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The School of Nisibis


The chronicler of the day, Barhadbeshabba, described the transfer of students and faculty from Edessa to Nisibis: "Edessa darkened and Nisibis brightened." Edessan expulsion and relocation of this anathematized community of Nestorian scholars and disciples in Nisibis reinvigorated the intellectual and academic environments of the Syrian Orient.

Administratively, the School of Nisibis replicated the School of Edessa. The director of the school was called rabban, who concomitantly occupied the "chair of exegesis" (mepasqana). Chosen by the teachers of Nisibis, the rabban primarily supervised the faculty and course of study. In other areas of school administration he relied upon his chief administrative aide, the rabbaita, who had the equivalent responsibilities of our modern "dean." He was responsible for the entire school administration -- from carrying out academic policy to ensuring the school's proper daily operation. He was at once manager, steward, and chief academic officer.

The first faculty chair listed beneath the mepasqana is that of the maqreiana. The Syriac root of this word means "to read." One may posit from this meaning a group of teachers who guided the students from elementary instruction in reading to every kind of advanced study in textual, lexical, liturgical, and grammatical areas. Paul, who created the isagogic manual later translated and adapted by Junillus, occupied the position of maqreiana at the School of Nisibis.

Other faculty positions included: mehageiana, a teacher entrusted with elementary instruction; sapera, a "scribe," who taught the discipline of writing and copying manuscripts; baduqa, a term which means "to search," "to scrutinize," -- thus a teacher of philosophy, that is, the philosophy of the Greeks translated into Syriac.

The reputation of the School of Nisibis rested on its chair of biblical exegesis, headed by its first director and mepasqana, Narsai, who began his tenure in 489. As the School of Edessa served as the model for the School of Nisibis, so too were the Antiochene traditions of biblical exegesis, based on the works of Theodore of Mopsuestia, handed down by Narsai to his beloved students. Theodore resembled Judah HaNasi, the great compiler of the Jewish Oral Law (the Mishnah) at the end of the second century. Theodore collected and organized earlier theological and exegetical scholarship; he brought forth a synthesis in his writings that was unsurpassed by any of the succeeding generations of Christian theologians. The School of Nisibis adopted Theodore's exegetical method, which rejected the allegorical approach in favor of pure grammatical, historical, and typological analysis. Indeed, Paul's manual exemplifies Theodore's typological approach. The Nestorian community's opposition to the allegorical world of Alexandrian exegesis is reflected in Theodore's comment: "They, indeed, turn everything backwards, since they wish to make no distinction in the divine Scripture between what the text says and a dream in the night."

The School of Nisibis was a serious environment of academic instruction and rigorous biblical exegesis. Study hours were arduous; students spent the entire day copying manuscripts, reading, hearing lectures, and learning liturgical recitation. These academic sessions took place during the period of the "great mautba" ("session") that met from November through July.

Abraham De-Bet Rabban and his Faculty
In 510, after Narsai and Elisa bar Quabaie had governed the School of Nisibis, Abraham De-Bet Rabban assumed the directorship and office of mepasqana. Abraham seems to have been a nephew or close family friend of the great Rabba, "the Great." Originally called Narsai himself, when his father brought him to the "great" Narsai to live, he became "Abraham." Living in the same monastery cell with the poetic master, Abraham learned mimetically to respect and practice the patterns of discipline, good works, scholarship, and asceticism personified by Mar Narsai.

Abraham was interested in scholarship, but he was even more interested in scholarly clarification. Therefore, during the first quarter of the sixth century, he undertook the labor of elucidating the commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia, which presented great difficulties, even in Syriac translation, to his fledgling scholars. This pedagogic activity affected the entire curricular development at the School of Nisibis. During this period, Jausep Huzaia contributed a system of accents and translated the grammar of Dionysios Thrax in order that his students might better grasp the intricacies of the different "forms" of Syriac. Mar Aba, a peripatetic scholar, was the most accomplished teacher and scholar of biblical exegesis, and published commentaries on both Old and New Testament books. He introduced the genre of jurisprudence into Syriac literature; he is credited with the translation of the Old Testament from Greek into Syriac; he translated the liturgical works of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius.

The Contribution of Paul
Most of these works have not survived the convolutions of the centuries. Yet, one faculty member's work remains that underscores both Abraham De-Bet Rabban's goals of textual explication and the scholarly traditions of the Schools of Edessa/Nisibis. Paul was a maqreiana, who served under Abraham De-Bet Rabban in the first half of the sixth century. His contribution to the biblical studies program at the School of Nisibis consisted of an introductory guide to the School's studies in biblical and theological exegesis.

Paul's treatise was composed in Greek. Although the original manuscript has disappeared, a Latin recension was compiled by Junillus, who lived in Constantinople, serving as quaestor sacri palatii under Justinian I from 541-549. Junillus discloses his meeting with Paul in the preface to Instituta Regularia Divinae Legis. There, addressing bishop Primasius, a fellow African, he explains that he has

seen a certain man, Paul by name, a Persian by birth, who was thoroughly taught by a school of the Syrians in the city of Nisibis, where divine law is taught by public teachers in an orderly and regular fashion.... I [Junillus] had read certain rules with which that man was accustomed to imbue the minds of his students, who were instructed in the superficial aspect of divine Scriptures, before he revealed the depths of exposition, in order that in time they might get to know the intention and order of the very causes which are found in divine law, that each detail might be taught not sporadically and chaotically, but in a regular fashion.
Paul's text is divided into two books, and presented in a catechetical manner. Junillus has taken the liberty of reformulating Paulos's tract into a dialogue of questions and answers between teacher, who in the manuscript is preceded by a delta, and student, who is preceded by a mu.

Aristotle's principles of deductive logic, as explicated in the Organon, delimit every subject undertaken by Paul. This practice was consonant with the tradition of the Syrian theologians. Aristotle's logic was employed by the Church fathers as a weapon against heresy -- particularly against the Monophysites, the dreaded doctrinal enemies of the School of Nisibis. The Categories, Aristotle's chapters of logical and philosophical definitions, were directed as an exegetical instrument in purely theological works against the heresy of the Severians.

Paul's manuscript provides a rare and complete view of the Syrians' attempt to authenticate the Dyophysite creed and preserve it from the attacks of the Monophysites. We have already demonstrated that the philosophy of Aristotle was ensconced in the school of Antioch and later transferred to the School of Edessa as a propaedeutic to the study of theology. The Nestorian scholars at Nisibis, the School of Edessa's successor, naturally continued this traditional adherence to Aristotle's scholastic approach. Thus, all this Aristotelian paraphernalia was utilized to explain and validate not a philosophy, but a specific kind of Syrian theological scholasticism.

Where did the budding student exegetes, after assimilating Paulos's theological manual, continue their scholastic development? Were there further courses at the School of Nisibis which offered a less "creed-oriented" theology? Did any of the questions in the manual which bordered on the philosophical lead to further inquiry within the School's walls? There is scant indication that any of these questions may be positively answered. Indeed, it must be remembered that "theological study" at Nisibis did not involve abstract questions. Questions about the Trinity, about God, about the governance of the universe were thoughtfully considered, but definitively answered by faculty members such as Paul. There was little room for deeper religious and spiritual conjecture; there was instead a preponderant emphasis upon Scriptural exegesis, philology, copying of manuscripts, and liturgy -- matters which formed the core of the School of Nisibis's life and curriculum.

The Literary Productivity of the School of Nisibis
The School of Nisibis produced exceptional scholars and equally exceptional scholarship. Beginning with the poetic renderings of Narsai, the literary efflorescence of the first half of the sixth century encompasses the historical studies of Abraham, Isai and Johanan of Bet Rabban, the liturgico-historical ones by Thomas of Edessa and Qiiore, the polemical writings by Paul and Thomas of Edessa, the apologetic work of Johanan of Bet Rabban, and treatises in jurisprudence by Mar Aba.

The exegetical studies under Abraham's Directorship brought the School of Nisibis its deservedly rich scholarly reputation. Jausep Huazia created a diacritical sign system and a list of homonyms that were used in the liturgical rendering of the biblical texts. Nearly three centuries later, a codex, attributed to Mar Babai in 899, elucidating the difficult words and clauses in the biblical texts with critical notes and explanatory annotations, speaks of nine accents, and credits the origin of these signs to Jausep Huzaia. Thus inspired by the manifold contributions of his faculty and guided by the Dyophysite commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia as well as his own talents as the School's administrator and mepasqana, Abraham presided over a school tradition that was unmatched in the contemporary Mesopotamian cultural world. This renaissance in teaching, learning, and literary productivity was unable to be maintained by later generations of the School, which were weakened by political upheavals and the dispersion of the faculty to other centers of study.

The reach of the School of Nisibis was extensive. The accomplishments in the fields of biblical and exegetical studies were conveyed beyond the Empire of the Sasanides to the West. The scholar Cassiodorus, Roman writer, statesman, and monk (c.490-583), paid homage to Nisibis in his ecclesiastical writings; his Institutiones divinarum et saecularium litterarum, written between 543 and 555, was intended to furnish the monastic community with the means of interpreting Holy Writ, and his plan of study revealed his acquaintance with Junillus's Instituta Regularia Divinae Legis.
 

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