A text describing different religions by Abu Qurra

One of the Syriac Christian writers who mention Persia is the 8th century writer Theodore Abu Qurra.  Quite by accident I have stumbled across a French translation of an interesting text by him on the different religions of his time.[1]  The abstract indicates its contents:

The Syriac Theodore Abū Qurra (c.750-c. 825), Melkite bishop of Harrân, has left many works. Among them, the Treatise (Mîmar) on the Existence of the Creator and the True Religion, in Arabic contains two outstanding chapters, translated and commented here.

First, a carefully organized account of religious in his time : Pagans (who will be called « Sabaens » later), Mazdaeans (of Zurvanite conviction), Samaritans, Jews, Christians, Manichaeans (who were practising specific interpretation of the canonical Gospels), Marcionites, Bardesanites, Muslims.

Second, a lenghty allegory which presents common points with the Hymn of the Pearl. Its expounding by the author aims at giving a definite clue to the discernment of the only true religion : God resembles man, and its up to human reason to judge in the matter.

The work is of course in Christian Arabic. 

The first part is really rather interesting.  Were there really still Marcionites and followers of Bardaisan in Syria ca. 800 AD, in the Abbassid period?

The work is preserved in a unique manuscript of the 17th century which is missing its opening section, ms. 373 of the monastery of the basilian monks at Deir al-Shir, wherever that is.  The manuscript contains five works by Abu Qurra, and our text is on folios 2-59.  The work was probably written around 780 AD, and has been edited Louis Cheikho in 1912, and again by Ignace Dick in 1982.

I grew up in the mountains, where I did not know what men there are.  But one day, prompted by a business matter concerning myself, I went down to the towns where men gather, and I saw them divided into different religions.

1.  One group, who follow the religion of the ancient pagans, called me to come among them.  They say that we should worship the seven stars, [i.e.] the sun, the moon, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus, and the twelve signs of the zodiac, because these are the ones that create and govern all creatures and which give good fortune and happiness, or bad luck and distress, in this world.  Their prophet on this matter is the wise Hermes.

2.  I left these people and the Mazdaeans approached me, saying “Leave them, they talk wind.  Come to us, for our teaching is solid.”

They explained that their great god is called Zurvan, and Zurvan is Destiny.  Before the world was created, he sacrificed for a thousand years so that a child should be born to him, and his wife conceived a son called Ormazd.   After he had been conceived for 900 years, his father Zurvan doubted whether he had indeed been conceived, and that doubt engendered in the womb of his wife another child, i.e. the devil.  Zurvan learned this and said, “Whichever of children comes before me first, I shall give him the kingship.”  Ormazd, in his mother’s womb, had knowledge of this word and shared it with the devil.  The latter, when he knew this, pierced the womb of his mother, came out by his own effort, and presented himself to his father.  He was dark, black of face, and hideous.  His father asked him, “Who are you?”  He replied, “I am your son, the devil, born of your doubt.  Give me then the royalty that you promised.  Zurvan was sad, but as he did not want to go back on his word, he gave him royalty over the world for nine thousand years.

As for Ormazd, his mother gave birth to him at the end of a thousand years.  He seemed like a completely beautiful light.  He created the heaven and the earth and the different intermediary natures, in the beauty and brilliance in which this world is seen.  All the same, the latter was in darkness, without light.  Ormazd was sad, and sought counsel from the devil.  He advised him to marry his mother.  He did so and had relations with her.  [His mother] conceived and bore the sun, for light by day.  [The devil advised him] to marry his sister.  He did so, and had relations with her.  [His sister] conceived and gave birth; the moon, to illuminate the night.  Likewise the Mazdaeans, like their god Ormazd, marry their mothers, their sisters and their daughters, so that they shall have children like the sun and the moon.

Such are their gods.  In imitation of Ormazd, Madaeans are allowed to enjoy all the pleasures of the world, because that is why [Ormazd] created them.

Their prophet who, they say, brought this truth to them, is Zoroaster.

I wish I had time to do more of this text.  It is really rather interesting.  But … did Theodore Abu Qurra really meet all these groups; or is this a literary way to describe the contents of his reading?

  1. [1]Guy Monnot, Abu Qurra et la pluralite de religions, Revue de l’histoire des religions 208 (1991), 49-71, online here at Persee.fr.  A PDF is here.