Otherwise known as the “Persian Sage,” a name given to him in manuscripts from the fifth and sixth century CE, Aphrahat was a Christian author who lived in the Sassanid Persian empire during the fourth century. Altogether he composed twenty-three short theological treatises, the Demonstrations (or sometimes Letters), which act as an apology against Judaism and were written between 337 and 345 CE. The collection of Demonstrations is the first extensive piece of literature in Syriac to survive. Demonstrations I-X are dated specifically to 337 CE, XI-XXII to 344 CE, and XXIII to 345 CE. Although relatively little is known about Aphrahat, it has been suggested both that he held a position of some authority within the Church, as his Demonstrations X and XIV are addressed to “bishops and clergy,” and that he was a monk, based on the significant ascetic content of the Demonstrations. However, as David J. Lane explains, these assertions are very uncertain, even doubtful (on the identity of Aphrahat, see Lane, “Of Wars,” p. 232-234). Regardless, in order to contextualise the content of Aphrahat’s writings, it is important to remember that “When he wrote his contemporaries were faced with Judaism or Christianity as the fulfilment of promise and Covenant, and with the need to set current events within phases of the divine plan” (see Lane, “Of Wars,” p. 234). In his fifth Demonstration, On Wars, Aphrahat deals with the conflict between the Romans and Persians (led by the Sassanid king Shapur II) for control of the cities between the Upper Euphrates and the Tigris. Timothy Barnes argues that On Wars can be more specifically dated to the July of 337 CE, the war which Aphrahat speaks of anticipating the invasion of the part of Persia where he lived by the emperor Constantine, whom he did not realise had already died, and believed that Shapur could not withstand (“Constantine and the Christians of Persia,” p. 128-130).
In order to make sense of the present extract, some contextual information for Aphrahat’s wider argument in On Wars is necessary. As Lane recognises, and as we shall see in our discussion of the above extract, the textclosely correlates Roman history with the book of Daniel. Aphrahat begins by assigning the four dominant empires (Babylon, Media/Persia, Macedonia (Alexander’s empire), and Rome) to the four beasts described in the vision of Daniel 7, which Daniel is told represent four kingdoms (Lane, “Of Wars,” p. 241). For more on this theme, see also chapter XXIV of On Wars, a section of Aphrahat’s writing which as Hervé Inglebert identifies, sees the third and fourth beasts, i.e. Macedonia and Rome, as one and the same, coming from the same origin: Alexander the Great (see Inglebert, Interpretatio christiana, p. 352-356; for this argument, see also Lane, “Of Wars,” p. 241). As Inglebert identifies, there are three significant aspects to Aphrahat’s argument in On Wars. First, because Alexander had defeated the Achaemenid Persians, the Romans, which he sees as Alexander’s successors, would similarly suppress the Sassanid Persians. Moreover, the Romans would win out because Christ supported them, and Christ was a Roman (for this argument, again see chapter XXIV). The final argument is of particular relevance to the present passage, and asserts that the Romans, who are identified as the sons of Esau (this was a common rabbinic identification; see, for instance, Jerusalem Talmud, Gittin 5:6, 47b), were the guardians of universal power while waiting for the Parousia of Christ (see Inglebert, “Comparer Rome, Alexandre et Babylone”; on this theme in Aphrahat, see also Papoutsakis, Vicarious Kingship, p. 43). Essentially, God granted Rome the right and power to rule until the end of time. Moreover, “the Christian church (for a short while under the protection of a Christian Rome) will, in place of the Jews who have forfeited their claim, be exalted at the coming of the Christ” (Lane, “Of Wars,” p. 239-240).
Aphrahat juxtaposes the book of Daniel with both Genesis 6:10, which lists the three sons of Noah (Shem, Ham, and Japheth), and Genesis 10, which presents the Table of the Nations, the result being that Shem, Ham, and Japheth are understood as representations of the later kingdoms which would come to dominance. So, our passage has the sons of Ham as the seed of Nimrod, who represent Babylon. Japheth, who is here understood as the younger son (contra Genesis 10:21), is presented as the ancestor both of the Medes and the Persians (represented by Madai in Genesis 10:2), and it is stated that the Greeks are the brothers of the Medes (so therefore also related to Japheth; Lane, “Of Wars,” p. 241, and n. 47). Japheth’s fourth son, Yavan was taken as the ancestor of the Greeks (see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, I.124, 127, who lumps all Grecians together regardless of whether they live in Aeolia, Cilicia, or Cyprus; in rabbinic literature, Javan is similarly associated with Macedonia: see Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 10a). Finally, it is stated that the sons of Shem are the sons of Esau (Rome). As explained above, Macedonia (or the Greeks) are linked by Aphrahat with Rome owing to their mutual descent from Alexander the Great. This is why our extract presents the third beast (the Greeks, associated with the children of Japheth) and the fourth beast (the Romans, also the children of Shem and the children of Esau) as having initially formed a confederacy. As Inglebert argues, this notion of the existence of a “Greco-Roman empire” conflicted with the rabbinic presentation (which Aphrahat also picks up) of the Romans as the sons of Esau, and therefore consequently as sons of Shem, and the Greeks understood as descendants of Japheth. However, as Inglebert explains, for Aphrahat, the somewhat confusing explanations of genealogy function purely ideologically. What he is trying to do is prevent the Parthians and Sassanid Persians from having a claim to the universal empire; this was something that only Rome, the successor of Alexander, could claim (see “Comparer Rome, Alexandre et Babylone”). Eventually, our passage explains, Japheth’s descendants yield to Shem’s, with government taken away from the former and given to the latter, and this signals the displacement of the Greeks by Rome (see Lane, “Of Wars,” p. 241).
As Inglebert has recognised, this leads to the second major feature of Aphrahat’s argument, which concludes our passage, that the dominion which will have passed through the hands of the sons of Ham (Babylon), Japheth (Medes, Persians, Greeks), and Shem (Rome, the “sons of Esau”) will ultimately be given to its rightful ruler, Christ, who will take it from the temporary custody of the Romans at his Parousia (“Comparer Rome, Alexandre et Babylone”). In rabbinic interpretation the identification of Rome with Esau contrasted with the identification of Jacob as Israel. The book of Genesis narrates that Esau gave up his birthright, i.e. the right to be recognised as firstborn and therefore heir to the patriarchal legacy of Abraham, to his twin brother Jacob in exchange for food when he was starving after a day of work in the fields (see Genesis 25). Rabbinic interpretation likened Esau to the Romans on account of the supposed following behaviours: idolatry, depravity, and murder (see Mireille Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem Against Rome, p. 505). In Aphrahat’s text, Jacob/Israel stands for the Jews (Jacob’s name is changed to Israel in Genesis 32:28, and he subsequently fathers twelve sons who form the twelve tribes of Israel), with Esau standing for the Romans as we have seen. However, the interpretation of rightful rule/power in relation to these biblical characters is somewhat turned on its head. In chapter XXIV of On Wars, Aphrahat states that “For first, He gave the Kingdom to the sons of Jacob, and subdued to them the children of Esau; as Isaac said to Esau: ‘You shall serve Jacob your brother’ (Genesis 27:40). And when again they did not prosper in the Kingdom, He took it away from the children of Jacob and gave it to the children of Esau until He should come Whose it is.” Rather than Jacob’s descendants (the Jews) being viewed as the rightful inheritors of power, instead it is Esau’s (the Romans) who are presented as being the legitimate holders of the kingdom. This feeds into Aphrahat’s broader vision whereby Christianity has replaced Judaism as the claimant of God’s favour. As Barnes states, Aphrahat’s argument betrays “an assumption that the central fact of Roman imperial history is the conversion of the empire to Christianity” (“Constantine and the Christians of Persia,” p. 133-134).
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