The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries

by Adolph (von) Harnack
translated and edited by James Moffatt
Second, enlarged and revised English edition;
London: Williams and Norgate / New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1908 (from the 2nd German edition)..
Theological Translation Library, volumes 19-20

From the German, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (1902, revised 1906, 1915, and finally 1924)

[[Book 4, Chapter 3, section 3, location 6 (page 153 = 2nd German ed p. 127) (scanned and proofed, Elana Newberger 4/2004), edited and checked by Francisco Lameiro 2/2005; Greek added,  some ETs still needed]]


6. ARABIA\1/

The large regions south of Palestine, Damascus, and Mesopotamia which bear the name of "Arabia" were never civilized -- they were not even subdued -- by the Romans, with the exception of the country lying east of the Jordan and several positions south of the Dead Sea (cp. Mommsen's Rom. Gesch., 5. pp. 471 f.; Eng. trans., 2. pp. 143 f.). Consequently we can look for Christians during our epoch\2/ only in the districts just mentioned, where Arabian, Greek, and Roman cities were inhabited by people of superior civilization.\3/ Immediately after his conversion Paul betook himself to "Arabia" (Gal. 1.17), i.e., hardly to the desert, but rather to the province south of Damascus.\4/ Arabians are also mentioned in Acts 2.11.

\1/ Cp. Map 3. -- For the changes in the political terminology and the metropolitan organization in Arabia, cp. Lubeck, op. cit., pp. 42 f., 75, 86 f., 91, 101, 161.

\2/ There are no Arabic versions of the Bible previous to Islam, a fact which proves irrefragably that in its primitive period Christianity had secured no footing at all among the Arabs. Indeed it never secured such a footing, for the Arabic versions were not made for Arabs at all, but for Copts and Syrians who had become Arabians.

\3/ Mommsen, p. 485 (Eng. trans., 2.158): "At this eastern border of the empire there was thus secured for Hellenic civilization a frontier domain which may be compared to the Romanized region of the Rhine; the arched and domed buildings of eastern Syria compare admirably with the castles and tombs of the great men and merchants of Belgica." Bostra flourished greatly after the downfall of Palmyra. The emperor Philip (the Arab) made his birthplace, a small town, into a city called Philippopolis, which rapidly increased in size. We do not know whether this emperor's friendly attitude towards Christians was due to memories and impressions of his childhood, but his correspondence with Origen makes this probable.

\4/ What drove Paul to Arabia, and what he did there, we simply do not know. I retract my former conjecture that he retired to a region in which be might hope to avoid Jews.

We have already seen how the Palestinian Jewish Christians settled at Pella and Kochaba. Possibly this led the later Christians of the country to feel they were heirs of the primitive church.

Hippolytus (Philos. 8.12) knew a Christian heretic whom he calls "the Arabian Monoimus," and whom he refutes. In the days of Origen there were numerous bishoprics in the towns [[154]] lying south of the Hauran and the Dead Sea,\5/ all of which were grouped together in a single synod. Bishop Beryllus of Bostra, well known (according to Eusebius, H.E. 6.20) for his letters and writings, caused a great sensation, about 240 C.E., by propounding a Christological thesis to the effect that no personal hypostasis belonged to the Redeemer before he appeared in time. The doctrine may have been designed to repudiate current conceptions of pre-existence as being Hellenic, and thus to give expression to a national Christian spirit (cp. Paul of Samosata's doctrine). But this is uncertain. What is certain (for Eusebius, H.E. 6.33, reports it) is that "a large number of bishops" carried on discussions and debates with him, and for these combatants we must look to Arabia especially, although Palestinian bishops may have also taken part in the controversy.\6/ Eusebius further relates that a synod was held at Bostra, to which Origen was invited, and of which he was the intellectual leader. Shortly afterwards a second synod was held at the same place, at which the rather untrustworthy Liber Synodicus declares that fourteen bishops were present. Origen again was invited, and again attended. The topic of discussion was a doctrine put forward by one section of the Arabian bishops, who held that the soul expired and decayed along with the body, and was revived along with it at the resurrection (Eus., H.E. 6.37). The Semitic cast of mind in those who held this view, as well as their aversion to Hellenic speculation (with its essential immortality of the soul), are unmistakable. Christianity seems therefore to have penetrated such strata of the Arabian population as might be called national -- i.e., it spread among people who, while they rejected the Christianity of Alexandrian theology, were not barbarians, but worked out a theology of their own.\7/ [[155]]

\5/ Hom. in Luc. 12. (Opp. 5. p. 128, Lomm.): "Quia plerique de Aegyptiis et Idumaeis proselyti accipiebant fidem Christi," etc. ("Since most of the proselytes among the Arabians and Idumaeans accepted the faith of Christ").

\6/ Some years earlier a provincial synod of Arabia had been held in connection with the proceedings against Origen; it decided in the latter's favor (cp. Jerome's Ep. 33.4). Origen was known personally by that time to the Arabian bishops, for about 215 C.E. he had travelled as far as Arabia at the request of the Roman governor, before whom he laid his views (Eus., H. E. 6.19).

\7/ Whatever we may think of those two characteristic doctrinal views put forward in Bostra and "Arabia," in opposition to the Alexandrian theology, they furnish [[155b]] a strong proof, at any rate, of independence and mental activity among the "Arabian" Greeks. We may rank them with the peculiar buildings whose ruins are to be found in Bostra, as evidence of a distinctive civilization. We do not know whether the idea, which was widely current in Arabia during the fourth century (Epiph., Haer. 78.), that Mary became the real wife of Joseph after the birth of Jesus, goes back to Jewish-Christian traditions. For Mariolatry in Arabia, cp. under Thrace. -- Photius (Cod. 48) calls Caius ἐπίσκοπος τῶν ἐθνῶν, which is a twofold confusion: Caius=Hippolytus, and Hippolytus=Beryllus of Bostra. The latter must have been described in some contemporary source as ἐπίσκοπος τῶν ἐθνῶν (bishop of the Gentiles), which perhaps refers to widely scattered pagan tribes (cp. below, p. 156, note 3).

The Arabian churches were connected with the church of Rome; and they required assistance from it, as we are fortunate enough to learn from an allusion which Dionysius of Alexandria happens to make in Eus., H.E. 8.5.\8/ The same passage also declares that Arabian bishops took part in the great Synod of Antioch (as to the question of the baptism of heretics).

\8/ From Optatus (2.12) we learn, casually, that there was intercourse also between Arabia and North Africa: "Quid Arabia provincial unde probamus venientes a vobis [sc. Donatistis] esse rebaptizatos?" ("What of the province of Arabia, emigrants from which, we aver, have been re-baptized by you?"). In the burial-ground of the Great Oasis (Kaufmann, Ein altchristl. Pompeii in der libyschen Wuste, 1902, p. 22) this inscription has been found: Αὐθειὼ υἱὸς Μά[ρκο]υ Μωγαβέω ἀπὸ κώμης νω .... μητρόπολις ἡ Βόστρα. [ἐ]τυχῶ[ς τῷ γρ]άψαντι καὶ τῷ ἀναγινώ[σ]κοτι.

Both the Onomasticon of Eusebius and the Acts of the Council of Nicaea show that Christians existed, during the days of Eusebius, in the towns lying east and north-east of the Dead Sea. On Cariathaim (Kerioth, Kurejat, Kariatha; cp. Baedeker, p. 176) the Onomasticon observes, Καριαθαείμ  ... καὶ νῦν ἐστιν ὅλη Χριστιανῶν κώμη, παρὰ Μηδαβὰν πόλιν τῆς  Ἀραβίας, λεγομένη Καραιάθα\9/ (on Madaba, cp. Baedeker, pp. 173 f.). There were present at Nicaea bishops from Philadelphia,\10/ Esbus (=Hesbon, Isbunda), and Sodom (whose site, so far as I know, has not been discovered; Usdum, south of the Dead Sea?). From the north there were the bishops of Bostra, the most important and finely situated city\11/ of the whole country, and [[156]] Dionysias. The Nicene lists further contain, under Arabia, the name of a bishop called Sopater Beretaneus. Where this place (Beritana?) lay we do not know, for it cannot be identified with Bereitan (equivalent to Berothai? Baedeker, p. 358), wbich was situated in Lebanon. One tradition, which is not of course entirely trustworthy, makes an Arabian bishop from Zanaatha (?=Thana, south-east of the Dead Sea) attend Nicaea, but nothing is known of such a place.\12/ Finally, we may conclude, although the conclusion is not certain, from Epiph. 51.30 that there were Christians at Gerasa. It is impossible to prove that Christians lived in the Nabatean city of Petra earlier than Constantine; but Sozomen (7.19) says there were bishops even in the villages of Arabia.\13/

\9/ "Cariathaim is now an entirely Christian village close to the Arabian city of Madaba, and called Karaitha."

\10/ Epiphanius (Haer. 85, and Epitome) observes that in Bakatha [Bakathus] μητροκωμία τῆς  Ἀραβίας τῆς Φιλαδελφίας [or ἐν Βακάθοις τῆς Φιλαδελφηνῆς χώρας πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου], the sect of the Valesians resided.

\11/ It was the capital; cp. Lubeck, pp. 43 f., 86 f., 91. In a petition to the emperor Julian bishop Titus observes, apropos of Bostra, ἐφάμιλλον εἶναι τ [[156b]]  Ἑλληνικ πλήθει τὸ Χριστιανικόν (Christians are equal in numbers to the Greek populace). This is an important statistical notice.

\12/ The names of the bishops (Nicomachus, Cyrion, Gennadius, Severus, Sopater, another Severus, and Maron) are all Greek or Latin.

\13/ According to Sozomen (7.5) the inhabitants of Petra and Areopolis (=Rabba, east of the middle of the Dead Sea) offered a vigorous resistance to Christianity even as late as 400 C.E. As for Petra, Epiphanius (Haer. 51. c. 22; in Oehler, Appendix, t. 2, p. 631), after describing the festival of the Virgin who had given birth to the "AEon," proceeds as follows:  τοῦτο δὲ καὶ ἐν Πέτρᾳ τῇ πόλει (μητρόπολις δέ ἐστι τῆς Ἀραβίας, ἥτις ἐστὶν Ἐδὼμ ἡ ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς γεγραμμένη) ἐν τῷ ἐκεῖσε εἰδωλείῳ οὕτως γίνεται, καὶ Ἀραβικῇ διαλέκτῳ ἐξυμνοῦσι τὴν παρθένον, καλοῦντες αὐτὴν Ἀραβιστὶ Χααμοῦ τουτέστιν Κόρην  εἴτ’ οὖν παρθένον καὶ τὸν ἐξ αὐτῆς γεγεννημένον Δουσάρην τουτέστιν μονογενῆ τοῦ δεσπότου ("The same thing goes on at the city of Petra, the metropolis of Arabia, ... in the local temple, where they sing hymns in Arabic to the Virgin, calling her by the Arabic name of Chaabos, i.e., Maiden or Virgin, and her son Dusares, i.e., the only-begotten of the Lord").

The efforts made to introduce Christianity among the nomad tribes, efforts that were both rare and rather fruitless, fall outside our period, and consequently must be passed over here.\14/ Perhaps we should recall, in this connection, the fact that Pantaenus travelled from Alexandria to India, i.e., to Soutbern Arabia, about 180 C.E., and that many Jewish colonists and many more proselytes were living in the latter district (Eus., H.E. 5.10.3). "He is said to bave found there, among some of the inhabitants who were acquainted with Christ, the gospel of Matthew, which had reached that country before him. [[157]] For Bartholomew is said to have preached to these people and to have left with them a Hebrew version of Matthew's gospel, which they had kept until the time of which I speak."\15/

\14/ Cp., e.g., Rufin., 2.6 (=Socrat., 4.36; Theodoret, 4.20); Cyrillus Scythopolit, Vita Euthymii (ἐπίσκοπος τῶν παρεμβολῶν); and see Duchesne's Les missions chretiennes au sud de 1'empire Romain (1896), pp. 112 f.

\15/ Judaism carried on a vigorous mission in Southern Arabia and Abyssinia (the Abyssinian Jews were Hamites, not Semites), and for a time managed to secure local control. It is inherently probable that Christians also reached this region at an early date, but we know nothing of the presence of primitive Jewish Christians.

The extant Didascalia Apostolorum (cp. Achelis in Texte u. Unters. 25.2, 1904, and my Chronologie 2, pp. 488 f.) is a unique and invaluable source of information upon the organization and life of an Arabic or Syrian (Greek-speaking) church during the first half or about the middle of the third century. Achelis (pp. 266-317) has drawn the picture for us. It portrays, not a village community, but a large church in an important city (Bostra?), lying far from the main current of developing Christianity. We see its seductions, temptations, and complicated relationships. Jews and Jewish Christians lived in its environment, and a slight Jewish-Christian element is discernible within the church itself. The latter was so large in numbers that the bishop could no longer keep himself personally acquainted with all those who were in distress, or master each individual case. Still, there was only one church, and two deacons sufficed for the administration of poor-relief. The members seem for the most part to have belonged to the middle classes; few wealthy people were members, but the church was not wholly composed of poor and destitute persons. Worship was attended sometimes by distinguished men and women. Despite the lofty position already attained by the local clergy, brotherly feeling was still active. The lovefeasts (which were distinct from the services of worship) were banquets to which the wealthier Christians invited their poorer fellow-members; the bishop seems to have been usually present at them. Hospitality towards travelling brethren was still a feature of the church's life, and the duty of looking after all its poor members was also recognized. The execution of the latter task devolved on the bishop, who administered the lovegifts of the church. The spirit of generous self-sacriflce was apparently strong. Several widows were so well provided for [[158]] that they could over and again realize their capital and loan it to usurers! Impure gifts were not to be received, but the writer knew some bishops who did take them. The list of those from whom no gift was to be taken (c. 18, p. 89, Achelis) is instructive; it shows the sort of people who either belonged to the churches or gave them money. They included people who were imprisoned for debt, masters who were tyrannical to their slaves, public prostitutes (even of the male sex), dishonest traders, criminal advocates, unjust prosecutors, factious lawyers, painters and bronze-workers and jewellers who worshipped idols or swindled, unjust revenue-officials, fortune-tellers, licensed victuallers who diluted their wines, rascally soldiers, murderers, executioners, "any official of the Roman empire who had been defiled in war or had shed innocent blood without due trial," usurers, etc. "If the churches are so poor that they need the contributions of such people to maintain their charitable work, then it were better to perish of hunger than to live by such means."

The solution of the difficulty always was to keep aloof from the heathen as far as possible in every relation of life. Emphasis repeatedly falls on the broad gulf between Christians and pagans. This church, however, does not feel it is oppressed by its pagan neighbors; on the contrary, it is living in peace and quiet, and it does not appear to be unpopular at all. Its aim is to make the best impression on the world by its manner of life (by simple living, decorum, diligence, etc.), and thereby to distinguish itself from the common ways of the world. Apparently it was still successful in this endeavor.

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