Shapur’s Great Persecution

Shapur’s Great Persecution February 8, 2015

I posted on the topic of early Christian martyrdom, arguing that the phenomenon was as widespread as Christian writers claimed, and that it truly was driven by religious motives. That was especially true in the Persian Empire.

One of the great church historians of antiquity was Sozomen, who was born near Gaza, in Palestine, around the year 400. His name, incidentally, translates roughly to “Being Saved,” in itself a concise statement of Christian faith. In his great Ecclesiastical History, Sozomen wrote at length about the church within the Persian realm, and much of this account concerns persecution and martyrdom. As Sozomen lived within a Christian empire, while Christians were still sporadically persecuted in Persia, we would not expect his coverage to be terribly even-handed. That is especially true because Rome and Persia were locked in a superpower struggle that often produced ruinous wars. To take a modern analogy, American evangelicals in the 1950s were not too objective on the subject of Soviet Communism. Moreover, much of what Sozomen wrote has to be interpreted in the light of the very substantial scholarship that we now have both on Syriac and Persian sources.

Having said that, Sozomen was not far removed from the events he was describing, either in time or space, and he would have heard many of the details first hand from Christian travelers and exiles. He certainly had access to great Christian cities like Edessa, which carefully preserved the records of eastern churches and their sufferings.

Sozomen describes the rapid growth of Christaintiy within the Persian Empire in the early fourth century. The more Christianity grew, the more it disturbed the Zoroastrian hierarchy, as well as the Jews, who were well-established. Sozomen tells us in detail about the resulting persecutions under King Shapur II, from around 340. One key victim was Simeon bar Sabbae, the powerful bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the imperial capital (ii 9-10). First, the king imposed severe taxes on Christians:

“The churches were demolished, their vessels were deposited in the treasury, and Symeon was arrested as a traitor to the kingdom and the religion of the Persians. Thus the Magi, with the co-operation of the Jews, quickly destroyed the houses of prayer.”

Symeon himself was arrested, and executed after refusing to worship the Sun in Zoroastrian style.

“On the same day a hundred other prisoners were ordered to be slain. Symeon beheld their execution, and last of all he was put to death. Amongst these victims were bishops, presbyters, and other clergy of different grades. As they were being led out to execution, the chief of the Magi approached them, and asked them whether they would preserve their lives by conforming to the religion of the king and by worshiping the sun. As none of them would comply with this condition, they were conducted to the place of execution, and the executioners applied themselves to the task of slaying these martyrs…. After the executioner had dispatched a hundred, Symeon himself was slain; and Abedechalaas and Anannias, two aged presbyters of his own church, who had been his fellow-prisoners, suffered with him.”

The literature on the Persian persecutions stresses the concerns of the Zoroastrian priests, but Sozomen puts almost as much emphasis on Jewish rivals. He reports for instance how the Persian queen came to blame Symeon’s sister Tarbula for her illness. She did this in response to Jewish charges “since she had embraced their sentiments, and lived in the observance of the Jewish rites, for she had great confidence in their veracity and in their attachment to herself.”

Whatever the reason, Shapur’s persecution then spread across the empire. He commanded that “Christians should not be slaughtered indiscriminately, but that the priests and teachers of the opinions should be slain, the Magi and Arch-Magi traversed the whole country of Persia, studiously maltreating the bishops and presbyters. They sought them especially in the country of Adiabene, a part of the Persian dominions, because it was wholly Christianized.” (ii 12)

We then hear catalogues of bishops and clergy being martyred:

“Under this rule, an innumerable multitude of presbyters, deacons, monks, holy virgins, and others who served the churches and were set apart for its dogma, terminated their lives by martyrdom. The following are the names of the bishops, so far as I have been able to ascertain: Barbasymes, Paulus, Gaddiabes, Sabinus, Mareas, Mocius, John, Hormisdas, Papas, James, Romas, Maares, Agas, Bochres, Abdas, Abdiesus, John, Abramins, Agdelas, Sapores, Isaac, and Dausas. The latter had been made prisoner by the Persians, and brought from a place named Zabdæus.He died about this time in defense of the dogma; and Mareabdes, a chorepiscopus, and about two hundred and fifty of his clergy, who had also been captured by the Persians, suffered with him.” (ii 13)

Sozomen concludes:

“I shall briefly state that the number of men and women whose names have been ascertained, and who were martyred at this period, have been computed to be sixteen thousand; while the multitude outside of these is beyond enumeration, and on this account to reckon off their names appeared difficult to the Persians and Syrians and to the inhabitants of Edessa, who have devoted much care to this matter.” (ii 14)

And that, of course, was only one of the persecutions Sozomen records.

I really do wonder about the “myth of persecution.”


I should just add that after my last column, I received a characteristically courteous and astute response from Candida Moss, which I will not reproduce here without her permission. I will however be pursuing these debates in future posts.


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