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 3: Christianity in Persia
Origins of Christianity in Persia
The earliest centres of Christianity in the East were: Edessa, Arbela in Parthia, and India. While some early traditions speak of Aggai, a disciple of Addai as the missionary to Parthia, there are other traditions which speak of both Aggai and Mari (another disciple of Addai) as those who brought the gospel first to Parthia. In some other traditions, Addai, Aggai and Mari are mentioned as missionaries to Parthia.
The Teaching of the Apostles in describing the work of various apostles says:
Edessa and the countries round about it which were on all sides of it, and Zoba (Nisibis) and Arabia, and all the north, and the regions round about it, and the south and all the regions on the borders of Mesopotamia, received apostles’ ordination to the priesthood from Addaeus the apostle, one of the seventy-two apostles. (Cureton, W. Ancient Syriac Documents, Ante-Nicene, Christian Library, Vol XX, T&T Clark: Edinburgh 1871, p.48. (see also Cureton, W. Ancient Syriac Documents Amsterdam, Oriental Press 1967 p.24). These Syriac Documents are sometimes referred to as The Doctrine of the Apostles, Doctrine of Addai etc.)
The document goes on to say:
The whole of Persia, of the Assyrians. of the Armenians, and of the Medians, and of the countries round about Babylon, the Huzites and the Gelai, as far as the borders of the Indians. and as far as the land of Gog and Magog. and moreover all the countries on all sides, received the apostles’ ordination to the priesthood from Aggaeus, a maker of silk, the disciple of Addaeus the Apostle. (Ibid.)
According to another tradition, it was Mari, another disciple of Addai who evangelised Persia. There is no need to see any contradiction in these traditions. There was always a possibility that more than one apostle went to a particular country. Perhaps all the three were missionaries to Parthia. In the document, Teaching of Addaeus, The Apostle it is specially mentioned that Addaeus associated others with his ministry. "Aggaeus, moreover, who made the silks and headbands of the king, and Palut, Barshelma and Barsamya, together with the others, their companions came to Addaeus the apostle; and he received them, and associated with him in the ministry." (Ibid.)
According to Moffett, there is something appealingly believable about the story of Mari. In the tradition, Man who was a disciple of Addai, who in turn was a disciple of Thomas, like the doubting Thomas himself was a reluctant missionary. He was sent out to Persia from Edessa, but he begged the home church to allow him to return; but the church in Edessa asked him to continue his work. Grudgingly he set himself to the evangelization of Parthia and undertook difficult missionary journeys that brought him almost to India, "there", he said, "when he smelt the smell of the apostle Thomas", he felt at last he had done his duty and had gone far enough. (Moffett, op. Cit., pp. 78-79)
One of the earliest centres of Christianity in Persia is said to be Arbel the capital of Adiabene. It was a small Persian border kingdom. Its capital Arbela was about fifty miles east of river Tigris. There is no doubt that the early advance of Christianity in eastern Mesopotamia, as was the case in western Mesopotamia, was upon the ground prepared by the Jews. There was a large concentration of Jews in Arbela and in Nisibis in eastern Mesopotamia. Nisibis which was situated west of Tigris was the seat of a Jewish Academy of learning whose fame was acknowledged in the first century even by the Rabbis in Palestine. Christianity spread in these areas in the first century itself. It is of importance that the Christian faith spread not only in bigger cities but also in the villages on the mountains round about Adiabene. By the end of the Parthian dynasty (AD 225), Christian communities were seen all the way from Edessa to Afghanistan. The Edessian philosopher, Bardaisan in his book:
Book of the Laws of Countries written about AD 196, speaks of Christians living as far as Bactria (Northern Afghanistan).
Looking at the expansion of Christianity in the Parthian empire in such an early period, historians have raised the possibility that Arbela, the capital of Adiabene, if not prior to Edessa, could have been an independent focus, independent of Edessa, for missionary work throughout the Persian empire. In fact there is a theory that Christianity first came to Arbela and from there to Edessa. We have no historical evidence for such a theory. The first century Jewish historian, Josephus mentions that a king of Adiabene accepted Judaism about AD 36. Such a conversion could have made Arbela a natural centre for Jewish Christian mission at a very early date.
Robert Murray is also of the opinion that the first Christians in Adiabene were the Jews. According to him Adiabene which was the neighbouring state to Osrhoene had a flourishing Jewish community which made effective converts, the movement culminating in the conversion of the royal household itself in the first century. "Whatever is the truth about Christian origins elsewhere in the Syriac speaking area, the Christianity of Aphrahat and Ephrem is best accountable for a break away movement among the Jewish community in Adiabene. The latter did have historic links with Palestine…" (R. Murray, op.cit., p.8. See also Asahel Grant, The Nestorians or The Lost Tribes of Israel, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1841.)
Who were the Jews in Persia? Were they descendants of the ‘Lost tribes of Israel’? There is a tradition among the Nestorian Christians in Persia that they are the descendants of Israel. But this does not mean that all Christians in Persia were of Jewish origin. Though the initial response was from the Jews, Christianity spread among the Persians. By the third century, according to Mingana, the majority of the inhabitants of Adiabene were Christians, and the majority of these and of the Christians in Persia generally were of Persian and not of semitic or Aramean birth and extraction. (Ibid.. p.8.)
According to Stewart McCullogh there is no evidence of large numbers of Jews turning to Christianity and that most of the converts must have come from the ranks of either pagans or Zoroastrians. (John Stewart, op. cit.. p.5.) However, by the end of the second century, Christians were found as far as northern Afghanistan. The Chronicle of Arbela reports that by this time there were already more than twenty bishops in Persia. In less than two hundred years after Christ’s death, there was extensive Christian penetration in Asia and the Syrian Christians were beginning to carry the faith not across the Roman Asia only, not in Persia alone, but also towards Arabia and Central Asia.
Church and the Persian State
In the third century, while the Persians had considerable success in their constant struggles against the Romans, there developed an internal rebellion within the. Persian empire which resulted in the overthrow of the Parthian dynasty by the Sassanian dynasty in AD 226. The Sassanians ruled Persia for the next four centuries till the coming of Islam. The policies of the Sassanians had considerable effect on the life of the Christian community in Persia.
The Sassanians organized their government on new lines. The first Sassanian king Ardashir began emphasising the close co-operation of the throne and Zoroastrian priesthood. Ardashir founded his power on a combination of religion and state. For him, religion may exist without a state, but a state cannot exist without religion; and it is by holy laws that a political association can alone be bound. He used the Zoroastrian clergy to legitimize his rule and in turn granted them special privileges. Thus the position of the king in Sassanied Persia was made far more stronger than it had been in Parthian times because of the close working alliance between the king and the priesthood formed by Ardashir I. In Sassanied period, Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the state which led, from time to time, to the severe persecutions of religious minorities. There were persecutions of Christians under Shapur II in the fourth century and under Bahram V and Yezdegerd II in the fifth century.
Although certain Sassanian kings were tolerant towards Christianity, the Zoroastrian hierarchy on the whole remained consistently opposed to all non-Zoroastrian religions. However, during the first hundred years of Sassanian rule there was more or less religious toleration.
For the first three hundred years of Christianity, it was in the Roman empire that the Christians were persecuted. The Persians, especially the Parthians were tolerant of minority groups and the Sassanids at the beginning were too busy fighting the Romans. Moreover, as long as the Roman emperors considered the Christians as enemies of Rome, the Persian emperors were inclined to consider them as friends of Persia. By the time of Shapur II who came to the throne in AD 309, Christianity became the favoured religion of the Roman emperors. Constantine the Great even claimed a protectorate over all Christians everywhere and in AD 315 wrote to Shapur II asking protection and favour for the Christians. "I rejoice to bear that the fairest provinces of Persia are adorned with ... Christians ... Since you are so powerful and pious, I commend them to your care, and leave them in your protection." (Ibid., p. 110)
The two empires being almost constantly at war, it was only natural that such a letter made Shapur II suspicious of Christians as an ally of the Romans. The fact that the Christians, including those who spoke Persian, used Syriac in their church services tended to foster the suspicion. Moreover, the hatred of the Zoroastrian clergy towards Christians was an additional factor. One cause of offence was that the Christians differed from Zoroastrians in their habits and customs. For example, the Christian custom of burial of the dead, and their tendency to look upon celibacy as a superior form of living, were repugnant to Zoroastrian clergy. The Persians considered the Christians as a threat to national security as well as to national religion.
It was not until after Constantine’s death in AD 337 that Shapur II began a persecution of the Christians which lasted for most of his reign. The taxes to be paid by the Christians were doubled and the bishops were asked to collect the taxes for the government. Bishop Simon of Seleucia who protested saying, "I am no tax collector but a shepherd of the Lord’s flock," was put to death on a Good Friday along with a large number of clergy. As time went on, the persecution was intensified. The churches were destroyed, the clergy who refused to participate in Sun worship were executed. The severity of anti-Christian measures varied from one locality to another and seems to have depended on the whims of the local authorities. The Persians who were converted to Christianity were especially persecuted. At first the Christian faith had spread among the Jews and the Syrians. But by the beginning of the fourth century, Persians in increasing numbers were attracted to Christianity. For such converts, even during peaceful times, membership in the church meant loss of family and property and other civil rights. During the time of persecution, many of them were put to death. It was to the great credit of the Persian Christians that they remained faithful to Jesus Christ without floundering.
In AD 363 Jovian, the Roman emperor, concluded a treaty with Shapur II. By this treaty, Mesopotamia and Armenia came under the control of Persia. There was temporary peace between Rome and Persia. In AD 409, the Persian king Yazdegard, by an edict of toleration brought an end, for the time being, to the persecution of Christians. The peace brought about by the edict helped the Christian community to re-organize its life.
The Re-Organization of the Persian Church
From the beginning of. the fourth century, under the leadership of bishop Papa bar Aggai of Seleucia, there were efforts made to shape a national organization for the Persian church. Papa was fully aware of the need for a strongly centralized Persian church. However, it was only at the beginning of the fifth century, as a result of deliberations by a number of synods, that the re-organization of the Persian church came into effect.
The Synod of Seleucia (The Synod of Mar Isaac) met in AD 410. (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, quoted by Moffett, op.cit.., p.138.) under the presidency of Mar Isaac, the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The most important decision of the Synod which had a very far reaching effect on the life of the church, was to declare the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon as the primate of the Persian church; and in recognition of this preeminence he was given the title ‘Catholicos’. The Synod confirmed Mar Isaac as Catholicos and Archbishop of all the Orient. The Synod also declared its adherence to the decision of the Council of Nicea and subscribed to the Nicene Creed. It laid down that there should only be one bishop to each See and that the ordination of bishops should be by three bishops. It laid down rules regarding the holding of biennial synods, hospices associated with the churches, the requirements for ordination, the duties of archdeacons, the precedence, dignity and duties of metropolitans, the honour and obedience due to Catholicos and on other such matters. The minutes of the Synod mentions bishops from more distant places-in Persia, on the islands of the Persian Gulf, in Media and even in Khursan.
The Canons of the Synod leave no doubt as to the authority of the great Metropolitan, the Catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Without his approval, no election of bishop would be valid.
The king Yazdegard himself approved of the organization of the Persian church on this basis and issued a firman (edict) giving recognition to the Catholicos as the head of the Persian church. Thus the Christians in Persia received a definite standing among the population, with freedom to manage their own affairs, but answerable to the state authorities through the Catholicos. In this way, the Catholicos became a civil as well as a religious head. The chief defect of the system was that in future, the election of a Catholicos had to be approved by the king of Persia, which in practice meant that the office could only be filled by his nominee.
Following the synod of Isaac, there were other synods. The most important of them was the Synod of Dadyeshu. Towards the end of the reign of Yazdegard, the Christians were again persecuted in AD 420. Dadyeshu was elected Catholicos in AD 421 and himself suffered during the persecution and was imprisoned. It was also a troubled time for the church due to internal divisions and parties. It was in such a situation the third synod of the church met.
The Synod of Dadyeshu met in AD 424 in Markabata of the Arabs under the presidency of Mar Dadyeshu. It proved to be one of the most significant of all Persian synods. The first synod of Isaac in AD 410 had decided that the Catholicos of Seleucia Ctesiphon be supreme among the bishops of the East. The Synod of Dadyeshu decided that the Catholicos should be the sole head of the Persian church and that no ecclesiastical authority should be acknowledged above him. In particular it was laid down that "easterners shall not complain of their Patriarch to the western Patriarchs; every case that cannot be settled by him shall await the tribunal of Christ." For the first time, this synod referred to the Catholicos as Patriarch and that their Catholicos was answerable to God alone.
The Synod declared:
By the word of God we define: The Easterners cannot complain against the Patriarch to western Patriarchs; that every case that cannot be settled in his presence must await the judgement of Christ...(and) on no grounds whatever one can think or say that the Catholicos of the East can be judged by those who are below him, or by a Patriarch equal to him he himself must be the judge of all those beneath him, and he can be judged only by Christ who has chosen him, elevated him and placed him at the head of his church. (In the early Catholicate of Timothy I (780-823). the canons of various Nestorian synods were collected into one volume known to us as Synodicon Orientale. The Synodicon Orientale begins with the Synod of Mar Isaac in AD 410, though it is probable that there were gatherings of Persian bishops prior to AD 410. It is an important historical source for the history of the Persian church.)
The assembled bishops- six metropolitans and thirty conventional bishops from all over Persia- threw themselves at the feet of the reluctant Dadyeshu and vowed him allegiance in terms that unequivocally set apart the church in Asia as free in Christ under its own head the Catholicos, not opposed to the west but equal in rank and authority to any western Patriarchate. This was not an act of schism as some Roman Catholics have interpreted it. (Chabot, Synodicon Orientale, p.296.)
What distinguishes the Synod of Dadyeshu from the previous Persian synods is that it claimed for the church of the East all the rights of a Patriarchate. Clearly specified among these rights was the privilege of independent administration- not of heresy, or of separation, but of freedom from outside jurisdiction. Moffett is right when he says that there is no reliable evidence of the church outside the Roman empire in Asia ever acknowledging the supremacy of Antioch, much less of Rome or any other western patriarch. The Synod of Dadyeshu thus merely made explicit what had long been recognized in practice. To the Persian bishops in the Synod of AD 424, Christians of the west were brothers and sisters in Christ, not separated brethren and sisters. But their jurisdiction as ecclesiastics ended at the Persian border. Persian Asia was beyond western control not by schism, but as a matter of patriarchal privilege. (" See Fortescue, Lesser Eastern Churches, p. 5l -- "From 424 we must date the independence of Persia from Edessa and Antioch. This involves, of course, independence from Antioch’s superior at Rome. So, from the Catholic point of view, it seems that we must date the Persian Church as schismatical since the Synod of Markabta." This is a curious way of argument by a Roman Catholic.)
The affirmation of the independence of the Persian church from ecclesiastical control or interference from outside had important political consequences for the church’s existence in Persia which was in constant war with the Roman empire. Persian Christians could no longer be suspected as an ally of the Roman government.
At the Synod of Mar Acacius (486) a revolutionary canon was adopted with regard to marriage of clergy. Metropolitan Harsauma of Nisibis was advocating the marriage of clergy including the bishops for some time. He himself married a nun. It was in the Synod of AD 486 the church made an official decision which went against the radical ascetic tendency of the East and against the canon laws of the West. The canon specifically affirmed the rights of all Christians to marry, whether they be layperson, ordained priests or even bishops. It enjoined that bishops must not put obstacles in the way of marriage within their dioceses. In the text of the Canon, it is prescribed. (a) that bishops can bestow ordination for the diaconate only on married men, and it is implicit, following 1 Timothy 3:1-5, that bishops should be married; (b) that those who voluntarily choose not to marry, must live in a monastry in purity and continence; (c) that a bishop cannot oppose the wish of an unmarried priest to marry, or if a priest is widowed, to marry again. In short, the choice for Christian clerics is either the perfection of celibacy, or marriage adorned by the procreation of children. Penalties are set forth for those who disregard the rules. (Moffett, op.cit., pp.197-199.)
In the next synod, the Synod of Mar Babai (497), the decision of the synod of AD 486 on clerical marriage was reaffirmed and it was publically stated that any Christian cleric, from the Catholicos (Patriarch) down, can openly contract a marriage.
A number of reasons were given for such a decision: scriptural (1 Timothy 3:1-2), moral and cultural. It was conceded that the application of so strict a rule as celibacy to those not called to a life of asceticism but ordained to the diaconate in preparation for ministry in the church had led to widespread abuse and immorality. It is better to marry than to burn (I Cor.7:9). Moreover, the Zoroastrians held the unmarried clergy in derision. Persians considered celibacy as a cause of weakness in the empire. The virtue of virginity irritated them. The state also pressured the church to change its stand on celibate clergy.
The Persian Church and Nestorianism
In the Roman empire, the fourth and fifth centuries were centuries of theological controversies and ecumenical councils. In the early fourth century. the question was raised: If God is one, how could Jesus Christ be God? The controversy that followed was between those who wanted to maintain the oneness and unity of God and those who wanted to uphold the deity of Christ. The Council of Nicea (325) and the Council of Constantinople (381) were convened with this issue and came to define a Trinitarian faith.
The next controversy was on two natures in Christ. The church always believed that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. But the difficulty was to explain how one person can at the same time be fully God and fully man without appearing to be two persons. The question was how the two natures can be united in one person and at the same time be distinguished clearly. The two opposing schools of theology in this controversy were those of Alexandria and Antioch. While the Alexandrians wanted to safeguard the divine nature of Christ, the Antiocheans wanted to stress the human nature of Christ. To the Antiocheans, the teaching of Alexandrians seemed to weaken the humanity of Christ and failed to distinguish the two natures properly in one person. Their incarnate Christ seemed to have only one nature, namely, the divine nature. They were known as Monophysites. To the Alexandrians, the Antiocheans seemed to have minimized the divinity of Christ and to have distinguished the two natures in such a way that Christ seemed to be two persons. In the incarnate Christ two natures are not properly united to form one person. They were called Diophysites.
The great theologian of the Antiochean school was Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428). Nestorius was his pupil. Nestorius became the leading figure in this controversy. At that time he was the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Council of Ephesus in AD 431 condemned the teaching of Nestorius and he was excommunicated. He was banished to Egypt and, emperor Theodosius issued an edict ordering all his writings to be destroyed. The Antiocheans were forced by the state to make peace with the Alexandrians who were very strong in Egypt.
The church of the East did not accept the Council of Ephesus. Though the influence of Nestorius ended in Antioch which formerly supported him, his influence did not die out in the East. Edessa became a centre of Nestorianism. Many of the teachers in the theological school at Edessa were still attached to the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia and approved neither the decisions of Ephesus nor the way the emperor tried to impose peace. The attitude of the School at Edessa was important because it was there that most of the clergy of the Persian church were trained. Here the students were given a good understanding of Nestorian views and when they returned to Persia, they became strong supporters of Nestorianism. Thus the controversy divided the Syrian church into two camps. While the west Syrian Christians living under Byzantine rule made peace with Alexandria and tended to accept Monophysitism, the East Syrians under Persian rule became Nestorians.
At the time of the Nestorian controversy Rabbula was the bishop of Edessa. At first he was a strong supporter of Nestorius. But when Antioch came to terms with Alexandria, Rabbula also changed side. He forsook Nestorius for the sake of peace with Alexandria. He burned the works of Theodore and called him the father of Nestorian heresy. Ibas, the head of the school remained faithful to Nestorian teaching. When Rabbula died in AD 435, Ibas was elected the bishop of Edessa. But it was very difficult for Edessa to remain a centre of Nestorianism in an empire where Nestorianism was condemned. In AD 489 the school was closed by the order of the emperor Zeno. Many of the teachers and students migrated to Persia.
While Nestorianism was declining in the Roman empire, it was in ascendancy in Persia. The majority of the Persian clergy who had studied at Edessa and who were Nestorians in their theology came into prominence in the Persian church and through their influence, the Nestorian views were widespread. One such former student of Edessa was Barsauma who became the bishop of Nisibis. He made Nisibis the chief Nestorian centre in Mesopotamia. It is said of him that Nestorianism owed more to Barsauma for its spread in Persia than to any one else.
As a theological opinion, Nestorianism had therefore been long in evidence in Persia. But there was also a political factor in the spread of Nestorianism. The Persian government had opposed Christianity partly because it was the religion of their national enemy, the Romans. But now Nestorians had been condemned in the Roman empire and they were seeking refuge in Persia, there was no longer any danger that such a form of Christianity would be a link with an alien power. On the contrary, it would be politically wise to encourage Nestorianism among the Persian Christians so as to alienate them from Christians in the Roman empire. King Peroz (457-487) gave up persecuting the church, except for a persecution in AD 465 which was directed against those who wished to remain in communion with the church of the Roman empire. Thus the attitude of the Persian government and the influx of Christians from Edessa helped the rapid spread of Nestorianism in Persia.
It was in the Synod of Acacius in AD 486, which met in Seleucia, the church officially accepted Nestorian teaching. The first action of the Synod was to draw up a ‘true apostolic and orthodox’ confession of faith which repudiated both Monophysitism and Chalcedonian orthodoxy of the West. The Synod defined its doctrine of the Trinity. It confessed, "one divine nature, in three perfect persons, one Trinity, true and eternal father, son and Holy Spirit
It was explicitly Nestorian in its statement on incarnation and the nature of Christ. (Ibid. p. 198) A second canon guarded against Monosophysite schism by re-asserting the authority of the bishops over monks and hermits who, it was feared, showed some tendency towards the heresy. It forbade those ascetics to wander indiscriminately through the villages. (Ibid. p. 198)
Acacius was succeeded by Patriarch Babai. In his synods in AD 498 and in AD 499, Nestorian teachings were re-affirmed and it became the official teaching of the church. Though the West condemned Nestorius as a heretic, the east never did. For them the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius were orthodox. Recent scholarship has vindicated their position. It is now seen that Nestorius never taught what he was accused of teaching by his opponents. He was more ‘orthodox’ than many of his adversaries.
Aphrahat, the Persian Sage
Like Ephrem in Edessa. Aphrahat was the greatest theologian in Persia in the fourth century. We know very little of his life. Some say that he was a convert from Zoroastrianism, but there are others who maintain that he was a Jewish convert. He was an Assyrian born in northern Mesopotamia in the region of Adiabene and was a monk, probably a bishop. His only surviving work Demonstration contains 23 treatises which he wrote between AD 337 and AD 345. The first ten chapters of Demonstrations deal with ten specific aspects of Christian life and doctrine such as faith, fasting, prayer and humility. In this he displays a very simple faith, firmly centered on the Scriptures. His basic theological position is a simple one:
One Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of all our faith. In treatise xix, we have what may be called Aphrahat’s credo.
Now that is faith: when a man believes in God, the Lord of all, who made heaven and earth, and the seas and all that is in them; he made Adam in his image; he gave the Law to Moses; he sent his spirit upon the prophets. He sent, moreover, his Christ into the world. Further more, that a man should-believe in the resurrection of the dead; should further more also believe in the sacrament of baptism. This is the faith of the Church of God.
For Aphrahat, Christians are in the service of Christ. So he exhorts them to take heed what is needed for the service of Christ: pure fasting, pure prayer, love, meekness, virginity and holiness. In his instruction to the monks (covenanters), he reminds them that their life must be a life of unrelenting warfare between believers and the devil. Satan will tempt them with all the enticements of world’s luxuries and pleasures. The most dangerous instrument of satanic temptation has always been women; the safest path for man, therefore, is to renounce the love of a woman, and live alone for Christ. As for women, their highest calling is to espouse virginity and thus rob the devil of his tool for temptation. But Aphrahat recognised that this will not be possible for all Christians. He acknowledged the fact that marriage is instituted by God and therefore is good. So Christians may marry. But if they do, it might be best to many before baptism. It is interesting to note that Aphrahat in his address to the monks mentions that if a monk desires that a woman bound by celibacy, should dwell with him, it would be better for both parties to marry and live openly together. (Demonstrations VI.4, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [second series]. vol. XIII, p. 306.) About Aphrahat and Ephrem, R. Murray writes, "They definitely affirm the lawfulness of marriage, but their enthusiasm is all for the state to which without any doubt they both were committed, namely, a life of consecration to Christ as a virgin." (Ibid. p. 116.)
The resurrection of the dead was part of Aphrahat’s credo. Against those who hold that the resurrected will have a heavenly body, he pointed out that resurrection means initially the resurrection of the body laid in the earth. "In the day of resurrection, your body will arise in its entirety." Like Ephrem, a notable feature of Aphrahat’s writings is his interest in Jews and Jewish practices. Both Aphrahat and Ephrem emphasized the fact that the chosen people of God (Jews) were replaced by a new people, the Church of the Gentiles, which they called, ‘the nation from the nations.’ In developing the theme of election of Gentiles in the place of former Israel, they used two traditional techniques or literary forms: typo-logical parallels and lists of testimonia.
For Aphrahat, the election of Israel needs to be understood in the light of God’s plan of universal salvation. The privileges of the chosen one are to be extended to all nations; all Israel’s rites were types seeking fulfillment in the church. The significance of Abraham is, first, that God in fact promised to extend his salvation through Abraham to all nations, and second, that the story of Abraham reveals not only the temporary sign of the covenant (circumcision), but also the means (faith) by which a person of any nation can come and share in the promised blessing. (R. Murray, op.cit, p.12.)
While Marcion rejected Christianity’s Hebrew past, the Syriac fathers did not reject it. For Aphrahat, the Christian church is the authentic fulfillment of the former nation and its heroes are simply our fathers.’ He shows a devotion to the Old Testament saints. Israel is essentially the carrier of future blessings, the cradle of the coming Messiah. God’s choice of Israel, therefore, is not complete in itself but it is a movement in history, pointing to fulfillment; and this is true of all institutions -- circumcision, covenant, passover, priesthood and its sacrifice, kingship, assembly or synagogue. The church is for all, and there is no further need of distinctions. Circumcision was a type which is fulfilled in baptism. For God is faithful and his covenants are exceedingly trustworthy and every covenant in its time was sure and found true. (Ibid. p. 44.)
In Christ all the covenants are fulfilled. "For those who are circumcised in their hearts have life and are circumcised a second time by the true Jordan, the baptism of remission of sins." For Aphrahat, whatever might have been the meaning of sacrifices in former times, it is fulfilled by and in Christ.
The purposes of the Law were brought to an end by the coming of our Life giver, who offered himself in place of the sacrifices in the Law, and was led like a lamb to the slaughter in place of the lamb of propitiation ... He gave his blood for all mankind, so that the blood of animals should not be required of us. (Ibid. pp. 50-51)
Since the Syriac fathers see the old order of sacrifices as having lost its former value, it is curious how firmly both Aphrahat and Ephrem held a tradition which is strange to the New Testament, namely, that Christ as High Priest ‘according to the order of Melchizedek’, actually received the Aaronic priesthood by unbroken succession of imposition of hands through John the Baptist, who was of priestly family; when the former priesthood was repudiated, the power continued in Christ and he passed it on to the Apostles. (Demonstrationss 11. 57. 13-20. Quoted in R. Murray, p. 55.)
For Aphrahat, as for Ephrem, it was at his baptism that Jesus received the priesthood from John. Ephrem says:
The Most High descended on Mount Sinai
Elsewhere, Ephrem says that it is the old man Simeon in the temple (Luke 2:25-32), regarded as a priest, who communicated to Christ the Priesthood that came from Moses. At another place, Ephrem says that Christ’s priesthood came from Melchizedek. (Murray, pp. 55, 179)
Though Aphrahat wrote against the Jews, he showed great respect for the Jewish believer. If so, why did Aphrahat devote so much of his Demonstrations to the problem of Jewish-Christian relationship? From very early times Adiabene in the northeast, along with Edessa and Nisibis in the north west and around Seleucia-Ctesiphon in the south, had been major centres for the Jews in the East. At first it was in these Jewish communities that Christian expansion in Persia took place. Jewish Christians in turn began to evangelize the Gentiles. Yet the Jewish and Christian communities must have remained socially connected, especially in a milieu which was largely pagan or Zoroastrian. The relation between Christian faith and Judaism must have been a difficult issue in Persia and the Church fathers might have felt the need for Christian apologetics against the Jews. Moreover, during the time of persecution (Jews were not persecuted) there was a danger of Jewish Christians reverting back to Judaism. As Stewart McCullough pointed out, "It is difficult to determine the purpose of those particular treatises. Some may have been useful in persuading Jews to enter the church. Others may have been intended to guard Jewish Christians from slipping back into Jewish ways. This may have been a real danger, for the evidence indicates that Shapur’s persecution of non-conformists did not extend to the synagogue."
In his day, the church of Persia suffered severe persecution under Shapur II and Varuhara IV. In his treatise on persecution, Aphrahat told his fellow believers that they are the followers of a persecuted Jesus and that God in his mercy will bring good out of evil.
The School of Nisibis
For generations Persian Christians came to Edessa for their theological education. Edessa was the great theological centre for the East. But, as we have seen, christological controversies in the Roman empire affected Edessa also and as the Monophysite influence spread strong in Edessa, the school was closed down and teachers were expelled.
In the peace treaty which emperor Jovian concluded with Shapur II in AD 363, Nisibis was reverted to Persian control. Nisibis remained under Persian control till it fell to the Arabs in AD 640-41, and it was a leading city in the western part of the Persian kingdom. As we stated earlier, when Nisibis came under Persian control, many Christians left for Edessa. Now many of them returned to Nisibis. The bishop in Nisibis at that time was bishop Harsauma, a great champion of the Dyophysite (Nestorian) group. He welcomed Narsai and other teachers from Edessa to Persia. It was with the initiative of Barsauma and under the leadership of Narsai, the school was restarted in Nisibis.
While the date of the actual founding of the school of Nisibis is not known, it was started after AD 489, with the closing down of the school in Edessa. As McCullough observed, "whatever the date may be, the school of Nisibis was in fact the continuation of the one at Edessa and the heir of its scholastic traditions." (McCullough, p. 115)
Narsai enjoyed immense reputation. Among his contemporaries, no one was equal in this respect. He was the mepasqana (interpreter or exegete of the scriptures) in the school. He was a great poet. He wrote a large number of memre and most of his literary creation grew out of the world of the Bible. The memre were on biblical figures -- Joseph, Samuel, Solomon, Job, John the Baptist, Paul, Mary and others; on New Testament events such as the birth of Jesus, temptations etc, and on the events in the history of salvation: Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.
Narsai’s gift for language made him a master of the Syriac idioms. With his poetic gifts he charmed his hearers. He also knew how to make his poetry popular. He put his theology into memre with pleasant melodies. The immense renown he had secured for himself is echoed in the epithets by which tradition has immortalized him. Abdiso spoke of him as the harp of the Holy Spirit. It was a time when the foundations of the Persian church were being laid. His scholarship helped the church to be built on strong biblical and theological foundations. He was a great teacher. His learning and knowledge were esteemed so singular that his grateful admirers, in their amazement and veneration, believed that they saw angels hovering around his chair when he taught. In the tradition Narsai lives on as ‘the doctor and the tongue of the Orient’ or as the ‘admirable doctor’. The church has bestowed on him the honour, Rabban the Great’. (Ibid., p.128.)
A. Voobus points out that another source of Narsai’s reputation lies in the sanctity of his life. His asceticism spoke to the simpleminded much louder than his scholarship. He chastised his bodily needs. "In him the figure of the athlete emerges among the leading spirits." The only possession he had were his books. (A. Voobus. History of the School of Nisibis. p.82.)
The central aspect of the school was its spiritual discipline and Bible study. Scripture was the heart and centre of curriculum. Within the frame work of the general biblical knowledge, students were given systematic training in the exegesis of the biblical passages after the manner of ‘the Great Interpreter’, Theodore of Mopsuestia, whose sober, literal textual interpretations were always the Nestorian model. (Ibid.) Narsai pays tribute to Theodore thus:
It is proper to call him doctor of doctors, the agility of the spirit without which there would be no doctor who could give good instruction; through the treasury of his writings they have enriched all they have gained; and through his commentaries they have acquired the ability to interpret; from him I have learned the habit of meditation of the divine word; his meditation became for me the guide towards scripture; and he has elevated me towards the understanding of the books of the spirit. (A. Voobus, op.cit., p. l06.)
Homiletics was not neglected in the school, but it was based on a careful interpretation of the text. Theodore’s sense of history and disciplined thinking had compelled him to reject the allegorical method of the Alexandrians. "They (the Alexandrians), indeed, turn everything backward," writes Theodore, "since they wish to make no distinction between what the text says (historical) and dreams in the night." (Ibid.)
The school of Nisibis was a confessional institution and the Nestorian faith was the precondition for admission. But it was more than a school of the Bible or confessional institute. It was a school of spiritual discipline. A good many of the rules were related to the internal discipline of the school. It was a close knit community and resembled a monastery rather than a school. It was expected that the students leave the world and take the vows of chastity as long as they are enrolled in the school. The students roomed together in small cells in groups of three or more. A student’s life was a rigorous one. While in school he was up at cocks crow, and spend the day reading, hearing lectures, copying manuscripts and practising the recitations of the liturgy (canons 8 & 9). Tuition was free but the students were to pay for their meals. At Nisibis, during long vacation (August to October) they were sent out to labour and earn their keep. Discipline was very strict. A long list of prohibitions governed student conduct. Witchcraft, heresy, theft, falsehood, and immorality were forbidden along with causing ‘confusion in the school.’ The penalty for such offences was immediate expulsion from the school. Like some monasteries, the school enjoyed independence even from the jurisdiction of the bishops. One rule is particularly significant. Students were forbidden to cross the border into Byzantine (Roman) territory both for theological and political reasons (canon 4). Byzantium was in the hands of the Monophysites. There was also a political factor. It could give the appearance of collaboration with Persia’s old enemy, the Romans. We need to remember that the Persian church always lived under the shadow of political suspicion. (Moffett, p. 202.)
The school was not only a school of spiritual discipline based on the study of the Bible, its theology was also a missionary theology. This explains to a large extent the astounding way the church expanded. The roots of this missionary theology arises from Narsai’s theology, the first great teacher in Nisibis. His theology effectively combined doctrines of creation, salvation and a universal mission patterned after two biblical models, Peter to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. But the ultimate mandate for mission comes from neither Peter nor Paul, but from Jesus himself, who, as Narsai paraphrases him, told his disciples:
Your (task) is this: to complete the mystery of preaching! You shall be witnesses of the new way which I have opened up in my person ...You, I send as messengers to the four quarters (of the earth) to convert the Gentiles to kinship with the House of Abraham ... By you as light I will banish the darkness of error, and by your flames I will enlighten the blind world. ...Go forth! Give gratis the freedom of life to immortality. (F. G. McLeod, Narsai‘s Metrical on the Nativity, Epiphany and Ascension (19879 [sic.]). Quoted in Moffett, op.cit., p. 202.)
Narsai died about AD 503. He was succeeded by Elisa Bar Quzbaie and after him by Abraham De-Bet Rabban. During Abraham’s time the school reached its peak and enrolment climbed to more than thousand students. Henana of Adiabene who became the director of the school in AD 570-571 was a gifted teacher, especially in the exegesis of the scriptures. But theologically he was inclined to the monophysite side and he preferred John Chrysostom to Theodore of Mopsuestia. The Nestorian church repudiated his leadership but he remained in the school with the support of the state. The result was that the majority of the teachers and students left the school and went to the monastery of Mar Abraham in Mount IzIa which was also an important theological centre; and to other theological institutions in Persia. One such institution was the school of Seleucia. The fame of Nisibis as a teaching centre and as a stimulus to scholarly writing came to an end. We do not know when exactly the school of Seleucia was founded. As long as the school of Nisibis flourished, it remained in the shadow of Nisibis. When Nisibis declined, the school-of Seleucia gained in prominence.
Henana, at one time was a real threat to the Nestorian church. He won the support of the state and that too at a time when the state was inclined to favour the Monophysites. During the controversy that followed, the Nestorian church was forced to define its theological position over against the Monophysites on the one hand and the Chalcedonians on the other. In this crisis situation, the great mouthpiece of the church was Mar Babai the Great (not the patriarch Babai II). He was the abbot of the monastery of Mount IzIa (569-628) and was a theologian of considerable merit. His Book of Union appears to have settled the final version of the Nestorian beliefs. He taught, "One is Christ the Son of God, worshipped by all in two natures. In his godhead begotten of the Father without beginning before all time; in his manhood born of Mary, in the fullness of time, in a united body. Neither his godhead was of the nature of the mother, nor his manhood of the nature of the Father. The natures are preserved in their qnume, (qnume : It is the essence of a given nature in concrete, realized form. The word is used for the discussions of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in credal affirmation. Nature is general and descriptive; qnume is specific and exemplary. When Babai speaks of Christ as "God and man" he insists on specificity: a divine qnume [not the Holy Trinity] and a human qnume [not mankind in general]. It is a singular essence. It is distinctive among its fellow qnume [only] by reason of any unique property. It is because of this distinctiveness, Paul is not Peter.) in one person of one sonship. (Aziz Atiya, A History of Eastern Christianity, London. Methuen & Co Ltd. p. 254.)
Theodore of Mopsuestia and the East Syrian Church
From the fifth century onwards, Theodore of Mopsuestia was the greatest theological influence in the life of the East Syrian Church. Theodore was the doctor of doctors in the church. When Henana of Adiabene, the director of the school at Nisibis (570-71) preferred John Chrysostom to Theodore, the Persian church repudiated his leadership and the majority of teachers and students left the school. Such was the popularity of the theology of Theodore in the Persian church.
"The bishop of Mopsuestia is a mysterious and intriguing figure", writes Robert De Vriesse. "Highly esteemed by his contemporaries, he was condemned as a heretic 125 years after his death. His works, as those of a heretic, have mostly perished, he has borne the reputation, for 1400 years, of the father of Nestorianism, the Patron of Pelagianism, and the first rationalist interpreter of the Bible." (John L. McKenzie, " A New Study of Theodore of Mopsuestia". Theological Studies. vol. 10,1949, p. 394. Theodore was condemned as a heretic in the fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in AD 553.)
Theodore’s life (350-428) almost coincided with the golden age of the Patristic literature. He was fellow student and friend of John Chrysostom and the teacher of Nestorius. He was the contemporary of Cyril of Alexandria, the Cappadocians, Augustine and Jerome. As bishop of Mopsuestia, Theodore’s influence extended far beyond his bishopric. As an exegete, Theodore was supreme among the scholars of-his day. It is said that he was the greatest exegete before the Reformation. So great was his reputation as an exponent of the Scripture and as a leader of Christian thought that his contemporaries used to say, "we believe as Theodore believes, long live the faith of Theodore." His was a voice and not an echo among echoes. Even distant churches received instructions from him. After his death, his was the leading theology in the East Syrian Church. True to the tradition of the Antiochene Church, he was an enthusiast for missionary work. One of his books, which is now lost, was on missionary work. Bethune Baker writes: He died in the peace of the church and in the height of a great reputation, retaining to the last the warmest affection of Christendom and the highest regard of the Emperor. An excellent scholar, far-famed in his day as a pillar of the truth and a commentator, he may thus be taken as a good representative of the theological thought of the eastern Church at the end of the fourth century. (Bethune Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of the Christian Doctrine. London, Methuen & Co Ltd. 1903 (reprinted 1954), p. 225.)
The school of Antioch, of which Theodore was the most outstanding and influential theologian, was not so much a recognized institution with regularly appointed teachers but as a succession of brilliant scholars and thinkers in and around Antioch. They were not all professional teachers but most of them had many followers and disciples. There were marked differences between the scholars of Alexandria and that of Antioch. The Alexandrian school was speculative and mystical in its tendencies, while the Antiochene school had a strong bent towards the scientific and rational. Consequently there was much room for misunderstanding between the scholars of the two schools. In the Christological controversies of the fifth century, they were on opposite sides. However, the theologians of the Antiochene school were very much impressed and influenced by the thoroughness of scholarship and spirit of enquiry of Origen of Alexandria. Diodorus of Tarsus in the 4th century is said to have initiated the theological tradition of Antioch. Recent discoveries of the works of Theodore: Commentary on the Gospel of John, fragments of commentaries on the Psalms and Genesis, and Catechetical homilies, help us to get some understanding of the Antiochene theology in general, and Theodore’s theology and scholarship in particular. The distinctive features of Antiochenes were in their interpretation of the scriptures, in their Christology and in their reflections on human nature.
The Antiochene theologians were biblical scholars. The exegesis of Antiochenes was based -on sound commonsense principles, being opposed on the one hand to the allegorical interpretation of Alexandria and on the other to crude literalism. They were convinced that the wholesale allegorizing undermined the historical truth of the Scriptures. They aimed primarily at finding out what the inspired writers originally meant to say. Although they held strongly to the inspiration of the Bible, they believed that the best way to arrive at their true meaning was to treat them as human documents. Inspiration to them was ethical and not pathological and consisted in a divine enrichment and ennoblement of the personalities of the sacred writers which enabled them to grasp something of the truth of God and understand something of His character and purpose. Though they recognized the Bible as the word of God, they also recognized the human elements in it. They searched the Scriptures not to see what could be read into them but to discover what was actually there. To this end they used all the aids at their disposal derived from grammar, philology and history. Instead of teaching the Bible as a collection of isolated texts, each to be interpreted literally, they endeavored to treat each book in the Bible as a whole. The contexts of passages were specially noted, the authorship, date, and circumstances of writing were carefully studied. The personality of the writers where it could be discovered and the peculiarities of their language and thought were investigated and taken into account. Difficulties were treated with intellectual courtesy and fairness and not opportunities for ingenuous explaining away as the allegorist did.
It is generally accepted that Theodore was a pioneer in textual criticism. He was the first to apply literary criticism to the solution of textual problems. He was a defender of the primacy of the literal sense and was strongly opposed to the Alexandrian school and its methods. He applied his critical tools to the study of the Psalms. Theodore was the first interpreter to insist that the Psalm must be read against its historical background. He pointed out that many of the Psalms are not from the time of David and several of them reflect the Maccabean period; while only three or four Psalms refer directly to the Messiah and His times.
The Antiocheanes were certainly before their time. They were undoubtedly the true forerunners of the biblical scholars of today. As John McKenzie points out, "if modern exegesis is to be classified in one of the Patristic schools, it is certainly Antiochean rather than Alexandrian" (John L. McKenzie, op.cit., p. 394.)
As to Christology, both the Alexandrians and the Antiocheanes taught that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. It was in explaining the way in which full divinity and full humanity are united in one Person that they accused each other of heresy. While confessing two natures, the Alexandrians wanted to emphasize the unity of two natures in one person. The Antiocheans, while confessing the unity wanted to distinguish the two natures in one person.
The Antiocheans had a real, appreciation of the glory and the value of human life of Jesus without minimizing his divinity. To them, Jesus Christ represented the humanhood at its highest, holiest and fullest. One of the essential elements in human nature, according to them, is free will and the capacity for choosing either good or evil. As a human being Jesus possessed this free will. It was this which made them oppose Apollinarius who denied ‘human soul’ in Jesus. They recognized in the synoptic Gospels a certain process of growth, development and progress in the inner life of Jesus. They saw in Jesus a progressive development by means of conflict and trial by the exercise of free will. For them, the reality of human life of Jesus is necessary for the complete work of redemption.
Alexandrian theologians such as Origen and Athanasius, under the influence of Platonic ideas, believed that the human soul is immortal. So redemption for them means the fallen soul returning to the place of origin. Athanasius explains "For he was made man that we might be made God." Here the distinction between the creator and the creation vanishes. Further the redemption of the body, of the creation itself, is in no sense required by this platonic soteriology. It was Theodore’s greatest insight to realize the difficulties involved in this notion of redemption as divinization. (Rowan Greer, Theology of Mopsuestia, pp. 14-18.)
According to Theodore, salvation of the human being is not to be described as divinization but rather as the fulfillment of the community of human being and God, which belongs to the human being by virtue of his or her creation. We are created in the image of God. This fulfillment is perfectly brought about in the life of Jesus. Jesus Christ is fully human and such is the perfect expression of the image of God. By union with Jesus we are restored to community with God.
For Theodore the human being is the crowning work of creation. A most important aspect in human nature is the free will and the capacity to choose either good or evil. "The present life is a wholesome discipline, affording room for the exercise of free will and the attainment of goodness, which without our effort would be destitute of moral worth." But he recognizes the need for help. Although human-nature is free and we have a responsibility in conquering evil, it is insufficient to conquer the forces of evil and attain perfect virtue without supernatural aids. The mission of Christ is primarily to restore the shattered unity of the cosmos, and gather-up all things to himself by realizing in his person the position of the human being as the visible image of God and the head of all creation, and to restore humankind by union with himself. To fulfill this mission it was necessary that God the word should become perfect human being in possessing a rational soul capable of exercising a real choice between good and evil and entering into conflict with the passions of the human soul. This is how Theodore explains Incarnation and Redemption.
Many of the church fathers saw redemption as divinization, that is, going back to the original state. Human being is created perfect and the fall represents the fall from perfection. Death is the punishment for sin. For Theodore, on the contrary, Adam was created mortal, death was not a punishment for sin but natural, and concupiscence already lived in Adam as in a mortal being. But the human being is created with freedom to choose his or her destiny -- either the image of God or the image of the devil. The fall then is not a fall from perfection but a falling short or failure to obey the call of destiny." (Rowan Greer, op.cit.. p.24.) With the help of Christ. the human being is gradually brought to perfection, that is, community with God. In this process, the freedom of will to make choices plays an important role. Theodore explains this process thus: "God separated history into two ages that man might be led from mortality and mutability to immortality and immutability in the new age." (Ibid. p. 18.) According to Theodore, if God had made the human being as immortal and immutable to begin with, we would be differentiated in no way from the irrational creation, since we would have no knowledge of our own good. Theodore considers the human being as a creature. The human being has fallen in the sense that he chose the way to sin that was open to him. This choice and the knowledge of good and evil were necessary if human beings were to be rational. The destiny and the highest faculty of the human being is dependent upon his or her being mutable and responsible. The destiny of immortality-in the second stage is possible only through the rational functioning of the human being in this age. Our life in this age becomes a training to prepare us for the perfect obedience and immutability of the age to come. This is possible if only human beings are given the freedom of choice. For Theodore, sin has nothing to do with human nature. However powerful are the effects of Adam’s fall in intensifying the inclination for concupiscence and sinning, the free will and the moral ability to make decisions between good and evil are not impaired.
In the fifth century Theodore found a very favourable hearing in the East Syrian Church as his teachings were very congenial to those who were reared in the ancient traditions of Ephrem and Aphrahat. When the school of Nisibis introduced the teaching of Theodore, there was a continuity with the existing theological tradition.
Ephrem represents the ancient Syrian-thought world. Ephrem does not accept original sin. Sin for him is a matter of freedom and its roots are in the will. He defines sin thus, "Sin is this, a nature (furnished) with will and a being (furnished) with freedom becomes guilty." Sin cannot be located in human nature. Therefore one cannot say that human nature has been fundamentally affected by sin or transformed into evil. Thus Ephrem can speak of the innocence of children, and the righteousness and perfection of those in biblical history. He regards life lived in virginity as an angel like form of existence. (Arthur Voobus, "Theological Reflections on Human Nature in Ancient Syrian Traditions," in E. Ferguson (ed). Studies in Early Christianity, vol. x, Garland Publishing Inc. London, 1993, p. 40.) According to Ephrem, since Adam’s fall, outward conditions have experienced catastrophic changes, but neither human nature nor the spiritual-ethical level in human existence has been affected. Human being’s moral power and ethical strength have received a blow from Adam’s example; in themselves, however, they have not been seriously endangered. Indeed, it is intact. This is so because human being’s freedom has not been seriously affected. "If our created nature is ugly, the reproach falls on our creator; but if our freedom is evil, the reproach accumulates itself on us."(Ibid., p. 40.) As human freedom, so also the will has remained intact (Nisbene Hymns xxi, 5). Thereby human beings are furnished with qualities which make them capable of co-operation with the saving work of Christ, being able through their ethical strength and will to take on themselves the consequences of their calling. (Hymn of Faith xxxi, 5)
Voobus points out that statements emerge again and again which reveal Ephrem’s keen interest in and his vigorous stand for the human being’s freedom. "The Master of Edessa is confident that the reigns of the will are laid in the hands of man," writes Voobus. The will ‘born’ free is the power that frees from sin. Through free will, sin falls. Although human power is weak, the will guarantees victory. What Ephrem stresses is the responsibilities and obligations of the Christian faith. Although Ephrem seldom speaks of grace, it is his religion. His concern was how human beings could and should react to God’s gracious invitation. He saw grace in all what God has done in and through the ministry of Jesus Christ. That provides the context for human action. It is in this sense that he speaks of co-operation between God and human being. He also says that by grace, human will receives strength from God.
Just as in the case of Ephrem, Aphrahat also does not accept original sin. Human nature is not subjected to corruption and depravity through the fall of Adam, as if Adam’s fall has made humankind a mass of sinners. But he takes seriously the devastation released by the example set by Adam’s disobedience and fall. Adam’s bad example is an instigation which others emulate. For Aphrahat, Grace is understood in terms of the indwelling of Christ’s Spirit in the believer. In baptism, the Spirit descends and takes a place in the believer’s life. However, this spirit is envisaged as one which enhances ethical sensitivity, thus moving the believer to strive for sanctity of life.
What we see in the Syrian tradition is a Christianity which in its understanding of human nature was eager to preserve the freedom of the human being and a certain degree of self-reliance, thereby laying strong emphasis on ethical power and the sense of responsibility.
Theodore’s theology was very congenial to the East Syrians who were brought up in the theological tradition of Ephrem and Aphrahat. From the fifth century on the impact of Theodore’s theology and approach on East Syrian theology was immense and the most important disciple of Theodore in Persia was Narsai, the head of the theological school in Nisibis. Voobus notes that Narsai simply absorbed Theodore’s theology -- that death was natural and therefore not a punishment for Adam’s sin carried over to humankind." (Ibid., p. 43.) The school of Nisibis, where Narsai was the great master, became a centre for spiritual renewal for the Persian Church. The authority of Theodore, along with Diodore and Nestorius, was established as normative for hermeneutics as well as for theology. "Thus Theodore’s theological heritage found a safe repository where it was guarded and cherished by faithful hands and thus became the very heart in the body of the Nestorian church." (Ibid., p. 46.)
It is in their reflections on human nature, sin and grace, that Western and Eastern theologians parted company. From Augustine onwards, Western emphasis on original sin, the bondage of the will, and the irresistibility of grace have resulted in the doctrine of double pre-destination. But in contrast, as Voobus points out, that the East "with their emphasis on freedom, the ethical strength and the moral responsibility of man preserves something of that which, in its deeper layers, rests in the Gospel tradition itself." (Ibid., p. 49) The Theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia stands as a strong critique to that of Augustine. Wherever Nestorian missionaries went, the theology of Theodore also went.