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.


10 thoughts on “Life of Mar Aba – final version now online in English

  1. Thank you for that very interesting and well-informed introduction, Roger.

    On the Marcionites, I am sure you are aware that at an earlier period Greek-speaking Christian deportees in Persia seem to have been known in Persian as ‘Kristyane’, a term obviously derived from Greek, while the Syriac-speaking natives were called Nasraye (‘Nazarenes’). Such, at least, is a reasonable inference from the famous Behistun inscription. I suspect that they were also known as Mshihaye (‘Christ’s people’, ‘the Messiah’s people’), the standard Syriac term for ‘Christian’.

    It is interesting to find a comparable distinction in the sixth century. By then, the earlier waves of deportees would have been assimilated to the Church of the East, but fresh waves kept coming in from the perennial border wars between Rome and the Sassanian Empire. My guess is that these ‘Marcionites’, who called themselves and were called by others ‘Christians’, were recent Greek-speaking arrivals in Persia; perhaps, as you say, reacting to the policies of Justinian.

  2. Roger, thank you for all this work you are doing. I like to dip into your work every now and then to gain new insights into areas I know little of.
    How have you worked your way through German sources?
    Do you have plans to put your materials together in some anthology or other?
    I’m sure there are presses like Gorgias (?) that might be interested in making Oriental Christian sources more widely available in the west.

  3. Thank you very much for your kind words. But of course I am only an amateur, dipping my toe like everyone else.

    I can’t say that I have worked my way through German literature, although I have a fair idea of what exists in it by way of translations of primary sources. Someone wrote to me about early Christianity in the Syriac-speaking world, referencing Walter Bauer’s horrible 1934 book, and I read the English translation of the first chapter. But I always read books, looking for primary sources. This mentioned the Life of Mar Aba. I know that the main German translations are the BKV, digitised by Gregor Emmenegger, and a bit of reading led me to that.

    I don’t think anyone would want to print a rough translation of a German translation. Gorgias do a super job, but they would (quite rightly) want a translation direct from Syriac. So would we all!

    My efforts are mostly sub-scholarly, designed to promote interest and accessibility. I can’t think of any reason why anyone would want to collect them. They are tools, no more.

  4. Hi Roger,

    You are most likely to find something interesting on the subject in J. Labourt’s ‘Le christianisme dans l’empire perse sous la dynastie sassanide’ (Paris, 1904). Labourt’s is by far the best available book on the early centuries of the Church of the East, and I drew heavily upon it for the relevant chapters of my own book, ‘The Martyred Church’ (London, 2011). You can get a copy of Labourt easily enough in one of those cheap and cheerful photocopy reproductions. It really is well worth reading.

    Most of the best scholarship on the Church of the East has been done by French scholars, and there is a mass of stuff out there in French which has not yet been properly assimilated by English-speaking scholars. My own magnum opus, ‘The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East, 1318-1913’ (Louvain, 2000), is massively indebted to the work of the late Jean-Maurice Fiey, and indeed is dedicated to his memory.

  5. Labourt is online, and I have downloaded a copy, but never had the time to read through! I will look again.

    French scholarship is generally excellent – far better than ours as a rule.

  6. Hi Roger,

    I have recently been comparing your translation of the Life of the Nestorian patriarch Mar Aba I (540‒52) with the considerably shorter account of his patriarchate preserved in the 9th-century Chronicle of Seert. This account is clearly dependent on the Life, and in most respects is little more than a competent abridgement of the longer text. However, it also contains an engaging story (Chronicle of Seert, ii. 75‒77) about Mar Aba and the Persian king Khusro I Anushirwan (531‒79) which, as far as I can see, does not appear in the Life. The story is set towards the end of Mar Aba’s patriarchate, shortly after the revolt of Khusro’s son Anoshazad in 550. Anoshazad launched his revolt at Jundishapur in Beth Huzaye (Elam), a province with a large Nestorian Christian population at this period.

    Here’s the story (in my own translation):

    They say that the king fell into a deep depression when his own son rebelled against him. ‘I took so much trouble over his education,’ he said. ‘I did everything in my power to correct him, hoping that he would walk in the path of righteousness, make a success of his life and make me proud of him; but he has been a bad son.’ His courtiers tried everything they could think of to raise his spirits, but he refused to be consoled. The blessed Mar Aba entered his presence and made use of the following ingenious stratagem. ‘Your Majesty’, he said, ‘I wish to ask the mobad mobadan a question. ‘Ask it,’ the king said. ‘Imagine a pot full of water,’ said Mar Aba. ‘We place wood under the pot and set light to it, and the fire burns and makes the water bubble and boil. What does the boiling water say to the pot? What does the pot say to the wood? And what does the fire say to the pot? We see the fire burning, we hear a hissing noise, and we see the water bubbling and boiling. Tell me now, what does each of them say to his fellow?’ The mobad was taken aback, and said nothing.

    The king, who had not spoken for many days, laughed and said to the catholicus: ‘Of all the people we allow into our presence, you are the wisest! None can equal your knowledge or learning! Come now, tell me yourself the answer to your question.’ ‘Very well,’ he replied. ‘The boiling water says to the pot: Was it not I who hardened the clay from which you were made? Without me, you would not be a pot. Why then do you torment and torture me so? Then the pot says to the wood: Was it not the water that nurtured the tree that bore you and the branches from which you were cut? Yet you viciously scorch and burn me, and force me to harm the water which hardened my clay and turned me from a pool of slime into a cooking pot. Finally, the wood says to the fire: No, it is you alone who are the oppressor. We were both comfortable with the warmth of the winter sun, but you have made us harm our parents. When your heat became insupportable, we behaved unnaturally, and repaid the good we received from our parents with evil. It is you who are to blame for these injustices.’

    When the king heard the reply of the catholicus, he grasped the point of the story, that it was unreasonable for parents to accept no blame for the wickedness of their children. ‘You must put up with your son’s behaviour,’ the catholicus added. ‘You cannot tear off a man’s fingernails without making him suffer violent pain and cruel tortures, nor can you extract the fat from an animal’s kidneys without killing it.’ The king recognised the truth of these words, accepted his message of consolation and thanked him. He also commanded him to ask the people of Jundishapur to desert his son’s party. This indeed happened, as we have mentioned above.

    As you spent so much time on translating the Life, I thought you might be interested in reading this anecdote, which could have come straight out of the Arabian Nights. The Life tends to dwell upon the constant harassment suffered by Mar Aba I at the hands of the Zoroastrian establishment, but this anecdote shows the boot on the other foot. Mar Aba is portrayed as a skilled courtier, who discomfits his Zoroastrian counterpart and raises Khusro’s spirits after all others have failed. I imagine that this kind of subterfuge was constantly necessary when granted an audience by the King of Kings, at least if a courtier wished to emerge with his head still on his shoulders. I can think of several similar occasions when Nestorian and Jacobite patriarchs, physicians and lesser courtiers resorted to parables in order to put a point across indirectly to a Sasanian king or a Muslim caliph. One has to tread carefully around a self-regarding despot, and no doubt the Zoroastrian clergy had to be equally tactful in their dealings with Khusro. When the later Nestorian chroniclers Mari ibn Sulaiman and Sliba ibn Yuhanna praise a catholicus for ‘being wise in the ways of the world’ or ‘being a good speaker’, they probably had this kind of performance in mind. So different from the home life of our own dear queen …

  7. Thank you David! That is a gorgeous anecdote: and, as you say, a valuable corrective. The high social status of Mar Aba is obvious from the Life but this confirms it also. As you say, life at the caprice of a despot necessitates such strategems!

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