Life of Mar Aba – chapter 13

13.  When the chief magian and his companions saw that he was not afraid of their threats, they marvelled at the courage of the champion of Christ and released him the same day without asking him anything.  The chief magian did the same on the second and third days.   On the fourth day they clamoured violently against him, shouting, “Whoever is against our religion will be swept off the earth.”  Then two noble magians got up; one was Shahrdawer, named Adorpareh; the other was the Rad of Pars, and they accused him, “When this one came down into the region of Pars, he caused many magians of the religion (dên) of Hormizd to alienate and he made them Christians.  Many Christians in Pars, who ate the flesh of the murmurings[1] now consider it anathema to eat.  When the magians heard this, they clamoured more violently still and said, “This man shall be killed, because he is an opponent of magianism.”  Although it was the duty of the chief magian as judge to evaluate the words, and to ask the accused about the accusation, and then to pronounce judgement (ἀπόφασις) as the legal code  (κανών) and case-law require, he did not do so because he was an enemy of truth.  Instead, as if overcome with horror, he also howled and screamed, “If this man had a hundred heads, they would have to be cut off.”

Then the soldier of Christ made the sign of the cross on his forehead, raised his voice and said, “In everything wherein I am accused by the magians concerning the true faith of Christ, O Môpêtân Môpêt, I am full of great joy that I have been honoured to defend it in your assembly.  But only by the order of the King of Kings, when others are joined with you — then I will answer.”

Here we return to something like history.  Mar Aba is clearly aware that the “trial” is a political event, and is maneouvering accordingly.  The magians don’t dare do anything to him, unless the Persian King approves.  This is a time of war.  The King will be pretty angry if they do something outrageous to the head of a very large minority — something liable to provoke a revolt — while he’s leading his troops into battle.  And they know it, and he knows it.  Thus the attempts at intimidation; thus the serenity of Mar Aba, and his refusal to submit to the authority of the Grand Mobed.

Bet he was nervous, tho!

  1. [1]Flesh of animals offered in sacrifice.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 12

12.  Satan, the enemy of our race, could not look on, but writhed threateningly.  He worked on the chief magian, the Môpêtân Môpêt, named Dadhormizd, and his companions, the chiefs of the magians, so that they went to the King of Kings and stirred him up with their accusations, so that they said, “The Catholicos Aba, the leader of the Christians, does not respect you as King and Lord, and he does not honour these, your great and glorious majesty.  When he came to Pars and into the eastern provinces of your realm, they received him with great honour.  The religion of the magians, which Hormizd was given by God, who ruled in your realm, he attacks as reprehensible and destroys it.  He has converted many magians to Christianity.  Our religion he harms; his own he promotes.  We, the chiefs of the magians, he treats as nobodies.  In short, he is a friend of the emperor[1] and an enemy of your majesty.”

The peaceful and benevolent King of Kings did not accept their accusations.  But after they came often before him and talked, he gave over the matter to them.  When they found an opportunity  (to carry out) their desire, the magians sent a message to the blessed one and called him before their assembly, when the king, in the twelfth year of his reign, set out from the royal quarter (ôstân) in order to go into the northern district of the Armenians and Gûrzânâjê and make war with the Khazars.

After he had come, everyone acted as very angry and gnashing their teeth against him in great bitterness.  The holy one did not allow himself to be frightened, but he made the cross of Christ on his forehead, which reinforced him with every invincible shield, and he rejoiced and exulted to be tried for the sake of Christ.

  1. [1]The Roman emperor.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 10 and 11

10.  Such things and more did he work in the west, so that even the emperor of the west desired to see him because of the reputation of his teaching and piety.[1]  When the blessed one heard this, he went away to Antioch.  And when he came to Nisibis, and saw the schism in the hierarchy, he desired to hurry away into the desert.  But when the bishop of the province (ὑπαρχία) heard this, he forbade him to leave under threat of ecclesiastical penalties.  He now remained for a long time as a teacher and delighted in intellectual pursuits more than in all the blessings of this world. 

Of his works then I will tell you of just one. 

There was a brother studying there who was tormented by an evil devil.  The blessed one fasted and prayed with the brothers, in which he said, “I trust in God, that the evil spirit will depart rapidly from him.”  As he spoke, it did.  After three days that spirit went out of the brother and came to him no more.  All who heard and saw this knew it and praised God.

11.  Afterwards without his knowledge he was elected by the metropolitans and bishops and all the clergy and believers of the (two) cities to the high office of the Catholicate.[2]  The  king sent horsemen after him, although he did not suspect this, and he was elevated to the patriarchate without having thought about it.  He inherited the throne of the catholicos Mar Simon (bar Sabbâ’ê), of splendid witness, and of his blessed companions, and he inherited also their beloved struggle  (ἀγών).

He brought peace to the churches, extirpated the hostility that the devil had introduced at the time of the schism, sowed peace in the remote, inaccessible provinces and cities, in which he bore much heat (and cold), renewed the old man, lightened the darkness, and established the canons of the apostles in the east. 

After he had held a consultation in the provinces of Hûzâjê, Pârsâjê and Maischânâjê, which reconciled the divided churches and brought peace, and had dismissed the accompanying metropolitans and bishops to their homes, he went to meet the King of Kings, stood before him and was received by him. 

Afterwards he returned to his cathedral and his cities of residence.  At night he worked on the letter which he sent regarding church government in the provinces; by day (he worked) until the fourth hour on the explanation of the scriptures and from then until evening on legal matters and resolving disputes between believers, as well as between them and the pagans.  The servants of Christ were pleased with him, and the churches of all the provinces of his patriarchate rejoiced. 

  1. [1]Justinian may have desired to see him for various reasons; but Mar Aba’s refusal and quick exit across the frontier suggests that the invitation was of a threatening kind, where he might be asked to anathematise Nestorius.
  2. [2]I.e. as Nestorian patriarch.

Life of Mar Aba – chapter 9

The Life continues in the well-worn path of hagiography.  We may believe that he did indeed go to Constantinople and stay there for a year. 

The heretics mentioned, who decide to murder him, are probably the monophysites, still very powerful at this period.  We may believe that he disputed with some of these in Athens.   Mar Aba was to have trouble with them later.

9.  Some sophists (σοφιστής) who were well-known for their paganism, were impressed when they listened to his erudition and knowledge of the truth and burned their books of fables.  The news of this spread throughout the whole land of Achaia, and became known and God was praised. 

The heretics who were there were stirred up by his erudition, because he competently solved their objections and refuted their reasonings, and they therefore sought to kill him.  He got into a ship, travelled to the imperial capital Constantinople, and there he taught the true faith for about a year.  Many brought him some gold and costly clothing; but he did not condescend to take it.  He supported himself by the work of his own hands, so far as his livelihood necessitated, by weaving baskets (σπυρίς) and selling them and living thereby, so that in the land of Cilicia (?) five loaves  (? φοῦρνος) of bread and a little green plant were enough to support him and his disciple for seven months. 

What can I say about the thieves who left off their robberies and returned to the cities and villages, repented of their wrongdoing and became friendly to strangers (ξένοι)?  One day when he was in the Thebaid, which is full of robbers, he took a road which looked dangerous, and he encountered (some) who said, “Take off and put down everything you have.”  He did so, and they saw that he had nothing other than his textbook.  The robbers wept, fell at his feet and begged him to forgive them for troubling him and said to him, “Take gold and silver from us, as much as you want.”  But he would not.  They turned away from their work and gave what they possessed to the poor.

Which must have seemed a less good idea in the morning, when they had to go out and earn a living. 

These robbers, then, seem to be stock characters of fiction, whose sole role is to threaten, repent and then conveniently vanish.


Life of Mar Aba – chapter 8

In the last chapter we began to see hagiographical elements appear in the depiction of the travels of Mar Aba: everywhere he goes he teaches people, converts heretics and pagans, and demonstrates his moral and spiritual virtues.   But of course hagiography is primarily a form of fiction, rather than history, and, although the genre irritates me deeply, it is foolish to complain that a text written for one purpose is not something written for another.

Nevertheless we can still gain useful information.  Doubtless Aba went to Alexandria to study, rather than to teach.  Similarly he must have followed the path of many before and since and visited the hermits in the Egyptian desert in search of spiritual wisdom.  His path to Constantinople via Athens and Corinth is likely enough — how one hates to have to read between the lines! — and the statement about the situation at Athens probably does reflect the events around the final closure of the Academy by Justinian.

But with chapter 8 it seems that we have reached pure fiction; the unedifying “miracles” that disfigure this kind of literature.

8.  In a holy nunnery the Superior had long been ill with lower abdominal pain and dysentery, and was near to death.  In the same nunnery was a heretic woman who was arrogant towards the Superior and embittered her with her blasphemies.  When the Superior, a large, excellent woman, heard of the learning and virtue of the blessed one, she believed that, if he would send her a blessing on her food, she would instantly be healed.  She sent to ask. 

Because she ate only peas, on which she lived, he sent her some, because she had nothing else.  When the Superior, who was near to death, ate the peas, she became well and immediately the dysentery stopped, although peas are harmful for this disease.  But the divine providence wills what it will.  And as through the blessed Moses with bitter wood, or through the prophet Elisha with salt, bitter water was made sweet, so did it here through this blessed one.

And the Superior pleaded with God, through the prayer of the blessed one, because of the blasphemy of that woman in the monastery, and in the night, she died, because she blasphemed God and the blessed one, because the Superior had recovered through his blessing. 



Life of Mar Aba – chapter 7

This continues the translation of chapters from the German translation of the anonymous saint’s Life of Mar Aba I, the Nestorian patriarch in Persia in the middle of the 6th century A.D., when Justinian was emperor of the Romans and Chosroes II was the King of Kings of Persia.

7.  When he came to Edessa, he was joined by a brother named Thomas, who had been instructed (in the faith) from a young age.  And thus he surpassed most people in his knowledge, which he acquired from the blessed one in the many years that he was with him.  After wandering about a lot teaching, because he had been instructed in the Greek language also by him, he went into the Egyptian desert and enlightened many with his teaching and virtues.  He went into distant lands with great effort and by difficult ways of travel.  In Alexandria he expounded the holy scriptures and converted many who held pagan opinions.  He refuted those who dealt in magic, and put down the heretics (αἱρεσιώτης), in which he put them in a state of admiration by his attractive conduct.  Everyone was amazed at his mortification and enlightened by his teaching.  From there he went to Athens, and chastised the Athenians who believed that they were something great because they had been busy from the start with pagan knowledge and he converted many to the knowledge of the truth by signs and wonders, which were done by him there and in Corinth.  We would like to recount a double miracle.



Life of Mar Aba – chapter 6

6. Then he went up to Nisibis, and joined the local holy school, and gained the opportunity to handle the divine scriptures, dearer than his life.  He learned the (Psalter) of David in a few days, and began with the contemplation of the divine scriptures.  He associated with the at-peace-in-God Ma’na, the bishop of Arzon, a godly man and teacher of truth, who mainly by his good manners and through his acumen and scholarship surpassed all who were around at that time and (even) most of his predecessors.  After Mar Ma’na became a bishop, he joined him and went with him and was entrusted with the authority to teach in the province of Arzon.  Everyone there profitted greatly from him, and he converted many heretics to the true faith. 

Afterwards he returned to Nisibis and made great strides every day, in dealing with the explanation (of the scriptures) and spiritual studies. 

Then he felt obliged to go even into the Roman empire, in order to see the longed-for places of the saints, to receive the blessing of their prayers and then about a man named Sergius, who had linked the Arian ideas with paganism, with whom he wanted to dispute and establish the true faith.


Life of Mar Aba – chapter 5

5.  As the blessed one saw the virtue of this student, and thought much about his words, he decided in his heart to go and learn at the Christian college, and fasted and prayed much. 

He was working for a respectable man named Chudaibod, the secretary of the Finance Director of the district of Beit Aramaye, and was then in Radan.  After the latter was called to Ctesiphon, the blessed one also went down with the secretary for whom he was working.  He fasted daily and prayed constantly at the stone church.[1] 

The secretary heard, where he was, that the blessed was being instructed in Christianity and said one day, “Aba, have you become a messianist?”  He said, “Yes, I am a messianist.”  The secretary said, “I will say this and accuse you before the Finance Director, and you will be put in chains.”[2]  The blessed one said, “Just say it; I am willing to allow myself to be chained and to die for the name of Christ.”  So spoke the saint, although he had not yet received the seal of baptism. 

After he had spent some time in Ctesiphon, he returned to his home and after fasting and praying constantly, he entered into holy baptism in the village of ‘KD.[3]  From then on he was more eager in fasting, prayer and virtuous works.  He left the secretary and his service, renounced the world, and decided to go into the desert and the mountains, there to live and to please God by his conduct.

  1. [1]German “Kalkkirche”.
  2. [2]It was illegal in the Sassanid realm for Zoroastrians to convert to Christianity, and the convert could be executed.
  3. [3]This name is given in this unvocalised form in the BKV.

Life of Mar Aba – chapters 3 and 4

More from the Life of the Nestorian patriarch, Mar Aba I, ca. 550 AD.  The anonymous biographer has already explained that Mar Aba was originally a Persian pagan who held a senior administrative post.

3.  When the blessed one looked at the habit (σχῆμα), which was chaste and (not) colourful (?), he became doubtful whether he was perhaps not a Son of the Covenant, but a Marcionite or a Jew, and he asked him, “Are you a Jew?”  He said, “Yes”. Again he spoke, “Are you a Christian?” He said, “Yes”.  Again he spoke, “Do you worship the Messiah?” He said, “Yes”. 

The blessed one was very angry at this answer by the student and said, “How can you be Jew, Christian and Messianist (meschîchâjâ) ?”  For by “Christian” he meant, after the local custom, the Marcionites. 

The student said, “In private I am a Jew.  I worship the living God and believe in his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit.  I avoid idolatry and all uncleanness.  I am a Christian in truth, not like those the Marcionites lead astray and call themselves Christians.  Because “Christian” is a Greek word, which means in Syriac “Messianist”.  And if you ask me, “Do you worship the messiah?”, I worship him in truth and I avoid all evil for the sake of true life.”

 4.  When the blessed one heard this, he rejoiced in his spirit.  He recognised the wisdom and humility of the student, the disciple of Christ.  Again he got into the boat and sat down, and the student also got on.  And since the blessed one stopped despising the student, the wind also ceased; the waves of the Tigris calmed; they went across and came ashore.  As both  got out, the student said, “What did it cost you, that I came across with you?”  The blessed one wondered at his calm, and very much regretted insulting him.  He went to him and fell down before him, and said, “I ask you by the living and true God, forgive me for this sin committed against you.”  The student said, “The Lord has commanded us Christians, to retain anger against no-one, and never to return evil for evil.”  Then they drew near each other, greeted one another, and parted.


Life of Mar Aba – chapter 2

The story continues:

2.  When the blessed one sat in the boat to go across, the student also got in, to go across with him.  Then the saint saw his dress (σχῆμα), took him for a Son of the Covenant, beat him, and took the bag that he had with him and threw it ashore, and forced him to get out.  The student said nothing in reply, but got out and sat on the bank of the Tigris.  But once the blessed one and his companions had set out and had moved away a little distance from the shore, by the grace of God a violent wind blew against them; the Tigris became stormy like a zealous servant and its waves rose up against them, and it roared against the blessed one, because he had fought against the disciple of Christ and mocked him and prevented him from crossing.  Fear came over him, and he ordered the boat to return to the shore.  After he landed, the wind ceased and there was a great calm.  Then he got into the boat again, and the student also got in with him, and sat  down with him in the boat, and again the blessed one rose against him and forced him to go ashore.  And when they had gone a little way, the wind awoke again against this pagan audacity, that he did not recognised the Creator of All, and he was even more disturbed than before.  And again the blessed one and his companions returned to the shore and got out.  But the excellent student was sitting on the bank of the Tigris.