Saint Aphrahat the Persian Sage
Aphrahat depicted in Les Vies des Pères des déserts d'Orient : leur doctrine spirituelle et leur discipline monastique (1886)
|Honored in||Syriac Orthodox Church|
Church of the East
Eastern Orthodox Church
Roman Catholic Church
Aphrahat (c. 280-c. 345; Syriac: Ap?raha?, Persian: , Ancient Greek: , and Latin Aphraates) was a Syriac Christian author of the third century from Adiabene in the As?rist?n (Assyria) province of the Sasanian Empire who composed a series of twenty-three expositions or homilies on points of Christian doctrine and practice. All his known works, the Demonstrations, come from later on in his life. He was an ascetic and celibate, and was almost definitely a son of the covenant (an early Syriac form of communal monasticism). He may have been a bishop, and later Syriac tradition places him at the head of Mar Mattai monastery near Mosul in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. He was a near contemporary to the slightly younger Ephrem the Syrian, but the latter lived within the sphere of the Roman Empire. Called the Persian Sage (Syriac: , ?akkim? P?rs?y?), Aphrahat witnesses to the concerns of the early church beyond the eastern boundaries of the Roman Empire.
Aphrahat was born in As?rist?n during the rule of emperor Shapur II on the border with Roman Syria around 280. The name Aphrahat is the Syriac version of the Persian name Frah?t, which is the modern Persian Farh?d (). The author, who was known as "the Persian sage", may have come from a pagan family and been himself a convert from paganism, though this appears to be later speculation. However, he tells us that he took the Christian name Jacob at his baptism, and is so entitled in the colophon to a manuscript of 512 which contains twelve of his homilies. Hence he was already confused with Jacob of Nisibis, by the time of Gennadius of Massilia (before 496), and the ancient Armenian version of nineteen of The Demonstrations has been published under this latter name. Thorough study of the Demonstrations makes identification with Jacob of Nisibis impossible. Aphrahat, being a Persian subject, cannot have lived at Nisibis, which became Persian only by Emperor Jovian's treaty of 363.
Furthermore, Jacob of Nisibis, who attended the First Council of Nicaea, died in 338, and from the internal evidence of Aphrahat's works he must have witnessed the beginning of the persecution of Christians in the early 340s by Shapur II. The persecutions arose out of political tensions between Rome and Persia, particularly the declaration of Constantine the Great that Rome should be a Christian empire. Shapur perhaps grew anxious that the largely Syriac and Armenian Christians within his Empire might secretly support Rome. There are elements in Aphrahat's writing that show great pastoral concern for his harried flock, caught in the midst of all this turmoil.
It is understood that his name was Aphrahat from comparatively late writers, such as Bar Bahlul (10th century), Elias of Nisibis (11th), Bar Hebraeus and Abdisho. He appears to have been quite prominent in the Christian Church of the Persian Empire during the first half of the fourth century. George, bishop of the Arabs, writing in 714 to a friend who had sent him a series of questions about the "Persian sage", confesses ignorance of his name, home and rank, but gathers from his works that he was a monk, and of high esteem in the clergy. The fact that in 344 he was selected to draw up a circular letter from a council of bishops and other clergy to the churches of Ctesiphon and Seleucia and elsewhere (later to become Demonstration 14) is held by William Wright and others to prove that he was a bishop. According to a marginal note in a 14th-century manuscript (B.M. Orient. 1017), he was "bishop of Mar Mattai," a famous monastery near Mosul, but it is unlikely that this institution existed so early.
Aphrahat's works are collectively called the Demonstrations, from the identical first word in each of their titles (Syriac: , ta?wî?â). They are sometimes also known as "the homilies". There are twenty-three Demonstrations in all. Each work deals with a different item of faith or practice, and is a pastoral homily or exposition. According to Francis Crawford Burkitt, they are intended to form "a full and ordered exposition of the Christian faith." The standpoint is that of the Syriac-speaking church, before it was touched by the Arian controversy. Beginning with faith as the foundation, the writer proceeds to build up the structure of doctrine and duty.
The Demonstrations are works of prose, but frequently, Aphrahat employs a poetic rhythm and imagery to his writing. Each of the first twenty-two Demonstrations begins with each successive letter of the Syriac alphabet (of which there are twenty-two). The Demonstrations were not composed all at one time, but in three distinct periods. The first ten, composed in 337, concern themselves with Christian life and church order, and predate the persecutions. Demonstrations 11-22 were composed at the height of the persecution, in 344. Some of this group deal with matters as before, others focus on apocalyptic themes. However, four Demonstrations are concerned with Judaism. It appears that there was a movement within the Persian church by some either to become Jews or return to Judaism, or to incorporate Jewish elements into Christianity. Aphrahat makes his stand by explaining the meaning of the symbols of circumcision, Passover and Shabbat. The twenty-third Demonstration falls outside of the alphabetic system of the early works, and appears to be slightly later, perhaps near the end of Aphrahat's life. The twenty-third piece takes the symbolism of the grape, drawn from Isaiah chapter 65 and elsewhere, as its cue. It deals with the fulfilment of Messianic promise from Adam to Christ. Aphrahat never strays too far from the Bible in the Demonstrations: he is not given to philosophizing. All of his gospel quotations seem to be drawn from the Diatessaron, the gospel harmony that served the church at his time. Aphrahat's mode of biblical interpretation is strikingly similar to that of the Babylonian rabbinic academies of his day. His position within the church is indicated in Demonstration 14, in which Aphrahat appears to be writing a letter on behalf of his synod to the clergy of the Persian capital, Ctesiphon-Seleucia on the Tigris.
In Demonstrations 5, Aphrahat, dealt with eschatology. Concerning the beasts of Daniel 7, he identified the first beast as Babylon; the second, Media and Persia; the third, Alexander's Macedonian empire. The four heads of the leopard were the four successors of Alexander. The fourth beast appeared to include both the Macedonian successors of Alexander and the Roman emperors. Its horns he applied to the Seleucid kings down to Antiochus, whom he identified as the Little Horn. He reduced the time, times, and half a time to one and one-half times, in order to fit the ten and a half years of Antiochus' persecution of the Jews. Aphrahat also mentioned the Persian ram and the Grecian he-goat of Daniel 8.
The Demonstrations were originally composed in the Syriac language, but were quickly translated into other languages. The Armenian version, published by Antonelli in 1756 and containing only 19 homilies, circulated mistakenly under the name Jacob of Nisibis. Important versions in Georgian and Ge'ez exist. A few of the Demonstrations were translated into Arabic, but wrongly attributed to Ephrem the Syrian.