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Anon., Life of Mar Aba (2013) Introduction


Mar Aba I (sometimes incorrectly written Maraba) was the Catholicos, or Patriarch, of the Nestorian Church of the East in Persia during the mid-to-late 6th century.  An anonymous Saint's Life has survived in Syriac.  A few notes on the context of the work may be useful for general readers.

At that period Christianity was increasing rapidly in Persia, and encountering determined resistance from the Zoroastrian priests, or Magians.   

Initially the Sassanid kings backed the Magians.  But it was the period covered by the Life that things began to change.  The Magians were a political threat to the Sassanid monarchs, and quite willing to assassinate an intractable King of Kings.  But by the end of the 6th century, there were so many Christians that they could not be ignored.  The kings found it convenient to play off the Christians against the Magians, and to create and uphold a balance of power with themselves in control. 

Much of this change of attitude can be seen at work in the Life of Mar Aba. 

Aba was a Persian of noble rank.  This gave him social status, and made it possible for him to do things in the less-than-civilised Persian world that others might not have been able to do.  Thus after an assassination attempt, he is forced to return from exile without the king's permission.   He goes straight to court, and demands to be killed openly, rather than in a corner.  Since all the Persian nobles feared intrigue, his demand is understood and understandable.  Attempts to treat him like a servant are contemptuously rebuffed.  

But he also benefited from the policies of the Roman emperor Justinian.  Persian kings had always been suspicious that the Christians would be more loyal to the Christian Roman emperor than to themselves.  But Mar Aba had visited Constantinople as a young man.  He was in time to experience Justinian's crack-down on heresies, some long dormant.  This made his court a dangerous place for the young Nestorian to be, and in the end he was obliged to flee across the frontier.  But in consequence he could not be suspected of disloyalty to Persia, and the charge is not made against him, even by his enemies.  The presence of Nestorian Christianity in the Persian realm was becoming politically acceptable.

Possession of the person of the Nestorian patriarch was also politically valuable to the Sassanid king.  Christianity was spreading along the Silk Road, in places where Persian power did not exist. One episode in the Life shows a priest coming from the Hephthalites, or White Huns, seeking ordination from Mar Aba, and the latter ordains a church hierarchy, with the full knowledge and support of the Persian king.

It is unsurprising, then, that on Mar Aba's death the king interfered in the election of his successor, and ensured that a trusty royal candidate was appointed.  From this period on, the Persian Nestorians were the "home" church for any Persian ruler, the ones they could trust; and this continued to be the case when the Persian Abbasid caliphs came to power in the Moslem period.  This in turn facilitated the translation by Nestorian scholars of Greek science into Arabic.

The Life of Mar Aba is a hagiographical document, and inevitably various elements in it are likely to be borrowed from stock hagiographical themes, or stated in the phraseology of that genre.  How much is invention, and how much historical, is a question that will always be hard to answer.  But the unknown author of the work demonstrates a knowledge of the complicated politics of the transitional period, which it is unlikely that he could have acquired much after the death of Mar Aba.

A very interesting statement appears early on, which it is hard to imagine can be a hagiographical artefact.  In the region in which Mar Aba lived, and worked, and was converted, the Life  tells us that, to the pagans the term "Christian" meant "Marcionite".  The genuine Christians had to make do with being called "Messianists"; and there were Jews there also.  The narrative was interpreted by Walter Bauer as evidence that the Marcionites predated the Christians into the region of Mesopotamia generally in the 2nd or 3rd centuries.  But nothing in the narrative suggests a larger context, or a period before the 6th century.  It is perhaps equally possible that these Marcionites were a group of refugees from Justinian's anti-heretical policies, and had come to the area in question only a short time earlier.  It would not be surprising if the Christian penetration into Persia was patchy, and large areas of it were still unevangelised.

The Life of Mar Aba has never been translated into English.  A German translation exists in the Bibliothek der Kirchenvater series, however.  During 2012-13 I translated the German, chapter by chapter, into English as a series of blog posts, mainly for my own purposes in order to find out what the text contained.  The translation that follows is collected from those posts, slightly revised.  As a translation from the German, rather than the Syriac, it has no scholarly value whatever.  It undoubtedly contains various mistakes, since German is by no means my best language.  But I have chosen to make it available because of the very great interest of the text; but also because knowledge of German among English-speakers tends to be slight, and so doing will help things along.  My purpose is to encourage interest in this obscure period of Christian history by making this text more accessible.  I would like to think that it will lead a Syriac specialist to undertake the task of making a proper translation direct from the Syriac.  Indeed I would be happy to commission such a translation, should anyone be interested in so doing.

Roger Pearse
Ipswich
September 2013


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This text was written by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2013. This file and all material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

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