“Mopetan Mopet” or “Mobedan Mobed” or “Moabedan Mobed”?

In the Life of Mar Aba, the German translation refers to the high priest as the “Mopetan Mopet”.  But when I search the web, I find almost nothing.

Now a google search reveals almost nothing under that spelling.  I know that a “Mopet” is usually given as “Mobed”, meaning “priest”, in our literature.  So I quickly find references to “Mobedan Mobed” and “Moabedan Mobed”, and even “Mobedan-e-Mobed”.  In fact the latter seems contemporary; a certain Rostam Dinyar Shahzadi held the title as recently as 2000.

There is no purpose in using an unusual transcription; it will merely cause interested persons to miss the material.  So I think we had better use “Mobedan Mobed”.

Likewise how should we render “rad”, clearly a title?  And … what is a “rad”?

In the Encyclopedia Iranica online on Syriac writings in pre-islamic Iran[1], there is some very useful information on titles as they appear in Syriac acts, including the Life of Mar Aba:

Modern translators and commentators have not always been able to recognize the titles of civil or religious officials under the disguise of Syriac writing, or have supplied fanciful transcriptions far removed from the authentic form of Middle Persian.

Among civil functions, we must mention the āmārgar (Syr. hmrgrd) “accountant” or, better, “treasurer” of the different administrative divisions of the empire, as we learn from the administrative seals. In the history of the patriarch Mār Abā, this treasurer is in touch with a harzbed < OIr. *harcī-pati- (Syr. ʾrzbd), which has been considered as a corruption of the term argbed “chief tax collector or taxation manager” (EIr. II/4, 1986, p. 400), an important function belonging to the royal family which is attested in the Paikuli inscription (Humbach and Skjaervo, 3.2, pp. 39-44). But Tafazzoli (1990) has shown that the Syriac word, spelled in the same way, is attested in the martyrdom of Guhišt-āzād, where this man is described as “chief of the royal eunuchs and fosterer of the king” (Šāpūr II). Hence this title of “chief of the eunuchs” can no longer be confused with the argbed “tax-collector.” …

The title of ēwēnbed (EIr. IX/1, 1998, pp. 87-88) “master of manners” is puzzling, for it looks like an administrative function, that of an archivist, or perhaps a financial role. But the Syriac sources indicate a religious function: in the history of Mār Pethion, the ainbed (Syr. ʿynbd/ʾynwd) is surrounded with a guard of horsemen, but in the martyrdom of Mār Abā, an ēwēnbed called Kardag is also a magus and judge of the empire (šahr dādwar), as was the great magus Kerdir in the 3rd century.

The Syriac sources also inform us of religious titles: the mowbeds (Syr. mwhpṭʾ), of whom there are three categories (Gignoux, 1984, pp. 197-98). At the highest level stood the Mobedān mobed (Syr. mwbdnmwb(y)d), who is also called in Syriac ršʾ d-mgwšʾ “chief of the magi”; the Great Mobed (Syr. mwhpṭʾ ḥd rbʾ); and the provincial Mobeds, who are in charge of specific regions. According to the situation, the Grand Mobed had to stay at court, but could also travel to the provinces, no doubt as representative of the Mobadān Mobad. The latter title seems to have appeared from the 6th century on.

The different categories of judges are well documented: the rads and the dādvars, as well as the dastvars. The Rad is apparently the highest of religious judges and may, at the same time, be the Mobed (Gignoux, 1984, p. 201). The legal treatise Mādayān ī hazār dādestān indicates that, in the procedure of the ordeal, judgment cannot be pronounced in the absence of the rad. He is attached to a province, and he is distinct from the ēwēnbed. …

The article continues with a vivid description of the distinctly oriental processes of examination and justice, well worth reading, and then a bibliography.

  1. [1]Philippe Gignoux, “Syriac Language ii. Syriac writings on pre-islamic Iran,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition, 20 July 2009, available at www.iranicaonline.org/articles/syriac-language-ii-syriac-writings-on-pre-islamic-iran.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 21

21.  When the holy one heard this, he praised God: “I praise you, Lord Christ, Lord of all kings and King of all lords, that you have done me, a weakling, this great honour, that I am persecuted and reviled, because I confess you in truth as God, your Father and the holy, life-giving Spirit, and that I, for the sake of your great and terrible name, have been handed over by your persecutors to prison and imprisonment.  Show your mercy, O Lord,  to me and to all your holy church, which is useful and profitable for the glory and increase of your holy name.”

Then he said to the Mopetan Mopet, “The earth in all its fullness, the world and all its inhabitants, belong to the Lord.”[1]  Boldly he took the Rad of Azerbaijan by the hand and said, “Come, take me wherever you have been ordered to take me; see, I am happy with you.”  The vigorous fighter  (ἀγωνιστής) went to the field of combat in the strong power of Christ, and after his struggle had lasted seventy days, by the power of Christ he had not been overcome by the magians, but was strengthened by the struggle.  The lamb of Christ emerged victorious, so that he might go and battle with the young lions.

After the Rad handed him over to the captain (aïnbed) and the gendarmes of the province, the Christians at the court of the King of Kings arose; they went with the blessed one and accompanied their spiritual father, who was being sent by his enemies to prison.  They remembered the spiritual milk, which they had drawn constantly from his teaching, and the good shepherd, who taught and pastured them on the meadow of his spiritual words, and of which they were deprived.  Some wept and sobbed, others tore their clothes and hair, others kissed his tortured feet and took grace from his footsteps. 

The blessed one was very sad, and worried about what he saw his flock do, more than a wet-nurse, and they wept more than children if their mother is taken into captivity.   Lastly he prayed in great pain, blessed them, and handed them over to God and the words of his grace, and so they parted.

I had not realised that the preceding chapters were all still taking place at court.  I must go and look back at what I wrote.

Clearly the Rad of Azerbaijan is worried about being involved in such high politics, where he stands to gain nothing, and where, if anything happens to Mar Aba, he might fall foul of the king’s displeasure; for clearly the King of Kings is allowing all this rather than ordering it.  Mar Aba sees the chance to conciliate him and seizes it.

  1. [1]I.e. that wherever he is, God is with him.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 20

20.  But since the Christians at court clamoured violently and shouted because of the blessed one, the King of Kings ordered that he should not be thrown into prison.  He was handed over to the Rad of Azerbaijan, named Dad(d)en, a man evil and hardened against everyone, but who through God’s grace was gentle, friendly and peaceful to the blessed and his disciples. 

On the advice of the devil, the enemy of truth, the Mopetan Mopet and the noble magians secretly arranged to send down the holy one into his custody in the province of Azerbaijan, which is eclipsed by error[1], in a district (rûstâkâ) darked by paganism named PRHRWR, in a village named SRSCH by the magians, which is the birthplace of magianism. 

There the magians of the whole Persian realm gather together in order to learn the foolish mutterings of Zardusht bar Spidtahman[2],  people who are the enemies of all truth.  They wander about in droves and bands, follow their masters, talk and argue in the nonsense of their errors, stuttering and yelling and gnashing their teeth like wild pigs.  The blessed one would have to endure the sights and sounds of the wildness and pugnacity of the people, who had never heard the name of Christian, faced with his his greeting and attempt to talk rationally to them.[3]

They placed a watch on him.  And because of Satan’s influence, they did not allow him the slightest relief from his pains, which they made him endure so that he would quickly depart from this life.

The description of the conditions sounds rather hagiographical, but the order for banishment to a remote magian stronghold seems likely enough.

UPDATE: Revised after reading chapter 21, as Mar Aba is still at court; but I am not confident still about parts of this.

  1. [1]“die durch den Irrtum verfinstert ist” — I am not sure that I have rendered this correctly.
  2. [2]Zoroaster.
  3. [3]Not sure about this sentence at all: “Welchen Anblick und welches Anhören der Wildheit und Streitsucht von Leuten, die nicht einmal den Christennamen hören, seinen Gruß annehmen und mit ihm wie Menschen reden mochten, vermochte der Selige auszuhalten.”

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 19

The negotiations proved fruitless.  Mar Aba felt that he had the backing of the king, and the magians suspected that this might be so.  They resolved to find out.

19.  A few days later, the King of Kings saw the blessed one on the road; he spoke to him and accepted the salutation which the godly one made him.  This excited the envy of the magians and they again brought him before their assembly.  When he appeared before them, one arose as prosecutor and said, “This one used to be a pagan and the son of a pagan, and later became a Christian.” 

Then they all clapped their hands and said, “This man is deserving of death.”  Then they drew up a document of the investigation and read it to each other. 

They showed him the piece of writing, which they had drawn up against him, and said, “If you do our will, and write and sign with us, that you do not forbid those who have married their stepmother, sisters and stepdaughters, as well as those others who (have contracted marriages) forbidden by your scripture, do not come before the court, do not bring any magians and pagans into Christianity, and do not forbid the Christians to eat the flesh left over from magian sacrifices, then we will leave you free and we will not throw you into prison.  Go into your house and manage your Catholicate.  But if you do not listen to us, then we will draw up an indictment (purschaschnâmag) against you and throw you in prison.”

The Catholicos said, “God, whom I serve, forbids me to transgress the true Christian faith, which I hold and teach, and to do you will in any of the above matters.  For anyone who does something like this denies Christ and is no Christian.”

After they heard this, they sealed the indictment and ordered that he be thrown into prison.


Life of Mar Aba – chapter 18

18.  As the Mopetan Mopet and the magians recognised that they had been refuted by the blessed one with these words, they sought out another method to link the issue with the command of the king.  The Mopetan Mopet said, “If in your (holy) scriptures it says, ‘If you do this, you do rightly’ and if is it written in another text, that you should not do it because it is not right, and if the King of Kings says to you, that this, which you are commanded to do, you shall not do, and to do what it says not to do, will you obey the orders of the King of Kings and do his will, or will you transgress his command?”

The Catholicos said, “Far be it from the King of Kings that he, with respect to the good which is commanded of me, and the evil, which is forbidden to me, shall order me not to do good and to do evil.”

The Mopetan Mopet and the magians said, “But what if he does?”

The Catholicos said, “He does not.”

And as they pressured him so much, he said, “If he commands it, I will at that time answer, ‘God the Creator and Lord of all things must be obeyed rather than men.'”

They said nothing in reply.


From my diary

I’ve received an email offering to translate the Life of Mar Aba into English from Syriac, rather than the retranslation of Oskar Braun’s BKV German translation which I have been doing this week.  The cost to do so is not prohibitive; but the translator has an eye on possible formal publication subsequently, so we need to find a way that allows me to give him a lot of money, while still allowing him to publish in a way that will do his CV good.

Meanwhile I have heard from my local library that Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy has arrived — I ordered a loan a couple of weeks ago.  So I shall trott along there at the weekend and pick it up, and read it.  The tiny bit that I have seen so far suggests that he refers to various patristic texts, so those should be fun to look up.  Whether he has anything to say, that any of us need pay any attention to, I do not yet know.

The Bauer thesis, apparently, is that Jesus never taught anything all that specific; that the apostles were just one group of his disciples, and that others teaching any old thing wandered around; that the heresies of the second century, such as Valentinians, Marcionites, etc, were all faithful ideological descendants of these putative early disciples; and that the apostolic church, therefore, has no unique claim to the moral authority of Jesus. 

This sounds like complete tosh to me, of course, improbable on so many levels.  Ideological movements get founded by ideologues, not people who can’t make coherent sense for a year or two.  The data certainly doesn’t support that, but says the opposite; and, as five minutes critical thinking reminds us, the Valentinians etc claimed that their teaching was “secret”, not known to the public.  That by itself tells us that, as far as public record went, their teaching was NOT known to be derived from Jesus himself, and everyone knew it. 

And indeed a look at the 2nd century heretics shows that their teaching derives directly from various flavours of pop philosophical paganism, and the “haereses” of this.  Tertullian listed the borrowings, and asked, pertinently, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem … away with this bastardised ‘Christianity’.”  If Valentinus’ disciples like Rhodon did not remain faithful to Valentinus, why do we suppose that Valentinus remained faithful to some earlier teacher?  But to ask the question is to answer it.

To me, all this sounds like the sort of theory that could arise only in a society in transition; in a society which has a historical attachment to Christianity, which the establishment find inconvenient, which wants to discard “thou shalt not commit adultery” etc, but still has an inherited and irrational reverence for Jesus himself.  In western society in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, in short.

Never mind.  We’ll see.  I am told that WB himself is not nearly as bonkers as those who riff off him. 


Life of Mar Aba – chapter 17

17.  Because the blessed one had given himself over to the commandments of the Lord and the apostles, he warned the bishops and priests, their flock, all the time to warn all ranks (räy/ua) of the Christian community not to break the canons of the apostles and marry their stepmother, niece, wife of their uncle, or to approach two (sisters).  Anyone who did otherwise he expelled from the church with bindings and anathemas.  Then the rad and the mopet of Bet Aramaye arose and accused him also of this. 

The Mopetan Mopet said to the blessed one, “Those who, before you were Catholicos, married such men or women, allow them into the church because it did not happen in your time.” 

The Catholicos said, “I will not transgress the command of my Lord, and to those who do, whether they have transgressed or are transgressing, I will refuse entry to the church, so that they do not contaminate the people of the Lord.”

The chief Magian said, “Those who did so in your time should not enter.”

The Catholicos said, “Whether the devil entered someone before or during my Catholicate, should he leave him or not?”

The chief Magian said, “He should leave him.”

The Catholicos said, “In the same way should also those who have transgressed the divine commandment be freed, so that they are not delivered with Satan and the devils to eternal hell. “

We’re now squarely back in the realm of history rather than hagiography, and the Life is describing what must have been a real problem in the late 6th century in Persia. 

The magians have genuine concerns, not as fire-priests but rather as custodians of Persian culture and defenders of the customs of the ruling classes.  The tendency of Persians to marry close female relatives is mentioned by Tertullian, who tells us that, present at a performance of Oedipus, some Persians laughed at the depiction of marrying your mother as a horrible crime. 

Here we see that the rise of Christianity in Iran was causing real difficulties to some classes of Persian society.  Earlier Catholici had ducked the issue; but Mar Aba’s position was strong enough that he felt able to hold a hard line, even on those who had contracted such marriages before he became Catholicos.


Life of Mar Aba – chapter 16

We’re now starting to get some of the meat of the issues.  The magian clergy play, it seems, a judicial role.  They are finding that the Nestorian patriarchs are overruling their judgements, when it is a case between two members of their community. 

16.  After this the blessed one went daily into the assembly of the magians, who were negotiating with him and asking him about all sorts of things.  And the mopet of Bet Aramaje got up and said, “Often, when Christians bring a prosecution, and obtain a written (judgement) (buchtnamag) from the Mopetan Mopet, he sends for them, takes them out of the court house and tears up the written (judgement).  All the cases that come to us are actually decided by him, and we suffer much violence through him.” 

The Catholicos said, “If a Christian maliciously accuses his brother, I will not allow him to come into the church.”

Then a man from Samarra (?) named Dendad got up, who had put on the name of Christian, but in this, as in many other accusations, he had joined with the magians, and since he had exchanged God’s truth for a lie, after a few days his body was swollen up, by God’s punishment.  Then he stood up publicly before the magians and said, “I have  maliciously accused the Catholicos.”  But he died mid-sentence.

The man who calls himself a Christian but in fact acts as a pawn of the non-Christian world is still a familiar figure.


Life of Mar Aba – chapter 15

The fire-priests are finding it slow going, in their attacks on Mar Aba.  Nor is the Persian king as  helpful as he might be…

15.  At the meeting where they were negotiating with the blessed one was also a respected believer from Bet Ardashir, named Abrodak, a man who was very close to the king and his nobles.  When he heard the words of the Catholicos, he was filled with divine zeal and said to the Mopetan Mopet, “You too, you who are the chief magian, will agree with the Catholicos, if you listen to his teaching, and will desire to become a Christian, and we Christians will not push you out of the church.”  The Mopetan Mopet and the magians were very angry at this, but because the believer was an important man, they could do nothing to him.  However the chief magian and his companions arose and came in great anger to the king, and complained bitterly of these words, “A Christian has said to the Mopetan Mopet, ‘If you become a Christian, we will receive you with joy.'”  The King of Kings said, to appease their anger, “Why didn’t you prosecute him without delay?”  When they were gone from the king, they sought to catch him, but they did not find him, because he had gone at the king’s command on official business to the (capital) cities.  Thus he escaped the hands of the magians.


Life of Mar Aba – chapter 14

14.  When the chief magian and his companions heard these words of the blessed one, they grew even more enraged.  They went to the King of Kings and complained to him, “This man, the leader of the Christians, must not live, because he is destroying the religion (dên) of Hormizd.”  Since they now pressured the King of Kings strongly, the latter allowed the blessed one to be taken to the PSNIK’ DRWSPN[1], to appear before the Mopetan Mopet, that PSNIK’, and to explain himself to the magians who were accusing him.

When the blessed one heard this message, he threw himself down, turned to the east, made the sign of the cross on his face, stood up boldly and said, “There is one God, the Creator, Lord and ruler of all, and he is in three persons without beginning and end.  To believe in and confess him is available for any man who of his own free will takes him as his Creator, and believes and confesses his Lordship.  No-one can use that belief in God, of which anyone who confesses Him is guilty, to say, “He is mine alone,” as other, pointless religions do.  And, like the air that we breathe, which all men have in common, and like the light of the sun, the moon, the stars, and millions more, Christianity is not just mine, but for all rational people, past, present and future, who want to believe it.  I say before men, what I learned from the holy scripture.  Anyone who listens, accepts and does, I commend, honour and praise, and I do not push him out of the church.  Because he knows his Creator, and believes in His Providence.  The holy scripture does not tell me to bind someone, beat them, or take something from them.  But we pray and implore God for those who err, that he will lead them to the knowledge of truth; but I would warn the Christians to guard against the uncleanness of sacrificial victims.”

Then the Mopetan Mopet, and all those present gave the verdict: He is worth of death.

The homily of MarAba is rather moving, isn’t it?

  1. [1]According to J. Labourt, Le christianisme dans l’empireperse sous la dynastie Sassanide, Paris, 1904, p.181 n.3, this is the pasaniqarusphan, the director of prisons, although he doesn’t seem that sure about it.