Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Chronicle of SeertChristian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq$

Philip Wood

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199670673

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199670673.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 19 January 2020

The Church and the World

The Church and the World

(p.93) 4 The Church and the World
The Chronicle of Seert

Philip Wood

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the continuation of the patriarchal history into the tempestuous divisions of the Church of the East in the early sixth century. This period was remarkable for the abolition of clerical celibacy, and the Chronicle includes material from within this period as well as retrospectives written after the restoration of celibacy in the middle of the century. This period also allows us to trace the growing importance of the School of Nisibis as a training ground for the bishops of the Church of the East and as conduit for Western ideas: both are reflected in the Chronicle’s material for the early sixth century. One of the most important of these Nisibis-trained reformers was the catholicos Aba, who played a major role in establishing the role of the catholicos as a lawgiver for the Christians of the empire.

Keywords:   celibacy, Barsauma of Nisibis, Mar Aba, church reform, School of Nisibis, disputation, law, Khusrau Anushirvan, Ctesiphon

The reign of Acacius (485–96) was an important moment of recentralization for the Church of the East. Acacius reacted strongly against the challenges of Barsauma of Nisibis, who had attempted to assert the dependence of the catholicosate upon his bishops in a synod in 484.1 But the ideal of regular central synods was only realized during a brief window in the last decades of the fifth century. It was followed by yet another period without synods, 496–544, when there is no evidence that the bishops of the East could be gathered in Ctesiphon. Catholicoi continued to reign in Ctesiphon, often gaining their election through close cooperation with the court, and peaceful conditions allowed the rebuilding of churches. But the rule of these catholicoi was not accompanied by the kind of assertions of legitimacy that had been seen in the past. This period of ‘anarchy’ culminated in the division of the catholicosate between Elishe and Narsai (524–37), and the election of multiple bishops for many of the sees of the East. Only after the death of Elishe did the shah Khusrau I intervene and appoint Paul as catholicos, who was replaced after his death a few months later by the great reformer Mar Aba.2

The impression of ‘anarchy’ may be coloured by the antipathy of many of the sources to the reform of clerical and monastic celibacy. From 486 onwards, priests and bishops, including catholicoi, were encouraged to marry, and this is often identified by the ecclesiastical historians as a source of lax government in the church. Similarly, many of the catholicoi enjoyed close relationships with figures at court, and this too is sometimes a source of criticism. We do not have to accept these explanations of the ‘anarchy’ of the Church of the East in this period, but there is an impression of insecurity or even apathy in the chronicles’ descriptions of the early sixth century that accords with the (p.94) patterns in the synodica. The reign of Aba (540–52) is striking both for the first new synod to be held for fifty years and for his visitations to distant sees and his meetings with local bishops.

Aba, a convert from Zoroastrianism, was an important public defender of Christianity and legislated against the adoption of Persian and Zoroastrian customs by Christians. Like his predecessors, Aba is depicted as a friend of the shah, though he took this position even further by helping the shah Khusrau I to quell a revolt by his Christian son Anoshazad in Gundishapur. He was also responsible for reversing the Acacian legislation against clerical celibacy and re-emphasizing the importance of asceticism. Finally, Aba was a product of the School of Nisibis, as well as being educated in Edessa, Alexandria, and Constantinople, and his anti-Zoroastrian polemic emerges from the tradition of the School and its interest in the translation of the Old Testament, as well as from his own Magian background.3 Aba died in prison after being accused by the Magians of converting Zoroastrian aristocrats and apostatizing from Zoroastrianism, but his reign marks an important watershed in the history of the church. In particular, it saw the production of the first Christian lawcode in the East: the first attempt by the church to regulate lay society.

We have already seen how the reign of Acacius probably saw the creation of a ‘patriarchal history’ that linked together the earlier hagiography and history of the Church of the East. Material for the period after c.480 is much more mixed than before, and the narratives of different institutions, of the school of Nisibis and Roman and Sasanian secular history, are more integrated (esp. Chronicle of Seert, II/i). At the same time, the centrality of the catholicoi across much of this material suggests that a continuation of the Acacian history underlies the accounts in the medieval compilations. These wider interests may have begun in this phase of history-writing and been extended by ecclesiastical historians writing in the late sixth century. I argue here that this history was developed in two major phases, but that both of these considered some of the same events in the early decades of the sixth century.

The first phase of composition occurred during the schism between Narsai and Elishe. As I have suggested, the period may have seen Narsai’s faction deploy the image of Symeon as the ideal catholicos to criticize an opponent with a strong relationship with the shah. In addition to producing this (p.95) hagiography set in ancient times, Narsai’s party seems to have also commented on more contemporary history, in order to champion Narsai’s own right to rule. A second phase of historical composition occurred under Joseph (552–67). Here too was a catholicos whose rule was challenged, and who would ultimately be deposed. But Joseph was also probably the first to claim the title of patriarch, and his reign witnessed a major celebration of his predecessor Aba’s reign, which took the form of a lengthy, and historically aware, piece of hagiography, the Acts of Aba.

Several themes link the historical material for 484–c.540 that was composed in these two phases. Much of this, especially sections on the catholicoi themselves, is concerned with the relationship between the catholicos and the shah; the connections between the catholicos and the schools of Edessa and Nisibis and the changing attitude to clerical marriage.4 For each of these relationships, the Chronicle of Seert and the other medieval compilations provide a view of how the circle of the catholicos represented other important institutions and events, and how these images were used to assert a powerful and politically active role for catholicoi within the Church of the East and the wider Sasanian Empire.

Clerical Reform: Acacius and Barsauma

A key opponent of the catholicos Babowai, and the prestige of Ctesiphon in general, was the controversial theologian and bishop Barsauma of Nisibis. Acacius’ predecessor Babowai had presided over a church troubled by abuses of the liturgy and clerical behaviour, which confirms the general impression that the silence of the sources in the middle of the fifth century reflects an absence of church government.5 Barsauma was a product of the School of the Persians in Edessa and may have been more exposed to the more regulated practice of church government in the Roman world. After convening a synod without the catholicos in 484 he condemned Babowai for his bad governance. Shortly afterwards, however, Babowai was caught corresponding with the Roman emperor Zeno (474–91) and executed.6 In spite of the accusations levelled against Babowai, he was subsequently presented as a martyr, and Barsauma (p.96) provided a convenient scapegoat for Babowai’s arrest because of his close relationship with the hated shah Peroz (457–84).7

Barsauma’s importance has been exaggerated by all parties. Depending on their agenda, later historians would blame Barsauma for introducing clerical marriage and/or Dyophysite Christology into the Church of the East. Both could be represented as the innovation of a lax and disobedient priest. However, as Stephen Gero has argued, both innovations are best ascribed to the policies of Acacius rather than those of Barsauma: Acacius’ 486 synod was clearly focused on the regulation of monasticism.8 Later historians have confounded the original issue of authority with other issues.

The dissident bishops did not remain a coherent party after the death of Babowai, and Barsauma appears to have made his peace with Acacius. Acacius’ reforms focused upon the regulation of monasticism, clerical celibacy, and marriage laws, reforms that may have been designed to distance the Church of the East from Miaphysite refugees from the Roman world.9 Acacius would go on to establish good relations with the shah: he served as Peroz’s ambassador to Zeno and was well-received by the short-lived Valash (484–8).10

The events of this era have been reimagined after the 540s with the restoration of clerical celibacy. The continuations of the patriarchal history were probably already critical of Barsauma for his alleged role in Babowai’s death, but to this criticism were added further accusations of the abolition of clerical celibacy. The extent of this rewriting can be seen by comparing the declarations of the synods to the records of the medieval compilations.

The record of Barsauma’s synod of Beth Lapet in 484 seems to have been stripped of all detail. Unlike the other synodical records, there is no record of its content or its signatories: both must be reconstructed from other sources, of which Acacius’ synod of 486 is the most important.11 The 484 synod resolutions were probably aimed at the illegitimate marriage of priests under Babowai and provided for the regularized release from vows of celibacy.12 The second (486) synod focuses on abuses within asceticism: it proclaims that it will confirm the precepts of earlier ‘fathers and bishops’ and amend the rules in the church that have been ‘perverted’. Canon I emphasizes the Christology of Theodore of Mopsuestia, condemning any who mix the two natures of (p.97) Christ. Canon II attacks those who go around ‘clothed in black’ and deceive the poor, noting that while ascetics of old lived in the desert, these men wander in cities and villages. Acacius accuses them of sowing discord between priests and their congregations and of offering baptism, and demands that they live in monasteries, built in remote places, and obey the priests, deacons, and periodeutes that have authority over these places. Individual laymen and priests are similarly banned from giving sanctuary to such ascetics, and Acacius threatens to expel them from communion. Finally, Canon III permits clerical marriage, noting that many ‘fall [into sin] through adultery and fornication’ and that is better ‘to take a wife than to burn with lust’. Following this idea, Acacius allows marriage to bishops and to those already in the diaconate, and allows second marriages to priests whose first wives have died, without any episcopal interference.13

Acacius’ strong appeals to apostolic precedent are accompanied by nervous assertions of the unity of the church and threats against ‘any bishop, priest, or monk’ who will not obey the synodal decree.14 Similarly, he emphasizes Barsauma’s retraction of ‘his’ synod, ‘which was held against the canons of the church’.15 Thus Acacius’ synod tries to impose legislation on the church that he expects many will oppose, namely clerics and monks (as well as just the ‘dissident bishops’ that Dadishoʿ condemned in his 424 synod).16 His canons reflect, on one hand, the growth of the church in the fifth century in spite of its lack of central leadership, to such an extent that ascetic missionaries were offering baptism outside clerical control, while, on the other, they show that this expanded church also found it hard to enforce moral behaviour on its own clergy. Acacius’ main focus in this legislation may have been the restoration of an appropriate divide between clergy and laity, and to use admission to communion as a means of demarcating membership of the Christian community.

Babai’s 497 synod is a brief recapitulation of Acacius’ canon on clerical marriage and an attempt to regulate its practice. Its preamble reflects on the schism between Acacius and ‘the excellent Barsauma and his followers’ and annuls all of their mutual interdicts. This schism seems to have been primarily viewed as a challenge to the authority of Ctesiphon, since the following paragraph reiterates the importance of ‘the orthodox laws of the fathers and the primacy of the apostolic see of Kokhe’,17 before acknowledging Babai as catholicos. The synod continues by imploring unnamed bishops not to separate themselves from ‘this holy see of the fathers’. It also requests that the (p.98) bishops should convene every four years with the catholicos, a hope that was unfulfilled.18

The overwhelming issue for the unity of the church was Barsauma’s right to challenge the authority of the catholicos, first Babowai and later Acacius. By holding a synod without the catholicos in Beth Lapet, the shah’s winter capital, Barsauma was threatening the authority of all of Babowai’s successors and their see. Though Acacius does foresee monastic opposition to his canons, Babai’s synod focuses on the relationship between the catholicos and his bishops. As Gero observes, there is no reason to see celibacy as the greatest source of discontent in the Church of the East during 484–97.19 The synodical records show it was an important feature of legislation, but all conveners of synods saw reform as necessary: the point of disagreement between them was an issue of authority rather than ‘policy’.

The medieval compilations’ treatment of Barsauma and Acacius can be divided into two major strands. The first emphasizes Barsauma’s role as an opponent of Babowai and Acacius in terms of their authority, as well as his influence with the shah, while the second focuses on his role in bringing Dyophysitism to the Church of the East and his connection with the Schools of Edessa and Nisibis. By referring to the titles of sections in the Chronicle of Seert, it is clear that the first of these strands were associated with the patriarchal histories: all characterizations of Barsauma as an opponent of the catholicos are placed in sections that treat just the catholicos or the relationship between the shah and the Christians (e.g. II/i, I and VIII). By contrast, sections that focus on Barsauma’s Christology and his connections to important ‘orthodox’ figures are all devoted to individual theologians trained at the School of Nisibis and seem to reflect a distinct historical tradition that was later united with the patriarchal histories (e.g. IX and XI).

The compilations place the origin of clerical marriage at two points in the narrative: in the time of Babowai and the time of Acacius. The Chronicle of Seert reports that Babowai was reproached for his bad conduct for allowing malpractice in the church. It says that ‘the laity ran the affairs of the church,…bishops allowed women inside to see baptism,…adultery was commonplace, priests and monks married without licence’ and excommunicated people received the sacraments in the houses of the laity.20 But this section does not name Barsauma as the convener of the unnamed bishops who criticize Babowai: it only records that he authorized priests and monks to (p.99) marry, ‘using Paul’s words as his pretext: it is better to marry than to burn’.21 It then reports that Babowai complained to Zeno about the persecution of Christians in the empire, but that his letter was intercepted by ‘the party of Barsauma’ at Nisibis and that he was handed over and executed. It then adds that ‘some say it was Barsauma that did this’.22

This section is unusually detailed, and seems to come from an ecclesiastical history based around annual entries dated in AG (the Seleucid era). It seems to have combined a series of distinct, but probably still similar, narratives of the same events. Its account of the faults of Babowai matches Acacius’ later complaints about abuses in the church and explains his reformations as an attempt to regulate morality and reaffirm clerical influence. But a later focus on clerical celibacy, which followed the reversal of these reforms under Aba, coupled with the need to defend the institution of the catholicos, has led later authors to reduce the role of Barsauma in the reform of church governance and implicate him to varying degrees in Babowai’s murder.

The Chronicle’s section on Acacius also shows bias against Barsauma. Here Acacius is presented as an ally of Babowai against Barsauma, and, after his election, Barsauma’s ‘faction’ accuses the catholicos of adultery, a charge that Acacius only dispels by showing that he is a eunuch.23 The Chronicle also provides a second account of Acacius’ reign, this time drawn from an ecclesiastical history that mixes up the secular affairs of the shahs with the deeds of churchmen in the Church of the East and in the Roman world. This account is more positive about Barsauma: it observes how Acacius reconciled himself with him and annulled the mutual anathemas of him and Babowai. But when this second account records Acacius’ ascetic legislation its omissions are striking: it presents Acacius’ reforms only as a crackdown on the false use of sacraments by wandering ascetics, especially by ‘the heretics who were coming into Persia’ (i.e. the Jacobites), and omits any reference to his reform of clerical celibacy.24

Thus, the Chronicle of Seert testifies to a variety of approaches to the memory of the events of 484–97 that emphasized different points in the narrative: Barsauma could be condemned as the killer of the catholicos and distanced from any legitimate opposition to Babowai, while Acacius could be set apart from his reformation of clerical morals and was remembered chiefly as an opponent of the Jacobites. This complexity is itself an indication of how the Chronicle was compiled. A simple narrative of the deeds of the catholicoi lies at the core of these accounts, but it has been overwritten with new material, and with differing opinions about contentious events, by the ecclesiastical historians of later generations, many of whom who found a suitable villain in the figure of Barsauma of Nisibis.

(p.100) Clerical Reform: Narsai, Elishe, and the History of a Crisis

The legislation on celibacy and asceticism within the Church of the East, by which priests and monks were allowed to marry, was a central feature of the criticism of Barsauma. But criticism of married clergy per se is not a consistent feature of the material in the compilations for the early sixth century. Many narratives continue to uphold the reputations of most of the married catholicoi of this period and still treat these men as part of the chain of authority linking the church of the time of writing to the past. The counter-reformation of Aba did alter the presentation of the past, but it did not do so consistently.

The distinctiveness of the catholicoi of the era 484–540 is visible even in the brief lists of catholicoi discovered by Ebied and Young: Babai and Shila are both recorded as ‘married’, even though few catholicoi receive any note whatsoever.25 Mari and ʿAmr too note their marriages and present Shila’s marriage as the source of Elishe’s claim to the see of Ctesiphon, and therefore as a cause of the schism that followed.26

The Chronicle of Seert gives a much more expansive account of both Babai and Shila. The Chronicle presents Babai according to the topoi of a good catholicos: he is unwilling to be elected, and it notes his generosity and scriptural knowledge. It also credits Babai with annulling the anathemas that had been instated between Acacius, Babowai, and Barsauma and with ensuring that clerical marriages be public and monogamous.27 By contrast, Shila is marked out by his avarice, which is associated with the influence of his wife.28 In addition, the Chronicle of Seert is similar to ʿAmr and Mari in linking Shila by marriage with Elishe’s family and Elishe’s own claims as catholicos. Thus, while the Chronicle confirms the testimony of the more abbreviated sources that all of these catholicoi were married, it only renders this a criticism for the reigns of Shila and Elishe.

The histories’ impression of who was responsible for these celibacy reforms are complex, because of the importance of the reformers Acacius and Barsauma in bringing Dyophysite Christology into the Church of the East as well as Aba’s later counter-reformation. Acacius was famous for his role in asserting a new theological orthodoxy, but his celibacy reforms seemed like heteropraxy from a mid-sixth-century perspective, which meant that the event was passed over and that ‘blame’ was put elsewhere.

However, the history of Acacius’ successors does not seem to reflect this ‘counter-reformation’ agenda. The narrative of the reign of Babai does not incorporate this later negative attitude towards clerical marriage. The attack (p.101) on married priests is focused on the behaviour of one catholicos, Shila, and his role in providing Elishe with court connections during his struggle with Narsai in the 530s. The thrust of the criticism here is on the role of clerical marriage in facilitating court connections, rather than a generalized objection.29

I propose that Narsai’s reign and its aftermath also saw a continuation of the patriarchal histories, which showed sympathy with Narsai’s position in the face of Elishe’s political successes. A relatively early record of the reigns of Babai and Shila, which focused only on the negative attributes of the latter, fits the politics of Narsai’s reign better than the counter-reformation of the generations that followed, which would be likely to have condemned all married catholicoi.

Material composed under Narsai survives in the medieval compilations and accounts for the narratives that particularly highlight the importance of ‘tradition’ and the succession of the catholicoi, but it does not contain the criticisms of married clergy seen after Aba’s reforms. Evidence for the composition of a history under Narsai comes from several other points in the Chronicle of Seert. At the end of its account of the martyrdom of Barba‘shemin, there is a note that ‘a monastery and school’, founded at that time, was enlarged under Narsai, which suggests that this coda was added to the text during revisions in or shortly after his reign.30 This reference shows both Narsai’s wish to appeal to monastic supporters in Ctesiphon and to present his building programme in an ancient tradition that stretched back to the golden age of the martyrs.31

Another indication of the polemical use of history by Narsai’s faction is also found in the terms in which Elishe is condemned during his victory over Narsai: after giving many presents to the ministers of the king he obtained for himself ‘the seat of the church of Mada’in [Ctesiphon], which was built by the apostle Mar Mari, peace be upon him’.32 This too indicates the use of a legend of a past golden age, this time the story of the evangelization of Ctesiphon by Addai’s disciple Mari, to elucidate contemporary legitimacy and illegitimacy.

The account of the schism itself focuses on the dispute over the canonicity of election and consecration of the two men and the subsequent creation of a dual hierarchy. The Chronicle of Seert provides a long, dense narrative on this subject. This narrative repays close attention. It reports that Bouzaq of Susa convened the faithful for the election of Narsai at Aspanir, a suburb of (p.102) Ctesiphon, and that the bishops dispatched one Taiman of Basra to consecrate him. However, a group of priests reject Narsai, accusing him of being a layman who ‘does not know the laws of the church’, and select Elishe, a native of Ctesiphon who had studied medicine among the Greeks, allowing him to win Khusrau’s friendship and the support of Shila, who had given him his daughter in marriage. This party argue that Elishe should be accepted since ‘the Magi honour him and think him truthful’. After some delay, Elishe is then ordained by David of Merv and ‘other contrarian (maḥālifīn) bishops’ in the church of Aspanir, instead of the cathedral of Ctesiphon at Kokhe, ‘as the canons decree’.33 Elishe is able to win considerable influence by giving bribes and to occupy the church of Mar Mari, though not before Narsai is ordained in the cathedral. However, Jacob of Gundishapur and Samuel of Kashkar, the bishops necessary to ratify any election, do not endorse either candidate.34

This section seems to combine material that is biased against Elishe and connected to the earlier sections on Shila and Babai with material that is neutral to both candidates. Thus, a neutral source has reported objections to Narsai, while a pro-Narsai source within the same section also describes him as an educated, virtuous, and charitable man, similar qualities to those ascribed to Babai. Similarly, the neutral source reports the objections of Samuel and Jacob, while the pro-Narsai source reports those who consecrated him and attacks David of Merv. Additionally, the pro-Narsai source focuses on the problem of where the catholicoi were consecrated and condemns Elishe’s use of the church at Aspanir. This objection is attached to the pro-Narsai source’s other emphases on ‘tradition’, but it also corresponds to the changing topography of the Ctesiphon conurbation.35

St. John Simpson has argued that over-irrigation and localized flooding at Kokhe had caused a considerable displacement of population by the end of the fifth century, though the continuation of ceramic and glass production shows that some people remained. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Kokhe had seen heavy settlement, with subdivided tenements and the encroachment of property onto public space. This was not just associated with the Christian and Jewish administrations that were based here, but also with the production of books, glass, and pottery and with trade in these products and in agricultural goods and metalwork. However, this pattern changed rapidly with the abandonment of the northern and southern parts of the suburb, which was mostly encircled in a bend in the river, and the reconstruction of much of the centre (p.103) into a colonnaded open courtyard.36 Aspanir, further to the south, has not been excavated, but, as a sixth-century royal city with its own impressive monuments, it may well have attracted settlement from populations transferred from elsewhere.37

This movement of populations may lie behind the objections of the pro-Narsai source and its emphasis on ‘tradition’. As well as Elishe’s court connections he was also from Ctesiphon itself, which may have made it much easier for him to control the church in Aspanir where Narsai had originally been elected. The neutral source says that it was ‘priests and others’ who objected to Narsai, so possibly Elishe’s support was drawn from the local population and its clergy, as opposed to the bishops (who may have been without any local power base in Ctesiphon). This impression of local clerical (rather than episcopal) support for Elishe may also fit the delay in his consecration until suitable bishops could be found. If the previous fifty years had seen population move away from Kokhe, the old seat of the catholicos, to Aspanir, then this may account for why the ‘local’ candidate was consecrated there. The distinction between the candidates, and the appeal to tradition by the pro-Narsai faction, may rest on the creation of a new suburb and the attempts of its inhabitants to assert their importance and to support one of their own, an act which prompted the shrill appeals of Narsai that asserted the importance of Kokhe and of the scholars and monks that Narsai tried to associate himself with.

The account of the conflict continues with a lament at the duplication of the episcopal and clerical hierarchy, which ‘caused the monks living in the mountains to weep’ and to hope that Kavad (488–531) and his son Khusrau (531–79) would restore the church to order. Elishe has Narsai imprisoned with Khusrau’s support, but he is later released by Khusrau’s own son.38 Elishe then goes to visit recalcitrant bishoprics that have resisted his orders, imprisoning bishops in Rayy and Merv and creating new metropolitans for Khuzistan and Bahrayn, which prompts Jacob of Gundishapur to write a treatise on ecclesiastical administration to censure him, ‘On the duties of those in command’. Elishe even deposes Samuel of Kashkar for his refusal to acknowledge him, but the Kashkarians reject Barshaba, Elishe’s candidate for the see. Elishe is made to exclaim before the Seleucians, ‘How can the citizens of Kashkar, that vile city, think to defy me, who have been victorious over all lands?’ The Kashkarians hear his boast and one of them goes to seek an audience with Elishe after he receives a royal edict confirming his rule and seizes it from Elishe while (p.104) pretending to kiss his hand.39 After Narsai’s death, Biron, the royal doctor and Elishe’s patron, tries to get Elishe elected, but instead the shah nominates Paul of Susa, who allows the exiled Samuel of Kashkar to return to his see.40

This second half of the account is mostly drawn from the ‘neutral source’, which objected to the election of both Narsai and Elishe and supported the position of the metropolitans who refused to confirm either.41 This source’s objection to Elishe is based less on his treatment of Narsai than on his suppression of incumbent bishops and his arrogance, which also prompts John of Gundishapur’s theoretical treatment of the duties of ecclesiastical leadership. The same source also draws a distinction between the arrogant Elishe and his supporters at Ctesiphon and the Kashkarians who oppose him. This contrast seems distinct from the emphasis on the traditional role of Kokhe as the seat of the catholicos in the pro-Narsai source. Instead it focuses on the dependence of the catholicos on his fellow metropolitans and on the legitimacy of the ‘neutral’ position of Jacob and Samuel. At the same time, however, this source also confirms our impression that Elishe’s supporters were concentrated in Ctesiphon, and that it was his attempt to use support in the capital to dominate other sees that drew accusations of tyranny.

This neutral source bases its criticism of the era of schism on the general absence of morals and on the illegitimacy of both candidates. As such it reflects the ideas of the reign of Aba, under whom the anti-ascetic legislation of the 480s was reversed, and was probably written after the pro-Narsai material. The reference in the centre of the section to monks lamenting in the wilderness may connect the disorder of the reigns of Narsai and Elishe to the Acacian legislation against public asceticism in cities and tries to conflate the two issues. As we have seen, the narrative at the beginning of the section, drawn from an earlier pro-Narsai account, had criticized Elishe’s marriage into Shila’s dynasty as a corrupt means of generating influence at court, but it did not criticize it as an abuse of the duty to clerical celibacy per se, which would have become an obvious criticism after Aba’s legislation.

The reference to the lamenting monks connects the squabble of the catholicoi and the creation of a dual hierarchy to the decline in morals that began in the 480s and was terminated by Aba. Aba’s ‘counter-reformation’ provided a lens through which the whole reformed period was seen, but the material produced by the pro-Narsai party has still left traces in later compilations of history that pertain to this era. Specific criticisms of Shila and Elishe from the reign of Narsai may have been incorporated into later, more generalized (p.105) criticisms of the period of ‘anarchy’ dating from after Aba’s ‘counter-reformation’.

Both this change in moral legislation and the condemnation of earlier divisions are pillars of the synod of Aba in 542. Aba proclaims the unity of the clerical hierarchy and adjudicates disputed sees in Fars and Maishan, he condemns the corruption of church canons and invokes the Old Testament for his ‘regulation of morals’ and his condemnation of incestuous and polygamous marriage.42 These reforms are also emphasized in his saint’s life, which is preserved in Syriac, and in the Arabic text used in the Chronicle of Seert.43 Of these two, the longer Syriac text is especially critical of previous catholicoi: ‘He [Aba] was chosen for the office of catholicos by all the metropolitans and bishops and clerics and faithful laymen, though it was against his will…for [in the past] many had been appointed to the office by the shah but did not tend the flock.’ The hagiographer continues that Aba

inherited the chair of Mar Symeon [bar Sebbaʿe], the victorious catholicos-martyr and his blessed companions, and he also inherited their blessed struggle. And he made peace in the church and uprooted the animosity that the Devil had laid down when the leadership of the church was divided…and renewed the ancient customs…and confirmed the canons of the apostles of the east.44

Like the pro-Narsai source, Aba’s hagiographer is keen to make its hero a successor to an earlier golden age of martyrs and apostles. Aba himself was considered as a martyr of the church and recorded in the ‘Book of Life’, which was recited at the liturgy to commemorate the martyred catholicoi.45 Aba’s hagiographer anticipates his martyrdom by this comparison with Symeon, and it attaches a special legitimacy to his deeds, representing both his reform of the church and his personal asceticism as indications of a perfect character. The hagiographer’s image of Symeon is quite different from that found in the Acts of Symeon. The A Acts in particular had presented the catholicos’ virtue in his refusal to cooperate with the shah. But, for Aba, in the hagiography preserved in the Chronicle of Seert, Symeon’s virtue was his celibacy: the martyr-catholicos represented a vehicle for different characteristics as the past was rewritten to suit present requirements.46 And it was the problems of clerical celibacy and public asceticism that were projected onto earlier generations.

(p.106) The School of Nisibis: Barsauma, Acacius, and Christology

As we have seen, the primary focus of the patriarchal history was the authority of the catholicos. A secondary issue, that of clerical celibacy, was overlaid onto this, and the loss of a celibate clergy was used to account for the turmoil of the early sixth century by commentators working after Aba’s ‘counter-reformation’. But there was also a third issue that preoccupied historians in their descriptions of the 480–540 period, namely the changes in the theology of the Church and the important role of the School of Nisibis in this process.

Barsauma of Nisibis is a significant character in the histories of this process. Some histories focused on Barsauma’s Christology, rather than his reform of ascetics, and these were transmitted within a different body of sources, which focused upon School of Nisibis rather than the catholicosate.

The School of Nisibis played a major role in transmitting Roman Dyophysite theology to the Sasanian world. A former Roman city, situated close to the border, it received refugees from Edessa’s ‘School of the Persians’, an expatriate community of scholars who taught the Dyophysite Christology of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Acacius was himself a product of the School of the Persians, and his canons show an emphasis on Theodoran Christology in reaction to recent Miaphysite arrivals. But other theologians, such as Mar Narsai and Barsauma have a much higher reputation than the catholicos in the scholarly histories of the School of Nisibis itself.47

The Chronicle of Seert devotes two sections to ‘doctors of Nisibis’, to Mar Narsai and Mar Elishe (IX and XIII).48 The first of these presents Narsai as a companion of Acacius at Edessa, and notes that both men were trained under Theodoulos, a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia, who named Narsai ‘the tongue of the East’. It reports how Narsai led the Diophysites at the School of Edessa to Nisibis, where they joined with the small school of one Simeon of Beth Garmai. With the support of Barsauma, this school ‘attracted people from far and wide’. The section goes on to record the literary production of Narsai, and of his disciples John and Abraham, and his opposition to the Miaphysite Jacob of Serug.49 A different version of the material present in this section is employed in earlier Syriac sources, which acknowledge that Barsauma had been a pupil of Theodoulos alongside Narsai and Acacius, a fact that is skimmed over in the Arabic compilations.50

This kind of information about masters and disciples in an intellectual tradition and their literary production is quite different from the material (p.107) used by the patriarchal histories and may belong to a distinct historical genre, the Cause of Foundation of Schools, the first of which was composed by one Elishe early in the reign of Khusrau.51 Elishe’s text, from which the Chronicle’s material may derive, has not survived. But a later document, ascribed to Barhadbeshaba ʿArbaya in the 590s, does.52 This work relates the development of education from Creation, seeing all religious systems as schools that attempt to imitate God’s own education of mankind. It relates the importance of the doctors of the past, of Eustathius, Jacob, and Athanasius in Antioch, Nisibis, and Alexandria, and of the intellectual succession of Theodore of Mopsuestia.53 The Cause goes on to record how the school of Edessa transmitted Theodore’s theology as well as that of Ephraem, and how the two were combined in Narsai and his successors.54 And it also gives a major role to Barsauma in persuading Narsai to emigrate to Nisibis. He tells him that Nisibis ‘is a great city, set in the borderlands, and all people gather to it from all regions…many will throng here now that heresy looks out openly from its surrounds in Mesopotamia.’55

This chain of doctors presents the school community as ‘a diachronic succession’ that generates a group biography for the whole institution.56 Adam Becker has observed that the school of the Persians in Edessa was one of a number of immigrant cultures that acquired Edessene forms of study and academic behaviour, and that the Cause represents an explanation of these Edessene cultural practices and institutions in the new context of the Persian world.57 Moreover, the emphasis on Theodoran theology in this institutional history may have also served to bind together the disciples of the school after their departure. Whether students of the School of Edessa served within the ecclesiastical hierarchy or set up their own schools, the school system and its history were tied to the ability to propagate and accurately reproduce ‘orthodox’ Theodoran doctrine.58

One defensive sentence in the Cause suggests that the presence of Barsauma in this history was awkward. In a section that deals with the era of Barsauma, it notes (p.108) that ‘it is not our intention to speak of their way of life, but the manner of their teaching.’59 The author of the Cause is careful to declare that his genre excuses him from making any judgement about the legislation attributed to Barsauma. Barhadbeshaba’s Ecclesiastical History is similarly cautious in its description of the squabble between Mar Narsai and Barsauma’s wife Mamai: it emphasizes that Barsauma was modest and it was only Mamai’s avarice that caused the strife.60 Both notes show that the authors of these histories of scholarship were aware of the criticisms made of Barsauma that associated the married bishop with the decision to abandon clerical celibacy. But Barsauma’s reputation as a conduit of Dyophysite Christology alongside Acacius and Mar Narsai and as a co-founder of the School of Nisibis preserved an alternative tradition that was more positive.

Indeed, attacks on Barsauma by Miaphysite sources, while they build on the blackening of his reputation in the patriarchal histories, also confirm the impression of the sixth-century Nisibene sources that Barsauma was also an important link in the Dyophysite theological canon. Dionysius of Tel-Mahre and Bar Hebraeus conflate the different issues of the reform and attach them all to the person of Barsauma, as the killer of Babowai, the oppressor of the monks of Mar Mattai, and as the bringer of Nestorianism.61 Notably it is Barsauma, rather than Acacius, who is blamed for all of these ‘crimes’. The Miaphysite criticisms are built around earlier attacks on Barsauma that originated within the Church of the East in his opposition to Babowai.62 But Barsauma’s reputation as an arch-Nestorian may also be a reaction to his good reputation in the Nisibene sources, often more interested in the development of theology than the patriarchal histories, which may reflect his real importance as a defender of Dyophysitism.

The School of Nisibis: Nisibene Theology in Ctesiphon

The presence of these Nisibene traditions in the medieval compilations, and the corresponding contradictions in the reputation of Barsauma, are (p.109) connected to the educational background and reforms of Aba. As well as sections on the Nisibene theologians, the Chronicle also includes a series of narratives that describe Aba engaging in public disputation and founding schools in Ctesiphon on the model of Nisibis. These descriptions are relatively discrete sections of the Chronicle and they reflect the growing connection between Nisibis and Ctesiphon. The importance of these ties in the last decades of the century may suggest that these narratives were composed later than the other narratives of the period c.485–552.

Aba had been trained in Nisibis as well as in the Roman world.63 Several sections in the Chronicle of Seert connect him to the foundation of a school of Ctesiphon, an institution that seems to have brought Nisibene traditions of scholarship and exegesis into the capital. Aba was, of course, an important enough figure in his own right for historians to record his foundation, but the school would also produce a number of famous exegetes by the 590s, play a role in the election of the catholicos, and became a famous landmark that was shown to a visiting Roman bishop in the same decade.64 Moreover, the School of Nisibis was at the height of its importance at the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh centuries, as a training ground for catholicoi, abbots, and theologians, and it trained several of Aba’s successors as well as ecclesiastical historians such as Barhadbeshaba. The schools of Ctesiphon and Nisibis were joined by a continuity of personnel who were also influential in the church at large at a time when many of the ecclesiastical historians were writing, and Aba’s importance was magnified as the man who imported the educational system employed at the School of Nisibis.

The sections describing Aba’s scholastic foundations are not present in his Syriac Acts and they are later compositions that reflect the growing power of the School of Ctesiphon at the end of the sixth century. These accounts describe a series of religious disputations between Aba and his Zoroastrian opponents that are used to account for the acquisition of property by the school of Ctesiphon. In the first of these, Aba is accosted by the mobadan mobad (chief priest), who asks him why he has left the religion of his ancestors. Aba replies that he will only venerate a single God, whereas the Zoroastrians venerate both the sun and the moon. He goes on to prove that his God is the only true God by walking through the fire of a fire temple unharmed after making the sign of the cross. The magus converts and gives Aba money to transform the fire temple into a school, the School of Ctesiphon. When Aba places a cross in the centre of the building, the school is immediately overrun by demons in the form of animals, by cats, mice, and lizards, who used to live in the fire temple, until Aba exorcises them. After this, the hagiographer adds, ‘the house where those who worshipped fire heard their murmuring chants has become a library for the spiritual books (p.110) of the church, and the house of the mobadan mobad has become a cell of the fathers’.65

The second of these texts is part of a disputation between Aba and a magus. It seems to be the second half of a longer story, which has been omitted here, in which Aba has already responded correctly to three questions from the magus and then asks him a question that he cannot answer. Aba asks ‘What should a girl do if she is caught outside by surprise in the rain and is constrained both by the rain and by your laws?’ This disputation seems to be part of a wager for a fire temple and Aba takes possession of it and turns it into a school. This building is later restored under Ezekiel (567–81), implying that the story was first recorded towards the end of the century.

In the same section, the shah Khusrau is said to be saddened by the revolt of his son (the Christian Anoshazad), and Aba demands to ask a question of the mobadan mobad to revive his spirits. This question consists of a parable, involving a pot (qadra), the water inside it, a fire beneath it, and the wood that the fire burns. Aba asks what each of the protagonists in the riddle say to one another. The mobad cannot reply, so Aba tells the shah the following: ‘The water begins by telling the pot that it should not oppress it by heating it up, since water helped to make it by being mixed with clay. The pot then tells the wood that it should not cause the water to boil because it grew thanks to the water. Finally the wood tells the fire that “you alone oppress society, because you brought us [together] to harm our fathers…and your heat has become excessive upon us…You are the real cause of these injustices.”66

Neither of the riddles in this section are clear, and they have almost certainly been garbled in transmission. The first seems to hinge on Zoroastrian taboos against the presence of women in a fire temple, which makes the situation a practical challenge for the magus. The second riddle is explained in the text as a reference to the ties between fathers and sons, and Khusrau’s duty of leniency in Anoshazad’s revolt, but another reading of the riddle is also possible. In the context of Aba’s dispute with the unnamed mobad, the identification of fire as the source of oppression between the different protagonists in the riddle might mean that fire should be read as a metaphor for the Magi, whose influence causes the different levels of society to oppress one another. Thus, while the riddle does refer to Anoshazad and ask for leniency, it also makes his revolt, ultimately, a product of the importance of the Magi in society.

These disputation accounts should not be read as reports of any real disputation (and the narrative passes over the fact that Khusrau’s treatment of Anoshazad was far from lenient). Aba’s legislation shows him to be cognisant of Zoroastrian myths, especially the myth of creation that (p.111) was used to justify incestuous marriage.67 But the content of the riddles used here are much more simplistic, and take real or imagined Zoroastrian practices, such as reverence for the elements, and misrepresent them or expose them to ridicule. These accounts of disputation probably represent popular Christian perceptions of the debates of Aba, and its arguments rely on commonplace stereotype rather than scriptural knowledge of Zoroastrianism. As such, the inclusion of these accounts shows the impact of scholastic tradition upon Christian self-awareness in an era of interreligious dialogue in Ctesiphon. In addition, the two alternative foundation stories for the school in Ctesiphon indicate the growing importance of the intellectual credentials of the Church of the East outside the scholastic circles that created and used them in debate, and how the creators of these stories, in the era of Zoroastrian importance of the late sixth and early seventh centuries, wished to tie together the reputation of the catholicos Aba and scholastic culture.

The importance of the School of Nisibis affected the historiography of the Church of the East in four distinct ways in the early sixth century. Firstly, the School produced a chain of intellectual biographies of its scholars, of which Mar Narsai’s is the most prominent, and which also accentuated their role in bringing the ideas of Theodore to the East. This version of history was embedded into the ecclesiastical histories written from the end of the sixth century and preserves a very different image of Barsauma and the events of the 480s to that included in the continuation of the patriarchal histories. Secondly, the spread of institutions modelled on Nisibis, at Ctesiphon and elsewhere, is seen in the connection of Aba to this intellectual inheritance. The narrative emphasizes his role in intellectual dispute and his academic disciples. Thirdly, Nisibene scholars seem to have had a particular interest in historiography, and the growing importance of the School may have had a direct effect on the expansion of history-writing at the end of the century.68

Finally, the School left its mark on the content of history-writing, namely through the record of the treatises produced by Nisibene scholars on the death of the shah Khusrau and their polemic against Zoroastrianism (material that has not survived but is referred to in medieval sources).69 Though it is possible (p.112) that the medieval compilations may preserve parts of the Nisibene material on Khusrau, these lost works are most important for what they tell us about the church’s political alignment in the sixth century in general. This interest in the deeds of the shahs and a more informed and polemical opposition to Zoroastrianism is also a feature of the presentation of the 484–540 period in the Chronicle of Seert. The fact that the attitude of the Chronicle matches both the attitude of the mid-sixth-century hagiography of Mar Aba and the lost Nisibene texts suggests that it was a prominent trend in the behaviour of Christian leaders, who sought the patronage of the shah to defend Christians and to humiliate their Zoroastrian opponents.

The Church and the Shahs: Seeking Favour

A continuous feature of all the medieval compilations that discuss this period from the perspective of Ctesiphon is the increased importance of court relations to secure the election of the catholicos, both through the intervention of ‘friends at court’ or through the personal favour of the shah. We are told the story of the election of Babai thanks to the request of Mousa, astrologer to the shah Zamasp (496–8) and secretary to the marzban of Beth Aramaye.70 Similarly, Kavad’s favour to the avaricious Shila is explained by his friendship with Bouzaq of ‘al-Ahwaz’ (Susa) who had healed the shah and his daughter.71 This Bouzaq continued to be identified as the power behind the throne in subsequent elections as well: after Shila’s death he refused to be elected himself and nominated Narsai (524–37), and Paul, his archdeacon, was also elected catholicos.72 With the exception of Narsai, these court connections seem to have been accepted by the electors: in Babai’s case, the Chronicle of Seert reports that they immediately insisted on his election in spite of his own protestations. Of course, we cannot take these assertions of unanimity at face value, but they do show the patriarchal sponsorship of a history that asserted that court connections represented a normal and acceptable route to power, both in the past and in the eras of composition.73

(p.113) The chronicles also give weight to personal relationships between the catholicoi and the shahs. Acacius’ relationship with Valash, Babai’s relationship with Zamasp, and Paul’s with Khusrau all receive emphasis, alongside references to their service to the shah in diplomacy or rescuing his troops from drought.74 This theme of the shah’s patronage in the terse accounts of the catholicoi in the compilations for 484–540 is given even more emphasis in the lengthier account taken from the Acts of Aba. Here Aba is accused by an apostate to Zoroastrianism, Peter of Gurgan, of turning traitor and going over to the Romans. Aba responds by presenting himself before the shah, Khusrau I, to defend himself and to admit the shah’s right to put him to death as a Persian subject. It is notable that Khusrau does not punish Aba himself, but gives him over to the mobadan mobad to try as an apostate: the hagiographer is underlining the distinction between the shah’s absolute authority, which Aba respects, and the religious law of the Zoroastrian clergy. The hagiography goes on to note that it is the shah who releases Aba from prison, even though he killed other Christians. Seemingly the hagiographer wished to highlight royal cooperation with Aba while downplaying his brief persecution (which lasted 542–5).75

A similar tension exists in the Chronicle of Seert’s account of the catholicos’ role in the revolt of Khusrau’s son Anoshazad at Gundishapur.76 The Chronicle reports that the Magian priests told the shah that the revolt was instigated by Aba. Khusrau threatens to punish Aba on their account. Aba protests that, while he is the leader of the Christians, he only deserves to be their servant and cannot ‘be held responsible for the deeds of a whole community’: the shah is ‘head of the Magians and all other peoples, but he is not reponsible for the crimes of the general populace’. We have already seen how the division of the Sasanian Empire between ērān and anērān were used by third-century shahs, when geographic boundaries, with accompanying ethnic and religious connotations, were invoked to assert the distinction between rulers and ruled.77 Aba’s hagiographer returns to the same issues here. His presentation of Aba as a servant of the Christians removes an element of the distinction between Magians and Christians: all are subjects of the shah and have the same duties of obedience as a consequence. The Acts of Symeon had also presented the catholicos as a servant of the shah, and requests only that the shah respect his right to religion, but this account differs by developing service to the shah into a claim for equality with his other servants. The distinction between the shah’s justice and that of the Magian clergy is accompanied in the Chronicle of Seert by the presentation of Magians and Christians as equal subjects of the shah: (p.114) the text’s loyalism is mixed with an expanded claim for status. Such a claim may also be rooted in a new social context. The participation of Christians in a revolt by a prospective Christian shah itself demonstrates the existence of Christian militarized elites and their potential to involve themselves in high politics. So, the image of equality before the shah may rest on the new political potential of Christians in the empire, even if Aba’s hagiographer is keen to show that the catholicos himself did not participate in any revolt.

Khusrau demands that Aba write to the inhabitants of Gundishapur and tell them to stop their revolt. Aba does so, threatening them with excommunication, and they open the doors of the city. After this Khusrau demands that Aba levy an additional tax on the citizens in exchange for leaving the churches of the city intact. Aba obeys him again, remembering the example of Symeon bar Sebbaʿe’s resistance to Shapur. However, Khusrau does not keep his half of the bargain and ravages the city.78 Here the Chronicle clearly excuses Aba from Symeon’s precedent of resistance to the shah. The Acts of Symeon reflected a time when the participation of the catholicos in the Sasanian fiscal system was controversial and ancient precedent was invoked to condemn it. This account, by contrast, justifies a further level of cooperation with the state, in keeping with its more general emphasis on loyalty to the shah. However, Khusrau very publicly failed to keep his promise and the text is incapable of removing this important contradiction: instead, the focus of the narrative is transferred to Aba’s behaviour as an ideal catholicos (rather than emphasizing the shah’s reaction) and on his opposition to the Magian clergy, in which his loyalty to the shah plays an important role.

The proximity of the catholicoi to the sixth-century shahs might have seemed somewhat shocking, given the role played by their fourth- and fifth-century predecessors in large-scale persecution. These negative associations may have been deliberately muted by the depiction of the shah as a religiously neutral figure, presiding over a religiously pluralistic empire and encouraging free religious discussion at court.79 In one scene, the shah Zamasp is said to have asked Babai to justify the veneration of relics by Christians, which he does by elucidating the belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead.80 Burial of the dead had long been a contentious issue in Zoroastrianism: several saints’ lives end with the attempts of the Magians to prevent the burial of the bodies of converts to Christianity.81 The conversation of Babai and Zamasp, in which the shah is said to have ‘shown favour to what he [Babai] said’, does not phrase the debate directly in terms of the competition between Christianity and (p.115) Zoroastrianism. But the author does approach this issue obliquely by presenting a shah who, in contrast to his predecessor Peroz, is willing to provide a neutral forum for religious discussion and is shown here assessing Christianity on its own terms. The Zamasp of the compilations, therefore, is shown tacitly agreeing with the Christians in their rejection of a Zoroastrian cultural practice (which was, at any rate, never uniformly obeyed in Iran itself).

Some texts go even further in differentiating the shah from his Zoroastrian advisors. One scene in the Acts of Aba describes how Aba refuses to accompany Persian forces in their invasion of the Roman Empire, whereupon a series of charges are made against him by the Magi. He stands accused of apostasy, forbidding Christians from engaging in polygamous marriage, annulling the decrees of Zoroastrian judges, and baptizing Zoroastrians.82 Proselytizing to Zoroastrians had been a contentious issue during the fifth century, but it is noteworthy that here it is the catholicos himself who stands accused, and also that the shah Khusrau is distanced from these accusations. There is no scene to parallel Shapur’s interview with Simeon bar Sebbaʿe inserted into this account.

The other charges brought against Aba, moreover, are novelties. They do not deal with individuals changing religious category, but the boundaries of those categories, i.e. in what situations should individuals be treated as Christians or Zoroastrians? By settling lawsuits for Christians, Aba was seen to be challenging the rights of the Magi as judges, which was officially part of their role as state functionaries.83 By governing Christians under a different law, Aba seemed to be trying to carve out a distinct legal space for Christians in the empire. Aba’s law-code, which remains extant, carries a strong Old Testament influence, dominated by notions of external pollution taken from the Book of Leviticus.84 This articulation of a different set of laws for all Christians challenged the dominance of Zoroastrian customs. Notably, the legal objections of the Magi seem to be prompted by Aba’s exclusion of Zoroastrian practices from Christian norms. Aba banned Christians from eating ‘the meat (p.116) of murmur’ (i.e. blessed by Zoroastrian priests) and from engaging in incest and polygamous marriage, which are identified as Zoroastrian practices.85

Khusrau I was a man of ambition, who enjoyed much greater economic security and political independence than his predecessors.86 And his court was a multicultural hub87 that acknowledged and reflected the munificence of the shah in histories,88 texts of etiquette,89 and translation projects.90 Christian scholars and clergymen benefited from the shah’s sponsorship.91 But they also had to justify their involvement with an institution that had persecuted the church in the past and would continue to destroy Christians who showed any disloyalty or threatened the status quo, such as the rebel Anoshazad. Several Syriac hagiographies celebrated martyrs from Khusrau’s reign, many of them high profile ‘apostates’ from Zoroastrianism, but none of them are recorded in the medieval compilations.92 Given the criticism that had once been levelled against collaborators with the state, the patriarchal histories are concerned to present the shah, as far as possible, as an ally of the catholicos and as a religiously neutral figure who could be distanced from the Zoroastrian clergy who sought to control him.

(p.117) It is also worth emphasizing here that the account of Aba and his relationship with the shah was probably originally composed during the reigns of his late sixth-century successors, especially his immediate successor Joseph. Joseph enjoyed a very close relationship with the shah, but was also the object of serious criticism from within the Church, which ultimately led to his deposition.93 In addition, Joseph is often identified as a composer (or forger) of history, whether as a ‘reviser’ of earlier lists of catholicoi or the inventor of a letter from the Western Fathers to Papas, emphasizing the authority of the catholicos.94 The image of Aba preserved in the Chronicle, of a charismatic ascetic who also cooperates with the state (even in an era of low level persecution) may be an image produced for the benefit of his successors, in an era when they stood to gain much from proclamations of loyalty and from emphasizing the prestige of the office of catholicos: it was in the same era that the catholicoi first branded themselves patriarchs, the equals of the great bishops of the West.95

Another side to this closer relationship between the catholicos and the shah was the need to prevent other Christians from acquiring roles as intermediaries with the Sasanian authorities. The focus on the relationship between the catholicos and the shah’s court is noticeable in the synodical records. Aba’s synod in 540 praised Khusrau as ‘a new Cyrus’ and justifies the use of civil officers (including Zoroastrian mobads) to press charges against one Abraham of Beth Aramaye.96 But the growing prominence of Christian lay elites is also apparent in the synodica. Joseph’s synod (554) complains about the use of state law in disputes between churches, citing the example of one church that had a nearby newer church destroyed by the rad in the course of a legal dispute.97 Part of the background to this engagement between local churches and the secular law may have been the emergence of more powerful lay patrons who could dominate elections and may have had connections with the civil authorities: Joseph also complains that these men should not judge members of the clergy, ‘whether within their communities or in a general (p.118) assembly’ and bans their secret involvement in episcopal elections.98 Use of state influence or alliances with the laity had become acceptable, but only for the catholicos, and not for different Christian interests acting independently.99

The emphasis on the relationship between shah and catholicos in the histories and the synodicon shows the use of the shah’s reign as a source of authority. Instead of condemning over-involvement with the state, these texts of the middle sixth century represent it as legitimate behaviour to benefit the whole Christian community. Thus, the histories and synodica of the middle sixth century celebrated the connections of the catholicos, but they also opposed attempts by other Christians to evade the catholicos as the point of contact between the shah and the Christians.


The accounts of the early and middle sixth century appear much more complex in the Chronicle of Seert than the material that precedes them. This is in part the result of internecine squabbles in the catholicosate that took place in an era when a tradition of history writing was already well established, and when changes in clerical celibacy needed to be understood and justified without condemning revered catholicoi of previous generations. But this complexity is also the result of the emergence of a new institution that existed in symbiosis with the catholicosate: from the reign of Aba the School of Nisibis would become a training ground for catholicoi and play a major role in the ‘preservation’ of the Dyophysite orthodoxy of the Church of the East.

The relative stability of this institution must also be tied to the ever-greater prominence of lay Christians in the state and the willingness of the shah to support and use Christians in his service. The representations of Khusrau’s reign in hagiography and history both point to a willingness to sponsor Christians at court, and downplay the shah’s small-scale persecutions. The sharper delineation of the boundaries of the Christian community in the reign of Aba should be read alongside the new emphasis of the historical tradition on the patronage of the Sasanian court. By asserting the independence of religious groups in a ‘pluralist’ state, the catholicos also defended his monopoly as an arbiter of Christian behaviour within this state, and justified his (p.119) ‘collaboration’ with the Sasanian authorities. Even if the sources examined here may show a degree of ‘wishful thinking’ on the part of some Christians, a greater pluralism of religious and political groups may have benefited the shah in turn, by broadening the pool of servants who were tied to his patronage.

The material from the period 480–555 that derives from the patriarchal histories has itself been combined with additional material, with the deeds of shahs, Roman emperors, and Western churchmen, which was collected by later historians. From the end of Khusrau I’s reign, Christians appear to have become ever more prominent, both within the empire and in its relations with Rome. This situation is reflected in the changing form taken by the historical compositions that they used to understand and shape their contemporary position and identity in the period c.570–660, which will be examined in the following chapters.


(1) C. Baumer, The Church of the East (London, 2006), 86–8 provides a narrative, though he does not take into account S. Gero, Barsauma of Nisibis and Persian Christianity in the Fifth Century (Louvain, 1981) and his source criticism, which has demolished older views of the reformation of asceticism in this period. See also W. Macomber, ‘The vicissitudes of the patriarchate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon from the beginning to the present day’, Diakonia 9 (1974), 35–55, at 37.

(2) Chronicel of Seert, II/i, XXV (147–52); Mari, 49/43; ʿAmr, 37–40/22–3.

(3) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXVII–XXX (154–70), which includes a version of the Acts of Aba. See also the summaries and discussions in Labourt, Christianisme, 169–90; W. Baum and D. Winkler, The Church of the East: A Concise History (London, 2003), 33–4; M. Hutter, ‘Mar Aba and the impact of Zoroastrianism on Christianity’ in C. Cereti, M. Maggi, and E. Provasi (eds.), Religious Themes and Texts of Pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia. Studies in Honour of Professor Gherardo Gnoli (Wiesbaden, 2003), 167–72; Payne, Christianity and Iranian Society, ch. 3. On the historicity of the Syriac Acts of Aba, see P. Peeters, ‘Observations sur la vie syriaque de Mar Aba, catholicos de l’église perse (540–52)’, in Miscellanea Giovanni Mercati V: Storia ecclesiasticaDiritto (Vatican City, 1946), 69–112.

(4) Despite the variety of material, the medieval compilations all share roughly the same narrative of the actions of the catholicoi, and they are significant personalities in all the stories that are set in this period. The Haddad Chronicle’s coverage is not extant this late, and Bar Hebraeus represents a Miaphysite commentary on ‘eastern’ history after Dadishoʿ, so my analysis here is restricted to Mari, ʿAmr, and the Chronicle of Seert.

(5) Gero, Barsauma.

(6) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, I (99–102); ʿAmr, HE, 29–30/17–8; Mari. HE, 42/37. There is also a brief Syriac Acts of Babowai, which presents him as a martyred catholicos of the church, in the company of Symeon and Aba. The brevity of this account may indicate that it was only his death that made him a suitable object of veneration.

(7) Gero, Barsauma, 40–9.

(8) Gero, Barsauma, 40–9 and Labourt, Christianisme, 140–2.

(9) On the Miaphysite ‘invasion’, see Fiey, Jalons, 127.

(10) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XI (122); Mari, 32–3/37–8; ʿAmr, 35/20–1.

(11) Synodicon, 61. Ibn al-Tayyib (II, 116) credits Barsauma with removing the need for metropolitans to be ‘perfected’ by the catholicos after their ordination, which would have removed their dependence on Ctesiphon.

(12) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, I (99–100).

(13) Synodicon, 57–9.

(14) Synodicon, 59.

(15) Synodicon, 61. Notably there is no individual denunciation of Barsauma. Gero, Barsauma, 52.

(16) Discussed above in chapter 1.

(17) Kokhe lay slightly to the south of Ctesiphon proper, across the empty former bed of the Tigris.

(18) Synodicon, 63–6.

(19) Gero, Barsauma, 40–5.

(20) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, I (99–100). Mari, HE, 41/36 specifies that the bishops demanded an end to incestuous marriage, which foreshadows Aba’s later legislation. ʿAmr, 33/19 does not mention any of Babowai’s faults, which makes his account more straightforward in its criticism of Barsauma.

(21) Mari has ‘usurping Paul’s words’.

(22) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, I (101).

(23) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, VIII (113).

(24) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XI (122–3).

(25) R. Ebied and M. Young, ‘List of the Nestorian patriarchs’, LM 87 (1974), 87–113, at XXIII–XXV.

(26) ʿAmr, HE, 35–8/21–2; Mari, HE, 48–9/42–3.

(27) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XV (129).

(28) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XIX (136–7).

(29) The Acts of Symeon B may also criticize the court connections of candidates for the catholicosate in the early sixth century (see chapter 2 in this volume). See Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXV (148) for a possible political context for this.

(30) Chronicle of Seert, I/ii, XXXI (224).

(31) Note that the author of this account did not select either the school of ʿAbda or the school of Nisibis as a suitable ancestor for Narsai’s foundation: the former seems to have ceased to have had any prestigious successors after its destruction and the latter may have only really become significant in circles around the catholicos in the era of Aba and his successors.

(32) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXV (149).

(33) Note Synodicon, 48 for the establishment of Kokhe as the see of the catholicos in the reign of Dadishoʿ.

(34) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXV (148–9). Mari and ʿAmr provide abbreviated versions of this account, except that ʿAmr, 38/22 also gives a list of Narsai’s supporters, which confirms the importance of Narsai’s faction in the composition of some kind of history.

(35) On the central Mesopotamian conurbation see Simpson, Mesopotamia, 174.

(36) Simpson, Mesopotamia, 183–7. See further R. Venco Ricciardi, ‘The excavations at Choche’, Mesopotamia 3–4 (1968–9), 57–68 and R. Venco Ricciardi, ‘Trial trench at Tell Baruda’, Mesopotamia 12 (1977), 11–14 for the restriction of settlement in the sixth century.

(37) Simpson, Mesopotamia, 189–90. Simpson also locates the Iwan-i-Khusrau in Aspanir.

(38) Narsai’s ally here could be Anoshazad, who later led a rebellion at Gundishapur. Note the discussion of this figure in M. R. J. Bonner, Three Neglected Sources of Sasanian History in the Reign of Khusraw Anushirvan (Paris, 2011).

(39) Kashkar, as the second city of southern Iraq, may have had a natural rivalry with Ctesiphon, which would also explain the animosity against Elishe.

(40) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXV (150–2).

(41) The section on Paul (Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXVI (153) is also drawn from this source, since it continues to emphasize the importance of Jacob and Symeon.

(42) Synodicon, 69–72 and 81–2.

(43) The Arabic text is an abbreviation of the Syriac that has stripped out many of the details of Aba’s opponents and the nuances of their arguments. However, the Arabic text also includes additional scenes that describe Aba’s foundation of schools in Ctesiphon (II/i, XXVIII–XXIX) and lists of his disciples (XXX). I argue below that these additional scenes are late sixth-century productions that reflect the growing importance of these schools.

(44) Syriac Acts of Aba, 224–5.

(45) Note the examples given in J.-M. Fiey, ‘Diptyques nestoriens du XIVe siècle’, AB 81 (1963), 371–414, where martyred catholicoi are distinguished from those who died a natural death.

(46) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXVII (159).

(47) A. Becker, Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom: The School of Nisibis and Christian Scholastic Culture in Late Antique Mesopotamia (Philadelphia, 2006).

(48) To be distinguished from the catholicoi mentioned above.

(49) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, IX (115–17).

(50) Cause of the Foundation of Schools, 380. Compare Mari, 44/38.

(51) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XIII (127).

(52) On the identity of this figure, see Becker, Fear of God, 100 and 199.

(53) Cause of the Foundation of Schools, 377–80. Theodore’s reputation in the Church of the East was second to none, and knowledge of his theology was probably passed through the schools of Edessa and Nisibis.

(54) Cause of the Foundation of Schools, 381–3.

(55) Cause of the Foundation of Schools, 385–6. Barhadbeshaba, HE, XXXI (604) does not mention Barsauma’s role here, though he does report that Narsai studied alongside Barsauma (597). This history terminates in 569.

(56) G. Fowden, ‘Varieties of religious community’, in P. Brown, G. Bowersock, and O. Grabar (eds.), Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), 82–107, at 87–8.

(57) Becker, Fear of God, 64–75 and 107–10.

(58) Becker, Fear of God, 159–66 on village and monastery schools across Mesopotamia (especially Ctesiphon, Arbela, and Hira). Note also the list in E. Yousif, Les chroniqueurs syriaques (Paris, 2002), 311–15.

(59) Cause of the Foundation of Schools, 387.

(60) Barhadbeshaba, HE, XXXI (609–12).

(61) Dionysius is cited in Michael the Syrian, XI. iv (ed. and tr. Chabot, II, 413/417); Bar Hebraeus, HE, III, 73–5 and 87. The theological emphasis of the synods is actually anti-Theopaschite rather than heavily Dyophysite or ‘Nestorian’ cf. W. Macomber, ‘The Christology of the synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, AD 486’, OCP 24 (1958), 142–54, esp. 142–5 and S. P. Brock, ‘Christology of the Church of the East in the synods of the fifth century to early seventh century: preliminary considerations and materials’, in Aksum Thyateira (London, 1985), 126–32, esp. 130 emphasizing the Antiochene slant of Nisibene exegesis.

(62) Note how much of Bar Hebraeus’ narrative for the 484–540 period (HE, III, 73–97) follows the image of ‘good and bad catholicoi’ used in the other medieval compilations, to which material focusing on Mar Mattai and its opposition to Barsauma has later been added.

(63) Chronicle of Seert XXVII (155–7). It was from Nisibis that he was first summoned to the catholicosate by messengers of the shah. Syriac Acts of Aba, 224.

(64) See full references in Becker, Fear of God, 157–8.

(65) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXVIII (164–6).

(66) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXIX (167–9).

(67) Though note A. Panaino, ‘The Zoroastrian incestuous unions in Christian sources and canonical laws: their (distorted) aetiology and some other problems’, in C. Jullien (ed.), Controverses des chrétiens dans l’Iran sassanide (Paris, 2008), 69–87.

(68) This expansion in history-writing is discussed in the following chapter.

(69) Assemani, BO IIIa, 71–3 on the lost works of Abraham and John of Beth Rabban ‘Against the Magi’ and ‘On the death of Khusrau’, mentioned in the thirteenth-century catalogue of ʿAbdishoʿ of Nisibis (see also Cause, 387–8). Barhadbeshaba, HE, XXXII (620) also mentions Elishe bar Qosbaye’s ‘Against the Magians’.

(70) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XV (129). Babai also praises the peace-loving Zamasp in his 497 synod (Synodicon, 62).

(71) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XIX (136).

(72) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXXV (148); XXXVI (153).

(73) Sometimes this discourse of royal involvement could be inverted to attack an opponent of Ctesiphon. Barsauma’s condemnation of the catholicos Babowai’s martyrdom is an example of this, where Barsauma and ‘Persian Christians’ are accused of misusing their relationship with Peroz and causing the death of the catholicos (Acts of Babowai, 633–4).

(74) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXVI (153); XV (130); XI (122).

(75) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXVII (160). For Peter of Gurgan and his accusation see Syriac Acts of Aba, 249. Martyrs of this era include George and Iazbozid: see Scher, note 2.

(76) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXVII (163). See Shahnameh, VI, 173–83 for the account of this revolt in the Middle Persian tradition.

(77) See S. Shaked, ‘Religion in the late Sasanian period: eran, aneran and other designations’, in Curtis and Stewart, Sasanian Era, 98–109.

(78) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXVII (163–4).

(79) E.g. Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XIII (126) and XXIV (147).

(80) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XV (129–30).

(81) E.g Acts of Narsai, 180 and Acts of Shirin, ch. 27 emphasize the miraculous prevention of the desecration of the saints’ bodies. The secret recovery of martyrs’ relics is also a hagiographic topos, e.g. Acts of Dadu, 221. See also J. Russell, ‘Burial iii. In Zoroastrianism’, in EIr.

(82) Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXVII (158–9). A more detailed account of Aba’s deeds, and the accusations made against him, is given in the Syriac Acts of Aba: see especially 226–7 for accusations of proselytism and treason; 229 for Aba’s ban on Christians from eating meat blessed by Zoroastrians and the complaints of the ‘Magians’ Shahradur and Adarparwah; 235 for the ban on incestuous marriage.

(83) Payne, Christianity and Iranian Society, 160–9, emphasizes that Aba never directly challenges the rights of the Zoroastrian officials, of the rad (judge/high official) and mobad, to formal judicial powers, such as the confiscation of goods or corporeal punishment. Aba only asserted his right to use ‘informal’ powers of excommunication to punish Christians who failed to adhere to the canons. These nuances are much more visible in the Syriac Acts (229–32) than in the version given by the Chronicle of Seert.

(84) Laws of Mar Aba, ed. and tr. E. Sachau, Syrische Rechtsbücher III (Berlin, 1914), 258–85. Aba himself is said to have spent much of his time presiding over judicial disputes: Syriac Acts of Aba, 226.

(85) Synodicon, 82; Syriac Acts of Aba, 229 on diet and 235 on marriage rulings. Avoidance of these issues could have been problematic for Christians seeking political inclusion in a world that relied on Zoroastrian marriage practices to keep property within families. Note here M. Macuch, ‘Zoroastrian principles and the structure of kinship in Sasanian Iran,’ in C. Cereti, M. Maggi, and E. Provasi (eds.), Religious Themes, 23–46. For refusal of ‘Zoroastrian’ food, see Acts of Shirin, ch. 21. Note also P. Gignoux, ‘Dietary laws in pre-Islamic and post-Sasanian Iran’, JSAI 17 (1994), 16–42, at 21 on differences in slaughtering practice.

(86) Z. Rubin, ‘The reforms of Khusro Anushirwān,’ in Averil Cameron (ed.), The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East III. States Resources and Armies (Princeton, 1995), 225–97. For the expansion of the monetary economy see especially S. Sears, ‘Monetary revision and monetisation in the late Sasanian empire’, in R. Gyselen and M. Szuppe (eds.), Matériaux pour l’histoire économique du monde iranien (Paris, 1999), 149–63, at 161–3.

(87) Note the self-description of Khusrau’s realm in the geographical texts of the era, analysed in T. Daryaee, ‘Ethnic and territorial boundaries in late antique and medieval Persia’, in F. Curta (ed.), Borders, Barriers and Ethnogenesis. Frontiers in Late Antiquity and Middle Ages (Louvain, 2005), 123–38, esp. 129–33.

(88) Such as the Letter of Tansar and the Karnamg Ardashir-i-Papagan: N. Pigulevskja, Les villes d’iran, 99–100; M. Boyce, The Zoroastrians (London, 2nd edn., 2001), 135; J. Howard-Johnston, ‘State and society in late antique Iran’, in Curtis and Stewart, The Sasanian Era, 127–50.

(89) E.g. Khusrau and the Page.

(90) F. de Blois, Burzōy’s Voyage to India and the Origin of the Book of Kalīlah wa Dimnah, London (1990). Also see T. Daryaee, ‘Mind, body and the cosmos: chess and backgammon in ancient Persia’, Iranian Studies 35 (2002), 281–312 for other intellectual connections to India, especially in philosophy and astrology.

(91) As well as the catholicoi note Barsauma of Beth Qardu (Chronicle of Seert, XXIV (147), and the famous ‘apostate’ Paul the Persian: J. Teixidor, ‘Aristote en syriaque: les philosophes de la Haute Mésopotamie au VIème siècle’, Annuaire du Collège de France 97 (1997), 723–43.

(92) George, Iazbozid, and Shirin were all prominent martyrs of this era who are mentioned in Syriac or Greek saints’ lives but are not mentioned in the Chronicle of Seert or the other medieval compilations. On these martyrs, note P. Devos, ‘Les martyrs persans à travers leurs actes syriaques’, in La Persia e il mondo Greco-romano (Rome, 1966), 213–25.

(93) Zachariah of Mytilene, XII, vii, p (tr. Greatrex, Horn and Phenix, 454); Chronicle of Seert, II/i, XXXII (179); Bar Hebraeus, HE, III, 72. Note also Labourt, Christianisme, 192–7.

(94) For Joseph as ‘reviser’ of earlier lists see Assemani, BO, IIIa, 435 on the Nomocanon of Elias of Damascus; for Joseph as forger see Bar Hebraeus, HE, III, 31. One version of the Letter of the Western Fathers is preserved by ʿAbdishoʿ of Nisbis in the thirteenth century (ed. Mai, 325), called here the second letter, and placed after a later (ninth-century) invention that purports to be from the first century. Joseph’s synod was also the first to be dated (in AG), which further suggests a new concern for history in his reign.

(95) W. Macomber, ‘The authority of the catholicos-patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon’, OCA 181 (1968), 179–200, at 194 and 196–7. Also note J.-M. Fiey, ‘Les étapes de la prise de conscience de son identité patriarcale par l’église syrienne orientale’, OS 12 (1967), 3–22.

(96) Synodicon, 70 and 73. The symbiosis of shah and catholicos would receive even greater emphasis in later synods. Ezekiel’s synod of 576 would equate the patriarch’s jurisdiction to ‘all the lands ruled by Khusrau’ (Synodicon, 120–1).

(97) Synodicon, 99 (Canon 2).

(98) Synodicon, 100 and 103 (Canons 4 and 13). See also J.-M. Fiey, ‘Les laïcs dans l’histoire de l’église syrienne orientale’, POC 14 (1969), 169–83 and M. Morony, ‘Religious communities in Late Sasanian and Early Muslim Iraq’, JESHO 17 (1974), 113–35, at 118–20.

(99) Note Synodicon, 82, which forbids appeals to ‘patronage’ by laymen who the clergy have involved in their quarrels. Payne, Christianity and Iranian Society, 153–7 argues against the role of ethnicity in triggering clerical factionalism of this kind, which he attributes instead to the abolition of clerical celibacy.