1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Aphraates
APHRAATES (a Greek form of the Persian name Aphrahaṭ or Pharhadh), a Syriac writer belonging to the middle of the 4th century A.D., who composed a series of twenty-three expositions or homilies on points of Christian doctrine and practice. The first ten were written in 337, the following twelve in 344, and the last in 345. The author was early known as ḥakkīmā phārsāyā (“the Persian sage”), was a subject of Sapor II., and was probably of heathen parentage and himself a convert from heathenism. He seems at some time in his life to have assumed the name of Jacob, and is so entitled in the colophon to a MS. of A.D. 512 which contains twelve of his homilies. Hence he was already by Gennadius of Marseilles (before 496) confused with Jacob, bishop of Nisibis; and the ancient Armenian version of nineteen of the homilies has been published under this latter name. But (1) Jacob of Nisibis, who attended the council of Nicaea, died in 338; and (2) our author, being a Persian subject, cannot have lived at Nisibis, which became Persian only by Jovian’s treaty of 363. That his name was Aphrahat or Pharhādh we learn from comparatively late writers—Bar Bahlul (10th century), Elias of Nisibis (11th), Bar-Hebraeus, and ‘Abhd-īshō’. George, bishop of the Arabs, writing in A.D. 714 to a friend who had sent him a series of questions about the “Persian sage,” confesses ignorance of his name, home and rank, but infers from his homilies that he was a monk, and of high esteem among the clergy. The fact that in 344 he was selected to draw up a circular letter from a council of bishops and other clergy to the churches of Seleucia and Ctesiphon and elsewhere—included in our collection as homily 14—is held by Dr W. Wright and others to prove that he was a bishop. According to a marginal note in a 14th-century MS. (B. M. Orient. 1017), he was “bishop of Mar Mattai,” a famous monastery near Mosul, but it is unlikely that this institution existed so early. The homilies of Aphraates are intended to form, as Professor Burkitt has shown, “a full and ordered exposition of the Christian faith.” The standpoint is that of the Syriac-speaking church, before it was touched by the Arian controversy. Beginning with faith as the foundation, the writer proceeds to build up the structure of doctrine and duty. The first ten homilies, which form one division completed in 337, are without polemical reference; their subjects are faith, love, fasting, prayer, wars (a somewhat mysterious setting forth of the conflict between Rome and Persia under the imagery of Daniel), the sons of the covenant (monks or ascetics), penitents, the resurrection, humility, pastors. Those numbered 11-22, written in 344, are almost all directed against the Jews; the subjects are circumcision, passover, the sabbath, persuasion (the encyclical letter referred to above), distinction of meats, the substitution of the Gentiles for the Jews, that Christ is the Son of God, virginity and holiness, whether the Jews have been finally rejected or are yet to be restored, provision for the poor, persecution, death and the last times. The 23rd homily, on the “grape kernel” (Is. lxv. 8), written in 344, forms an appendix on the Messianic fulfilment of prophecy, together with a treatment of the chronology from Adam to Christ. Aphraates impresses a reader favourably by his moral earnestness, his guilelessness, his moderation in controversy, the simplicity of his style and language, his saturation with the ideas and words of Scripture. On the other hand, he is full of cumbrous repetition, he lacks precision in argument and is prone to digression, his quotations from Scripture are often inappropriate, and he is greatly influenced by Jewish exegesis. He is particularly fond of arguments about numbers. How wholly he and his surroundings were untouched by the Arian conflict may be judged from the 17th homily—“that Christ is the Son of God.” He argues that, as the name “God” or “Son of God” was given in the O.T. to men who were worthy, and as God does not withhold from men a share in His attributes—such as sovereignty and fatherhood—it was fitting that Christ who has wrought salvation for mankind should obtain this highest name. From the frequency of his quotations, Aphraates is a specially important witness to the form in which the Gospels were read in the Syriac church in his day; Zahn and others have shown that he—mainly at least—used the Diatessaron. Finally, he bears important contemporary witness to the sufferings of the Christian church in Persia under Sapor (Shapur) II. as well as the moral evils which had infected the church, to the sympathy of Persian Christians with the cause of the Roman empire, to the condition of early monastic institutions, to the practice of the Syriac church in regard to Easter, &c.
- Hom. 1–22 begin with the letters of the Syriac alphabet in succession. Their present order in the Syriac MSS. is therefore right. The ancient Armenian version, published by Antonelli in 1756, has only 19 of the homilies, and those in a somewhat different order.