Sacred Texts  Christianity  Early Church Fathers  Index  Previous  Next 

Chapter XXX.—Bardesanes the Syrian and his Extant Works.

1. In the same reign, as heresies were abounding in the region between the rivers, 1337 a certain Bardesanes, 1338 a most able man and a p. 210 most skillful disputant in the Syriac tongue, having composed dialogues against Marcion’s followers and against certain others who were authors of various opinions, committed them to writing in his own language, together with many other works. His pupils, 1339 of whom he had very many (for he was a powerful defender of the faith), translated these productions from the Syriac into Greek.

2. Among them there is also his most able dialogue On Fate, 1340 addressed to Antoninus, and other works which they say he wrote on occasion of the persecution which arose at that time. 1341

3. He indeed was at first a follower of Valentinus, 1342 but afterward, having rejected his teaching and having refuted most of his fictions, he fancied that he had come over to the more correct opinion. Nevertheless he did not entirely wash off the filth of the old heresy. 1343

About this time also Soter, 1344 bishop of the church of Rome, departed this life.



i.e. Mesopotamia: πὶ τῆς μέσης τῶν ποταμῶν.


Bardesanes or Bardaisan (Greek, Βαρδησ€νης), a distinguished Syrian scholar, poet, and theologian, who lived at the court of the king of Edessa, is commonly classed among the Gnostics, but, as Hort shows, without sufficient reason. Our reports in regard to him are very conflicting. Epiphanius and Barhebræus relate that he was at first a distinguished Christian teacher, but afterward became corrupted by the doctrines of Valentinus. Eusebius on the other hand says that he was originally a Valentinian, but afterward left that sect and directed his attacks against it. Moses of Chorene gives a similar account. To Hippolytus he appeared as a member of the Eastern school of Valentinians, while to Ephraem the Syrian he seemed in general one of the most pernicious of heretics, who nevertheless pretended to be orthodox, veiling his errors in ambiguous language, and thus carrying away many of the faithful. According to Hort, who has given the subject very careful study, “there is no reason to suppose that Bardesanes rejected the ordinary faith of the Christians as founded on the Gospels and the writings of the apostles, except on isolated points. The more startling peculiarities of which we hear belong for the most part to an outer region of speculation, which it may easily have seemed possible to combine with Christianity, more especially with the undeveloped Christianity of Syria in the third century. The local color is everywhere prominent. In passing over to the new faith Bardaisan could not shake off the ancient glamour of the stars, or abjure the Semitic love of clothing thoughts in mythological forms.” This statement explains clearly enough the reputation for heresy which Bardesanes enjoyed in subsequent generations. There is no reason to think that he taught a system of æons like the Gnostics, but he does seem to have leaned toward docetism, and also to have denied the proper resurrection of the body. Ephraem accuses him of teaching Polytheism, in effect if not in words, but this charge seems to have arisen from a misunderstanding of his mythological forms; he apparently maintained always the supremacy of the one Christian God. There is nothing in his theology itself to imply Valentinian influence, but the traditions to that effect are too strong to be entirely set aside. It is not improbable that he may, as Eusebius says, have been a Valentinian for a time, and afterward, upon entering the orthodox church, have retained some of the views which he gained under their influence. This would explain the conflicting reports of his theology. It is not necessary to say more about his beliefs. Hort’s article in Smith and Wace’s Dict. of Christ. Biog. contains an excellent discussion of the subject, and the student is referred to that.

The followers of Bardesanes seem to have emphasized those points in which he differed with the Church at large, and thus to have departed further from catholic orthodoxy. Undoubtedly Ephraem (who is our most important authority for a knowledge of Bardesanes) knows him only through his followers, who were very numerous throughout the East in the fourth century, and hence passes a harsher judgment upon him than he might otherwise have done. Ephraem makes the uprooting of the “pernicious heresy” one of his foremost duties.

Eusebius in this chapter, followed by Jerome (de vir. ill. chap. 33), Epiphanius, Theodoret, and others, assigns the activity of Bardesanes to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (so also in the Chron.). But Hort says that according to the Chronicle of Edessa (Assemani, Bibl. Or. I. 389) he was born July 11, 155, and according to Barhebræus (Chron. Eccl. ed. Abbeloos and Lamy, p. 49) he died in 223 at the age of sixty-eight, which confirms the date of his birth given by the Chronicle of Edessa. These dates are accepted as correct by Hilgenfeld and Hort, and the error committed by Eusebius and those who followed him is explained by their confusion of the later with the earlier Antonines, a confusion which was very common among the Fathers.

His writings, as stated by Eusebius, Epiphanius, Theodoret, and others, were very numerous, and were translated (at least many of them) into Greek. The dialogues against the Marcionists and other heretics are mentioned also by Theodoret (Hær. Fab. I. 22) and by Barhebræus. Epiphanius (who apparently had some independent knowledge of the man and his followers) mentions (Hær. LVI.) an Apology “in which he resisted Apollonius, the companion of Antoninus, when urged to deny that he was a Christian.” This was probably one of the many works which Eusebius says he wrote on occasion of the persecution which arose at the time.

The Dialogue on Fate is said by Eusebius, followed by Rufinus and Jerome, to have been addressed to Antoninus. Epiphanius says that in this work he “copiously refuted Avidas the astronomer,” and it is quite possible that Eusebius’ statement rests upon a confusion of the names Avidas and Antoninus, for it is difficult to conceive that the work can have been addressed to an emperor, and in any case it cannot have been addressed to Marcus Aurelius, whom Eusebius here means. This Dialogue on Fate is identified either wholly or in part with a work entitled Book of the Laws of Countries, which is still extant in the original Syriac, and has been published with an English translation by Cureton in his Spicileg. Syr. A fragment of this work is given in Eusebius’ Præp. Evang. VI. 9–10, and, until the discovery of the Syriac text of the entire work, this was all that we had of it. This is undoubtedly the work referred to by Eusebius, Epiphanius, and other Fathers, but it is no less certain that it was not written by Bardesanes himself. As Hort remarks, “the natural impulse to confuse the author with the chief interlocutor in an anonymous dialogue will sufficiently explain the early ascription of the Dialogue to Bardaisan himself by the Greek Fathers.” It was undoubtedly written by one of Bardesanes’ disciples, probably soon after his death, and it is quite likely that it does not depart widely from the spirit of Bardesanes’ teaching. Upon Bardesanes, see, in addition to Hort’s article, the monograph of Merx, Bardesanes von Edessa (Halle, 1863), and that of Hilgenfeld, Bardesanes, der Letzte Gnostiker (Leipz. 1864).




See note 2.


Hort conjectures that Caracalla, who spent the winter of 216 in Edessa, and threw the Prince Bar-Manu into captivity, may have allied himself with a party which was discontented with the rule of that prince, and which instituted a heathen reaction, and that this was the occasion of the persecution referred to here, in which Bardesanes proved his firmness in the faith as recorded by Epiphanius.


See note 2.


It is undoubtedly quite true, as remarked in note 2, that Bardesanes, after leaving Valentianism, still retained views acquired under its influence, and that these colored all his subsequent thinking. This fact may have been manifest to Eusebius, who had evidently read many of Bardesanes’ works, and who speaks here as if from personal knowledge.


On Soter, see chap. 19, note 2.

Next: Book V