In the early Christian era, Mesopotamia/Iraq was a thriving center of rabbinic Judaism, and throughout the first millennium it was the intellectual capital of that faith. Given the Jewish background, naturally we find very early Christian settlements in Iraq.
Within the Persian empire, the greatest seat of church power was of course at the capital Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The city’s bishop – later the patriarch – ruled from there until the move to Baghdad in early Islamic times. In northern Iraq, Nisibis, likewise, was critical to both Jewish and Christian scholarship. (See Adam H. Becker, Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom: The School of Nisibis and the Development of Scholastic Culture in Late Antique Mesopotamia (2013).
The Church of the East (the “Nestorians”) wrote extensively about the origins of their faith, and the account they offer is quite plausible. Briefly, their tradition reported that Christianity reached Edessa very soon after the death of Jesus, and that the earliest missionaries stemmed from Antioch. Given the relationship of the cities and trade routes, that general pattern is overwhelmingly likely. It also suggests a Christian presence based in Ctesiphon from the early second century, which meshes beautifully with the Jewish history.
The tradition also claims that early leaders of the church, perhaps in the early second century, claimed a direct relationship with Jesus’s family, through Joseph, husband of Mary. The claim can’t be proven, but we do know that early Christians did give a special role to Jesus’s relatives.
Recently, scholar Joseph Amar examined this Jewish context in an important article published in the Times Literary Supplement (October 3, 2014) under the title “A Shared Voice: When Jews and Christians Drank from the Same Wells.” Because it is paywall-protected, I will summarize its conclusions here.
Amar noted how closely Mesopotamian Christians resembled not just sectarian Judaism in general, but specifically the world of the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Like the Qumran sectarians, they used the word ‘holiness,’ – qadishutha in Aramaic – as the technical term for their practice of celibacy. And like the ‘Men of Holiness’ at Qumran, they took vows that spoke of an impending battle between good and evil. ” A direct link between the community that produced the scrolls and the Christians of Mesopotamia seemed to be the only way to account for such explicit parallels.”
Amar’s main theme concerns the Psalms Scroll found at Qumran, which includes psalms not otherwise known in the West, either to Jews or Christians. However, amazingly, the Mesopotamian Christian church had continued to copy and use five of these “lost” psalms throughout the Middle Ages, and beyond, as Ps. 151-55.
Amar concludes, “The extra-canonical psalms preserved for centuries by Syriac Christians, and discovered only in 1956 at Qumran, are the echo of a long-silenced voice once shared by Jews and Christians – a voice that is only now being heard.”
I will discuss this issue in later posts, but let us assume some kind of inheritance from sectarian Judaism into later Syriac Christianity. Early monasticism represents one area in which we might seek such a legacy. As is well known, monasticism commonly claims as its founder the Egyptian St. Anthony (reputedly, c.251-356 AD), and the institution certainly developed early in Egypt. But Syriac monasticism has quite separate, and equally ancient, roots.
In Western Syria at least, monasticism seems to have been an Egyptian import, probably in the early fourth century. Earlier origins, though, can be traced in eastern Syria, in Mesopotamia and Persia, where monks were living at least as early as Anthony’s time, no later than the 280s. Anthony found his Syriac counterpart in Jacob of Nisibis, a bishop who attended the Council of Nicea.
This dating suggests an independent origin, as do many features of Syriac monastic life. Syrian monks were much fiercer than Egyptian in their asceticism and their contempt for the body – characteristics probably recalled in Islamic portraits of Jesus as a very rigorous hermit. In some accounts, Syriac monks so hated and despised the world that they reputedly sought out martyrdom and group suicide.
Many years ago, scholar Arthur Vööbus stressed the very early origins of Mesopotamian monasticism, which he directly traced to Manichaean influence. Mani’s movement was flourishing in the mid-third century, and the prophet himself died around 270. Mani’s critics attacked the Indian influences in his thought, and Vööbus took these charges seriously, suggesting that monasticism here might have been a spiritual offshoot of Indian patterns.
Later historians like H.J.W. Drijvers discount these Manichaean analogies. In light of what we now know, moreover, we would rather look to Jewish traditions. In Egypt, monasticism emerged in a landscape that had once been home to a Jewish contemplative sect called the Therapeutae, who have often been compared to later Christian monks. Scholars have long speculated about possible linkages between the two movements.
Perhaps we can find similar continuities in Mesopotamia. Like Manichaeanism, Mesopotamian Christianity emerged alongside several Jewish-Christian sects, some of which clearly did hark back to predecessors at Qumran. As I will show, some of these sectaries were even known as “Essenes.” Vööbus himself notes that ascetics described themselves as sons (or daughters) of the Covenant, qeiama, a usage that takes us right back to Qumran. And as Amar notes, so does the obsession with concepts like qaddisha and qaddishutha – “holy” and “holiness,” usually in the context of celibacy.
Now, the chronology here raises real problems. Qumran fell during the Jewish War of 66-73 AD, leaving a clear two centuries before we see unambiguous evidence for Syriac monks. But let me just raise the possibility here.
For an unexpected and quite surprising sidelight on these topics, see the recent book by Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, Early Christian Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Siegal notes “striking parallels and connections between Christian monastic texts (the Apophthegmata Patrum or ‘The Sayings of the Desert Fathers’) and Babylonian Talmudic traditions …. The shared literary elements in the literatures of these two elite religious communities sheds new light on the surprisingly inclusive nature of the Talmudic corpora and on the non-polemical nature of elite Jewish-Christian literary relations in late antique Persia.”