Bardaisan (Syriac: ܒܪ ܕܝܨܢ, Bardaiṣān), also Latinized as Bardesanes (154–222), was a Syrian gnostic and founder of the Bardaisanites. A scientist, scholar, astrologer, philosopher and poet, Bardaisan was also renowned for his knowledge of India, on which he wrote a book, now lost.
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Bardaisan was born on 11 July 154, in Edessa, which, in those days, was alternately under the influence of the Roman and the Parthian Empire. Edessa was a metropolis of Osroene. Some sources refer to his high birth and wealth; according to Michael the Syrian, Bardaisan's parents had fled Persia and Sextus Julius Africanus reports that he was of Parthian origin. However, an Aramean is also possible. To indicate the city of his birth his parents called him "Son of the Daisan", the river on which Edessa is situated. He is sometimes also referred to as "the Babylonian" (by Porphyrius); and, on account of his later important activity in Armenia, "the Armenian", (by Hippolytus of Rome), while Ephrem the Syrian calls him "philosopher of the Arameans" (Syriac: ܦܝܠܘܣܘܦܐ ܕܐܖ̈ܡܝܐ, Filosofā d-Aramayē). His parents, Nuhama and Nah 'siram, must have been people of rank, for their son was educated with the crown-prince of the Osrhoenic kingdom, at the court of Abgar VIII bar Manu. Sextus Julius Africanus says that he saw Bardaisan, with bow and arrow, mark the outline of a boy's face with his arrows on a shield which the boy held.
Owing to political disturbances in Edessa, Bardaisan and his parents moved for a while to Hierapolis (Mabug), a strong centre of Babylonianism. Here the boy was brought up in the house of a priest Anuduzbar. In this school he learnt all the intricacies of Babylonian astrology, a training that permanently influenced his mind and proved the bane of his later life. At the age of twenty-five he happened to hear the homilies of Hystaspes, the Bishop of Edessa, received instruction, was baptized, and even admitted to the dioconate or the priesthood. "Priesthood", however, may merely imply that he ranked as one of the college of presbyters, for he remained in the world, had a son called Harmonius, and when Abgar IX, the friend of his youth, ascended the throne (179) he took his place at court. He was clearly no ascetic, but dressed in finery "with berylls and caftan", according to Ephrem the Syrian.
According to tradition, during his youth he shared the education of a royal prince who afterwards became King of Edessa, perhaps Abgar X bar Manu (reigned Osroene 202-217). He is said to have converted the prince to Christianity, and may have had an important share in Christianizing the city.
Perhaps owing to the persecutions under Caracalla, Bardaisan for a time retreated into Armenia, and is said to have there preached Christianity with indifferent success, and also to have composed a history of the Armenian kings.
Bardaisan tried to create a synthesis of Christian and occult beliefs, in a way similar to Origen. As a gnostic, he certainly denied the resurrection of the body; and so far as we can judge by the obscure quotations from his hymns furnished by Ephrem he explained the origin of the world by a process of emanation from the supreme God whom he called the Father of the living. He and his Bardaisan movement were considered heretic by the Christians, and he was subjected to critical hymn, particularly by Ephrem:
- And if he thinks he has said the last thing
- He has reached heathenism,
- O Bar-Daisan,
- Son of the River Daisan,
- Whose mind is liquid like his name!
- According to Sozomen's Ecclesiastical history, "Harmonius, his son, was deeply versed in Grecian erudition, and was the first to subdue his native tongue to meters and musical laws; these verses he delivered to the choirs".
His acceptance of Christianity was perfectly sincere; and later stories, that he left the Roman Church and joined the Valentinian Gnostics out of disappointed ambition, do not deserve much credit. His royal friend became (probably after 202, i.e. after his visit and honourable reception at Rome) the first Christian king; and both king and philosopher laboured to create the first Christian State. Bardaisan showed great literary activity against Marcion and Valentinus, the Gnostics of the day. Bardaisan mixed his Babylonian pseudo-astronomy with Christian dogma and originated a Christian sect, which was vigorously combated by St. Ephrem. The Romans under Caracalla, taking advantage of the anti-Christian faction in Edessa, captured Abgar IX and sent him in chains to Rome. Thus the Osrhoenic kingdom, after 353 years' existence, came to an end. Though he was urged by a friend of Caracalla to apostatize, Bardaisan stood firm, saying that he feared not death, as he would in any event have to undergo it, even though he should now submit to the emperor. At the age of sixty-three he was forced to take refuge in the fortress of Ani in Armenia and tried to spread the Gospel there, but with little success. He died at the age of sixty-eight, either at Ani or at Edessa. According to Michael the Syrian, Bardaisan had besides Harmonius two other sons, called Abgarun and Hasdu.
Encounter with religious men from India
Porphyry states that on one occasion at Edessa, Bardaisan interviewed an Indian deputation of holy men (designated as Σαρμαναίοι, Sramanas) who had been sent to the Roman emperor Elagabalus or another Severan dynasty Roman Emperor, and questioned them as to the nature of Indian religion. The encounter is described in Porphyry De abstin., iv, 17  and Stobaeus (Eccles., iii, 56, 141):
For the polity of the Indians being distributed into many parts, there is one tribe among them of men divinely wise, whom the Greeks are accustomed to call Gymnosophists. But of these there are two sects, one of which the Bramins preside over, the Samanaeans the other. The race of the Bramins, however, receive divine wisdom of this kind by succession, in the same manner as the priesthood. But the Samanaeans are elected, and consist of those who wish to possess divine knowledge. And the particulars respecting them are the following, as the Babylonian Bardaisan narrates, who lived in the times of our fathers, and was familiar with those Indians who, together with Damadamis, were sent to Caesar. All the Bramins originate from one stock; for all of them are derived from one father and one mother. But the Samanaeans are not the offspring of one family, being, as we have said, collected from every nation of Indians.—Porphyry De abstin., iv,
Bardaisan apparently was a voluminous author. Though nearly all his works have perished, we find notices of the following:
- Dialogues against Marcion and Valentinus.
- Dialogue "Against Fate" addressed to an Antoninus. Whether this Antoninus is merely a friend of Bardaisan or a Roman emperor and, in the latter case, which of the Antonini is meant, is matter of controversy. It is also uncertain whether this dialogue is identical with "The Book of the Laws of the Countries", of which later on.
- A "Book of Psalms", 150 in number, in imitation of David's Psalter. These psalms became famous in the history of Edessa; their words and melodies lived for generations on the lips of the people. Only when St. Ephrem composed hymns in the same pentasyllabic metre and had them sung to the same tunes as the psalms of Bardaisan, did the latter gradually lose favour. We probably possess a few of Bardaisan's hymns in the Gnostic Acts of Thomas; the "Hymn on the Soul"; the "Espousals of Wisdom"; the consecratory prayer at Baptism and at Holy Communion. Of these only the "Hymn on the Soul" is generally acknowledged to be by Bardesanes, the authorship of the others is doubtful. Though marred by many obscurities, the beauty of this hymn on the soul is striking. The soul is sent from its heavenly home to the earth, symbolized by Egypt, to obtain the pearl of great price. In Egypt it forgets for a while its royal parentage and glorious destiny. It is reminded thereof by a letter from home, succeeds in snatching a raiment of light, it returns to receive its rank and glory in the kingdom of its father.
- Astrologico-theological treatises, in which his peculiar tenets were expounded. They are referred to by St. Ephrem, and amongst them was a treatise on light and darkness. A fragment of an astronomical work by Bardaisan was preserved by George, Bishop of the Arab tribes, and republished by Nau.
- A "History of Armenia". Moses of Chorene states that Bardaisan, "having taken refuge in the fortress of Ani, read there the temple records in which also the deeds of kings were chronicled; to these he added the events of his own time. He wrote all in Syriac, but his book was afterwards translated into Greek". Though the correctness of this statement is not quite above suspicion, it probably has a foundation in fact.
- "An Account of India". Bardaisan obtained his information from the Indian Sramana (wandering monks) ambassadors to the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus. A few extracts are preserved by Porphyry and Stobaeus.
- "Book of the Laws of the Countries". This famous dialogue, the oldest remnant not only of Bardaisanite learning, but even of Syriac literature, if we except the version of Holy Writ, is not by Bardaisan himself, but by a certain Philip, his disciple. The main speaker, however, in the dialogue is Bardaisan, and we have no reason to doubt that what is put in his mouth correctly represents his teaching. Excerpts of this work are extant in Greek in Eusebius and in Caesarius; in Latin in the "Recognitions" of Pseudo-Clement A complete Syriac text was first published from a sixth- or seventh-century manuscript in the British Museum by William Cureton, in his Spicilegium Syriacum (London, 1855), and by Nau. It is disputed whether the original was in Syriac or in Greek; Nau is decided in favour of the former. Against a questioning disciple called Abida, Bardaisan seeks to show that man's actions are not entirely necessitated by Fate, as the outcome of stellar combinations. From the fact that the same laws, customs and manners often prevail amongst all persons living in a certain district, or though locally scattered living under the same traditions, Bardaisan endeavours to show that the position of the stars at the birth of individuals can have but little to do with their subsequent conduct, hence the title "Book of the Laws of the Countries".
Various opinions have been formed as to the real doctrine of Bardesanes. As early as Hippolytus (Philosoph., VI, 50) his doctrine was described as a variety of Valentinianism, the most popular form of Gnosticism. Adolf Hilgenfeld in 1864 defended this view, based mainly on extracts from St. Ephrem, who devoted his life to combating Bardaisanism in Edessa.
The strong and fervent expressions of St. Ephrem against the Bardaisanites of his day are not a fair criterion of the doctrine of their master. The extraordinary veneration of his own countrymen, the very reserved and half-respectful allusion to him in the early Fathers, and above all the "Book of the Laws of the Countries" suggest a milder view of Bardaisan's aberrations. He cannot be called a Gnostic in the proper sense of the word. Like the Early Christians, he believed in an Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, whose will is absolute, and to whom all things are subject. God endowed man with freedom of will to work out his salvation and allowed the world to be a mixture of good and evil, light and darkness. All things, even those we now consider inanimate, have a measure of liberty. In all of them the light has to overcome the darkness. After six thousand years this earth shall have an end, and a world without evil shall take its place.
However, Bardaisan also thought the sun, moon and planets were living beings, to whom, under God, the government of this world was largely entrusted; and though man was free, he was strongly influenced for good or for evil by the constellations. Bardaisan's catechism must have been a strange mixture of Christian doctrine and references to the signs of the Zodiac. Led by the fact that "spirit" is feminine in Syriac, he seems to have held unorthodox views on the Trinity. He apparently denied the Resurrection of the Body, but thought Christ's body was endowed with incorruptibility as with a special gift.
The followers of Bardaisan of Mesopotamia, the Bardaisanites were a sect of the 2nd century, deemed heretical by the Catholic Church, who added other notions into their beliefs. Even Bardaisan's son, Harmonius, strayed farther from the path of orthodoxy. Educated at Athens, he added to the Chaldee astrology of his father Greek ideas concerning the soul, the birth and destruction of bodies and a sort of metempsychosis.
A certain Marinus, a follower of Bardaisan and a dualist, who is refuted in the "Dialogue of Adamantius", held the doctrine of a twofold primeval being; for the devil, according to him is not created by God. He was also a Docetist, as he denied Christ's birth of a woman. Bardaisan's form of gnosticism influenced Manichaeism.
According to St. Ephrem, the Bardaisanites of his day were given to many puerilities and obscenities. Sun and Moon were considered male and female principles, and the ideas of heaven amongst the Bardaisanites were not without an admixture of sensuality.
St. Ephrem's zealous efforts to suppress this powerful heresy were not entirely successful. Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa in 431-432, found it flourishing everywhere. Its existence in the seventh century is attested by Jacob of Edessa; in the eighth by George, Bishop of the Arab tribes; in the tenth by the historian Masudi; and even in the twelfth by Shashrastani. Bardaisanism seems to have devolved first into Valentinianism and then into common Manichaeism. The last-named writer states: "The followers of Daisan believe in two elements, light and darkness. The light causes the good, deliberately and with free will; the darkness causes the evil, but by force of nature and necessity. They believe that light is a living thing, possessing knowledge, might, perception and understanding; and from it movement and life take their source; but that darkness is dead, ignorant, feeble, rigid and soulless, without activity and discrimination; and they hold that the evil within them is the outcome of their nature and is done without their co-operation".
- After Bardaisan Studies on Continuity and Change in Syriac Christianity in Honour of Professor Han. J.W. Drijvers (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta), retrieved March 2013
- Edessa – Parthian Period, University of Evansville, retrieved March 2013
- Prods Oktor Skjaervo. Bardesanes. Encyclopaedia Iranica. Volume III. Fasc. 7-8. ISBN 0-7100-9121-4.
- Arendzen 1913.
- McLean 1911.
- St. Ephraim of Syria, Translated by A. S. Duncan Jones, 1904
- Porphyry "On abstinence from animal food" Book IV, Paragraphs 17&18.
- Arendzen 1913 cites Theodoretus, Haer. fab., I, xxii; Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, IV, xxx, 3.
- Arendzen 1913 cites Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, IV, xxx, 2; Epiphanius, Haer., LVI, I; Theodoretus, Haer. fab., I, xxii.
- Arendzen 1913 cites St. Ephrem, Serm. Adv. Haer., liii.
- in "Bardesane l'astrologue" etc. (Paris, 1899) (see Arendzen 1913).
- Arendzen 1913 cites History of G. A., II, 66.
- Arendzen 1913 cites Langlois, Fragmenta historicorum graecorum, V, lxviii sqq.
- Arendzen 1913 citesPraeparatio Evangelica, VI, x, 6 sqq.
- Arendzen 1913 cites Quaestiones, xlvii, 48.
- Arendzen 1913 cites IX, 19sqq.
- Arendzen 1913 cites Haarbrucker tr. (Halle, 1850), I, 293.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: McLean, Norman (1911). "Bardaiṣān". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Arendzen, John (1913). "Bardesanes and Bardesanites". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.
- H. J. W. Drijvers, Bardaisan of Edessa, Assen 1966.
- An hymn against Bar Daisan
- Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "article name needed". Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.
- One of the chapters of Mani's lost Book of Secrets concerned Bar Daisan, according to the list of its contents given by the tenth-century Islamic writer Ibn al-Nadim in his encyclopedia .