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The debate of CHRISTIAN FAITH between patriarch Timothy I and Caliph Mahdi in 781 A.D.



Part 1


Translation. By Alphonse Mingana



With the assistance of God we will write the debate held by the Patriarch Mar Timothy before Mahdi, the Commander of the Faithful, by way of question and answer, on the subject of the Christian religion.


On the one hand I feel repugnance to write to your Lordship,1 and on the other I am anxious to do so. I feel repugnance, on account of the futility of the outcome of the work. It is true that I could not have acquired a mature experience of such a futility from the single discussion herein mentioned, but I may state that I have acquired such an experience from discussions that took place before the one involved in the present lucubration.2 I am anxious, in order to confirm and corroborate a traditional habit, inasmuch as the habit of friendly correspondence has acquired the right of prescription from very early times, and has thereby received an additional title to existence; as a matter of fact it is born and grows in us from our childhood, nay even babyhood, and it is very difficult to shake a habit of such a duration. For the reason, however, stated at the beginning I sometimes infringe this law, especially when I am reminded by a wise man who says that it is useless to draw upon that which is difficult to inherit. This is also due to the fact that the subject is to me difficult and is even against my nature, but we know that habit conquers inclination, as a powerful thought conquers a weak one.

We often see that a strong and well rooted branch goes spontaneously back to its former and congenial state after it has been violently twisted, and we do find that when powerful torrents are diverted from their natural channels with violence, they return immediately to their natural and customary course, without the need of any violence. This happens to me in relation to your great wisdom; to put a stop to our correspondence we must needs make use of violence, but after the cessation of this violence, we go back to our natural state, while love conquers all between us and covers the weaknesses of the flesh which are full of shame and confusion, and also many other human proclivities which are known to the mind, but which the speech conceals and hides under the veil of silence. Such weaknesses are well known to your great wisdom, as if you were their father and originator, and are also known to all the members of the Orthodox Church. Love covers and hides all these weaknesses as the water covers and hides the rocks that are under it. But let us now embark on our main subject in the way sanctioned by our old habit and ancient custom.

Let it be known to your wisdom, O God-loving Lord, that before these days I had an audience of our victorious King, and according to usage I praised God and his Majesty. When, in the limited space allowed to me, I had finished the words of my complimentary address, in which I spake of the nature of God and His Eternity, he did something to me, which he had never done before; he said to me: "O Catholicos, a man like you who possesses all this knowledge and utters such sublime words concerning God, is not justified in saying about God that He married a woman from whom He begat a son." 3 —And I replied to his Majesty: "And who is, O God-loving King, who has ever uttered such a blasphemy concerning God?"—And our victorious King said to me: "What then do you say that Christ is? " —And I replied to his Majesty: "O King, Christ is the Word-God, who appeared in the flesh for the salvation of the world."—And our victorious King questioned me: "Do you not say that Christ is the Son of God?"—And I replied to his Majesty: "O King, Christ is the Son of God, and I confess Him and worship Him as such. This I learned from Christ Himself in the Gospel and from the Books of the Torah and of the Prophets, which know Him and call Him by the name of "Son of God" but not a son in the flesh as children are born in the carnal way, but an admirable and wonderful Son,4 more sublime and higher than mind and words, as it fits a divine Son to be."

Our King asked then: "How?"—And I replied to his Majesty: "O our King, that He is a Son and one that is born, we learn it and believe in it, but we dare not investigate how He was born before the times, and we are not able to understand the fact at all, as God is incomprehensible and inexplicable in all things; but we may say in an imperfect simile that as light is born of the sun and word of the soul, so also Christ who is Word, is born of God, high above the times and before all the worlds."—And our King said to me: "Do you not say that He was born of the Virgin Mary?"—And I said to his Majesty: "We say it and confess it. The very same Christ is the Word born of the Father, and a man born of Mary. From the fact that He is Word-God, He is born of the Father before the times, as light from the sun and word from the soul; and from the fact that He is man He is born of the Virgin Mary, in time; from the Father He is, therefore, born eternally, and from the Mother He is born in time, without a Father, without any marital contact, and without any break in the seals of the virginity of His Mother."

Then our God-loving King said to me: "That He was born of Mary without marital intercourse is found in the Book,5 and is well known, but is it possible that He was born without breaking the seals of the virginity of His mother?"—And I replied to him: "O King, if we consider both facts in the light of natural law, they are impossible, because it is impossible that a man should be born without breaking the seals of his mother's virginity, and is equally impossible that He should be conceived without a man's intercourse. But if we consider not nature but God, the Lord of nature, as the Virgin was able to conceive without marital relations, so was she able to be delivered of her child without any break in her virginal seals. There is nothing impossible with God,6 who can do everything."—Then the King said: "That a man can be born withour marital intercourse is borne out by the example of Adam, who was fashioned by God from earth without any marital intercourse, but that a man can be born without breaking his mother's virginal seals we have no proof, either from Book nor from nature."

And I replied to his Majesty in the following manner: "That He was born without breaking the virginal seals of His mother we have evidence from Book and nature. From Book there is the example of Eve who was born from the side of Adam without having rent it or fractured it, and the example of Jesus Christ who ascended to Heaven without having torn and breached the firmament. In this way He was born of Mary without having broken her virginal seals or fractured them. This can also be illustrated from nature: all fruits are born of trees without breaking or tearing them, and sight is born of the eye while the latter is not broken or torn, and the perfume of apples and all aromatic substances is bora of their respective trees or plants without breaking and tearing them, and the rays are bora of the sun without tearing or breaking its spheric form. As all these are bora of their generators without tearing them or rending them, so also Christ was born of Mary without breaking her virginal seals; as His eternal birth from the Father is wonderful, so also is His temporal birth from Mary."

And our King said to me: "How was that Eternal One born in time?"—And I answered: "It is not in His eternity that He was born of Mary, O our King, but in His temporalness and humanity." —And our King said to me: "There are, therefore, two distinct beings: if one is eternal and God from God as you said, and the other temporal, the latter is therefore a pure man from Mary."—And I retorted: "Christ is not two beings, O King, nor two Sons, but Son and Christ are one; there are in Him two natures, one of which belongs to the Word and the other one which is from Mary, clothed itself 7 with the Word-God."—And the King said: "They are, therefore, two, one of whom created and fashioned, and the other uncreated and unfashioned."—And I said to him: "We do not deny the duality of natures, O King, nor their mutual relations, but we profess that both of them constitute one Christ and Son."

And the King retorted: "If He is one He is not two; and if He is two, He is not one."—And I replied to him: "A man is one, while in reality he is two: one in his composition and individuality, and two in the distinction found between his soul and his body; the former is invisible and spiritual, and the latter visible and corporeal Our King, together with the insignia of his Kingdom is also one King and not two, however great may be the difference that separates him from his dresses. In the same way the Word of God, together with the clothings of humanity which He put on from Mary, is one and the same Christ, and not two, although there is in Him the natural difference between the Word-God and His humanity; and the fact that He is one does not preclude the fact that He is also two. The very same Christ and Son is indeed known and confessed as one, and the fact that He is also two does not imply confusion or mixture, because the known attributes of His natures are kept in one person8 of the Son and Christ."

And our King retorted to me: "Even in this you cannot save yourself from duality in Christ"—And I demonstrated the fact to him through another illustration and said: "The tongue and the word are one with the voice in which they are clothed, in a way that the two are not two words nor two tongues, but one word, together with the tongue and the voice, so that they are called by all one tongue with the word and the voice, and in them one does not expel two. This is also the case with the Word-God; He is one with His humanity, while preserving the distinction between His invisibility and His visibility, and between His Divinity and His humanity. Christ is one in His son-ship, and two in the attributes of His natures."

And our King said to me: "Did not Jesus Christ say, I am going to My God and to your God?" 9—And I said: "It is true that this sentence has been said by our Saviour, but there is another sentence which precedes it and which is worthy of mention."—And the King asked: "Which is it?"—And I said: "Our Lord said to His Disciples 'I am going to My Father and to your Father, and to My God and your God.'"—And our King said: "How can this be? If He says that He is His Father, He is not His God, and if He is His God, He is not His Father; what is this contradiction?" 10—And I replied to him: "There is no contradiction here, O God-loving King. The fact that He is His Father by nature does not carry with it that He is also His God by nature, and the fact that He is His God by nature does not imply that He is His Father by nature. He is, however, from His Father by the nature of the Word, born of Him from eternity, as light from the sun and word from the soul; and God is His God by the nature of the humanity of the Word born of Mary. Man is living and rational only by the nature of his soul, which has indeed received from God a living and rational nature, but he is said to be living and rational in his body also, through its association with this living and rational soul. In reality what be is by nature when his body and soul are separated, is not what he is in its composite state when his body and soul are united. In spite of all this however, he is called one living and rational man and not two. In the same way God is called, and is, the Christ's Father by the nature of the union of Word-God with our human nature, and on the other hand He is called His God by the nature of His humanity that He took from us in union with the Word-God.

"In this way He is then one Son and Christ, and not two. He was not born of Mary in the same way as He was born of God, nor was He born of God in the same way as He was born of Mary. So the Son and the Christ are really one, in spite of His births being two, and the same Christ has God as Father by nature, and as God: Father by the fact that He is Word-God, and God by the fact of His birth from Mary."

Our King showed here marks of doubt as to the possibility of all the above explanations, and I removed his doubt through another illustration, and said: "The letter of the Commander of the Faithful is one, both in the words that are written in it and in the papyrus on which the words are written, and our King, the King of Kings, is called both the father and the owner of his letter. He is called its father through the words born of his soul, which have been impressed on the papyrus, and he is called its owner through his being the owner of the papyrus on which the words have been written. Neither the papyrus, however, is, by nature, from the soul of the King, nor the words are by nature from the papyrus-reed, but the words are by nature born of the soul of the King, and the papyrus is by nature made of the papyrus-reed, i.e., from πάπυρος. 11 In this same way Christ is one, both in His being Word-God and in His humanity taken from us, but the very same God of Christ is both His Father and His God: His Father, from the fact that He was born before the times of the Father, and His God from the fact that He was born in time of Mary. By nature, however, He is not a man from the Father, nor is the Word by nature from Mary, but He is the very same Christ both from the Father and from Mary, in the first case as God, and in the second case as man."

Then our God-loving King said to me: "How can the spirit who has no genital organs beget?"—And I replied to him: "O God-loving King, how can the spirit then do things and create without possessing organs of creation. As He created the worlds without instruments of creation, so He was born without the medium of the genital organs. If He could not be bora without the intermediary of the genital organs, He could not by inference have created without the intermediary of the instruments of creation. If He created without any instruments of creation, He was, therefore, born without the genital organs. Lo, the sun also begets the rays of light without any genital organs. God is therefore able to beget and create, although He is a simple and not a composite spirit; and without any genital organs and instruments of creation He begets the Son and makes the Spirit proceed from the essence of His person as the sun does for the light and the heat."

And our King said to me: "Do you believe in Father, Son and Holy Spirit?"—And I answered: "I worship them and believe in them."—Then our King said: "You, therefore, believe in three Gods?"—And I replied to our King: "The belief in the above three names, consists in the belief in three Persons, and the belief in these three Persons consists in the belief in one God. The belief in the above three names, consists therefore in the belief in one God. We believe in Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God. So Jesus Christ taught us, and so we have learnt from the revelation of the books of the prophets. As our God-loving King is one King with his word and his spirit, and not three Kings, and as no one is able to distinguish him, his word and his spirit from himself and no one calls him King independently of his word and his spirit, so also God is one God with His Word and His Spirit, and not three Gods, because the Word and the Spirit of God are inseparable from Him. And as the sun with its light and its heat is not called three suns but one sun, so also God with His Word and His Spirit is not three Gods but is and is called one God."



1. 5 The correspondent of the Patriarch. He was possibly either Sergius priest, monk and teacher of the monastery of Mar Abraham, or Sergius, Metropolitan of Elam.

2. 1 These sentences amplify a little the original.

3. 1 The Christian apologist Kindi refutes an objection of his adversary, `Abdallah b. Isma`il al-Hashimi, which was in almost identical terms: "We never say about the Most High God that He married a woman from whom He begat a son," Risalah, p. 37. 

4. 2 Cf. Is. ix. 6.

5. 1 Kur'an, iii. 41; xxi. 91.

6. 2 Luke i. 37. Kur'an iii. 41, etc.

7. 1 Note the semi-Nestorian expression of "putting on, clothing oneself with" as applied to the union of God with man in the Incarnation. In the following pages we shall not attempt to render this expression into English at every time.

8. 2 Parsopa = πρόσωπον.

9. 1 John xx. 17.

10. 2 The Arabic muhal.

11. 1 There is no doubt therefore that the official letters and documents of the early Abbasids were written on papyrus and not on parchment. The Arabic word Kirtas seems by inference to indicate papyrus in the majority of cases, if not always.

 End of part 1