APHRAHAT, THE PERSIAN SAGE
Fr. Joseph Kalariparampil
Aphrahat was born on the Persian border with Syria. The name, Aphrahat, is the Syriac version of the Persian name Frahāt (modern Farhād). He was a subject of Shapur II (309-379 CE). He converted to Christianity and became a hermit in Edessa moving in time to Antioch, Turkey. He is thought to have been born ca. 280 A.D. and to have died (possibly a martyr ) ca. 345 A.D. His identity was unclear to later writers, and in the earliest manuscripts his name is given as ‘Jacob’ rather than ‘Aphrahat.’ The name Aphrahat is first found in Isho’ bar Nun (+828). Giwargis, the bishop of Arabs (8th cent.) only knew of him as the ‘Persian Sage.’ Some of the manuscripts of his works name him as ‘Ya‘qub, the Sage of Persia’. This in turn gave rise to him being identified with Jacob, bishop of Nisibis; an impossible identification, since Jacob died in 338 AD. He involved in the struggle against the Arian heresy. Aphrahat is sometimes identified as the bishop of the monastery of Mar Mattai, near Mosul Mesopotamia.
In his writings, self-description seems to be intentionally obscured by Aphrahat; he wanted the reader to concentrate on the important things that were the teachings of His Lord, upon which he was expounding in his Demonstrations (Dem. 22.26). From Demonstrations it appears that Aphrahat himself belonged to a proto-monastic Christian community called Sons of the Covenant (B’nai Q’yâmâ). These believers devoted themselves to the day-to-day service of Lord in monastic communities throughout the East. They did so through selfless dedication to God, which was manifested by their surrender of personal property, time and relationships outside of the community for the purposes of devotion to Christ, their King (Dem. 6.2). He calls himself by names like “a disciple of the holy scriptures” (Dem. 22.26) and a “stone-mason” who only supplies the raw material to the “wise-architects” to build up the Church (Dem. 10.9).
Aphrahat resided somewhere in Persian territories, although the exact location is unknown. All the evidence suggests that Aphrahat had a command only of Syriac and cognate languages, as he never gives any indication that he is familiar with either the Greek of the LXX or the Greek New Testament. Aphrahat seems to quote from the Gospel (Diatessaron) and not from four separate Gospels. His arguments seem to be positioned well within an exclusively Semitic world. Since many of his ideas deal with monasticism, it is easy to identify him as an ascetic and locate him among the proto-monastic centres of Persia. Mar Mattai monastery in modern-day Iraq can be established as the location.
Aphrahat together with Ephrem is considered as the most fascinating representative of pure Semitic Christianity, the unhellenised Syriac Christianity. This Church Father’s writings are of great value. He composed twenty-three demonstrations or expositions (ܬܚܘܝܬܐ) on the Christian doctrine and practice. His demonstrations help us to clarify our picture of Mesopotamian Judaism of the fourth century. Aphrahat’s writings afford us a unique look at a Christianity that was largely unaffected by Roman political and religious developments, and may thus in some ways have resembled certain types of early Christianity. Aphrahat, having engaged himself in the ancient Jewish-Christian polemic, allows us to transport ourselves back to fourth-century Persia and take a closer look at the foundations of that polemic. The first 22 demonstrations form an alphabetic acrostic (the Syriac alphabet has 22 letters). In Dem. 22:25, he says, “I wrote the first ten in the six hundred and forty-eighth year of the kingdom of Alexander, son of Philip the Macedonian, as it is written a their end. I have written these last twelve in the six hundred and fifty-fifth year of the kingdom of Greeks and the Romans (which is the kingdom of Alexander), and in the thirty-fifth year of the king of Persia.” Likewise in 23:69 he says, “I have written this letter to you, my friend, in the month of Ab in the six hundred and fifty-sixth year of the kingdom of Alexander, son of Philip, the Macedonian, and in the thirty-sixth year of Shapur, king of Persia, who carried out the persecution; and in the fifth year that the Churches have been destroyed, in the year (when) the great slaughter of the martyrs took place in the land of the east. (This was) after I had written these prior twenty-two chapters arranged in alphabetical order one after another.” From these evidences, Demonstrations were written in three stages: it is clear that Demonstrations1-10 are specifically dated to AD 337, 11-22 to AD 344, and 23 to August AD 345. This is the first extensive piece of Syriac literature of a Church Father to survive, and one of the least Hellenised. At the same time the prose style is one of the best examples of early Syriac.
Judging from the titles, the first portion (Dem. 1-10) seems to concern itself primarily with Christian piety. The second part (Dem. 11-22) seems to change sharply in topical selection, focusing mostly on anti-Jewish argumentation. It includes such demonstrations as on Sabbath and Passover. However, the more pietistic chapters, traditionally held to be the first part of Demonstrations, were also engaging in Jewish-Christian polemic in spite of their non-polemical titles as will be clearly shown in this study. Dem. I-X is commonly called Book I. It covers aspects of Christian faith and life, while Dem. XI-XXII is called Book II, treating questions posted to Christianity by Judaism. Dem. XXIII stands outside of the acrostic of Book I and II and deals with chronological circulations of biblical history. Demonstration 23 begins with the first demonstration of a second series that Aphrahat started and was apparently hindered from finishing either by sickness or, quite possibly, by martyrdom.
Demonstration 1 (ܐ): On Faith
Demonstration 2 (ܒ): On Love
Demonstration 3 (ܓ): On Fasting
Demonstration 4 (ܕ): On Prayer
Demonstration 5 (ܗ): On War
Demonstration 6 (ܘ): On Covenanters
Demonstration 7 (ܙ): On the Penitent
Demonstration 8 (ܚ): On the Dead Coming to Life
Demonstration 9 (ܛ): On Humility
Demonstration 10 (ܝ): On Shepherds
Demonstration 11 (ܟ): On Circumcision
Demonstration 12 (ܠ): On the Passover Sacrifices
Demonstration 13 (ܡ): On Sabbath
Demonstration 14 (ܢ): An Argument in Response to Dissension
Demonstration 15 (ܣ): On the Avoidance of Food
Demonstration 16 (ܥ): On the Peoples in Place of the People
Demonstration 17 (ܦ): On Christ, who is the Son of God
Demonstration 18 (ܨ): Against the Jews, concerning Virginity and Holiness
Demonstration 19 (ܩ): Against the Jews, who say that they will yet be Gathered Together
Demonstration 20 (ܪ): On the Support of the Poor
Demonstration 21 (ܫ): On Persecution
Demonstration 22 (ܬ): On Death and the End Times
Demonstration 1 (ܐ): On the Grape Cluster