A Semitic Church Father

By Dr. Eliyahu Lizorkin-Eyzenberg


Many scholars of Syriac Christian and Babylonian Jewish literature agree that the figure of Aphrahat (c. 285-345 CE) has re-emerged as one of the most fascinating representatives of so-called Semitic Christianity.

There are a number of reasons for this emerging consensus. First, this Church Father’s writings are of great value, since he ministered when and where significant portions of the Babylonian Talmud were put into writing, in the middle of a strong and thriving Jewish community. His self-reported interactions with the Jewish community of his day bring to light some previously unknown information that may lead to new perspectives on that community. From this standpoint, Aphrahat has the potential to help us clarify our picture of Mesopotamian Judaism of the fourth century.

Second, Aphrahat’s writings afford us a unique look at a Christianity that was largely unaffected by Roman political and religious developments, and may thus in some ways have resembled certain types of early Christianity. Writings from Aphrahat’s period are of particular interest because, from the beginning of the following century influences from the west would break through Persia’s iron curtain, increasingly infiltrating and affecting that society. Aphrahat’s writings encourage us to think freely about what the history of Christianity in general might have been had it gone the way of Aphrahat’s community. Third, Aphrahat, having engaged himself in the ancient Jewish-Christian polemic, allows us to transport ourselves back to fourth-century Persia and take a closer look at the foundations of that polemic. Many things have transpired in the history of Jewish-Christian relations throughout the past sixteen centuries, but much of what happened is rooted in the fourth century. This study, however, concentrates on reconstructing a Christian-Jewish conversation in Northern Babylonia, which was home to Aphrahat and his followers, as well as a significant Jewish community. It contributes to the ongoing study of the Christian and Jewish history of Babylonia during this crucial time for the development of both religions.

Aphrahat’s person

His name, Aphrahat, is the Syriac version of the Persian name Frahāt (modern Farhād). The Persian Sage was a subject of Shapur II (309-379 CE). All that scholars can say with confidence about Aphrahat is known from his writings. Self-description seems to be intentionally obscured by Aphrahat; he wanted the reader to concentrate on the important things that were the teachings of His Lord, upon which he was expounding in his Demonstrations (Dem. 22.26). Aphrahat resided somewhere in Persian territories, although the exact location is unknown. All the evidence suggests that Aphrahat had a command only of Syriac and cognate languages, as he never gives any indication that he is familiar with either the Greek of the LXX or the Greek New Testament.

Aphrahat seems to quote from the Gospel (Diatessaron) and not from four separate Gospels. His arguments seem to be positioned well within an exclusively Semitic world. In his Christological discussions, for example, he shows no knowledge of the council of Nicaea, which took place 10 years before his first Demonstrations were written. Peterson is probably correct when he argues that Aphrahat is rather clear in his “non-orthodox” Christology, suggesting that the fault for consistently placing Aphrahat within the “orthodox” camp lies with the generally biased treatments of Aphrahat by church historians both ancient and modern.

Aphrahat’s location

Since many of his concerns presuppose a monastic community we are safe in placing him at one of the proto-monastic centres of Persia. The difficulty arises in the methodology for assigning a more specific location. If we assume that all ancient proto-monasteries survived to our day, or at least that we have reliable information with regard to all of them, then the Mar Mattai monastery in modern-day Iraq can be established as the location. The fourteenth-century document assigns to Aphrahat that geographical locale and much of today’s scholarship simply takes this assumption, though only in passing, to be a historically verifiable fact. The monastery was established sometime in the fourth century, and that location is consistent with the few things that scholars know about Aphrahat. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that this location is at best a plausible suggestion not yet substantiated by positive evidence.

Aphrahat’s ministry

As was stated above, scholars know very few details about Aphrahat. His proto-monastic orientation is not in dispute, since it is self-evident from the content of his writings (Dem. 6, On Covenanters). What is unclear is how influential his position was. Scholars conclude that Aphrahat may have been a chief monk. He argues against the official spokesman of the church, especially in Dem. 14, which probably means that he was a person of some spiritual influence. In Dem. 14 he uses “we” and “us” often, which speaks to the fact that he represents the whole community (this is explicitly stated in Dem. 22.26). His self-description seems to always underplay the level of his achievement. He calls himself by names like “a disciple of the holy scriptures” (Dem. 22.26) and a “stone-mason” who only supplies the raw material to the “wise-architects” to build up the Church (Dem. 10.9), while in reality the prominent characteristic of his writing is a colossal memory knowledge of an enormous quantity of biblical citations and allusions that cannot be termed anything but phenomenal.

From Demonstrations it appears that Aphrahat himself belonged to a proto-monastic Christian community called Sons of the Covenant (B’nai Q’yâmâ). These believers devoted themselves to the day-to-day service of their Lord in monastic communities throughout the East. They did so through selfless dedication to God, which was manifested by their surrender of personal property, time and relationships outside of the community for the purposes of devotion to Christ, their King. Aphrahat wrote:

Study what I have written to you: you and the brothers, the covenanters, who love virginity. Be on your guard against mockers, for if anyone mocks or scoffs at his brother, the word that is written in the gospel (when our Lord wanted to warn the greedy and the Pharisees) is fulfilled against him. For it is written: “Because they were lovers of money, they mocked him.” Even now, all those who do not agree with this mock in the same way. Read and learn, and be zealous to read and to act. Let this Law of God be your meditation at all times. And when you read this letter, by your life, my friend, rise and pray, and remember my sinfulness in your prayer. (Dem. 6.20)