Christianity (Part 1)
Christianity arrived in Iran during the Parthian period. The New Testament names Parthians, Medes, and Elamites among the people who” gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, and these started preaching the word of Jesus. Early Christian records mention that Apostle Thomas was assigned to evangelize Parthia. Legends ﬁrst appearing in the 4th-century credit Simon the Zealot and St-Judas (Thaddaeus) with missionary work and martyrdom in Persia (noted in the apocryphal Passion of Simon and Jude). Traditionally, Apostle Bartholomew is also believed to have served as a missionary to Parthia and Armenia.
Aramaic sources mention that by the beginning of the 3rd century, Iranian Christians had some 350 churches, among them one of the world’s earliest churches, Qara-Kelisa (“Black Church”), which has survived to this day, though in a modiﬁed form. Parthian kings were liberal in their religious policies, and during their rule, Christianity became widespread throughout their realm. At a time when Christians were persecuted in Rome, many found refuge in Iran and were given protection by Iranian kings. The largest Christian community of this period was settled in Adiabene, a vassal state of the Parthian Empire in northern Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Despite the vigorous missionary activities of the early Christians, the majority of Iranians, however, remained Zoroastrians.
Under the early Sasanid kings, the Christian communities in Iran lived undisturbed by persecution. Kartir’s reference to two Christian sects indicates that by the second half of the 3rd century, Christianity had gained a ﬁrm footing in Mesopotamia, Adiabene, and Khuzestan the three main centers of Christianity. In the Sasanid Empire. Christianity, however, faced resentment starting from the time of Bahram II rule. Its main opponent was the Zoroastrian clergy, who treated Christianity as a constant and growing menace to the newly-revived Zoroastrian religion. One of the earliest Persian Christian martyrs was Bahram II Christian concubine Candida. Christian martyrdom, however, remained isolated instances.
Things changed for the worse in the 4th century, when systematic harassment of Christians began. When in 324, the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the ofﬁcial religion of the Roman Empire and proclaimed himself the spiritual head of all the Christians in the world (including, of course, the Christians of Iran), Iranian Christians found themselves torn between the two powers, the king of their country and the head of their faith. Pressured by the constant threat of Rome’s expansionist policy, the Sasanid rulers looked upon the Christians in their country as “ﬁfth columnists” and often, with or without provocation, launched ﬁerce persecutions against them. The earlier conversion of Armenia to Christianity made matters even worse.
However, despite persecution from the government and the resentment of the populace, whose national feeling always clung to the ancient Zoroastrian creed, Christianity kept steadily growing. One of the most notable Persian Christian theologians of this time was Aphrahat, who left as a legacy twenty-three treatises known under a common name: Demonstration.
Tensions signiﬁcantly eased for Christians during the rule of Yazdgerd I. He allowed Christians to worship publicly and to build churches. In 410, under his patronage, the Christians of the Sasanid Empire even held a council in the city of Seleucia. Presided over by Mar Isaac, the Bishop of Ctesiphon, the council worked out rules for the local community and created an organized Christian hierarchy in Iran. Mar Isaac was appointed the ﬁrst Catholicos (“Universal” Bishop) of all the Orient.
Bishop Ma’rutha, an envoy of the Byzantine Emperor to the Persian court, may have been instrumental in reorganizing the Persian “’ Church and further proselytizing Iranians for Christianity. The last years of Yazdgerd’s reign were marred by a new wave of Armenian enameled 4 Of Christian Persecution. It was stirred up by the destruction of a Zoroastrian ﬁre altar in Susa, instigated by the local Bishop Abdas. Abdas was executed, and many Christians were killed in a general slaughter. Many churches were also destroyed.
The persecution continued under Yazdgerd’s successor Bahrain V. The fratricidal strife between Christians and Zoroastrians went on with ever-increasing ferocity and bitterness. Many Christians ﬂed to Roman territories, and when Bahram was refused their extradition, he launched a new war with Byzantium.
This war, however, was not successful for the Persians. Bahram had to seek peace, and one of the terms demanded by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II was that Iranian Christians be ensured freedom of worship. Shortly after the end of the war, the Christians of the Sasanid Empire Synod which formally proclaimed the autonomy of the Persian Church. By this act, the Iranian Christian Church freed itself of suspicions regarding foreign ties, and the Christians in Iran found comparative peace. This was a period of enthusiastic literary activities, which led to the formation of extensive Christian Syriac literature in Iran. (Syriac was the liturgical language of the Persian Church.)
The religious hatred and fanaticism on the part of both Zoroastrians and Christians were, however, of too long a standing to die out completely. Religious persecutions resumed straight away under Yazdgerd II. He tried to reconvert Christian Armenians to Zoroastrianism, an attempt drowned in much blood. In 486, under the inﬂuence of Barsumas, the Metropolitan of Nisibis (modern Nusaybin in southeastern Turkey), the Persian Church acknowledged Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia, the chief Nestorian theological authority, as guardian of the right faith. This position was later reafﬁrmed under the patriarch Babai (497-502), and since that time the church has been Nestorian.
The Persian Church’s intellectual center then became the new school in Nisibis. Its ﬁrst rector was Narses, later known as Rabban the Great, a proliﬁc writer and a great orator who helped to provide the Nestorian Church with ﬁrm theological foundations. The fame of this seminary was so great that it reportedly served as a model for the renowned Gassiodorus’s monastery in Vivarium, established in 540. The later Sasanid rulers, such as Khosrow I, Hormoz IV, and Khosrow II supported Christians and granted them freedom of worship.