Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Osrhoene Tradition that a Pre-Nicean Roman Emperor Reconstituted Early Christianity

I was walking with my dog this morning to Starbucks when I noticed a pattern with these references to Hadrian.  It isn't just that Michael the Syrian (d. 1199 CE) and Bar Hebraeus (b. 1126) used a common source for this tradition that Hadrian established 'the first council of Nicaea' to among other things condemn the heretics Sabellius and Valentinus.  Nor that the earliest evidence from the writings of Justin, Hegesippus, Celsus and others who used the writings of witnesses from the period.  The facts are that the idea that an early (and pre-Nicaean) Emperor reconstituted Christianity is attested from other Semitic traditions as well.

I will get to that source in a moment but first let's make explicit the provenance of Michael and Bar Hebraeus's source.  Roger Pearse has been kind enough to help provide the necessary leg work for this.  It is well established that Michael and Bar Hebraeus used a chronicle whose author used to be identified as Dionysius of Tel Mahre.  Yet as Brent Landau has noted in his recent thesis on a related manuscript:

The latter title is the product of J.S. Assemani, who believed that its author was the ninth-century Syrian patriarch Dionysius I of Tel-Mahre, a judgment that scholars have since discredited, giving rise to the appellation “Pseudo-Dionysius.” However, as A. Harrak observes, this identification has no clear basis and is quite misleading: “Moreover, Zuqnin as a concrete location seems somehow a more appropriate anchor for the anonymous Chronicle than a phantom author dubbed Pseudo-Dionysius. The latter is not only an imaginary person, but his name fosters confusion with the real Dionysius of Tell-Mahre, who had no connection whatsoever with the Zuqnin Chronicle,” Chronicle of Zuqnin, 3-4.

Given now that the manuscript is more properly identified as the Zuqnin Chronicle we can be fairly certain that it was not only an autograph (i.e. the original manuscript) but also that it was produced in the eighth century at a site not far from Bar Hebraeus's birthplace - ʿEbra (Izoli, Turk.: Kuşsarayı) near Malatya, Sultanate of Rûm (modern Turkey, today province Elazig)

Composed at the Zuqnin monastery in southeastern Turkey (near the present city of Diyarbakir), the CZuq incorporates a number of pre-existing writings of various genres in its compilation of the history of the world from creation up to its time of composition, 775-776 CE

It is quite useful now to demonstrate with the aid of modern technology the geographic proximity of all these sites to one another - (a) bar Hebraeus's birthplace (b) Michael the Syrian's birth place (c) the Zuqnin monastery and (d) the ancient city of Edessa

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The reason we mention Edessa is because it and the whole province of Osrhoene was something of a bastion of Christian sectarianism - and Marcionitism - in the ancient world.  When the Catholic tradition arrived in the region in the late second century it had to be content with the appellation 'Palutian' Christianity undoubtedly because they were refugees (Aram. pl. peletim sing palit) from another faith other than the one defined as 'Christianity' in the region i.e. Marcionitism.

What got me thinking however is the fact that in 1966, Shlomo Pines published a report on a chapter of Muslim anti-Christian polemics, belonging to a lengthy work entitled "The Establishment of Proofs for the Prophethood of Our Master Mohammed." It was written by the tenth-century Mutazilite author, cAbd al-Jabbar, whom Pines believed had adapted an earlier Jewish-Christian writing, dating perhaps from the fifth, sixth, or seventh century, for his treatise.  I will have to get a translation of the original material in the Chronicle of Zuqnin which will surely take some time.  I see the recent translation of‘Abd al-Jabbar’s Critique of Christian Origins in a parallel English-Arabic text edited, translated, and annotated by Gabriel Said Reynolds (University of Notre Dame) and Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. (University of St. Joseph, Beirut). In his Critique of Christian Origins at the University of Washington.

In any event Pines reports that al Jabbar preserves a tradition that "Constantine called a gathering of Christian monks with a view to the formulation of obligatory religious beliefs…However, some of them disagreed with this text…There was a scission and the symbol of faith which had been formulated was not regarded as valid."  Yet Pines here has stepped into a serious error.  As he himself acknowledges this narrative about Constantine is distinct from the material which constitutes his fifth century 'Jewish Christian' source.  This is what Pines says about the division of al Jabbar's narrative:

The historical texts may be divided into the following sections.
  1.  A text containing:(a) a relation of the fortunes of the first Christian Community of Jerusalem from the death of Jesus till the flight of its members with a short reference to their tribulations in exile and (b) an account of the origin of the four canonical Gospels and of the successful efforts made to put an end to the use of the original Hebrew Gospels.
  2. A short passage stating the reasons for the decadence of Christianity and giving a version of the first Christian attempts at converting the Gentiles in Antioch, which is probably based on the account figuring in the Acts of the Apostles.
  3. A hostile biography of Saint Paul, partly also based on the Acts
  4. The second part of section 3 is joined or jumbled in a curious way with the beginning of section 4, which gives an account of Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, of this emperor himself and of the Council of Nicaea and also refers to Constantine's successors. This section also contains a passage on Mani.

The point is that Pines makes clear that the material which contains the story of the Emperor gathering a council to corrupt Christianity is separate from the source for the Constantine legend.  Nowhere in any of the material do we see the suggestion that Constantine or the Council of Nicaea was the venue at which the original language, practice or gospel were corrupted.  Indeed it should be noted that an 'Emperor' is never even identified in the first section whatsoever.

Immediately after this last citation Pines goes on to say:

The first section (of al-Jabbar's work) is here translated in full: 
(71a) 'After him (Jesus) his disciples (axhab) were with the Jews and the Children of Israel in the latter's synagogues and observed the prayers and the feasts of (the Jews) in the same place as the latter. (However) there was a disagreement between them and the Jews with regard to Christ.

The Romans (a1-Rum) reigned over them. The Christians (used to) complain to the Romans about the Jews, showed them their own weakness and appealed to their pity. And the Romans did pity them. This (used) to happen frequently. And the Romans said to the Christians: "Between us and the Jews there is a pact which (obliges us) not to change their religious laws (adyan). But if you would abandon their laws and separate yourselves from them, praying as we do (while facing) the East, eating (the things) we eat, and regarding as permissible that which we consider as such, we should help you and make you powerful, and the Jews would find no way (to harm you). On the contrary, you would be more powerful than they." The Christians answered: "We will do this." (And the Romans) said: "Go, fetch your companions, and bring your Book (kitab)." (The Christians) went to their companions, informed them of (what had taken place) between them and the Romans and said to them: "Bring the Gospel (al-injil), and stand up so that we should go to them." But these (companions) said to them: "You have done ill. We are not permitted (to let) the Romans pollute the Gospel.

(71b) In giving a favorable answer to the Romans, you have accordingly departed from the religion. We are (therefore) no longer permitted to associate with you; on the contrary, we are obliged to declare that there is nothing in common between us and you;" and they prevented their (taking possession of) the Gospel or gaining access to it. In consequence a violent quarrel (broke out) between (the two groups).

Those (mentioned in the first place) went back to the Romans and said to them: "Help us against these companions of ours before (helping us) against the Jews, and take away from them on our behalf our Book (kitab)." Thereupon (the companions of whom they had spoken) fled the country. And the Romans wrote concerning them to their governors in the districts of Mosul and in the Jazirat al-'Arab. Accordingly, a search was made for them; some (qawm) were caught and burned, others (qawm) were killed. (As for) those who had given a favorable answer to the Romans they came together and took counsel as to how to replace the Gospel, seeing that it was lost to them. (Thus) the opinion that a Gospel should be composed (yunshi'u) was established among them. They said: "the Torah (consists) only of (narratives concerning) the births of the prophets and of the histories (tawarikh) of their lives. We are going to construct (nabni) a Gospel according to this (pattern).

Everyone among us is going to call to mind that which he remembers of the words (ajfar) of the Gospel and of (the things) about which the Christians talked among themselves (when speaking) of Christ." Accordingly, some people (qawm) wrote a Gospel. After (them) came others (qawm) (who) wrote (another) Gospel. (In this manner) a certain number of Gospels were written. (However) a great part of what was (contained) in the original was missing in them.

There were among them (men), one after another, who knew many things that were contained in the true Gospel (al-injil al-xahih.), but with a view to establishing their dominion (ri'asa), they refrained from communicating them. In all this there was no mention of the cross or of the crucifix. According to them there were eighty Gospels. However, their (number) constantly diminished and became less, until (only) four Gospels were left which are due to four individuals (nafar). Every one of them composed in his time a Gospel. Then another came after him, saw that (the Gospel composed by his predecessor) was imperfect, and composed another which according to him was more correct (axahh), nearer to correction (al-xihha) than the Gospel of the others.

As the reader can begin to see it is absolutely critical for us to go back to the original published work of Pines rather than the online versions of this text floating around the internet which merely begin with the statement that "the Romans reigned over them."  Al Jabbar's source makes clear that Christians and Jews celebrated in synagogues together which is historically true even for the Marcionites and the various heretics who are said to continue to gather in 'synagogues.'

The question of course is where did al Jabbar stumbled on to this information?  Pines argues that it is likely that the material was written at Harran.  He cites the following from the last section (i.e. 4 in Pines division) of al Jabbar's work:

His (= Constantine's) father is said to have been a Roman king called Bilatus. The spelling of the name of Pontius Pilate found in our texts is different, namely Fi1at.s, and no attempt is made toidentify the two; the father of Constantine is said to have lived a long time after Jesus. Afterthe death of his first wife, he married Helena ( Hilaniya ), a girl of H arran who worked in aninn ( funduqiyya ); as Saint Ambrosius says, 111 she was a stabularia . The author of our textsmentions the point several times; he clearly does so because it casts an unfavourablelight upon Helena, whom he dislikes.

Pines's commentary on this section runs as follows

The statement that Helena was a native of Harran appears to be false, but may conceivably have beena local legend. The name of the town of Harran crops up several times in these texts. Their author or authors must have had some connection with this locality (see below). Helena was also a Christian, andshe induced her husband to favour her coreligionists to whom the Jews were giving a bad name.Constantine, who as far as outward appearances went, professed the Roman religion, had been brought up by his mother to love the cross (whose worship as well as that of the crucifix seems to be repugnant to our texts) and had accustomed him to Christian ways.

Later he succeeded to the throne, he was afflicted with leprosy, a disease which, according to Roman usage, disqualified the man suffering from it for kingship. In consequence, Constantine made a secret of it. He also decided to destroy the authority of the Romanreligion, whose notions placed him in this predicament, and to replace it by Christianity.It may be noted in parenthesis that the theme of Constantine's leprosy is found in various Christiantexts, both eastern and western.  However, in these texts his cure is brought about by baptism. It is notcertain whether this version antedates that of our text, which is derogatory to Constantine.

According to this Jewish Christian version, Constantine, using various stratagems, caused his soldiersto think that the sign of the cross brought them good fortune in war. In consequence, they replaced in their flags the emblem of the crescent by that of the cross.  Hereupon Constantine began to kill Pagan philosophers, of whom there were many in the country. It is indicative of the Jewish Christian position that the author of our texts, who appears to execrateConstantine, also disapproves of these victims of his. The philosophers' books were burnt and monks were lodged in their temples, which were transformed into churches (or monasteries). Constantine's mother Helena, the monks and the Christians in general, were overjoyed at thesemeasures. She made them come to her and turned them into informers and assistants for her son.

However, Constantine, while professing to venerate the cross, did not put an end to the observance of the Roman religious rites; one of them was the custom to turn to the east when praying. Nor did he prohibit the worship of the stars. On the other hand, worship of the Christ and of Jesus and belief in thelatter's divinity tended to spread. The Romans, who worshipped dead bodies such as the stars, did not findit difficult to worship a man. The inhabitants of the West ( al-maghrib ) in particular, such as the Copts,took very readily to the idea, for they were accustomed to worship the pharaohs.

A description of a massacre of Pagans in Harran,[117] who had brought upon thein Constantine's anger by bruiting abroad the fact that he was a leper, occurs at this point, and this is matched a little further on in this tale by the account of another slaughter of Harranian Pagans. The author may have used a local chronicle.  Constantine called a gathering of Christian monks with a view to the formulation of obligatory religious beliefs, deviation from which would be punished by death. Approximately two thousand religious leaders assembled [118] and composed a text which came close to the symbol of faith. However,some of them disagreed with this text, holding that the Word of God was a created thing and that Christwas this word.Among those present who regarded the Word of God as created were Arius, Macedonius, Eunomius, Apollinaris (?) and companions [119] of theirs (a list which is indicative of knowledge of the names of important theologians who manifested a tendency to Arianism but does not take into account chronological probabilities). [120] There was a scission and the symbol of faith which had been formulated was not regarded as valid.Thereupon, three hundred and eighteen men gathered in Nicaea and formulated a symbol of faith,which was accepted and made obligatory by Constantine. People who dissented from it were killed and professions of faith differing from it suppressed.In this way people who professed the religion of Christ came to do all that is reprehensible: they worshiped the cross, observed the Roman religious rites and ate pork. Those who did not eat it were killed.Constantine continued for fifty years [121] to put to death people who did not worship the cross and did not believe in the divinity of Jesus; thus the religion he favoured became consolidated. He also left a testament, in which he recommended to worship Christ rather than the stars or the opinions of the philosophers.The Romans appreciated Constantine's vigour and firmness and said that his role among them was similar to that of Ardeshir son of Babak among the Persians

117 This second account ( fol. 77a ) may be summed up as follows: Some Harranian Pagans did not eat beans, holding that, being of a cubic shape, they were enemies of Heaven, which has a spherical shape.Beans were therefore placed near the gates of churches; people were assembled in these churches,were told to go out and were warned that unless they ate the beans they would be killed. And thisthreat was carried out.

118 The assembly referred to may have been the Synod of Antioch in 325 , which immediately precededthe Council of Nicaea. Three dissenters from the proposed creed, who to a certain extent may havesympathized with Arius, were present at this Synod. They were excommunicated, but were given the possibility to recant their errors within a certain time. This episode may have given rise to the assertionof our text concerning the presence at this assembly of various heresiarchs, some of whom could nothave been there for chronological reasons. On this Synod see for instance H. LIETZMANN, Geschichte der alten Kirche, iii 2 , Berlin 1953, pp.102f. A short account of this Synod and of theCouncil of Nicaea is also given in a non-historical section of our texts, fol. 43a.44

119 The names are misspell in various ways, but there can be no doubt as to the identity of the heresiarchs in question except in the case of Apollinaris. The name which I have conjectured to be his is rather more distorted than the others, being written ulufiryanus. Moreover, Apollinaris (of Laodicea)regarded the Logos as uncreated. Similar lists are frequently encountered in orthodox theological writings. All the theologians named in the text (as well as many others) were denounced by the fifth ecumenical Council convoked in Constantinople in 553.

120 The date of the Council of Nicaea is 325. Eunomius was active in the second half of the fourthcentury; Apollinaris died in 390. Macedonius was bishop of Constantinople from 342 to 359, when hewas deposed.

121 Constantine was appointed Augustus in 307
Pines also notes that an error into the manuscript used by al Jabbar noting that "this passage states ( 43a ) that the Council of Nicaea was convoked by Constantine approximately five hundred years after Jesus. It may be argued that menwho were close to the year five hundred could not have made such a mistake. The objection is a serious one, but the erroneous date may be a gloss added a long time after the composition of the original Syriac texts by their translator, by 'Abd al-Jabbar, or by some third person."  While Pines goes on to promote a theory that it was the original 'Jewish Christian' editor who made this (and other mistakes), I think we should develop this 'third person' theory of Pines one step further.

When we look at the actual information provided to us, it is clear that we are not merely dealing with al Jabbar and the original source of the material but a third person who is conveying the information to someone closer to al Jabbar's original locale of Bagdad.  As Pines notes al Jabbar tips his hand as to how it was that he obtained this manuscript.  Pines writes:

'Abd al-Jabbar says: (68a)'This is clear from the church books in Syriac characters which may be found in the districts of Ahwaz and in other districts of Iraq. A translation (from these books) is made in an epistle addressed by 'Abdishu' Ibn Bahrtz(?), who was bishop ( usquf ) of Harran and of al-Raqqa and who afterwards was appointed Metropolitan ( matran ) of Mosul and of the Jazira, to a Jacobite priest named Badusi(?). You will not deny that the Pure Virgin is (not) a God, as you believe (literally: 'see', tarahu ) but a human being ( insan ) as we believe (literally: 'see').'

As Pines early says in the main body of the text, al Jabbar is testifying to the existence "of Syriac texts kept in the churches or monasteries of Ahwaz (a region which roughly corresponds to the present-day Khuzistan) which were translated into Arabic" adding that this suggestion seems to contradict his assumption of a 'Jewish Christian' source - "It is true that in the context these words seem to apply in the first place to Nestorian texts; but there is a distinct possibility that they also applied to Jewish Christian writings which may have been preserved by the Nestorians."

The reality of course is that this bit of insight helps make clear the exact transmission of information.  We are clearly dealing with an Arabic 'translation' from Harran sent to a monastery in modern day Iran which made its way to al Jabbar in Bagdad.

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The transmission of the text can be dated to the first half of the ninth century:
The Nestorian Metropolitan 'Abdishu' Ibn Bahrtz (the last name is sometimes written in other sources B.h.rtn, and deformed in our text in which it appears to be written Y.h.r.y.n ) is an author who lived at the time of the Caliph al-Ma'mun in the first half of the ninth century. He translated for this Caliph several works of philosophy and of logic. The name of the Jacobite priest to whom the Epistle quoted here is addressed, is read, usually, Badawi. On 'Abdishu' see G. GRAF, Geschichte der Christlichenarabischen Literatur, n, Citta del Vaticano 1947, pp. 119f.; IBN AL-NADIM, Fihrist (edited by FLUGEL), Lleipzig 1871,1, pp. 23 f., 244,248 f.; II, pp. 12f. According to IBN AL-NADIM, I, p.24:'Ibn was in his wisdom (or philosophy) close to the wisdom of Islam.' This may, though need not necessarily, mean that this Nestorian priest tended in his polemics against the Jacobites and perhaps against others to abandon certain of the positions which were common to the 'three' Christian sects. It may be a significant point that after having been bishop of Harran, he became Metropolitan of Mosul and of the Jazira. Mosul, and possibly the Jaltira, are the places to which, according to our texts, the members of the first Christian community of Jerusalem betook themselves after having been obliged to leave Palestine. As for Harran, it is evident that the authors of our texts are very much interested inthe town.
It would be interesting to see what the Arabic word rendered as 'translation' was in al Jabbar.  My guess would be it would be something like 'write out.'  Clearly Pines point about the parallel between "after having been bishop of Harran, he became Metropolitan of Mosul and of the Jazira. Mosul, and possibly the Jaltira, are the places to which, according to our texts, the members of the first Christian community of Jerusalem betook themselves after having been obliged to leave Palestine."  This would suggest that the 'third person' has reworked the original material with his own interpretations.

The bottom line here is that we have what appears to be a tradition from Harran, a former Marcionite stronghold (cf. the Acts of Archelaus) which makes reference to 'the Romans' (not 'Constantine) transforming Christianity from a period where they gathered in synagogues and for all intents and purposes were a Jewish sect or a branch within the Hebrew people.  The consistent interest in Abraham throughout the narrative might also be reflective of an original in Harran were a native cult of Abraham is attested throughout the Acts of Archelaus.  I think there is good reason to assume that the Chronicle of Zuqnin written c. 775 CE and the original manuscript known to Nestorian Metropolitan 'Abdishu' Ibn Bahrtz a century later were related.  There was a tradition preserved at Harran which established that the Romans changed the Christian in the early second century.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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