Thursday, September 13, 2007

Aramaic Church Fathers

Aramaic Church Fathers

We often hear about the Latin and Greek fathers of the church but the theologians of the Aramaic tradition are often ignored. I have decided to list the most important Aramaic church fathers and the most important Aramaic books that have come down to us. Unfortunately, Roman Catholics destroyed vast Aramaic libraries, both in Mesopotamia and in India. (Roman Catholics in India burned libraries and in Mesopotamia they would empty libraries out into the River.) Because of this most of the contributions of Aramaic Christians have been lost forever.
Tatian the Assyrian: Tatian studied under the famous philosopher Saint Justin Martyr (c. 100-165). Years after Martyr’s martyrdom Tatian returned to his homeland in Assyria (around 172 AD), and wrote “Oration Against the Greeks” and compiled the Diatesseron in both an Aramaic and in a Greek edition. The Diatesseron is the first harmony of the four Gospels. Tatian founded an ascetic community called the “Encarites.”
Bar Daisan the Aramaic Philosopher Also known as Bardesances, he lived from 154-222 AD. He was associated with the court of King Abgar VIII at Edessa. He wrote a book entitled “Dialogue Concerning Fate” in which he argued against determinism and astrology. He argued against the heresy of Marcion but while Bar Daisan was a great thinker his theology wasn’t orthodox either.
Aphrahat the Persian Sage Between 337 and 345 he wrote his book “The Demonstrations” in which he described the Christian faith. He books give us profound insight into the text of the New Testament and Christianity in the East.
Ephraim the Syrian He lived from around 306 AD until 373 AD. He wrote 500 hymns in the Aramaic language which has survived. He wrote on Dogma and against heresies. The Roman Catholic Church has bequeathed upon him the title “Doctor of the Church.”
Post-Schism (In my view, Cyril of Alexandria and his followers adopted a theology that denied the reality of the human nature of Jesus the Messiah. In the Aramaic realm, those who affirmed that Jesus was fully God and fully man were labeled “Nestorian” and those who denied that Jesus had a true human nature were called the Jacobites. This schism occurred in the fifth century.)
The Orthodox Church of the East
Hiba Hiba is also known as Ibas. He was the Bishop of Edessa from 435-439 and 451-457. He tried to bring mediation between the dualistic teaching of Nestorius and the monophysite teaching associated with Cyril of Alexandria. He was deposed by the heretical “Robber Council” (or Latrocinium) of Ephesus in 449. The heretical decisions made at the Robber Council were reversed at the Council of Chalcedon and Hiba was restored. Unfortunately, most of his writings were destroyed when the Byzantine Emperor ordered his works destroyed in order to placate heretics in Egypt. (This was the “Three Chapters” controversy.”)
Bar Sauma, also known as Barsumas, he died before the year 496. He founded the famous theological school of Nisibis. He championed sound biblical scholarship and the teachings of the exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia, who taught that the Scriptures ought to be interpreted literally. He also pushed for reform in the church and defended the right of priests and bishops to be married.
Narsia the Harp of the Holy Spirit is also known as Narses. He died around the year 503. He was the head of the school of Edessa, but because of his sound biblical scholarship he was persecuted and forced to flee to Nisibis. He founded the seminary there with Bar Sauma and presided over it. A large number of his writings and hymns have survived.
St. Isaac of Nineveh died around the year 700 AD. He belonged to the Nestorian Church of the East but is famous in the Russian, Greek, Syrian and Egyptian Eastern Orthodox Churches. He was made Bishop of Nineveh in about 676 but he chose to live in solitude and meditation in Khurzistan.
Babai the Great (c. 551-628) was the unofficial head of the Church of the East and led a revival of the church. He developed a systematic theology.
Abraham of Kashkar (492-586) led a renewal movement in monasteries.
Thomas of Marga He lived in the 800s AD. He was an Assyrian Bishop of the Church of the East in Marga in Iraq. He was later the “Metropolitan” of Beth-Garmai. He wrote “Book of the Governors” which is an important history of monasticism in the Church of the East.
Timothy the Great (727-832) Assyrian Patriarch (Timothy I) and scholar. He confounded the Moslems in a debate between Islam and Christianity before the Islamic Caliph.
Adam Ching-Ching was an Assyrian Church leader in China who wrote and translated various Christian writings in Chinese.
Mar Abdishu Bar Barikha author of the easy to read theological classic entitled “The Pearl” from 1298.
The Jacobite Sect
Jacob Baradai or Jacob Baradaeus (circa 500-578). He was sent to ordain a bishop for the Ghassanid Arab Christian tribe. He was a rebel against the normative teachings of the church and secretly organized a schismatic church structure that became the Syrian Orthodox Church. He was constantly fleeing arrest for his illegal activities.
Rabbula He became Bishop of Edessa in 412 and died in 435. He opposed the doctrine of the two natures of Jesus Christ (that Christ is fully man and fully divine). He also opposed the biblical scholarship of Theodore of Mopsuesia.
Bar Hebraeus He lived from 1226-1286. His name was Abul-Farag. He was the son of a Jewish physician He converted to Christianity. He was a made bishop of the Jacobite church in 1246 and a polymath. He became “Primate of the East” in 1264. He wrote extensively mostly in the Syriac Aramaic language. He was respected by all.
Michael the Syrian (1126-1199) He became the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch in 1166. He wrote an important “Chronicle” that preserves a large portion of lost writings and the history of the Syrian Orthodox faction and also gives important information about the Crusades from an Eastern Christian perspective.
(Information about Syriac Church Fathers can be gleaned from any biographical dictionary of the Christian Church such as “The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church” by E. A. Livingston.)
Important Aramaic Books
Of course, the most important Aramaic book is the New Testament, which is preserved in different versions. Also important is the Syriac Peshitta Old Testament. The Diatesseron of Tatian the Assyrian exists only in an Arabic translation of the Aramaic original. Aramaic manuscripts and inscriptions have been found all across Asia and they have not all been completely translated or cataloged. There are also important Aramaic translations of works originally written in other languages as well as ancient literature such as the Book of Ahikhar. Here I want to focus on works written in the Christian era.

The Odes of Solomon an Aramaic Christian hymnbook from 70-130 AD.
The Doctrine of Addai the story of the founding of Assyrian Christianity.
The Acts of Thomas the story of Saint Thomas in India.
The Book of the Himyarites The story of a massacre of Christians by a Jewish leader of Arab tribes during the pre-Islamic era.
The Book of the Tower tells the story of the conversion of the Mongolian Keriat tribe to the Assyrian Church of the East.
The Book of Protection An Assyrian Christian book of prayers and blessings.
“Jesus Sutras” Assyrian Christian literature written in China.
The History of Mar Yadallah III and Bar Sauma the Mongol The story of a “reverse Marco Polo” the Nestorian monk Bar Sauma and his travels from China to Europe.

(Many writings of the Church Fathers, including some by the Syriac Aramaic Church Fathers can be viewed on-line at under “other fathers.” See also “About Syriac” at . )

New Products:

The Gospel of John is now available in a dramatic performance in Modern Assyrian Aramaic. The 2 disk CD set can be purchased at
While I was at Brooks Army Medical Hospital in San Antonio working with disabled Iraqi War veterans I found a wonderful sermon, very similar to what I have been preaching for years it is “Iraq’s Amazing Future” by Ron Susek. It can be purchased from Susek Evangelistic Association PO Box 3007 Gettysburg PA 17325

Guest Columns:

This month I have two guest articles on by my friend Dr. James DeFranciso and another by Demsin Lachin.

Bible Study from an Aramaic (Syriac) Perspective by Dr. James DeFrancisco
Most serious students of the New Testament will have been trained in looking at Holy Scripture from a Western perspective with a heavy emphasis of Koine Greek and some Hebrew. Occasionally, a user may delve into the Biblical Aramaic when studying Daniel and Ezra. However, there is a wealth of knowledge that can be gleaned in New Testament studies by also looking at the texts that were written in Aramaic (Syriac).
When I lecture on the Principles of Holy Scripture Study our Bible Study class looks at various Principles of Interpretation and discuss some of the basic premises. We begin with the premise that the Holy Scriptures contain God’s infallible and inerrantly inspired words. That the texts were given by the Holy Spirit but that they were selected, compiled, and translated by man. Most importantly, they were validated by the Lord Jesus Christ. Building on this we look at why knowledge of language, culture and customs are vital to understanding the texts. The historical background and archeological evidence are also important. It is essential to consider the actual historical situation and events (life setting)for each event recorded in the text. The genre, purpose, and plan of each book must be considered. Then, the context of each verse and section as well as parallel and related passages must also be taken into consideration. At this point we have covered the basics which are considered in every basic class on Hermeneutics or Biblical Interpretation.
To move ahead we must ask if we are going to take the Bible literally as a whole or in part or, if not literally, at least seriously. This is important because the Bible is full of symbology, idiomatic expressions, and sayings that lose their meaning when translated from one language to another and are transmitted in time to another culture.
To help us analyze the text there are many tools available for Bible Study. One of my challenges is deciding which one to use since so many are available in general areas of Bible study. We must never forget that the most important "tool" is the Bible itself. The Holy Scriptures shed a lot of light on the commentaries. It is best to look at the text first in our own language and then study it closely in the original language(s). There are lexicons, dictionaries, and word studies available as resources in this initial work. It is important to note any changes in translating the same word since this may provide a clue relative to any bias in translation. Next, we should consult cultural and historical reference works for more background information. Using concordances will show us where the same words are used in different texts. Finally, consult the commentaries, study guides, and other material relative to the text. Don't rush into doing this first to save time and effort. If you do you risk missing a wealth of information directly from the text itself. Make sure your sources are reliable or that you at least identify their weaknesses.
To provide an overview of essential areas, my lectures on Principles of Bible Study cover the following subjects which, in my opinion, are often missed in most classes on Bible study and Hermeneutics: The Aramaic language, Idioms and figures of Speech, Revelation, Mysticism and Supernatural Occurrences, Near Eastern Culture, Customs and Manners, The Near Eastern Psychology, Symbolism and Imagery in the Holy Scripture, Middle Eastern Amplification in the Scripture, The Manuscript Order of the Holy Scripture, A Semitic-Hebraic Perspective of the Holy Scripture and Personal Relationships in the Holy Scripture.
Let's just briefly touch on the first topic in this essay. The Aramaic Language - Hebrew and Aramaic are the basis for understanding the language of Holy Scripture because they were the primary languages used by the priests, prophets, and patriarchs as well as by Jesus Christ and His apostles and disciples. Aramaic was the lingua franca – major/common language - of the Near East from approximately 800 BC to 700 CE. They are uniquely powerful and intrinsic languages containing nuances of meaning that are lost in Greek, Latin, English, and other languages. Bible scholars must consider that the Greek language introduces Greek religious and philosophical meanings foreign to the original text which may alter the intended meaning of a Semitic speaker or writer. Aramaic was the language used by Abraham and the Patriarchs. It was the lingua franca of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires. As the lingua franca of the Near East it was used extensively until the rise of Islam in the 7th Century CE when it evolved into the dominant Arabic language. Aramaic continued to be used by Christians in the Near East and throughout the world to this day. The Christians of the East - in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and India were discipled by Mar Toma (Saint Thomas) and have used the same Aramaic (Syriac) Scriptures and Liturgy since 2nd Century AD. These Near Eastern Christians sent missionaries as far East as China and Japan. The Peshitta (“straight”, “simple”, “pure”) text has remained intact for at least 1600 years.
Because of the relative absence of electronic tools for Syriac studies, I had to search far and wide for books and manuscripts and I am happy to see today that there is now an abundance of books and electronic tools for Aramaic studies. Bible study is infinitely rewarding and it is also very challenging. Since the Holy Scripture does not always openly reveal its secrets to us, we must spend time and effort to gain deeper understanding. When we begin to learn the texts in original languages, including Aramaic, the Holy Scripture comes alive in a way that is otherwise impossible. Today we have greater access to valuable resources than ever before to make this level of study possible. Electronic software enables us to effectively organize our Bible study time and proceed at a pace that was not previously possible. Through serious study and teaching of Holy Scripture we attain two of our highest desires: personal intellectual achievement and glory to God. My prayer is that you will enrich your Bible study with these ideas.
(How to contact Dr. James DeFrancisco: 55720 Nursery Ave. Mishawaka, IN 46545)
The Gospel (Presented by Assyrian American Desmin Lachen, in English and Aramaic)
God loves you and wants you to spend eternity with Him in heaven. However, as humans, we have a problem – we have sinned. Our sin has caused a separation between us and God and has become a barrier to having a personal relationship with Him.
What is sin? Sin is disobedience to God and the breaking of His rules (1 John 3:4): things like lying, stealing, lusting after the opposite sex, and God says that lust is adultery of the heart (Matthew 5:28). The Bible says that all have sinned (Romans 3:23), and as a sinner, on the Day of Judgment you will be found guilty and spend eternity in hell. However, that is not God’s will for us (1 Timothy 2:4).
Two thousand years ago, God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He lived a perfect life, and in the end of his life he was brutally beaten and hung upon a cross to die. He died for your sins and mine (Romans 5:8). Three days later he rose from the dead. He conquered death and made it possible for those who believe in Him to have eternal life. Thanks to Jesus you can be saved from God’s wrath (John 3:36). If you put your trust in the one true God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14), and turn from your sins (Luke 13:3), God will forgive you. Only your faith in Jesus cans save you (Ephesians 2:8, 9). If you would like to surrender your life to Jesus, pray something like this:
Dear God, I confess that I am a sinner. Thank you that Jesus took my punishment upon Himself when he died on the cross for my sins and then rose from the dead, conquering both sin and death. Today, I repent of my sins and place my trust in Jesus Christ alone; that He may deliver me from my present state back to communion with God. Thank you for this free gift of salvation. Amen.
Now you are born again, starting your new life as a child of God (John 3:3). God loves you and wants to fellowship with you through His Word. Find a good Bible study or church that teaches the Word of God. Pray to God and worship Him. Read your Bible (2 Peter 2:2), starting from the Gospel of John. Always ask the Holy Spirit to fill you up with His power to live a holy life for your Creator. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

CONTACT STEPHEN p.o. box 882 Shepherd TX 77371