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The Chronicle of Arbela (1907) Introduction. pp.viii-xi














The pages which we deliver today to the public, fill a gap. Ignorance of this area, of the beginnings of Christianity in the Persian empire, is always to be highly regretted. The manuscript of which we give here the text and the translation, will cure partly this defect in our knowledge, and will allow us at the same time to rectify many errors still current in the work of our modern syrologists.

The life and the character of Mšiha-zkha are unknown to us. On this subject, here are the few indications which we can extract from his history. He came from the country of Adiabene; the tone and the content of his book demonstrate this point with certainty. He was probably a pupil of the school of Nisibis. What makes us suppose this is that he goes into detail concerning this famous university on points which can be explained only by admitting that he had himself heard the scholarly teachers who directed this school. All of which leads us to believe that he was a disciple of Abraham of Beth Rabban; as proof, the praise which he gives  him in the life of bishop Hnana. However since this famous interpreter directed the school from 509 to 569 (1), Mšiha-zkha must have lived in the 6th century. He was apparently a priest or rather a ordained monk; this appears from the pious and edifying tone that he gives to his style at the same time very simple and very clear. |viii

We can prove with certainty that Mšiha-zkha composed his history between the years 550 and 569. While speaking about the bishop of Nisibis, Paul, he says that he was ordained after the return of Mar Aba of Huzistan; however this return having taken place in 550 (2), we are obliged to admit, as the time of its composition, the second half of the 6th century. On the other side, we cannot exceed the year 569, since the author employs the present tense, contrary to his usual practice, when he speaks about Abraham of Béth Rabban. The two limits are thus inevitably the nineteen years ranging between 550 and 569.

According to what we noted with some certainty, the sources of Mšiha-zkha are, for the history of the Occident: Eusebius of Caesarea, Clement, and perhaps Socrates; finally an apocryphal book now lost; for the history of the East: Habel the doctor, the collection of the martyrs of Adiabene (3), whose drafting can be placed at the beginning of the 5th century, and the local tradition.

Modern syrologues seem to identify and confuse the three historians: Mšiha-zkha, Išo'-zkha and Zkha-Išo', because of the similarity of their names; something which appears impossible to us, because by comparing the borrowed quotations, in posterior times, in Išo' -zkha and has Zkha-Išo', with the text of Mšiha-zkha, none them could be allotted to the latter. An example is enough to show this: Thomas of Marga who wanted to fix, in his monastic history, the time of the emigration of James, founder of the convent of Béth-'Abé, quotes Išo' -zkha, according to whom James went to Upper Adiabene, under the government |ix of Mar Babai, and that in the fifth year of Kosrau son of Hormizd (4), corresponding to year 595/6, since this king started to reign into 590 (5). However we saw that we cannot place the composition of the history of Mšiha-zkha, later than 569; our author could not thus report events which would be posterior to him by at least twenty five years. This Išo'-zkha, quoted by Thomas of Marga, would be thus a historian who lived right at the start of the 7th century (6), about fifty years after ours author.

The history of Mšiha-zkha forms a series of biographies of twenty bishops who controlled the church of Adiabene until the 6th century. Each of these biographies contains the principal facts, during the reign of each bishop from the see of Arbela. Generally the duration of each episcopate is given to us in years, at the end of his life; when it is not, some indications in the margin allow us to determine it. In order to classify these groups of years within a chronological framework, we make use of certain date-points; e. g. the 7th year which followed the defeat of Kosrau king of the Arsacids by Trajan; the year of the fall of Parthians, i.e. Wednesday, 27 Nissan, year 535 of Greeks etc etc. Events outside the country, but attached to it by their religious character, enter the narrative more or less arbitrarily and are grouped somewhat elastically around such or such episcopate, as frequently the words "in this time, about the same time, in these days... " indicate. |x One thus should not be astonished to see them overflowing on this side beyond the groupings to which they are annexed.

In addition to the advantages which we find in Mšiha-zkha from the point of view of the chronology, he provides us with still other very significant ones, such as: 1° some precise data on the beginnings of Christianity under the Arsacids and Sassanids, data placing the evangelization of the trans-euphrates regions in the first century of our era and not in the third, as some critics seem to say nowadays; 2° the fixing of the time when the apostle Addai lived, a question much discussed by scholars; 3° details that he transmits to us about the Parthians whose history is quite obscure; 4° some unquestionable data which enables us to solve several questions concerning the patriarchate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon etc: all details, which put the work of Mšiha-zkha well at the top of the list of historical compilations that the civilized Syrians left us.

Let us say a word on the manuscript itself which preserved for us the history of Mšiha-zkha. Sixteen miles to the North-East of Zakho, and twenty miles approximately to the North-West of Ašitha, there is a large Moslem village named Ekrour. This village was formerly inhabited by the Christians, who were dispossessed  more than 150 years ago, by the tribe of Gogayes. It was also used as the residence of the Nestorian bishops who were eager to collect the books of their ancestors there which had escaped the plundering of the plains: the single heritage which remained to them of their glorious past. At the time of the invasion of Gogayes, the peasants carried with them some of these books which they regarded as sacred objects, hid some more and burned, it is said, the remainder, so that they were not defiled by the invaders. The manuscript which contains |xi the history of Mšiha-zkha belongs to the collection of these books which had the good luck to have been able to avoid the fire. It is written on large paper of octavo format, in Estrangelo characters whose age is rather difficult to determine, unless the question is avoided by assigning them to the 10th century: which would not be too early. Later a manuscript containing the homilies of Warda was joined to it. After having detached these added books, I had newly reassembled by an expert, the invaluable remainders containing the chronicle of Mšiha-zkha, to make transport easier. The manuscript being truncated at the beginning and the end, it was impossible for us to know the author of it. Extremely fortunately, we found the title written in the margin, in the body of the manuscript itself (see p. 49).



1. (1) See the historic text of the chronicle of Barhadhbšabba edited by us in Narsai homiliae et carmina vol, I, p. 8 et 35 et sqq. 

2. (1) Cf. J. Labourt, Le Christianisme dans l'Empire Perse, p. 191.

3. (2) In Bedjan, Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, vol. IV, p. 128-165.

4. (1) Thomas of Marga, p. I. chap. 23, p. 36 (Bedjan edition).

5. (2) Noeldeke. Geschichte der Perser und Araber (Tabari) p. 435, .

6. (3) Thomas also tells us that he wrote under Iso'Yahb II, from 628 to 643; ibid. p. 36.

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