2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

The Practice of Celibacy in the Fourth Century Syriac Christian Tradition

Kuo-yu Tsui

Department of History, National Chengchi University

Arthur Vööbus assumed that the extreme ascetic practices of the fourth century Syriac Christian tradition, including celibacy, were influenced by Manichean dualism. Yet a close reading of the work of Aphrahat and Ephrem, two of the most prominent church fathers at the time, will demonstrate otherwise. In Aphrahat’s Demonstrations celibacy was presented, in line with the Hebrew prophetic tradition, as the best lifestyle for following Christ (or, ihidaya, a singular form in Syriac, meaning “the single one,” and in particular “the only begotten Son of the Father”). In imitating Christ and Christ’s ascetic lifestyle, ihidaye (the plural) or convenanters whole-heartedly dedicated themselves to Christ with the baptismal vow. Aphrahat employed the image of “holy war” from the Hebrew Bible to speak of baptism, which aimed at reminding ihidaye to separate themselves from the world and remain on alert as God’s warriors. Being restored to the virginal state of Adam before the Fall through baptism, ihidaye prefigured the angelic life of the eschatological time in which there will be no marriage. Ephrem likewise praised celibacy as imitation of Christ. Ephrem’s poetry also depicted that at baptism ihidaye were “clothed with Christ,” a symbolic event which represented their return to the prelapsarian Adamic state (i.e., virginity). Both Aphrahat and Ephrem believed that ihidaye embodied the biblical ideal of the elevation of the body. This view shows no influence of Manichean dualism.


Keywords: celibacy, Syriac Christian asceticism, Aphrahat, Ephrem