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The School of Edessa



Edessa occupies a singular place in Christendom. Presently called Urfa, a modern Turkish city of some 80,000 inhabitants, it was once associated with Jesus and early missionary activities of the Church. Pilgrims came to Edessa (the Syrians called the city "Orhay") from Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Far East. Traditions about the city reached the countries of Western Europe; its monasteries and caves housed saints, scholars, and poets. Edessa is generally regarded as the birthplace of Syriac literature and philosophy.
A favorable geographical location enabled Edessa to achieve early prominence. A north-south road from Armenia bisected Edessa, continuing through Harran and the cities of Syria. An east-west road linked Edessa to Nisibis and points beyond in the Far East with the fords of the Euphrates in the west. Caravans of traders carried spices, gems, and muslin from India, and silk from China on these ancient highways.
First conquered by the Greeks, and ruled by the Seleucids from 302 until 130 B.C.E., Edessa fell into the hands of the Parthians and, finally, the Romans in 49 C.E. Although Edessa was proclaimed a colonia in 214 C.E., the thought and culture of Orhay, like the culture of the entire oikoumene, remained Greek. The coins of Edessa bore legends in Greek. The wealthy families of the city sent their sons to study in Antioch, Beirut, Alexandria, and Athens. The greatest Edessan philosopher, Bardaisan, was predominantly influenced by Greek thought.
There was great religious ferment in the Syrian orient in the second and third centuries. A Jewish community flourished in both Edessa and Nisibis, and the latter city served as a storehouse for Jewish contributions to the Jerusalem Temple. Jews lived side by side with the pagan community, and even shared a common burial ground. In addition, the Church was contending with the heresies of Marcionism and Gnosticism during this period. A cult center dedicated to the worship of astral deities sprang up in Palmyra as well as in Harran, and in nearby Hieropolis a Temple was supported by monies from Babylonia and Assyria. Edessa's residents were similarly engaged in planet worship. Christianity made subtle inroads into this eclectic world of religious thought and practice, and ultimately emerged triumphant. A Christian church was established at the beginning of the third century; by the fourth century Edessa was acknowledged as the first kingdom to adopt Christianity as its official religion.
Edessa attracted both scholars and controversy. Beginning with St. Ephraim, Father of the Syrian church at Edessa in the fourth century and author of innumerable hymns, biblical commentaries, and political tracts, as well as a participant in the defense of Nisibis against Persian attack in 350, scholars at Edessa were constantly engaged in deflecting the heresies of Marcion and Mani. However, St. Ephraim's successor, Rabbula, who became Bishop of Edessa in 411/412, had difficulty sustaining theological unity; at that time, Christianity was divided by the arguments over the natures of Jesus, leading to the creation of the Monophysite and Dyophysite factions.
The Dyophysite party ("two-natures of Jesus"), led by Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodoret, and their disciples, had achieved prominence in Church and scholarly circles of Mesopotamia. Guided by Nestorius, these scholars struggled against the Monophysite party ("single-nature of Jesus"), led by Cyril of Alexandria and his disciples. Although the scholarly tradition of Edessa was founded, in large part, on the theological commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia, who advanced the Dyophysite tradition, Bishop Rabbula turned away from his colleagues and the renowned Theodore, replacing the works of Antiochene theologians with Cyril's Monophysite texts.
This controversy and capitulation by Bishop Rabbula prefigured the dissolution of the School of Edessa. Despite a resurgence of Dyophysite leadership under Rabbula's successor, Hiba, who was credited with the translation of the texts of Diodorus and Theodore of Mopsuestia from Greek into Syriac, the weight of official opposition by both the Church and the Persian empire was oppressive. Bishop Cyrus, who ascended to office in 471, persuaded Emperor Zeno to act decisively against the Nestorian heresy. This heresy, as explained above, emanated from Nestorius's assertion that Mary should be viewed not as the Theotokos, the "Mother of God," but as the Mother of Jesus' human nature only. Although the distinction was semantic, it elicited religious and political reactions that directly affected the destiny of the Dyophysite school of Edessa, which, in 489, was summarily closed. The Edessan scholars, however, migrated to nearby Nisibis, where they would transfer their academic and theological concerns to Edessa's successor, the School of Nisibis.
The first recorded director of the School of Edessa was Qiiore, who in the early part of the fifth century exhibited not only ascetic and scholarly qualifications, but also administrative ability. Occupying the Chair of Exegesis (mepasqana in Syriac), he replaced the texts of St. Ephraim with those of Theodore of Mopsuestia. This was a seminal decision. By selecting Theodore's writings as his preeminent textual source, Qiiore embarked upon a course of study that was to intermingle the deductive principles of Aristotle with Theodore's Dyophysite creed.
Under Hiba, the Syrians busied themselves with the translations of Theodore's theological works, but they were similarly engaged in translations of the Greek peripatetic philosophers, of Greek works on history, geography, and astronomy. Proba achieved distinction in his translation of Greek philosophical works. The Hermeneutics and Analyticon of Aristotle have survived in manuscript form; part of the Isagoge of Porphyry is extant. Subsequently, the theological studies at Edessa and Nisibis were grounded in the logic of Aristotle. Proba's commentaries on Aristotle and Porphyry marked the beginning of a philosophical literary activity which would ultimately establish Aristotle's Organon as the methodological foundation for East Syrian thought. The deductive principles of Aristotle were utilized specifically in the teaching of Scripture. Later, this influence upon the School of Nisibis is patently revealed in the Latin text below, which is a translation, from the Greek, of Paul's sixth century manual of scriptural and theological exegesis -- a manuscript that is Aristotelian in structure and Mopsuestian in content.
Junillus's Instituta Regularia Divinae Legis (c.542) reveals the Syrians' absorption with and dependence upon Greek, particularly Aristotelian, principles of logic. Nevertheless, the main occupation of these monks and their students was the preservation and copying of religious texts and manuscripts, among which the Bible was pre-eminent. While it is difficult to ascertain if Tatian's Diatessaron was composed at Edessa or Adiabene, whence he came, there is little doubt of the close scholarly ties between these two communities of Late Antiquity. It is possible that the Separate Gospels and various books of the Peshitta and other Syriac versions of the Bible were composed at Edessa. Philoxenus of Mabbog, who studied at Edessa, effected a new translation of the Greek Bible into Syriac around 508. A Syriac version of the entire Old Testament, and reputedly the New Testament, was produced by the Nestorian scholar, and Edessan-trained, Maraba I, in the middle of the sixth century.
The Greek texts translated into Syriac and the dissemination of Syriac texts to foreign communities did not necessarily have their nascence in Edessa, but they all traversed that city's intellectual crossroads, ingested first by the faculty and then by the students of the School. The importance and intellectual centrality of the School of Edessa is proved by the documentation preserved by its successor, the School of Nisibis. The model for Nisibis was Edessa -- in its academic structure, its curriculum, its faculty, and its students. While Nisibis became the great school of the Syrian Orient, its intellectual foundations lay in the School of Christian Edessa, Nisibis's western neighbor, "the blessed city."