Early Christianity outside the Roman Empire/'Bardesanes' De Fato

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The philosophical dialogue known as 'Bardesanes De Fato' is not the work of Bardaisan himself but of his disciple Philip. It was composed not long after the Romans had taken possession of Edessa, i.e. about the middle of the 3rd century. In form it is modelled upon the Dialogues of Plato, Bardaisan taking the place of Socrates as the chief speaker and the teacher of a younger generation.

I do not now propose to enter upon any full discussion of the dialogue, not because it is not interesting in itself, but because the school out of which it came exercised only an indirect influence upon the later developments of the Syriac-speaking Church. The disciples of Bardaisan, like their great master, were tainted with heresy, and I imagine that the De Fato owes its preservation to what is but a side-interest, viz. the graphic descriptions contained in it of the varied customs of the nations of the earth with regard to marriage and other social observances. In fact, the title of the work in our ms. is 'The Book of the Laws of the Countries[1].'

The main object of the dialogue is to expound the doctrine of the three influences which are at work upon man. These are his Nature, his Fate, and his Free-will. By Nature men are born, they grow to maturity and age, and they die: so far all men are alike. By their Fate distinctions are introduced between them,—the distinctions of wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, health and sickness. These are not wholly in our power and come, at least partly, by Fate; for the doctrine that misfortunes are all sent as punishments for sin is expressly rejected[2]. But in addition to their Nature and their Fate men are moved by their Free-will, which has been given to them as a gift from God's bounty. It is in respect of this gift of Free-will that man was made in the image of God[3]. By his Free-will a man can modify his Fate to some extent, and with regard to his Free-will, and that alone, will he be judged at the Last Day. Moreover the commandments of God are such that they are easy, for they are independent of Fate, and only the Will is needed to perform them. Even if a man be poor and sick he can love and bless and speak the truth, and can pray for the good of every man he knows, while if he be rich and strong he can in addition help his neighbour. Nothing can hinder us from these things: we are not commanded to do anything involving bodily strength or mental cleverness. Nay more, when a man does well and abstains from evil he is glad—every man, that is, except those who were created not for good and are called tares[4]. The commandments of God are easy: it is success in this life that is barred with obstacles[5].

The proof of the existence of Free-will in man is made to rest partly on the diversity of customs of various nations of men compared with the uniformity of each species of animal all over the world, and partly on the actual observed changes of human customs arising from royal decrees to conquered subjects or now in these last days from conversion to the new race of us Christians[6].

Two points in this curious and interesting work appear to me to deserve attention. The first is the strongly religious tone by which it is marked,—religious, that is, as distinct from ecclesiastical or merely speculative. The dialogue starts with the old question why God did not make man so that he should not sin, and the judgement to come is not taught but assumed. It is the fear of God which sets us free from all other fears[7]. At the same time the tone of the book is singularly unecclesiastical. The Unity of God and the Judgement are the only doctrines of the Church which present themselves, while but for a passing reference to the Parable of the Sower we might have supposed that the author was ignorant of the New Testament. But the almost Jewish tone of parts of the dialogue is of more than passing interest, when we remember the Jewish culture of Aphraates[8]. Though the form of the dialogue is borrowed from Plato, the spirit is Semitic: the hands may be the hands of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob.

The other point which I wish to notice here is the very curious doctrine of the composition of the Cosmos, a doctrine certainly rare in Christian writings and perhaps due to Bardaisan himself. According to this doctrine the Universe is compounded of what the author calls Îthyê or Elemental Beings. These, if not eternal, were at least pre-existent to the present order of things, and the work of creation consisted above all in arranging the Elements out of Chaos into an Order, whereby the Elements could neither do serious injury to each other nor be seriously injured themselves. The Machine has been set going, and the Parts do not collide, as they would if they had been left to themselves and their spheres of action not strictly limited. Nevertheless even the Elements have some degree of freedom, and for this they also will appear to be judged at the Last Day. But their freedom is but small compared with that of man's: it is in respect to his freedom that man stands at the head of creation[9].

It is a picturesque conception. According to Bardaisan the world was not brought into being out of nothing, nor formed of matter naturally inert, but it is a beautifully balanced combination of independent and often antagonistic forces. I do not think we shall do justice to the fundamental idea unless for the Sun and the Moon, the Sea and the Winds, we substitute in thought the forces of nature which make up our modern universe, such properties of matter I mean as Gravitation and Electricity.

But after our excursion into the fascinating wilderness of cosmic speculation we must not forget that the same theory of man's place in the universe has already met us in Aphraates. After reading the dialogue De Fato it does not come to us with such a shock to hear the argument of Aphraates that God Almighty has not denied the name of God and of Son to men, though He has expressly forbidden such an honour to be given to the Sun and the Moon and the host of Heaven[10].

I must pass by the bright star of all Syriac literature, the great Hymn of the Soul that went down to Egypt for the One Pearl. This, the most noble poem of Christian Antiquity, is no doubt familiar to all of you: it is worth while to learn Syriac, so as to be able to read it in the original. All I need point out here is that the same conceptions of the Trinity—perhaps I ought rather to say, the same metaphors for the relations of the Trinity to man—are found in the Hymn as in other early Syriac literature. The King of Kings, the Queen of the East, and the Viceroy, the next in rank, are respectively the Father, Mother and Brother of the Soul: there can be little doubt that they correspond to the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the Son.

  1. The dialogue was discovered by Cureton, and edited in his Spicilegium Syriacum, 1855.
  2. Spicilegium, p. 9.
  3. Spicilegium, pp. 3, 4.
  4. Ibid. p. 5 ad fin.
  5. Ibid. p. 7.
  6. Spicileg., p. 20.
  7. Ibid. p. 2.
  8. Note that in Gen i 26 the dialogue says man was made 'in the image of Elohim,' not simply 'in the image of God': cf. Gen vi 1 Pesh.
  9. Spicileg., pp. 4, 21.
  10. See above, p. 42.