Stephen Bar Sudhaile

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Stephen Bar Sudhaile was a Syrian mystical writer who flourished about the end of the 5th century AD.

The earlier part of his career was passed at Edessa, of which he may have been a native. He afterwards removed to Jerusalem, where he lived as a monk and endeavoured to make converts to his peculiar doctrines, both by teaching among the community there and by letters to his former friends at Edessa. He was the author of commentaries on the Bible and other theological works. Two of his eminent contemporaries, the Monophysites Jacob of Serugh (451-521) and Philoxenus of Mabbogh (d. 523), wrote letters in condemnation of his teaching. His two main theses which they attacked were (1) the limited duration of the future punishment of sinners, (2) the pantheistic doctrine that all nature is consubstantial with the Divine essence that the whole universe has emanated from God, and will in the end return to and be absorbed in him.

The fame of Stephen as a writer rests on his identification with the author of a treatise which survives in a single Syriac manuscript (Brit. Mus. Add. MSS. 7189, written mainly in the 13th century), The book of Hierotheus on the hidden mysteries of the house of God. The work claims to have been composed in the 1st century AD, by a certain Hierotheus who was the disciple of Saint Paul and the teacher of Dionysius the Areopagite. But, like the works which pass under the name of Dionysius, it is undoubtedly pseudonymous, and most Syriac writers who mention it attribute it to Stephen.

An interesting discussion and summary of the book have been given by AL Frothingham (Stephen bar Sudhaili, Leiden, 1886), but the text is still (1910) unpublished. From Frothingham's analysis we learn that the work consists of five books; after briefly describing the origin of the world by emanation from the Supreme Good it is mainly occupied with the description of the stages by which the mind returns to union with God, who finally becomes all in all. To describe the contents in a few words: at the beginning we find the statement regarding absolute existence, and the emanation from primordial essence of the spiritual and material universes: then comes, what occupies almost the entire work, the experience of the mind in search of perfection during this life. Finally comes the description of the various phases of existence as the mind rises into complete union with, and ultimate absorption into, the primitive essence. The keynote to the experience of the mind is its absolute identification with Christ; but the son finally resigns the kingdom unto the Father, and all distinct existence comes to an end, being lost in the chaos of the Good (Frothingham, p. 92).

One of the most curious features of the work is the skill with which the language of the Bible is pressed into the service of pantheistic speculation. In this and other respects the book harmonizes well with the picture of Stephens teaching afforded by the letter of Philoxenus to the Edessene priests Abraham and Orestes (Frothingham, pp. 2848). The Book of Hierosheus is probably an original Syriac work, and not translated from Greek. Its relation to the Pseudo-Dionysian literature is a difficult question; probably Frothingham (p. 83) goes too far in suggesting that it was prior to all the pseudo-Dionysian writings (cf. Ryssel in Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte).

The unique manuscript in which the Book of Hierotheus survives furnishes along with its text the commentary made upon it by Theodosius, patriarch of Antioch (887-896), who appears to have sympathized with its teaching. A rearrangement and abridgment of the work was made by the great Monophysite author Bar-Hebraeus (1226–1286), who expunged or garbled much of its unorthodox teaching. It is interesting to note that the identical copy which he used is the manuscript which now survives in the British Museum.


Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "article name needed". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.