Saint Aphrahat

From New World Encyclopedia

Aphrahat (Greek: Ἀφραάτης; Latin: Aphraates) (c. 270 – c. 345 C.E.) was an Assyrian author of the fourth century from Persia, who composed a series of twenty-three expositions or homilies on points of Christian doctrine and practice. He was born in Persia around 270, but all his known works, the Demonstrations, come from later in his life. He was an ascetic and celibate, and was almost definitely a "son of the covenant" (an early Syriac form of communal monasticism). He may have been a bishop, and later Syriac tradition places him at the head of Mar Matti monastery near Mosul, in what is now northern Iraq. He was a near contemporary to the slightly younger Ephrem the Syrian, but the latter lived within the sphere of the Roman Empire. Called the Persian Sage (transliterated as "ḥakkîmâ p̄ārsāyā"), Aphrahat was a witness of the concerns of the early church beyond the eastern boundaries of the Roman Empire. He is commemorated as a saint, with a feast day of April 7.

Life, history, and identity

His name, Aphrahat, is the Syriac version of the Persian name Frahāt, which is the modern Persian Farhād (فرهاد). The author, who was earliest known as hakkima pharsaya ("the Persian sage"), was a subject of Sapor II and may have come from a pagan family and been himself a convert from heathenism, though this appears to be later speculation. However, he mentions that he took the Christian name Jacob at his baptism, and is so entitled in the colophon to a manuscript of 512 C.E., which contains twelve of his homilies. Hence, he was already confused with Jacob, bishop of Nisibis, by the time of Gennadius of Marseilles (before 496 C.E.), and the ancient Armenian version of nineteen of The Demonstrations has been published under this latter name. Thorough study of the Demonstrations makes identification with Jacob of Nisibis impossible. Aphrahat, being a Persian subject, cannot have lived at Nisibis, which became Persian only by Jovian's treaty of 363. Furthermore, Jacob of Nisibis, who attended the First Council of Nicaea, died in 338, and from the internal evidence of Aphrahat's works he must have witnessed the beginning of the persecution of Christians in the early 340s by [[Shapur II] of Persia. The persecutions arose out of political tensions between Rome and Persia, particularly the declaration of Constantine I that Rome should be a Christian empire. Shapur perhaps grew anxious that the Christians within Persia might secretly support Rome. There are elements in Aphrahat's writing that show great pastoral concern for his harried flock, caught in the midst of all this turmoil.

It is learned that his name was Aphrahat (or Pharhadh) from comparatively late writers, such as Bar Bahlul (tenth century), Elias of Nisibis (eleventh century), Bar-Hebraeus, and "Abhd-isho." George, bishop of the Arabs, writing in 714 C.E., to a friend who had sent him a series of questions about the "Persian sage," confesses ignorance of his name, home and rank, but gathers from his works that he was a monk, and of high esteem in 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 Ctesiphon and Seleucia on the Tigris and elsewhere (later to become Demonstration 14) is held by Dr William Wright and others to prove that he was a bishop. According to a marginal note in a fourteenth century manuscript (B.M. Orient. 1017), he was "bishop of Mar Mattai," a famous monastery near Mostil, but it is unlikely that this institution existed so early.

About The Demonstrations

Aphrahat's works are collectively called the Demonstrations, from the identical first word in each of their titles (Syrian: taḥwîṯâ). They are sometimes also known as "the homilies." There are twenty-three Demonstrations in all. Each work deals with a different item of faith or practice, and is a pastoral homily or exposition. The Demonstrations are works of prose, but frequently, Aphrahat employs a poetic rhythm and imagery in his writing. Each of the first twenty-two Demonstrations begins with each successive letter of the Syriac alphabet (of which there are twenty-two). The Demonstrations were not composed all at one time, but in three distinct periods. The first ten, composed in 337 C.E., concern themselves with Christian life and church order, and predate the persecutions. Demonstrations 11–22 were composed at the height of the persecution, in 344 C.E. Some of this group deal with matters as before, others focus on apocalyptic themes. However, four Demonstrations are concerned with Judaism. It appears that there was a movement within the Persian church by some either to become Jews or return to Judaism, or to incorporate Jewish elements into Christianity. Aphrahat makes his stand by gently explaining the meaning of the symbols of circumcision, Passover, and Sabbath. The twenty-third Demonstration falls outside of the alphabetic system of the early works, and appears to be slightly later, perhaps near the end of Aphrahat's life. The twenty-third piece takes the symbolism of the grape, drawn from Isaiah chapter 65 and elsewhere, as its cue. It deals with the fulfillment of Messianic promise from Adam to Christ. Aphrahat never strays too far from the Bible in the Demonstrations: He is not given to philosophizing. All of his gospel quotations seem to be drawn from the Diatessaron, the gospel recension that served the church at his time.

Aphrahat's mode of biblical interpretation is strikingly similar to that of the Babylonian rabbinic academies of his day. Demonstration 5 deals with ongoing conflict between Persia and Rome, but uses the imagery of the book of Daniel to interpret these events. His position within the church is indicated in Demonstration 14, in which Aphrahat appears to be writing a letter on behalf of his synod to the clergy of the Persian capital, Ctesiphon-Seleucia on the Tigris.


The Demonstrations were originally composed in Syriac, but were quickly translated into other languages. The Armenian version, published by Antonelli in 1756, and containing only 19 homilies, circulated mistakenly under the name Jacob of Nisibis. Important versions in Georgian and Ge'ez exist. A few of the Demonstrations were translated into Arabic, but wrongly attributed to Ephrem the Syrian.


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 C.E., 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 C.E., 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 C.E., forms an appendix on the Messianic fulfillment of prophecy, together with a treatment of the chronology from Adam to Christ.

Aphraates impresses a reader favorably 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 Old Testament 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, etc.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Albert, Francis X.E. "Aphraates" in the Catholic Encyclopedia. 1907. Retrieved February 12, 2008.
  • Aphrahat. The Demonstrations. Retrieved September 24, 2007.
  • Baring-Gould, S. (Sabine). The Lives of the Saints. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1914.
  • Brock, S. P. “Early Syrian Asceticism.” Numen Vol. XX. 1973.
  • Burkitt, F. C. Early Eastern Christianity. London: 1904.
  • Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints. Palm Publishers, 1956.
  • Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0192800582

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