When Christians Became Iranian – By Kyle Smith

Kyle Smith on Richard Payne’s A State of Mixture

Richard E. Payne, TITLE, A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity, 2015, 320pp., $95
Richard E. Payne, A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity, University of California Press, 2015, 320pp., $95
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The story typically told about the Christians of the Sasanian Persian Empire is not a pleasant one. It goes like this: in the anxious lulls between persecutions, Christians eked out a peripheral existence with little hope of gaining influence at the Sasanian court and even less in quelling the suspicions of the aristocracy. Christians were outsiders in Iran — worrisomely so. Under a Zoroastrian cosmology that inscribed the land with a mythical past, to be Christian was, by definition, to be non-Iranian. Constantine made matters worse. After his conversion in the early fourth century, Christians were looked upon not only as non-Iranian, but Roman. Christians beyond the Roman eastern frontier in northern Mesopotamia, and thus beyond the protection of the Christian king, were heavily taxed, violently oppressed, and frequently maligned as a traitorous fifth column of Rome, one that was sympathetic to, and complicit with, its co-religionists in the west.

But this story, as Richard Payne argues in his new book, is mostly a myth. Although both contemporary scholarly studies and late ancient primary sources frequently repeat the old narrative of Zoroastrians as intolerant oppressors, there is little reason to continue to think it credible. Recent archaeological and sillographic (study of seals) evidence contradict the idea that Christians were an isolated and persecuted sect in Iran. Christians thrived in the Sasanian Empire, building richly decorated churches in both urban centers and more rural areas alike. Upon closer inspection, even textual sources such as Christian martyrdom narratives, civic histories, and legal literature indicate that wealthy and well-educated Christian elites, often working directly with their Zoroastrian counterparts, grafted themselves onto all branches of Sasanian power, including the royal court, the aristocracy, and the military. From 410 CE onward, with the formal establishment of the Church of the East at the Synod of Isaac in the city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the Tigris, Sasanian kings were instrumental in patronizing the Christian hierarchy. It seems they even had a hand in choosing the Church’s patriarchs.

Payne explains many of the complex processes by which Sasanian authorities cultivated Christian elites as political allies, incorporating them into a universalist imperial project, but his primary interest lies in demonstrating how Christians themselves became Iranian over the course of the fifth, sixth, and early seventh centuries. To show how Christians constructed a markedly Iranian identity, he focuses on the evidence of many sources in Syriac, a dialect of Palestinian Aramaic that was once the preeminent Christian literary language from the Syrian countryside to the Iranian plateau. By re-reading these sources against the grain — that is, by re-reading and historicizing the very martyrdom narratives, civic histories, and legal texts that, ironically, often seek to inscribe Christian difference and present the Christians of Iran as a marginalized people — Payne convincingly establishes the extent to which Christians were fully integrated into Sasanian culture and society. This was a social and political cohesion that some patriarchs of the Church of the East struggled against, most notably Mar Aba in the mid-sixth century. Despite what Christian polemical treatises suggest, the conflict was never one just between Christians and Zoroastrians — martyrs against the magi, or patriarch against the shah. In fact, Christian bishops were often pitted against their own elites who, in their view, had become too culturally Iranian and, as a result, stood in danger of corrupting the faith.

Payne’s book arrives at a blossoming moment for religious studies in Iran. Until quite recently, the Jews and Christians of the Sasanian Empire were seen as — and usually studied as — discrete religious communities, groups that were siloed off from each other and the wider Sasanian society. It was assumed that they pursued a sectarian way of life legislated over by the exilarch (in the case of Jews) or the patriarch (in the case of Christians). Yet, among other recent collections, the essays edited by Geoffrey Herman in Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians: Religious Dynamics in a Sasanian Context (2014) explain how Jews and Christians in Iran — far from inhabiting parallel or independent worlds — were deeply imbedded in a conversation with each other, one that incorporated the prevailing Zoroastrian culture in which they lived. This realization is the starting point for Shai Secunda’s The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context (2013) and Richard Kalmin’s Migrating Tales: The Talmud’s Narratives and Their Historical Context (2014), both of which clearly show that even the most important literary contribution of Sasanian Jews, the Babylonian Talmud, cannot be read in isolation, but must rather be understood within the broader Sasanian context out of which multiple religious and legal literatures, including the Talmud, emerged.

Recent studies appreciating the richly interwoven religious landscape of Sasanian antiquity include analyses of Syriac martyrdom narratives as well. Under Adam Becker’s editorship, a text-and-translation series on the Syriac Acts of the Persian Martyrs published by Gorgias Press has begun to introduce these important sources to a wider readership. Sebastian Brock’s “guide” to the Acts — included as an appendix to his inaugural volume in the series, The History of the Holy Mar Ma’in (2009) — has already become essential in this regard. While most of the earliest Persian martyr acts, namely those composed in the fifth century, betray little intimate knowledge of either Sasanian society or Zoroastrian rituals, and present Christians as outsiders in Iran — if not explicitly as Roman captives taken during the fourth-century war between Rome and Persia that began after Constantine’s death — some later texts, such as Brock’s The Martyrs of Mount Ber‘ain (2015), are acutely Iranian in outlook. This is where Payne takes his cue.

In the most compelling chapter of his book, he provides his readers with an account of the Martyrdom of Pethion, Adurohrmazd, and Anahid. This Syriac text, which Payne dates to the late fifth or early sixth century, and which circulated as far east as the Turfan Oasis in western China (in Sogdian translation), narrates how some Christians were martyred on Mount Bisutun in western Iran. Bisutun, notably the southern face of it, was highly symbolic to the Sasanian ruling elite. Their own ancestor, the Achaemenid Persian king Darius, left a testament to his reign there in the sixth century BCE, ordering the construction of massive relief sculptures and a multi-lingual inscription. But the Martyrdom of Pethion narratively despoils the site, transfiguring Bisutun into a Christian tomb after dismembered Christians are left strewn about the mountain. Ground-dwelling wasps attack the magi who dare approach the relics, thereby preserving the al fresco martyrium.

Besides appropriating a symbolic mountain for Christian purposes, the author of the Martyrdom of Pethion, as Payne shows, obviously knew Middle Persian and possessed an impressive understanding of the Avesta — the sacred liturgical texts of Zoroastrianism. The Martyrdom of Pethion thus suggests that Christians were not wholly disassociated from Zoroastrians, but in fact strove to include themselves in the Sasanian Empire specifically by appropriating Iranian sacred sites and by deploying their apparently intimate knowledge of Zoroastrian traditions in a polemical context.

Payne recognizes that unlike more commonly known martyr acts in Greek and Latin, which tend to focus squarely on the life of a saint and leave grand-scale history writing to chroniclers and ecclesiastical historians, Syriac sources draw little distinction between history and hagiography. These epic, biographical histories use the death of a martyr to make broader ideological interventions in the landscape by exerting control over the meaning of contested places and by re-telling the history of those who live there.

One book that informs Payne’s study, Joel Walker’s The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq (2006), examines the imbrication of Christianity and late Sasanian society in northern Mesopotamia from the standpoint of one nobly born Sasanian convert to Christianity in particular. Although set in the fourth century, the seventh-century History of Mar Qardagh (an English translation of which is included in Walker’s book) shows how Zoroastrian cosmological ideas and disputation literature had become part of Christian discourse. Qardagh, a Sasanian general prior to his conversion, enjoyed the pursuits of many Iranian aristocrats of his day, such as polo and bow hunting. Yet Qardagh confounds expectations. He is a Sasanian noble and fervent antagonist of the Christian Roman Empire, but he is also a convert to Christianity who destroyed Zoroastrian fire temples on his family’s land so as to erect “shining altars to Christ.”

In their efforts to include themselves in the Sasanian Empire, Christians such as Qardagh and others who lived in the metropolitan regions encompassing the northern Mesopotamian cities of Nineveh (Mosul), Karka d-Bet Slokh (Kirkuk), and Arbela (Erbil) often turned to the Assyrian past to narrate themselves as its heir. Concerned with negotiating their presence in non-Christian lands, they looked to this pre-Sasanian past as a means of establishing a deeper, more ancient history in the land than that of their Zoroastrian compatriots. They looked to the Nineveh of Genesis and Jonah, to the Sennacherib of Isaiah and 2 Kings. Qardagh, for instance, although he is a convert from Zoroastrianism, does not claim an Iranian lineage, but instead claims that his mother descended from the Assyrian king Sennacherib and his father from Nimrod, the great Assyrian hunter mentioned in Genesis.

As Payne details, the sixth-century History of Karka d-Bet Slokh makes similar literary moves. The History of Karka is divided into three parts: the first narrates the ancient history of the city, including its foundation by the son of Sennacherib at the time when Jonah was sent to preach to the Ninevites; the second traces the city’s Christian history from its apostolic lineage; and the third discusses the various persecutions of Christians in Sasanian Persia. As the narrator tells it, when the bishops founded martyrs’ shrines around Karka, it was an architectural innovation equivalent to the grand urban development projects of the Assyrian kings. While Syriac martyrdom narratives set during the fourth century claim that the magi erased Christian churches from the landscape, the History of Karka, Payne argues, demonstrates how prominent the Christian cult of the saints had become in the late Sasanian period, providing evidence for the early “urban development of the package of institutions — relics of martyrs, shrine structures, hagiographical texts, and ritualized commemoration — that made saints such potent presences in Iranian society.”

In addition to martyrdom narratives and civic histories, legal literature written by patriarchs of the Church of the East also reveals the proximity of Christians to Zoroastrians. In 540 CE, the Sasanian king Husraw I summoned the wise Mar Aba away from his teaching position at the famous School of Nisibis and had him brought to Seleucia-Ctesiphon where he was to be installed as the archbishop and patriarch of the Church. Like many bishops before him, Aba had contacts in the west. But, as Payne points out, what Husraw did not know was that Aba was a Zoroastrian convert to Christianity who was well trained in the Avesta. Aba thus knew all too well how Iranian cultural traditions could conflict with Christian theology. Payne focuses on two issues in particular that Aba was forced to deal with: marriage and meat.

Aba would ultimately be exiled to Azerbaijan for counseling elite Christians to avoid eating meat procured from Zoroastrian rituals, but perhaps the more intractable difficulty for him was the deep-seated Christian acceptance of the Zoroastrian practice of substitute successorship. From the Zoroastrian perspective, it was a terrible thing for a man to die without begetting a son — so bad that it could haunt him in the afterlife. Because Sasanian aristocrats wanted to insure that this did not happen to them or any of their fellow elites, they developed a practice whereby the wife or unmarried daughter or sister of the dead man could contract a marriage whose progeny would become legally and spiritually the heirs of the man who had died. In Payne’s analysis, Aba’s polemics against this practice clearly suggest that Christian elites must have adopted it as their own, as if its use were compatible with Christian orthopraxy. Aba’s intervention drew a line between admissible and incestuous forms of Christian re-marriage, one that appears to have angered not only the Christian elites who were intent on living out their nobility by displaying how fully Iranian they had become, but also the Zoroastrian aristocrats who patronized them.

Payne’s book is a welcome intervention. It is an expertly conceived and beautifully written counterpoint to earlier studies of Christian history in the Sasanian Empire that take Christian martyrdom narratives and legal literature at face value. In his meticulous reading of East Syriac sources and the Middle Persian literatures and histories that underlie them, Payne has substantially contributed to a new body of scholarly studies that is quickly revising our understanding of the place of Christianity in the Sasanian period. Literarily marvelous Syriac sources such as the Martyrdom of Pethion and the History of Karka still have not been translated into English. But in addressing these and other texts in a broad and syncretic study of Christianity in Sasanian Persia, Payne has succeeded in showing that the new path forward for late ancient Christian studies is one that points due east.


Feature image of a mural from the Moldavia Monastery from Wikimedia Commons.