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The Legend of Mar QardaghNarrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq$

Joel Walker

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780520245785

Published to California Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520245785.001.0001

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(p.286) (p.287) Appendix The Qardagh Legend and the Chronicle of Arbela

(p.286) (p.287) Appendix The Qardagh Legend and the Chronicle of Arbela

The Legend of Mar Qardagh
University of California Press

Earlier scholars, beginning with Paul Peeters, have often noted the thematic connections between the story of Mar Qardagh and the Chronicle of Arbela, first published by Alphonse Mingana in 1907.1 A sequential history of the first twenty bishops of Adiabene up to the mid-sixth century, the Chronicle provides more detailed information about the early history of the Church of the East than any other literary source. A whole generation of scholars depended on Mingana’s edition of the Chronicle for their studies of the expansion of Christianity into Mesopotamia and Iran.2 Mingana’s attribution of the Chronicle to “Mšīḥā-Zkā” (a compound East-Syrian name meaning “Christ has conquered”), a little-known church historian of the sixth century, implied the reliability of the Chronicle’s account. In 1925, Mingana himself published a long article on the spread of the Gospel in Asia, partly based on the Chronicle.3 That same year, however, prominent scholars of Syriac literature began to raise questions about the historical reliability of the Chronicle. After his systematic study of the Syriac martyr acts of Adiabene, Paul Peeters called for a thorough reexamination of the text.4 (p.288) Doubts about the Chronicle culminated with the scathing critique by Jean-Maurice Fiey, whose 1967 article challenged not only its reliability as a historical source, but also the integrity of its editor.5 Fiey’s critique built upon the observations of Julius Assfalg, who, during the previous year, demonstrated the marked irregularities and divergence between Mingana’s text and the only known manuscript of the Chronicle (Berlin MS or fol. 3126).6 Other scholars, including the editor of the CSCO edition of the text, have defended the Chronicle’s authenticity and historical value,7 although these responses have failed to address, in most cases, the substance of Fiey’s critique.8 Additional evidence of Mingana’s lapses in scholarly integrity has only deepened the controversy.9

Two recent studies have reopened the question of the Chronicle of Arbela’s authenticity and historical value. In a meticulous review of the entire controversy, Christelle Jullien and Florence Jullien have vigorously defended the Chronicle as a potentially legitimate East-Syrian source. While conceding Mingana’s manipulation of the text, they renew the suggestion that Mingana’s edition may have been based upon a genuine medieval text.10 They also argue that the Chronicle could preserve an early documentary core (“un premier noyau primitif”).11 The historian Erich Kettenhofen reaches a slightly more pessimistic conclusion.12 His study confirms that virtually all (p.289) of the Chronicle’s evidence was already known from other literary sources available during Mingana’s lifetime (Procopius and pseudo-Joshua the Stylite, in particular). Kettenhofen nevertheless defends the possibility that the Chronicle is a late medieval compilation of “perhaps the late eleventh or twelfth century.”13

With these recent studies in mind, let us consider the unmistakable thematic parallels between the Chronicle of Arbela and the History of Mar Qardagh. The Chronicle of Arbela describes two figures whose careers resemble that of Mar Qardagh. The first is “Gufrašnasp, the mohapat of Adiabene,” who revolted against the Sasanian king, Bahrām II (274–291). After retreating behind the ramparts of his fortified tower (magdalā), Gufrašnasp defies the king’s armies and rains down “many arrows … shot with great skill” against his attackers.14 The fortress proves unassailable, until a ruse leads the rebellious mōbad out into the hands of the king’s men. The second figure, who appears in an earlier section of the Chronicle, is Raqbakt, a ruler of Adiabene (his exact office is not specified) during the mid-second century. Baptized by Isaac, the third in the city’s succession of apostolic bishops, Raqbakt becomes “a Constantine of his time.”15 In the service of his worldly lord, the Parthian king Vologeses III (112–148), Raqbakt leads an army of twenty thousand foot soldiers against an “onslaught of rebellious peoples from the lands of the mountains of Qardu.” In this war, Raqbakt, fatally wounded by a spear thrust into his side, “gave up his spirit like Judas Maccabee.”16 The similarities here with Qardagh’s story are fairly obvious. Raqbakt’s office as a viceroy of Adiabene, his conversion to Christianity, and his military victories in the service of the Parthian king all recall comparable aspects of Qardagh’s career.17 The echoes are closer still in the case of Gufrašnasp, whom the Chronicle depicts as a pious “Magian,” who revolts against the Persian King of kings and defends his fortress in Adiabene by heroic archery.18 Although neither Raqbakt nor Gufrašnasp provides an exact model for Qardagh, their combined careers contain many of the central features of the Qardagh legend.

The question, therefore, is, how does one explain these similarities? Obviously, there is no reason to accept either Raqbakt or Gufrašnasp as a historical figure.19 But could each represent a fictive or legendary figure analogous to Mar Qardagh? Could a common pool of narrative traditions have contributed to the depiction of all three heroes?20 A late medieval compiler certainly could have known stories similar to those embedded in the Qardagh legend. I would argue, however, that these similarities suggest (p.290) a closer relationship between the texts. The author of the Chronicle of Arbela, whenever he wrote, seems to have adopted themes from the History of Mar Qardagh to fill in the murky early centuries of the Church of the East. While this could be the work of a late medieval compiler, it is far more likely in my view that Mingana himself composed these sections of the Chronicle of Arbela based on his familiarity with the Qardagh legend.


(1.) Mšīḥā-Zkā, History of the Church of Adiabene, in Sources syriaques, ed. A. Mingana (Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1907), 1: 1–168 (Syriac text on 1–76); Peeters, “‘Passionaire d’Adiabène,’”

(2.) The annotated German translation by E. Sachau, “Die Chronik von Arbela: Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis des ältesten Christentums im Orient,” Abhandlungen der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse 6 (1915): 3–94, was particularly influential. See, for example, Adolf von Harnack, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (Leipzig: Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1924), 2: 683–91. For early scholarship in support of the Chronicle’s reliability, see C. Jullien and F. Jullien, “La Chronique d’Arbèles: Propositions pour la fin d’une controverse,” OrChr 85 (2001): 42, 44–45.

(3.) A. Mingana, “The Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia and the Far East: A New Document,” BJRL 9 (1925): 297–371. On the broad scope of Mingana’s scholarship, see S. K. Samir, Alphonse Mingana, 1878–1937, and His Contribution to Early Christian–Muslim Studies (Birmingham, England: Selly Oaks Colleges, 1990); and Jullien and Jullien, “Chronique d’Arbèles,” 47–48.

(4.) Peeters, “‘Passionaire d’Adiabène,’” 303. See also I. Ortiz de Urbina, “Intorno al val-ore storico della Cronaca di Arbela,” OCP 2 (1936): 5–32.

(5.) J. M. Fiey, “Auteur et date de la Chronique d’Arbèles,OS 12 (1967): 265–302. Fiey readily acknowledged (265) Mingana’s considerable contributions as a collector, editor, and translator of Syriac texts. On these contributions, see n. 3 above; and J.-M. Voste, “Alphonse Min-gana,” OCP 7 (1941): 514–18.

(6.) J. Assfalg, “Zur Textüberlieferung der Chronik von Arbela: Beobachtungen zu Ms. or. fol. 3126,” OrChr 50 (1966): 19–36; Fiey, “Chronique d’Arbèles,” 281; Jullien and Jullien, “Chronique d’Arbèles,” 48.

(7.) P. Kawerau, ed. and trans., Die Chronik von Arbela (Louvain: Secrétariat du CSCO, 1985); also W. Hage, “Early Christianity in Mesopotamia: Some Remarks Concerning the Authenticity of the Chronicle of Arbela,The Harp 1, nos. 2–3 (1988): 39–46; idem, “Synodicon orien-tale und Chronik von Arbela—Die Synode von 497 und die zwei Metropoliten der Adiabene,” in Syriaca: Zur Geschichte, Theologie, Liturgie und Gegenwartslage der syrischen Kirchen: 2. Deutsches Syrologen-Symposium (Juli 2000, Wittenberg), ed. M. Tamcke (Münster, Hamburg, and London: LIT Verlag, 2002), 19–28.

(8.) J. M. Fiey, “Revue de Die Chronik von Arbela,” Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique 181 (1981): 544–48, reiterates the arguments of his 1967 article, and makes more explicit his accusations regarding Mingana’s forgery of the manuscript.

(9.) See, for example, J. F. Coakley, “A Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library,” BJRL 75 (1993): 105–207, where Coakley (109–13) documents Mingana’s covert transfer of manuscripts into the collection that has become the Mingana collection at the Selly Oaks Library in Birmingham, England.

(10.) Jullien and Jullien, “Chronique d’Arbèles,” 81, reviving the hypothesis of J. Assfalg, who proposed a genuine Vorlage to Mingana’s manuscript.

(11.) Jullien and Jullien, “Chronique d’Arbèles,” 81, citing the Chronicle’s incorporation of the Qardagh legend as evidence for a ninth-century terminus post quem.

(12.) E. Kettenhofen, “Die Chronik von Arbela in der Sicht der Althistorie,” in Simblos: Scritti di storia antica, ed. L. Criscuolo (Bologna: Università degli studi di Bologna, 1995), 287–319. Cf. Jullien and Jullien, “Chronique d’Arbèles,” 83.

(13.) Kettenhofen, “Chronik von Arbela,” 318.

(14.) Chronicle of Arbela, 10 (Kawerau, 60; 37).

(15.) Chronicle of Arbela, 3 (Kawerau, 24; 6).

(16.) For the military campaign, see the Chronicle of Arbela, 3 (Kawerau, 25–26; 7–8).

(17.) Cf. History of Mar Qardagh, 6, 27–28, and 41–46.

(18.) Cf. History of Mar Qardagh, 6, 27–28, and 41–46.

(19.) Brock, “Syriac Historical Writing,” 24: “Whatever the date of the chronicle’s composition, it is now generally agreed that the very full account of the early Christian history of Arbela is totally unreliable.”

(20.) See Jullien and Jullien, “Chronique d’Arbèles,” 64, for a chart comparing the common narrative elements shared by the Chronicle of Arbela, the Chronicle of Seʿert, and the History of Mar Qardagh.