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Bible Dictionaries

A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Aphraat (Aphrahat, Farhad

Aphraat ( Aphrahat, Farhad, "the Sage of Persia"). Little is known of the life of this writer, who was the principal theologian of the Persian ( i.e. Eastern or Nestorian) church in the 4th cent. He was born late in the 3rd cent., and was certainly a monk, and probably a bishop of his church. Tradition says that he resided at the monastery of Mar Mattai, near Mosul, and was bishop in that province. Either at his baptism or consecration he adopted the name Jacob in addition to his own, and for this reason his works have sometimes been attributed to better-known namesakes.

In the year 344 he presided over a council of the church of his province (Adiabene), and the synodal letter is included in his works (Homily xiv.). Sapor's persecution was then raging in the country, but is known to have been, for local reasons, less severe in this district than elsewhere. The time and manner of his death are not known.

Works. —These consist of a collection of 22 Homilies , written at the request of a friend (a monk) to give an exposition of the Christian faith. Their importance consists in the picture that they give of the current teaching of an independent church, already organized under its own primate, outside the Roman empire. The language is Syriac, the quotations from the O.T. are taken from the Peshitta , but in the N.T. he quotes the Gospels from the Diatessaron . Some of his interpretations (e.g. Hom. xv.) shew signs of Jewish or "Talmudical" teaching.

Doctrine. —As a theologian, Aphraat is strikingly independent and remote from the controversies of his day in the Roman empire. Writing 20 years after the council of Nicaea, he expresses himself in a way impossible for any one who had heard of the Arian controversy, whatever his sympathies in it; with him we are back in the indefiniteness of an earlier age, when an orthodox writer might use on one page the language of psilanthropism (Hom. xvii.) and on another confess both the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ (vi. 11.). This is consistent with the fact that the "church of the East" was so isolated that it was never asked to accept the Nicene Creed till the year 410; and apparently used, till that date, the formula that Aphraat gives ( Hom. i.). See Nestorian Church.

A curious feature in Aphraat's teaching is the use of expressions that plainly suggest that he regarded the Holy Spirit as the female element in the Godhead (xviii. 10). It is a thought strange to us, but not necessarily unorthodox, and natural to a mind of Semitic cast, that used a word for "spirit" that is feminine; its absence from Greek and Latin theology may account in part for the enthronement of another figure as Queen of Heaven. Aphraat's whole teaching has the ascetic cast natural to a 4th-cent. Oriental monk. The celibates (xviii.) are emphatically the aristocracy of the church, the professors of the higher life, who alone can attain to true communion with God. Any one who doubts his own capacity for the keeping of a vow of virginity, which apparently was often taken at the time of baptism, is advised to marry before that rite, a fall subsequent to it being a heinous sin (vii. 10). Nevertheless, all are warned that open abandonment of the resolution and avowed marriage is better than secret incontinence.

Broadly, Aphraat shews us the existence of an independent Oriental theology, which, however, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was assimilated to Greek standards a few generations later. This was a distinct loss to the fullness of Christian thought, and a misfortune to the Syriac church itself, in that it soon shewed itself unable to think on Greek lines, so that schisms resulted that endure to this day. Parisot, Patrol. Syriac. Aphraatis Demonstrationes; Labourt. Christianisme dans l’empire perse; Burkitt, Early Eastern Christianity.


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Aphraat (Aphrahat, Farhad'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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