Aphrahat the Persian Sage: Author of the Syriac Demonstrations
But the godly will flourish like palm trees and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon - Psalm 92:12
The human being is earth that suffers (?´νθρωπος γα`ρ γη? ε?στιν πα´σχουσα) - Letter of Barnabas 6.9:
The Syriac Father of the Church, Aphrahat (Syriac, Frahat in the Persian Sassanian Empire of his time, Farhad in modern Persian, Aphraates in Latin) was born c.270AD in Assyria and died c.345AD in. Adiabene. He wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his Apostles.1
His surviving works, the Demonstrations, were written between 336AD and 344AD. The Demonstrations exhibit a Syriac Christian style of theology and spiritual reflection that is almost totally void of Hellenistic/Greco-Roman thought patterns and influence, as would be found in the Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church:
All the evidence suggests that Aphrahat had a command only of Syriac and cognate languages, as he never gives any indication that he is familiar with either the Greek of the Septuagint or the Greek New Testament. Aphrahat seems to quote from the Gospel (Diatessaron) and not from four separate Gospels. His arguments seem to be positioned well within an exclusively Semitic world.2
We know very little of his personal history, but it is suggested by some historical data that he may have become a bishop.
Sons of the Covenant (Syriac bnay qyamâ (??? ????)
In the deserts of Egypt early Christians began the monastic tradition of the Church. Later, Saint Benedict created the model of Western of Latin Monasticism at Monte Casino. Syriac Christianity engaged the fallen world around them by embracing lives of austerity in the midst of the people and the cities. Probably the most radical example of this were the Stylite or Pillar Saints, such as Saint Simeon Stylites. These radical Syriac saints built pillars in the midst of the cities, from their pillar they lived a life of constant prayer; a radical engagement of faith and prayer in the midst of the hustle and activities of the city.
Aphrahat, seemingly was a member of the Sons of the Covenant:
Members usually lived together or with family members, but there are instances of the benat qeiama living in convents and other communal organizations where they could live and study together. Each of them took the vow of chastity in becoming a member of the covenant, and through this vow they saw themselves as "brides of Christ". They followed strict rules that did not allow them to be out after dark or for the benat to live with a man. Other rules included avoiding meat, wine, and any wealth beyond their basic needs. They were also forbidden from demanding money from non-members, and were instead to look after the welfare of poor people.3
In number six of his Demonstrations he speaks of this loosely organized community and that at one time pre-dating himself, the term sons or daughters of the covenant were applied to all Christians of the Syriac Christian community, but during his life it was those who vowed to live this radical austere life, in the midst of the larger community.
As with many Christian groups, the Members found themselves under persecution. Widespread persecution of Christians in the Persian Sasanian Empire started in the early 340s under Shapur II (r. 309-379), a period which coincided with renewed conflict against the newly-Christian Roman Empire.4
The Demonstrations, sometimes translated as Expositions are twenty-three reflections or homilies on various aspects of the Christian life and belief. He writes on faith, love, fasting, humility, prayer, ascetical living, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity:
Faithful to Syriac tradition, he often presents the salvation wrought by Christ as a healing, and thus Christ himself as the physician.
Sin, on the other hand, is seen as a wound that only penance can heal: “A man who has been wounded in battle,” Aphraates said, “is not ashamed to place himself in the hands of a wise doctor …; asking for the medicine of penance.”5
The first Demonstration is on Faith, and is centered upon Jesus Christ as the foundation of faith:
Faith is compounded of many things, and by many kinds is it brought to perfection. For it is like a building that is built up of many pieces of workmanship and so its edifice rises to the top. And know, my beloved, that in the foundations of the building stones are laid, and so resting upon stones the whole edifice rises until it is perfected. Thus also the true Stone, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the foundation of all our faith. And on Him, on [this] Stone faith is based.6
Aphrahat sees faith in relationship with what will later be called in the tradition of the Church, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
And now hear concerning faith that is based upon the Stone, and concerning the structure that is reared up upon the Stone. For first a man believes, and when he believes, he loves. When he loves, he hopes. When he hopes, he is justified. When he is justified, he is perfected. When he is perfected, he is consummated. And when his whole structure is raised up, consummated, and perfected, then he becomes a house and a temple for a dwelling-place of Christ… .7
Faith is a rock grounded upon the Stone, who is Jesus Christ. When one has Christ as their Stone, then one knows how to love and love brings fulfillment of hope; that being justification that perfects. The perfection given is to become a temple in which Christ dwells.
Faith, Hope, and Love, the Theological Virtues makes the believer Christ-like because Christ dwells in them. As he writes this is foretold by the Prophet Jeremiah and proclaimed by the Apostle Paul; “You are the temple of God and the spirit of Christ dwells in you.” 8
In Demonstration Eight, Aphrahat takes up the question of the resurrection of the deceased. After a long and masterful exegesis of Old and New Testament passages about death, the mortal body, the spiritual body, and final judgment, he ends this Demonstration with these words:
But as for thee, my beloved, have no doubt as to the Resurrection of the dead. For the living mouth (of God) testifies:—I cause to die and I make alive. And both of them proceeded out of one mouth. And as we are sure that He causes to die, and we see it; so also it is sure and worthy of belief, that He makes alive. And from all that I have explained to thee, receive and believe that in the day of the Resurrection thy body shall arise in its entirety, and thou shalt receive from our Lord the reward of thy faith, and in all that thou hast believed, thou shalt rejoice and be made glad.9
The thought of Aphrahat reveals the Scriptural/Biblical world of Syriac Christianity. Rather than grappling with the legacy of Hellenistic/Greco-Roman thought and culture as is seen in the works of the Latin and Greek Fathers, and the extreme austerity and isolation of the Coptic and Ethiopian monastic movements; the Syriac Fathers indeed inherited the biblical world and its monotheistic heritage, fulfilled in the revelation of the Most Holy Trinity.
- Rev. David A. Fisher
1. “Aphraates’ language was Syriac, therefore a Semitic language like the Hebrew of the Old Testament and like the Aramaic spoken by Jesus himself. Aphraates’ ecclesial community was a community that sought to remain faithful to the Judeo-Christian tradition, of which it felt it was a daughter.” from, The Fathers of the Church, by Pope Benedict XVI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Cambridge, U.K., p. 119.
2. “Aphrahat the Persian Sage, by J. Kalariparampil, St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, p. 1(as found in academia.edu)
3. Internet Archive, Arthur Vööbus, Syriac and Arabic Documents
4. "A Syriac martyrdom text,” British Library website, bl.uk
5. (from Demonstration 7,3) from, The Fathers of the Church, by Pope Benedict XVI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Cambridge, U.K., p.119.
6. Demonstrations, by Aphrahat, documentacatholicaomina.eu, by Philip Schaff
8. 1 Corinthians 3:15
9. Demonstrations, by Aphrahat, documentacatholicaomina.eu, by Philip Schaff