Life of Mar Aba – chapter 32

The hagiographical life of the 6th century East Syriac Catholicos Mar Aba continues.

32.  At the time of the journey, when the King of Kings set out to go to Azerbaijan, the saint was led with him in his fetters, in great discomfort, over mountains and hills, in heat and drought, in thirst and hunger, in much prayer with his disciples.  Wherever they came, the believers welcomed him with great joy and everyone went to his tent as a means of grace and blessing.  Wherever the king camped, believers came from place and asked that the Saint should be released from these harsh restraints.  When the King of Kings came to Azerbaijan and the magians of the place where the Blessed One had been in custody, hearing that he was at court, all came to honour and greet him, weeping that by the removal of the Noble One they had been robbed of such a blessing.  Everywhere they went, wherever the great ones of the Kingdom were, they spoke of his wisdom and manner of life.  The leaders of the magians at court forbade them to say such things about him, until, of the leaders of the magians, Kardag the Ainbed, and Shahrdawer, and Azadsad the Mobedan Mobed, calmed down in their anger against him, because they became ashamed of themselves through the beautiful things which people said about him.  So they told him through a Mobed, “We hear from many people that you are a good and an upright man, and we are anxious that you should be released from your bonds.  Just state publically that you are not opposed to magianism and will not convert (anyone) else to Christianity, and we will immediately release you and you can go wherever you like.”

All this seems rather fictional to me.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 31

31.  Then they bound the saint hand and foot and neck with heavy iron fetters, and covered his face so that no-one would know him and no rebellion would break out, placed him on a mule and handed him over to the mobed who had oversight of the prison at court.  The mobed did as he was commanded and the house in which the blessed one was was guarded by horsemen and foot soldiers.  When the saint heard that zealous believers were hanging about, looking to break open the house, he was very worried and forbade them to remain in the vicinity of the house.  Immediately they left at his command;  but the saint stayed in the prison guarded by God, who had said, “With the righteous am I in distress; I will strengthen and honour him and show him my salvation.”  And although fettered, he consecrated bishops, priests and deacons, strengthened them with blessings and prayers, and sent them out to the provinces.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 30

Here is another chapter of the 6th century hagiographical life of the East Syriac patriarch, Mar Aba I. 

The text is valuable as it was clearly written in the Persian realm, and with knowledge of the political change going on in the mid-6th century.  This is the period in which the Sassanid monarchs begin to see the Nestorian Christians as a possible counter-balance to the power of the Zoroastrian clergy, rather than as alien intruders.  The anti-heretical policies of Justinian, where Mar Aba himself had had to flee from Constantinople, facilitated this change.  

The Magians were always a threat to any ruler on the Persian throne, and Chosroes II can have had no objection to entangling them in endless religious disputes instead.  When Mar Aba died, the same Persian ruler promptly appointed his own man as patriarch rather than allowing an election.

Mar Aba has been in exile.  He has returned, after an assassination attempt, and is now engaged in a political battle at court with the Magians.  The latter are determined to have him executed on one pretext or another if they can; but the King of Kings blows hot and cold on each of their initiatives.

30.  While they devised these things, the Christian people came up and went about everywhere in the belief that he had been crowned[1], or that he was about to be crowned.  But God in his mercy delivered him from their hands.  By his secret work he inspired one of the great men of the empire to stand up before the King and say, “King of Kings, best of men, may you live in eternity and may your majesty reign forever.  The Christian people who are in your empire are a strong, great people, an innumerable multitude, and also useful for the service of the government.  If this man, their leader, is put to death, it injures them greatly and your empire suffers no small damage.”  When the King of Kings in his benevolence heard this from this man, it pleased him and his whole court, so that they would not hear the petition (τάγμα) of the Magians, and he ordered that the holy one of Christ must not be killed.

We need not doubt that the unnamed noble spoke what he knew the King already wanted to have said in public.

  1. [1]I.e. martyred.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 29

29.  On the morning of the (following) day, when the blessed one in the company of the Christians went to the court in order to thank the King of Kings, the aforementioned magians sought for a way to kill him.  They were afraid to seize him openly on account of the number of believers accompanying him, in case there should be an uproar when they approached him, and decided to send the Rad and the Ainbed to arrest him secretly.  That day there was heavy rain, and so they went into the hunting lodge at a place called the Birdhouse, near the (palace of) the King of Kings.  The magians send to him, as if they wanted to speak to him.  After he entered, they closed the door so that no-one could follow him and said to the blessed one: “Ever since you became a Christian, you have converted many magians into Christians, and you cannot be allowed to live (longer).”  Some said, “He should be thrown to the lions.”  Some said, “He should be strangled.” Others said, “We’ll throw him into a well so that he dies there, without the Christians knowing.”

This seems more like standard hagiographical material to me.  The author has already made clear that the King of Kings is not in favour of extreme measures, and the Magians would certainly not proceed in this way — as has already been seen — without his approval.  So I suspect this chapter is fiction.

But it is hard to tell.  How can we extract useful historical information from texts of this kind, in some kind of structured and objective way? 

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 28

28.  Then the King of Kings told him: “That you ignored our command and come here, we forgive you.  But the four very serious accusations that the magians make against you are as follows: that you make magians leave their religion (dên) and into Christians; that you do not let your people marry many women as they wish; that you subvert the legal processes of the magians; that you were originally a heathen and only later became a Christian.  Add to this that when you were interned, you appointed bishops, priests and deacons and ordered them to teach and convert people to Christianity as you do.  All this we forgive you in our benevolence.  Only the fact that you became a Christian later, must you account for, if the Mobedan Mobed requires it from you.  Now go home and be at peace.”  Then the Saint worshipped and praised God; he blessed the King of Kings, and went out of the HRPDKA with great joy.[1]  But because of the crush of the crowd accompanying him he could not get through the city gate, but went over the city moat.  At this the aforementioned magians were amazed and upset; they went and woke the King and said: “The man, who is the enemy of the religion (dên) of Hormizd, you have let go free and he is going to his house!”

If this is historical — and this is a hagiographical text, so it may not be — then we can see the cunning calculation taking place in the astute political mind of Chosroes II:  Mar Aba is not the leader of a bunch of potential enemy sympathisers, as previous Catholici may have been.  He can’t be disloyal, because he is persona non grata in the Roman empire, as are his followers.  He has to rely on the king for support against the Magians, so must be loyal in return.  And he isn’t some nobody, but a noble Persian.  His followers increase in numbers every day, although still small.  All this keeps the powerful Zoroastrian clergy so busy that they have no time to plot against the King of Kings, unlike some of their predecessors.  And both sides have to appeal to the King, whose authority is thereby strengthened.

From Chosroes II’s point of view, what’s not to like?  All he has to do is keep the pot boiling.  So he dismisses most of the charges, but leaves a very intractable one; and at the same time endears himself to the Magians by making them judges in the case.

  1. [1]The HRPDKA seems to be the jail at court, perhaps.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 27

The story continues.  A court intrigue has led a Christian renegade to Mar Aba’s place of exile, and witnessed an attempt on his life.  It is clear that the place of exile is not secure.  Some Persian terms are not translated in the Syriac, so remain just collections of consonants.

27.  Afterwards the blessed one reflected, “Perhaps the murderer will find an opportunity to fulfil his murderous desire upon me, and then spread the rumour that I have run away.”  Then he gave himself up to death in the open, got up in the night with his disciple, named Jacob, and, trusting God, left the village accompanied by the zealous, stout and God-loving bishop of Azerbaijan, Mar Johannan.  He travelled in the winter, in cold, frost and snow, over the mountains and hills, to the royal court, entered and took HRPDKA.[1] 

When the King of Kings heard of his arrival, he was greatly astonished, that he had not gone elsewhere, but had come there where everyone was afraid that he would hear from the HRPDKA.  The Christians of the (two) cities and everywhere arose and came to see the blessed one, and everyone awaited the outcome of this unfortunate business.  But the magians rejoiced and said, “Now that he has ignored the command of the King of Kings, the latter will at once command his execution and rid us of him.” 

Since everyone was watching and waiting to see what would happen, the King of Kings sent to the blessed one by means of Ferruchdad Hormizd DZ’DGW, “What is the judgement on he who transgresses the command of his lord?”  The Catholicos said, “If he is a serf, his food and clothing shall be taken; if he works for pay, he will not receive his pay.”

Hormizd DZ’DGW said, “What is your judgement, when you have ignored the command of the king of kings and come here against his command?”  The Catholicos said, “I have not ignored the command of the king of kings, but I am his friend and obey his command.  Because a renegade came against me, to murder me secretly, I left there and came to his court, so that no-one would think that I had run away.  If I have done wrong, let him execute me openly.”  Then Hormizd DZ’DGW went and reported this to the King of Kings.

Mar Aba takes the right line: for every noble at court is afraid of secret intrigues, and a demand for fair treatment is one that few will find unreasonable.  Mar Aba, notice, will not be treated as a servant, and is very conscious of his status as a Persian of high rank.

  1. [1]The BKV text gives no clue as to what this is.  The word ‘took’ is ‘ergriff’, so may have some other meaning.

Life of Mar Aba – chapters 25 and 26

We’re now back to history.

It is never safe for oriental potentates to be away from the centre of power.  They tend to get overthrown.  Being away from court, Mar Aba was now vulnerable to court intrigues.

25.  After the saint had spent seven years in this way, without ever crossing the threshold of the house in which he lived, being constant in fasting, prayer, and writing letters excellent in every way, which he sent out in order to govern his subordinate provinces, Satan became full of envy and could not endure these magnificent things.

He caused a second Judas, unworthy of the name of  Petrus Gurganara, who from a spiritual pastor had become a ravening wolf, to deny Christ and embrace the error of magianism, because the purity and integrity of the church expelled him from its womb because of his many abominations and immoralities, like a splinter from the eye, and, with the traitor, his associates.

He went to the chief magian and at the command of the king obtained a order of apostasy[1], that any of the bishops, priests and deacons ordained by the blessed one who did not resign should be thrown into prison, and that no-one should refer to him[2] as Catholicos, because he only became a Christian in later life.

26.  When this command was broadcast by the machinations of the apostate and his associates, some fearful people were influenced, and all prayed to God that he would have mercy on his church and not deliver it into the hands of the destroyer.  But when the traitor got this order and took it to Azerbaijan and convinced the Mobed of the area to prosecute the disciples of the blessed one before him and, because of his murderous ambition,  to treat the blessed one in the same way as his disciples, the Lord did not fulfil his wicked desire.  Instead he inspired the Mobedan (Mobed) and the magians to call him[3] before them and to question him in the way he[4] wanted.  And the Mobed said, “I do not have the authority to question him.”[5]  Some of the magians mentioned said, however, “He shall come before us as we are very determined to see him.” 

And because he was persuaded to, he came before their assembly and they let him seat himself in great honour.”  And because they heard sound thinking from his mouth, they reviled and beat the apostate, so that he hid himself from them. 

When he saw his hopes come to nothing, he sought another way to kill the saint.  He hired some rascals and came with them to the place where the godly one lived, to murder him and give as an excuse that he[6] was escaping from custody. 

But God, who knew the thoughts of the traitor, did not allow it.  For when the traitor arrived secretly at night with his men, entered and searched for his disciples, he heard the voice of the blessed one, and from fright and shame became weak and trembly and could not lay a hand on him.[7]  The men of the house found out, and the people of the village, and they came, beat the apostates, and drove him away, together with the magians that he had brought with him.

The attempt to dispose of Mar Aba, first by legal and then  by direct means, was clearly very amateurish and failed.  But it was a wake-up call for Mar Aba.

  1. [1]The writer seems to mean that the order itself indicated that the person brandishing it was an apostate.
  2. [2]Mar Aba.
  3. [3]Mar Aba.
  4. [4]Petrus Gurganara.
  5. [5]Is this “question” as in “being put to the question”, i.e. torture?
  6. [6]Mar Aba.
  7. [7]Not an experienced conspirator, it seems!

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 24

Here is another chapter of the hagiographical life of the East Syriac patriarch, Mar Aba I, who ruled in the Persian empire in the late 6th century.  For those who have not seen the earlier chapters, Aba is a Zoroastrian official who has converted, and become patriarch.  He is on good terms with the King of Kings, but currently under house arrest for political reasons in a remote area of Azerbaijan dominated by Zoroastrianism.

24.  He turned the house that he lived in into a church.  He set up there an altar of Christ,  and every day gave himself with his disciples to fasting and prayer.  What in the beginning was the dwelling of Satan became then a house of prayer to the true God.  From the provinces Metropolitans, bishops, priests, deacons and believing men and women came together there, in fact, to pray and to receive his blessing.  Some were standing at his door in sackcloth and ashes, for their sins, and received remission.  Some received the blessing of the spiritual dignity of the episcopate.  Some received the dignity of the priesthood, diaconate or other ecclesiastical ranks (τάξις).  All the houses of the persecutors and blasphemers became offices of the saints and houses of prayer and praise to God.  Crowds of bishops met and the sound was heard of their songs of the Holy Spirit.  A stream of priests came to the offices of their comrades and told each other of the great and wonderfuls that they had seen and heard.  The mountains and heights of Azerbaijan became like cities, wherever the feet of the Saint went.  Old men who came to see the Saint forgot their age and sprang up like deer, and those struck down by disease recovered when they were carried to him to seek his blessing.

None of this material seems very interesting, and it may simply be the imagination of the hagiographer.  It would be nice to return to something like the historical elements in the earlier chapters!  Fortunately in chapter 25 the historical narrative returns.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 23

I’m still translating chapters of the 6th century Saint’s life of the East Syriac patriarch, Mar Aba.  And I’ve had a complaint!  Let me say that I’m doing this, not because these hagiographical texts from the ages of superstition are edifying — far from it, to me — but because this particular one contains valuable historical information about how the attitude to Christians in Persia changed in the late 6th century.

Unfortunately the work is studded with material whose historicity is doubtful, to say the least.  The next chapter is probably an example.  It reads like identikit hagiography to me.  The work of God in people’s lives is always wonderful to hear, but this material does not seem to tell of it; the focus in all this sort of writing is on how wonderful the human Mar Aba is, not on God.  

Oh well.  If there is more good stuff in this Life, we have to get to it past this sort of stuff.

23.  There was at that place a plague, and those who saw it trembled and those who heard about it were terrified.  The blessed one was asked to leave; but he would not, and said, “Death and life are in God’s hand; wherever I am, I am his in life and death.  It is necessary only that we believe in him and walk in good works according to his will.  Believe in him, and stay.”  And many remained and were not struck down by that harsh plague.  But if anyone was hit, he blessed oil and gave it, and they annointed him and, depending on his faith, he recovered from that disease.

A woman from that village, whose husband, named Arwândâd (?), was the judge, was tempted by the evil spirit.  She came and with her husband threw herself for a long time at the door of the blessed one, to  get him to come and put his hand on her head.  But he would not, but blessed oil and sent it to her.  She annointed herself and the devil departed from her and she was tempted no more.  All who knew her previously saw what had happened and praised God.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 22

22. Then the blessed one came to the village which is the centre of magianism.  When he came to them, they said, “It has never happened, that a Christian came into this village and spent the night here.  But now the leader of the Christians has been sent to us, so that we give him a house and he live with us.”  Those who were gathered there from the various provinces were at once angry, and boasted at once, “We will dispute with him and convert him to magianism.”  But God altered their feeling against him, and they came to greet him. And when they heard the divine wisdom that was in him, they came constantly with their arguments to him and disputed with the holy one, and through God’s grace he dissolved their objections, countered their reasonings and refuted their errors.  Often also they sought to kill him; but God limited their wickedness and confined them to peace.  When they stopped disputing with him and just asked him about God and the world, good and evil, the resurrection, the judgement to come and the life ever after in Christ, the Master spoke with them and taught them about all this.  They marvelled at his spirit-filled words and closeness to God.  Some disputed about this with each other, some with their teachers.  Also many magians came from other places, to hear the teaching of the Master and to see how he behaved.  For everywhere they called him the god of the place because of his spirit-filled teaching, his compassion for the poor and his care for the sick.  But he had no financial dealings with any of them, and although the local Rad and the gentleman of the place said that he might satisfy his needs from them, he would not do so.  Many believed in him.  For thus did God turn their evil into good.