Aphrahat and the People Which Is No People

To see how a fourth-century Christian theologian addressed the question of who is Israel in the light of the salvation of Jesus Christ, we turn to Aphrahat, a Christian monk in the western satrapy of the Iranian empire we know as Mesopotamia, ca. 300-350, who wrote, in Syriac, a sustained treatise on the relationship of Christianity and Judaism. His demonstrations, written in 337-44, take up issues facing the Syriac-speaking Church in the Iranian empire, enemy of Christian Rome. The relevance of Aphrahat, who lived not in Rome but in Iran, requires explanation. The world he faced placed him squarely in confrontation with the political change effected by the recognition of Christianity as Rome's religion. True, it was not a favorable change, since the now-Christian government of Rome made it clear to the Iranian government that Christians within Iran formed the object of special concern of the Christian emperor. That fact formed a datum of politics that dictated conditions of theological reflection as much for Aphrahat as for his counterparts in the West. For Iran's government had long tolerated Christian evangelism, and the Church in Mesopotamia and Babylonia was nearly a century and a half old by the time Aphrahat became a bishop. With the recognition of Christianity on the other side of the frontier, Aphrahat's Church came under suspicion, and so the political shift affected him as much as it affected Eusebius, beforehand, and Chrysostom, later on. The issue of who are the Christians and what is the Church, moreover, demanded attention for a second, equally political, consideration. The Israel of Iran, that is, the Jews, pointed toward the sorry condition of the Church as evidence that they, Jewry, and not Christianity's monks and nuns, constituted the true and only Israel of God. The political issue therefore joined with the theological one to require from Aphrahat a systematic restatement of the Church's position, now fully and elegantly argued for three hundred years, on who is Israel.1

1. On this point Rosemary Ruether comments, "There might be a word here of further discussion of the way the Constantinian establishment affected Christians outside its borders. Political success for Christians adds further 'proofs' that God is on their side, but it is not decisive for their

The Church then—ca. 337-45—was suffering severe persecution by the government, for the monks and nuns, maintaining they had no property, could not pay taxes. Since at that time Jews enjoyed stable and peaceful relationships with the Iranian government while Christians did not, the contrast between weak Christianity and secure Judaism required attention as well. Aph-rahat presents his case on the basis of historical facts shared in common by both parties to the debate, Judaism and Christianity, that is, facts of Scripture. He rarely cites the New Testament in his demonstrations on Judaism. Moreover, when he cites the Hebrew Scriptures, he ordinarily refrains from fanciful or allegoristic reading of them, but, like the rabbis with whom Jerome dealt, stressed that his interpretation rested solely on the plain and obvious factual meaning. His arguments thus invoked rational arguments and historical facts: this is what happened, this is what it means. Scriptures therefore present facts, on which all parties concur. Then the argument goes forward on a common ground of shared reason and mutually agreed-upon facts. Still more important, the program of argument—whether Israel, the Jewish people, is going to be saved in the future, along with the issue of the standing and status of the Christian people—likewise follows points important to both parties.

Here, as I claimed at the outset, we find Judaic and Christian thinkers disagreeing on a common set of propositions: Who is Israel? Will Israel be saved in the future, or have the prophetic promises already been kept? We take up Aphrahat's explanation of "the people which is of the peoples," the people "which is no people," and then proceed to his address to Israel after the flesh. The two issues complement one another. Once the new people formed out of the peoples enters the status of Israel, then the old Israel loses that status. And how to express that judgment? By denying the premise of the life of Israel after the flesh, that salvation for the people of God would come in future time. If enduring Israel would never enjoy salvation, then Israel had no reason to exist: that is the premise of the argument framed on behalf of the people that had found its reason to exist (from its perspective) solely in its salvation by Jesus Christ. So what explained to the Christian community how that community had come into being also accounted, for that same community, for the (anticipated) disappearance of the nation that had rejected that very same nation-creating event.

Let me first summarize Aphrahat's Demonstration Sixteen, "On the Peoples which are in the Place of the People."2 Aphrahat's message is this: "The basic belief that the Christian 'new Israel' has superseded the 'old Israel' in God's favor. When persecuted, Christians adopt a martyr theology that looks forward to eschatological vindication. Thus political disfavor of persecution does not falsify the Christian belief in their divinely elected status, any more than it falsifies Jewish belief in their elected status. Thus Jews and Christians had parallel ways of interpreting lack of political success" (1979).

2. I provide in Appendix 2 a complete translation of the demonstrations summarized and paraphrased here.

people Israel was rejected, and the peoples took their place. Israel repeatedly was warned by the prophets, but to no avail, so God abandoned them and replaced them with the gentiles. Scripture frequently referred to the gentiles as 'Israel.' The vocation of the peoples was prior to that of the people of Israel, and from of old, whoever from among the people was pleasing to God was more justified than Israel: Jethro, the Gibeonites, Rahab, Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, Uriah the Hittite. By means of the gentiles God provoked Israel." The entire demonstration, in my translation, is given in the appendix to this chapter. It suffices to point to a few important components of the argument.

First, Aphrahat maintains, "The peoples which were of all languages were called first, before Israel, to the inheritance of the Most High, as God said to Abraham, 'I have made you the father of a multitude of peoples' (Gen. 17:5). Moses proclaimed, saying, 'The peoples will call to the mountain, and there will they offer sacrifices of righteousness' (Deut. 33:19)." Not only so, but God further rejected Israel: "To his people Jeremiah preached, saying to them, 'Stand by the ways and ask the wayfarers, and see which is the good way. Walk in it.' But they in their stubbornness answered, saying to him, 'We shall not go.' Again he said to them, 'I established over you watchmen, that you might listen for the sound of the trumpet.' But they said to him again, 'We shall not hearken.' And this openly, publicly did they do in the days of Jeremiah when he preached to them the word of the Lord, and they answered him, saying, 'To the word which you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord we shall not hearken. But we shall do our own will and every word which goes out of our mouths, to offer up incense-offerings to other gods'" (Jer. 44:16 -17). That is why God turned to the peoples: "When he saw that they would not listen to him, he turned to the peoples, saying to them, 'Hear O peoples, and know, O church which is among them, and hearken, O land, in its fullness' (Jer. 6:18-19)." So who is now Israel? It is the peoples, no longer the old Israel: "By the name of Jacob [now] are called the people which is of the peoples." That is the key to Aphrahat's case. The people that was a no people, that people that had assembled out of the people, has now replaced Israel.

Like Eusebius, Aphrahat maintained that the peoples had been called to God before the people of Israel: "See, my beloved, that the vocation of the peoples was recorded before the vocation of the people. But because the time of the peoples had not come, and another was [to be] their redeemer, Moses was not persuaded that a redeemer and a teacher would come for the people which was of the peoples, which was greater and more worthy than the people of Israel." The people that was a no-people should not regard itself as alien to God: "If they should say, 'Us has he called alien children,' they have not been called alien children, but sons and heirs. . . . But the peoples are those who hearken to God and were lamed and kept back from the ways of their sins." Indeed, the peoples produced believers who were superior in every respect to Israel: "Even from the old, whoever from among the peoples was pleasing to God was more greatly justified than Israel. Jethro the priest who was of the peoples and his seed were blessed: 'Enduring in his dwelling place, and his nest is set on a rock' (Num 24:21)." Aphrahat here refers to the Gibeonites, Rahab, and various other gentiles mentioned in the scriptural narrative.

Addressing his Christian hearers, Aphrahat then concludes, "By us they are provoked. On our account they do not worship idols, so that they will not be shamed by us, for we have abandoned idols and call lies the thing which our fathers left us. They are angry, their hearts are broken, for we have entered and have become heirs in their place. For theirs was this covenant which they had, not to worship other gods, but they did not accept it. By means of us he provoked them, and ours was the light and the life, as he preached, saying when he taught, 'I am the light of the world' (John 8:12)." So he concludes, "This brief memorial I have written to you concerning the peoples, because the Jews take pride and say, 'We are the people of God and the children of Abraham. 'But we shall listen to John [the Baptist] who, when they took pride [saying], 'We are the children of Abraham,' then said to them, 'You should not boast and say, Abraham is father unto us, for from these very rocks can God raise up children for Abraham' (Matthew 3:9)."

In Demonstration Nineteen, "Against the Jews, on account of their saying that they are destined to be gathered together," Aphrahat proceeds to the corollary argument, that the Israel after the flesh has lost its reason to endure as a nation. Why? Because no salvation awaits them in the future. The prophetic promises of salvation have all come to fulfillment in the past, and the climactic salvation for Israel, through the act of Jesus Christ, brought the salvific drama to its conclusion. Hence the Jews' not having a hope of "joining together" at the end of their exile forms a critical part of the entire picture. Here is a summary of the argument: "The Jews expect to be gathered together by the Messiah, but this expectation is in vain. God was never reconciled to them but has rejected them. The prophetic promises of restoration were all fulfilled in the return from Babylonia. Daniel's prayer was answered, and his vision was realized in the time of Jesus and in the destruction of Jerusalem. It will never be rebuilt."

Aphrahat thus stresses that the Jews' sins caused their own condition, a position which sages accepted: "On account of their sins, which were many, he uprooted and scattered them among every nation, for they did not listen to his prophets, whom he had sent to them." The Jews now maintain that they will see salvation in the future, but they are wrong: "I have written this to you because even today they hope an empty hope, saying, 'It is still certain for Israel to be gathered together,' for the prophet thus spoke, 'I shall leave none of them among the nations' (Ex. 39:28). But if all of our people is to be gathered together, why are we today scattered among every people?" But, Aphrahat states, "Israel never is going to be gathered together." The reason is that God has never reconciled to Israel: "I shall write and show you that never did God accept their repentance [through] either Moses or all of the prophets. .. . Further, Jeremiah said, 'They are called rejected silver, for the Lord has rejected them' (Jer. 6:30). . . . See, then, they have never accepted cor rection in their lives." Let us turn directly to the reply of Leviticus Rabbah's authorship.

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  • riccardo
    How does aphrahat address the argument persian jews?
    2 years ago

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