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Aphrahat the Persian Sage: Testimony to Constantine and the Roman-Persian Wars

Mary J Jett

St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY

On or around the year of Constantine’s death, Aphrahat provides one of the sole testimonies to the Persian Christian experience. Writing in Syriac, his first ten Demonstrations primarily address Syriac conceptualizations of faith, practice, devotion, and worship, save one exception. In the middle of his earliest works, Aphrahat provides a Demonstration on the Wars. Subsequent scholarship often cites this document as evidence of a persecuted Christian calling out for the salvation of a converted Constantine. However, this paper will reconsider Aphrahat’s knowledge and testimony of the Roman Empire, his retelling of Hellenization, and in particular, compare his text to the disputed letter of Constantine to Shapur II. 

At the start of his Demonstrations on the Wars, he says he writes in a dark time where armies gather through war. What follows is a description of his present moment, his understanding of the rise and failures of kings, and the hope he has in the destruction of all the kings. Aphrahat outlines the history through the fall of Alexander, the diminishment of the authority of the Roman Senate, and his present time where Rome holds the kingdom until Rome’s final destruction. He retells the story over and over again of the history of kings who seize the people, fail to be humble, and eventually experience destruction. 

His retelling shows a Persian view of the history of the world and in particular the Roman Empire, and each description leads to glimpses of his present moment. Rome holds the “kingdom” hostage. Rome had a senate and now, this mighty beast has weakened itself by choosing a king. Rome is wealthy and powerful, and earthly opposition to them is futile. Rome now is Christian. Aphrahat often encases his narrative in the exegesis of Daniel's prophecies, but his most explicit descriptions of the present moment echo metaphorically, symbolically, and Scripturally the same claims made in the letter of Constantine as conveyed by Eusebius.

Where Constantine says he is protected because his army bears the sign of the cross, Aphrahat makes the same claim. Where Constantine says that Rome lost for a season because of their failure to protect the Christians, Aphrahat claims that Rome could be defeated for a season because of their failure to claim Jesus. However, where Constantine claims his kingdom to the bounds of the ocean and the possession, at least in part, of all Christians, Aphrahat explains hope in a boundless kingdom. He instead critiques any claim of a king to be an ally with God or to hold the possession of the people of God in the present moment. Aphrahat does not laud a king who consolidates the power of the empire, and his hope is in the final destruction of Rome not in its salvation.

The authenticity of Constantine’s letter is disputed, but Aphrahat provides a testimony to life in the midst of the warring powers. Previous scholarship focuses on his exegetical methodology, spiritual sources, or his theology in light of other Syriac traditions.  Taking a different approach, this paper will consider Aphrahat’s view of the international landscape, the history of the wars that came before, the wars that seem brewing in the present moment, and the tangible hope he considers in light of his contemporary realities. 

 

Session/Panel Title

Late Antique Literary Developments

Session/Paper Number

1.1

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