Babai the Great
(c.551-628) was an early church father, who set some of the foundational pillars
of the Church of the East. He was the unofficial head of his church, revived the
Assyrian monastic movement, and formulated its Christology in a systematic way.
Babai the Great,
not to be confused with Babai the first autonomous leader of the Eastern Church,
was born in Beth Ainata in Beth Zabdai. Born to a wealthy family, he received a
primary education in the Persian (Pahlavi) books. He continued his studies at
the Christian School of Nisibis under the directorship of Abraham of Beth Rabban.
Somewhere around 571 when the Origenist Henana of Adiabene became the new
headmaster and Abraham the Great of Kashkar founded a new monastery on Mt. Izla
above Nisibis, he taught for a while at the Xenodocheio of Nisibis. After that
he joined the newly founded monastery of Abraham on Mt. Izla. When Abraham died
in 588 Babai left and founded a new monastery and school in his home country
Beth Zabdai. In 604 Babai became the third head of Abraham's monastery on Mt.
Abraham the Great
had started a monastic reform movement which Babai and other disciples carried
through. Since Bar Sauma and the Synod of Beth Lapat monks and nuns were
encouraged to marry. When Babai returned to Mt. Izla in 604, he expelled monks
that lived with women and enforced strict discipline, emphasizing a deep life of
prayer and solitude. The result was a mass exodus, not only of the married
monks. But the Eastern Church was with Babai.
In 604 the
Catholicos Sabrisho died and a new Catholicos had to be elected. The synod
rejected the candidate of the King Chosroes II and elected Gregory instead. When
this Catholicos Gregory died in 608/9 the royal physician Gabriel of Shiggar
suggested to make Henana of Adiabene or one of his students Catholicos. All the
church was in horror. But until his death in 628 the king did not allow Church
of the east to choose a new Catholicos of their own.
To circumvent the
royal proscription, Babai the Great was appointed 'visitor of the monasteries'
of the north, and administered the church in collaboration with Archdeacon Mar
Aba. In particular, this new position allowed Babai to investigate the orthodoxy
of the monasteries and monks of northern Mesopotamia, and to enforce discipline
throughout the monasteries of northern Mesopotamia, even against occasional
Babai the Great
and Mar Aba administered the Nestorian Church for 17 years until Chosroes II was
murdered in 628. After this Babai was promptly elected Catholicos. But he
declined. Soon afterward he died in the cell of his monastery, being 75 or 77
discipline to the monasteries and administering the church, Babai is mainly
known for his orthodox teaching. From 610—628 the last and most devastating wars
between Byzantium and Persia took place. First Persia conquered parts of
Byzantium, which were populated mostly by Monophysite and Chalcedonian
Christians. To be popular in the newly gained provinces, King Chosroes II did
not want to favor the Assyrian Nestorians any more. During the successful
Byzantine counter attack 622—628, Chalcedonians and especially Monophysites were
in the advance in Persia and several sees and villages were lost by the church
of the east.
To defend and
clarify the Nestorian tradition against Henana's Origenism and the advancing
Monophysites, Babai the Great produced some 83 or 84 volumes of writing. He
developed a systematic Christology, the only one in Nestorian Mesopotamia. Of
his extensive exegetical works on all of Scripture nothing survived. What we do
have are two hagiographies, his principal work on the foundations of ascetic
life 'On the Life of Excellency', and commentaries on mystical themes.
From what has been
preserved we learn that his main authority was Theodore of Mopsuestia, though in
general he used few citations from the Fathers. There is no evidence that he
could read Greek, and Babai must have relied on translations. He mainly fought
against the ideas of the Monophysites and of the Origenist Henana. They were the
inner enemies. He also wrote against Mani, Marcion, Bar Daisan, the Messalians
and the general loss of discipline since Beth Lapat.
The 'Book of
Union' is Babai's most systematic surviving christological treatise, divided
into seven memre that cover more than 200 folios. The 'Tractatus Vaticanus' is
another manuscript that deals with the "impossibility of the hypostatic union
and natural union, the possibility of the parsopic union, and the significance
of the expression hypostatic union among the fathers of the antiquity".
source on the position of Babai the Great against Origen and his follower Henana
of Adiabene is his commentary on Evagrius Ponticus. It also shows his opposition
to Messalianism. An 8th century manuscript has been preserved that contains
Evagrius' text together with Babai's commentary on it. This commentary is an
abridged version of a larger one which Babai had written earlier and which is
The writings of
Evagrius were important to the current mystical revival among Greek and Syrian
monks. For the monks of Mt. Izla Evagrius was the pillar of mystical theology.
The Greek text was condemned already in 553 for its Origenist heresies. But
unlike the Greek, the 'Common Syriac Version', a translation of the Gnostic
chapters of Evagrius by the Monophysite Philoxenus, was void of the specific
Origenist-Evagrian Christology. For example, it omits the 'nous-Christos'
Christology where the God-logos and the flesh are united in the nous, Jesus
Christ, the subject of incarnation. Babai tried to eliminate the Origenist ideas
even further and presented Evagrius as opposed to Origen and his follower Henana
by pointing out apparent contradictions between them.
"The Devil is
telling the people that some of Evagrius' statements are similar to heresies.
Some even tried to translate directly from the Greek to show the heresy of
Evagrius. They translated according to their foolishness, but can be refuted by
other writings of Evagrius. The cursed Origen and his disciple, the fool
Apollinaris, they teach completely different from Evagrius on the renewal of the
soul after death". To show this further, Babai tells the vita of Evagrius and
enumerates his sources: Basilius, Gregorius, and Nectarius. No mention of
theological authorities of Babai were Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodorus of
Tarsus. He also relied on John Chrysostomos, the Cappadocian fathers and on
Ephrem the Syrian, which were also accepted in the west. In his exegetical
methods he synthesized between the rational Theodore and mystical writers like
important, instead of breaking with Theodore because of some extreme
interpretations of his teachings, like others did, Babai clarified his position
to the point that differences with western Christology became superficial and
mostly an issue of terminology. His Christology is built in great part on sound
exegesis and an interesting anthropology and is far less dualistic than the one
Nestorius seems to have presented. Babai in the 'Book of Union' teaches two
qnome (hypostasis—not the Chalcedonian use of this term, essence), which are
unmingled but everlastingly united in one parsopa (person, character, identity,
also "hypostasis" in Chalcedonian usage.). It is essential to use the Syrian
terms here and not any translations, because the same words mean different
things to different people, and the words must be accepted in the particular
sense of each. In Greek Christology, hypostasis is used specifically to refer to
what would correspond to Babai's parsopa, and ousion would correspond to qnome.
In the period in which Babai and others formulated their respective
Christological models, words such as "hypostasis" and "ousion" had less
specifically fixed definitions. Thus, it was possible for two individuals to
honestly use a single term to mean two distinctly different things.
Clearly, to Babai,
Christ is both God and man. But he could not tolerate any form of Theopaschism
(the belief that God suffered), be it the divinity itself, the Trinity, or one
of the hypostases of the Trinity. According to Babai Cyril of Alexandria stood
at the root of simple Theopaschism as professed by the Monophysites, and the
Emperor Justinian I at the root of composite Theopaschism. The Nestorian church
could accept expressions like 'Christ died', 'the Son died', but not 'the Word
died', even not 'the Word died in the flesh'.
In the sixth
century AD, Mar Babai wrote the Teshbokhta or (Hymn of Praise) explaining the
theology of the Assyrian Church. He Writes:
One is Christ the
Son of God,
Worshiped by all
in two natures;
In His Godhead
begotten of the Father,
before all time;
In His humanity
born of Mary,
In the fullness of
time, in a body united;
Godhead is of the nature of the mother,
Nor His humanity
of the nature of the Father;
The natures are
preserved in their Qnumas (substance),
In one person of
And as the Godhead
is three substances in one nature,
Sonship of the Son is in two natures, one person.
So the Holy
Church has taught.