The evil bishop of Amida, Abraham bar Kaili

My queries about the Chronicle of Zuqnin led me to read the translation of the Third Part of the Chronicle by Witold  Witakowski.  This covers the period from the reign of Anastasius (ca. 500) to the end of the century. 

In the Byzantine empire no political dissent was permitted.  The emperor was absolute, and he made all the decisions.  Dissent was a capital offence.  But a certain amount of religious disagreement was permitted.  Human nature being what it is, this ensured that all the political disagreements of the empire expressed themselves in theological language and debased theology to the service of personal ambition.   Those doing this were mostly Greeks, and they did it in the language of Aristotle.  They also discovered that, while agora-democracy was illegal, they were allowed to get together in church councils and vote each other into exile, much as they had ostracised each other a millenium earlier.

The long disagreements between Alexandria and the rest of the empire came to a head at Chalcedon in 451.  But this merely served to ensure half a century of violent disagreements.  The emperor Zeno had tacitly abandoned the council in his Henotikon, and Anastasius followed him in a policy of supporting the status quo — no Chalcedonians disturbing the peace in monophysite regions, no monophysites doing the same in Chalcedonian regions.  The position was weakened by the fact that Constantinople was Chalcedonian, while the emperor was clearly not.

The succession of Justin, a Chalcedonian, led immediately to persecution of the monophysites, and this continued under Justinian, although the latter’s wife Theodora was a  monophysite and protected them to some extent.  The Chronicle of Zuqnin quotes verbatim from the lost Second Part of the Ecclesiastical History of John of Ephesus, who witnessed what went on.  The story starts in 527 AD, when the Patriarch Ephrem appointed a man named Abraham bar Kaili as bishop of Amida, in the monophysite area.

In Amid a man by the name of Abraham, a cleric of that church, became bishop. He was called Bar Kaili and (although) his family came from Tella he arrived in (Amid) from Antioch. Then Satan possessed him totally, and he devoted himself to violent persecution without mercy, to pillage and the destruction of people’s souls more than his earlier and more recent predecessors. This villain used (all means) including the killing, crucifixion and burning of believers in a barbarous and cruel way, without mercy. Impudently he plotted by every means foul ruses for the destruction of people—tortures, cruel scourging and pernicious confinement in prison, both in the tribunal building and in the deepest pit which was in the prison, into which murderers and others sentenced to death were thrown and where they were executed, after which their bodies were secretly removed and cast in desolate graves, like those of dumb animals.

In order to deceive the Amidenes’ keen ardour for the true faith he pretended to them that he would not preach (the doctrine of) the Council. But during the time of the dux Thomas, a Goth who was the dux at that time, he gave orders to bring and crucify four persons at every single gate. They hung on their crosses till the evening. As next day the commemoration of the blessed Mother of God was to be celebrated outside the northern gate of Amid, the wicked bishop rode out to celebrate it. When he saw the bodies hanging on the crosses he forbade them to be taken down until it was necessary because of the smell of corruption. (Only) then would he let them to be taken down and buried.

Also when he learned that there was an uprising (and the people) were shouting these words, “Behold! the new martyrs by the hand of the Christians have appeared! So why do the Christians blame any longer the pagan judges who did that, when now they themselves, like those, do (the same)”, he tormented men and women because they had stood up against him when he demanded that they should accept the Council of Chalcedon.

And all these things (happened) in our presence and we saw it with our (own) eyes.

First he expelled and ousted (the monks from) all the holy monasteries in the vicinity of the city, and then from the whole country around it. Also he made a list of the quarters, mansions and houses of the city, of men and women, each one by his name. He demanded that they be entered on to the church register and that they receive communion, even babes, and not only those which had been born but also those which had not yet been born. He demanded that the women should be registered so that when they had given birth, they should bring the (babes) to be baptized. If it happened that a new-born child died or (that a babe) was miscarried, unless clergy came to see it, the family of the dead babe which had not been brought to be baptized was in danger. And these evil deeds, that is pillaging and destruction, were done not only in this city but in all the country around it and in the (whole) diocese of Amid.

On the holy martyr Cyrus.

Here is (something) most terrible, grievous and cruel: (the story of) a priest whose name was Cyrus, from the village of Ligin, who was seized and required to receive communion. When he refused, he was brought to the city before the bishop. He violently shouted at him in indignation saying:

“Why do you not receive communion?”

And he answered:

“You make your communion repugnant to me and I cannot partake of it, for communion given by force is not a communion.”

Then (the bishop) swore:

“You will not leave here, but you will take communion.”

(Cyrus also) swore:

“I will never accept the forced communion from you.”

Then the bishop had the Eucharist brought and gave orders to hold the priest, to fill a spoon (with the Eucharist) and to put it into his mouth. (But) as he shut his mouth they could not insert the spoon into it. Then the bishop gave orders to bring a whip, to stick its handle into (the priest’s) mouth and in this way to get the spoon (also) into his mouth. They held his teeth apart (so forcefully) that they were nearly pulled out. With the handle (of the whip) inserted in his mouth he mumbled, not being able to move his tongue nor to speak normally to them. He swore saying:

“By Christ’s truth, if you put the Eucharist into my mouth, I will spit it out upon your faces.”

Thus in bitter wrath and threatening (him) with death they inserted the spoon to one side of the whip and poured the Eucharist into his mouth. But he blew and ejected it from his mouth. Accordingly they called him “the Spitter”.

When Bar Kaili saw what that priest did, he used it as a pretext to kill him which had been his intention (in the first place). As the others perished by his hand so he would cause also (the priest) to perish. Intoxicated with the ferocity and cruelty of Satan, who “was a murderer from the beginning”, he promptly gave orders to carry wood and fire to the tetrapylon (187) in the city and (there) to burn the priest. It was the Wednesday of fasting in Holy Week. So he had the priest put in [the tetrapylon] and wood gathered there from the vicinity. They set him on fire and burned him. (The people of) the city wailed and wept at this horrible and heart-rending sight, as they watched a man burning and dense smoke rising as from dumb and irrational beasts (being burnt). This was a hideous and inhuman deed, which, with all its ferocity, stupidity and obduracy of heart, (only) dumb beasts can inflict on each other. All (the people of) the city were so agitated and shocked at the evil deed of burning that priest in (such) iniquity and wickedness that they thought to burn Bar Kaili, doing to him the same thing that he had displayed by burning that priest. There were (however) some nobles of the city (who) out of fear of the emperor restrained them from doing so. Many people however separated themselves from (Bar Kaili) regarding him as a murderer and a Jew, and they ceased (to receive) communion from him.

(Bar Kaili) being afraid lest the matter become known to the emperor and lest he sentence him to be burnt as he himself had burned (a man), in anticipation he wrote falsely and informed (the emperor) that a certain priest had trampled the Eucharist with his feet, and because of this had been burned. Thus he managed to deceive (the emperor) and to cause the murder to pass (without consequences).

That we have not deviated from the truth, nor misrepresented it in what we have described, the Lord is our witness and all the contemporaries of that wicked and ferocious deed. This evil became known all over the East and West, and everybody was horrified by what was done by people wearing the robes of priesthood but far removed from its virtues.

(187) A monumental gate-like construction with four entrances built in Roman cities on the cross of the main streets. The best example in the East is the Great Tetrapylon in Palmyra (3rd c. A.D.).

Bar Kaili had, of course, no more religion in him than a plank of wood.  He was a hatchet-man, chosen precisely for his lack of conscience and in the knowledge that  his violence would be exercised on the dissenting population, in order to force them to conform.

The wicked bishop is a constant figure down the centuries.  James of Edessa describes such folk very accurately in his damaged Chronicle:

But the bishops who had swerved from [the faith, since] they were [not accepted] by the churches, and they would not endure their [communion], not considering their folly, — — —  — — —  — — — [out of] desire of power made use of worldly authorities and [the sword of tyranny — — — — ] to get possession of churches and sees [and the flock — — — — which] was purchased with the blood of Christ.

It might be supposed that such actions would not happen today.  A look at the accounts of the behaviour of bishops in the Episcopal Church of the USA on VirtueOnline reveals precisely the same behaviour.  In the USA they cannot murder and torture.  But the law allows them to seize churches which they did not build from those who did, expell the congregations, and sell the property for their own profit; and they are doing this all over the USA.  The church is pursuing just such a policy against dissenters now.

Perhaps it is something about episcopacy as an institution.  It is depressing to see, nevertheless.

9 thoughts on “The evil bishop of Amida, Abraham bar Kaili

  1. Ah! A nice quote to have. Especially since I will be needing this one next year. Thanks, I’ll have to write this down somewhere. 🙂

  2. I will be starting within a project, in September of next year. Collecting, editing, translating and commenting on (fragmentary) late antique Syriac ecclesiastical histories. I don’t know the exact details, but I’m sure that quote is just the thing that we’re meant to be looking for.

  3. Wow! Something like the Fragments of Greek Historians, for Syriac? That would be SO useful!

    But of course so much, even of non-fragmentary histories, has never been translated.

    I bet you do some stuff on James of Edessa, then. If you could get a set of UV photographs of the British Library manuscript, that would make a huge difference. The intro to that has never been put into English.

    Do let us know more when you know. A list of authors would be a nice start!

  4. It is nice for once to read on the Monophysitic question from the other side. In Greece we do learn Orthodox doctrine in the 10 years of religious education in school, from the Orthodox POV of course. We have heard of the 7 saints we have had to the Monophysites, but never of the other side.

    The Monophysitic issue did not originate as Constantinople vs Alexandria/Antioch though it did take this form eventually. The Greek part of the Empire was dyophysite, the Semitic part (with the exception of Latinized North West Africa) was Monophysite, hence when the Islamic Army of the Semite Arabs came they were treated as brethren. St. John of Damascus actually considered Islam not to be a separate religion but a Nestorian heresy.

    We are taught that Monophysitism is a simpler form of Christianity since Monophysites believe that Jesus was only God and his human form was an idol. Orthodox doctrine is that Jesus was both perfect God and perfect human since if he was not perfect human then through the Resurrection Death was not defeated (if I remember my 5th grade religious education correctly…)

    It is very nice to hear that a FHG or F.Gr.Hist. of Syriac writers is to be made. Though nowadays even Jacoby is somewhat outdated we must not forget that his mere existance has seriously advanced Greek scholarship

  5. I suspect that we cannot rely on the descriptions of monophysitism or nestorianism in orthodox writers of this period. The nature of the discussions involved made accurate definition difficult and mistake easy, even without the urgencies of personal or sectional animosities. Both sides were intending to be orthodox, I am sure.

  6. ikokki, do you know where John of Damascus discusses Islam in this way? I recall his list book on heresies do mention Islam but I don’t remember the nestorian connection. Also, Jacoby is indeed wonderful, too bad access to his work or Brill’s updated edition is nearly impossible! What I would give to be able to read either.

    Roger, thanks for the good quotations, what an evil bishop that Kaili was.

  7. I’d be interested in the reference too.

    But labels of this kind could get tossed around pretty freely. Nestorians were often called Jews by their enemies, on the basis that objecting to calling Mary “theotokos” meant (in some eyes) denying that Jesus was God, which was what the Jews believed.

    In the Chronicle of Zuqnin, just before the bit I quoted, the monophysites are calling one of the Chalcedonian bishops “Paul the Jew”, on the same basis; they ‘know’ that he is ‘really’ a Nestorian, and so is ‘really’ a Jew. It’s like calling someone a fascist today — it means nothing except as a general statement of hate towards them. All this hate is part of the political side of the question.

    I wish Jacoby was online. The older FGH is at Google books, I think.

    I was struck by the Bar Kaili passage, I admit. Nothing in it suggests the slightest concern with Christianity — he’s just a amoral brute in a surplice, as people demanding conformity to this or that theological confession so often have been.

  8. I heard about St. John of Damascus from my father who has Mine’s PG as a bedtime read. Thus I am not sure at all where it comes from. When I was on Thursday at my (old) University I was reading The Classical Review and the reviewer lets just say was less than impressed by Brill’s New Jacoby online. Still to be actually able to read with your own eyes what the FGrHist reference actually corresponds to rather than to take the author’s word for it would be great…

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