BĀBAY THE GREAT (d. 628), the head of the Nestorian church in Iran under Ḵosrow II.
Bābay, to whom the Nestorian church gave the epithet Rabbā “the Great,” is the most eminent personality in Syrian monasticism and ecclesiastical life as well as in the area of literary culture in Iran during the last generations before the Islamic invasion. He was the first prolific author among the East Syrians.
Born in the village of Bēt ʿAynāṯā in Bēt Zabday, he received instruction in Persian and then started his medical studies at Nisibis, at the same time attending theological courses offered in the School of Nisibis (q.v.). Soon, he was drawn by the fame of Abraham of Kaškar (al-Wāseṭ), distinguished for his ascetic virtues and reforms in the Persian monasteries, and decided to devote his life to monasticism. He entered the monastery of Īzlā, then under the leadership of Abraham, which was later to become the scene of his activities. Later he founded a monastery in his home country on the estate of his well-to-do parents, adding to it a significant school. When Abbot Dādīšōʿ, successor of Abraham, died in 604, Bābay became the third abbot of the monastery of Īzlā, which had become the leading monastery in Persia.
Bābay is said to be the author of a number of works on monastic discipline, especially for novices, and on monastic asceticism for monks, but it is uncertain whether these works date to this period. The only document of this kind which can be ascribed to him with certainty is his rules for the community of his monastery, now extant only in Arabic translation (Syriac and Arabic Documents, pp. 179 ff.). Other extant works of his comprise commentaries on ascetic and mystical themes, the extensive Centuria of Evagrius Ponticus, and on the discourse of Marqos the monk on the spiritual law. However, according to ʿAbdīšōʿ’s Catalogus librorum, pp. 88 ff., the first history of Syriac literature, his production was enormous, altogether 83 works in various fields. His exegetical work on the whole text of the Scripture has not survived, but the exposition of his important work on the Nestorian christology can be traced in the extant work. He paid especial attention to the monastico-historical genre. He himself testifies that he produced a large number of such biographies, including a work on a number of eminent monks of the monastic community of Īzlā. Only a few of his hagiographical works have survived; the rest are known only by titles. His literary legacy includes also liturgico-historical and liturgical works, metrical as well as in prose, the most outstanding being his works on commemorations and feasts throughout the ecclesiastical year. Thomas of Margā dedicated a chapter of his Historia Monastica (I, p. 27) to him, extolling his learning, prolific literary output, and sanctity of life. Bābay enjoyed an authority which exceeded that of all his contemporaries.
The rule of Ḵosrow brought heavy suppression and persecution to the church and after the death of Catholicos Grīgōr of Kaškar (607) until the death of Ḵosrow the church had no head. Under these circumstances it was impossible to elect a new catholicos and so the metropolitans of Nisibis, Ḥadiyab, and Karkā de-Bēt Ṣelōk (or Bēt Garmay) by a joint action authorized Bābay to act as inspector-general of the monasteries. Since it was common knowledge that he was a monk and not a bishop, he could carry out the ecclesiastical visitations without anybody suspecting that a new head of the church had been elected. They also needed Bābay to counter the infiltration of heterodox trends in the monastic communities. Bābay performed the entrusted task so well that after the death of Ḵosrow and during the rule of Šērōē (Šīrūya) when a new catholicos was to be elected, Bābay was regarded as the natural choice, and, not surprisingly, the Synod of 627-28 unanimously elected him to the dignity of catholicos. Bābay, however, declined. He died not much later at the age of 77 years. He had then ruled over his monastery for 24 years.
Thomas of Margā, The Book of Governors: The Historia Monastica, ed. E. A. W. Budge, London, 1893, II, pp. 27ff.
Išōʿdenaḥ, Le livre de la chasteté, ed. I. B. Chabot, Paris and Rome, 1891, p. 25.
ʿAbdīšōʿ, Catalogus librorum, ed. J. S. Assemani, in Bibliotheca Orientalis, Rome, 1725, III, 1, pp. 88f.
A. Baumstark, Geschichte der syrischen Literatur, Bonn, 1922, pp. 137ff.
J. Labourt, Le christianisme dans l’empire perse sous la dynastie sassanide, Paris, 1904, pp. 156ff.
Syriac and Arabic Documents, ed. A. Vööbus, Stockholm, 1960, pp. 176ff.
A. Vööbus, History of the School of Nisibis, Louvain, 1965.
Originally Published: December 15, 1988
Last Updated: December 15, 1988