Mar George, Bishop of the Arabs (d. 725)

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Mar George, Bishop of the Arabs
(d. 725)

Mar George or Georgi, bishop of the Arabs was a scholar, a church dignitary, a student of philosophy, an excellent critic and an authority who was deeply versed in both poetry and prose. In the prime of his life, he studied at Qinnesrin under Severus Sabukht shortly before the latter’s death, and later under other professors. He acquired all that the brilliant mind could absorb of the Syriac philological sciences as well as philosophical, astronomical, theological sciences and history. He assumed the monastic habit and pursued godliness. He was ordained a priest and then a bishop of the Arab tribes of Tay, Uqayl and Tunukh, on the twenty-first of November, 686. Thus, he came to be known as the Bishop of the Arabs. The seat of his diocese was Aqula, which is the town of al-Kufa. He also had a monastery in which he resided and from which he administered his diocese. He supervised his diocese in the best manner for thirty-two years (or forty years) during which he shown in purity and knowledge, until he died, a venerable aged man, in February 725 or 726.
Following is a list of his interesting works which have come down to us and which indicate his proficiency and eloquence:
l) Commentaries on some Books of the Bible which were cited by the commentators Patriarch George, the monk Severus, Bar Salibi and Bar Hebraeus.
2) A short commentary in fifteen pages on the Sacraments of the Church concerning Faith, Baptism, the celebration of the Eucharist and the Chrism. A copy of this commentary is at the British Museum;437 another copy is at the library of Seirt.438
3) A supplement of the Book of the Six Days by the learned Jacob of Edessa in ten pages, translated by Ryssel into German.
4) Compilation of a large scholion on the homilies of Gregory Nazianzen.

5) A translation of the Organon of Aristotle, to each part of which he prefixed an introduction, following each section with a commentary. Parts of this significant translation were published by Hoffmann.440 Ernest Renan had this to say about this work: “I did not find among the philosophical commentaries of the Syrian scholars, a more important and precise treatise than this work. It deserves to have priority of publication over all Syriac philosophical writings.”441 There is an incomplete copy of this work in the library of London in two hundred forty-four pages, transcribed in the eighth or the ninth century, the text being written in heavy script and the notes in fine script.442
6) A chronicle which he mentioned in some of his letters to John of Atharib, and cited by Elias bar Shinaya in the second part of his history.443 This chronicle is lost.
7) Six long homilies in the twelve-syllable meter, the first of which is on the holy Chrism;444 the second comprising twelve large pages on the life of Severus of Antioch, praising his virtues;445 the third on solitary monks (in four pages);446 the fourth on the Calendar; the fifth on Palm Sunday, beginning with: “O Son of God whose glory hath filled the heights and the depths, fill thou mine soul with praise appropriate of thy exaltedness and humbleness;”448 the sixth on the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, a copy of which is extant in Mardin;449 and a charming sughith in heptasyllabic meter on Abraham and his sacrifice.450
8) A collection of letters preserved in London, in one hundred and forty pages, covering theological, juristic, astronomical, ritualistic and historical problems which he carefully examined and distinguished between the important and unimportant problems. These letters also exhibit the author’s ability, intelligence and erudition. Moreover, they contain a fair, scientific criticism hardly different from the points of view of top precise contemporary critics.

The first letter is addressed to Mari, abbot of the Monastery of Talada in May, 717 and contains replies to twenty-two heretical questions; the second is addressed to the deacon Barhadhbshabba of the Monastery of Beth Meluta or Talitha on the ninth of January, 715, in reply to a minor question; the third, in reply to a heretical question, is addressed to the priest and recluse Yeshu of the village Baneb;452 the fourth is addressed to the same priest in July, 714, in reply to nine questions concerning Aphrahat, the Persian Sage, and refuting the latter’s allegations that the world would end in the sixth century; that at the time of death the soul is buried in a senseless body; concerning the case of an Orthodox priest giving absolution to a heretic deacon; concerning the criticizing of the story of Gregory the Illuminator, who converted the Armenians; concerning the age of Simon the Aged; concerning persons who offer up prayers, or celebrate the Holy Eucharist, with their heads covered; of newly baptized children, who are possessed of a devil, etc.; the fifth is addressed to the stylite priest, John of Atharib in July, 714, in reply to eight astronomical questions; the sixth is written to the same John, explaining what he could not understand of the letters of Jacob of Edessa (seven saints mentioned by Jacob) to Cyrius of Dara, followed by his replies to the logical questions laid down to him by Thomas the Sculptor, dated the first of March, 715. In his reply George mentioned that he knew only Syriac, which means he did not know Greek. Syriac and Greek were the two languages mastered at that time by church scholars to study philosophy and theology. But this does not mean that he knew no Arabic – which he undoubtedly knew – for nobody would be in charge of the Arabs without having a knowledge of their tongue; the seventh, addressed to the same John in March, 716, relating to three astronomical matters; the eighth, to the same, on a dispute that had arisen at the assembly of monks and clergy concerning the prayer for the dead and the confession of sins,453 (a significant letter, dated the sixth of March, 718); the ninth, to the same, containing an exposition of the letter of Jacob of Edessa to the ascetic priest Abraham. He also discussed in this letter the various kinds of water and the springs of Tar454 which he saw in Persia; the tenth letter, written in December 717 and addressed to the recluse priest Yeshu in reply to three matters, the second of which concerns the question: “Should the holy Sacraments be lifted up in the absence of a deacon and without the table of the Show Bread?”; the third of these questions, on the offering of the Sacraments to baptized children and to the dying sick; the eleventh letter, to his secretary the priest Jacob, explaining two passages in the book of Gregory Nazianzen,455 at the beginning of which he stated that his Syriac translation was not correct. He went on to say that, “The correct translation is that which has been explained to me by the patriarch Athanasius II, may God rest him in peace.” There are the eleven letters which the London MS contains. As to the twelfth letter, we have found it in the Book of Canon in Basibrina, along with five addressed to the ascetic priest Addai in reply to seven questions covering one and a half pages. There was a second copy of this letter in the library of Seirt which is lost.456 This library also contained a copy of his third and eleventh letters, addressed to the priest and recluse Yeshu. The Church, moreover, has incorporated some of these letters into its canons. Besides, George undoubtedly wrote many other letters which were lost. The letters of his that are intact are those written during the last ten years of his life. It is also quite improbable that an authority and scholar like George would not be asked for the solution of other problems in the course of his long tenure as a bishop.457
George’s style is powerful, solid and fluent; his poetry is elegant, and most is of the very best quality.

118. Mar George, Bishop of the Arabs (d. 725)