Life of Mar Aba – final version now online in English

I have collected together all the pieces of the Life of the 6th century patriarch of Persia, Mar Aba, and revised them slightly and uploaded them to the Additional Fathers collection, with an introduction.  The translation is here.

I made the translation, not from the original Syriac, but from the BKV German translation.  It’s probably a bit shaky at points; but, hey, it exists!

As ever, I place the material in the public domain.  Do whatever you like with it, personal, educational or commercial.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 41 (and end)

We may as well add today the conclusion of the Life of Mar Aba.

41.  In order to avoid wearying you, through hearing too much, let us pass over what God soon did through him and for his sake in many distant countries, through arbitrating disputes which Satan, the enemy of our nature, had aroused; then in the imprisonment, which he endured for seven years in Azerbaijan; then in the fetters which he wore for three years around his neck, hands and feet at the king’s court.

There is a lot of this, and in many parts; the mouth is unable to tell it all, and you already know much of it.

So we end our words with the words of the blessed David, and say: “Blessed is the people that has such a man, and blessed is the people at whose head stands such a man, to feed the flock of our Saviour Jesus Christ.”


Life of Mar Aba – chapter 40

Dead but not buried yet! (I have split up some of the monster sentences in this one).

40.  He was honoured for seven days in the cathedral, day and night, with scripture readings, hymns, sermons and spiritual songs, and all the hosts of believers from all the provinces took the blessings home, by means of small towels (ὠράριον) and garments, that they laid on his body.  Then the King of Kings and the Mobedan Mobed sent the Mobed (of the province?) and the judge and other magians to see whether it was the saint or not, because, out of fear and terror, they didn’t believe in his death.

After these delegates had seen him, the body of the saint was placed on another bier (λεκτίκιον) and buried with great honour while spiritual songs were sung.  Countless multitudes eagerly honoured him with perfumes and lamps all the way through the city to the monastery of Seleucia.  Likewise the judges and magians who had been sent went before the litter (? BISPK’), in which the saint’s body was, and after he had been honoured through God’s almighty power, the magians returned, amazed and astonished at what they had seen and heard, to those who had sent them.

Thus the multitude lauded and praised God because of the wonderful things that happened at the death of the saint.

The King and the chief priest, the Mobedan Mobed, clearly wanted to make sure that Mar Aba did not stage a fake funeral and pop up somewhere out of their reach!

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 39

Mar Aba may be dead; but the political situation was still difficult.  The fire-priests had not forgotten their old adversary.  For Zoroastrians were not buried, and Mar Aba had been a noble Persian.

39.  Then the magians made so much fuss, that nobody dared to bury him until the King commanded it.  When he was laid on the bier (λεκτίκιον) and brought out, with great difficulty because of the crowd of believers, who threw onto it many handkerchiefs (σουδάριον) or coats and took them back again, as means of grace and blessing, until it reached the cathedral of Koke, the magians ordered that he should be thrown to the dogs.

Then the believers in droves shouted, “If anyone approaches the body of the saint, we will begin a bloodbath.”  They came en masse seized the litter (? BSPK’) and took it as a relic, and left nothing except the coffin (γλωσσόκομον) in which was the body of the saint.

The details seem rather gruesome to us.  But funerals in the East are political events, even today.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 38

By this time Mar Aba was an old man.  Clearly he had reached an understanding with the Sassanid King, and was trusted to undertake what were really diplomatic missions.  But his health had suffered from his long period of imprisonment, and it is likely that everyone knew that he did not have long to live.

38.  Afterwards the King of Kings sent him [Mar Aba] into the province of Bêt Hûzâjê, and by God’s work and his care many priests were saved from death and their blood was not shed.  He encouraged them and filled their hearts with the words of spiritual teaching.  Then he returned to the court of the King of Kings, who allowed him to reside wherever he wanted.  The captain of the foot-soldiers (paig) who guarded him was ordered to leave him in peace.

He took up his dwelling next to the church of Bêt Narkôs.  There he lived and concerned himself with divine instruction, and every day he said wonderful things to those who came to him, and converted many from heresy who had come with the King of the Arabs to pay homage to the King of Kings and that made pilgrimage to him.

When he became ill for some time because of his imprisonment, the King ordered that doctors should be sent to him to heal him; but they could not.

The Saint slept from his holy struggle on the Friday of the second week of Lent.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 37

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)[1] 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,[2] 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.

  1. [1] Also known as the White Huns; a serious threat on the northern side of the Persian kingdom.
  2. [2] The “lions and panthers” no doubt refers to his battles with the Zoroastrian clergy.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 36

The 6th century Saint’s life of the Nestorian Patriarch, Mar Aba, is an interesting document in that it contains real insights into the political maneouverings at the court of the later Sassanid kings.  The Nestorian patriarch now had a very substantial following in Persia.  Earlier Patriarchs were merely seen as the head of an unpopular sect suspected of treacherous preference for the Byzantine emperor.  But the hostility of the latter towards the Nestorians had removed this problem, and the King of Kings was beginning to see him instead as a possible counter-balance to the sometimes maleficent power of the Zoroastrian clergy.  Keeping the latter busy with theological issues distracted them from plotting.

In chapter 35 we saw that the Magians had induced the King of Kings to imprison the Catholicos again.

36.  The Catholicos boldly raised his voice and said, “Once the King of Kings has made such a decision about me, because of the whisperings of my enemies, (further) words are unnecessary.  He orders my immediate death, and with great joy do I accept death for the truth of Christ.  The Magians persecuted me, an innocent, and imprisoned me for seven years in the power of my persecutors, and sent a renegade to murder me.  But God  in his invincible power rescued me, after I came to the court of his Majesty the King of Kings, and they did violence on me and the people of God, although they fettered me hand and foot and neck as a malefactor, and God the almighty knows that I was dragged away by them by force.  The King of Kings said that he would release me from the fetters, and after he retracted this, and they slandered me before his sublime Majesty, and he finally decided against me, so let him now demand my immediate execution.”

The PSNIK’ went and reported these words to the king.  Then the King of Kings left the Saint alone and said to him in a friendly way, “Go and write letters to the Christians of each province, that, if the insurgents do not settle down peaceably, the sword, bow and arrows will be drawn against them, they will be attacked, and any found fighting will be killed, be they Magian, Jew or Christian.”  After the PSNIK’ brought the message, he undertook to write it.

After this was done, God worked on the King of Kings, and it was suggested to him that he should release the Saint.  And when the King of Kings went into (winter) quarters near the (two) cities, the Saint went with him.

The Magians must have wondered why on earth the monarch kept dithering.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 35

The hagiographical life of Mar Aba continues.

35. While the King of Kings intended that he should remain a few days after his release, and then go to the cities of his throne, Satan stirred up unrest and rioting through the actions of the heathen in Bet Huzaye.  The Magians accused the Blessed One before the King of Kings: “If the Catholicos had wanted, the rioting would not have broken out.”  Immediately he was chained to a foot-soldier (paig) by a strong chain to the neck, and brought to the court of the King of Kings, and everyone believed that he would be executed immediately.  The King of Kings, exasperated through the slander of the Magians, sent word to him by means of his commissioner (Farruchdâd Hôrmîzd) DZ’DGW: “You are an enemy of Our Majesty, and the Christians have become arrogant because of you.  In many cities they have risen up against the noble Magians, beaten and robbed them, and even now are rioting.  You chose bishops and priests and sent them into the provinces, even though you are in prison; but myself you treat as nothing.  Therefore I command that in the morning you will be taken and thrown into a pit, so that you will die there.”

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 34

The 6th century “Saint’s Life” of the East Syriac patriarch, Mar Aba, continues.  He has been loaded with chains, and is now being marched along on an expedition that the Sassanid Persian King of Kings is making up-country.  The Persian fire-priests at court are still trying to get him. 

After the Saint had been dragged along in these fetters in the wake of the king for about 400 parasangs, until the King of Kings went down to the (two) cities, he went down also and lived in fetters with his disciples in a house, where by the power of Christ he managed the patriarchate and all its obligations.  Then the King of Kings commanded, in his goodness, that he should be freed;  but the Magians persisted in their usual hostility and left the Saint in his fetters.  Once the King of Kings departed from the (two) cities, he was taken in chains in the wake of the court to a place named PS’I.  After they had tortured and tormented him in these hard fetters and the wonderful beauty of his patience in the fear of God had been revealed, then almighty God, the Lord of All, in his wonderful power, through his inexpressible works, gave an irresistible hint to the mind of the King of Kings, so that he sent and by a miracle loosed the athlete (ἀθλήτης) of Christ from all his fetters.  Then there was great joy in the whole people of God and they offered praise and worship.

How much of this is historical, and how much folk tale, as with all such literature is very hard to tell.  But the interest of this near contemporary account is that the Sassanid monarchy really did change its policy during this period, coming to see the Nestorian Christians as a possible useful counter-balance to the power of the Zoroastrian clergy. 

In this chapter again we see that the King of Kings had no interest in resolving the dispute, but was entirely happy to keep the patriarch dangling in front of the Magians, sometimes offering them some of what they wanted, other times not.  It kept the Magians occupied, rather than engaged in their time-honoured past-time of plotting against the throne.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 33

The hagiographical Life of the East Syriac Catholicos Mar Aba continues thus:

33. After the Mobed spoke thus to the Lordly one, the latter instructed him extensively from the Holy Scriptures on the true faith, the permanence of Christianity, the greatness of the economy of God, about the resurrection and the judgement, about the blessings which are prepared for the righteous in heaven, and the punishments which are prepared for the wicked in eternal hell with Satan and the devils.

When the Mobed heard this, he was seized with amazement and fear; he clapped his hands together at the great manysidedness and invincibility of these thoughts, and he stood up and recognised and praised God.  Then the Lordly one said, “Go and tell them: I am the servant of God and I do not transgress the command of my Lord, who says, ‘Go into all nations and baptise them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.’  I shall not go to eternal Hell with Satan and the devils; I am not afraid of the long agony of passing time, and I do not confuse the true life and eternal blessings with the corruptible (blessings) of this impermanent world.” When the Mobed went and said this to the Magians, they marvelled at the courage of the Lordly one and said, “You see that he does not obey us and does not give way so that we might release him from his fetters.  Now he can only blame himself.”  After a few days, when he was exhausted from his heavy fetters and the effort of (walking) the difficult paths, and had come to a stop in order to rest from the rigours, the Magians brought two pairs of thick, new fetters, took the old ones away, and left him bound with them hand and foot, so that he could no longer get up because of their weight.  He received these joyfully and confessed and praised God.