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 the 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, “On Wars,” p. 233-23). 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, “On 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 (“Constantine and the Christians of Persia,” p. 128-130). Barnes argues that the war which Aphrahat speaks of anticipates 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. In On Wars XV-XIX, Aphrahat takes up the myth of succession drawn upon by many other Christian authors which interpreted the dream of king Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2:31-45 as denoting four kingdoms which would rule in succession (see, for example, the commentary on Orosius’s Seven Books of History Against the Pagans for his use of this, and further examples in Christian and non-Christian literature).
As Lane recognises, Aphrahat’s text closely correlates Roman history with the book of Daniel. He begins by assigning the four empires (Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, and Rome) to the four beasts described in the vision of Daniel 7, which Daniel is told also represent four kingdoms (for an example of Christian interpretation of this, see the commentary on the Epistle of Barnabas 4:3-5; Lane, “On Wars,” p. 241; see also Inglebert, Interpretatio Christiana, p. 362-364). Aphrahat accepts the interpretation whereby the Sassanids, descended from the Persian empire, would be defeated by Rome, the fourth empire, just as Alexander had defeated the Achaemenid (or First Persian) empire. On Wars begins by stating that God will subdue the wicked and use them as tools to his own ends. Aphrahat then provides a list of biblical examples of individuals whose arrogance had been humbled by God, including Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar. The present passage begins with a continuation of this theme, stating that the sons of Jacob, who represent for Aphrahat the Jews, and were previously granted the Kingdom of God, were eventually stripped of it in favour of the sons of Esau (or Edom), who represent the Romans (this was a popular identification; see, for instance, Jerusalem Talmud, Gittin 5:6, 47b). The sons of Esau then acted as keepers of the Kingdom “until He should come Whose it is” (Genesis 27:40; on this citation, see Robert Owens, Genesis and Exodus Citations, p. 152). As Robert Owens recognises, the emphasis in this passage is on the everlasting nature of Christ’s kingdom. Christ is understood as the rightful inheritor of God’s Kingdom, for whom the sons of Esau (i.e. the Romans) keep it temporarily, and the second citation from Genesis 49:10 also serves to support this idea (Genesis and Exodus Citationsp. 174). Roman dominion will therefore continue until Christ, to whom the kingdom truly belongs, comes to reclaim it. This links Daniel 2:44 with Daniel 7:13-14, which both describe the infinite nature of God’s unconquerable kingdom (see Lane, “On Wars,” p. 241). Aphrahat assures his reader that this great kingdom “will not be conquered” due to its champion being the mighty Jesus. What is particularly interesting for our purposes, is that Aphrahat understands the divinely sanctioned Roman empire as being championed and protected by Christ, who is described in an unusual manner almost like a military general. We will discuss this further below.
Over the course of On Wars, Aphrahat adjusts Roman rulers in order to make them fit with the Danielic text, and to make it possible for Constantine and Shapur to both be given a role in God’s grander plan. The Christians, rather than the Jews, are therefore understood as inheriting God’s chosen kingdom (Rome), and it is them who will keep it until Christ returns to claim it. Even if it were not already clear from the wider context of On Wars, that Rome is the kingdom referred to in our passage is made clear by the fact that Aphrahat describes Christ as being enrolled amongst the people of this kingdom by the “poll-tax/tribute,” and alludes to Luke 2:1-2, which describes Jesus’s incarnation as coinciding with the Roman census under Caesar Augustus. This subject is taken up by several early-Christian authors, who offer varying interpretations of the significance of the Roman census occurring at the time of Christ’s nativity. The author of the Commentary of Daniel (see the discussion of IV.9) argues that the census had the effect of distinguishing between those who pledged allegiance to “a king of the earth” (these would take the name of “Roman”), and those who chose to follow the “king of heaven” (these would take the name “Christians”). The author of this text makes clear that Christians and Romans are both distinct and incompatible. Taking the complete opposite point of view, the fourth-century writer Paulus Orosius argues Christ specifically chose to be enrolled as a Roman citizen. The historical inaccuracy which leads Orosius to claim the census granted citizenship to Christ does not damage his overall point, which is to strongly associate Jesus with the Roman empire, and thereby present it as representing God’s new chosen people (see Seven Books of History Against the Pagans VI.22.5-8). A similar attitude is taken by John Chrysostom, who in his Homily on the Date of Christmas 2 asserts that God inspired the emperor to send out the decree in order to help bring about his purpose for mankind (see also Origen’s Homily 11 on Luke 1.80–2.2, which concludes that the census was utilised by God in order to help bring about universal salvation, by uniting all those in the Roman world with Christ). Similarly for Aphrahat, then, the census described by the Lukan author is important because it effectively claimed Christ for the Roman empire, making him one of Rome’s people. As far as Aphrahat is concerned this allowed Christ to become a defender of Rome, aiding its armies and providing them with a path to victory: while “clothed in His armour, [the Romans] shall not be found wanting in war.”
The suggestion in our passage that Christ fought with the Romans, providing them with military strength is striking. Hervé Inglebert argues that this conception likely arises from the fact that at the time when Aphrahat was writing, the Roman army displayed Christian symbols as emblems on their standards (“Christian Reflections,” p. 103). Eusebius claims that an inscription below a statue of Constantine in Rome commemorating his defeat of Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge attributed his victory to “this sign (σημεῖον, sēmeion) of salvation, the true symbol of goodness” (Ecclesiastical History IX.9.11; see also Life of Constantine I.40, and for a discussion, see the commentary on the Colossus of Constantine). Moreover, in the Life of Constantine I.30-31 Eusebius describes how after his famous vision of Christ prior to the battle with Maxentius, Constantine instructed a standard to be made which was gilded with gold and jewels, and bore Christ’s initials, the Greek letters Chi and Rho (known as the labarum). Eusebius tells us that a long spear with a horizontal bar laid across it gave the standard the appearance of Christ’s cross, and the emperor ordered similar standards to be carried at the head of his armies as a symbol of their divine protection. Numismatic evidence does not support Eusebius’s claim that the army immediately adopted the labarum at the time of the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, as it appears on coins minted by Constantine from 319/320 CE onwards (for a good example, see Nummus depicting the head of Constantine and the Labarum spearing a snake, 337 CE). However, by the time Aphrahat writes, this symbolism was well established.
As discussed above, Aphrahat maintains the interest expressed by other Christian writers in the connection between the census of Luke 2:1 and citizenship. One such example, that of the Commentary on Daniel IV.9, connects the census with war in a negative way, arguing that what distinguishes the Christians and the Romans is the latter’s appetite for violence. Aphrahat, however, claims Jesus as a supporter of Rome’s army and its campaigns, a theory which was much more fitting with a context where a Christian emperor reigned. In previous centuries, the compatibility between Christianity and the Roman army had troubled Christian writers due to the issue of violence, acts of pagan idolatry, and the swearing of allegiance to the emperor over God (see, for instance, Tertullian, On Idolatry XIX and On the Military Garland). Inglebert suggests that the themes of Christ protecting the Roman armies, and the mention of Christian signage on their military standards were Constantinian themes known in the East through Constantine’s letter to Shapur II (324-235 CE), which we know from its quotation in Eusebius’s Life of Constantine IV.9-13. Inglebert suggests that the present passage from Aphrahat may well have been directly inspired by the claim of Constantine in the letter that “My army…bears his sign…” (IV.9), and his praising of Valerian’s defeat in 260 CE by the Persians, which is attributed to God’s will (IV.11) (see Inglebert, “Christian Reflections,” p. 103). Ultimately, for Inglebert, this theme of Christ’s citizenship which we see not only in the present source, but as we have seen, also in the writing of Orosius, may reflect an attempt to respond to the assertions of the Commentary on Daniel which sought to divide Christianity and Roman citizenship. Texts like this from Aphrahat counter this by “cast[ing] the link between being Roman, being Christian, and going to war in a positive light” (“Christian Reflections,” p. 104).
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