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The Chronicle of Arbela (1907) Translation (partial) pp.76-...


By MŠIHA-ZKHA (6th century)

'Mšiha-zkha made a solid ecclesiastical history'. (Catalogue of Ebedjesu)

(1)............. and several times you have asked me, my dear Pinhes, to outline for you the history of all the bishops of our hyparchy, of the martyrs who were killed there for the love of Christ, and of all those who have acquired a good reputation in this world and in the world to come, so that by this glory is returned to God, and that we also have a good commitment to heaven; because you know that the history of the leaders of the Church leads us naturally to the founder of the Church, who is our Lord Jesus-Christ, |77 who breathes life into our poor humanity, we will just love him better. He must be the goal of our thoughts and we must give ourselves to his love. And if we do that, the Holy Ghost will live in us and we will be sanctuaries for the Holy Trinity, which will reside in us all. Because it is the grace of this Trinity we adore who plants in us a vine, surrounds us by a hedge and digs there a press (Isaiah 5: 1): a vine, because we are the culture of God, planted by him and we belong to him; it is written: He came to his own people (John 1: 11); a hedge: so that we there are kept and hidden and that the claws of our visible and invisible enemies do not tear us. The press is known to you from the martyrs who are killed for the love of Christ and are pressed like the grapes under the feet of the infidel  torturers. The holy David said: For you we were killed each day and we were regarded as sheep (intended) for slaughter (Ps. 44: 23). We will thus treat, by the grace of God, of the leaders and of the martyrs, and, in prayer, we request help from our Good God, so that by His grace He forgives us our failures and makes us appear with merry faces in front of the throne of His glory; to Him we return praises and blessings down the centuries of the centuries.


I.  Bishop PKIDHA (104-114).  (2) The first bishop in the country of Adiabene, as the learned Habel says (3), was Mar Pkidha on whom the apostle Addaï |78 laid  hands in person. He was the son of a poor man called Beri, who was in the service of a magus. But grace of the Holy Ghost who was given to us in abundance by Our Lord Jesus Christ, moved in the heart of his son, when he saw the miracle by which the Addaï Apostle (4) brought a girl back to life, when she was being taken to the  cemetery, and delivered her to her parents. He thus resolved to become the disciple (of the Apostle). The tongue could not describe, nor spirit conceive the persecution he underwent at the hands of his father and nearest relatives. As despite everything that he was immoveable in his intentions, his parents imprisoned him in a dark house; but he was helped there, and the door opened for him. He ran and went from there to seek the apostle; but did not find him. When he learned that he had gone into the villages of the mountain, he went to his |79 side at once to become his disciple and to be blessed by him. When after several days he arrived where the blessed one was, the apostle was greatly delighted and started to take him along with him everywhere he went. It is said that after five years he laid hands on him and returned him to his country. He started to preach in the middle of a crowd (hedges) of pagans, did wonders and miracles like the apostles and brought into the fold of Christ a great number of sheep, which he fattened on the divine grace. After ten years he died and was buried by his disciples in the house of his parents who had had a change of heart and had followed him.


II.  Bishop ŠEMŠOUN (120-123).   Six years afterwards, Mezra, bishop of Beth-Zabdai (5) came to Adiabene with a caravan of traders. When he learned that there was a community of Christians there, he came furtively to them, and after he had reassured them, they took him to the house and said to him that they had been for six years without a leader. They begged him to lay hands on the deacon Šemšoun and to consecrate him as bishop. Agreeing to their good desires, he laid hands on him, because he had learned that he was a deacon of Pkidha. The latter started in his turn to govern this holy community and to lead it into the good pastures (Ps. XXIII, 2). Outside, he started to preach |80 in the surrounding villages, which worshipped fire and threw their little children in it at the time of their great festival that they called Šahrab-Gamoud. Habel, the writer, described in the following way this festival: This festival, known as it, happened in the month of Iar, and in all the regions nearby. After bathing, one sat down, made food and ate with all the slaves. The inhabitants themselves did not eat unless they had thrown into the fire one of their little children; seizing its liver and kidneys, they suspended them on the branches of the trees which were there, in remembrance of their festivals. Then they launched several arrows towards the sky, rejoicing, and returned to their houses. After preaching for two years, he baptized a great number of them, and the Christian religion was spread in the country, thanks to the virtues of Šemšoun. When this event came to the knowledge of the important people in the region and the magi, they threw him in irons, and after several torments, decapitated him. This happened, says the learned Habel, seven years after the defeat of Kosrau, king of the Arsacids, by Trajan, king of the Romans, who had come to visit our countries (6). Šemšoun was the first |81 martyr of our country which went up to heaven. That the Lord helps us by his prayers and makes that we imitate all his conduct, in order to enjoy his delights. What I will say now! How I will exalt this happy apostle who had taken our Lord as his model, that he did not cease contemplating. We adore our Lord Jesus-Christ, who entrusted to his apostles and after them to their successors the deposit of his word, which gave to their speeches the power so that uncultivated and cruel people were struck with admiration and were dazzled; the echo of these words was heard by all the earth, because it is written: their news spread through all the earth and their words until the end of the world (Ps. XIX, 5). It is He that by strengthening them, did all by their means; to him be glory always and through the centuries of the centuries. It is such men who gave birth to our country! my dear Pinhes; it is with their blood that the furrows of our country were sprinkled, from which their seed sprouted and gave some thirty, some sixty and others hundredfold. The Šemšoun of the Old Testament put to flight, and subjected the Philistines by his power, and the Šemšoun of the New Testament threw down the pagans, the Philistines of his time, and put them under the yoke of the constraint of Christ, by the power of his Lord, his fasting and his mortifications, so that they could by no means break their bonds. In the Old Testament (the Lord) showed his power and in New his grace; that his strength and his grace will accompany us all our days.


III. Bishop ISAAC (135-148) After this athlete of Christ, Mar Isaac became head of the now numerous many Christians, |82 a zealous and modest man (7) who was offered like a living sacrifice to God following the example of Isaac (8). The Divine Providence did not allow the features of the malignant enemy of any holiness to transpierced him. He, in his turn, preached the Gospel, like his fellows, without rejecting himself.

In his time, there was a famous and opulent man, named Rakbakt, which, it is said, had been named by the kings to govern this region. As soon as he heard Mar Isaac speak, he looked for him and |83 questioned him on his religion; he liked it much and asked to become part of it. After several days, Isaac baptized him in secrecy, because of the fear inspired by Walgaš II, king of the Parthians (9). By the means and the support of this divine man, the Constantine of his time, the Christian religion spread itself in the villages of the surroundings, and the pagan priests rose against him and wanted to change his ideas; but after vain attempts, they resolved to kill him so that the religion of the magi would live. However Habel, the doctor, says that they gave orders to other co-religionists of the magi, who lived in the mountains, to change their clothes and dress in the manner of faraway countries, and to come to the Saint of the Lord, like guests who do nothing but pass through, and remaining at his place all the night, to kill him towards the end of the night, after which they would return to their country. The enemies of the Almighty and friends of Satan, damned him, going well beyond their orders, directed and indoctrinated as they were by the magi their brothers, thus sent ahead several servants to inform faithful Rakbakt that there were some Lords who came to him from the distant country of the Romans, and who wanted to spend the night in his house; and that consequently, he had to prepare for them a feast worthy of their rank. When the Saint of the Lord learned this, he laboured to prepare, as fast as possible, all that it was necessary, and his heart rejoiced in God, thinking that he could perhaps convert (these people) to the religion of only one God, maker |84 of heaven and earth. All ready, when these envoys of Satan arrived, mounted on caparisonned horses. But God who is good towards Israel and towards those of pure heart (P. LXXIII, 1) did not allow the arrows that they had ready (Ps. XI, 2) to harm him; because at supper time, a messenger from Ctesiphon came to find the Saint of the Lord and ordered him on behalf of king Walgaš, to come without delay, if he wished him well, to Ctesiphon, so that after discussion between the two of them, the impetuosity of the cruel tribes from the mountains of Kardou who had plundered and destroyed several cities might be repressed (10). He rose then at once, entrusted the responsibility of his satanic guests to his brother, who was a pagan, and got under way,  without delay, with the messenger, only accompanied by some men of his house, after having instructed his brother to join together troops, to lead them in person and to bring them to Ctesiphon. As the net of the priests of lies was broken and as Rakbakt, strong in his Lord, had escaped (Ps. CXXIII, 1), the magi distilled all their venom on the head of the Saint of the Lord, the giant and honest Isaac. Two days afterwards, they thus went to imprison him in a dark tiny room. They would have wished to kill him but they feared a riot and the clamour of the people; an extreme fright seized them also, because of the general Rakbakt. |85

When he, victorious by his God, learned this affecting news, he ordered from Ctesiphon, where he was, the release of the servant of God, to make him leave prison and to grant a complete freedom to him. He threatened, with many oaths to kill whoever did not comply with this order and refused to do such; the prophet of God left prison then. Rakbakt, the giant of power, remained sixteen days at Ctesiphon; from this city, general Aršak gave his orders, and some twenty thousand soldiers, all infantrymen, being joined together to him, he went against the rebels. God knows what difficulties he met on the way, and which steep mountains they climbed until they arrived. At the first moment of their meeting, there was between (the belligerents) light skirmishes, in which the rebels were defeated. In the end, one of the rebel chiefs, called Kizo, led Aršak into a defile in these mountains and blockaded him in. A great battle was fought there, which lasted three days; but the troops of Aršak weakened by the rigours of hunger and despairing to overcome, started to disband. Then the brave Rakbakt left the ranks of the troops, called his soldiers and climbing the mountain like an eagle which flies from its nest (Deuter. XXXII, 11), engaged (the barbarians) in a dreadful fray and opened the way for  Aršak and the other troops, to flee and save themselves from these violent wolves.

But the hero of God had succumbed in the middle of the ranks of the enemy; one of those having pierced his side with a blow of a lance, he fell dead, after having offered his heart, like Judas Machabée, in sacrifice to the |86 Lord, for the safety of his people; because if he had not acted thus, by an effort of his charity, all the soldiers would have perished. The rebels, at this sight, proposed to descend into the plains to take all the cities from Aršak, but they, in their turn, having learned how that another barbarian people had crossed the sea and had come like robbers, to ransack their cities, to burn them and to carry all that they had, including their wives, made at once volte-face to go to carry help to their own country. When they arrived there, they warred against (the bandits) for two whole months, until they had triumphed and had made them pass back over the sea. The quill cannot describe the great sadness which seized our country with the disturbing news of the death of Rakbakt. The true Christians especially poured tears on him and cried for him as David did for Jonathan (II. Sam 1, 19 and ff.). How the giant fell in  combat! Jonathan, the dead are on your hills; O Jonathan, my brother, I am in the affliction because of you; you made all my happiness. Who can now tell the pain which invaded Isaac, at the death of his protector! To this question we must keep silence, because at the day of the judgement we will see, clearly all things as they really are.


IV. Bishop ABRAHAM(148-163) A little time from there, there also died the friend of God, the bishop Mar Isaac, after having ruled the see for thirteen years. This active man that the zeal of the house of the Lord had devoured (Ps. LXIX, 10) had built a large well-ordered church which exists today and is called by his name. After him |87 came Abraham, the doctor, son of the late Solomon, whose flesh was from Herda, a village located around the tower of the Hebrews (11). His great father had come; to fix himself at Arbela and his parents had been converted, while he was still young, at the time of the bishop Šemšoun (12). (Abraham) ruled, in his turn, the seat with a gentleness and humility above any praise. He remained for a long time in the high mountains, teaching the Christian faith there, preaching the true religion and baptizing in the name of the Father of the Son and the Holy Spirit (Mat. XXVIII, 19).

While he lived in the high mountains, teaching the Christian faith, the magi rose against the Christians of our country, plundered all their goods and tormented them  atrociously. This news having come to the bishop Mar Abraham, he went down from the mountains; by the force of the miracles which he worked and by the ascendancy of his incomprehensible wisdom, he prevented the rapacious wolves from devouring all the servants of Christ. After having appeased them, he went down to Ctesiphon. The king |88 Walgaš II had died (13), and Walgaš III had succeeded to him. The servant of God had taken with him many gifts, for the great ones of the city, so that by this means he obtained from the pagan king a letter in favour of the Christians of his country, so that they were not abused, without reason and wrongfully, by the magi. The disordered affairs of the kingdom did not enable him nevertheless to achieve his goal, because many troops having gathered there from all regions (14), and prepared to descend on the countries of the Romans, he thus returned without being able to bring letter. But God did not allow the desire of kings (Arsacides?) to be accomplished; because after several reverses, the Parthians were overcome and pursued by the Roman troops, until they had been trapped in Ctesiphon. God intending thus to punish both (adversaries), released against them a cruel plague and made a considerable number perish. The Romans were constrained to retrace their steps and to return to their country; they could not even find safety in this flight, because the plague which tracked them, decimated them in great number. They gave up considerable wealth in Parthia; because fear left them no time to carry anything, no matter what it was, with them. This plague reigned for three months, and destroyed many houses of the inhabitants. When that plague appeared in our country, bishop Abraham strove, with all the divine power which was in him, to comfort and relieve the faithful |89  who were struck down by it. He, in his turn, was struck down violently by it. He then laid  hands on his deacon Nôh, and went to paradise, where he will receive (15) the good reward of his labours, from the just judge. He had ruled the illustrious see of Adiabene for fifteen years.


V. EV. NOH (163-179) the parents of this pure man were from the desert of Anbar and had made the voyage from Jerusalem. There, the young child had  Christian connections and was baptized in the power of the divine grace. When his parents returned to the East, they came to Adiabene, because there was there a good number of Jews. They feared to return to their first country, because of the disorders which emerged unceasingly there. As soon as the young child knew that here also there were Christians, he went to find Abraham and became his friend. By the means of fasting, of continual prayer and prolonged and innumerable vigils, he arrived at a high degree of holiness and was worthy of the vision of God, thanks to whom he was capable to work wonders and miracles equal to those of the apostles. But for that reason, who can tell the torments and persecutions that he endured from infidels, and principally from the magi.

This is the good part that was given to the apostles and through them to the entire Church of God. It is written: remember the word that I said to you, that there is no servant who is above his Master; that if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also|90 (John XV, 20) and again: I told you these things, so that you will not be afraid; they will drive out you of their synagogue, and there will come a day when whoever kills you will believe himself to be offering a sacrifice to God (John XVI, 1-2). The Church is the spiritual kingdom of Christ on earth; but this Church is confronted with the wicked, the infidels, the magi and the pagans, and at every moment it makes war on them; we have the hope that it will always have the victory and the advantage, because Our Lord (14) said: I have overcome the world, and the doors of hell will not prevail against it (John. XVI, 33. Matt.XVI, 18). This enmity which exists between the Church of Christ and the world will finish only at the end of times, when the corn is separated from the chaff, which will be thrown into the fire to be burned (Matt. XIII, 30). Bishop Noh remembered all this, when thrown five times into prison, and the seas of joy flooded him, when twelve times he was beaten with rods and sticks until he was covered with blood, while he kept silent like an ewe in front of the shearer (Isaiah LIII, 8). In the end, God himself undertook to avenge his saint and to deliver him from the hands of the perverts, so that the word of David was accomplished: I was small and now I am aged, and I have not see a just man forsaken (Psalm XXXVII, 25). Thus on a certain day the son of a man named Razšah, a rich and noble man from a town in the country of Adiabene, fell from the top of the house, breaking his foot and fracturing the principal bone of the forearm. When this accident took place, Raz-ah was not at home, but at the town of Arbela, on domestic business. He left with bitter imprecations in order to see the outcome of the matter. Saint |91 Noh was then in this large village, located on the Zab; because he had fled the poison of the magi and hid there.

(To be continued)

1. Some lines of the introduction are lacking, which would perhaps have acquainted us with this Pinhes.  The numbers in brackets relate to the corresponding pages of the Syriac text.

2. (1) The chronology which we too hastily drew up in our response to M. J.-B. Chabot (p.19) must be corrected by that which we adopt here.

3. (2) We know nothing precise about this Habel.  The epithet of 'doctor' which follows shows that he was a Christian, but certainly not a bishop.  Mšiha-zkha only mentions him three times.  Thus he cannot be Mar Habel, the sixth bishop of Arbela, as one might otherwise be tempted to believe.  Could he perhaps be one of the numerous authors of martyrdoms who in the 4th century busied themselves with collecting details of the martyrs in the persecution under Sapor II?

4.  (1) We believe that the historicity of Addai, once the fabulous details with which writers of the 5th and 6th centuries decorated his life have been removed, cannot be doubted.  Barhadhbšabba 'Arabaya (6th century) whose information came from students at the famous school of Edessa, mentions his apostolate in the capital of Osrhoene (see his discussion in our book, Narsai Homiliae et carmina, vol. I, p. 33). All the oriental bishops gathered at the court of king Khosrau II (2nd June, 612) affirm that the oriental countries were evangelised by this disciple of our Lord (Syn. Or. p. 581).  Finally Mšiha-zkha, citing an author who preceded him, peremptorily affirms the mission of Addai in the lands between the two rivers and places his date towards the end of the first century of our era.  On the other hand the existence of his disciple Mari must be considered by itself at best problematic and even fabulous.

5. (1) The evangelisation of the country of Béth-zabdai, situated on the right bank of the Tigris, appears to have been timely.  According to the story of Mšiha-zkha, one is tempted to believe that it had the good fortune to have bishops before Adiabene.  This detail allows us to indicate the route followed by the Disciple Addai to Adiabene.  From Osrhoene he must have gone south to Arzanene and from there into the valley of the Tigris.

6. (1) Trajan ayant visité l'Adiabène en 116 la mort de Šemšoun doit tomber en 123. Son règne, d'après le texte du manuscrit, est de courte durée, de trois ans, semble-t-il (deux ans de prédication suivis du baptême des catéchumènes); il aurait donc commencé à occuper le siège d'Arbèles en 120. Entre son élection et la mort de Pkidha il y eut six ans de vacances; Pkidha meurt donc en 114. Son épiscopat ayant duré dix ans, le commencement doit en être reporté en 104. Mais avant de recevoir l'imposition des mains, Pkidha avait été pendant cinq ans le compagnon de Mar Addaï, dans ses missions apostoliques, donc de 99 à 104; ce qui nous oblige à fixer l'arrivée d'Addaï, en Adiabène, avant la fin du premier siècle.

7. (1) Ces mots n'entraînent pas nécessairement une succession immédiate. Au contraire. force nous est même d'admettre en cet endroit une vacance de siège d'une douzaine d'années Durant les deux premiers siècles, période de fondation, de lutte avec la religion nationale, et de persécution de la part des mages, ces vacances forcées sont mentionnées par notre auteur à plusieurs reprises. Celle que nous admettons ici, sans qu'il en soit fait mention, est imposée par le fait suivant; Abraham, le second successeur de Šemšoun, est dit être mort de la peste qui décima l'armée romaine, dans la Babylonie, sous Lucius Vèrus, en 163/4. En remontant et en ne donnant à Abraham et à Isaac, les deux successeurs de Šemšoun, que le nombre d'années d'épiscopat qui leur est assigné par le texte, il nous manque douze années pour arriver jusqu'à 123, septième année du passage de Trajan dans l'Adiabène, et année de la mort de Šemšoun.

8. (2) Jusque vers la fin du III siècle, les noms de personnes dans le monde Syrien, étaient pour la plupart ou Juifs ou païens. Après cette période, vint la réaction qui introduisit une nouvelle onomastique, en faisant des noms Syriens un complexe formé, la plupart du temps, du nom de Dieu, du Christ et d'un de leurs attributs immédiats. Les noms de Hnaniso', Iso'iahb, Iso'dnah, Zkha-Iso', Alaha-zkha, Iahb-Alaha etc. deviennent courants et supplantent complètement les vieux noms païens. Tant que la religion chrétienne fut chose cachée, ses adeptes s'abritèrent sous le couvert des noms da pays, juifs ou païens; mais dès qu'elle fui devenue publique, elle ne craignit pas d'adopter des noms signifiant franchement sa croyance en un seul Dieu, en Jésus, etc... Cependant certains noms juifs, consacrés par les apôtres et leurs successeurs, survécurent.

9. (1) Vologèse II régna, d'après les critiques, de 120 à 148 (cf. GUTSCHMID, Untersuchungen ueber die Geschichte des Koenigsreichs Osrhoene, 1887, p. 30).

10. (1) Le lecteur verra dans le cours de cette histoire, qu'à peu près toutes les invasions, contre les Parthes, vinrent du côté des lointaines montagnes qui bordent la mer Caspienne, ou avoisinent la Bactriane proprement dite et l'Oxus. Nous pouvons en inférer que les Parthes, pas plus que les Assyriens, ne purent venir jamais à bout de subjuguer entièrement les hordes barbares qui habitaient ces plages lointaines.

11. (1) Mossoul et ses environs étaient appelés dans l'ancienne littérature Syriaque : tour des Hébreux;voir Narsai Homiliae et Carmina, vol.II, p. 410. Cette dénomination prouve-t-elle l'existence d'un grand nombre de Juifs dans cette contrée?

12. (2) On est étonné de la simplicité du processus usité dans la primitive Eglise pour la création des évêques. L'apôtre choisissait, parmi les nouveaux baptisés, le plus apte à le remplacer, et le laissait à la tête de la petite communauté, après lui avoir imposé les mains, et s'en allait évangéliser d'autres pays. Dans ce but, comme on Je voit par la suite de cette histoire, assez souvent l'évêque se faisait accompagner d'un diacre à qui il imposait les mains lorsqu'il se sentait près de mourir. Le sacrement d'ordre était déjà conféré, tel qu'il l'est aujourd'hui dans l'Eglise, mais surtout dans l'église orientale,

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This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2006. All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

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