Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Edessa |
As Christians move across Rome

Edessa is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 59, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Syriac Christianity sends its missionaries into the war-torn states of Mesopotamia, where a composite book of the Gospels is written, as well as one of the first hymnals

Edessa - As Christians move across Rome’s empire, some take on the forbidding lands to the East

Edessa – As Christians move across Rome’s empire, some take on the forbidding lands to the East
The marketplace in today’s Urfa, Turkey, the modern name of ancient Edessa, where the Christians made some of their first forays into the East.

The triumph of Christianity in its first three centuries was a triumph over the Roman Empire, which lay generally to the west of its birthplace in Jerusalem. To the east of Jerusalem lay another empire, Persia, against which the Romans and their forerunners, the Greeks, engaged in intermittent war for eleven centuries, five of them before Christ and six after. Not until the twentieth century would the Christians progress in the East as they did in the West, but it was not for lack of trying.

Between the two empires stretched a wide and lush plain, bounded by two great rivers, the Tigris on the east and the Euphrates on the west, rising in the Armenian mountains south of the Black Sea and moving southeastward in a “V,” finally joining for the last seventy-five miles and flowing into the Persian Gulf. The plain is called Mesopotamia (literally in Greek, “between the rivers”) and for eleven hundred years it was disputed territory, occupied now by Persians, now by Greeks or Romans, a perpetual battleground.

At the dawn of the Christian era, Mesopotamia and the mountainous country to the north and east accommodated three buffer-state kingdoms: Osrhoene (pronounced as Os-ro-AYE-nee), Adiabene, and Armenia. The first two would soon vanish from history, but the third, Armenia, would endure as a nation for the next two thousand years, tough, implacable, resolutely Christian, and right into the twentieth century paying for its faith in blood, oppression, and sorrow.

Yet it was to Osrhoene that the faith came first–came, it was said, in the form of a letter signed by Jesus of Nazareth himself, a reply to an appeal from King Abgar the Black of Osrhoene’s Arab dynasty. Abgar was ill. Would Jesus come and cure him? In the letter, Jesus ostensibly commends Abgar’s faith, but says he can do nothing until he has been “taken up,” after which he’ll send a disciple.1 And the fourth-century church historian Eusebius tells that after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle Thomas sent to Osrhoene a disciple named Addai–in Greek, Thaddaeus, one of the “seventy” commissioned by Jesus in Luke 10:1.

A history entitled The Doctrine of Addai, written about 400, details Addai’s ministry in Osrhoene’s capital, Edessa, a city known to Abraham by its ancient name, Orhay. Alexander the Great’s successors renamed Osrhoene as Edessa (it’s now Urfa in Turkey), and not far from it, an entire Roman legion had been annihilated when one of King Abgar’s predecessors led it into a Persian trap. The Romans never again fully trusted either Osrhoene or the Arabs.

The Doctrine tells of Addai healing the ailing Abgar, converting him to Christianity, and making Osrhoene the first Christian kingdom. It records that many were persuaded, not coerced, into the faith by the signs and miracles wrought by Addai and his disciples, and these erected a church, later destroyed in a flood. Addai, it continues, died peacefully, was buried with high honors and succeeded by his presbyter Aggai, the royal robe-maker whose preaching greatly furthered the success of the mission. But then disaster struck. When King Abgar’s unbelieving son succeeded him, he ordered Aggai to quit preaching and go back to making robes; Aggai refused, and was executed.

How much of all this, asks the historian Samuel Hugh Moffett, can be taken as reliable history? In his book, A History of Christianity in Asia, he makes an assessment. That a first-century mission was launched by the Christians to Edessa under a missionary named Addai he considers probable; that it was sent by Thomas, possible; but that its king became Christian, highly improbable, though a successor king of Osrhoene a century later may very well have become the first Christian king.

Light was shed on Osrhoene’s early Christianity many centuries later from an unexpected source. For years, scholars had possessed small portions of a mysterious collection of Jewish-Christian hymns called The Odes of Solomon, believed to have been composed in Edessa at a very early date, but too fragmentary for conclusive research. Then in 1909, a British scholar, A. Rendel Harris, decided to examine a bundle of old manuscripts that had lain for years on an office shelf. They turned out to be an almost complete set of the Odes. Arguably the first Christian hymnbook, they disclose a portrait of the Christian East whose imagery is already qualitatively different from that of the West. Ode 19, for instance, begins:

A cup of milk was offered me

And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

The Son is the cup,

And the Father is he who is milked;

And the Holy Spirit is she who milked him.2

The Odes describe an early morning worship service, with the people stretching out their arms in the form of a cross, as did many early Christians. Though the Jewish influence in the Odes is plain, there is a strong emphasis on love as distinct from law, and at one point, they portray a Messiah who embraces the Gentiles “because they have praised me.” Finally, while a hymnbook is not a theological treatise, the verses clearly follow Paul and John in affirming a belief in a pre-existing Christ. Thus Ode 41:

The Son of the Most High appeared

In the perfection of his Father.

And light dawned from the Word

That was before time in him.

The Messiah in truth is one,

And he was known before the foundations of the world,

That he might give life to persons forever

By the truth of his name.

After a.d. 113, the history of Osrhoene and Edessa becomes far more specific, because the Roman Emperor Trajan focused western attention on Mesopotamia with a military offensive. He drove through to the Persian Gulf, claiming the whole region for Rome, including the Persian capital, Ctesiphon, on the Tigris. In 117, however, there came a major reversal. Trajan suffered a stroke and died. His successor, Hadrian, aware that Rome had no hope of sustaining an army big enough to control the whole region, pulled back to the Euphrates, leaving Osrhoene, for the moment, a client kingdom of Persia.

Thereafter, much more is known of Christian history in Edessa. Over the next half century two men appear who would shape Christianity in the East for years to come. Both were converts, both born and raised in the buffer states, both would write voluminously and attract a huge following, and both would be challenged as heretics in the West. But the differences between them were much wider than the similarities. In fact, in theology and temperament, each seemed the polar opposite of the other.

The older of the two was Tatian, born about 110 of pagan parents, probably in Adiabene’s capital city of Arbela, east of the Tigris. He was converted to Christianity as a young man and became a student of the eloquent Christian evangelist Justin in Rome. When Justin was martyred, Tatian returned to his native land and found it flooded with assorted stories of Jesus’ life, many dubious or obviously untrue. He therefore produced a book combining the accounts of all four gospels into one, which he called the Diatessaron (pronounced as Di-a-TESS-a-ron). It was written in Syriac, the working language of both Syria and Mesopotamia, a version of Jesus’ language, Aramaic. Tatian’s Diatessaron became the first “gospel” read in the Mesopotamian church.

Though he was an eminent and respected New Testament scholar, Tatian’s other teachings were much more controversial. He set up a school or community in or near Arbela, whose graduates founded a strict sect called the Encratites, which forbade the eating of meat and the drinking of wine, and pronounced sex evil, even within marriage. These teachings were condemned first in the West, later in the East, as false.

They were in notable contrast with the other highly respected Christian authority in Mesopotamia, Bardaisan (pronounced as Bar-DAY-san), known in the West as Bardesanes (pronounced as Bar-de-SAN-ees). The son of wealthy parents believed to have fled from the Persian court during a succession dispute, he was raised in prestige and luxury at Edessa, and schooled with Osrhoene’s crown prince. Bardaisan shone both mentally and physically, becoming an authority on Persian philosophy and a superb archer in a city renowned for its skill with the bow. Colorful stories were told of his aptitude. Once, during the visit of a Roman emperor, Bardaisan had a youth hold up a shield. Firing arrow after arrow, Bardaisan created a portrait of the youth in the shield. The story survives in the Roman account of the visit.

One day, Bardaisan happened to pass Edessa’s Christian church and heard Hystaspes, bishop of Edessa, preaching inside. He became fascinated with the ideas Hystaspes expressed and was soon baptized. Like many converts, he became an outspoken champion of his new faith, distinguishing himself in confrontational dialogues with the city’s dominant pagans, and he was made a deacon in the church.

But like Tatian’s, Bardaisan’s writings got him into trouble and were finally condemned even by his mentor Hystaspes. Striving to make one great world religion (as would others for the next two thousand years), he sought to find common ground between Christianity, astrology, Persian philosophy, and cosmology, and wound up publishing wild speculations of a thirty-person Trinity and a theology in which the Father marries the (feminine) Spirit to produce a Son–through, but not out of, the Virgin Mary.

All of this was denounced as false by later Christian writers. Curiously, however, little of it appears in Bardaisan’s one surviving work, The Book of the Laws of Countries, which chiefly depicts Jesus as bestowing freedom upon the human race. Bardaisan died in 222, and like Tatian, was followed by a sect, the Bardaisanites, which lasted by some accounts for another four hundred years. Unlike Tatian’s Encratites, however, the Bardaisanites did not condemn sex–far from it, they believed sex “purifying.”

Christian progress in the second buffer state, Adiabene, is much sketchier, though it was without doubt taking place. Adiabene lay east of Osrhoene and beyond the Tigris, its capital city of Arbela (now Arbil in Iraq) the reputed site of Tatian’s community and school. A sixth-century document called The Chronicle of Arbela speaks of Christian merchants introducing the faith there in the first century and reports the martyrdom of Simeon, second bishop of Arbela, in 123. A Persian account dated eleven years later records a barbarian invasion from the Caucasus being halted with the help of an Adiabene satrap named Rakbakt, described as a Christian convert.

Christian accounts mention two original missionaries, one named Mari, the other Pkidha. They also mention a bishop, Semsoun, put to death later by the Zoroastrians, though many scholars dispute this martyrdom. This would be the first Christian encounter with Persia’s great religion whose practice survives to this day in India, where the Zoroastrians are known as the Parsees. Under Persia’s Parthian kings, Zoroastrianism was a particularly tolerant religion. A century later, however, with the fall of the Parthian dynasty, that was to change radically.

For one accomplishment, the Edessan courtier Bardaisan might very well take credit. His childhood friend became Abgar VIII, king of Osrhoene, known in the Roman records as “a holy man,” and very probably a Christian, who is credited with prohibiting the bloody rite of castration that characterized Osrhoene’s ancient pagan religion.3 The evidence for his Christianity is good, says historian Moffett, and this would reliably make him the first Christian king. The Romans honored Abgar VIII with a state visit to Rome and conferred upon him a Roman name.

He died in 212, and the Romans invited his son and successor, Abgar IX, for another state visit. However, he was arrested on his arrival, deposed, and imprisoned in chains. That was the end of the Osrhoene kingdom. The Romans made it a colony, demonstrating that they still didn’t trust Arabs. Whom they did trust were the people of Mesopotamia’s third buffer state, the Armenians, whose story, one of the most stirring in Christian history, will begin in the next volume.

This is the end of the Edessa category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 59, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Edessa from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info