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"Patriarch, Shah and Caliph" by W. G. Young

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"Patriarch, Shah and Caliph" by W. G. Young

Nov-14-2000 at 03:12 PM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

Patriarch, Shah and Caliph
By William G. Young

For the spread of Christianity in the Parthian and early Sassanid period the most important, and almost the only, evidence we have is that found in the Chronicle of Arbil. This is a brief record of the lives of 20 bishops and Metropolitans of Arbil, beginning in AD 99 with the conversion of Paqida and ending with a reference to the return of Mar Aba I from Huzistan about AD 541. The Chronicle was written by Mashiha-Zakha, himself a native of Hidyab (Adiabene), the province of which Arbil was the capital. He seems to have been a priest, and possibly also a monk, and probably a pupil of Abraham of Bait Rabban, who was in charge of the divinity school at Nisibin from 509 to 569. The Chrinicle was written at some date between 541 and 569.

Since its publication with the French translation by Mingana in 1907, the Chronicle of Arbil has been used by some historians as an authority for the spread of Christianity in the Parthian and early Sassanid period, while others have paid it scant attention. In 1925, however, Fr. Paulus Peeters, SJ, wrote an article which cast serious doubts on Mashiha-Zakhas reliability. He compared the records of certain martyrs of Arbil set down in what he felt to be primitive sources of hagiography, with the accounts, or lack of acounts, in the Chronicle of Arbil. He came to the conclusion that Mashiha-Zakha had either used inferior sources for the period of Shapur IIs persecution, or deliberately suppressed material. His words are scathing:

The fortunes of hagiographic texts have been very diverse, and unconnected with their real value. Only some, and not always the most reliable, were translated into Greek. Even in the Syriac language area, the Passions circulated at random, and owe their preservation to lying for a millenium in some forgotten corner. In the middle of the 6th century the author of the Chronicle of Arbil used only a few of them. Of those he did not borrow from, doubtless some had not seen the light of day. But others, and especially the Passion of Acepsimas, existed already at the beginning of the 5th century, seeing that Sozomen knew them. The self-styled historian of the church of Arbil is less well-informed than this stranger about the most celebrated martyrs of his city and province.
It is impossible to pretend that this does not reflect a very serious presumption against the value and authenticity of the sources which he must have drawn on. The Chronicles of Arbil must be re-examined in the light of the parallel documents. Every time it enters the domain of hagiography, or comes near it without entering, the compiler is caught out in some mistake.
Whether he speaks or keeps silent, he arouses justifiable distrust. Even the most useful information he may have collected is of doubtful value when it comes from him. When we see how he massacres the documents that have survived, we wonder by what miracle of chance he could have preserved, records about which other witnesses and official documents, even though they do not contradict them, are totally ignorant!

In view of this severe criticism, are we any longer free to use Mashiha-Zakha with any measure of confidence as an authority for the Parthian and early Sassanid periods? It is our view that we can, though like Peeters we would welcome further critical comparison of his work with parallel records. We have this to say, briefly, about our own personal impressions:

1. Mashiha-Zakhas picture of the Parthian period has many signs of authenticity. The account rings true. The conditions described fit in with what we know of the loosely-knit Parthian Empire, the names of the Parthian Kings are historical, and such wars and civil wars as are described can be otherwise identified.
2. The frequent references to Jews in the earlier part of the work fits in with the well-known fact, mentioned by Josephus, that Hedayab had Jewish rulers during the 1st century AD, and was indeed a center of Mesopotamian Judaism long after.
3. Habil the doctor or the writer, cited three times as an authority for accounts in the first pages of the book, ceases to be mentioned explicitly after 148 AD. Unless only the earlier part of Habils work was available to Mashiha-Zakha, this suggests that Habil himself was a second-century writer whose accounts were written shortly after the events they describe, and are basically reliable.
4. Up to about 180 AD only two orders of ministers are mentionedbishops and deacons. This accurate reflection of primitive Christianity would not have been invented in the 6th century, and gives us confidence that Mashiha-Zakha is using early sources.
5. Taken as a whole, Mashiha-Zakhas narrative of the way Christianity began in Arbil, and of the gradual development that led to the establishment of the primacy of the Cities under Papa, reads convincingly. The admission that there was no bishop in the Capital Cities in 225 is clearly no invention. Compared with the Chronicle of Saard, and the histories of Mari and Amr-Saliba, with their apostolic successions of apparently legendary Patriarchs of the Cities from Mari onwards, our writer is clearly more primitive and reliable. Though the use of the word patriarch for Papa is anachronistic, the narrative in general rings true.
6. Our personal impression of the Chronical is that it is uneven in value, and we would attribute this to varying availability of source-material for different periods. Up till the outbreak of Shapurs persecution, the narrative is centered on Arbil, and is interesting, circumstantial, and varied. If we accept Peeters strictures, the persecution of the next forty years is described sketchily and inaccurately. For the rest of the 4th and 5th centuries, the impression we get is that, Mashiha-Zakha has very little interest details to hand about bishops of Arbil, and that, in fact, he may well have had an incomplete list of their names. From 376 to 499 we are told of only 4 bishops, giving an average rule of 31 years. This is scarcely credible, when we compare it with the 7 bishops from 99 to 225, and the 7 from 225 to 376. It seems that to make up for his lack of information about the bishops themselves, the writers drew on his knowledge of contemporary historical events. He may have had access to the records of the Synods, and refers to fivein 410, 420, 424, 484 and 497. He speaks briefly of the Nestorian controversy, and with the benefit of a centurys hindsight, makes unconvincing efforts to measure its contemporary effects on the Church of the East:
The second Pharaoh, Cyril the Egyptian, with the help of the royal arm and worldly force, fought against the truth and persecuted the true martyr, Mar Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople. When Mar Daniel (of Arbil) heard of this division, he predicted, they say, that the time was come when the West would be dark and the light would be seen in the East. It was in the midst of these sorrows and thoughts that he died.

Of his successor, Rahima, Mashiha-Zakha writes:
It was then that discussions and controversies concerning the orthodox Faith began to bring the house of the Lord into travail, and mine its foundations: the Church was destroyed among the Romans, and built up in the Kingdom of the Persians. It was in this spiritual work that Mar Rahima ended his life.

It is refreshing to come back into contact with convincing contemporaneousness when we read the copy of Patriarch Shilas letter of about 510, and then read of the troubles of the duality following the Patriarchs death. It is a matter of deep regret that the last four pages of the MS are missing, and we are deprived of what a contemporary might have told us of the times of Mar Aba I.

7. A word about the marvelous. Here and there the writer mentions miracles of healing, raising the death, and other wonders, though on the whole the narrative is refreshingly free from obsession with the unusual. While recognizing that hagiographers were prone to list such marvels to do honor to their heroes, we do not altogether rule out the possibility that, as in the Roman Empire as described in the Acts of the Apostles, so also in the Parthian Empire there may have been some miracles attesting the truth of the Gospel message. While we shall not cite the miracles as evidence of what happened, their presence in the narrative does not shake our confidence in the veracity of the writer when he speaks of other events, or of the background of beliefs and customs.

It is, then, our considered opinion that we may safely treat Mashiha-Zakha as a reliable authority for the Parthian period, and for the Sassanid period up to 339, as long as we make allowance for obvious anachronisms. From then on till the beginning of the 6th century, we shall find him of little help.

Before we leave this subject, some reference must be made to a series of attacks on Minganas honesty, and suggestions that he was responsible for the forgery of certain Syriac documents. Two such accusations were made by Fr. Paulus Peeters, and are referred to in an article replying to one of them in 1967. Fr. J.M. Fiey, O.P. followed them up in 1967 with an article accusing Mingana of similar forgery in the case of the Chronicle of Arbil. His theory is that all the contents of the Chronicle were derived from books in Minganas library. In his most recent work, Jalons pour une histoire de leglise en Iraq, published in 1970, Fiey studiously ignores Mashiha-Zakhas evidence as spurious and valueless, and favors a return to a more traditional viewpoint.

We have given our personal impressions of the value of the Chronicle on pages 9-11 above. We do not find Fieys hypothesis convincing. To take one point only, Mingana might conceivably have been clever enough to connect the appointment of Paul as Bishop of Nisibin with Mar Abas ending of the duality, but surely not so devilishly clever as to make a deliberate mistake about which visit to Huzistan! We have noticed one or two other points in which it seems to us that Mingana has misunderstood a reference, or failed to draw out an interesting point; it seems incredible that this would happen in the case of a deliberate forgery!

It might not be wrong to hazard a guess that more respect might have been shown by Roman Catholic orientalists to Minganas veracity had he remained in their communion. Fiey indeed shows a failure to appreciate the work of other Protestant orientalists, like Wigram and Wallis-Budge.


I would like here to post few passages from the book. In a series of letters from Timothy, Patriarch of the Church of the East (Nestorian Church) in 792-793, He mentions about his efforts to bring the Maronites to His fold, He mentions about Nineveh, and Assyria and about the conversion of Turks to Christianity.
(by author of this post)

Quote: His letter to Maran-zakha, Bishop of Nineveh, with its high claims of priority for the Patriarchate of the East, is a comparative study of the doctrines of the Nestorians, Melkites and Severians. Unquote. (Page 149)

In a well-known passage in the letter to the monks of Mar Maron to woo them into the Church of the East, Timothy wrote:
Quote: For see, in all the areain Babylon, Persia and Assyria, and in all the countries of the East, both among the Indians and the Chinese as well as the Tibetans and the Turks, and in all the territories under the jurisdiction of this Patriarchal Throne, whose servant and minister God has ordained us to be, this holy prayer has been from the very beginning recited without the addition who wast crucified for usrecited, I say, in regions and countries and languages widely separated and different from one another. Unquote. (Page 152)

Then He gives news of the conversion of a Turkish kingdom:
Quote: My dear friends, there is nothing that can stop the progress of the One Church of Christ that we build up. For see, even in our days, these ten years or so during which the ministry of the Church has been entrusted to me (as a matter of fact, I have been something like 13 years in this ministry) the King of the Turks, with nearly all his country, has rejected the ancient error of atheism, and been converted to Christianity, thanks to the working of the great power of Christ, through which they have all been subjected to this Faith. He has written asking us to appoint a metropolitan for his subjects, and with Gods help, we have done this. God willing, we shall send you a copy of the letter we write to him. Unquote (Page 153)

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