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Transoxiana 6 - Julio 2003

The Establishment and Development of Christianity in the Parthian Empire
(1st cent. -224/6 A.D.)

Evangelos Venetis, Dr. M. Alinia Mozdoor (**)

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The Parthian period is a special part of the Iranian history, characterised by some special features that are rarely met in other periods. The Parthians who conquered the Seleucid Empire (3rd cent. B.C.) inherited and preserved a vast empire, both in extension, institutions and customs. The region of Western and Central Asia was the centre of the creation and development of a new cultural frame with a strong Graeco-Iranian character. The cultural achievement is met in every field of life in the Hellenistic and Parthian periods, and the religious life was not an exception.

During the five centuries of the Parthian rule there is a variety of religious sects and a liberate policy from the Parthian rulers concerning the worship of several deities with Graeco-Iranian features (1). The reduction of the influence of the Zoroastrian religion in the Hellenistic era did continue during the Parthian rule. The main element of their religious policy was the tolerance to all sects (paganism, Judaism, Christianity etc.) and the liberal practices of the religious customs of their citizens. Gradually however, in the first two centuries A.D, there is a positive policy of the Parthian monarchy for the Zoroastrian religion. This attitude of Arsacids is connected with their effort to revival in part the Iranian elements in every part of their activities (administration, literary production, etc.). However the revival of the Iranian culture of the Achaemenian period was not achieved in the Parthian period.

On the other hand, Parthians created the transitional phase that would lead from the variety, tolerance and equal co-existence of the Iranian and Greek cultures to the development of a new ideology for the strengthening of the Iranian cultural elements and the primary role of Iranians in the political scene of Western Asia. This idea would be materialised with the rise of the Sassanians (A.D 224/6) (2). The rendering of Zoroastrianism to the position of the only official religion of the Sassanian Empire was a result of a long time process that had started during the Late Parthian period. Under these circumstances, the development and gradual strengthening of the Christian religion in the Parthian Empire was an event that would lead to the conflict with the Zoroastrian priesthood.

The spread and development of the revolutionary Christianity within the Parthian borders took place simultaneously with the missionary efforts of Christians in the other regions of the known world (3). Christianity, like every new religious sect, needed a long duration in order to create its own identity, limiting the influence of the other religious traditions and presenting the necessary matter for its own independent route. However until the moment of acquiring its own position as a reputable religion, the image of Christianity was vague in the Parthian Empire as well as in the Later Roman one.

The new creed was dealt by the Roman and Parthian empires not as a new independent religion but as a heresy, and the Life of Jesus as a fragmentary incident of the Judaic history and religion. In its primary stage Christianity did not have the validity of an established religious power but was coped with doubt and suspiciousness, as a new religious sect within a new society. While the conditions for Christians at the Roman State were negative (4), there was a different situation in the Parthian Empire (5).

The sources for the spreading of Christianity among the Iranian population in the first centuries are rare. According to the Acts of Apostles, the first reference for the first touch of the Iranians with the new religion took place in the Day of Pentecost (6). Taking under consideration the text of Acts of Apostles, it is easy to understand how fast a part of the Iranian population became aware of the new religion and adopted it. Moreover many elements about the geography of the Parthian Empire and the areas where Christianity was mostly accepted and adopted. The power of the Christian communities was concentrated in the areas of Adiabene and its capital, Arbela (Irbil), and Osrhoene with its capital Edessa (Urrhai), one of the first centers of Christianity in Western Asia (7).

The city of Edessa is connected with another reference about the development of Christianity at this area. According to this aspect, the founder of the community of Edessa and the whole Christianity in Western Asia was the Apostle Thaddaeus (8). The creation of the first Christian centers at the city of Edessa and the region around it took place in linguistic environment where the Aramaic was the main element among many Semitic idiomatic dialects (9). The eastern Aramaic dialect of Edessa would be the liturgical and literary language of the Eastern Church (10). Especially in the Sassanian State the Aramaic would be the official language of the Christian Church and would be used widely in the administration and the financial life.

The Judaic and Christian communities of Adiabene and Osrhoene and the regions east of Euphrates were the core of the Christian expansion in the Sassanian Iran. These communities were always in the middle of the conflicts between Romans and Parthians, since they were of great importance for the trade and the financial activities of that time. The strategic meaning of Edessa and Arbela allowed them to control the transferring of goods from the eastern to western world and the opposite (11). The focus of the Christian missionary efforts in the important urban centres was on purpose, since they realized the strengthening of the influence of the new religion in vital areas, in order to achieve the stability of the new creed (12).

The methods of attracting new members in the Christian communities were most of the time nameless and quiet (13). The conversion could happen everywhere, anytime and under any conditions. The sources of the first centuries A.D. are not enlightening about this matter but the hagiographic texts of the Sassanian era provide a good image of the practices concerning the attraction of new members in their communities (14). As it is written in the main part of the present work, the ideology of the Christian religion included every human form, any social class, tribe and age. The liberal character of the new religion with respect to the previous religions was giving an advantage for the increase of its popularity and the attraction of new members.

One of the main features of the Christian converting practice was the approach of the woman, the most "weak" part of the family at that period of time, whose role however was of crucial meaning for the right order of the family and the society. According to the Life of Saint Ias, the martyr was in touch everyday with other women of different social classes "and she was preaching the word of God" (15).The admission process to the remaining members of the family started at the moment when the non-Christian women were accepting the Christian tuition. The woman informed her spouse and her children about the new religion. It is clear that the power of the Christian preaching was easily accepted in the female population and the acceptance of this preaching from the female members of the Zoroastrian and other religion was the basis for the further acceptance and adoption of the Christian religion by the Iranians in the Parthian and Sassanian period (16). So, the Christian missionary activity managed to attract to the new religion members from several social classes, even those from the upper classes (aristocracy, priesthood etc.) As a result, the new sect increased its power by creating new communities in several urban centers (17).

The development of the Christian communities in the Parthian Empire was gradual. In the first century the steps were slow, since Christians were not ready and experienced in the administrative field in order to organize their communities. The new character of a new sect was a positive element, since the newly baptized Christians were fascinated by the fever of the new preaching. However the advantage of the emotional fascination did not keep up with a similar level of maturity in organizing matters. Moreover Christians had to cope with the negative attitude of the other religions, and especially the Zoroastrian clergy. Although the political influence of the priests was not high, it was being gradually increased. Moreover Christians had felt earlier the persecutions of the Roman State (18)

During the 4th century the difficult conditions for the spreading of Christianity still existed. However, while in the Roman Empire the situation was increasingly difficult, the few Christians of the Parthian Empire were gradually being multiplied. The conditions were still contrary but the Parthian rule with its tolerant religious policy contributed to the flourishing and development of the Christian communities on its ground (19).

The details for this early period of the development of the Christian communities are few and scarce. However, they give valuable material for the creation of an aspect about the number of these communities and the regions of their development. The result of this whole missionary effort of Christians was the creation of a wide system of communities in the region of the Fertile Crescent. These communities were organised as bishoprics with their own clerical and administrative hierarchy.

In the second half of the 2nd century (about 150) Eusebios is referred to an internal Christian conflict during Easter Celebration. Many bishops (Victor in charge of the Roman Church) of the Mesopotamian cities took part in this conflict, some of them were from bishoprics of the Parthian Empire, like Osrhoene (20). The connection of the King Abgar VIII of Edessa with the Christian religion was the element that made Edessa the most important Christian center of the Parthian Empire (21).

In 224/6 the number of Christian communities was more than 20 and they were spread mainly on a large part of the Fertile Crescent, including the cities of Bet Zabdai in the north, Karka de Bet Selok and southern to the destination of Susiana with the cities of Bet Lapat, Hormizd-Ardashir and Mesene (Peret de Maisan) (22).

The sources agree that these communities of Mesopotamia were founded in an organised form from the first years of the 2nd century. However, this does not mean that Christians were numerous at that time. On the contrary, the Christians created a type of closed community with very few members for security reasons. Gradually the positive-tolerant attitude of the Parthian State gave the chance to these communities to increase their members. Bishoprics were founded which gave an official character to the existence of these communities and became the administrative organ for the communication with official Parthian authorities (23). The contact of the several bishops must have been especially intimate and had in view the further strengthening of the Christian element in the Parthian Empire (24). This gradual development and process was maintained until the defeat and the fall of the last Arsacid King, Ardavan V, by Ardashir I, the founder of the Sassanian dynasty, in Hormuzdgan (224 A.D.).

During the Sassanian period of Iran, Christianity would expand further in the Iranian plateau and, as a result of this expansion, the power of the Zoroastrian religion and its clergy would be threatened. The struggle of Christianity and Zoroatrianism in the land of the Iranians had just begun and would last throughout the Sassanian era (to 651). This struggle would become a part of the political opposition between the Sassanians and the Romans at the same period of time (25).


(**) Evangelos Venetis (c.PhD - University of Edinburgh, UK) & Dr. M. Alinia Mozdoor (University of Ioannina, GR)

(1) The creation of deities by mixing their previous features is one of the basic elements of this period. The worship of figures that presented common features in respect to the rituals and characteristics of such deities, like Verethraghna-Hercules, Tir-Apollo and Anahita-Athena, are some of those examples of religious mixture in Late Antiquity. See Duschesne - Guillemin, "Zoroastrian Religion", CHI 3 (2), p. 874. About the existence of common rituals of Anahita and Athena see Chaumont, "Le culte d'Anahita à Stahr et les premiers Sassanides", RHR CLVIll (1960), p.161.

(2) Due to the nature of the pure Iranian character of the Sassanian dynasty, even today the official historical cycle of Iran begins with the appearance of Sassanians on the throne of Iranians. See Frye, The Heritage of Persia (London 1976), pp. 227-228. Ghirshman, Iran (London 1978), p. 289.

(3) The Christian religion included a wide range of followers from various tribes. See P. Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, (London 1971 -rep. 1989), pp. 163-165.

(4) Tacitus considers the new religion as "exitiabilis superstitio", a pernicious superstition that had overflowed Rome. See Tacitus, Annales xv 44. Plinius Secundus, aware of the importance and the threat of the new religious sect, asks from Trajan his advice for the treatment of Christians in Bithynia of Asia Minor, where he was in charge of the Roman authorities. See Plinius Secundus, X. 96.

(5) The attitude of the Parthian administration was normally mild but the exceptions of strict behaviour were not few. Synelle, Diplomatikes Sxeseis, p. 49.

(6) Acts of Apostles, B. 9.

(7) Sozomenos is referred to those regions and the expansion of Christianity, Sozomenos II 8,2. Moreover see Christensen-Ensslin, "Sassanid Persia", CAH XlI, p. 121 and Labourt, Le Christianisme dans l'Empire Perse sous la dynastie Sassanide (Paris 1904), p. 18.

(8) About this issue see Eusebios, Ekklesiastike Istoria, II, 1, 6-7. Also see Waterfield, Christians in Persia, (London 1973), p. 17 and Burkitt, "The Christian Church in the East", CAH XII, p. 493.

(9) This multiple linguistic mosaic had already been developed from the VIIIth century B.C. See Waterfield, op. cit, p. 18.

(10) The Aramaic language, spoken and written, is still in use by the Christians in the regions of Southern Iraq and Iran (Luristan, Iranian Azarbaijan etc.).

(11) Asmussen, "Christians in Iran", CHI 3 (2), p. 924. Some of the saints of Eastern Church during the Sassanian period were professionally traders. See John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints, v. II, P.O. pp. 576-577.

(12) The development of Christian communities in towns where the Jewish population had the commercial monopoly and their parallel co-existence was not peaceful and was characterized by a spirit of competition with a double character, financial and religious. At this early stage someone can detect the origins of the competitive relation and co-existence of Jews and Christians in the Sassanian state in the following centuries. See Bowman, "The Sasanian Church in the Khargh island", All (1974), pp. 218-9. Much later (6th cent.) Christianity will flourish in a systematic way in many other important financial centers of Central Asia, like Merv in modem Afghanistan. See Bosworth, "The Coming of Islam to Afghanistan", Islam in Asia 1, South Asia, ed. Y. Friedman, Jerusalem 1984, pp. 7-8.

The archaeological remains at the Khargh island in the Persian Gulf between Bahrain and Boushihre prove the fast expansion of Christianity during the Parthian period. According to an Aramaic Christian hymn, there were Christians on the island since 150 and their profession was mainly related to the pearl collection. See Bowman, op. cit., p. 217. At the same place there are ruins of a Christian monastery, on the base of which there are catacombs. Analytical description of these catacombs is given by Herzfeld, The Archaeological history of Iran, The British Museum 1935, p. 104.

The financial importance and the strategic place for the trade of Khargh island and other places of the Persiam Gulf attracted the first Christian population to settle down there and expand their religion to the habitants that had already been there. See Whitehouse & Williamson, "Sasanian Maritime Trade", Iran XI (1973), p. 47.

(13) Asmussen, op.cit., p. 925.

(14) There is a chronological gap of the Parthian and the Sassanian period concerning the spreading of the new religion, since the circumstances were different. However through the study of the hagiographic sources someone can detect those elements concerning the conversion practices during the Sassanian era.

(15) Les Versions Grecque des Actes des Martyrs Persans sous Sapor II, t. II, P.O., pp. 455-456.

(16) Brock-Ashbrook Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, p. 65.

(17) Christianity was quickly developed in many regions of the Parthian empire, like Kashkar (modem Iraq), Mesene (Basra-Muhammera), Susa, Rew Ardashir (Bushihre) and the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf at Qatr (Bahrain), see Herzfeld, op. cit., p. 103. Moreover the Christian religion was widely accepted in the northern regions of Bet Zabdai, Karkha de Bet etc. About the number and the names of the cities of the Fertile Crescent, where Christianity flourished, see Christensen, L'Iran sous les Sassanides (Copenhague 1944), p. 39. Asmussen, op. cit., pp. 925-926.

(18) The persecutions of Romans would be imitated by the Sassanian policy against the Christian population of the Sassanian state.

(19) The attitude of some Parthians (Arsacids) rulers was especially positive and vigorous for the Christians. The positive policy of Vologases III towards its Christian subjects created a stable ground for the development of Christianity for about half a century (148-191). See Asmussen, op. cit., p 925.

(20) Eusebios, V 23-24.

(21) According to the coinage of Abgar VIII (180-192), the symbol of the cross is remarkable appeared on his head-cover, a proof of the adoption of the Christian religion and tuition. See Waterfield, op.cit., p. 17.

(22) According to the Syriac chronicle of Mela, there were no Christian communities at the cities of Nisibis and Ctesiphon, where the power of the Zoroastrian clergy was traditionally great. See Asmussen, op. cit., p. 925.

(23) Synelle in her stimulating dissertation Oi Diplomatikes Sxeseis, p. 49 states that there is no evidence about the existence of organized Christian communities in Persia before the rise of the Sassanians. On the contrary, the Chronicle of Arbela points out that during the time of the dynastic change at Ctesiphon there were approximately 20 Christian bishops, See Chr. Arb., 30 II, 55, p. 106.

(24) However it has to be pointed out that despite the increase of the number of the Christian communities, the number of the Christians was not really great in proportion to the members of the other religious sects of the Parthian Empire. Paganism was still strong during the first two centuries A.D. See Asmussen, op. cit., p. 928.

(25) See Venetis, "Some Notes on the Zoroastrian Clergy's Policy and the Roman - Sassanian Conflict (3rd cent.)", JOAS 11 (2002), (Forthcoming).


Primary Sources

Acts of Apostles, B. 9

Die Chronik Von Arbela, ed. E. Sachau (Berlin 1915)

Eusebius, Ekklesiastike Istoria, v. I, tr. K. Lake [The Loeb Classical Library], (London 1959 - 4th edition).

--------, The History of the Church, tr. G. A. Williamson (New York 1966)

John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints, v. II, P.O.

P. Cornelius Tacitus, Annales,tr, tr. J. Jackson, [The Loeb Classical Library] (Harvard University Press 1962).

Plinius Secundus, Historiae Naturalis

Sozomenos, Ekklesiastike Istoria (Kirchengeschichte), ed. J.B. Bidez - G. Ch. Hansen (Berlin 1960).

Les Versions Grecque des Actes des Martyrs Persans sous Sapor II, t. II, P.O.

Secondary Sources

Asmussen J. P., "Christians in Iran", CHI 3 (2), p. 924-948.

Bosworth C. E., "The Coming of Islam to Afghanistan", Islam in Asia 1, South Asia, ed. Y. Friedman, (Jerusalem 1984), pp. 1-22.

Bowman J., "The Sasanian Church in the Khargh Island", Al (1974), pp. 217-220.

Brock S.B.-Ashbrook Harvey S., Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, University of California Press (Los Angeles 1987).

Brown P., The World of Late Antiquity, (London 1971- rep. 1989).

Burkitt F. C., "The Christian Church in the East", CAH XII, pp. 476-513.

Chaumont M. L., " Le culte d'Anahita à Stahr et les premiers Sassanides ", RHR CLVIll (1960), pp. 175-202.

Christensen A., L'Iran sous les Sassanides, (Copenhague 1944).

Christensen A. - Ensslin W., "Sassanid Persia", CAH XlI, pp.109-137.

Duschesne-Guillemin J., Zoroastrian Religion, CHI 3 (2), pp. 866-908.

Frye R., The Heritage of Persia (London 1976, 2nd edition)

Ghirshman R., Iran, (London 1978).

Herzfeld E., The Archaeological history of Iran, The British Museum 1935.

Labourt J., Le Christianisme dans l'empire Perse sous la dynastie Sassanide, Paris 1904

Synelle K. Oi Diplomatikes Sxeseis Vyzantiou kai Persias apo ton 3o eos to 6o ai. (Athena 1986).

Venetis E., "Some Notes on the Zoroastrian Clergy's Policy and the Roman - Sassanian Conflict (3rd cent.)", JOAS 11 (2002), (Forthcoming).

Waterfield R., Christians in Persia, (London 1973).

Whitehouse D. & Williamson A., "SasanianMaritime Trade", Iran XI (1973), pp. 29-49.


AI: Acta Iranica (Leyden)

CAH: Cambridge Ancient History.

CHI: Cambridge History of Iran.

Chr. Arb.: Die Chronik Von Arbela

JOAS: Journal of Oriental and African Studies (Athens)

PO: Patrologia Orientalis, ed. R. Graffin-F. Nau, Editions Brepols, Turnhout/Belgique 1974, 1981, 1983.

RHR: Revue de l'Histoire des Religions (Paris)

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