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Bardesanes and Bardesanites

Syrian poet, astrologist, and philosopher (164?-222)

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Bardesanes and Bardesanites.—Bardesanes (Bar-Daisan), a Syrian Gnostic or, more correctly, a Syrian poet, astrologist, and philosopher, b. July 11, 154 (164?), at Edessa, of wealthy Persian, or Parthian, parents; d. 222, at Edessa. To indicate the city of his birth his parents called him “Son of the Daisan”, the river on which Edessa is situated. On account of his foreign extraction he is sometimes referred to as “the Parthian” (by Julius Africanus), or “the Babylonian” (by Porphyrius); and, on account of his later important activity in Armenia, “the Armenian” (by Hippolytus). His pagan parents, Nuhama’ and Nah’siram, must have been people of rank, for their son was educated with the crown-prince of the Osrhoenic kingdom, at the court of Abgar Manu VIII. Julius Africanus says that he saw Bardesanes, with bow and arrow, mark the outline of a boy’s face with his arrows on a shield which the boy held. Owing to political disturbances in Edessa, Bardesanes and his parents moved for a while to Hierapolis (Mabàg), a strong center of paganism. Here the boy was brought up in the house of a heathen priest Anuduizbar. In this school, no doubt, he learnt all the intricacies of Babylonian astrology, a training which permanently influenced his mind and proved the bane of his later life. At the age of twenty-five he happened to hear the homilies of Hystaspes, the Bishop of Edessa; he received instruction, was baptized, and even admitted to the diaconate or the priesthood. “Priesthood“, however, may merely imply that he ranked as one of the college of presbyters, for he remained in the world, had a son called Harmonius, and when Abgar IX, the friend of his youth, ascended the throne (179) he took his place at court. He was clearly no ascetic, but dressed in Oriental finery, “with berylls and caftan”, according to St. Ephrem.

His acceptance of Christianity was perfectly sincere; nor do later stories, that he left the Catholic Church and joined the Valentinian Gnostics out of disappointed ambition, deserve much credit. His royal friend became (probably after 202, i.e. after his visit and honorable reception at Rome) the first Christian king; and both king and philosopher labored to create the first Christian State. Bardesanes showed great literary activity against Marcion and Valentinus, the Gnostics of the day. But unfortunately, with the zeal of a convert anxious to use his previous acquirements in the service of the newly found truth, Bardesanes mixed his Babylonian pseudo-astronomy with Christian dogma and thus originated a Christian sect, which was vigorously combated by St. Ephrem. The Romans under Caracalla, taking advantage of the anti-Christian faction in Edessa, captured Abgar IX and sent him in chains to Rome. Thus the Osrhoenic kingdom, after 353 years’ existence, came to an end. Though he was urged by a friend of Caracalla to apostatize, Bardesanes stood firm, saying that he feared not death, as he would in any event have to undergo it, even though he should now submit to the emperor. At the age of sixty-three he was forced to take refuge in the fortress of Ani in Armenia and tried to spread the Gospel there, but with little success. He died at the age of sixty-eight, probably at Edessa. According to Michael the Syrian, Bardesanes had besides Harmonius two other sons called Abgarun and Hasdà.

WRITINGS.—Bardesanes apparently was a voluminous author. Though nearly all his works have perished, we find notices of the following: (a) Dialogues against Marcion and Valentinus (Theodoretus, Haer. fab., I, xxii; Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., IV, xxx, 3). (b) Dialogue “Against Fate” addressed to Antoninus. Whether this Antoninus is merely a friend of Bardesanes or a Roman emperor and, in the latter case, which of the Antonini is meant, is a matter of controversy. It is also uncertain whether this dialogue is identical with “The Book of the Laws of the Countries”, of which later on (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., IV, xxx, 2; Epiphanius, Hr., LVI, i; Theodoretus, Hr. fab., I, xxii). (c) A “Book of Psalms“, 150 in number, in imitation of David’s Psalter (St. Ephrem, Serm. adv. hr., liii). These psalms became famous in the history of Edessa; their words and melodies lived for generations on the lips of the people. Only, when St. Ephrem composed hymns in the same pentasyllabic metre and had them sung to the same tunes as the psalms of Bardesanes, these latter gradually lost favor. We probably possess a few of Bardesanes’ hymns in the Gnostic “Acts of Thomas”; the “Hymn on the Soul“; the “Espousals of Wisdom”; the consecratory prayer at Baptism and at Holy Communion. Of these, however, only the “Hymn on the Soul” is generally acknowledged to be by Bardesanes, the authorship of the others is doubtful. Though marred by many obscurities, the beauty of this hymn on the soul is very striking. The soul is sent from its heavenly home to the earth, symbolized by Egypt, to obtain the pearl of great price. In Egypt it forgets for a while its royal parentage and glorious destiny. It is reminded thereof by a letter from home, succeeds in snatching the pearl from the Serpent, and, once more clothed in a raiment of light, it returns to receive its rank and glory in the kingdom of its father. (d) Astrologicotheological treatises, in which his peculiar tenets were expounded. They are referred to by St. Ephrem, and amongst them was a treatise on light and darkness. A fragment of an astronomical work by Bardesanes was preserved by George, Bishop of the Arab tribes, and republished by Nau in “Bardesane l’astrologue” etc. (Paris, 1899). (e) A “History of Armenia“. Moses of Chorene (History of G. A., II, 66) states that Bardesanes, “having taken refuge in the fortress of Ani, read there the temple records in which also the deeds of kings were chronicled; to these he added the events of his own time. He wrote all in Syriac, but his book was afterwards translated into Greek.” Though the correctness of this statement is not quite above suspicion, it probably has a foundation in fact. (f) “An Account of India“. Bardesanes obtained his information from the Hindu ambassadors to the Emperor Eliogabalus. A few extracts are preserved by Porphyry and Stoba’us (Langlois, Fragm. hist. grmc., V, Ixviii sqq.). “Book of the Laws of the Countries”. This famous dialogue, the oldest remnant not only of Bardesanite learning, but even of Syriac literature, if we except the version of Holy Writ, is not by Bardesanes himself, but by a certain Philip, his disciple. The main speaker, however, in the dialogue is Bardesanes, and we have no reason to doubt that what is put in his mouth correctly represents his teaching. Excerpts of this work are extant in Greek in Euseb. (Pra p. Ev., VI, x, 6 sqq.) and in Csarius (Quaestiones, xlvii, 48); in Latin in the “Recognitions” of Pseudo-Clement, IX, 19 sqq. A complete Syriac text was first published from a sixth- or seventh-century MS. in the British Museum, by Cureton, in his “Spicilegium Syriacum” (London, 1855), and recently by Nau. It is disputed whether the original was in Syriac or in Greek; Nau is decidedly and rightly in favor of the former. Against a questioning disciple called Abida, Bardesanes seeks to show that man’s actions are not entirely necessitated by Fate, as the outcome of stellar combinations. From the fact that the same laws, customs, and manners often prevail amongst all persons living in a certain district, or, though locally scattered, living under the same traditions, Bardesanes endeavors to show that the position of the stars at the birth of individuals can have but little to do with their subsequent conduct. Hence the title “Book of the Laws of the Countries.”

SYSTEM.—Various opinions have been formed as to the real doctrine of Bardesanes. As early as Hippolytus (Philos., VI, 50) his doctrine was described as a variety of Valentinianism, the most popular form of Gnosticism. A. Hilgenfeld in 1864 wrote an able defense of this view, based mainly on extracts from St. Ephrem, who devoted his life to combating Bardesanism in Edessa. But the strong and fervent expressions of St. Ephrem against the Bardesanites of his day are not a fair criterion of the doctrine of their master. The extraordinary veneration of his own countrymen, the very reserved and half-respectful allusion to him in the early Fathers, and above all the “Book of the Laws of the Countries” suggest a milder view of Bardesanes’s aberrations. He cannot be called a Gnostic in the proper sense of the word. He believed in an Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, whose will is absolute, and to whom all things are subject. God endowed man with freedom of will to work out his salvation. This world He allowed to be a mixture of good and evil, light and darkness. All things, even those which we now consider inanimate, have a measure of liberty. In all of them the light has to overcome the darkness. After six thousand years this earth shall have an end, and a world without evil shall take its place. To Bardesanes the sun, moon, and planets were living beings, to whom, under God, the government of this world was largely entrusted; and though man was free, he was strongly influenced for good or for evil by the constellations. Bardesanes’ catechism must have been a strange mixture of Christian doctrine and references to the signs of the Zodiac. Misled by the fact that “spirit” is feminine in Syriac, he seems to have held erroneous views on the Trinity. He apparently denied the Resurrection of the Body, but thought Our Lord’s body was endowed with incorruptibility as with a special gift.

SCHOOL.—Bardesanes’s son Harmonius strayed farther from the path of orthodoxy. Educated at Athens, he added to the Chaldee astrology of his father Greek errors concerning the soul, the birth and destruction of bodies, and a sort of metempsychosis. A certain Marinus, a follower of Bardesanes, is refuted in the “Dialogue of Adamantius”. This Marinas, a dualist, held the doctrine of a two-fold primeval being; for the devil, according to him is not created by God. He was also a Docetist, as he denied Christ’s birth of a woman. According to St. Ephrem, the Bardesanites of his day were given to many puerilities and obscenities. Sun and Moon were considered male and female principles, and the ideas of heaven amongst the Bardesanites were not without an admixture of sensuality. St. Ephrem’s zealous efforts to suppress this powerful heresy were not entirely successful. Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa in 431-432, found it flourishing everywhere. Its existence in the seventh century is attested by Jacob of Edessa; in the eighth by George, Bishop of the Arab tribes; in the tenth by the historian Masudi; and even in the twelfth by Shashrastani. Bardesanism seems to have degenerated first, into Valentinianism and then into common Manichaeism. The last-named writer states: “The followers of Daisan believe in two elements, light and darkness. The light causes the good, deliberately and with free will; the darkness causes the evil, but by force of nature and necessity. They believe that light is a living thing, possessing knowledge, might, perception, and understanding; and from it movement and life take their source; but that darkness is dead, ignorant, feeble, rigid, and soulless, without activity and discrimination; and they hold that the evil within them is the outcome of their nature and is done without their cooperation” [Haarbrucker tr. (Halle, 1850), I, 293).


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