Some notes on the life of Mar Aba I (=Maraba)

Mar Aba I (the name is given as “Maraba” in some 19th century works) became Nestorian patriarch in the mid 6th century and revolutionised the relationship between the Christians and the Sassanid Persian state. [1] He was originally from the country on the right bank of the Tigris near Hale, the chief place in the district of Radan.  Although Sava had evangelised the country ca. 480 AD, many of the inhabitants remained faithful to the official religion.  The future patriarch was born into a Mazdaist family, and seems to have been strongly attached in his youth to the teaching of Zoroaster.  He entered upon a career as an administrator, and, according to the anonymous editor of his Life, “arzbed” of his town, and then assessor of the secretary of the “hamaragerd” of Beit Aramaye.

Nothing seems to have presaged his conversion to Christianity, when, in uncertain circumstances, he met a student named Joseph, surnamed Moses, from Nisibis, who was acting as catechist in the district.  Mar Aba was going to cross the Tigris by boat, when we found on board the catechist, dressed in his monastic habit.  Unable to endure such company, the pagan scribe kicked out his unfortunate companion and dump his baggage in the river.  But a storm sprang up, which abated only after the student was at length readmitted to the boat.  Mar Aba asked Joseph to forgive him.  The latter responded that a disciple of Jesus Christ must not hold on to rancour.  Struck by this, Mar Aba continued to talk to him, and decided to convert.  On his return to Ctesiphon, he arranged to be instructed in the Christian faith, renounced his job in the administration, despite the appeals of his superiors, and received baptism.

The school of Nisibis welcomed him, and there he showed signs of exceptional abilities.  He especially attached himself to one of the teachers of the school, Ma`na, who later became bishop of Arzun.  When he did so, Mar Aba followed him, possibly as his syncellus, and converted many of the pagans and the heretics to Christianity.  He then returned to Nisibis to complete his studies.

But this was not enough for him.  Many of the students then went to Roman territory in order to complete their theological education.  After the accession of Justin, imperial displeasure was reserved for monophysites, and Persian Christians were able to travel more freely in the lands of the orthodox emperor.  His biographer states that Mar Aba wanted to visit the Holy places, and also to dispute with Sergius, “an Arian” strongly tainted with paganism, in order to convert him to the true faith.

At Edessa he met a Syrian named Thomas, probably a  little younger than himself.  The two students formed a friendship, and Thomas taught his companion Greek.  Then together they visited Palestine, and then went to Egypt.  There Mar Aba was able to study the scriptures in the Greek language.

Nor did he fail to make a pilgrimage to the desert where thousands of monks were living the ascetic life, following the venerable traditions of the Desert Fathers.  Then he travelled to Corinth, and Athens, and finally to Constantinople.  His stay at the imperial capital is attested by Cosmas Indicopleustes, who mentions the church in Persia and states:

I received these [details] from a very spiritual man and from the great teacher Patrikios [= Syriac Aba].  He, following the example of Abraham, came from the land of the Chaldaeans with Thomas of Edessa, then studying theology, who accompanied him everywhere and who now, according to God’s will, has died at Byzantium.  He made me part of his piety and his very accurate science, and it is he who now, by the grace of God, has been elevated to the sublime and archiepiscopal throne of all Persia, having been instituted as Catholicos.[2]

The journey to Constantinople must be placed between 525-533 AD.  At that period other oriental teachers could be found in the imperial city.  Best known of these is Paul the Persian. 

No doubt Mar Aba did not attain to this degree of fame, although he also appeared at court.  His stay in Constantinople seems to have been brief, lasting only a single year according to his anonymous biographer.  Mare tells us that Mar Aba and his disciple were invited to anathematise Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Nestorian teachers.  Their refusal led to a threat on their lives, and they were obliged at once to flee, and to place the Persian frontier between themselves and their enemies.

This tradition seems is probably accurate.  Following the colloquium at Constantinople, which took place in 531, Justinian for some time favoured the Monophysites.  In 535 one of thes, Anthimius, became patriarch of Constantinople.  Severus of Antioch was recalled from exile and made a triumphant entry into the capital of the empire.  We may suppose that the victorious party took the opportunity to indulge in reprisals.

If they were obliged to tolerate the dyophysite monks of the capital, the Severians were less constrained when it came to strangers.  It is very probable that Paul the Persian, Mar Aba, Thomas and other Syrians who were residing at Constantinople were forced to choose between banishment and disavowing the teachings of Theodore.  Probably, as they returned to the patriarchate of Antioch, they warned the bishop of that city, Ephrem, of the danger facing the dyophysite orthodoxy.  For in 535 Sergius of Reshaina returned to Antioch, complaining of maltreatment at the hands of the bishop Asylus.  Ephrem, appreciating his talents as a diplomat, placed him in charge of a mission to Pope Agapetus.  The intriguing doctor embarked for Rome, accompanied by a young architect named Eustathius.  He met Agapetus at Constantinople and together they arranged for  the expulsion of the Monophysites from the city.  Since Sergius was Mar Aba’s teacher, and possibly also of Paul the Persian, it is likely that the refugees made him aware of what had happened to them.  It is also possible that Thomas of Edessa accompanied Sergius on his mission and stayed in Constantinople, where he died some years later, probably before 543, the date of the first publication of the Three Chapters.

Mar Aba returned to Nisibis.  His joy at his return was tempered by the spectacle of divisions among his Nestorian coreligionists.  Discouraged, he sought to adopt an ascetic life in the desert.  But his biographer states that when the bishops of the eparchy learned this, they forbade him to do so. 

His profound and varied learning and the austerity of his life increased  his reputation, and when the old Catholicos Paul died, all the votes for his replacement fell on Mar Aba.  This was in the 9th year of Chosrau Anosharwan, in February 540 AD.

His first task was to deal with the disorders that had fallen upon the Nestorian church owing to a schism among the leadership, which had led earlier on to two patriarchs, Elisaeus and Narses.  This had led to two bishops being named for many sees.  His predecessor patriarch, Paul, had invoked the assistance of the state, and with the help of Chosrau II had reestablished unity, and decided that neither of the competitors had been constitutionally made catholicos.  But it was Maraba who dealt with the consequences.

It is ordered that if, in a single see, there was only one bishop instituted before the duality, he remains legitimate.  If there are two bishops, the most virtuous shall be chosen and the other shall serve as a priest.  If both are equally virtuous and orthodox, he who was first instituted shall be confirmed in the episcopate.  The other shall renounce any episcopal functions, but shall be designated as the successor.  If both are unworthy, they shall both be deposed and shall serve in the order of clergy to which they previously belonged.[3]

Such was the decision taken in the synod held, as was usual, by the new patriarch immediately after his election.  But it had to be put into effect.  In the north, it seems, the reform was carried out without difficulty, whether because the circumstances were uncomplicated or because of the personal authority of Mar Aba and his metropolitans.  But in lower Chaldaea, Susiana and Persia proper, the homeland of every schism and revolt, there were problems.  Not only were there two bishops, but some bishops had proclaimed themselves independent of both catholicoses.  There were also some mischief-makers, such as Taimai in Mesene, and Abraham son of Audmihr, in Susiana, who had seized churches and ordained, for money, anyone who aspired to the episcopate.

Mar Aba resolved to visit the troubled regions in persona, and went accompanied by the clergy of his patriarchal church, and some loyal metropolitans and bishops.  The synodicon gives an official list of those who went.  First he went to Perozshabur, then into the land of Kashkar, where he met several supporters and appointed a new bishop to replace both contenders.  Then he went to Mesene, deposed the bishop there and excommunicated Taimai.  Then the mobile synod went on to Hormizdardashir where various differences were resolved, and then on to Persia proper.  At Rewardashir he deposed two usurpers and, after revaliditating ordinations made by them, chose Ma`na as metropolitan.

He too joined the synod which went on to Khuzistan.  Elisaeus of Shushter was delivered from a competitor, and from there the journey continued into Beit Lapat, although the problems there were not immediately resolved, and a case was necessary in the Sassanid courts.

Mar Aba returned to Seleucia, probably ca. Jan-Feb 541, having established his authority.  But the quiet was of short duration, for the resumption of war between the Byzantines and Persians allowed the Zoroastrian clergy to embark on a new phase of persecution.  From 540-545 Chosrau made war incessantly in Lazica, Commagene, Armenia and Mesopotamia. 

At this period the Christians were not protected by theological difference with Byzantium, as they had been in the time of Anastasius, when the monophysite leanings of the latter guaranteed the fidelity of his Nestorian subjects in the eyes of the King of Kings.  So in the 10th year of his reign, when Chosrau left to make war in Lazica, the Zoroastrian priests found themselves free to act.  Their chief was the grand mobed Dadhormizd.

The persecution was not of the scale of the days of Sapor.  Where the Christians were in a minority, the churches and above all the monasteries were destroyed, and nobles who had embraced Christianity were arrested, and several were executed.  The acts of these martyrs give the details, especially the Passion of Gregory, a noble originally named Pirangushnasp.  But in 545 the persecution ceased, following  a treaty between Justinian and Chosrau, which brought the war to an end and stipulated religious liberty for the Christians in Persia, and the release of the senior clergy who had protested the persecution in its early days and been arrested for their pains. 

Mar Aba himself had felt the malice of the magian clergy.  He was summoned before a council of mages, headed by the grand mobed.  The accusation was made that on his journey into Persia he had converted various Mazdaists to Christianity, and had forbidden the practice of various pagan activities to Christians, such as eating meat which had been blessed by Magian priests.  After a pretence of interrogation, Dadhormizd went to the king and obtained permission to hand Mar Aba over to the head of the prisons.  This seems to have been around 540-1. 

But the mages did not dare to abuse their victory.  They knew that the king might well one day think ill of too hasty a zeal, and executing the patriarch might well provoke a revolt by the innumerable Christians of Persia just when the king’s forces were fully stretched.  This perhaps explains the intervention of a notable Christian of Seleucia, one `Abrodaq, who assured the grand mobed that, were the latter to go for instruction in the school of the Catholicos, he would soon be seeking baptism.  This was too much for the mages, and charges were brought against him.

Meanwhile the royal forces were travelling slowly northwards, and all those who had lost money or other advantage from Mar Aba’s reforms hastened to make accusations, and the mages tried to use these to get the patriarch to waive some of the canons that he had put in place, particularly those affecting Persian weddings of cousins and the like.  Others discovered that he was a convert from Zoroastrianism, and sought to make use of this fact.  But Mar Aba refused to budge, and his position was strengthened by the fact that he retained the royal favour, and, when he met Chosrau, the king greeted him in a friendly way and spoke familiarly with him.

Nevertheless Mar Aba was exiled to a remote place, far from other Christians.  His biographer records that this had the effect of bringing large numbers of Christians into the area, and resulted in the establishment of Christianity in the region and the appointment of bishops.  A synod was held, which issued six constitutions.  But Mar Aba remained there, even after peace had been declared.

Ca. 548 a renegade clergyman who called himself Peter Gurganara, who had been deposed by Mar Aba for various irregularities, went to court and obtained, it is unknown how, royal permission to depose Mar Aba and to annul the ordinations which he had made.  Peter went to Azerbaijan with a royal order, which, however, was rather vague.  The mages, who had many reasons to hate Mar Aba, nevertheless found the order insufficient to justify permitting the actions of Peter.  The latter resorted to violence and organised a nighttime attack on the residence of the patriarch, which was foiled by the inhabitants of the area.

These events warned the patriarch that his position was in danger, and he made a secret journey to court to see the king, despite being exiled.  The king was clement, and Mar Aba advised him that he would rather be executed at court, if the king so wished, than murdered in an obscure place by a renegade.  The king accepted this excuse, and remitted his exile, obliging him to be confined at court.

In 551 Anoshazad, son of Chosrau I and a Christian woman, who had been exiled to Beit Lapat, raised a revolt and marched on Seleucia.  He was able to rely on Christian support in the region.  The king’s first reaction was to execute Mar Aba.  But on further thought he invited the catholicos to detach his coreligionists from supporting Anoshazad.  At the same time he released Mar Aba from prison.  By chance at this point a priest sent by the chief of the Haital arrived, seeking ordination from Mar Aba; and the presence of this envoy of a remote people increased the king’s respect for the Catholicos.  The letters of the Catholicos were effective, the revolt failed, and Mar Aba was set at liberty. 

But Mar Aba had suffered from all this, and he died on 29 February 552, at Seleucia.  He had spent the last year of his life in pastoral concerns and in converting heretics.

The king had learned much from this episode.  He did not permit the bishops to elect a new Catholicos, but instead appointed his own candidate, a doctor named Joseph who had treated Chosrau successfully, and the bishops acquiesced in his choice.

  1. [1]These notes are from J. Labourt, Le christianisme dans l’empire perse sous la dynastie Sassanide (224-632), Paris, 1904, p.162-191.  Although well out of date, the history of the church in Persia is so little known that this material will be new to most of us.  The sources for his life are: Bedjan, Histoire de Mar Jabalaha, etc, Life of Maraba, p.206-274; `Amr, p.23; Mare, p.43-46; Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, vol. 2, col.89-96.  Cf. Assemani, Bibl. Orientale, III, p.75-80; Duval, Litterature Syriaque, p. 218, 440; Synodicon Orientale p.318-351 and 540-562.
  2. [2]PG 88, c. 73.
  3. [3]Synodicon Orientale, p.321.