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Christians in the Sasanian empire: a case of divided loyalties

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

S. P. Brock*
University of Oxford


In that much discussed panegyric, the Life of Constantine, Eusebius tells how the emperor, having heard that there were ‘many churches of God in Persia and that large numbers were gathered into the fold of Christ, resolved to extend his concern for the general welfare to that country also, as one whose aim it was to care for all alike in every nation.’ He goes on to give what purports to be a letter from Constantine to the Sasanid shah, Shapur II; in this, not only does the emperor neatly explain away his predecessor Valerian’s humiliating capture by the Persians in 260 as divine punishment for his persecution of Christians but he presumes to draw a lesson from this for Shapur as well: by protecting his own Christian population Shapur will experience the beneficence of Constantine’s Deity.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1982

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1 Vita Constantini, GCS, Eusebius I.12, IV.8. Grégoìre’s thesis that the Life is a late fourth-century forgery has not found general favour: see for example H. Chad-wick’s preface to the second edition of Baynes, N. H., Constantine the Great and the Christian Church (London 1972) pp ivvii Google Scholar; Baynes discusses the Letter to Shapur on pp 26-9.

2 Vita Constantini, IV.11. On the Letter see especially Dörries, H., AAWG III.34 (1954) pp 125-7Google Scholar. The argument that persecution brings political disaster (which has its roots in the literature of Hellenistic Judaism) is found applied to the Sasanids in the Acts of Jacob (martyred c 422), A[cta] M[artyrum et] S[anctorum], ed P. Bedjan, 4 (Paris/Leipzig 1894) p 196: Jacob tells Bahram 11, ‘your father Yazdgard ruled the kingdom in peace and well-being for twenty one years and all his enemies everywhere were subjected and friendly to him. This was because he honoured the Christians, he built churches and granted them peace. At the end of his reign, when he turned away from this beneficial policy and became a persecutor of the Christians, spilling the innocent blood of a God-fearing people, you know very well yourself of the extraordinary death he died . . .’.

3 Vita Constantini, IV. 13.

4 On this see Farina, R., L’impero e l’imperatore cristiano in Eusebio di Cesarea (Zürich 1966) pp 107-23Google Scholar, 154-65, and Dvornik, F., Early Christian and Byzantine Political Philosophy, 2 (Washington, DC, 1966) pp 614-22Google Scholar.

5 As far as German works are concerned this was well pointed by Kawerau, P. in his inaugural lecture as professor of Ostkirchengeschichte at Marburg, ‘Allgemeine Kirchengeschichte und Ostkirchengeschichte’, ZRGG 14 (1962) pp 305-15Google Scholar.

6 Paris 1904. Labourt’s work is brought up to date in certain respects by J. M. Fiey’s useful sketch of the same period, Jalons pour une histoire de l’église en Iraq, CSCO 310(1970). In English the best works available are Wigram, [W. A., An Introduction [to the History of the Assyrian Church] (London 1910)Google Scholar and Young, W. G., Patriarch Shah and Caliph (Rawalpindi 1974)Google Scholar, although neither of these is sufficiently critical.

7 This provides the starting point for Young’s book (p iii).

8 The detailed information is to be found in S[ynodicon] O[rientale, ed Chabot, J.B] (Paris 1902)Google Scholar.

9 In what is to-day north Iraq conversions to Christianity from Zoroastrianism and paganism continued into the early Islamic period; see Morony, M., ‘The effects of the Muslim conquest on the Persian population of Iraq’, Iran 14 (London 1976) p 54.Google Scholar

10 See note 21 below.

11 AMS 2 p 209. It should also be recalled that when Jovian ceded Nisibis to the Persians in 363, together with five eastern provinces, this territory would have included many Christians, even though the Christian population of Nisibis itself (among them Ephrem) was compelled to leave, according to Ammianus Marcel-linus, Res gestae XXV.9.

12 Later, at the Synod of Seleucia (410), Yazdgard himself specifically ordered the subordination of the other bishops to the Catholicos: SO p 26. For the emergence of the see and its authority see Macomber, W., ‘The authority of the Catholicos Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon’, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 181 (Rome 1968) pp 179-200, and the literature cited on p 179Google Scholar.

13 Acts of Simeon, ed Kmosko, M., Patrologia Syriaca 2 (Paris 1907), B 4 Google Scholar. The Acts survive in two recensions, to which 1 refer as A and B, employing Kmosko’s section numbers.

14 Zamasp (498-501), for example, summoned a synod to discuss the matter of marriages (SO p 63), over which complications had arisen owing to the fact that converts from Zoroastrianism carried over with them Zoroastrian marriage customs. The prominence of this topic in the sixth-century synods indicates how central a problem it was at that time; the earliest treatise of canon law, by the Catholicos Aba, is also devoted to this subject.

15 It is only for these three periods that we have groups of martyrdoms. The most convenient survey of the Persian martyr literature is Devos, P., ‘Les martyrs persans à travers leurs actes syriaques’, Atti del Convegno sul Tema: La Persia e il Mondo Greco-Romano, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 363 (Rome 1966) pp 213-25Google Scholar; for the martyrs under Shapur II see Wiessner, G., Untersuchungen Zur syrischen Literaturgeschichte I: Zur Märtyrerüberlieferung aus der Christenverfolgung Schapurs II, AAWG III.67 (1967), with my review in JTS, ns 19 (1968) pp 300-9Google Scholar.

16 Particularly informative are the lives of Aba, Grigor, Yazidpaneh and Giwargis, in Bedjan, [P.], Histoire[de Mar-Jabalaha, de trois autres patriarches, d’un prêtre et de deux laiques, nestoriens] (Paris/Leipzig 1895)Google Scholar.

17 For an edict of toleration probably under Shapur 111 see Chaumont, M. L., ‘A propos d’un édit de paix religieuse d’époque sassanide’, Mélanges d’histoire des religions offerts à H-C. Puech (Paris 1974) pp 71-80Google Scholar. The Acts of Grigor (in Bedjan, Histoire pp 347-8) states that in the early sixth century Christians were given letters patent ordering that no Magian or pagan should harm them, while the Life of Sabrisho (ibid p 306) says that on his election as patriarch (595) Sabrisho persuaded Chosroes II to allow Christians complete freedom of worship, as a result of which many courtiers converted.

18 Socrates, HE VII. 18 mentions this specifically in the case of Bahram V; see also Asmussen, J.P., ‘Das Christentum in Iran und sein Verhältnis zum Zoroastrismus’, Studia Theologica 16 (Aarhus 1962) p 10 Google Scholar.

19 There is a good example (under Shapur II) in AMS 2 pp 244-6.

20 A French translation of the Middle Iranian text is given in Chaumont, M. L., ‘L’inscription de Kartir à la Ka’abah de Zoroastre’. Journal asiatique 248 (Paris 1960) pp 339-80Google Scholar.

21 The precise identity of the nazarai and kristidan is disputed; I have suggested elsewhere that the former represent the native Christians and the latter the deported Christians of Greek origin: see my ‘Some aspects of Greek words in Syriac’, AAWG III.96 (1975) pp 91-5.

22 This applies to several martyrs under Yazdgard I and Bahram V; Theodoret, HE V.39, relates the story of one of these and comments ‘I confess that the destruction of this fire shrine was quite mis-timed’.

23 The Syrian Orthodox martyr Ahudemmeh (†575) was first arrested after it had been revealed that he had baptised a son of Chosroes I: PO 3 pp 33-6. See also n 41.

24 See Brock, S. P., ‘A martyr at the Sasanid court under Vahran II: Candida’, An Bol 96 (1978) pp 167-81Google Scholar.

25 This point is well brought out by Decret, [F.], [‘Les conséquences sur le christianisme en Perse de l’affrontement des empires romain et sassanide. De Shapur le à Yazdgard le’], Recherches Augustiniennes 14 (Paris 1979) pp 91-152Google Scholar.

26 Chronicle of Seert, PO 4 pp 222-3. The Acts of Simeon (B 98) state that it was out of special favour towards the ‘captivity’ that Shapur II exempted the inhabitants of Karka d-Ladan from persecution (though of course several martyrs from other places were brought thither to be put to death).

27 See especially Hage, W., ‘Die oströmische Staatskirche und die Christenheit des Perserreiches’, ZKG 84 (1973) 174-87Google Scholar.

28 SO p 37

29 See for example, Acts of Pethion in AMS 2 pp 559-00.

30 See Decret, p 139.

31 Demonstration 5.1,24 ed Parisot, J., Patrologia Syriaca 1 (Paris 1894)Google Scholar.

32 Typical are the denunciations of a bishop Abdisho (made by his renegade nephew) to be found in the Acts of Forty Martyrs, AMS2, p 333: Abdisho and another priest are alleged to harbour Roman spies and write letters to Caesar about affairs in the orient.

33 Acts of Simeon B 11.

34 AMS 4 pp 258-9. Even in the mid sixth century the catholicos Aba is suspected by Chosroes I of having given support to a rebellion by the shah’s son (who was a Christian convert): see Bedjan, Histoire pp 264-7.

35 Barhebraeus, , Chronicon Ecclesiasticum 3, ed Abbeloos, J. B. and Lamy, T. (Louvain 1877) col 65 Google Scholar.

36 According to the Acts of Peroz, AMS 4, p 256, the Christian community at Seleucia were presented with splendid fittings for their church in 410. Sabrisho, on becoming catholicos in 595, was sent a gold cross containing a relic of the true cross by Maurice (Bedjan, Histoire pp 302-3).

37 Refusal to eat ‘blood’ (that is, meat ritually slaughtered) is frequently found in the Shapur II martyrdoms. That one’s religion could be deduced from eating habits is clear from several later texts: Anahid, a convert martyred under Yazdgard II, ‘refused to eat in the presence of her parents in case they saw she was now a Christian’ (AMS 2 p 569). Celibacy was abhorrent to Zoroastrians, and the synod of 486, by allowing marriage to all ranks of clergy, was certainly making a concession to this feeling; even so the conflict between Zoroastrian and Christian ‘tables of affinity’ still remained and brought much trouble, especially in the sixth century as can be seen from the Life of Aba (Bedjan, Histoire p 235); see also note 14 above. Burial was of course also abhorrent to Zoroastrian sensibilities; Bahram V even had Christians disinterred (AMS 4 p 254). As the nobles and Magians complained to Yazdgard I, Christians ‘mock fire and water’ and ‘they despise our customs in no small way’ (AMS 4 p 250).

38 Acts of Simeon A 13.

39 MS Add 12174 fol 392I/V on these Acts see Fiey, J.M., ‘Ma’in, general de Sapor II, confesseur et évêque’, Le Muséon 84 (Louvain 1971) pp 437-53Google Scholar.

40 Acts of Shirin 17, ed Devos, P., An Bol 64 (1946) pp 87-131Google Scholar, with Devos’s remarks on pp 101-2.

41 Acts of Golinducht 7, ed Garitte, G., An Bol 74 (1956) pp 405-40Google Scholar. According to the Armenian Life of Abda (Vark’ ew vkayabanutiwnk’ srboc’ 1 (Venice 1894) p 3) already in the early fifth century Theodosius’s ambassadors request Yazdgard to release the deacon Benjamin from prison: ‘Give me assurance in his own handwriting that he will not convert to his faith any more Magians in Persia’, the shah replied; ‘if so, at your request I will free him from chains’. This was an undertaking that of course proved unacceptable—even though it was actually written into the terms of Justinian’s peace treaty of 561, see Guillaumont, A., ‘Justinien et l’église de Perse’, DOP 23/4 (1969/70) pp 4950 Google Scholar.

42 Shapur’s exemption of the Christians of the ‘captivity’ at Karka d-Ladan from persecution (see note 26 above) might suggest that he feared their defection.

43 Acts of Simeon A 32.

44 Acts of Grigor, in Bedjan, Histoire pp 359-61.

45 SO p 69.

46 SO pp 68, 94, 544 (likewise of Hormizd IV, pp 130-1).

47 SO p 121 (canon 14).

48 See Sachau, E., ‘Von den rechtlichen Verhältnissen der Christen in Sasaniden-reich’, Mitteilungen des Seminars fir orientalische Sprachen X.2 (Berlin 1907) pp 6995 Google Scholar.

49 Epistulae, ed Olinder, G., CSCO 110 (1937) p 92 Google Scholar.

50 Wigram, An Introduction p 66; similarly Morony, M., ‘Religious communities in late Sasanian and early Muslim Iraq’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 17 (Leiden 1974) pp 113-35Google Scholar. Morony sees this as a development of the late Sasanian period in particular.

51 See Murray, R., Symbols of Church and Kingdom: a Study in Early Syriac Tradition (Cambridge 1975) pp 4168 Google Scholar; this is the topic of Aphrahat’s Demonstration 16 (English translation in Neusner, j., Aphrahat and Judaism (Leiden 1971) pp 60-7)Google Scholar.

52 Demonstration 5.1 and 25; 14.1.

53 SO p 21; the term occurs elsewhere too in the acta of this synod. The Greek equivalent, laos tou theou is found several times in Eusebius, Vita Constantini (II.63; IV.62.3; IV.71.2); for the use of the term within the Roman empire see Ivanka, E. von, Rhomäerreich und Gottesvolk (Freiburg/München 1968) pp 4961 Google Scholar. Similarly of Jewish origin is the word knushātā (lit. ‘synagogues’) employed for Christian communities (SO pp 26, 37).

54 AMS 4 p 257; for some other references see my note in An Bol 96 (1978) p 180.

55 SO p 22.

56 SO pp 50, 131; Acts of Simeon B 11.

57 SO p 65.

58 ibid p 544.

59 ibid pp 49, 56, 77, 96, 98-9 and often; ‘pagans’: Ibid pp 117, 127 etc.

60 AMS 2 p 214.

61 Acts of Simeon B 83.

62 AMS 2 pp 236-7. The virgin martyr betrothed to Christ is a theme found in almost all the martyrdoms of women.

63 It is a recurrent theme in liturgical texts: see Engberding, H., ‘Die Kirche als Braut in der ostsyrischen Liturgie’, OCP 3 (1937) pp 5-44Google Scholar.

64 Canon 5 (SO p 100); compare also canon 3 (SO p 99).

65 It was no doubt among converts from Zoroastrianism that Zoroaster came to be accredited with a prophecy about the birth of Christ and that certain legends were developed around the Magi of the Gospels—see de Villard, U. Monneret, Le leggende orientali sui Magi euangelici, Studie Testi, 163 (Rome 1952)Google Scholar.

66 See Thomson, R. W., ‘The Maccabees in early Armenian historiography’, JTS ns 26 (1975) pp 329-41CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Only passing use of Maccabees is found in Syriac writers (for example Acts of Simeon A 2-3,7-8).

67 So, for example, in Simeon of Beth Arsham’s famous letter concerning the spread of Nestorian doctrines in Persia: ed Assemani, J.S., Bibliotheca Orientalis Clemen- tino-Vaticana 1 (Rome 1719) pp 351, 353 (the Latin translation is very misleading)Google Scholar. The meaning ‘pagan’, found in Syriac texts of more westerly provenance, is extremely rare in works written in the Persian empire.

68 For the contrast between north and south in this respect see Crone, P. and Cook, M., Hagarism (Cambridge 1977) pp 5660 Google Scholar.

69 In strong contrast to modern usage, for which see below.

70 Acts of Kardagh 3, 5, 6, ed Abbeloos, J. B., An Bol 9 (1890) pp 5-106Google Scholar. Nevertheless it is the Iranian element which is uppermost in these acts: see Wiessner, G., ‘Christlicher Heiligenkult im Umkreis eines sassanidischen Grosskönigs’, in Festgabe deutscher Iranisten zur 2500 Jahrfeier Irans, ed Eilers, W. (Stuttgart 1971) pp 149-55Google Scholar.

71 SO p 165.

72 AMS 2 p 507.

73 See Fiey, J. M., Assyrie chretienne 3 (Beirut 1968) pp 20-2Google Scholar. Fiey’s hesitations about the date of Sabrisho are unnecessary in the light of the ‘Nestorian’ edition of the Hudra I (Trichur 1960) p 259, where Sabrisho is located in the Persian period—his name is omitted in the uniate Breviarium Chaldaicum 1 (Rome 1938) p 161.

74 In this connection it is significant that almost all the shrines connected with biblical history, such as the monastery of the Ark on mount Kardu and the tomb of Nahum at Alkosh, are situtated in the north.

75 This not unnaturally gave rise to occasional local conflict: according to the Life of John of Dailam (Harvard Ms syr. 38 fol 185r/v) this seventh-century saint, having founded one monastery, had to build a second one alongside it in order to resolve the quarrel between the Persian and Syriac speaking monks over which language to use in church services.

76 See Metzger, B. M., The Early Versions of the New Testament (Oxford 1977) pp 274-7CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Theologische Realenzyklopädie 6 (Berlin 1980) under ‘Bibelübersetzungen’.

77 These include the Acts of Aba and of Grigor in Bedjan, Histoire: see Czeglédy, K., Acta Orientalia 4 (Budapest 1954) p 66 Google Scholar.

78 See Hage, W., ‘Einheimische Volkssprachen and syrische Kirchensprache in der nestorianischen Asienmission’, in Erkenntnisse und Meinungen 2, ed Wiessner, G., Göttinger Orientforschungen 1.17 (Wiesbaden 1978) pp 131-60Google Scholar.

79 See Macomber, W., ‘The christology of the synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon AD 486’, OCP 24 (1958) pp 142-54Google Scholar.

80 In the Synodicon orientale the term is first found in the synod of 486 (SO p 54); Orthodox’ now becomes the standard term for one’s own side (the first occurrence of Orthodoxy’ is in the synod of 544, SO p 69).

81 For the adoption of this name see Fiey, J. M., “Assyriens” ou “Aramécns”, L’Orient Syrien 10 (Paris 1965) pp 141-60Google Scholar.

82 See Yonan, G., Assyrer heute (Hamburg Vienna 1978)Google Scholar; the nationalist-minded among the Syrian Orthodox migrant workers from Turkey, now in western Europe, put out a periodical entitled Egarto (‘Letter’).