ChrSogd in Syriac Script: The Legend of Barshabba Bishop of Merv, who brought Chr'ity to the E Iranian area
This text, written in Syriac, tells the story of the Christianization of Merv by Bishop Bar Shabba. Possibly discovered at Turfan, location of the monastery of Bulayiq, along with a Sogdian translation of the same story (Baum & Winkler 2000; Gilman & Klimkeit 1999). The script looks to be written in a decorative, sutra style, popular amongst Sogdian calligraphers. The lines of script vary in thickness along the parchment or cloth, suggesting that the text was written with a calamus, a writing instrument held diagonally for stylistic control (Lurje 2015). Although not written in Sogdian, many Christian Sogdian texts were often written in Syriac or a modification of Syriac (Ashurov 2015).
Bar Shabba may have brought Christianity to Merv as early as 160CE although missionary activity did not reach its peak until the eighth or ninth century CE (Lurje 2014; Baum & Winkler 2000). As mentioned before, this fragment was found along with a Sogdian translation of the same story—a testament to the popularity of the story of Bar Shabba within the Nestorian Christian church. An English translation from the Sogdian text reads,
He [i.e. Bishop Bar Shabba] bought land and water and built citadels, hostels and houses and laid out gardens…and he settled serving brothers and sisters there, in the area of Fars up to Gurgan [i.e. bishoprics of Parthia], in the area of Tus [i.e. one of the three bishoprics of Parthia], in Abarshar, in Serachs [a place at the border of Margiana], in Mervrod [i.e. Merv], in Balkh [ancient capital of Bactria] and in Heart and Sistan. He built churches there and built everything necessary [i.e. for the Christian community]. And he also had prebyters and deacons settle there. And they began to teach and to baptise, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and by the authority and power which they had received from the pious Lord Bar Shabba…. And the proclamation of Christ the Vivifir became great in all areas. They [i.e. the ones engaged in this work] became priests, and Christianity was strengthened. And the praised his name in all the areas up to many distant realms. To the Lord Bar Shabba, the pious Bishop, power and might was given… over the unclean spirits… (Gilman & Klimkeit 1999)
As part of missionary activity, Bar Shabba went on to start a Christian school at Merv (Payne 2015). From Merv, Christianity spread eastward towards Sogdiana and beyond the Oxus over a number of years, presumably by followers of Bar Shabba (Gilman and Klimkeit 1999).
Missionary stories such as that of Bar Shabba became popular in the Nestorian church. Not only were they written down and translated between Sogdian and Syriac, but there is also evidence of Syrian-Sogdian bilingual texts as well as the Syriac (Gilman & Klimkeit 1999). The popularity of such texts, besides religious exposition, can be explained by the appeal of a story that demonstrates a non-Sasanian community such as Merv turning to Christianity (Johnson 2012).
This Syriac version of the legend of Bar Shabba bringing the Christian faith to the eastern Iranian area demonstrates the crossroads of linguistic and religious tradition. As evidenced in the spread of Christianity and the interplay between languages, communities of Central Asia were flexible and malleable culturally.
Ashurov, Barakatullo. 2015. “Sogdian-Christian Texts: Socio-Cultural Observations.” In Archiv Orientalni. 83: 53-70.
Baum, Wilhelm, and Dietmar W. Winkler. 2000. The Church of the East: A Concise History. New York: Routledge.
Exegisti monumenta: Festschrift in Honour of Nicholas Sims-Williams. 2009. Ed. Werner Sunderman, Almut Hintze, and François de Blois. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.
Gilman, Ian and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit. 1999. Christians in Asia Before 1500. New York: Routledge Publishing.
Lurje, Pavel. “Sogdians Outside and Inside Sogdiana: Remarks on their History and Culture.” (presentation, History and Cultures of Pre-Islamic Central Asia at Collège de France, Paris, March 24, 2015). Accessed March 20, 2016, http://www.college-de-france.fr/site/en-frantz-grenet/guestlecturer-2015-03-24-17h00.htm.
Lurje, Pavel. 2014. “Sogdiana Catalogue.” In Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West. Amsterdam: Hermitage.
The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity. 2012. Ed. Scott Fitzgerald Johnson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Payne, Richard E. 2015. A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
4th century CE (Sunderman, Hintze, & de Blois 2009)
Turfan (Baum & Winkler 2000)
Parchment or cloth and ink
Additional Research Metadata
Sims-Williams (ed./trans.), The Christian Sogdian Manuscript C2, (Berliner Tur-fantexte. 12), Berlin 1985, p. 154-156 (?)