Christianity in Edessa and the Syriac-Speaking World:
Mani, Bar Daysan and Ephraem;
The Struggle for Allegiance on the Aramean Frontier
Sidney Griffith, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
(Posted on this Home Page with the author’s permission. NB: this is a
scanned version, so pardon any errors)
Edessa and the Syriac Language
In Late Antiquity the geographical area to the east of Antioch,
stretching from the northern reaches of the land between the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers westward almost to the Mediterranean sea, and southward
to the environs of Damascus, was often called by the local inhabitants,
Aram. The name is that of the biblical son of Shem, the son of Noah,
from whom the Christian inhabitants of the area in later times derived
their legendary ancestry (Genesis 10:22-23).1 At some point
after the Seleucids gained power in the area in the fourth century
before the Christian era, people began to call all, or parts, of this
indeterminate territory Syria, probably a shortened form of the ancient
name Assyria. The local dialect of the Aramaic language spoken in this
territory from the first three centuries of the Christian era onward is
the language modern, western scholars call `Syriac'.2
The earliest textual reference to 'Aram' may actually occur before
biblical times, in the archives of Ebla in the 3rd millenium. See Edward
Lipinski, The Aramaeans, their Ancient History, Culture, Religion
(Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 100; Leuven: Peeters, 2001), p. 26.
On the development of what one might call `Classical Syriac', see the
important remarks of Lucas Van Rompay, "Some Preliminary Remarks on the
Origins of Classical Syriac as a Standard Language; the Syriac Version
of Eusebius of Caesarea's Ecclesiastical History," in Gideon Goldenberg
& Shlomo Raz (eds.), Semitic and Cushitic Studies (Wiesbaden:
Harrassowitz, 1994), pp. 70-89.
During the years when the Severan Dynasty ruled in Rome, Edessa, the
ancient Urhay and modern [Sanli] Urfa,3 was the center of
Aramean, or Syriac, literary culture. For the Persians, i.e., the `Parthians',
it was the capital of the province of Osrhoene; in the 160's AD the
territory came under Roman domination. 4 As Steven K. Ross
has recently written, "By the end of the century between Trajan (97-117)
and Septimius Severus (193-211), the king of Edessa was squarely within
Roman clientela, and the groundwork was laid for the even firmer
incorporation of his realm into the empire." 5 King Abgar
VIII, `the Great' (178/9-212), was the king at the time. It was during
his reign, as a client king of Rome, that "pre-Christian Edessan culture
reached its zenith.6 Edward Gibbon gave this still apt
description of Osrhoene just prior to the Severan period:
That little state occupied the northern and most fertile part of
Mesopotamia, between the Euphrates and the Tigris. Edessa, its capital,
was situated about twenty miles beyond the former of those rivers; and
the inhabitants, since the time of Alexander, were a mixed race of
Greeks, Arabs, Syrians, and Armenians. The feeble sovereigns of Osrhoene,
placed on the dangerous verge of two contending empires, were attached
See Amir Harrak, "The Ancient Name of Edessa," Journal of Near
Eastern Studies 51 (1992), pp. 209-214.
See Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East; 31 BC - AD 337
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 472-481; Warwick
Ball, Rome in the East; the Transformation of an Empire (London &
New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 87-94; Maurice Sartre, D'Alexandre a
Zdnobie; histoire du Levant antique, Ive siecle avant J.-C, IIIe siecle
apres J.-C. (Paris: Fayard, 2001), pp. 630-637, 961-962.
Steven K. Ross, Roman Edessa; Politics and Culture on the Eastern
Fringes of the Roman Empire, 114-242C E (London &New York: Routledge,
2001), p. 29.
Ross, Roman Edessa, p. 57.
inclination to the Parthian cause; but the superior power of Rome
exacted from them a reluctant homage.7
Gibbon here put his finger on a salient fact about life in Edessa, and
the Syriac-speaking milieu generally. It was life on the frontier.8
Wars between the Romans and the Persians were an ever-present factor in
this territory, in which the borders between the two empires were
constantly shifting, depending on unpredictable military sallies and
excursions from one side or the other. 9 Moreover, another
constant feature of life in this milieu was the often-forced transfer of
whole populations from one jurisdiction to the other, depending on the
fortunes of the wars.' 10 Intellectual life was deeply imbued
with both `Roman' and `Persian' features; `Hellenism' and the
indigenous, `Semitic' modes of thought and expression often clashed and
then intermingled in both religious and more broadly cultural
In these cross-frontier circumstances, some measure of local identity
was preserved in the burgeoning success of the Syriac language;
developed in the environs of Edessa, it was spoken and understood on
both sides of the indefinite, great divide between Rome and Persia,
thereby creating a cross-frontier community. The language carried with
it a family relationship to the Jewish world in which Christianity first
appeared in the synagogue communities of Mesopotamia and
Syria/Palestine. It was this
Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire (David Womersley, ed., 3 vols.; London: Penguin, 1994), vol.
I, p. 224.
See Ernst Kirsten, "Edessa; eine r6mische Grenzstadt des 4.
Bis 6. Jahrhunderts im Orient," Jahrbuch fur Antike and Christentum
6(1963), pp. 144-172.
See D. Kennedy, "The East," in J. Wacher, The Roman World (vol.
I; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), pp. 266-308.
See S.N.C. Lieu, "Captives, Refugees and Exiles: a Study of
Cross-Frontier Civilian Movements and Contacts between Rome and Persia
from Valerian to Jovian," in P. Freeman & D. Kennedy (eds.), The
Defence of the Roman and Byzantine East (part 2; Oxford: British
Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, 1986), pp. 475-508.
11 See G. W. Bowersock, Hellenism in Late
Antiquity (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1990),
esp. pp. 29-40.
language which eventually carried the Christian faith across the trade
routes of Central Asia, eastward into China and southward into India.
12 For it was Christianity that provided the cultural elan
that made Syriac much more than just the Aramaic dialect of Edessa. From
the third century onward it became the lingua franca of a
sizeable, mostly mercantile population group in Mesopotamia, who, until
well into Islamic times, carried their cultural identity in their own
distinctive idiom far and wide.
Christianity in Edessa
One no longer knows for sure when or exactly how Christianity first came
to the Syriac-speaking communities. Modern scholars are divided between
supporters of the view that it first appeared among Jews in the kingdom
of Adiabene, to the north and east of Osrhoene, who had close ties to
Palestine, and those who think that Christianity came first to Edessa,
from Antioch. What is clear is that by the time of the Roman emperor
Septimius Severus (193-211) there was a large enough community of
Christians in Edessa to support a church building in the city. The
Chronicle of Edessa records the fact that in the year 201AD the
church of the Christians was destroyed by a flood. The same
sixth-century chronicle dates the `apostasy' of Marcion to the year 138
AD, and it records the date of Bar Daysan's birth in Edessa in the year
154 AD. 13 Both Marcion and Bar Daysan will figure
prominently in the discussion to follow of the first notable Christians
See Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia (vol.
I: Beginnings to 1500; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992; Ian
Gillman & Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Christians in Asia before 1500
(Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999).
See I. Guidi, Chronica Minora (CSCO, vols., 1 & 2; Louvain:
Secretariat du CSCO, 1903 & 1907), pp. 2 & 3.
The Chronicle of Edessa presents a retrospective view of the
glories of Edessa. It was composed around the year 540 AD, drawn from
the records of the city's archives and other sources. It is put together
from the perspective of a compiler in the sixth century, anxious to
highlight the city's ancient heritage. 14 From it and other
sources one learns how from around the year 132 BC to AD 249, well into
the Roman colonial period, Edessa enjoyed the rule of a local dynasty of
kings. The dynasty is often called the `Abgarids', after the name Abgar,
the given name of a number of the city's kings. But it is more correctly
`the Aryu dynasty', a family of Arab origin, whose rule fostered a
dynamic of national consciousness. 15 Inscriptions in Old
Syriac and Classical Syriac from the first three centuries of the
Christian era preserve the names of many of the noble families of the
period. 16 But for the origins of Christianity in Edessa and
its environs, the Chronicle does not offer much help.
In the first decades of the fifth century, a now anonymous writer
working in Edessa, and also using the city archives, as he claims, put
together a remarkable narrative which he called The Teaching of Addai
the Apostle. 17 At the end of the work the author says
that he used records written by the scribe Labubna, the son of Senaq,
the son of Abshadar, as his source, and that Hannan, the royal
archivist, had testified to their
See W. Witakowski, "Chronicles of Edessa," Orientalia Suecana
33-34 (1984-1986), pp. 486-498. 15 See Millar, The Roman
Near East, 31 BC - AD 337, pp. 472-481.
See Han J. W. Drijvers & John F. Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions
of Edessa & Osrhoene: Texts Translations & Commentary (Handbuch der
Orientalistik, 42; Leiden: Brill, 1999).
The text was first published and translated into English by George
Phillips, The Doctrine of Addai, the Apostle, Now First Edited in a
Complete Form in the Original Syriac (London: Trubner & Co., 1876).
It is now also available, in Phillips' edition, but with a new English
version, in George Howard (trans.), The Teaching of Addai (SBL
Texts and Translations, 16, Early Christian Literature Series, 4; Chico,
CA: Scholars Press, 1981). For further information about the text and
its manuscript witnesses, see A. Desreumaux, "La Doctrine d'Addai; essai
de classement des temoins syriaques et grecs," Augustinianum 23
(1983), pp. 181-186. See also Alain Desreumaux, Histoire du roi Abgar
et de Jesus (Paris: Brepols, 1993).
accuracy. 18 In his work the author undertook not only to
tell the story of the coming of Christianity to Edessa, and to
demonstrate its apostolic origins, but, perhaps even more importantly
for his own purposes, he provided a profile of the doctrine that he
represented as the Christian Kerygma originally preached in
Edessa. At the very beginning the author lists the three main moments of
*when Abgar, the king, the son of Ma'nu, the king, sent the letter to
Jerusalem, to our Lord;
*when Addai, the apostle, came to Edessa/Urhay, and what he said in the
announcement of his kerygma;
*the instructions he gave when he was leaving this world, to those who
had received the hand of the priesthood from him. 19
Following the third moment of the narrative, the account of Addai's
instructions to his Edessene followers, the author provides a brief,
concluding recital of developments in the church of Edessa after the
time of Addai. Finally, at the very end, there is the notice about
Labubna, the king's scribe, "the one writing down these things of Addai,
the apostle," and Hannan, the king's trustworthy archivist, who "set
down the hand of witness."20 The literary heart of the work,
as we now have it, is to be found in the speeches delivered by Addai in
Edessa. The major themes in the speeches highlight the following issues:
the Roman political and ecclesiastical alignment of Edessa and its
territories; a hierarchical church order in communion with the sees of
Antioch and Rome; a list of religious adversaries including pagans and
Jews; a Christology reminiscent of that of Cyril of Alexandria; and
moral imperatives concerned with the proper use of
'8 See Howard, The Teaching of Addai, pp.
Howard, The Teaching of Addai, pp. 1 & 3.
wealth in service of the poor. The study of the terms in which these
themes are presented in the work leads to the conclusion that the
Doctrina Addai in its final form comes from the pen of a writer in
the entourage of Bishop Rabbula of Edessa (d.436) in the first third of
the fifth century. 21
The Doctrina Addai puts forward the several major themes as the
component parts of a distinctly Edessan profile of the Christian faith
that in its author's opinion went back to the origins of Christianity in
that city. He used documentary sources from the city's archives, as well
as legendary accounts of the first Christians in the city, to support
the political and doctrinal point of view he wished to commend. For this
purpose he evokes the memory of King Abgar V, `the Black', (4 BC - 7 AD
& 13 A D - 50 AD) and the legendary account of his having sent envoys to
Palestine with a letter for Jesus at the time of his passion. He asked
Jesus to come to Edessa to heal the king of an illness. According to the
story, Jesus then responded with a message of his own. He promised to
send a disciple to Edessa after his ascension into heaven, to heal Abgar
and to preach the Gospel in his kingdom. Meanwhile, Hannan the
archivist, a member of the king's delegation to Jesus, is said to have
brought a portrait he painted of Jesus back to Edessa with him from
Palestine. 22 And in due course, after Jesus' passion, death
and resurrection, according to the story, the disciple Addai came to
evangelize Edessa, in fulfillment of Jesus' promise, and to establish
the city's claim to an apostolic foundation for her church. The problem
account, from the historian's point of view, is that
20 Howard, The Teaching of Addai, pp. liii &
See Sidney H. Griffith, "Writing History in Syriac in Late Antique
Edessa: the Doctrina Addai as a Paradigm of Christian Thought on
the Aramean Frontier of the Roman Empire," in Richard Lim & Carole Straw
(eds), The World of Late Antiquity: the Challenge of New
Historiographies (Berkeley: University of California Press, in
the legendary character of the framework narrative, and the Rabbulan
profile of the main body of the work, make it unreliable as a source of
information about how Christianity actually first came to the Syriac-speaking
world. Of course, the legend may well have a historical fundamentum
in re, but if so it is now indiscernible beneath layers of narrative
From a reading of the Doctrina Addai, one goes on in the search
for the first Christians of Edessa to other documents. The earliest,
independent historical document one might mention, dating from around
the year 192 A.D., is the epitaph of Abercius Marcellus, bishop of
Hierapolis in Phrygia. It mentions the presence of Christians in the
environs of Edessa from the second half of the second century onward.
Finally, Julius Africanus (c. 160-240), who in 195 CE came with
Septimius Severus' expedition to Osrhoene, mentions in his Kestoi
or `Embroideries', that he had met Bar Daysan in Edessa.23
Tatian the Syrian (c. 160 CE), who says of himself that he was
from Assyria, 24 by which he presumably meant northern
Mesopotamia, is perhaps the earliest Christian whom we know by name to
have come from the Syriac-speaking milieu. He had gone to Rome to study
philosophy and there he converted to Christianity under the influence of
Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165). Sometime after the latter's death, perhaps
around the year 172, Tatian returned to his native land. Therefore,
Tatian himself may well have played a significant role in the
dissemination of Christianity beyond the Euphrates. In the works
On the famous image of Edessa see now Han J. W. Drijvers, "The Image of
Edessa in the Syriac Tradition," in H. L. Kessler & G. Wolf (eds),
The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation (Villa Spelman
Colloquia, Florence, 1996, vol. 6; Bologna: Nuova Alfa, 1998), pp.
See the passage quoted in the prefatory material to M. J. Routh,
Reliq_uiae Sacrae (vol. II, 1844), reprinted in PG, vol. X, cols.
See Molly Whittaker (ed. & trans.), Tatian, Oratio ad Graecos and
Fragments (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), section 42, pp. 76-77
of early Christian heresiographers he is often accused of the `heresy'
of the `Encratites',25 a somewhat vague doctrine involving
excessive ascetical practice. He is also remembered for two works that
have survived: his Oratio ad Graecos, written in Greek, and the
Diatessaron, a presentation of the four Gospels in a continuous
narrative, which Tatian put together while he was still in Rome. While
the original language of the latter is uncertain, it nevertheless had a
wide circulation in Syriac, at least until the time of Bishop Rabbula of
Edessa (d. 435), when it was officially banned .26
The translation of the Bible into Syriac was an important part of the
introduction of Christianity into the Syriac-speaking milieu. It appears
that all the translators of the Old Testament into the Syriac version
that would come to be called the Peshitta or `Simple' version by the
ninth century, worked primarily from a Hebrew original. Many of them
seem also sporadically to have consulted the Greek Bible, and there are
parallels with the Targums that suggest dependence on a common oral
tradition. As for the translators themselves, the current scholarly
consensus is that "they constituted a single school, a non-rabbinic
Jewish community, which eventually accepted Christianity. The evidence
suggests that the work spanned perhaps one or two generations, towards
the end of the second century CE, and that the likeliest location is
Edessa."27 The evidence is compatible with a date c. 150 for
the earlier books of the Hebrew Bible. 28
A number of other Christian works in Syriac from the early period
suggest vigorous literary activity by the Severan period. In this
connection one might mention
See R.M. Grant, "The Heresy of Tatian," Journal of Theological
Studies 5 (1954), pp. 62-68; L. W. Barnard, "The Heresy of Tatian -
Once Again," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 19 (1968), pp.
See W. L. Peterson, Tatian's Diatessaron: its Creation, Dissemination
Significance and History in Scholarship (Supplement to Vigiliae
Christianae, 25; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994).
M.P. Weitzman, The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: an
Introduction (University of Cambridge Oriental Publications, 56;
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 13.
Weitzman, The Syriac Version, p. 258.
the Odes of Solomon, the Acts of Judas Thomas (including the Hymn of the
Pearl), and the Gospel of Thomas. 29 But these works are all
problematic in terms of our knowledge of their origins; most of what we
think we know about them is the product of modern scholarly surmise. The
earliest Syriac writer whose name and work we actually know is Bar
Daysan (154-222), of whom we will speak at greater length below. For now
what is important to emphasize is the fact that all of the earliest
Christian texts in Syriac supply ample evidence of a wide acquaintance
of the Syrians with the rest of the world. Indeed, the Syriac-speaking
milieu in the Severan period (193-235), along with all its heritage from
the east and with its continuing fascination with Persia and Persians,
was nevertheless busily absorbing Christian ideas from the wider Roman
world into which Septimius Severus and his successors were bringing it.
To this phenomenon Abercius, Tatian, Julius Africanus and the others
also testify. By the time Eusebius of Caesarea (c.260-340) was writing
his Ecclesiastical History (before 300?) Edessa and Osrhoene were
seen to be playing a role in the by now empire-wide Christian movement;
he reports events in the church there on the basis of documents in the
city's archives, including the rudiments of what would become the legend
of its apostolic origins. 3̊
Eusebius also reports more ordinary events in the city's ecclesiastical
life, such as its participation in early doctrinal and liturgical
controversies. This fact has led Steven K. Ross to make the following
Eusebius, however, reports (Hist. Eccl. 5.23.4) that the churches
of Osrhoene were consulted when a controversy arose in the
See Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom; a Study in Early
Syriac Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), esp.
pp. 24 ff.
See Sebastian Brock, "Eusebius and Syriac Christianity," in Harold W.
Attridge & Gohei Hata (eds), Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism
(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), pp. 212-234.
church over the date of Easter, around 197. If this report is genuine,
it offers confirmation for the establishment of at least a small
Catholic community in Osrhoene, and probably in its capital of Edessa,
Edessa's Early Christian Teachers
From the later heresiographical literature in Syriac, notably the works
of Ephraem the Syrian (306-373), one learns that already in the second
century the ideas of Marcion of Sinope (d.c.154), who had become a
Christian in Rome c.140, exerted a major influence in Syriac-speaking
Edessa and its environs. 32 Given the wide range of his ideas in the
Christian world generally, it would be surprising if this had not been
the case. At the time Edessa seems to have been absorbing Christianity
in its entirety, including the ideas of that other daring thinker from
Rome, Valentinus (d.c.165),33 along with the ever more
popular Roman, political suzerainty. Although he was never a resident
there, Marcion in particular became so important a figure in Osrhoene
that the Chronicle of Edessa mentions it as a notable fact in the city's
official memory that "in the year 449 [of the Seleucid era, i.e.,
137/138 C.E.] Marcion left the Catholic church.” 34
Marcion's ideas had a powerful effect on Edessa's native intellectual,
Bar Daysan (154-222), whom Julius Africanus met in Abgar VIII's court in
the days of Septimius Severus, as we mentioned above. On the one hand,
as we learn from Eusebius,
31 Ross, Roman Edessa, pp.
See Han J. W. Drijvers, "Marcionism in Syria: Principles, Problems,
Polemics," Second Century 6 (1987-88), pp. 153-172.
Aphrahat, `the `Persian Sage' (fl. 337-345), spoke of the "fraudulent
teachings" of both Marcion and Valentinus, along with Mani. See Joannes
Parisot (ed. & trans.), Aphraatis Demonstrationes I - XXII (Patrologia
Syriaca, vol. I; Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1894), cols. 115-116.
Bar Daysan composed polemical works against the teaching of Marcion.35
On the other hand, this "Aramean Philosopher," as Ephraem called Bar
Daysan,36 was himself the author of a formidable system of
thought, putting together elements from his own world beyond the
Euphrates and the philosophy of the Greeks, as we shall discuss below.
Radiating from Edessa, Bar Daysan's teaching had a wide dissemination in
the Syriac-speaking world. In the next generation it was to have a
profound effect on a teacher from southern Mesopotamia, who had been
brought up in the Aramaic-speaking, Jewish-Christian milieu of the `Elkasaites'
in Iraq, whose name was Mani (216-276). Mani was to become the founder
of a major, world religion, with the Persian court as the focal point of
his activity. But this fact should not blind us to his Edessa
connections. Not only was he indebted in important ways to the thought
of Bar Daysan, Edessa's own `Aramean philosopher', 37 but Mani himself
is said to have addressed one of his epistles to the community in
Edessa.38 By Ephraem's day, in the judgment of Han J. W.
Drijvers, Manichaeism had already gained a commanding presence in the
environs of Edessa.39
Quoted from Drijvers, "Marcionism in Syria," p. 153. See Guidi,
Chronica Minora, p. 3 (npaq Marqyon men `edta qatholiqa).
See the passage from Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History (IV, 30)
quoted, translated into English and discussed in H. J. W. Drijvers,
Bardaisan of Edessa (Assen: Van Gorcum & Comp., 1966), pp. 169-170.
C.W. Mitchell, S. Ephraim's Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion and
Bardaisan (2 vols.; London & Oxford: Williams & Norgate, 1912 &
1921), vol. II, p. 225.
See O. G. von Wessendonk, "Bardesanes and Mani," Acta Orientalia
10 (1932), pp. 336-363; H. J. W. Drijvers, "Mani and Bardaisan; ein
Beitrag zur Vorgeschichte des Manichaismus," in Mdlanges d'Histoire
des Religions offerts d Henri-Charles Puech (Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France, 1974), pp. 459-469; Barbara Aland, "Mani and
Bardesanes - zur Entstehung des manichaischen Systems," in Albert
Dietrich (ed.), Synkretismus im syrisch-persischen Kulturgebiet (Gottingen:
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975), pp. 123-143.
See Ron Cameron & Arthur J. Dewey (eds.), The Cologne Mani Codex (P.
Colon. Inv. Nr. 4780) `Concerning the Origin of his Body' (Texts and
Translations, n. 15, Early Christian Literature Series, 3; Missoula,
Montana: Scholars Press, 1979), pp. 50-51.
Drijvers made this point in a number of publications, most succinctly in
H. J. W. Drijvers, "Addai and Mani, Christentum and Manichaismus im
dritten Jahrhundert in Syrien," in R. Lavenant (ed.), III Symposium
Syriacum 1980 (Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 221; Rome:
Pontificium Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1983), pp. 171-185.
In Edessa, and the Syriac-speaking world more generally, Bar
Daysan and Mani can be seen to represent two responses to the
intellectual challenges presented by the irruption of the influences of
Roman arms and ideas into the frontier region of Syria in Severan times.
In personal terms, these influences came first with Tatian, Julius
Africanus, and others who brought ideas from the imperial city to the
eastern shores of the Mediterranean, including the ideas of their
contemporaries, Marcion and Valentinus. But they were not the only ones
to come, nor were they the only Christians in evidence in Edessa and its
environs. There was, presumably, the presence of a larger community to
welcome them. Later Christian legend, recorded in the famous Doctrina
Addai, as we have seen a work of the first half of the fifth
century, puts forward other names from the Severan period as
representing the ancestors of those who would come to profess the Nicene
faith in Edessa. The most important of these was Bishop Palut (c.200),
who was said to have been consecrated bishop by Serapion of Antioch
(c.190-209), who in turn was consecrated by Zephyrinus of Rome (d.217).40
It was their lineage that was claimed by Bishop Quna (reg. c. 289-313),
who, according to Walter Bauer, "organized orthodoxy in Edessa in an
ecclesiastical manner and gave to it significant impetus."41
And the names of both Bishop Quna of Edessa and Jacob of Nisibis
((d.338) are on the list of attendees at the Council of Nicea in 325,
albeit that there are many historical problems with the surviving lists.
Looking back from the second half of the fourth century, Ephraem
the Syrian (c. 306-373), who was then the major voice in support of
Roman ecclesiastical orthodoxy in
40 See George Howard (trans.), The Teaching of Addai
(SBL Texts and Translations, 16, Early Christian
Literature Series, 4; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981), pp. 52 (Syriac),
Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (2nd
ed.; trans. & ed. R. A. Kraft & G. Krodel; Philadelphia: Fortress,
the Syriac-speaking world, considered Bishop Palut to have been the man
in Severan times who represented the Christian church's best interests.
Nevertheless, Ephraem renounced the name `Palutians' for those whom he
considered to be orthodox Christians, maintaining that the true
followers of Christ are known simply as 'Christians'. 43
Furthermore, Ephraem considered Marcion, Bar Daysan, and Mani to have
been the principal `outsider' adversaries to the `true' Christian faith
in Edessa and its environs in the early years of the Roman imperial
hegemony. Here is what he said about them in his Hymns against
Let them be interrogated about their times, about who is older than his
associate. Would Mani seize primogeniture?
Bar Daysan is prior to him. Would Bar Daysan claim to be older? His age
is younger than the earlier ones. Marcion was the first thorn, the
first-born of the thicket of sin, the tare that was the first to spring
up. May the Just One trample his growth .44
See H. Gelzer, H. Hilgenfeld, O. Cuntz, Patrum Nicaenorum Nomina,
Latine, Graece, Coptice, Syriace, Arabice, Armeniace (Lipsiae:
Teubner, 1898), s.v.
See Sidney H. Griffith, "Setting Right the Church of Syria: Saint
Ephraem's Hymns against Heresies," in W. E. Klingshim & M. Vessey
(eds), The Limits of Ancient Christiani; Essays on Late Antique
Thought and Culture in Honor of R. A. Markus (Ann Arbor: The
University of Michigan Press, 1999), pp. 97-114; idem, "The Marks
of the `True Church' according to Ephraem's Hymns against Heresies,"
in G. J. Reinink & A.C. Klugkist (eds), After Bardaisan: Studies
on Change and Continuity in Syriac Christianity; a Festschrift in Honor
or Professor Han J. W. Drijvers (Orientalia Lovanenisia Analecta;
Louvain: Peeters, 1999), pp. 125-140.
Edmund Beck, Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen contra Haereses
(CSCO, vols. 169-170; Louvain: Secretariat du Corpus SCO, 1957),
XXIL 17 Occasionally, Ephraem would add the names of other
Ephraem viewed the famous Christian teachers of Severan times in the
environs of Edessa, both those from abroad, like Marcion and Valentinus,
and those local to the Syriac-speaking world, like Quq,45 Bar Daysan,
and Mani, to have been anxious to win over disciples to their own
doctrines. Here is what he said on this subject:
Valentinus stole a flock from the church and called it by his own name;
the `Potter' (i.e., Quq) made a denomination in his own name. The crafty
Bar Daysan stole some sheep and they acted like the flock universal.
Marcion deserted his sheep; Mani fell upon them to capture them from
him. The one mad man was biting the other one! They called the flock by
their own names. Blessed is the One who has thrown them out of his
In his polemical zeal, Ephraem even liked to make fun of the names of
the great teachers revered in the environs of Edessa whose doctrines he
loathed. In this vein, he wrote:
Whoever gave the name of the Daysan47 to Bar Daysan,
adversaries. For example, in one stanza he wrote of Valentinus and Quq,
in addition to the more frequently mentioned troika of Marcion, Bar
Daysan, and Mani. See, e.g., ibid, XXII:3, quoted below.
Quq was a native of Edessa, who also lived in Severan times, but whose
teachings, so objectionable to Ephraem, are now largely unknown. See
Han. J. W. Drijvers, "Quq and the Quqites; an Unknown Sect in Edessa in
the Second Century A.D.," Numen 14 (1967), pp. 104-129.
Beck, Hymnen contra Haereses, XXII:3.
In ancient times, Daysan was the name of the river that flows by Edessa.
Its devastating floods that damaged the city and claimed many lives were
recorded in the chronicles. See, e.g., the account of one
has caused more to die in Bar Daysan than [in] the Daysan. His volume
swelled up to bring forth thistles and tares. Marcion (Mrgyon) he
rubbed (mraq) so much as to make him rusty. He scoured him to the
point of blunting his mind with blasphemy. Mani (Mani) became a
garment (mana) fit to wear out its wearers .48
This polemical zeal on the part of Ephraem convinced Walter Bauer that
Ephraem and the writers against heresies who came after him invented the
history of Christianity in Edessa in the third century in order to
support the cause of Roman imperial, ecclesiastical Orthodoxy in the
fourth century. Bauer proposed the hypothesis that what would later be
called `heresy' actually came first in Edessa, and only subsequently the
teaching that would be recognized as `orthodoxy', and then only as
espoused by a small, embattled group. More specifically, Bauer said that
in Edessa "Christianity was first established in the form of Marcionism,
probably imported from the West and certainly not much later than the
year 150."49 Here is not the place to argue about the Bauer
hypothesis at any great length. True or false, it does nevertheless call
attention to the tremendous intellectual vitality in Edessa and the
Syriac-speaking world more generally in the
such major flood in the third century recorded in the Chronicle of
Edessa, in Guidi, Chronica Minora, vol. I, pp. 1-4.
Beck, Hymnen contra Haereses, 11:1. 49 Bauer, Orthodoxy
and Heresy, p. 29.
Severan period of Roman history. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that
when the exciting ideas of Marcion, Valentinus and the others came from
the wider world into Syria and Edessa in the late second century, they
must have found an already well-established Christian community there to
receive them. Indeed it seems that their very success would have
required a prior Christian commitment on the part of many who would have
become their admirers, in the light of which their new ideas would have
been eagerly received.
Two third century thinkers in particular, Bar Daysan and Mani, both in
some ways heirs to the teachings of Marcion, were to have major roles in
the struggle for Christian allegiance in Syria in the third century and
later. In the fourth century Ephraem portrayed the two of them as his
major intellectual adversaries, outside the canonical boundaries of the
`catholic' church of the Roman Empire.
The Struggle for Allegiance on the Aramean Frontier
Bar Daysan, Mani, and St. Ephraem were all frontier figures; they were
native sons of the Aramaic-speaking world of the frontier between Rome
and Persia, whose minds were challenged by the currents of political and
religious thought that circulated in the wider worlds that came together
in Mesopotamia. 50 Their doctrines were made up of elements
from both east and west, but they found a common expression in the
literary genres of Syriac, particularly in the madrdshd, a poetic
`teaching song' reportedly favored by all three teachers. 51
The teachings of Bar Daysan (154-222) and Mani (216-
See Geo Widengren, " `Synkretismus' in der syrischen Christenheit," in
Dietrich, Synkretismus im syrisch-persischen Kulturegebiet, pp.
51 Usually called simply a `hymn' in the west,
Andrew Palmer has proposed calling the madrdsha a `teaching
song', a rendering that certainly comes closer to the original sense of
the term. See A. Palmer,
276) dominated the third century. 52 In the fourth century
St. Ephraem emerged as the strongest voice in Syrian Christianity. He
espoused Nicene orthodoxy and Roman political allegiance in a flawless
Syriac idiom that set the standard for literary excellence in that
language ever thereafter and eventually eclipsed the influence of the
ideas of the earlier teachers as well. From this perspective St. Ephraem
may be seen not only as the champion of Roman imperial Orthodoxy, but
also as the one who found the most effective way intellectually to
inculturate Christianity into the life and institutions of the Aramean
Bar Daysan looked west. Epiphanius, the heresiographer, wrote in his
Panarion that Bar Daysan was "a learned man in both Greek and Syriac."53
While he was well schooled in the astral sciences of the Babylonians and
the consogonical myths of the Persians, and was much concerned with
planetary influences over human affairs, he was also much concerned with
the science and philosophy of the Greeks. In fact, following
"The Merchant of Nisibis; Saint Ephrem and his Faithful Quest for Union
in Numbers," in J. Den Boeft & A. Hilhorst, Early Christian Poetry; a
Collection of Essays (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, vol.
XXII; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993), pp. 167-233. On the
inappropriateness of calling the madrashd a `hymn' see Michael
Lattke, "Sind Ephraems Madrdshd Hymnen?" Oriens Christianus
73 (1989), pp. 38-43.
For Bar Daysan, see Han J. W. Drijvers, Bardaisan of Edessa (Studia
Semitica Neerlandica, 6; Assen: van Gorcum, 1966); Edmund Beck, "Bardaisan
and seine Schule bei Ephraem," Le Museon 91 (1978), pp. 324-333;
J. Teixidor, Bardesane d'Edesse: la primiere philosophie syriaque
(Paris: Cerf, 1992); A. Camplani, "Note Bardesanitiche," Miscellanea
Marciana 12 (1997), pp. 11-43; idem, "Rivisitando Bardesane:
note sulle fonti siriache del bardesanismo e sulla sua collocazione
storico-religiosa," Cristianesimo nella Storia 19 (1998), pp.
For Mani, see Edmund Beck, Ephraems Polemik gegen Mani and die
Manichaeer; im Rahmen der zeitgenoessischen ariechischen Polemik and der
des Ausgtinus (CSCO, vol. 391; Louvain: Secretariat du CorpusSCO,
1978); Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and
Medieval China, a Historical Survey (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1985); idem, Manichaeism in Mesopotamia and
the Roman East (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, vol. 118;
Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994); Jason David BeDuhn, The Manichaean Body,
In Discipline and Ritual (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 2000). See also Sidney H. Griffith, " `The Thorn among the
Tares': Mani and Manichaeism in the Works of St. Ephraem the Syrian," in
M.F. Wiles & E.J. Yarnold (eds), Studia Patristica (vol. XXXV;
Leuven: Peeters, 2001), pp. 403-435.
Karl Holl, Epiphanius, (Ancoratus and Panarion) (2nd
vol., Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller, vol. 31; Leipzig:
J.C. Hinrichs'sche Buchhandlung, 1922), LVI, p. 338.
perception of Ephraem, who called him "the Aramean philosopher,"54
modern commentators have been inclined to consider Bar Daysan to have
been more of a philosopher than he ever was a religious teacher. 55 They
find in his ideas about the origins of the world and human destiny
reminiscences of the teachings of the Stoics and the Platonists.56
But from a cultural point of view, what is more interesting is that
while the notes of his students portray him as almost a Socratic
teacher, 57 Ephraem presents him as a successful composer of madrdshe
in Syriac. Ephraem suggests that these compositions became the
effective vehicles of Bar Daysan's ideas in the Aramaic-speaking milieu.
He complains of this in the Hymns against Heresies. Ephraem
In the lairs of Bar Daysan are melodies and chants. Since he saw the
youth longing for sweets, with the harmony of his songs he excited the
For Ephraem the seduction of Bar Daysan's Syriac melodies was virtually
sexual. He said of them,
Bar Daysan's speech outwardly displays chastity.
Mitchell, Prose Refutations, vol. 11, p. 225.
See Teixidor, Bardesane d'Edesse, esp. pp. 105-114.
See, e.g., Hans J. W. Drijvers, "Bardaisan von Edessa als Reprasentant
des syrischen Synkretismus im 2.
Jahrhundert n. Chr.," in Dietrich, Synkretismus im s ri~persischen
Kultur eg biet, pp. 109-122.
The only sustained record of Bar Daysan's teaching still extant is
contained in a work put together by one of his interlocutors, Awida,
usually called the Book of the Laws of Countries. See F. Nau,
Bardesanes. Liber Legum Regionum (Patrologia Syriaca, vol. 1;
Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1907), cols. 536-611; H.J.W. Drijvers (ed. &
trans.), The Book of the Laws of Countries; Dialogue on Fate of
Bardaisan of Edessa (Semitic Texts with Translations, 111; Assen:
van Gorcum, 1965).
Inwardly it is perverted into the very symbol of blasphemy. It is a
stealthy woman; she commits adultery in the inner room. 59
The real issue here is that Bar Daysan, according to Ephraem, excelled
in the composition of the rhythmically metrical `teaching songs' (madrdshe)
that were the masterpieces of Aramaic didactic poetry. He goes on to
For he composed madrdshe and put them to music. He wrote songs,
and introduced metres. According to the quantities and measures, He
distributed the words. To the innocent he proffered the bitter in the
sweet, The sick, who do not choose healthy food .60
Ephraem said that Bar Daysan emulated David, in that he composed 150
such `teaching songs'. But from Ephraem's own point of view they were
"the music of the infidels, whose lyre is falsehood ."61 The
reason was that these `teaching songs' became the classical Syriac
medium for the effective transmission of religious teaching. The
58 Beck, Hvmnen contra Haereses,
Beck, Hvmnen contra Haereses, 1:11.
was a particularly effective genre in the indigenous, Aramean literary
culture in the terms of which any teacher who would commend his views in
the Syriac-speaking world would have to express his ideas. Ephraem
claims that it was Bar Daysan, the master composer of madrdshe,
who provided the entree for Mani and his doctrines into the minds and
hearts of the Syrians.
Mani looked east. He was born near Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of
the Persian Empire; Ephraem said he was from Babylon. 62
While Mani was religiously nurtured in the Aramaic-speaking milieu of
the Elkasaites, a Judaeo-Christian group in lower Mesopotamia, the
backbone of his mature teaching was the dualism that Ephraem claimed he
got from the Hindus. 63 For a while Mani enjoyed the protection of the
Persian royal court, in the person of the Shah Shapur 1 (241-272), and
his teachings spread far and wide, both westward into the Roman empire,
and eastward, across Central Asia into China. They exercised a major
appeal in the Syriac-speaking environs of Edessa. According to Ephraem,
Mani, like Bar Daysan, disseminated his teachings in Nisibis and Edessa
in madrdshe.64 Presumably he had in mind the
book of Psalms and Prayers, composed originally in Syriac, that
was one of the seven works in the official canon of Manichaean
scriptures. 65 But other Manichaean works were also available, and, as
John Reeves has shown, Ephraem himself not infrequently quotes from them
and alludes to
Beck, Hvmnen contra Haereses, LIIIA On Bar Daysan's role
in setting the traditional madrdshd, a recitative, to music, see
K. E. McVey, "Were the Earliest Madrdshe Songs or Recitations?"
in Reinink & Klugkist, After Bardaisan, pp. 185-199.
61 Beck, Hvmnen contra Haereses,
62 See Beck, Hvmnen contra Haereses,
63 See Beck, Hvmnen contra Haereses,
111:7. Citing other passages, Beck thinks that here Ephraem means
`Persians' rather than `Indians'. See Beck, Hymnen contra Haereses, vol.
170, p. 13, n. 8, and idem, Ephraem's Polemik, p. 25.
64 See Beck, Hymnen contra Haereses,
65 See Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later
Roman Empire, p. 6.
them in his polemical writings. 66 Nevertheless, it appears
that Ephraem regarded what he called Mani's madrdshe to be the
most formidable expressions of Manichaean teachings; they are the only
Manichaean scriptures he actually names. According to Ephraem then it
was in his so-called madrdshe that Mani made his strongest appeal
for the allegiance of the Syriac-speaking peoples on the Aramean
Ephraem himself was a notable composer of madrdshe. While he also
wrote simple prose, as well as rhythmic prose compositions and `verse
homilies' (memre), the Syriac madrdshd was nevertheless
Ephraem's own genre of choice for commending the Nicene faith and Roman
political alignment in the frontier area. 67 The Syriac
Vita of Ephraem even makes the claim that Ephraem wrote madrdshe
expressly to counteract the influence of Bar Daysan's
compositions. 68 Concretely this means that he adopted the
most compelling literary genre available in his Aramean culture to
promote the ecclesiastical, theological, and political interests of
the bishops whom he served. He seems to have been proud of
his skill in this genre, for he sometimes `signed' his madrdshe
by the acrostic device of beginning each successive stanza with
words the first Syriac letters of which, in sequence, spell out his
name. 69 We learn from Jacob of Sarug's memrd on
Ephraem, `the Teacher', how important the correct performance of his
madrdshe was for him. He reportedly spent time and energy rehearsing
the singers who
See John C. Reeves, "Manichaean Citations from the Prose Refutations
of Ephrem," in Paul Mirecki & Jason BeDuhn, Emerging from
Darkness: Studies in the Recovery of Manichaean Sources (Nag Hammadi
& Manichaean Studies, XLIII; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997), pp. 217-288.
For more on Ephraem's madrdshe see Andrew Palmer, " `A Lyre
without a Voice'; the Poetics and the Politics of Ephrem the Syrian,"
ARAM 5 (1993), pp. 371-399.
See Joseph P. Amar, "The Syriac `Vita' Tradition of Ephrem the Syrian,"
(Ph.D. Dissertation; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of
America, 1988 / Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms
International, #8919389), chap. 31.
See Andrew Palmer, "St Ephrem of Syria's Hymn on Faith 7; a Ode in His
Own Name," Sobornost 17 (1995), pp. 28-40.
would perform them. 70 And at the end of his madrdshe
against heresies Ephraem expressed in a prayer what he hoped to have
accomplished. He prays,
O Lord, may the works of your pastoral minister (`alldnd) not be
I will not then have troubled your sheep, but as far as I was able,
I will have kept the wolves away from them, and I will have built, as
far as I was able, enclosures of madrdshe for the lambs of your
The ready appeal of Ephraem's madrdshe in the Syriac-speaking
milieu in which he composed them is evident in the fact that they were
gathered into collections by theme, and also by melody, by his
disciples, and by later users and transmitters of his compositions. In
the end, by the sixth century, nine comprehensive volumes of Ephraem's
collected madrdshe were in circulation, arranged by subject
matter and distributed according to the forty-five melodies according to
which they were written and performed .72 This long-term
popularity of Ephraem's madrdshe testifies both to his success as
a composer in the traditional genre favored by Bar Daysan and other
writers of Syriac, perhaps including even Mani, and to the power of the
ideas Ephraem promoted in this most Aramean of literary genres.
See Joseph P. Amar, A Metrical Homily on Holy Mar Ephrem by Mar Jacob
of Sarug_ (Patrologia Orientalis, vol. 47, fasc., 1, no. 209;
Turnhout: Brepols, 1995), #48, pp. 37ff.
" Beck, Hymnen contra Haereses, LVL 10.
See Andrd De Halleux, "Une cle pour les hymnes d'Ephrem dans le MS.
Sinai Syr. 10," Le Museon 85 (1972), pp. 171-199; idem,
"La transmission des Hymnes d'Ephrem d'apres le MS.
Sinai Syr., 10, f. 165v-178r," in Symposium Syriacum 1972 (Orientalia
Christiana Analecta, 197; Rome: Pontificium institutum Studiorum
Orientalium, 1974), pp. 21-36.
By St. Ephraem's day, in the fourth century, his theological adversaries
within the Nicene community were principally the so-called `Arians'.
Against them Ephraem defended the Nicene faith, in terms reminiscent of
the theology of St. Basil of Caesarea and of St. Gregory of Nazinanzus,73
without ever importing their Greek terminology into his Syriac diction.
74 Outside his own theological community, Ephraem's
adversaries were the traditionally popular teachers in the environs of
Nisibis and Edessa, the followers of Marcion, Bar Daysan, and Mania75
Inevitably it is from the perspective of Ephraem's works that the
history of Christianity in Edessa in its beginnings is finally told. He
won the struggle for allegiance at least in part by his success in
commending the loyalties he championed in the Syriac idiom of Aram, as
he called his homeland. 76 Ephraem's works have survived,
preserved by the church he defended. The works of the earlier teachers,
whose influence he surpassed, for the most part have not survived. But
enough remains for us to conclude that the struggle for allegiance, both
ecclesiastical and political, on the Aramean frontier was carried on in
the language of the frontier community, and largely in the literary
genre of the madrdshd, the `teaching song'. Bar Daysan may well
have developed it in its classical form, but Ephraem perfected its use
as an effective tool for the full inculturation of the Nicene faith in
the Syriac-speaking world of Aram.
See Paul S. Russell, St. Ephraem the Syrian and St. Gregory the
Theologian Confront the Arians )Moran Etho, 5; Kottayam, Kerala: St.
Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, 1994).
See Sidney H. Griffith, " `Faith Seeking Understanding' in the Thought
of St. Ephraem the Syrian," in George C. Berthold (ed.), Faith
Seeking Understanding: Learning and the Catholic Tradition; Selected
Papers from the Symposium and Convocation Celebrating the Saint Anselm
College Centennial (Manchester, NH: Saint Anselm College Press,
1991), pp. 35-55.
See Sidney H. Griffith, "Setting Right the Church of Syria; Saint
Ephraem's Hymns against Heresies," in William E. Klingshirn & Mark
Vessey (eds), The Limits of Ancient Christianity: Essays on Late
Antique Thought and Culture in Honor of R. A. Markus (Washington:
CUA Press, 1999), pp. 97-114.
Ephraem speaks of Aram as `our country' in a number of places. See,
e.g., his boasting of `our land' in the madrdshe he wrote in
praise of Julian Saba. See Sidney H. Griffith, "Julian Saba, `Father of
the Monks' of Syria," Journal of Early Christian Studies 2
(1994), esp. pp. 201-203.
In later years, well after Ephraem's time, Rome and Persia
would continue to pull the Syriac-speaking communities of the Aramean
frontier in opposite directions in terms both of political and even
ecclesiastical allegiance. One has only to think in this connection of
the history of the emergence of the independent Assyrian Church of the
East in the early fifth century in Seleucia-Ctesiphon. And one recalls
in the next century, in the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian
(527-565), the final tension, begun at the council of Chalcedon in 451,
between the communities that in the Syriac-speaking world would come to
be called by their adversaries the `Melkites' and the `Jacobites'
respectively. Then, in the second half of the seventh century, the
Aramean frontier between Rome and Persia disappeared under the
burgeoning Commonwealth of Islam. Under Islamic rule the Syriac-speaking
communities were not only caught up in theological isolation from one
another, but they were effectively cut off from the rest of the
Christian world as well. Under the Muslims the Aramean frontier ceased
to exist, and a new struggle for allegiance beset the Syriac-speaking
churches. This one they had to address in Arabic, the language of the
new challenge to their faith. But through it all, in all the Syriac-speaking
communities, to this very day no one has ever questioned their
allegiance to their ancestral teacher, St. Ephraem the Syrian.