Filed under: Patristics
Which do you want first: the good news or the bad news?
OK, but you’re just delaying the inevitable.
The wonderful news is that the great work of Aphrahat the Sage, his “Demonstrations,” is now available in its entirety in English. An Indian scholar, Kuriakose Valavanolickal, just published the second volume of his translation. To my knowledge, this is the first complete English translation of Aphrahat. In fact, till now it’s been impossible even to assemble all the Demonstrations from the various “selections” published in English since the late nineteenth century.
A little bit of backstory is in order.
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1911) places St. Aphrahat (sometimes rendered Aphraates) at the head of the long list of Syriac writers whose works have come down to us. We know little about his life. From his writings we learn that he was born of pagan parents during the second half of the third century, probably in the borderlands of the Persian empire. After his conversion to Christianity he embraced the monastic life, and was later called to be a bishop. One manuscript refers to him as “Bishop of the monastery of Mar Mattai,” whose ruins are near the modern Mosul in Iraq. His writings seem to have emerged between the years 337 and 345.
Aphrahat’s surviving works are his twenty-three “Demonstrations.” They’re homilies on morals and apologetics composed in the form of answers to an inquiring friend. They are a precious witness to the antiquity of many traditional Christian doctrines and practices — the value of celibacy, the perpetual virginity and Divine Maternity of Mary, sacramental confession, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the foundation of the Church on St. Peter, and the existence of six of the seven sacraments. Aphrahat’s arguments are saturated with Scripture. In fact, because of his numerous quotations from the Bible, his writings are valuable for the history of the biblical canon and interpretation. Since he was in dialogue with some of the world’s most brilliant rabbis, he was always mindful to draw from the Old Testament as well as the New. His defense of celibacy — which, in my opinion, is the finest of all time — leans mostly on the Hebrew Scriptures.
The great modern scholar of Judaism Jacob Neusner finds St. Aphrahat to be a model — ”remarkable and exemplary” — for Jewish-Christian dialogue. Aphrahat is, he adds, “an enduring voice of civility and rationality amid the cacaphony of mutual disesteem.”
Aphrahat’s writings have dribbled into English, beginning in the late nineteenth century. The Protestant Edinburgh edition of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF2) included “select” numbers from the Demonstrations: 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 17, 21, and 22. (But don’t spend too much time searching there for material on the Blessed Virgin or on celibacy.) In the 1930s, the Journal of the Society of Oriental Research published two more, Demonstration 2 (on charity) and Demonstration 7 (on penance). Then, in 1971, Rabbi Neusner came through with a boatload, about eight and a half Demonstrations, which he published with his outstanding study Aphrahat and Judaism: The Christian-Jewish Argument in Fourth-Century Iran. Neusner’s book, which is indispensable, includes Demonstrations 11-13, 16-19, 21 and part of 23.
Those three sources add up to a lot; but even taken all together they still wouldn’t give you everything by Aphrahat. And everything is certainly what you want.
For that we had to wait for Kuriakose Valavanolickal, who published volume one of his translation with HIRS Publications in Kerala, India, in 1999. Volume two came out this year from the St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, also in Kerala. These books are almost impossible to obtain in the United States. The only vendor I found to carry them was Merging Currents.
Which brings me to the bad news — very bad news. I visited the Merging Currents site today and discovered that they will no longer be accepting book orders after November 30. If you haven’t visited the site before, please do. MC’s catalog is enormous, and it includes many rare primary patristic texts (especially the Syriac Fathers) and otherwise unavailable secondary literature (by the likes of Sebastian Brock, but also by many fine Indian scholars). As of this morning, Merging Currents was sold out of volume two of the Demonstrations, but volume one was still there. Grab it while you can.
Those of you who want to learn more about Aphrahat, but would rather spend less on a book, can, of course, buy the expanded edition of my bestseller, The Fathers of the Church. I have a chapter on the Persian Sage, with selections from his writings.
But until the books arrive … St. Aphrahat, pray for us — that we readers of the Fathers may find another passage to India.
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