His identity was unclear to later writers, and in the earliest manuscripts his name is given as 'Jacob' rather than 'Aphrahat'. This in turn gave rise to him being identified with Jacob, bishop of Nisibis; an impossible identification, since Jacob died in 338 AD. The confusion must be early, since Gennadius names him thus in his continuation of Jerome's De viris illustribus. Likewise the early Armenian translation of his works has the same name on it.
Aphrahat was the author of a collection of 23 short works, known as the Demonstrations, or sometimes as the Letters. The first 22 form an alphabetic acrostic (the Syriac alphabet has 22 letters). Nos 1-10 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 to survive, and one of the least Hellenised. At the same time the prose style is one of the best examples of early Syriac.
He wrote within the Persian empire, and presumably must have been a figure of some standing in the church, since Demonstrations 10 and 14 are addressed to 'the bishops and clergy.'
The Demonstrations cover a wide range of topics. Those included in the partial English translation are signalled with [ET].
- On Faith [ET]
- On Love [ET]
- On Fasting
- On Prayer [ET]
- On Wars [ET]
- On the Bnay Qyama (=Children of the Covenant) [ET]
- On Penitents [ET]
- On the Resurrection of the Dead [ET]
- On Humility
- On the Pastors [ET]
- On Circumcision [ET]
- On the Pascha [ET]
- On the Sabbath [ET]
- On the Distinction between Foods [ET]
- On the (gentile) Peoples who have taken the place of the (Jewish) People [ET, supposedly]
- On Christ, the Son of God [ET]
- Against the Jews, on Virginity and on Continence [ET]
- Against the Jews who say that they will be gathered together again [ET]
- On the Support of the Needy
- On the Persecution [ET]
- On Death and the Last Times [ET]
- On the Grape in the Cluster, in which there is Blessing (Isaiah 65:8) [Partial ET]
The first ten are mainly concerned with aspects of the Christian life. Many of nos 11-22 are aimed at Christians who are leaning to Judaism and have adopted Jewish practices. This may relate to the persecution that took place in Persia in the early 340's (perhaps 341?) at a time of war with Rome, when a number of prominent Christians, clergy and laity, were martyred. One cause of the persecution seems to be that influential Jews at the Persian court took the opportunity to denounce Christians in general as favourable to the Romans (Dem. 5, written earlier, suggests that, as with most accusations made to demonise others, the allegation had some foundation in fact).
Demonstrations 5, 14 and 21 refer to contemporary events and are of historical importance.
Demonstration 6 is an important source for knowledge of the early Syriac ascetic tradition, independent of the Egyptian monastic movement which was be so influential later. It is addressed to various types of men and women who have made various sorts of commitment to celibacy, probably at the same time as adult baptism.
Complete translations exist in French and German. Translations of selected demonstrations exist in English, and a complete translation has just appeared in Moran Etho.
- The homilies of Aphraates the Persian sage. Edited from the Syriac manuscripts of the fifth and sixth centuries in the British Museum with an English translation by W. Wright. London : Williams and Norgate (1869). Vol. 1. The Syriac Text (Vol. 2 never published).
- Jean Parisot, Aphraatis sapientis Persae demonstrationes. (Textum Syriacum vocalium signis instruxit, Latine vertit, notis illustravit D. Ioannes Parisot.) Syr. & Lat. (1894)
- J. Gwynn, A select library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series 2. Vol. 13. (1898). (See below for online link). English translations of 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 17, 21, and 22.
- J. Neusener, Aphrahat and Judaism. (1971). Contains English translations of nos. 11-13, 15-19, 21 and part of 23.
- Journal of the Society for Oriental Research, vol. 14 (1930). Contains English translations of nos. 2 and 7, according to Brock; seems only to contain a translation of no. 2.
- Journal of the Society for Oriental Research, vol. 16 (1932). Contains an English translation of no. 16 according to Brock; seems in fact only to contain a translation of no. 7.
- S.P. Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life. (1987), pp.5-25 contains an English translation of no. 4.
- "Moran Etho" Vol.23 (376 pages): Aphrahat Demonstrations I, translated from Syriac and introduced by Dr. Kuriakose Valavanolickal. Possibly the same volume also exists in another series: Aphrahat demonstrations / translated from Syriac and introduced by Kuriakose Valavanolickal. Series: Catholic theological studies of India, 3; HIRS India series, no. 28. Publisher: Changanassery : HIRS Publications, 1999. ISBN/ISSN: 8187576278, 8187576286 (v. 1).
- "Moran Etho" Vol. 24 (411 pages): Aphrahat Demonstrations II, translated from Syriac and introduced by Dr. Kuriakose Valavanolickal.
- Marie-Joseph Pierre, Les exposés / Aphraate le sage persan ; Traduction du syriaque, introduction et notes. (1988, 1989) Sources Chrétiennes 349 and 359 contain a complete French translation.
- P. Bruns, Unterweisungen / Aphrahat; aus dem syrischen übersetzt und eingeleitet von Peter Bruns. Series: Fontes Christiani, Bd. 5. Freiburg im Breisgau:Herder (1991-2) 2 vols. 21 cm. ISBN/ISSN: 3451221063, 3451222116 (Tbd.2, Gewebe). Complete German translation. An earlier translation of at least some exists in the Bibliothek der Kirchenvater Nos 102/103: Ausgewählte Schriften der syrischen Kirhenväter Aphraates, Rabulas und Isaak v. Nineve ... übersetzt von ... G. Bickell, Kempten (1874) 426 pp. There is also G. Bert, Aphrahat's des persischen Weisen Homilien. Aus dem Syrischen übersetzt und erläutert von ... G. Bert. Series: [Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geshichte der altchristlichen Literatur, etc. Bd. 3. Hft. 3, 4.] Publisher: Leipzig (1888) 431pp.
- Frank S.B. Gavin, Aphraates and the Jews : a study of the controversial homilies of the Persian sage in their relation to Jewish thought. Series: Contributions to oriental history and philology ; no. 7. Publisher: Toronto : Journal of the Society of Oriental Research (1923). 74 pp. Reprinted from Journal of the Society of Oriental Research, v.vii, nos. 3-4 p. 95-166.
- La Version géorgienne de l'Entretien VI d'Aphraate. [Edited by Gérard Garitte. With a Latin translation. 1964]
- Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. 2, vol. 13 (1898) -- English translations of 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 17, 21, and 22.
- This article is mainly derived from material in S.P.Brock, A brief outline of Syriac literature. Moran Etho 9. Kottayam: SEERI (1997).