Bar Ebraya1 was the Maphrian2 of the Syrian Orthodox Church3 from 1266-86. E.A. Wallis Budge says, "He is known as the Encyclopedia of the 13th century. No other Syriac writer possessed to such a wonderful degree of knowledge of History, Tradition and spirit of the Christian and Mohammedan Religions."4 His versatile geniocity is explicit when we take a glance at the galaxy of his extant works5 in Syriac6 and Arabic languages. He was a very busy and high ranking cleric, second only to the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch7, yet he found time to acquired deep knowledge in all branches of literature and produced volumes in all subjects that he studied. It can aptly be said of him too, "he has adorned all that he has touched and he has touched all." He was the most famous of all Maphrians. He marvelled as a Maphrian and also as a very luminary star in the realm of Syriac literature 8.
2. Born in Meletene in 1226 to Aaron, the physician. He was given the name John (Yuhanon) at the time of baptism. He is known popularly as Bar Ebroyo, in West Syriac phonology and as Bar Ebraya in East Syriac and Arabic Circles9. The Latin and European version of his name is spelled as Bar Hebraeus. He was given the episcopal name Gregorios on his consecration to the high priesthood. He was then known as Gregory Abul Faraj. He has an Arabic name, lbn Al Ibri 10.
3. At the age of 17 he, with his father had to move to Antioch, where he was taught at the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate. He got the acqaintance of the Mongolians and he used this occasion to study the Mongolian dialect. When the Mongolian ruler Hulagu invaded Antioch, his chief Shawar Nawin fell ill and had to depend upon Aaron, the physician. Bar Ebraya writes on his education,
"From my childhood I have been extremely fond of learning I mastered the holy books and their interpretations and acquired the secrets in the writings of the righteous and skillful teachers. When I was twenty the Patriarch compelled me to accept the position of the high priest. This situation compelled me face the leaders of other religions and faith, Christians and otherwise, in arguments. So I spent a lot of time in learning about these and other faiths, until I was well versed in this. Then I was well versed in them. Then I decided to study the wisdom of the Greeks. Then I studied Natural Sciences, Theology, Mathematics, Geometry, Astrology, Physiognomy, etc."11
4. He studied Rhetoric and logic under a Nestorian Rhetoric, Yaccoob. He had very good relationship with the Mongolian rulers. He himself want to meet the invading Tartar King to seek mercy. He was well received for his skill in Medicine. When he was elevated as Maphrian the King Haytoun and the Royal Family participated. The Armenian12 high priest attended his enthronement. He visited the 'Nestorian'13 Catholicose and befriended him. He was a friend of all.
5. The Ecclesiastical History (Part II) deals partly with the history of the East Syrian Catholicate. Bar Ebraya refers in it about the East Syrian Mongolian Catholicose Yabalaha.
"In 1281 Mar Denha fell ill and died. While alive two Oigur (Mangolian) monks visited him, on their journey to Jerusalem. They were detained with the Catholicose. They came under the orders of Kubla Khan. Mar Denha consecrated one of the monks as the Metropolitan of China. Mar Denha died before their departure. The newly consecrated Mongolian Metropolitan was elected as the successor of Mar Denha, under the title Yabalaha."14
Bar Ebraya, also write his tributes to the Catholicose Mar Denha.
"He was by nature a good man and the face of God was found in him and he displayed much affection for us and the children of our nation."
6. Apart from this encyclopedic knowledge in ecclesiastical and secular fields, he was also very much subjugated to the fate of astrology. He wrote,
"In that year in which
Kronos and Zeus were in conjugation in the
Zodiacal sign of Aquarius I was born. And twenty years later, when they were in conjunction in the Zodiacal sign of Libra, I was ordained bishop and twenty years later when they were in conjunction in the
zodiacal sign of Gemini. I undertook the office of Maphrian and after twenty years when they will be again in conjunction in the zodiacal sign of Aquarius, I think that I shall go out of this world."15
Similarly He wrote in one of his poems,
"O net of the worlds, in the year 1226 thy snare seized me,
And I think that in the year 1286 I shall not be in thee"16
He was a genius who believed in the skill of astrology too. It was found true to him.
7. At the time of his burial, all the Christians assembled to pay tribute to this man of learning and humane deeds. He was a unifier of religions and denominations. In him the boundaries of religions and nations diminished. His scholarship opened before him the doors of wisdom of all branches.
Bar Sawma, the biographer brother and successor in his office of the Maphrian writes about his death and burial,
"Then those miserable men rent their garments, and poured dust on their heads, and wept until about three hours of the night had passed; meanwhile he never ceased from telling stories with laughter and a cheerful face. (Suddenly) he went out like a lamp. I ought not to say "like a lamp", but like a glorious and brilliant becon, and the great pillar (of fire) of the few and feeble Jacobites. And he went to his Lord on the third (day of the week), on the 30th day of the month of TAMMUZ (JULY), in the year 1597 (A.D. 1286) of the GREEKS.
And because MAR YAHBH 'ALLAHA, the praiseworthy Catholicus, was at that time in the city of MARAGHA, he commanded that no man should go to business in the bazar, and that no man should open (his) shop. And he sent out a beater of a board (i.e. bell-ringer) and all the people gathered together at the cell of the Maphrian. And the Catholicus sent the bishops who were with him, and many large candles, and a whole crowd of ARMENIANS and GREEKS were there, but of our own community only four Elders were present. About two hundred souls were gathered together, and they stood in prayer from dawn until the ninth hour. O what a day of perdition and a morning without mercy! O what a day of wrath and night of death which burst upon the brother of this saint who was joined unto the angels and left the poor and miserable ones in suffering, and weeping, and sadness, and tears and sighs. And when the NESTORIANS, and the GREEKS, and the ARMENIANS had finished their prayers, and prepared him for burial in a fitting manner, they deposited his holy body in a little altar whereat a man might pray and make an offering whensoever he was in MARAGHA.
Who is there that will not weep for the excellent people of the JACOBITES when he seeth that they were left as orphans by this man who stood alone, and was a marvellous philosopher. And there remained not among them any one who could inform a stranger by an answer to any question, whether it concerned the Church or some profane matter, whether it was difficult or easy, or who could a discreet, or courteous, or an admonitory letter, as could this man who God adorned with every kind of learning both of those who are in (i.e. natives) and those who are out (i.e. foreigners.) And from the time when he was twenty years old until (he drew) the last breath he never ceased from reading and writing. And he composed and wrote many books, and he could translate from one language into another."17
His comments on the futility of the fued between the denominations are very clear from his own words,
"Then it was inevitable for me to engage myself in disquisitions and disputations with the herds of other confessions... and I became convinced that these quarrels of Christians among themselves are not a matter of facts but of words and denominations... and I absolutely forsook disputation with anyone concerning confession."18
These are not the words of a rare ecumenist of the 21st century, but the scholastic approach and the daring commitment of a 13th century high ecclesiastic. He was thinking centuries ahead and he was hold enough to record his views in his books as well as to put them into practice.
8. Bar Ebraya was a skilful an prolific writer.19 His mastery in all fields is evident from the array of his extant books on various disciplines.
His biblical commentary Osar Rose is doctrinal, critical and linguistic. He uses, Peshitta, Hebrew, Septuagint and Greek texts of Symmachus, Theodotian and Aquilla. He also uses the oriental texts of Armanean and coptic. The syriac versions20 of Harclean, Pheloxenean and Syro Hexapla are also heavily used in work. His linguistic, expertise and skilful methodology is made clear in this example.
1. Bar Ebraya is the east Syriac form of his name. In the west Syriac phonology the term is Bar Ebroyo. This literarily means son of Hebrew. In this sense of the word many scholars assumes that his father Aaron was of a Jewish origin. C.F. Wallis Budge, The Chronography I, P.XV, William Wright, Short History of Syriac Literature P.265, etc. But the Syrian Orthodox Church historians hold a different view of this. It has the meaning Son of the shore or the Son of the crossing because the word Ebro means seashore or crossing and its adjective is ebroyo Cf. Payne Smith, Thesaurus Syriacus 11, Col. 2790. Patriarch Aprem, Barsum says, "He was called Hebrew because either one of his forefathers or he himself was born during a crossing of river Euphrates. It is sufficient proof to cite a line of poetry which he composed about this, If our Lord (Christ), called himself a Samaritan, Do not be ashamed if people call you Bar Hebraeus, For the origin of this application is the river Euphrates, And not a disgraceful doctrine or the Hebrew language. History of the Syriac Literature and Sciences. P.158.
2. This is the post of the high priest in the Syrian Orthodox Church, second in rank only to the Patriarch of Antioch. Historically this post was created in the Syrian Orthodox Church, When the Catholicose of the East in the Persian Empire embraced 'Nestorian' Theology and separated from the universal church. This church had the backing of the Persian Empire. So the Syrian Orthodox had to create an equal dignitary for their faithful in Persia with a different title and centre. The Maphrianate was established in Tigris and the first Maphrian so created was Marootha in 629 A.D. The meaning of the word is 'one who gives fecundity'. D. Babu Paul, The Saint from Kooded P.18 Kothamangalam (198) India.
3. The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches which hold the pre Chalcedonean Christology and Ecclesiology. These churches are wrongly called by western scholars as Monophysites. They are not Monophysites in the meaning of the term, One Person, One hypostasis and one nature which was promoted by Euticus. This formula is considered a heresy and these churches believes, Jesus Christ is perfect God as to his divinity and perfect man to his humanity. The union is real, perfect, without blending or mingling, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without the least separation... In Him are united, in a real, perfect and indivisible and in inseparable way, divinity and humanity, and in Him all their properties are present and active. Common Declaration between Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas June 1984. Ronald G. Robenson CSP, Rome, Vienna Dialogue Booklet No.1, Vienna (1990). A similar declaration was also singed by the Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas and by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Damascus. The Syrian Orthodox Church was rooted around the Province of Antioch in Roman Syria, Edessa, Persia and further upto India. The Syrian Orthodox Church is now scattered all over the populated continents, Cf. Christine Chailot, The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and all the East, Inter Orthodox Dialogue, Geneva (1998), www. Syriac Orthodox Resources.
4. E.A. Wallis Budge, The Chronography.
5. See the list of works of Bar Ebraya. A list is given by his brother, Bar Sawma in the Ecclesiastical History II Cf. Aprem Barsum, Ibid P.P 152-158.
6. Syriac language is the liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Chaldean Church, The Church of the East, the Maronite Church and two Syrian Catholic Churches in India. This is an ancient language and it is the Edessan dialect of the ancient Aramaic language which Jesus spoke. It has three scripts, The Serto, Chaldean and the Estrangelo. Cf. Sebastian P. Brock, A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature, Kottayam (1997), Aprem Barsum, History of Syriac Sciences and Literature, Passeggiata Press CO 81003 (2000)
7. Patriarch of Antioch is the Supreme Pontif of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The Present Headquarters is at Bar Toma, Damascus, Syria.
8. The Syriac literature is the 3rd rich stream of Christian writings in its originality on theology, dogmatics, exegesis and Biblical literature. This branch of Ecclesiastical literature flourished in an equal level to Latin and Greek Christian literatures. Cf. William Wright, S.P. Braok, Ignatius Barsum, etc.
9. See note 1. Supra
10. Barsum P.152
11. Brian E. Colless. Mysticism of Bar Hebraeus, Orientalia Christiana Periodica, Rome (1988) P.153.
12. The Armenian Church also holds the Pre Chalcedonean Christology.
13. The 'Nestorian' terminology is used to denote the teachings of Anastasius, a presbyter at Constantinople, who believed to have the support of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople (428). He was against the term 'Theotokos' (Mother of God) to be used to denote Mary, the mother of Jesus. Cyril the bishop of Alexandria held the opposite view. The third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in A.D. 431, convened by Theodosius II condemned this doctrine and Nestorius. The two distinguishing tenets of Nestorianism are
1. That in Christ there were not only two natures but two persons: of which one was divine, even the eternal Word; the other human, even the man Jesus.
2. That Mary was to be called Mother of Christ, and not the mother of God.
P.T. Geevarghese Deacon, Were the Syrian Christians Nestorians? Madras (year not given)
14. Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, (1877)
15. Chronography P. xxviii
17. Ibid P. xxix, xxx
18. Brian E. Colless, OCP (1988)
19. W. Budge, Introduction to Chronography
20. Bible in Syriac literature is an interesting branch of Syriac literature. The unique Diatessaron, Old Syriac Gospels, Peshitta, Harclean, Pheloxenean, Syro Hexapla are the important Syriac biblical versions. Finally Peshitta became the standard version, Cf. S.P. Brock, Bible in Syriac Literature, SEERI, Kottayam.
* Teaches at Saint Ephrem's Ecumenical
Research Institute, Kottayam under
Mahatma Gandhi University and is doing Ph.D. in the Ecclesiastical History of Bar Ebraya.