Let’s return to the 6th century Syriac Life of Mar Aba, the Nestorian patriarch. This life is interesting since it is not far removed in time from the events, and contains what are clearly historical statements about an otherwise little-known period of the history of Christianity in Persia.
A German translation exists, but no English translation. I can’t translate Syriac, but I can turn German into English, so that is what I am doing. The last chapter was back in April (you can find the other chapters using the link ‘Mar Aba’ at the foot of the posts).
The story so far. Mar Aba is a noble Persian who has converted to Christianity and risen to become head of all the Christians in the Persian realm. He has come into conflict with the Zoroastrian clergy. But something new is happening; the Persian King of Kings has started to realise that, far from being an agent of a foreign power, the Christian patriarch may be a balance to the power of the Zoroastrian clergy. He is therefore under semi-arrest at the Persian court.
Now read on!
37. Some time later, the chief of the Hephthalites (haftarân chudâ) sent a priest to the King of Kings, and many Christian Hephthalites sent a letter to the Saint [Mar Aba] to ask him to consecrate the priest as a bishop for the whole Hephthalite realm.
After the priest had come before the King, and set forth the business of his mission, [the King] wondered at what he heard, and marvelled at the great power of Christ, that the Christian Hephthalites also considered the Lordly One [Mar Aba] as their chief and regent, and he said to him that he should go and adorn the church as was custom, and should go into his church and house and collect the bishops according to custom, and ordain the man sent by the prince of the Hephthalites.
When the people of the Lord heard this message, and the Saint came out of prison and into the cathedral of his apostolic seat, what joy was like that joy, that the Lordly One had returned to his blessed flock after nine years, which he had spent in combat with lions and panthers for his beloved flock, and returned victorious.
What shepherd loves his flock like our father, the master of the holy flock, who bore every trouble and persecution for it, and gave himself over to death? As the good shepherd led his blessed sheep into the holy sheepfold, so the sheep and lambs of Christ ran in to him from all sides, when they heard his beloved voice, surrounded him, sought refuge with him, and kissed his hands and feet and whole body, which was torn and mangled by the claws and fetters. And they waited to hear the sound of his sweet hymns and to suck spiritual milk from his beloved teaching. Because the sheep heard the voice of the blessed shepherd, they were very happy about this, and only with difficulty could he enter his blessed appartment because of the crush of people.
The following morning the church was adorned with throngs of believers; the Saint ordained the Hephthalite priest as bishop for the land of the Hephthalites, and in the people of the Lord joy grew over the arrangements of divine providence.
There seems no reason to question any of this. The spread of Christianity along the Silk Road, led by the Nestorian clergy, is an undoubted fact, and the King of Kings would undoubtedly see a political advantage in the Hephthalites getting their bishops from the (Persian) patriarch.