BARŠABBĀ, legendary bishop of Marv and founder of the Christian church in eastern Iran. The only completely preserved versions of the legend are found in Arabic sources, in the “Chronicle of Seʿert” (ed. with French tr. by A. Seher, Patrologia Orientalis 5, Paris, 1909, pp. 253-58; German tr. and valuable historical commentary by E. Sachau, “Die Christianisierungslegende von Merw,” Abhandlungen zur semitischen Religionskunde und Sprachwissenschaft W. W. Grafen von Baudissiŋüberreicht,Giessen, 1918, pp. 399-409 and by P. Kawerau, Christlich-arabische Chrestomathie aus historischen Schriftstellern des Mittelalters II,CSCO 385, Louvain, 1977, pp. 81-90) and, in abbreviated form in the Ketāb al-mejdal of Mārī b. Solaymān (H. Gismondi, Maris Amri et Slibae de Patriarchis Nestorianorum Commentaria I,Rome, 1897, pp. 26-27 of Ar. text, p. 23 of Lat. tr.). According to these sources, Baršabbā was one of (rather, a descendant of) the Christians deported by Šāpūr I from Syria to western Iran. He converted Šīrrān (for Šīrzād?), the sister and wife of Šāpūr (i.e., Šāpūr II, as shown by a reference to the peace treaty with Jovian, a.d. 363), who sent her to Marv in order to remove her from the influence of Baršabbā; the latter, however, followed the queen to Marv and became its first bishop. After his death and burial, Baršabbā was miraculously resurrected and lived for a further fifteen years.
The account of Baršabbā in the Arabic sources evidently derives from a Syriac life. Fragments of this, and of a Sogdian translation, have been discovered at Bulayïq near Turfan and published by F. W. K. Müller and W. Lentz, “Soghdische Texte II,” SPAW, 1934, pp. 522-28, 559-64. The name of the queen (lacking in the Sogd. fragments) is given in the Syriac text in the shortened form Šīr. Although these versions are more verbose than the Arabic, they contain little additional information. However, it is interesting that the Sogdian text credits Baršabbā with the foundation of monasteries in an area stretching from Fārs to Gorgān, Ṭūs, Abaršahr, Saraḵs, Marv al-Rūd, Balḵ, Herāt, and Sīstān.
According to Bīrūnī (Āṯār al-bāqīa, p. 299; Chronology, p. 296), the liturgical calendar of the Melkite church in Ḵᵛārazm included on the 21st of June the commemoration of “the priest Baršabbā” (misspelled Bršyʾ) “who brought Christianity to Marw about two hundred years after Christ.” This festival was also observed by the Nestorians in Chinese Turkestan, as is witnessed by the Sogdian gospel lectionary C5 (see W. Sundermann, Altorientalische Forschungen 3, 1975, pp, 70-71, 73).
It is doubtful whether the legend of Baršabbā has any historical basis. A bishop of Marv of this name is historically attested in A.D. 424 (see J. B. Chabot, Synodicon Orientale,Paris, 1902, p. 43), and it is not unlikely that the legend is a pious fiction woven around his name as a result of local patriotism. In any case, to judge from the geographical distribution of the sources, it seems that Baršabbā was venerated only in the far east of Iran and beyond.
See also J. M. Fiey, “Chrétientés syriaques du Ḫorāsān et du Ségestān,” Le Muséon 86, 1973, pp. 75-104.
Originally Published: December 15, 1988
Last Updated: December 15, 1988
This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 8, p. 823