Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.11.01

Ilaria Ramelli, Il Chronicon di Arbela: Presentazione, traduzione e note essenziali. 'Ilu. Revista de Ciencias de las Religiones. Anejos. Serie de sucesivas monografias, 8.   Madrid:  Universidad Complutense Madrid, 2002.  Pp. 109.  ISBN 84-95215-42-X.  EUR 11.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Edward G. Mathews, Jr., Independent Scholar (
Word count: 1270 words

Classical Syriac literature, perhaps more than any other Christian literature, has a very long and rich tradition of historical chronicles. Inspired no doubt by the famous Chronicle of Eusebius,1 Syriac boasts such chronicles as the sixth century Chronicle of Edessa,2 which records a list of events that occurred in this "capital" of Syrian Christianity between the years 132 BC and 540 AD, and the so-called Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite (actually only a part of the Chronicle of Ps.-Dionysius of Tell Mahrê, now referred to as the Chronicle of Zuqnin).3 There are numerous anonymous Chronicles that survive, and the tradition reaches its culmination in the massive Chronicle of Michael the Syrian, compiled by the twelfth century patriarch of Antioch.4 A few of these chronicles, most notably those just mentioned, are known to western historians, but many still remain the sole domain of Syriac specialists, despite the fact that they provide valuable material for the political, social, and economic history of the Middle East.

One of the most enigmatic of these Syriac chronicles is the East Syrian chronicle known as the Chronicle of Arbela. This anonymous work records the history of Christianity in Arbela from its beginnings to the middle of the sixth century. Arbela (now Erbil, capital of modern Kurdistan, in eastern Iraq) was the metropolitan seat of the region of Adiabene, then a small Persian border kingdom in NE Mesopotamia. It was in Adiabene, according to Josephus, that the royal family converted to Judaism in the first century AD.5 The account of early Christianity found in the Chronicle of Arbela is composed in the format of vignettes of varying length on the first bishops of Arbela, beginning with Pekhida who became bishop in 104 according to Kawerau, and concluding with Henana, the twentieth bishop of Arbela, who died in 544. The first church in Arbela was built in the time of Isaac, the third bishop. The Chronicle also names a number of these bishops as martyrs, though perhaps anachronistically in most cases.

The text of the Chronicle of Arbela was discovered and first edited, with French translation, by Alphonse Mingana in 1907.6 This newly edited text was initially received with great excitement as it purported to be an important and accurate source for an otherwise obscure chapter in the early history of Syriac Christianity. But the excitement soon dissipated, and it was not long before studies by important scholars of the period, most notably the great Bollandist Paul Peeters, began to question the historical reliability of this new text.7 Subsequent revelations also served to dampen, if not squelch, the initial enthusiasm over the Chronicle.

Mingana had published the Chronicle as the work of a sixth-century writer named Meshihâ-zkhâ ("Christ has conquered"), a lost work known otherwise only from a thirteenth century catalogue of Syriac ecclesiastical works. In 1941, the great French scholar J.-M. Vosté disclosed that Mingana had actually persuaded a local scribe to insert the name Meshihâ-zkhâ into his copy of the text.8 Subsequent to this, Julius Assfalg examined the only known manuscript -- then labelled Ms. Berl. Or. 3126 -- and noticed that not only did Mingana's text not always correspond to the manuscript -- including one page for which there was no manuscript text at all -- but the script of the manuscript, albeit in Estrangelo, an early Syriac script, clearly indicated that this manuscript was a modern copy, and not one from the tenth-century as Mingana had claimed.9 At nearly the same time, J.-M. Fiey went so far as to pronounce the text to be a complete fabrication on the part of its editor, noting that the authenticity of earlier editions of Syriac texts prepared by Mingana had already been brought into question by other scholars.10 Sebastian Brock has since proved that the work cannot be a forgery, but lingering doubts from these earlier studies still cast a dark cloud over the reputation of this Chronicle.11 Thus, until very recently, consensus among Syriac scholars was that the work is almost totally unreliable, although scholars of Jewish and Sasanian history and religion generally held the text in somewhat higher regard.12 Its most recent editor, Peter Kawerau, however, argued in his introduction that there is more historically reliable data in the Chronicle of Arbela than had been previously recognized.13

The slim volume under review here contains the fifth modern translation of this problematic text -- curiously it has yet to be translated into English.14 Of its 109 total pages, less than half are devoted to the translation (pp. 25-72). The introduction (pp.7-25), a short note on the importance of the Chronicle (pp.73-75), bibliography (pp. 77-91), and the appendices which include tables of bishops, Sasanian rulers, etc. (pp. 93-96) and an index of all proper names (pp. 96-109) constitute the larger part of the volume. The introduction makes no mention of the "sordid" history of the reception of this text recounted above; previous editions are found only in the bibliography.

Ramelli is concerned almost exclusively with chronological considerations. She attempts to further the arguments already brought forth by Kawerau that the Chronicle does indeed have a reliable chronological basis that can be substantiated from other sources such as Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, and early chronicles and martyr acts. The clearly Jewish names of the early bishops of Arbela (Samson, Isaac, Abraham, Noah, etc.) also corroborate Josephus' claim that Adiabene had become a Jewish province. Ramelli also gleans material from contemporary Sasanian sources, particularly the epigraphical data found in the Res gestae divi Saporis which came to light thirty years after Mingana's edition.15 Not all the data, however, can be corroborated. Ramelli points out that there are certain irreconcilable discrepancies in the Chronicle such as Pekhida's connection with Addai. Pekhida was, according to the Chronicle, a disciple of Addai in Edessa and later ordained by him; none of this is told in either the Teaching of Addai, our only other source for the life of Addai, or the Acts of Mari, which claims that it was Aggai and Mari who evangelized Adiabene and became its first bishops.16 While there is evidence that Christianity was introduced into these regions very early (Acts of the Apostles 2:9, the Epitaph of Aberkios, etc.), there are no sources that can corroborate the details given concerning the lives of these early bishops. Some of the events recounted follow very standard literary topoi from later lives and martyr acts, such as the account of Pekhida's conversion from Mazdaism to Christianity, and the reputed martyrdom of such early bishops as Samson, the second bishop, is almost certainly an anachronistic event in and of itself, not to mention the stylized narrative in which it is composed, and the extreme detail of its gruesomeness so characteristic of later acts of martyrs.

The translation is accurate and readable, if not elegant, as befits a translation of a chronicle. The "note essenziali" are exactly that, only essential comments, of which many are simply biblical references and linguistic notes; historical notes are brief and not always enlightening. The appended tables are found elsewhere but are quite useful to have in one place along with the text, and the bibliography is reasonably up-to-date; I noticed no glaring omissions other than those noted above. This slim monograph is by no means the definitive study of the enigmatic Chronicle of Arbela -- scholars will still prefer the edition and translation of Kawerau -- but it does make some advances on the verification of some of the dating. This slim monograph may make this chronicle a little better known and in wider circles and it will offer enough stimulation to someone to undertake that definitive study.


1.   This work survives only in a sixth-century Armenian translation. P. Aucher, ed., Ewsebios Kesarats'i, Zhamanakakank' erkmasneay (Venice 1818); J. Karst, Die Chronik des Eusebius aus dem armenischen übersetzt (GCS 20; Leipzig 1911).
2.   L. Hallier, Untersuchungen über die Edessenische Chronik (Texte und Untersuchungen 9.1; Leipzig 1892).
3.   See now, F.R. Trombley and J.W.Watt, The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite (Translated Texts for Historians, 32; Liverpool: Liverpool University 2000).
4.   J. B. Chabot, ed., Chronique de Michel le Syrien (Paris 1899-1910).
5.   Josephus, Jew. Ant., XX.iv.
6.   A. Mingana, ed. and tr., Sources Syriaques I (Leipzig 1907) 1-168.
7.   P. Peeters, "Le "Passionaire d'Adiabene"," Analecta Bollandiana 43 (1925) 261-304; I. Ortiz de Urbina, "Intorno al valore storico della Cronaca di Arbela," Orientalia Christiana Periodica 2 (1936) 5-32.
8.   J.-M. Vosté, "Alphonse Mingana," Orientalia Christiana Periodica 7 (1941) 514-518.
9.   J. Assfalg, "Zur Textüberlieferung der Chronik von Arbela. Beobachtungen zu Ms. or. fol. 3126," Oriens Christianus 50 (1966) 19-36.
10.   J.-M. Fiey, "Auteur et date de la Chronique d'Arbèles," L'Orient Syrien 12 (1967) 265-302.
11.   S.P. Brock, "Alphonse Mingana and the Letter of Philoxenos to Abu 'Afr," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 50 (1967) 199-206. See also his rather negative comments in idem, "Syriac Historical Writing: A Survey of the Main Sources," Journal of the Iraqi Academy (Syriac Corporation) 5 (1979/1980) 1-30 [reprinted in S.P. Brock, Studies in Syriac Christianity (London 1992)].
12.   See, for example, J. Asmussen, "Christians in Iran," in E. Yarshater, ed., The Cambridge History of Iran 3(2) (Cambridge 1983) 924-948, and G. Widengren, "Sources of Parthian and Sasanian History," ibid, 1276. On the Jewish side, J. Neusner also places a certain amount of confidence in this text, see his History of the Jews in Babylonia (5 vols. Studia Post-Biblica 9, 11, 12, 14, 15; Leiden 1965-1970), I.181-183, III.354-358.
13.   P. Kawerau, ed., Die Chronik von Arbela (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 199-200; Louvain 1985). See also now, W. Hage, "Early Christianity in Mesopotamia: Some Remarks concerning Authenticity of the Chronicle of Arbela," The Harp 1 (1988) 39-46.
14.   In addition to the French translation that accompanied Mingana's edition cited above, the text was translated into German twice: E. Sachau, "Die Chronik von Arbela. Ein Beitrag zur Kentniss des ältestens Christentum im Orient," Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, phil.-hist. Klasse 6 (1915) 5-94, and by Kawerau, op cit. It was also translated into Latin in F. Zorell, "Chronica Ecclesiae Arbelensis," Orientalia Christiana 8 (1927) 143-204. All these translations, with the exception of that of Kawerau, are based on the edition of Mingana.
15.   Curiously lacking is A. Maricq, "Res Gestai Divi Saporis," in Classica et Orientalia (Paris 1965) 37-101.
16.   G. Howard, The Teaching of Addai (Missoula 1981); J.B. Abbeloos, "Acta S. Maris, Assyriae, Babyloniae ac Persidis saeculo I apostoli," Analecta Bollandiana 4 (1885) 43-138.

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