CHRONICLE OF ARBELA, a Syriac church history of Adiabene, written in the 6th century by Mĕšīḥā-Zĕḵā under the title Kĕtaḇā ḏ-ĕqlisyastīqī ḏă-Mĕšīḥā-Zĕḵā, chosen in conscious imitation of the Ekklēsiastikḕ historía by Eusebius of Caesarea. It takes the form of a liber pontificalis of the metropolis Arbela (modern Erbīl), northeast of Mosul. For the Parthian period Mĕšīḥā-Zĕḵā drew primarily on the only Syriac writer to have an exact knowledge of Parthian history, Habel the Teacher, whose reports reveal that Christianity had spread east of the Tigris, in Adiabene, before 100, earlier than had previously been believed (Kawerau, tr. pp. 19, 22, 25). The Chronicle ends during the term of the patriarch Mār Āḇā of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (540-52). It was first edited in 1907-08 by Alphonse Mingana, who must have based his edition, not on the one manuscript now known (Or. fol. 3126, Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin), but on another that has since disappeared (cf. Kawerau, tr. pp. 1-2, 3, 112).

From the point of view of the history of religion, the most remarkable account from the Parthian period is that of the Feast of the Magi in the month of Iyyār. The participants are said to have gathered at a large spring to bathe; then they prepared a meal and fed their slaves but ate nothing themselves. Next they threw one of their own small children into the fire, took its liver and kidneys, and hung them from the branches of the trees there, “as it were a sign of their celebrations. But afterward they shot many arrows into the sky and returned to their houses” (Kawerau, tr. p. 22).

Equally noteworthy is the account of the fall of the Arsacids and the beginning of the reign of the Sasanians in 224, a date confirmed by the discovery in the 1930s of a bilingual Parthian and Middle Persian inscription at Bīšāpūr (Salles and Ghirshman; Altheim-Stiehl). At that time seventeen eastern bishops were mentioned, thirteen in Mesopotamia and along the Tigris, two in Susiana, and one in eastern Arabia.

In the early 4th century the bishop of Arbela ordained the Aramean Pāpā bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. “Be­cause [Pāpā] lived in the most royal residence and because other bishops needed him for external reasons, he had demanded that he gain authority over all bishops, as if a single head were required, which they must have.” There was opposition to this demand, but Pāpā won the support of the bishop of Edessa and the western bishops of the Roman empire, who were themselves subject to the authority of patriarchs: “And all the bishops answered him . . . and promised him that they would support him before Basileus Constantine” (Kawerau, tr. pp. 68-69). The eastern bishops could not stand against this support and the wishes of the emperor Constantine I. The office of Roman Catholic patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was thus created to oversee the bishops within the Sasanian empire; in the Middle Ages its jurisdiction extended as far as China, and it still exists.

This account in the Chronicle of Arbela is the most important ancient source on early opposition to the primacy of the Roman pope over the whole of Christian­ity. Some Roman Catholic theologians have maintained that the Chronicle is not genuine. Its authenticity is, however, confirmed both by the bilingual inscription at Bīšāpūr and by the mention in the text of a solar eclipse that occurred on 10 July 218 (Kawerau, tr. p. 28).



A. Allgeier, “Neue Aufschlüsse über die Anfänge des Christentums im Orient,” Der Katholik 96, 1916, pp. 393-401.

Idem, “Untersuchungen zur ältesten Kirchengeschichte von Persien,” Der Katholik 99, 1918, pp. 224-41, 289-300.

R. Altheim-Stiehl, “Das früheste Datum der sasanidischen Geschichte, vermittelt durch die Zeitangabe der mittelpersisch-parthischen Inschrift aus Bīšāpūr,” AMI 11, 1978, pp. 113-16.

Idem, “Die Zeitangaben der mittelpersischen Dipinti in der einstigen Synogogue zu Dura-Europos,” Boreas 5, 1982, pp. 152-59.

A. Baumstark, “Mĕšîḥāzĕk(h)ā,” in Geschichte der syrischen Literatur, Bonn, 1922; repr. Berlin, 1968, pp. 134-35.

H. Dieckmann, “Das Zeugnis der Chronik von Arbela für den monarchischen Episkopat,” Theologie und Glaube 17, 1925, pp. 65-73.

R. Ghirshman, “Inscription du monument de Châpour Ier à Châpour,” RAA 10, 1936, pp. 123-29.

A. von Harnack, “The Chronicle of Arbela,” in Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten, 4th ed., Leipzig, 1924; repr. Wiesbaden, 1980, pp. 683-98.

P. Kawerau, ed. and tr., Die Chronik von Arbela, CSCO 467-68, Louvain, 1985 (cf. review by J. M. Fiey, Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique 82/1, 1987, pp. 544-48; Kawerau’s responsal, Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique 83/2, 1988, pp. 338-40).

G. Messina, “La celebrazione della festa šahr-ab-agamud in Adiabene,” Orientalia 6, 1937, pp. 23-44.

A. Mingana, ed. and tr., Sources syriaques I. Mšiḥa-Zkha (Catalogue de’Ebēdjesu), Histoire de l’église d’Adiabene sous les Parthes et les Sassanides, Leipzig, 1907-08 (Syriac text, pp. 1-75, tr. pp. 76-156; Figure 1).

T. von Oppolzer, Canon der Finsternisse, tr. O. Gingerich as Canon of Eclipses, New York, 1962.

N. Pigulevskaja, Les villes de l’état iranien aux époques parthe et sassanide. Contribution à l’histoire sociale de la Basse Antiquité, Paris, 1963.

E. Sachau, Die Chronik von Arbela. Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis des ältesten Christentums im Orient, APAW, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 1915/6.

Idem, “Vom Christentum in der Persis,” SPAW, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Berlin, 1916/39, pp. 958-80.

Idem, Zur Ausbreitung des Christentums in Asien, APAW, Philosophisch­-historische Klasse, 1919/1.

G. Salles and R. Ghirshman, “Châpour. Rapport préliminaire de la campagne de fouilles (automne 1935-printemps 1936);” RAA 10, 1936, pp. 117-22.

J. B. Umberg, “Die Sakramente in der Chronik von Arbela,” Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 49, 1925, pp. 497-515.

F. Zorell, “Chronika Ecclesiae Arbelensis ex Idiomate Syriaco in Latinum Vertit,” Orientalia Christiana 8, 1927, pp. 146-204.

(Peter Kawerau)

Originally Published: December 15, 1991

Last Updated: October 18, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. V, Fasc. 5, pp. 548-549