Moral, Ascetic, and Ritual Dimensions to Law-Observance in Aphrahat’s Demonstrations / Adam Lehto

Posted by on Feb 26, 2016 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on Moral, Ascetic, and Ritual Dimensions to Law-Observance in Aphrahat’s Demonstrations / Adam Lehto

Writing to counter the critique of a much larger Jewish community, and to instruct fellow ascetics in their chosen path, the fourth-century Syriac author Aphrahat develops a notion of law-observance that serves both ends: God’s law of righteousness, which is more fundamental than the Mosaic law, has been summed up in Christ’s teaching on love for God and neighbor; but a commitment to this way of love also calls for ascetic renunciation. In addition, the few references to ritual should be understood, like Aphrahat’s teaching on ascetic practice, as an attempt to bring this area of Christian life under the all-embracing imperative of following the law of righteousness with a pure heart.
A prominent feature of Aphrahat’s fourth-century Syriac Demonstrations1 is the author’s concern about the threat of Judaism to his Christian community. In addition to various passages throughout the work as a whole, the majority of the final thirteen Demonstrations focus explicitly on this perceived threat, seeking to show that the Jews have been rejected and that the church has become God’s chosen people, drawn from all the peoples of the world.2 Thus Aphrahat feels compelled to argue against circumcision [End Page 157] (Demonstration 11), Sabbath (12) and Passover (13) observance, dietary laws (15), Jewish claims of election (16, 19), Jewish objections to Christ being the son of God (17) and to celibacy (18), and Jewish criticism of Christians based on the fact that they are persecuted (21). Demonstration 20, ostensibly on the topic of giving to the poor, is also preoccupied with the status of the Jews, a preoccupation expressed in particular through an extended midrash on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.3
Another prominent feature of the text is its ascetic orientation, not unusual in an early Christian work. This is most clear in Aphrahat’s Demonstrations on fasting (3), covenanters (6), and virginity and holiness (18), but asceticism is not far beneath the surface in much of the rest of [End Page 158] his work. Aphrahat himself has embraced the ascetic life and is writing to those who have done likewise. Even as Aphrahat affirms the legitimacy of marriage, it is clear that, like Paul, his preference is for a more rigorous understanding of the Christian life. While the topics of Aphrahat’s Demonstrations are often generic, this should be not be taken to be evidence for a general readership. When he outlines the qualities of the ascetic in Demonstration 6, faith, prayer, love, and humility figure prominently. Though he does not deny that these topics have relevance beyond his fellow ascetics, his own attention is to that particular subset of the larger Christian community.
It is possible to relate Aphrahat’s concern about Judaism to his asceticism by focusing on his positive concept of divine law.4 Much has been written on Aphrahat’s arguments against the ritual observances of Jewish law and his rejection of some of the basic assumptions of the Jewish theology in his milieu. A number of studies have also investigated the degree of familiarity that Aphrahat may or may not have had with rabbinic arguments.5 An important aspect of Aphrahat’s response to what he perceived as a Jewish threat is the way in which he articulates his own interpretation of God’s law, an interpretation which sees the Jewish law as being fulfilled and at the same time points to what Aphrahat saw as a higher, ascetic way of life. It will also become clear that the importance of the law for Aphrahat is a basic part of his faith and not merely a response to Jewish pressure or a product of persecution.6 While Aphrahat claims that Christian ascetics [End Page 159] embrace their way of life “by free choice, and not from the slavery and coercion of a commandment or because we are constrained by it under the law,”7 it is clear from a consideration of other crucial passages in the Demonstrations that asceticism itself is a higher form of law-observance. Aphrahat’s preoccupation with law is not merely a feature of his anti-Jewish polemic, though it is often developed in that context.
The main focus of the investigation that follows will be the Greek loan-word nāmosā (; “law” or “the law”), though words based on the root pqd(; e.g., “command,” “commandment,” etc.) will also be considered where appropriate. I will not be considering cases where nāmosā is used to refer to human laws. Aphrahat also uses the term ‘orāytā a relatively infrequent seven times.8
The Semantic Range of Aphrahat’s Concept of Law
I will begin by examining the various meanings associated with the term “law” in the Demonstrations. Aphrahat is not overly concerned with consistency in his usage, so it is important to note that the term functions differently in different contexts.
“Law” as Scripture
This sense of the term is basic to all of Aphrahat’s arguments, dependent as they are upon numerous prooftexts.9 The law is clearly related to Scripture, but the relationship is not clearly defined. A number of logical [End Page 160] possibilities exist for the denotation of “law”: i) the revelation to Moses at Sinai; ii) the ritual laws within the Sinai revelation that are no longer relevant; iii) the Pentateuch as a whole; iv) the Bible (OT plus NT); v) the gospels; vi) the words of Christ in the gospels; vii) the Old Testament alone; and ix) the New Testament alone. The last two of these do not occur in the Demonstrations and can be excluded from discussion.
i) Here Aphrahat seems to refer to a body of law that is given to Moses, contained in but not co-extensive with the Pentateuch. Thus 1.19 (God “gave the Torah to Moses”)10 ; 2.5 (“The [promise to Abraham] was four hundred and thirty years older than the law”)11 ; 2.7 (“at the head of the whole law it is written: ‘I am the Lord your God . . .'”)12 ; 3.3 (“Moses also fasted purely when he went up the mountain and brought the law to his people”)13 ; 3.4 (where Deut 17.6–7, Lev 24.16, and Exod 20.17 are cited as “written in the law,” though this could be an example of ii) below)14 ; and 15.8 (refers to the “ten holy commandments which [God] inscribed with his hand and gave to Moses” ).15
ii) It is important to take note of certain phrases, concentrated in 2.5–6, that Aphrahat uses to denote ritual laws that have, according to him, been made irrelevant by the coming of Christ: “the observances of the law”; “the law of the commandments”; “the customs of the law”; “the offerings which are in the law”; and “the works which were in the law.”16 In all cases, these phrases denote that which has been done away with by the sacrifice of Christ.17 Likewise, in the fascinating section 8 of Demonstration 15, when Aphrahat quotes Gal 3.11–12 and says that the Israelites “were not able to be made righteous through the law,” it is ritual law that he has in mind. In this passage, the Decalogue is associated with the “easy and pleasant” yoke that Christ gives to his followers, in contrast [End Page 161] with the “hard and difficult” yoke of the ritual law.18 I shall return to this passage below.
iii) Though the denotation of “law” is sometimes ambiguous (does he mean the entire Pentateuch?) in passages where Aphrahat appeals to Sinai revelation (e.g., 3.4, listed above),19 there are some passages in which the whole Pentateuch is clearly the referent. Throughout Demonstration 2 and in 21.2 we find the phrase “the law and the Prophets” in which “law” refers to a section of the Bible rather than to a particular set of laws delivered to Moses at Sinai. Likewise, in Demonstration 3.11, Exod 17.9, which is pre-Sinai in the biblical narrative, is referred to as part of the law.20 Twice in Demonstration 6 (sections 1 and 6), the phrase “curse of the law” occurs. Unlike Paul, it seems that Aphrahat has Genesis rather than Deuteronomy in mind when he uses this phrase.21
iv) When Aphrahat, in various passages (6.1, 17, 20; 7.21; 9.2, 4, 11)22 exhorts his readers to meditate on the law of the Lord, it is inherently unlikely that the reference is to a restricted sense of “law,” either Decalogue or Pentateuch. Rather, the meaning of “law” in such passages seems to be “Scripture,” including both Old and New Testaments.
v & vi) These two possible meanings emerge from a single passage in section 20 of Demonstration 6. In his closing words at the end of that Demonstration, Aphrahat quotes Luke 16.14 to describe anyone who mocks or scoffs at a fellow covenanter. He says that the warning that Jesus gave to the Pharisees (Luke 16.15, which he does not quote) is fulfilled against such a person. This is followed by the admonition: “Read and learn, and be zealous to read and to act. Let this law of God be your meditation at [End Page 162] all times.” Though this could be another example of iv) above, the context and the use of the demonstrative pronoun suggest that here law is associated with either the gospel(s) or with Christ’s words in the gospel(s). Even if this is the case, it is clear that this denotation of law did not figure prominently in Aphrahat’s thinking.
“Law” as a Spiritual or Moral Ideal Predating Moses
The use of the term “law” to denote Scripture or parts of Scripture represents Aphrahat’s “default mode.” Another meaning of the term, however, though infrequent, is very important. This other meaning is reflected in a few passages which indicate that the righteous have no need of a written law: they observe a “law of righteousness” that is inscribed in their hearts (2.2, 7; 13.8). Abraham is the paradigmatic figure in this regard, though Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses are also singled out. It is striking that no NT figure appears in this list. This is probably due to the assumption that this law of righteousness, once obeyed by the few, was now available to all through Christ.
Now that I have established the semantic range of the term “law,” I will argue three related points: i) the theme of the observance of a “law of righteousness,” reflected in but not limited to Scripture, is fundamental to Aphrahat’s discourse; ii) ascetic practices are a means to the end of observing this law of righteousness; iii) even Christian ritual law (such as it appears in the Demonstrations) is subordinate to this deeper law of righteousness.
Law-Observance: The Moral Dimension
Aphrahat’s ethical instruction flows out of his emphasis on the “two commandments, upon which depends the whole force of the law and the Prophets.”23 Love for God is primary but must lead to love for neighbor: “[A]fter a person loves the Lord his God, he should also love his neighbor as himself.”24 The theme of faith, as an affirmation of the existence of God and a commitment to loving obedience to God, frames the Demonstrations as a whole, and this faith is inextricably linked to good actions. The role of Christ in faith is stated at the beginning and the end of the Demonstrations: “[T]he foundation of our whole faith is the true stone, [End Page 163] our Lord Jesus Christ”; “In him we have come to know [God] and have become his worshippers. . . .”25
In both cases, faith in God through Christ is linked to good works. The building that is raised on the foundation of faith is “furnished” with items that make it suitable for Christ the king (1.4). Many of these items have a decidedly ascetic flavor to them, but we must keep in mind that when Aphrahat speaks of “pure fasting” and “pure prayer” (the first two items), the purity here has to do with purity of heart, which includes a commitment to moral action that transcends mere ascetic praxis (see 3.8; 4.14–15). The inclusion of love, almsgiving, and hospitality in the list of required furnishings for the house of faith make clear the connection between faith and good works. The fact that ascetic and moral “furnishings” both feature prominently reflects Aphrahat’s conviction that a true observance of the moral law is facilitated by asceticism, a link which will be examined in more detail below.
In the closing sections of the last Demonstration, the link between faith and moral action is expressed even more forcefully. Immediately after the passage from 23.61 quoted above, we read:
As the essence of all good actions, this is required before God: a person must believe that there is one God and with faithfulness keep his commandments. If a person acknowledges that there is one God but transgresses his commandments and does not follow them, he does not really believe that there is one God. . . . For the person who believes that God judges the murderer does not murder, and in the person who murders, it is not established that God exists. The person who believes that God judges the adulterer does not commit adultery, and in the person who commits adultery, it is not established that God exists. The person who believes that God judges thieves does not steal, and in the person who steals, it is not established that God exists. All the commandments are likewise.26
Once again Aphrahat’s dependence on the Decalogue is evident. In the four sections that follow, Aphrahat expands on the prohibition against swearing falsely, a moral rule that was evidently being breached in a particularly flagrant way in the church he knew. After this exhortation, section 67 contains the very end of his argument proper, before the formal end of the Demonstration in sections 68 and 69. The theme of section 67 is the impermanence of the world and worldly attachments, and its final [End Page 164] line should be seen as a summary of Aphrahat’s argument in the Demonstrations as a whole: “There is nothing greater than the fear of God, and the person who keeps his commands is glorified. For many are called wise, but there is no wisdom like the fear of God.”27 Aphrahat assumes that by now the reader will understand that ascetic practice is required for the one who is deeply committed to keeping God’s commands.
This emphasis on the moral dimension of law-observance is not merely a feature of the beginning and end of the Demonstrations, but occurs throughout.28 The Decalogue is held up as a slightly expanded version of the double law of love, and Christ is portrayed as one who would call God’s people back to a true law-observance. Combining a passage from Hosea with the parable of the lost coin from Luke, Aphrahat criticizes Jews for rejecting Christ, who is the lamp that they should have used to seek the Lord and recover their lost love for God (the first of the ten commandments) and neighbor (the other nine commandments).29 To accept Christ is to return to the essence of the law. Likewise, as mentioned above, in 15.8 a distinction is made between the “ten holy commandments” and other “commandments and judgments” having to do with ritual purity. This clear contrast is followed by another: that between the “hard yoke” of these ritual purity laws and the “easy yoke” of Christ. An obvious reading of this passage would understand this “easy yoke,” whatever else it may involve, to refer back to the “holy commandments” that are not obscured (for Aphrahat) by ritual purity laws. In other words, as at 1.11, we are again dealing with a portrayal of Christ as proponent of the Decalogue.
Perhaps the most striking appeal to law-observance as a fundamental category for Christian living occurs in the fourteenth Demonstration. A recurrent theme in the exhortation that Aphrahat and his associates direct toward the leadership of the Syriac church is that the law is not being observed. Most of the occurrences of the terms “law” and “command[ment]” [End Page 165] are in the context of discussions of disobedience to the divine imperative. After greeting his readers, Aphrahat30 points to the crisis in the church in a way that seems to include him and his supporters in the problem (14.2). Very quickly, however, it becomes clear that Aphrahat is ready to assess blame for the present situation. His talk of “our sins” and “our minds” in 14.2 refers not to himself and his supporters, but to the church insofar as it has been corrupted by certain of its leaders.
In 14.3 he says that these leaders have “forsaken the law and have adorned themselves with evil,”31 and that under their rule the law has “grown cold” and is “bound.”32 In their greed, they have ignored the clear commands found in Scripture against the practice of lending at interest. Their disregard for the law is further seen in the fact that they cater to the rich and oppress the poor, which leads them to pervert justice and to refuse to listen to any admonition. Aphrahat distances himself from the so-called “handlers of the law,”33 whose greed has made them envious and jealous and whose way of life does not match their teaching. They are seen by Aphrahat as continuing the tradition of Adam, who, out of greed, disobeyed the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (14.23). Indeed, the leaders of the church are portrayed as the culmination of a long history of greed outlined in the Bible (14.23–24). These men enjoy exercising power, but have no interest in the good works which ought to accompany the titles they bear. A series of Old Testament allusions describes their condition:
The foolish shepherd’s eye is blind and his arm is withered. Do not the priests say, “Where is the Lord?” The handlers of the law do not understand it, and the shepherds are unfaithful to it. From the prophets of Jerusalem comes forth godlessness over the whole earth. The leaders of my people are uprooting them, and women have power over the people. Henceforth we do not fear the Lord. What will the king do to us? Woe to us! What have we become when the law is forsaken and some among us adorn themselves with wickedness? We ought to sit and be quiet and not talk.34 [End Page 166]
Later in the Demonstration, Aphrahat provides another evocative description:
Our Lord has opened before us a great treasure full of all good things. In it is love, peace, friendship, healing, purity, and all manner of good, beautiful, and excellent things. He has given authority to his stewards over all the treasure-house, and has also placed chains, prisons, and fetters into the hands of the stewards and authorized them to bind and to set free. But the stewards have forsaken love and peace and friendship and all the rest of the treasure. They have become prison wardens, prosecutors, and executioners, instead of stewards of the treasure of all good things. . . . We hope, brothers, that when the king sees his stewards, who have transgressed the law and changed the commandment which he gave to them and established their own decrees, he will bind them with the fetters that they so loved, demand payment from them for the blood of his servants, and take away from them his treasure, because they did not cherish it.35
The commandment that has been given to them is expressed, in section 44, not only in Jesus’ injunctions to love and forgive, but also in Moses’ well-known words, “Do not hate or sin [against] your brother in your heart” (Lev 19.17).36 Leaders such as these have been rejected by God (14.17, 27), with the example of Uzzah (who, in carrying the ark on some heifers, “transgressed the law” and died as a result) serving as a solemn warning.37
Sections 34–37 of the fourteenth Demonstration compare observance of the law among humans with that of the rest of creation. In section 34, the reader is reminded of the greatness of God’s creative work. For all the greatness of creation, however, no part of it can respond to God in the way that humans can:
The wind has no vision, the air has no sense of touch, the sky has no shape, and the clouds have not been given knowledge. The creatures of the sea are powerful, but the monsters in it are without speech. The arms of intelligence are stretched out, and the wings of thought are extended; the senses of the mind explore, and the eyes of consciousness gaze intently. The openings of the sense of hearing fly to perceive and to understand the inquiry. But even all of these together do not comprehend.38
These references to “intelligence,” “thought,” “mind,” and “consciousness” are metaphorically applied to the animal and inanimate worlds, but in the next section (14.35) we are told that “the one who extends the [End Page 167] wings of his intellect” inherits wisdom and knowledge.39 These objects of the mind are unavailable to the foolish, but those who ask and who have open hearts are able to acquire them.40 Clearly the topic has shifted from non-human creation to humans. A profusion of metaphors describes first the powers of wisdom and then the characteristics of the wise man. Wisdom is focused on the heavenly realm. It is “the great temple of its Creator,”41 who shows it all kinds of heavenly treasure. The content of this treasure has already been mentioned above: “love, peace, friendship, healing, purity, and all manner of good, beautiful, and excellent things” (14.44). When the wise man (who has been represented by “wisdom” thus far) “sees in his mind the place of his many treasures, then his thought is elevated, and his heart conceives and gives birth to all good things, and he meditates on all that has been commanded.”42 The rest of the section contrasts the earthly limitations of the wise man with the power of his wisdom; he can give this wisdom away freely without becoming impoverished, since there “is no limit to the mind of the one who is contained and who lives inside of him.”43 What we see here in Aphrahat is a kind of wisdom-mysticism,44 but it is important to keep in mind that this mystical tendency is balanced by an emphasis on “all that has been commanded” in the history of salvation, and it is on the basis of these commands that the final judgment will take place. That Aphrahat does not think of law as disembodied but rather as historically given is affirmed, moreover, in the fact that he can speak of the church leaders as “handlers of the law,” i.e., as interpreters of a sacred text that has been given by God. The law seems to function in these passages as the key to the treasury of God; the [End Page 168] wicked leaders of the church will lose its treasure because they did not cherish it by obeying the law.
Section 36 portrays all of creation as an analogue to the wise man who does God’s will. By their obedience, the water and sand in the time of Noah play a role in the destruction of a disobedient generation. When God wills for the flood to end, water recedes into the abyss below the land, and the water above the firmament remains where it is. Other examples from the lives of biblical heroes prove that “[h]eaven, earth, and all creatures do his will at each moment, and none among them has resisted his will.”45 Such is not the case in the human sphere. Section 37 opens with the thematic statement, “But the transgression of the law is found with Adam. From the first day and forever, he transgresses the law.”46 The examples that follow are not of humans in general, but rather the wicked leaders of the church. I will not attempt to summarize Aphrahat’s description of these leaders. He is quite harsh, going so far as to call them “the offspring of Satan” and “the enemies of Christ.”47 For our purposes, it is enough to note that their behavior and characteristics fall under the category of law-breaking, given the thematic statement which begins the section. At one point Aphrahat calls them “mute dogs who are unable to bark,”48 which reminds us of 7.21, where those who do not meditate on the law are given the same designation.
Aphrahat returns to the metaphor of harvest (among other metaphors) in the closing section of Demonstration 14. Section 46 summarizes the parable of the sower. Section 47 then opens as follows:
Friends! Though we are sinners and unworthy, nevertheless it is on this foundation that we build, and this leaven that we have received. The seed of our Lord has fallen on our earth, and we have received money from the rich merchant. His Spirit has been poured out on everyone, and his kindness is not held back from anyone. If it should happen that someone scoffs at us and does not receive what we have written, he does not injure us thereby, nor does he gain [anything]. Our words demonstrate profit for those who listen, for we have written nothing to you that is outside of the law, nor have we sent a stolen treasure to you, but rather from the seed and the clay of the holy writings.49 [End Page 169]
Here, once again, Aphrahat appeals to “the law” (or “the holy writings”) as a standard for truth. Furthermore, this “law” is implicitly compared to a seed. Aphrahat seems to read the parable of the sower as a story of how Christ gives his law to those who would receive it. The “holy writings” are also described as containing (or consisting of) “dough.” Earlier in the Demonstration (in sections 30 and 38), Aphrahat, in the process of describing to his readers the kind of persons God calls them to be, draws on a New Testament image and compares them to “new dough” which is not contaminated by any “old yeast.”50 Thus, when he compares the holy writings (i.e., the law) to dough, we can infer that the state of being “new dough” has everything to do with responding appropriately to the law of God. The phrase “outside the law” is used elsewhere in Aphrahat only once, to refer to those who engage in immoral acts: “thieves, murderers, liars, and servants of hatred.”51 There is no possibility, given Aphrahat’s continual use of the Old Testament, that “holy writings” refers only to the New Testament as a kind of “new dough.” It is also important to note that in 14.47, law and Spirit are the only elements that are not intended to be taken metaphorically. These two work together, and it is their effect or activity which is described as “foundation,” “leaven,” “seed,” “money,” “dough,” “good flour,” “strong wine,” “new patch,” “vine,” and “fruit.” Likewise, those who fail to respond positively to God’s law and Spirit are like “the rock which dries out the seed,” “the building that is placed on sand,” or “salt that has lost its taste.”All of these metaphors can be taken, in the context of Aphrahat’s discourse, as describing a state of disobedience to God’s law and/or a lack of receptivity to God’s Spirit. There is no hint of the Pauline antithesis between law and Spirit.52
Other passages can be cited to demonstrate Aphrahat’s concern with moral instruction. In 4.15–16, 18, he emphasizes that prayer without compassion and a commitment to doing the will of God is without value. The seventh Demonstration urges those who have fallen into sin to seek out the remedy that is provided in repentance and also urges those in leadership positions not to withhold this remedy from those who desire it. Demonstration 9 portrays humility as a fundamental virtue, from [End Page 170] which other virtues flow.53 In section three of the ninth Demonstration, Aphrahat states that “the humble one reflects on the law of his Lord, and from it receives the remedy which he seeks.” The word translated here as “remedy” appears first in Demonstration 7, where it is used eight times to refer to repentance. One of the main functions of the law (i.e., the Scriptures in general), we are here reminded, is that of encouraging sinners to repent. Only those who are humble can embrace repentance. The theme of repentance as remedy also figures prominently in Demonstration 23.3. Those who have repented have access to the tree of life, and judgment is delayed so as to allow others to repent. Though the meaning of the passage is not as clear as we might wish, the fruit of the tree of life is associated with the remedy of repentance. The tree of life is pictured as an olive tree which “gives light to those in darkness, fattens up those who are feeble, and brings the hidden mystery to those who repent.”54 This repentance opens the door to spiritual/mystical perception. That Aphrahat is addressing ascetic leaders in the church seems to be indicated not only by this claim for enhanced levels of perception, but also by the passage that follows: “Now they have become the yeast of the righteous in this world, so that room for repentance might be given through them. It is also through them that sinners are forgiven on the earth, so that they might receive the promise and that the sun of goodness might rise on them.” The reference to yeast echoes the passage from Demonstration 14, cited above, where Aphrahat describes those who follow the law as being “new dough.” I would suggest that these passages emphasizing humility and repentance fall naturally into the same category of law-observance, seen as a positive feature of the Christian life.
Law-Observance: The Ascetic Dimension
It will not be necessary to provide an extensive summary of Aphrahat’s instruction on ascetic living.55 While there are the usual commitments to [End Page 171] the renunciation of sexual activity, property, food (certain kinds and/or at certain times), sleep and comfort, Aphrahat also includes discussions of the ascetic’s commitments in the moral sphere. My purpose here is to note how this askesis is associated with obedience to divine law and how it is often taken to be a means to a moral end. Though not an exhaustive survey, the following discussion will deal with the most significant passages which make a connection between askesis and moral commitment.
We may begin with the important image for the development of Christian virtues found in the first Demonstration, which I mentioned briefly above. Aphrahat compares this development to the building of a house, with Christ as the bedrock upon which the foundation of faith is laid. The image is not entirely consistent, since the spiritual “house” that rises on the bedrock of Christ and the foundation of faith also has Christ as royal resident. What is important for our purposes are the “furnishings” which must be in place for Christ to reside within and the imperative involved in providing them. The language is clear: the development of these qualities (which include actions) are “required” by faith (i.e., in some sense follow from faith), and indeed, “required” by Christ. In passages such as this Aphrahat comes close to speaking of a “law of Christ” for his followers. The requirements in question (the furnishings of the house) are as follows: pure fasting, pure prayer, love, almsgiving, humility, virginity, holiness, wisdom, hospitality, simplicity, perseverance, moderation, mourning, and purity. It would be convenient for my argument if Aphrahat had explicitly said that various ascetic behaviors were designed to further the development of moral qualities, but he does not. What we do find, however, is the embedding of askesis within what can only be seen as a larger program of spiritual development, which includes a significant moral dimension.
Fasting and prayer occupy prominent positions in this list. While it is clear that these disciplines are very important to Aphrahat, one needs to remember what he means by the phrases “pure fasting” and “pure prayer.” An examination of the third and fourth Demonstrations makes this clear. A commitment to the outward forms of fasting and prayer is not enough [End Page 172] in itself. What matters is one’s inward disposition, expressing itself in acts of service. When Aphrahat says that “without purity of heart, fasting is not accepted,”56 he is saying, at the very least, that abstinence of any sort must either express or develop purity of heart. This connection is elaborated in a particularly powerful statement later in the Demonstration:
For, my friend, when one fasts, fasting from wickedness is always more excellent than fasting from bread and water. It is also better than humbling oneself, and better than bending one’s neck like a hook or covering oneself with sackcloth and ashes, as Isaiah said. Indeed, when a person abstains from bread, water, and all nourishment, and when he covers himself with sackcloth and ashes and when he mourns, he is lovely, virtuous, and beautiful. But this beauty is more excellent: when a person humbles himself and also loosens the chains of impiety and cuts the bonds of deceit.57
On the one hand, humbling oneself, as expressed in fasting, repentance, and mourning, has value in itself. This humbling of oneself already involves moving beyond the observance of merely outward forms or rituals. But Aphrahat’s point is that if such humbling of oneself does not also lead to action, it is less than it should be. The pure fasting that includes a commitment not merely to humbling oneself and to repentance but also to moral action is, at the very end of Aphrahat’s discussion, said to be the subject of divine command: “[Christ] has commanded us to fast and to keep watch at all times, so that by the power of pure fasting, we might attain his rest.”58 The commandment is not primarily about literal fasting, i.e., abstinence, but about pure fasting, which involves a commitment to purity of heart and action. Abstinence serves to further the goal of this purity of heart and action.
Likewise in his explication of “pure prayer.” After reminding his readers that prayers will not be accepted from those who are unwilling to forgive, Aphrahat explains how the need to ask for forgiveness can be avoided by “bringing about the rest of God.” His starting point is Isa 28.12:
It says in the prophet, “This is my rest: give rest to the weary.” Therefore, bring about the rest of God, O human, and there will be no need for you [to say,] “Forgive me.” Give rest to the weary, visit the sick, and provide for the poor: this is prayer. . . . Watch out, my friend, that, when an opportunity for giving rest to the will of God comes to you, you do not say, “The time for prayer is at hand. I will pray and then I will act.” For while you are trying to finish your prayer, the opportunity for bringing about rest [End Page 173] will have slipped away from you, and your ability to bring about the will and the rest of God will have been diminished. Through your prayer you will be guilty of sin. However, if you bring about the rest of God, it will be [considered] prayer.59
Thus a distinction is drawn between the ritual of prayer (understood in the literal sense of “speaking with God”), which is important in all forms of Christian asceticism, and a deeper kind of “prayer” which involves service to those in need. Those who make a show of their prayers but lack what Aphrahat calls “the works of prayer,”60 a phrase parallel to “the works of the law” in Aphrahat’s usage, cannot be said to be offering “pure” prayer; their offerings are rejected. No ritual performance of prayer, as part of an ascetic commitment, can be considered complete without the willingness to allow service to those in need, or reconciliation with one’s enemies, to take precedence.
The theme of forgiveness appears in the second Demonstration as a major example of how love is expressed. There, too, Aphrahat repeats the gospel teaching on how forgiveness for the petitioner is conditional upon forgiveness of others. As is so often the case, Aphrahat pairs his exposition of a gospel passage with an appeal to Paul, citing, appropriately, 1 Cor 13. The metaphor from Demonstration 1 is then elaborated: along with Christ as the bedrock upon which the foundation of faith is laid, the house of faith requires beams to strengthen it, which are here equated with love. After an extensive discussion of biblical examples of loving action, in particular the acts of Christ, Aphrahat introduces what seems at first to be an abrupt change of topic:
He gave us a command: that we should forsake the world and turn to him. He revealed to us, in the example of the rich man who trusted in his possessions, that whoever loves the world is not able to please God.61
It turns out, however, that this giving of a commandment is yet another example of the loving acts of Christ. Forsaking the world in order to please God is central to his teaching. Forsaking the world, however, does not involve a flight from the world. Rather, it means participating in the love of Christ, and thus fulfilling the law and the Prophets. Love, in turn, can be identified as the element that brings purity to both fasting and prayer. For Aphrahat, obeying the command to forsake the world means embracing purity of heart. He does not explicitly say that askesis helps to develop [End Page 174] purity of heart, but this is because he does not have to; his readers would have made this connection themselves. The reference to possessions in the passage just quoted, however, as well as the material from Demonstrations 1 and 3, noted above, indicate that, according to Aphrahat, the fundamental goal of love/purity/fulfillment of the law, if taken seriously, requires a commitment to asceticism.
It should not be supposed that the pursuit of purity, at least in the Demonstrations, is limited to the realm of sexual renunciation. Those who do not carefully guard, “in purity,”62 the pledge of the Holy Spirit, imparted at baptism, suffer the temporary departure of that Spirit:
[T]his is the way things are for a person: in the hour in which he perceives in his soul that he is not fervent in the Spirit and his heart is falling into attachment to this world, let him understand that the Spirit is not with him, and let him rise up and pray and keep vigil, so that the Spirit of God might come back to him and he might not be conquered by the Adversary.63
Evidence for this departure includes “speaking hateful words or becoming angry or quarrelling or fighting,”64 which, Aphrahat says, serves as a sign for the Evil One to attack, since he then knows that the Spirit is not present. The fact that “guarding the pledge in purity” can mean more than fidelity to a vow of sexual renunciation is significant. For Aphrahat, the ideal of purity is all-encompassing, and is related to obedience to the law, not in its ritual aspects, but at its deepest level, that of loving God and neighbor.65
There can be no doubt, however, that for Aphrahat, sexual renunciation is of great importance in the pursuit of purity, which is obedience to the law of love. This would be clear even apart from Demonstration 18, which focuses directly on Jewish objections to the Christian ideals of virginity and celibacy. It will be enough for my argument to show how these ideals are related to a moral end, and thus to another ideal, that of law-observance. It is here that Aphrahat makes a distinction between the compulsion of Jewish law and the freedom of Christian asceticism. This distinction, however, is not as absolute as it at first seems, since he retains his own version of the law, into which asceticism is incorporated. [End Page 175]
The opening section of Demonstration 18 outlines Aphrahat’s perception of the Jewish objections to virginity and celibacy. In particular, the link between procreation and blessing is rejected. What benefit, Aphrahat asks, are many descendants if the vast majority of them turn to wickedness? Going beyond the general observation of the wickedness of most of the human population, Aphrahat cites the particular examples of Zimri, Achan, and the sons of Eli and Samuel, concluding with the statement, “There are many similar [cases], in which it would have been better for [certain people] not to have fathered [children] or to have been born.”66 On the other hand, “[t]o God, a single person who does [his] will is more excellent and notable before his majesty than myriads and thousands of those who are wicked.”67
Section 9 shows the link between procreation and a tendency to transgress divine law: “[A]fter he fathered Eve, [Adam] went astray and transgressed the commandment . . . David was attractive in his youth, but through his desire for Bathsheba he transgressed the law and abrogated three of the ten commandments. . . .”68 Even the earth, Aphrahat says, was virginal once, before the rain caused it to produce thistles. In the other examples mentioned (the descendants of Seth, Samson, Amnon, and Solomon), it is not stated that the law has been transgressed, but this is certainly implied. The sexual urge that Aphrahat must admit has been created by God and is good in itself (section 8) is in fact a dangerous thing that is better left uncultivated. The biblical warrant for marriage in Gen 2.24 is given a decidedly negative valence: if a man leaves his father [God] and his mother [the Holy Spirit] in order to marry, “his mind is captivated by this world.”69 On the other hand, the “man who has not yet taken a wife and who remains alone is in one spirit and one mind with his father,” that is, with God.70 [End Page 176]
It is at this point in the argument (18.12) that Aphrahat introduces an important distinction between ascetic observance and a kind of law-observance that he claims to have transcended:
For this way of life [i.e., virginity] there is a great reward, since we perfect it by free choice, and not from the slavery and coercion of a commandment or because we are constrained by it under the law. We have found its form and image in Scripture, and we have seen that this image of the watchers in heaven is found with the victorious, while on earth it is acquired as a gift. If a person loses this possession, he will be unable [to find it again], nor is a person able to acquire it at [any] price. No one who has it and loses it will find it [again]. No one who does not have it can run and attain it. Love this gift, my friend, to which nothing in the whole world is comparable.71
Clearly if virginity (and, by extension, non-virginal celibacy) is a gift, it cannot be required by the law.72 What we have seen, however, is that a commitment to celibacy is seen by Aphrahat as a kind of shield against wickedness, a very strong preventative measure. One could say that it functions as a “fence around the law,” to use a well-known rabbinic phrase. Some are given the ability to rise to a higher level of law-observance than [End Page 177] others, that is, a higher level of purity, a deeper commitment to the law of love. When Aphrahat says, in the context of a very real debate with Jewish interlocutors, that Christian asceticism is embraced freely, and not from the “coercion of a commandment or because we are constrained by it under the law,” he is referring to the ritual law that, in his understanding, contributes nothing to the observance of the deeper law (love for God and neighbor).
Law-Observance: The Ritual Dimension
Just as celibacy (and virginity in particular) is reflected, if not commanded, in Jewish Scripture, so too aspects of Christian liturgical ritual can be seen there, according to Aphrahat. Demonstration 12 contains his argument against the Jewish observance of the Passover. His concern is to show that Diaspora Jews cannot lawfully observe the Passover (since this was to occur only in Jerusalem) and that the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection has superseded it anyway. A very comprehensive typological interpretation of the Jewish festival is given, along with a very confusing chronology of Christ’s death and resurrection (12.6–12). There is no need to discuss either of these here. It will suffice to focus on one aspect of Aphrahat’s argument. He says, “After the Passover, Israel eats unleavened bread for seven days until the twenty-first day of the month, but we observe the [days of] unleavened bread as the festival of our Savior.”73 Then in section 12 he stipulates that “If the day of the passover sacrifice, which is the suffering of our Savior, should fall for us on the first [day] of the week, according to the law we ought to make it [fall] on the second day, so that his whole week might be observed with his suffering and his unleavened bread. For after the Passover there are seven days of unleavened bread, until the twenty-first.”74 Aphrahat thought that the Christian Easter celebrations ought to coincide with the Jewish Feast of Unleavened Bread. In this sense Easter itself is portrayed as a kind of law-observance. The seven days of unleavened bread are commanded in the law, but Aphrahat interprets this commandment typologically as pointing to the feast of the Savior. It is not clear if Aphrahat’s “feast of the Savior” is always seven days or not, since if Sunday could not begin the feast then it is hard to see why it would occur in the middle either. What is clear is that Aphrahat felt compelled to observe Easter “according to the law,” where the [End Page 178] commandments about Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread are in mind. This concern for keeping the commandments is reinforced, with a new emphasis, in the closing lines of the Demonstration:
But for us, this is what is required: to observe the festival in its time from season to season, to fast in purity, to pray continually, to give glory [to God] eagerly, to chant psalms when appropriate, to administer correctly the annointing oil [lit. “the sign”] and baptism, to consecrate the holy things in their time and to fulfill all the customary rituals. . . . But if we are troubled by these things, and about [the observation of the] fourteenth alone, let us be diligent, but not [only] about the festival which is from season to season. Rather, let us embrace the observance of the fourteenth of every month, and let us mourn on the Friday of every week. However, we ought to do good on every day of the week before the Lord our God. Now, be convinced by this small [treatise] that I have written to you, for you are not commanded to be troubled by bickering over words, in which there is no profit, but [rather you are commanded to have] a pure heart which observes the commandment75 and the festival and the times of the observances of [each] day.76
Here we catch a rare glimpse into the ritual aspect of Aphrahat’s faith. He is prepared to admit that the Christian community, like the Jewish, has “customary rituals.” The observance of the festival of Christ’s death and resurrection involves a regimen of various actions, all of which are “required” and “commanded.” Of more importance, however, is the requirement to have a pure heart while doing all those things that are required. This demand for purity of heart does not do away with the observance, but rather transposes it to a new key. The observance of the festival is now placed within the larger context of doing good on every day before God. To celebrate the festival “according to the law,” then, is not only to engage in a typological fulfillment of the Old Testament commandment to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, but it is also to do so in the proper way, with purity of heart, which acts according to the law of love and thus fulfills the whole law. Aphrahat, then, replaces one form of ritual with another. He shares with his Jewish opponents a desire to follow God’s law. What is at issue is how to do so. [End Page 179]
For Aphrahat’s celibate circle, asceticism is the path to purity, which could be described as a pure commitment to law-observance. A prominent feature of this asceticism is celibacy, virginity if possible. But as we have seen, Aphrahat is equally (if not more) concerned with purity of speech and acts of compassion. Acts of renunciation that lead to a “flight from the world,” understood geographically or physically, are not valued, but those that contribute to a lessening of a love for the world, understood as a realm of lawlessness, are highly prized indeed. Aphrahat is an ascetic because he wants to follow God’s law, not the reverse. Asceticism, for him, cannot be established on independent grounds, leading subsequently to a concern for the law. Law-observance itself, however, is fundamental in his discourse, and provides a rationale for the various forms of renunciation reflected in the Demonstrations. The few, almost casual, references to a non-written law of righteousness in the hearts of the patriarchs are more important than they at first seem. This unwritten law forms the essence of the Sinai revelation and becomes explicit in the teaching of Christ.77 For [End Page 180] Aphrahat and his circle, Christians who follow the higher way of asceticism make use of powerful tools in the quest to follow this law. In his second Demonstration, which seeks to show how the whole revelation of God is summed up in the double law of love, Aphrahat says that “[e]verything that is done through the law is meant to encourage people to love” God and neighbor (2.8). If my analysis is correct, the same could be said of Aphrahat’s approach to asceticism.
Dr. Adam Lehto lives in Waterloo, Ontario
1. For a general introduction to Aphrahat, see Marie-Joseph Pierre, Aphraate le Sage Persan: Les Exposés I–X, SC 349 (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1988), 33–199. A more concise introduction can be found in Peter Bruns, Aphrahat: Unterweisungen. Erster Teilband, Fontes christiani 5/1 (Freiburg: Herder, 1991), 35–73.
2. The most plausible explanation for the shift in focus toward Jewish issues in the second series of Demonstrations is that Shapur II had initiated a persecution against Christians, making conversion to Judaism more appealing. Directly related to Shapur’s war with Rome, which was now pro-Christian, this persecution became intense when the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Simeon bar Sabba’e, refused to collect a head tax imposed on Christians to finance the war. See S. P. Brock, “Christians in the Sasanian Empire: A Case of Divided Loyalties,” in Religion and National Identity,Studies in Church History 18, ed. Stuart Mews (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 1–19; J. G. Snaith, “Aphrahat and the Jews,” in Interpreting the Hebrew Bible: Essays in Honour of E. I. J. Rosenthal, ed. J. A. Emerton and Stefan C. Reif (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 235–37; Pierre, Les Exposés I–X, 71–93; Naomi Koltun-Fromm, “A Jewish-Christian Conversation in Fourth-Century Persian Mesopotamia,” JJS 47 (1996): 45–63; Adam H. Becker, “Beyond the Spatial and Temporal Limes: Questioning the ‘Parting of the Ways’ outside the Roman Empire,” in The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, ed. Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 343–62.
3. Demonstration 20.7–12 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:904, 13–1:913, 5). I have used the standard critical edition of J. Parisot (“Aphraatis Sapientis Persae Demonstrationes,” in PS volumes 1 [Demonstrations 1–22] and 2 [Demonstration 23], ed. R. Graffin [Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1894 and 1907]). In-text references are to Demonstration number and section number (as established by Parisot). All translations of the Demonstrations are the author’s own. For a discussion of this particular Demonstration and a plausible reconstruction of its social context, see Adam H. Becker, “Anti-Judaism and Care for the Poor in Aphrahat’s Demonstration 20,” JECS 10 (2002): 305–27. Of the few extant works of Syrian provenance earlier than the Demonstrations, none but the Didascalia exhibit such a preoccupation with Judaism. This work was originally written in Greek, but was translated into Syriac not long before Aphrahat wrote his Demonstrations. It is in fact a Syriac manuscript which provides the only complete version of this work, with fragments surviving in Greek, along with extensive Latin portions. For an English translation and extensive introduction, see R. H. Connolly, Didascalia Apostolorum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929). Connolly includes the extensive Latin fragments on facing pages where they occur and refers to the few Greek fragments in his footnotes. He argues that Aphrahat probably knew the Didascalia. A. Vööbus, skeptical of any influence from the Didascalia on Aphrahat, has produced the most recent critical edition (The Didascalia Apostolorum in Syriac, CSCO 401 and 407 [Louvain: Secrétariat du CorpusSCO, 1979]) along with an English translation published at the same time (CSCO 402 and 408). For a reading of the Didascalia as a Jewish document, see Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, “The Didascalia Apostolorum: A Mishnah for the Disciples of Jesus,” JECS 9 (2001): 483–509.
4. Henceforth “divine law” will be referred to simply as “law” for the sake of convenience.
5. See Frank Gavin, “Aphraates and the Jews,” Journal of the Society of Oriental Research, 7, #3–4 (1923): 95–166; Marcel Simon, Verus Israel: A Study of the Relations between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire (135–425) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986; trans. by H. McKeating of French 2nd edition published in 1964); Jacob Neusner, Aphrahat and Judaism: The Christian-Jewish Argument in Fourth Century Iran (Leiden: Brill, 1971); Snaith, “Aphrahat and the Jews”; P. Hayman, “The Image of the Jew in the Syriac Anti-Jewish Polemical Literature” in “To See Ourselves as Others See Us”: Christians, Jews, “Others” in Late Antiquity,ed. Jacob Neusner and Ernest S. Frerichs (Chico: Scholars Press, 1985), 423–41; Pierre, Les Exposés (introduction, as well as extensive footnotes throughout on rabbinic parallels); Naomi Koltun-Fromm, “Sexuality and Holiness: Semitic Christian and Jewish Conceptualizations of Sexual Behavior,” VC 54 (2000): 375–95; idem, “Yokes of the Holy Ones: The Embodiment of a Christian Vocation,” HTR 94 (2001): 205–18.
6. A recent study by Diana Juhl fails to acknowledge the multivalency of the term “law” for Aphrahat, a failure that is all too typical in the literature: “Neben dem Tod war das Gesetz eine weitere Folge des Falls. Afrahat hat dabei das ganze mosaische Gesetz im Blick. Das Gesetz sollte den viefältigen Begierden der Menschen entgegentreten, die Menschen vor der Sünde schützen. Erst bei der Ankunft des Erlösers wurde der Gebrauch des Gesetzes aufgehoben” (Die Askese im Liber Graduum und bei Afrahat [Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1996], 67). This does not negate the value of her study as a whole.
7. Demonstration 18.12 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:841, 20–22).
8. Five of these occurrences are in Demonstration 2, where Aphrahat discusses the way in which the law of love has fulfilled the law and the Prophets. Four of these five occur in quotations of the words of Christ, and the remaining example in Demonstration 2 is found in Aphrahat’s introduction to one of these quotations. The other two occurrences of the term in the Demonstrations are in 1.19 and 21.18, where Aphrahat is not quoting any verse. That he uses the term as a synonym for nāmosā can be deduced by comparing 2.1 and 2.2, where the phrase “the law and the Prophets” occurs using first one (in quotation) and then another term for “law.” I have used the term “Torah” (a cognate) to translate ‘orāytā. In contrast to the limited use of ‘orāytā, the term nāmosā is used 53 times in Demonstration 2 and 116 times elsewhere.
9. The title of the work as a whole is derived from this feature of the text, which includes many “demonstrations” of the truth of its arguments from Scripture.
10. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:44, 16–17.
11. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:56, 19–20.
12. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:61, 23–25.
13. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:104, 4–5.
14. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:105, 14–15.
15. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:756, 11–12.
16. See Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:56, 21; 1:57, 12–13, 15, 24; 1:60, 12. Significantly, earlier in Demonstration 2, Aphrahat had argued that the patriarchs exhibited the “works of the law” before the law was revealed (1:49, 17; 1:52, 7). Clearly this phrase, in contrast to those just mentioned, had a positive meaning for Aphrahat.
17. In 5.20, Antiochus is presented as a kind of anti-Christ (not Aphrahat’s term), in the sense that he, too “made the observances which are in the law cease,” not because he wanted to fulfill the law (as Christ did), but because he opposed all righteousness.
18. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:757, 9–11.
19. See also 7.19 (“When [Gideon] assembled the people for war, the scribes admonished [them] with the words of the law . . .”), where “law” clearly means something less than “Old Testament,” but may be either “Sinai revelation” or “Pentateuch.”
20. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:121, 8–11.
21. See 1:244, 12–13; 1:265, 10–11. In Gal 3.10, Paul quotes Deut 27.26 in order to argue that those who try to obey the whole law are under a curse, since such obedience, on his view, is impossible. In 6.6, Aphrahat argues that “it was because of [Eve] that the curse of the law was established, and it was because of her that the promise of death came.” There is no reason to suppose that “the curse of the law” in this passage has the same meaning as it does in Galatians. Rather than focusing on a curse from Deuteronomy, Aphrahat refers to the Genesis narrative, which is more appropriate for a discussion of the role of Eve. Thus the phrase “curse of the law” seems to refer to “the curse recorded in Genesis” (which is part of the law, i.e., the Pentateuch) rather than “the curse recorded in the Mosaic legislation.”
22. See Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:252, 23–26; 1:304, 22–25; 1:312, 17–18; 1:349, 11–13; 1:412, 6–8; 1:416, 17–19; 1:433, 4–12.
23. Demonstration 2.2 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:48, 11–13).
24. Demonstration 2.11 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:72, 19–21).
25. Demonstration 1.2 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:8, 4–6); Demonstration 23.61 (2:128, 12–13).
26. Demonstration 23.62 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 2:128, 18–23; 129, 15–23).
27. Demonstration 23.67 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 2:144, 19–2:148, 8).
28. This is a major theme in early Christianity and beyond. As Marcel Simon so aptly put it: “In actual fact there is not a great deal of difference between the Jew who applies himself to fulfil what the law prescribes and the apostle who spontaneously, without seeking to do so, lives in conformity with the law. There was even less difference between the ordinary Christian and the ordinary Jew. For the immense majority of Christians the commandments kept their old force, as they had always done. This was even more true after Christian theology had slipped into moralistic grooves very similar to those of Judaism, and made respectable again the ideas of merit and retribution that St. Paul had denied” (Verus Israel, 75). A trajectory that would repay further study on this theme runs from Theophilus of Antioch through the Didascalia and Aphrahat and on to Philoxenus of Mabbug.
29. Demonstration 1.11 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:25, 4–1:28, 21).
30. For the sake of convenience, I will refer to Aphrahat as the author of the exhortation, though it must be kept in mind that here he was not writing on his own, but representing the convictions of the covenanters in general. This is not to deny, of course, that the fourteenth Demonstration bears all the marks of Aphrahat’s own convictions.
31. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:577, 1–2.
32. See Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:577, 22 and 1:580, 1.
33. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:633, 7.
34. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:640, 12–22.
35. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:704, 11–1:708, 16.
36. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:705, 9–10.
37. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:620, 27–1:621, 1.
38. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:660, 14–22.
39. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:661, 7–8.
40. Section 35 opens as follows: “Who perceives the place of knowledge? Who comprehends the foundation of wisdom? Who discerns the place of understanding? It is hidden from every living thing, and from the thoughts of all flesh” (1:660, 23–26). The words “knowledge” and “wisdom” are feminine singular, while “understanding” is masculine singular. The pronoun “it” is feminine singular. Either Aphrahat is referring back to knowledge or wisdom, or, more likely, he is treating all three terms as referring to essentially the same entity. He uses the pronoun, rather than any particular term, in the long description that follows. I use the term “wisdom” to refer to what might be more properly referred to as “knowledge/wisdom/understanding.”
41. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:661, 17–18.
42. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:664, 10–14.
43. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:665, 4–5.
44. See the very thorough and thought-provoking article by Alexander Golitzin, “The Place of the Presence of God: Aphrahat of Persia’s Portrait of the Christian Holy Man: An Essay in Honor of Archimandrite Aimilianos of the Monastery of Simonos Petras, Mount Athos”(
45. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:672, 18–20.
46. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:672, 21–23.
47. See Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:676, 7 and 1:676, 16.
48. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:676, 8–9.
49. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:716, 20–1:717, 7.
50. See Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:649, 12–13 and 1:680, 25–26.
51. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:924, 2–4.
52. For an insightful discussion of Aphrahat’s use of Paul, see Stephen S. Taylor, “Paul and the Persian Sage: Some Observations on Aphrahat’s Use of the Pauline Corpus,” in The Function of Scripture in Early Jewish and Christian Tradition, ed. Craig A. Evans and James A. Sanders (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 312–31.
53. For a discussion of the theme of humility in Aphrahat, and how it might compare to the concept of “implicity” in Philoxenus, see Adam Lehto, “Aphrahat and Philoxenus on Faith,” The Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 4 (2004): 47–59.
54. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 2:9, 7–8.
55. Others have undertaken this task effectively. See Sebastian Brock, “Early Syrian Asceticism” (Numen 20 [1973]: 1–19); George Nedungatt, “The Covenanters in the Early Syriac-Speaking Church” (OCP 39 [1973]: 191–215 and 419–44); Robert Murray, “The Exhortation to Candidates for Ascetical Vows at Baptism in the Ancient Syriac Church” (NTS 21 [1974]: 59–80); idem,”The Features of the Earliest Christian Asceticism,” in Christian Spirituality: Essays in Honour of George Rupp, ed. Peter Brooks (London, SCM Press: 1975), 65–77; idem,”‘Circumcision of the Heart’ and the Origins of the Qyāmâ,” in After Bardaisan: Studies on Continuity and Change in Syriac Christianity in Honour of Professor Han J. W. Drijvers, ed. G. J. Reinink and A. C. Klugkist, Orientalia Lovaniensia analecta 89 (Louvain: Peeters, 1999), 201–11; Marie-Joseph Pierre, “Introduction,” in Les Exposés; Sidney H Griffith, “Asceticism in the Church of Syria: The Hermeneutics of Early Syrian Monasticism,” in Asceticism, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush & Richard Valantasis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 220–45; Diana Juhl, Die Askese.
56. Demonstration 3.2 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:101, 10–11).
57. Demonstration 3.7 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:113, 12–22).
58. Demonstration 3.16 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:136, 12–14).
59. Demonstration 14.4 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:169, 16–23).
60. Demonstration 4.13 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:165, 16).
61. Demonstration 2.20 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:96, 3–4).
62. Demonstration 6.1 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:245, 21).
63. Demonstration 6.17 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:301, 11–16).
64. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:304, 11–12.
65. Here, of course, Aphrahat’s Jewish interlocutors might have protested that the ritual observance of the law is precisely intended to facilitate the observance of the “deeper” law, rather than being an end in itself.
66. Demonstration 18.6 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:832, 21–23).
67. Demonstration 18.3 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:824, 7–9).
68. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:837, 3–5, 11–14.
69. Demonstration 18.10 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:840, 15–16).
70. Demonstration 18.11 (Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:840, 26–1:841, 2). Though this particular interpretation of Gen 2.24 is not mentioned in the discussion of the passage in Elizabeth Clark’s Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 182–83, Aphrahat’s approach to the passage appears to be close to that of Jerome and John Chrysostom (among many others), who thought that marriage represented a fallen state. Not surprisingly, it is here, in his defense of virginity and celibacy against Jewish criticisms, that Aphrahat is forced to give the most ascetic reading of the Old Testament in all of the Demonstrations. Elsewhere, ascetic exegesis rarely figures prominently: Aphrahat’s moral and historical orientation does not require it. The main exception to this rule is found in Demonstration 7.18–22, where Aphrahat gives an ascetic reading of Judg 7.1–8: Gideon choosing men for war is compared to the leaders of the church guiding select candidates into ascetic warfare. A less prominent example is Aphrahat’s attribution of “pure fasting” to a series of Old Testament figures (see 3.2). This, however, is ascetic reading with a twist, since what he is attributing to them is not literal fasting, but rather the purity of heart that literal fasting, at best, facilitates. Even when Aphrahat has the luxury of examples of literal fasting (that is, Moses and Elijah; see 3.3), the important thing is that they “fasted purely” and thus were able to function effectively as God’s servants.
71. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:841, 19–1:844, 5.
72. Naomi Koltun-Fromm has suggested that “Aphrahat perceived his celibate vocation as a divinely commanded obligation” (“Yokes of the Holy Ones,” 215). This is true only indirectly. Insofar as virginity, for example, is a gift, it cannot be considered a general law. But if virginity enables the select few to follow the law of love more closely, then by extension we might say (though, in a polemical context, Aphrahat avoids this formulation) that it is “commanded” for those few. Earlier in her article Koltun-Fromm states, “A comparison between Aphrahat’s ‘yoke’ and various rabbinic ‘yokes’ illuminates how Aphrahat’s Christianity and rabbinic Judaism share common Semitic exegetical patterns and methodology. The yoke’s embodiment in ritualized practice—celibacy for Aphrahat and Torah-study and commandment-fulfillment for the rabbis—enables these biblical exegetes to pursue analogous paths to holiness in a post-Temple existence.” Koltun-Fromm’s general point is well-taken, but it is a mistake to suggest that Torah-study and commandment fulfillment are not important for Aphrahat. As we have seen, Aphrahat is comfortable with the designation of the Decalogue as Christ’s “easy yoke,” and his self-designation as a “disciple of the holy scriptures” (22.26) should be taken seriously.
73. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:521, 12–15.
74. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:533, 24–1:536, 4.
75. The “commandment” that is observed by the pure in heart may be the love command (cf. 1.8; 1.11; 2.12; 14.14; 14.44).
76. Parisot, Demonstrationes, 1:537, 8–15 and 1:537, 20–1:540, 6.
77. Aphrahat’s claim that an unwritten law of righteousness predated Sinai, continued to be operative under the written law, and was now clarified in Christ’s teaching and call is formally similar to the later Islamic claim that what Muslims embrace in their faith is nothing other than the pure and original form of religion. For a similar statement in another important early Syriac text, note the following passage from the Liber Graduum 26.5: “Now this Gospel which Jesus gave is the same one which Adam transgressed and [from which he] fell. That Uprightness which Moses and the prophets gave is the same one which was established for Adam after he had transgressed against the first commandment. So the first law become the latter law and the latter [law became] the first one, just as the last became the first and the first [became] the last” (trans. Robert A. Kitchen, The Book of Steps: The Syriac Liber Graduum, Cistercian Studies Series 196 [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2004]). Aleksander Kowalski has argued that in the Liber Graduum, the commandment to avoid eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (sometimes simply called “the first commandment”) is associated with prohibitions against obeying Satan and engaging in worldly activities (marriage, ownership, and the like). In other words, according to the Liber Graduum, Adam and Eve were the first monastics (see Perfezione e giustizia di Adamo nel Liber Graduum [Rome: Pontificium institutum orientale, 1989], 41–46). While it is clear that for Aphrahat, as for the Liber Graduum, there was a “fall into sexuality,” there is, in Aphrahat, no association of the commandment to avoid the fruit of the tree with prohibitions against obeying Satan and embracing worldly activities (for the relevant passages, see Demonstrations 2.2,7; 7.1; 8.17; 11.3; 13.4; 18.9; 21.1, 2, 6; 23.3). Even more significant is the lack of any distinction between perfection and uprightness in the Demonstrations, and the corresponding lack of a “law for the perfect” (first given to Adam and reinstituted by Christ) and a “law for the upright” (given to Moses to regulate the lives of those who had fallen from perfection). For Aphrahat, the perfect law of love, which is also the “law of righteousness” written on the hearts of the patriarchs, forms the essence of the Mosaic law, and it is to this law that Christ calls his followers to return. Asceticism is embraced as a means to the fulfillment of this law of love. The lack of any emphasis on a separate “law for the upright” is probably also a function of Aphrahat’s decision to address his own ascetic circle, and not the wider church.