia suffered under the persecution of Decius (Al) 249-56). Yet Christianity was making progress in this area though paganism remained as a force till the end of the sixth century.
Dura Europus was a fortress town located on the Euphrates more or less due east of Palmyra. It was taken by Rome from the Parthians in AD 165, and? but after ninety years of Roman rule, the Sassanian Persians overran and, destroyed it in AD 256. From the excavations in Dura, it is now known that there was a Christian community there and that some time between AD 232 and AD 256 these Christians acquired a primitive house and converted it into a place of worship The partition between two rooms was removed and converted into a meeting hall. The hall could accommodate about 65-75 people. On the other side of the house, a smaller room was made into a baptistery. A striking feature of the latter was that its ceilings and walls had painted decorations, the walls displaying pictorial compositions inspired by stories from the scriptures. (Ibid., p.54.) This is one of the earliest church buildings discovered so far. Whether Edessa had some part in founding the church in Dura Europus, we do not know. From the coins discovered in the place, it seems that there were economic links between Edessa and Nisibis in the north and Dura Europus in the south.
It was Judeo Christianity which spread to east Syria and it shared in the general characteristics of the Jewish Christianity in Palestine. The Doctrine of Addai, the Odes of Solomon, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Judas Thomas, the Writings of Tatian and Bardaisan of Edessa and Didascalia Apostolorum are some of the important sources which help us to have an understanding of the early East Syrian church.
The Odes of Solomon, (J. H. Charlesworth, The Odes of Solomon: The Syriac Texts edited with Translations and Notes, Oxford. Clarendon, 1973 H.J.W. Drijvers dates it to the third century as he feels that the Odes reflect the ideas of Tatian of the second century. See also H.J.W. Drijvers, East of Antioch, London 1984, pp. 7-8. On the other hand, Tatian could have been influenced by the teachings already present in Edessa.) an earliest Christian hymn written in Syriac in the region of Edessa in the first century gives us some knowledge of the early Syrian community. The Odes of Solomon itself is a testimony to the presence of Christians in Edessa in the first century. The expressions and ideas In the Odes clearly show that they belong to a period prior to any systematic development of Christian doctrine and practice and they were the first attempt by a Christian community to express its new found faith. The strange way the Odes try to express its trinitarian faith is a good example of this.
A cup of milk was offered to me, I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
The Odes claim Christ as God’s promise of salvation to Israel. They speak of salvation in terms of circumcising by the Holy Spirit.
For the Most High circumcised me by the Holy Spirit,
Like the fourth Gospel, the central emphasis of Odes is the final victory that has been won by Christ over death and evil. In Christ, light shines casting out darkness and the believer experiences eternal life here and now. The believers are like fruit bearing trees that have been planted by the Lord in the paradise.
Their branches were flourishing
Out of their confidence in eternal life came their missionary spirit. The East Syrian church was a missionary church from the very beginning.
The Lord has multiplied his knowledge,
According to the Odist, blessed are the ministers who carry the life-giving water to the dying.
Blessed, therefore, are the ministers of that drink,
This is a remarkable picture of the ministers of the Gospel. The early Christian community was indeed a missionary community and the East Syrian church in particular was a church on fire with missionary zeal.
The Doctrine of Addai which speaks of the work of Addai in Edessa leaves us in no doubt that Edessian Christianity was ascetically oriented. When Addeus was dying, king Abgar sent to him a noble and excellent apparel, that he might be buried in it. Addeus refused it saying: In my life time I have not taken anything from thee, nor will I frustrate the word of Christ which spake to us: Accept not anything from any man, and possess not anything in this world. (Cureton, The Doctrine of Addai). The same attitude to worldly things is also reported of Aggacus. It is said of Addai that instead of receiving gold and silver, he himself enriched the church of Christ with the souls of believers. With regard to the lives of Christians, the Doctrine of Addai says that they were chaste, circumspect, holy and pure, since they lived like anchorites and chastity without spot. (Ibid., The reference is to the purity of life (virginity) and not that they lived in seclusion.)
Tatian (Ca 110-180) was born of Syriac speaking parents in Assyria. He went to Rome in search of knowledge and became a pupil of Justin Martyr. He found what he was searching for in studying the writings of the Christians. "My soul was instructed by God, and I recognised that the teachings of the Greeks lead to condemnation, but their barbarian teachings dissolve slavery that is in the world and rescue us from many lords and myriads of tyrants." (Quoted by Arthur Voobus in History of Asceticism, op. cit., pp. 32-35.) As a result, he gave himself to the cause of Christ entirely and unconditionally. Tatian was dissatisfied with what he saw in the Roman church; it lacked vigour and enthusiasm. After the death of Justin Martyr, he returned to Assyria in AD 172. There he made his contribution, and his two important works were Apology and Oration. He was a remarkable biblical scholar, linguist and ascetic. He asserted that pagan philosophy only enslaves us to the world and it is the Christian gospel which liberates us to freedom. Such a liberation is possible only when we become a dwelling place of God. This means that a Christian must take a radical stand against the world. The way of asceticism is the only form of life which is in accord with Christian life. This would mean abandonment of possessions and an entirely negative attitude towards all earthly goods. "If you are superior to the passions, you will despise all things in the world," he wrote. Restraint must also be put on the needs and desires of the human body. Particularly the use of meat was prohibited. Another state of life which was considered corrupt was marriage with its carnal union. A person who enters into union with a woman will reap perdition from the flesh. Tatian called marriage fornication. (Ibid., p. 36)
Tatian’s encratic views (The word encratic literally means self-control) are also expressed in Hannony of the Gospel’ (Diatessaron). Tatian took sections out of each gospel and combined them into a more or less chronological whole. It was composed originally in Syriac. It was the gospel of the Syriac speaking communities and continued to be used for several generations, serving the ecclesiastical and missionary needs of Syrian Christianity. (Voobus, op. cit., p. 39) Tatian was able to weave into the gospel his encratite views. He modified several of the sayings of Jesus in the canonical texts to suit his purpose. His Gospel of Harmony makes it clear that eternal life demands a radical renunciation of possessions, family life and marriage, i.e., the prize demands a life in abstinence and virginity. Tatian also emphasized the fact that Christian life is one of suffering. The Harmony of the Gospels unveils the real extent of the penetration and permeation of Tatian’s encratite views in the Syrian Orient in the first Christian generation. "Together with the word of salvation a message was heralded that Christian faith finds its realization only in rigid asceticism, which unites all those who bear the cross on their shoulders and follow their Master on their via dolorosa" (Ibid. p. 44.)
Because of the radical views of Tatian, the church Fathers in the west portrayed him as the epitome of heretics. But the east Syrians had their own opinions about him. They did not include him among the heretics in the company of Marcion, Bardaisan, Mani, Valentinus and others. The east Syrians knew him as the disciple of Justin Martyr and the author of the Gospel of Harmony. What seemed repulsive to the western mind seemed normal to the oriental mind
There were others who influenced the character of East Syrian Christianity. The Chronicle of Edessa mentions the names of Marcion, Mani, and Bardaisan as men closely connected with the spiritual past of Christianity in Edessa. (Ibid., p. 38) The Marcionite church with its emphasis on radical asceticism found a fertile ground among the Syriac speaking Christians in Mesopotamia in the second century. Radical asceticism characterized the life of Marcionite Christianity with its deep hatred against everything that is of the world. Church life was shaped accordingly. All those who are not ready for the consequences of the Christian faith had to remain in the status of catechumen. Only the ascetics were admitted to the congregation as full members. These members were celibates, and married persons who avoided carnal intercourse. Only those categories of persons deserved to be baptized. With regard to marriage, Marcion demanded absolute continence. He also emphasized severe fasting.
Bardaisan, born about AD 154 in Edessa and converted to Christianity in about AD 175, was a poet and philosopher and a great original thinker. Western church fathers condemned him as a gnostic, but he was not a gnostic except in that he thought that matter was evil. He wrote strongly against Marcion who taught that the God of Creation is not good but evil. He also influenced the East Syrian Christianity.
The Acts of Judas Thomas originally written in Syriac in the first half of the third century gives us a picture of asceticism in the East Syrian church. It tells us clearly that the fundamental conception around which Christian belief centered was the doctrine that Christian life is unthinkable outside the bounds of virginity. The Acts of Thomas offers us many illuminating arguments in favour of virginity. In it the intercourse in marriage is called ‘the deed of shame’, the ‘deed of corruption’, ‘dirty and polluted pleasures’, and ‘filthy intercourse’. It is a union which is not of divine will and origin but founded upon earth and therefore is the ‘veil of corruption’ The body must be cleansed, ‘the veil of corruption’ must be taken away, before the divine life can enter as the spirit enters the temple. "Blessed are the bodies of the holy ones, which are worthy to become clean temples in which the Messiah shall live." According to Acts of Thomas, the sexual phenomenon is an obstacle to the higher level of life, and only its removal opens the way to eternal life. It declares that to have children means to have heavy cares that end in bitter sorrow. Over against a married life, Acts of Thomas speaks of the heavenly wedding.
In the Acts of Thomas, virginity is a theme which runs through the whole document. For those who are married, it means continence or sometimes giving up marriage. Voobus points out that the word qaddis (holy) in archaic Syriac terminology refers to sexual continence so that holy is used as a synonym for chastity or purity. This term is distinctly separated from virginity, which expression is reserved to those women and men who have kept their virginity and have not married. The term ‘holiness’ then refers to married couples who have not preserved their virginity but practice continence. (Ibid., p. 72) There are a number of references in the Acts of Thomas which suggest that after receiving the Christian message, those who were engaged to be married decided not to marry and those who were already married decided to live in continence and separation.
In another Syriac source it is said that Christ the true bridegroom came for the purpose of gathering and elevating only those who followed his call with a vow of virginity. The true believers are betrothed to the celestial bridegroom and they will inherit the bridal chamber. The document pictures the joy of the virgins before the presence of Christ. "The virgins, clad in garments of immortality, sing the triumphal hymn of virginity, wear the crown of everlasting life and dance in the presence of Christ being accompanied by the angels, and enjoy heavenly bliss." But the married women, regardless of their repentence in this life and the next, experience humiliation. (Ibid., p. 73.)
There were other facets of early Syrian Christianity. Voobus speaks of the covenant consciousness of the community. (Ibid., p. 73.) Christian faith is conceived as a new covenant, which moulds all the theology, ethics and organization of the community. Christians are the sons and daughters of the covenant. In the new relationship the covenant has placed them, they are called to struggle not only against evil but also against the physical-natural conditions of this world. It results in asceticism. Possessions, marriage as well as any link with the world, are sacrificed for the sake of the new covenant which God has established with His elect. As R. Murray observes the early Syriac literature is stamped with the individualistic piety of the primitive ‘sons of the covenant.’ The essence of their spirituality was the sense of being personally ‘married’ to Christ in consecrated virginity. The church in general hopes for, and journeys towards, fulfillment in the kingdom or paradise, but for many the hope was precarious unless they undertook consecrated celibacy. For several of the early Syrian writers, the visible church on earth is the foreshadowing of the church in heaven. Within the visible church each member is called a ‘temple of the spirit’ and those who follow the way of self-consecration establish in themselves a ‘hidden church’ or church of the heart, which stands in a special, almost guaranteed relationship with the church in heaven. The ‘just’ (ordinary good church members) will get to heaven, but those who cultivate the ‘church of the heart’ are the ‘perfect’.
Such an understanding of Christian life is best reflected in the military terminology they employed. Their theology was expressed in terms of ‘struggle’, ‘fight’, ‘battle’, and ‘war’. These requirements were not meant for the ‘elites’ only but also for the ordinary members of the Syrian church. Only those who were ready for this radical manner of living were worthy of sacramental life, and they alone could become the covenanters, as the full members of the Church. The candidates for the status of covenanters were exhorted to search their hearts as to whether they had the strength to leave possessions behind, to renounce marriage for ever, and to accept the ascetic life. The covenant conception in the context of asceticism is related to the sacred militia which determines the entire thought-world. The covenanters are fighters in the army of God. The function of the priests is to blow their trumpets signaling the engagement in the battle with the enemy.
Thus there is considerable evidence pointing to the role of abstinence in the lives of the East Syrian Christians. Its role was so strong that the writers of the period portrayed the great biblical figures such as Peter, James, Thomas or Jesus himself as paradigms of asceticism. In pseudo-Clementine literature Peter is depicted as a vegetarian who ate only bread and olives or Jesus as a confirmed vegetarian.
In the East Syrian church, asceticism had influence on the concept of the church. For if the ascetic way of life was the only reason for which Jesus came into the world, then only those who are ready to follow this rigorous way in ‘his fellowship in incorruption’ and ‘the form of a new person’ constitute the church. Such a concept of the church naturally meant that the sacraments were the privilege Of the assembly of the ascetics. Baptism became the prerogative of the ascetic elite only. It was the sign of those who had courage to turn their back on the world and walk in conformity with asceticism. In the baptismal liturgy, baptism is called ‘the water of proof’. ie., the baptism will prove those who are selected and fit for combat. The act of baptism was followed by the Eucharist which was also limited to ascetic Christians. The lay people are associated with the church as catechumens or penitents or companions.
But such a rigid view of Christian life did not commend itself to all, nor did it last too long. The Syriac church order of the third century, Didascalia did not support such a view. Ephrem and Aphrahat, two great fathers of the fourth century did not limit church membership to such ascetics. By the fifth century, the synods of the Persian church decided that even the clergy could marry. From where did East Syrian Christianity inherit this ascetic tendency? Arthur Voobus notes that at first glance the asceticism of primitive Syrian Christianity flatly contradicts everything we know of the Judaism of the time Judaism was not interested in asceticism. But Judaism of the first century was very complex and there were radical groups in Judaism who withdrew from the world and practiced asceticism. Recent discoveries and studies have brought this out very clearly. For example, the Essenes lived in poverty and surrendered their possessions to the ascetic community which they entered. Concerning the Essenes, Josephus tells that they hated riches and held a common treasury. The ascetic ethos manifested itself also in fasting and in the reduction of sleeping time in order to study the scriptures and meditate at the expense of nightly rest.
Judaism had a very positive view of marriage. But some ascetic groups among them viewed marriage with certain suspicion. In certain groups, virginity was made the norm. Josephus writes about Essenes who adopted a life in virginity. These groups thought of themselves as covenanted community, the true Israel as distinct from the rest of the Jews. A military terminology permeated all aspects of their thought and life. The features of both movements, those of the covenanters in the primitive Syrian Christianity and those of the covenanters in the new movements in Judaism are very similar so that one could assume that they stand in a casual relation to each other. Such Jewish sectarian groups seemed to have influenced Jewish Christian communities all over the East, not least in Adiabene where sectarian Judaism might well have taken root even before Christianity arose. Voobus suggests the possibility that the same ascetic groups on the periphery of Palestinian Judaism also in turn were influenced by the Christian message and they contributed to the formation of a distinct group in the Palestinian Aramean Christianity. (Ibid., p. 25) There is no doubt that there was an ascetic stream among other streams in the primitive Christianity in Jerusalem. It must be remembered that what we possess of the Aramean Christian literature is very fragmentary. New Testament sources do not give us a full picture of the character of Aramean Christianity in Palestine. We should look to Palestinian Aramean Christianity as the source or the first influence on the East Syrian church for the development of its ascetic character.
Church Life in The Third Century
Didascalia Apostolorum (The Teaching of the Apostles) ( R. H. Connolly, Didascalia Apostolorum Oxford, Clarendon, 1929.) a Syriac document written in the first half of the third century gives a detailed description of the Christians in the East Syrian Church. It was written by a bishop on the Roman side of Syria. It was also widely used in Persia. Its purpose was to give instructions to church officers and members on Christian conduct and worship. Its claim of direct apostolic authorship cannot be accepted but it helps us to get a picture of Christian life in the third century. Its theology conforms to the New Testament teachings, though there is an overemphasis on the efficacy of baptism. It also makes a distinction between greater and lesser sins committed after baptism. Some Christians unable or unwilling to give up all their old habits and sins at once rationalized themselves into thinking that they could wash away the stain of each sin after it was committed by being baptized again. Against this Didascalia pointed out that there can only be one baptism. Willful sins, it said, are not washed away by the repetition of baptism, though the unrepentant sinner should "bathe in all the seas and oceans and be baptized in all the rivers, still he cannot be made clean." Repentance remains the condition for the forgiveness of sins.
Contrary to the encratic teachings that were spreading in the church at that time, Didascalia blesses marriage and approves of the grateful use of all God’s material creation. The author was very much concerned with the Judaizing tendency in the church and sharply distinguishes between the ceremonial law and the Law given through Moses. He condemns severely the ceremonial law with its purifications, sprinklings, baptisms and dietary rules and regulations. For him, "the circumcision of the heart is sufficient." He exhorts Christians to assemble on Sunday, the first day of the week, without fail for worship. If they are not there, by their absence they would ‘rend and scatter’ Christ’s body. The bishop who sits on the throne at the eastern end of the sanctuary is pastor, preacher and judge, and at his side sit the presbyters (elders). A deacon acts as usher, showing each believer to his or her place, men in the front, the women behind them, and the young on the side if there is room. If not, they stand. Young women with children have a separate place along with the aged women and widows. The deacons are also charged with keeping order. The bishop is told how to treat the visitors. If a rich man or high official enters the church, the bishop is told to take no notice of him but to go on with his preaching, offering the visitor no special seat in the congregation unless in Christian love one of the brethren wishes to offer him his seat. "But if a poor man or woman comes ... and especially they are stricken in years, and there be no place for such, do thou, O bishop, with all thy heart provide a place for them even if thou have to sit upon the ground." (Ibid. pp. 122-124)
The Didascalia gives great attention to Christian family life. It was more disciplined and serious in those days. Like other early church fathers, the author warns Christians against overemphasis on dress or cosmetics. The men did not shave and the women wore veils in public. Marriage demanded complete fidelity from both the partners. If a spouse died, second marriage might be allowed but a third marriage was considered a shame. As to the children, the author advises the parents to be very strict with them, they should be taught a craft to keep them from idleness and debauchery and they should be married early to save them from "the temptations and fierce heats of youth." (Ibid.. pp. 122-124)
The life of the Christian community as it is reflected in the Didascalia is a very disciplined one. It accepted with gladness God’s gifts of creation such as food, work and conjugal love. This is in sharp contrast to some of the ascetic tendencies we have discussed earlier. The Christian community of Didascalia was aware of the needs of the poor and the imprisoned, the orphaned and the widows. They shared what they had, whether much or little, with those who had less. As Moffett notes, through all its righteous denunciations of sin there runs like a counter melody the sweet note of God’s forgiving love. (Moffett, op. cit., p.97.) It says: "Judge strictly (but) afterward receive the sinner with mercy and compassion when he promises to repent. Do not listen to those who desire (to put to death) death, and hate their brethren and love accusations. ... But help them that are more sick and exposed to danger and are sinning ... How abundant are the mercies of the Lord ... Even sinners He calls to repentence and gives them life." (Connolly, op.cit., ch.6.)
East Syrian Church and Monasticism
It has often been held that the monastic movement in Mesopotamia originated as part of the general movement which started in Egypt under the influence of Anthony and Pachomius. Today historians are inclined to believe that monasticism in East Syria is independent of and prior to the Egyptian movement. The primitive Christian movement in Mesopotamia and Persia found itself in the midst of a number of movements and groups such as the Marcionites, Valentinians, Manicheans, which were very congenial to asceticism. All these movements displayed a uniform hatred toward the world and the body. Mesopotamia was a playground for such radical ideologies and groups which evoked mutual competition. These movements had great impact on Christianity producing various interpretations and sects within Christianity itself. According to Voobus, during the third and fourth centuries, real spiritual and religious strength was found precisely in these movements and the demarcation between orthodoxy and heresy in this situation was very thin and fluid. It was also true that numerical strength lay with such groups. Ecclesiastically organized Christianity was a mere minority in comparison. (Arthur Voobus, op.cit., p.161. ) . This was true in Edessa as well as in several other places. One writer described the situation thus. "A single ear of wheat on a huge field full of weeds which the Devil has sown full of heretics….(Ibid., p.161.)
Such ideologies and movements also influenced the shape and development of Christian monasticism. The question is, to what extent they influenced Christian monasticism? Voobus points out that Christian ascetics had a thirst after mortification and self annihilation. Not only did they persist in severe fasting and extreme self-deprivation, they actually went so far as to despise life itself. Voobus thinks such an extreme form of asceticism developed due to the influence of Manicheism. Manicheism also brought Mesopotamian monasticism into contact with various forms and manners of Indian asceticism. The recent excavations have shown that Buddhist colonies were in existence in eastern Persia. It is also probable that Mani himself went to India and thus Manichean monasticism was greatly influenced by certain extreme forms of Indian asceticism, which in turn, influenced Christian monasticism as it developed in east Syria.
While admitting that there might have been some extreme form of asceticism practiced by some Christian groups, the question has been asked whether we can speak of the whole of the Christian monastic movement as similar to that of Manichean monasticism. Was it greatly influenced by the strong anti-worldly and anti-bodily Manichean dualism? H.J.W. Drijvers (H.J.W. Drijvers. East of Antioch, p.301.) disagrees with the conclusion of Voobus. He asks: Is the Christian ascetic practice an expression of contempt for the human condition and hatred of the body? He says that the social role of Christian holy men is in flagrant contradiction to such an explanation. The Manichean ascetics are a religious elite who never interfere with the body-social but always live at a safe distance from the cares and worries of daily life. We never hear about their social activities. Contrary to Christianity it never became a social movement, its ideology leads away from the trivial and material aspects of human life. Christian holy men are always ready to participate in the daily life of the common people in order to protect and integrate that life. They may cherish the ideal of virginity, but when necessary, they repair a marriage and they pray for the barren women.
Drijvers points out that the life style of the Christian saint is an exact replica of the essential-elements in early Syrian christology. Anthropology is part of christology. The literary heritage of the early Syriac speaking Church is reflected in the Acts of Thomas, Odes of Solomon and in Tatian’s Diatesseron. In all these, Christ is considered God’s eternal thought and will incarnate in the human body in order that human beings might return to the original state in which he or she was created according to God’s thought and will. Christ manifests the divine will by his obedience unto death, which means by denouncing human passions and strivings, revealing in this way God’s eternal thought concerning the salvation of humankind. The life style of the holy man or woman is an imitation of Christ’s passion, a training of his or her will in dominating his or her passions and human strivings. He or she shows a certain Christ conformity. Virginity is the ideal of the holy person not because he or she is filled with a deep hatred of the human body, but because Christ was ihidaya meaning that Christ had singleness of purpose to be the instrument of God’s will and thought. The doctrine of free will of the human being by which he or she can control all passions and guide his or her body is an essential part of Syriac theology. In the hard exercise of his or her will, the holy person gains insight into God’s saving thought. Asceticism and acquisition of wisdom are two sides of the same Imitatio Christi. The Acts of Thomas illustrate this. The holy person displays this insight of wisdom in his or her acts of power, which always aims at salvation of people. The Syrian holy person is the image of Christ and the continuation of incarnation so that, the divine is manifested in human shape by transforming that shape, into an instrument of God’s thought and will. The central aspect of the main line east Syrian monasticism is not the fleeing from the world or despising the human body, but the exercise of self-discipline by the use of the human will and acquisition of wisdom to be used for the salvation of people.
The monks were popular with the masses. In the prayers of these spiritual men, the masses saw expiatory acts in the interest of the whole nation. The masses knew that the monks had particular compassion for those who suffered and they were never tired of hearing the complaints and worries of the people. They were always willing to help the people spiritually as well as materially. The monasteries became the congregating centres of the poor and those who suffered. There was competition between monks and regular clergy. The general masses believed that the monks’ explanation of the scripture was more accurate, their teachings more powerful and their prayers more effective. Large number of believers made pilgrimages to the monasteries even on Sundays. As a result the church was forced to make a rule that the people should go to churches on Sunday and they should visit the monks only on weekdays.
Several of the monks entered the ministry of the church and became priests, bishops, metropolitans and even Catholicos. One important activity of the monks was the education of children and youth. The monasteries were also a sort of Bible training schools.
In the fifth century, the spread of the monastic movement throughout Persia was very rapid and a large number of monasteries were founded both inside Persia and outside where the Persian church undertook missionary work. The monastic movement reached the zenith of its prosperity by the middle of the seventh century, but started declining afterwards. From hundreds of monasteries all over Persia and central and eastern Asia, there poured forth a constant stream of ascetics who had completed their training and went forth, in obedience to the Lord’s command, seeking to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. They introduced letters and learning among peoples who were previously illiterate, such as Turks, Uighurs and Mongols, all of them are said to have derived their alphabet from Syriac. About these monks it is said that they were people of great faith, well versed in the Scriptures, large portions of which they knew by heart, fervent in prayer, gentle and humble in manner, full of the love of God on the one hand, and love to their neighbour and all humankind on the other.
Hence there was a missionary dynamics involved in east Syrian asceticism. In the Egyptian monasticism the saints ignored the world and retreated to the desert into caves and cells. On the contrary, Syrian ascetics became wandering missionaries, healing the sick, feeding the poor, and preaching the gospel. They moved from place to place. (Moffett, op.cit., p. 77.) R. Murray describes them as "homeless followers of the homeless Jesus on ... ceaseless pilgrimage through the world." (R. Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: a Study in early Syrian Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p.29.) A. Gerd Thessen, a German sociologist and New Testament scholar speaks of the first followers of Jesus as ‘wandering charismatics’. In the traditions of the first missionaries of the East, there is the same note of wandering mission, moving out across the world for Christ. Thomas in India gives thanks that he has become an ascetic and a pauper and a wanderer for God. (Acts of Thomas 6:60-61; 12:139, 145) (Moffett, op.cit., p. 78.) Addai refuses to receive silver and gold from the king of Edessa, saying that he has forsaken the riches of this world "because without purses and without scrips, bearing the cross on our shoulders, we are commanded to preach the gospel in the whole creation." The Gospel of Thomas exhorts the faithful to "become wanderers" perhaps as a call to mission. It says that travelling and healing are higher callings than fasting, praying and giving alms. And it quotes the Lord’s call to mission- "The harvest is great but the labourers are few." (Ibid., p. 78.)
The East Syrian church was a great missionary church. It was a church on fire. The Monastic movement played a very important role in the missionary enterprise of the church.
Ephrem the Syrian
Ephrem is the most widely celebrated figure in the Syrian church. The tradition is that he was born of Christian parents in AD 306 in or near Nisibis. In AD 363 when Nisibis was handed over to the Persians by Jovian, many Christians including Ephrem from Nisibis and the neighbourhood migrated to Edessa because of the persecution of Christians in Persia under Shapur II. It was in the city of Edessa, which housed the great church of St.Thomas the Apostle, that Ephrem spent the remaining ten years of his life, mostly in a cell. Here he continued the writing he had been engaged in Nisibis. R. Murray speaks of him "as the greatest poet of the patristic age perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante." (R. Murray, op.cit., p.31.) An anonymous Life of Ephrem tells how he wrote his hymns and sang them to the harp, teaching them to the ‘Daughters of the covenant’. Singing was that age’s effective means of propaganda as Arius had found in Alexandria and Bardaisan in Edessa. (Ibid., p, 30.)
Ephrem’s authentic writings are all in Syriac or preserved in Armenian versions. His works fall into three groups: biblical commentaries, homilies including controversial writings, and hymns and odes. Ephrem wrote against the heretics of his day -- Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan. In one of his sermons he said "He who prays with the Manichees prays with Satan, and he who prays with the Marcionites prays with Legion, and he who prays with Bardaisans prays with Beelzebub, and he who prays with the Jews prays with Barabbas, the robber." (Quoted in McCullough, op.cit., p. 59.) The popularity of his poems and sermons, and the careful elucidation of the text displayed in the biblical commentaries, ensured Ephrem of a permanent place among the great figures of the Syriac church! (Ibid., p.60)
The School of Edessa
The East Syrian church had a number of famous theological schools and centres such as those at Edessa, Nisibis, Seleucia and Arbela. Of those the most important ones were those at Edessa and Nisibis. Edessa was in western Mesopotamia and since the fourth century directly administered by Rome. It was the centre of Syriac Christianity. The beginnings of its celebrated theological school are obscure. The Edessean population gave the school the name, ‘the school of the Persians or the Christian Didascalion for the Persians.’ From this Arthur Voobus and several others mention the possibility of the school being founded by the Christian refugees from Persia. (" See Arthur Voobus, History of the School of Nisibis, Louvain, 1965.) When Nisibis was transferred to Persian control in AD 363, many Christians from Nisibis moved westwards to the Roman territory where their Christian faith could be easily practised. What is proposed by Voobus and others is that it was these Persian Christians who later in the fourth century founded the school in Edessa to train the clergy. There can hardly be any doubt that there were teachers among the refugees from Persia. Ephrem, the -- great Christian poet was one of them. There is a tradition that he founded the school but it is doubtful if he had much to do with the founding of the school. The most famous of the teachers who came from Persia was Narsai. He was the director of the school at Edessa from AD 451 to 471 and under his’ direction the school made great advancement.
Here as in other schools of Syrian tradition, the students began their course with the reading of the psalter. The art of reading required for liturgical usage was considered an integral part of the course. The study included the study of New Testament and Old Testament books and the original writings of Syrian Fathers. At first the commentaries of Ephrem were the principal aids to scriptural studies, but later the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (AD 392-428) came into use. Theodore’s works were translated into Syriac. The name of Hiba (Ibas), the great translator is associated with the translation of the works of Theodore and other Antiochean fathers. Instructions and study were saturated with the Antiochean biblical exegesis and theology especially those of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore
The school also was caught up in the christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries which engulfed eastern Christianity. The school became a centre of the Diophysite (Over against monophysite) movement. The bishop of Edessa at that time, Rabbula was in favour of the Diophysite movement at first, but by AD 352 he changed his position and turned against his friends in the school of Edessa as well as the Antiochean theologians as a whole. By AD 353 the Christian community in Edessa was divided by the rift between the bishop and his adherents on the one hand and the school of Edessa and the majority of the Christians on the other. Rabbula wanted to wipe out the Antiochean influence completely from Edessa. It was reported that he had all the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia burned. Rabbula introduced, the writings of Cyril of Alexandria to Edessa. Thus the Monophysite movement began to grow. It already permeated Egypt, Palestine and western Syria. It soon engulfed the rest of Syria and Osrhoene.
During the struggle, the school of Edessa had increasingly become the centre of operations for the Antiochean theology. As such it had become the target for its adversaries. The position of the teachers became precarious and finally in AD 489 the emperor Zeno expelled them. On the spot the school had occupied, a church dedicated to Mary was erected.