Aphrahat, The Persian Sage +345

Select Demonstrations Number 10 “Of Pastors”


The second of our patristic sources on the pastoral life is taken from the writings of a man known as Aphrahat, the Persian Sage. Who was he?

Aphrahat was a Persian. He is called the Persian Sage. However, he wrote in the Syriac Language. He seems to predate Ephraim the Syrian at least by a few years, making him the first of the Syriac Fathers. Who was he? What was he? We can say that he was almost certainly a celibate who occupied an important position in the life of the church. The commentary in the Ante Nicene Fathers Series would have us believe that Aphrahat was a monastic bishop from the monastery of Mar Mathai near ancient Nineveh. The monastery of Mar Mathai was on the Eastern or Persian side of the Tigris river, near what had been ancient Nineveh.

Aphrahat, according to the commentary in the Nicene and Ante Nicene Fathers, was not only a monk; he was in all probability, a member of the clergy. Certainly what he says about pastors suggests that he was someone with serious pastoral authority.

The more recent article in the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium states that he was a cleric but not a bishop. He did not live in a monastery but was a member of the “Sons of the Covenant”, an early form of monastic life, who actually lived in the world. He certainly is an advocate for the celibate life. Suffice it to say that Aphrahat was a man concerned with the life of the church and the care of souls. He died in about 345 AD. This would place his life in the first half of the fourth century, the era of Constantine, the Arian Crisis and the Council of Nicea. His writings would have predated those of St. Gregory The Theologian.

Aphrahat wrote a series of 23 discourses or spiritual treatises on various topics. He calls these treatises “Demonstrations”. The “discourses” are written according to the letters of the Syriac Alphabet. Among his subjects were Subjects addressed to Old Testament issues: Circumcision, the Passover, the Sabbath, Diverse Meats, The Call of the Gentiles, Jesus the Messiah, Virginity, the Dispersion of Israel. The tenth of these “Demonstrations” is on the subject of Pastors. It is this tenth “Demonstration” that is of interest to us. Here we have a window to the thoughts of a priest or bishop on the life of pastors in the years immediately after the peace of Constantine

“The theology and writings of Aphrahat draw extensively on the Old Testament reflecting a religious milieu of 4th century Mesopotamia in which Christianity was seeking to define itself as separate from Judaism. (Aphrahat) praises Jesus Christ as the divine conqueror of death and fulfillment of all types and prophecies of the Old Law.” (ODB Vol. 1, p. 128)

Aphrahat claims to have been a person who “cast away idols…”, making him a convert to Christianity. His writings indicate that he was a native speaker of the Syriac language. He must have lived in a region in which Syriac was the local language.

From the internal evidence in the writings, it is possible to date the writings from 337 AD to 345 AD. Constantine died in 337 AD.


What struck me as I read this discourse on the pastoral life was the simplicity of his approach His image is the biblical image of the shepherd. I don’t think that our author would have rejected the idea that we are ministers of word and sacrament, but he is expressing something more fundamental. The pastor is first and foremost a shepherd. Although the image of the shepherd is certainly a New Testament theme, (for example, the words of Jesus to St. Peter) Aphrahat makes very great use of the Old Testament models as he develops his theme.

OT Models For the Shepherd

Where does one train for the pastoral life? Today we would probably say “the seminary”. It is interesting where Aphrahat sees the training ground for the biblical pastors. The training ground is not in any kind of academic institution such as the rabbinical schools of the Old Testament era. The first school of the Old Testament leaders of God’s people was in the actual caring for animals, the sheep and the goats. Those who were chosen by God to lead his “reason endowed sheep” first cared for the animals.

I have never been around sheep. Consequently I looked up the topic in the Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible. Here I learned something about sheep that suggests why this is such a popular image in both the Old and New Testament. “Sheep” according to the article, “are

affectionate, unaggressive, relatively defenseless and in constant need of care and supervision.”

(Vol. 4 p. 316) This is how they are seen in the bible. Sheep are in need of their shepherd.

Aphrahat gives a number of examples of Old Testament leaders: Jacob, Moses, David and Amos. What is important to Aphrahat is not so much how they led the people of God, but how they were trained for their responsibility.

“Be ye like O Pastors, to those righteous Pastors of old. Jacob fed the sheep of Laban and guarded them and toiled and was watchful, and so received the reward. For Jacob said, ‘Lo! Twenty years am I with thee. Thy sheep and thy flocks I have not robbed and the males of thy flock I have not eaten. That which was broken I did not bring unto thee, but thou required it at my hands. In the daytime the heat devoured me and the cold by night. My sleep departed from my eyes.” Observe ye Pastors that Pastor, how he cared for his flock. He used to watch in the nighttime to guard it and was vigilant; and he used to toil in the daytime to feed it.

As Jacob was a Pastor, so Joseph was a pastor and his brethren were pastors. Moses was a pastor and David was a pastor. So Amos was a pastor. These all were pastors who led the sheep and fed them well.

2) Now why my beloved, did these pastors first feed the sheep, and were then chosen to be pastors of men? Clearly that they might learn how a pastor cares for his sheep, and is watchful and toils in behalf of his sheep. And when they had learned the manner of pastors, they were chosen for the pastoral office. Jacob fed the sheep of Laban and toiled and was vigilant and led them well; and then he tended and guided well his sons, and taught them the pattern of pastoral work. And Joseph used to tend the sheep along with his brethren; and in Egypt he became guide to a numerous people, and led them back, as a good pastor does his flock. Moses fed the sheep of Jethro, his father-in-law, and he was chosen from (tending) the sheep to tend his people, and as a good pastor he guided them. Moses bore his staff upon his shoulder, and went in front of his people that he was leading, and tended them for forty years; and he was vigilant and toiled on behalf of his sheep, a diligent and good pastor. When his Lord wished to destroy them because of their sins, in that they worshipped the calf, Moses prayed and besought of his Lord and said ‘either pardon the people for their sins, or else blot me out from Thy book that Thou hast written.’ This is a most diligent pastor who delivered over himself on behalf of his sheep. That is an excellent leader, who gave himself in behalf of his sheep. And that is a merciful father who cherished his children and reared them up. Moses the great and wise shepherd, who knew how to lead back the flock, taught Joshua, the son of Nun, a man fill of the spirit, who (afterwards) led the flock, even all the host of Israel.

Aphrahats next example is King David

David fed his fathers sheep, and was taken from the sheep to tend his people. So he tended them in the integrity of his heart and by the skill of his hands he guided them.”

…why my beloved, did these pastors first feed the sheep, and were then chosen to be pastors of men? Clearly that they might learn how a pastor cares for his sheep, and is watchful and toils in behalf of his sheep. And when they had learned the manner of pastors, they were chosen for the pastoral office.

What then are the duties of a pastor? Aphrahat begins by saying

“Pastors are set over the flock, and give the sheep the food of life. Whosoever is watchful, and toils in behalf of his sheep, is careful for his flock, and is the disciple of our Good Shepherd, who gave Himself in behalf of his sheep. And whosoever brings not back his flock carefully, is likened to the hireling who has no care for the sheep.” (1)

The basic themes of the discourse are set forth in this very first sentence. Pastors are set over the flock, and give the sheep the food of life. The first duty of the Christian shepherd is that he be a disciple of the Good Shepherd. The pastoral model will always be Christ the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. Christ is not only the model in our moral life he is the model in our pastoral life as well. The principle laid down by the “new commandment” to love as he did, has to be the guiding principle for the Christian pastor. You have to put Christ’s flock ahead of your self.

The Christian shepherd is called to feed his sheep, to be watchful and careful for his sheep. In modern parlance I think that this means that he has to care about them. Even when they seem to become our adversaries, they are still our flock and we cannot cease to care about them.

Aphrahat speaks of one specific duty of the shepherd. He has to “bring them back carefully” The Christian shepherd is not the owner of the sheep, he is the shepherd. He is accountable for the sheep. He has to bring them back to the Chief Shepherd.

In Chapter Three of the discourse, Aphrahat becomes quite specific about what he means by caring for the sheep. He uses the OT prophet Ezekiel as a warning to those who care for themselves rather than for the sheep.

3) But those pastors who did not care for the sheep, those were hirelings who used to feed themselves alone. On this account the Prophet (Ezekiel) address them, saying to them: “O ye pastors, who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord: Lo! I will visit my sheep as the pastor visits his flock in the day of the whirlwind, and I will require My sheep at your hands. O foolish pastors, with the wool of the sheep do ye clothe yourselves and the flesh of the fatlings do ye eat, and the sheep ye do not feed. That which was sick ye did not heal, and that which was broken ye did not bind up. The weak ye did not strengthen and the lost and the scattered ye did not guard, but with harshness ye subdued them. The good pastures ye yourselves graze upon, and what remains ye trample with your feet. The pleasant waters do ye drink, whatever remains ye defile with your feet. And My sheep have eaten the trampled (herbage) which your feet have trampled, and they have drunk the waters which your feet have defiled.” (unquote)

“These”, Aphrahat says, “are the greedy and base pastors and hirelings, who did not feed the sheep, or guide them well, or deliver them from the wolves. But when the Great Pastor, the chief of pastors shall come, He will call and visit His sheep and will take knowledge of His flock. And he will bring forward those pastors, and will exact an account from them, and will condemn them for their deeds. And those who fed the sheep well, them the Chief of Pastors will cause to rejoice and to inherit life and rest.”

Chapter Four returns to the example of Christ the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

The good shepherd giveth himself for the sake of the sheep. And again He said “…I have other sheep and I must bring them also hither. And the whole flock shall be one, and one shepherd, and my Father because of this loveth me; that I give Myself for the sake of the sheep. And again he said, —I am the door of the sheep. Everyone one that entereth by Me shall live and shall go in and go out and find pasture.” O ye pastors, be ye made like unto that diligent pastor, the chief shepherd of the whole flock, who cared so greatly for his flock. He brought nigh whose that were afar off. He brought back the wanderers. He visited the sick. He strengthened the weak. He bound up the broken. He guarded the fatlings. He gave himself for the sake of the sheep. (4)

The Good Shepherd has committed this flock, which is His flock, first to his disciples and later to their successors.

He (Christ) chose and instructed excellent leaders, and committed the sheep into their hands, and gave them authority over all his flock. For he said to Simon Cephas: —Feed My sheep and My lambs and My ewes. So Simon fed His sheep; and he fulfilled his time and handed over the flock to you, and departed. Do ye also feed and guide them well.

We come now to a rather interesting point. The Christian pastor must be so single-minded about caring for the flock that he shall not pursue any other occupation.

For the pastor who cares for his sheep engages in no other pursuit along with that. He does not make a vineyard, nor plant gardens, nor does he fall into the troubles of this world. Never have we seen a pastor who left his sheep in the wilderness and became a merchant, or one who left his flock to wander and became a husbandman. But if he deserts his flock and does these things he thereby hands over his flock to the wolves. (4)

Aphrahat reemphasizes this theme by going back to his Old Testament examples: Moses did not return to his sheep, nor did he leave his flock that was committed to him. David did not return to his father’s sheep, but guided his people in the integrity of his heart…Amos did not turn back to feed his sheep, or to gather (the fruit of trees). Elisha did not turn back to his yoke.

Aphrahat now tells us who should not be chosen as a pastor. He singles out two groups of men.

“I beseech you, ye pastors that ye not set over the flock, leaders who are foolish and stupid.” He adds “covetous also and lovers of possessions.” (He does not comment on the stupid but has something to say about clergy stipends.) “Everyone who feeds the flock shall eat of their milk. And every one who guides the yoke shall be ministered to from his labor. The priests have a right to partake of the altar, and the Levites shall receive their tithes. Whoever eats of the milk, let his heart be upon the flock; and let him that is ministered to from the labor of his yoke, take heed to his tillage. And let the priests who partake of the altar serve the altar with honor. And as for the Levites who receive the tithes, they have no portion in Israel. O pastors, disciples of our great Pastor, be ye not like the hirelings; because the hirelings care not for the sheep. Be ye like our Sweet Pastor, Whose life was not dearer to Him than His sheep. Rear up the youths and bring up the maidens; and love the lambs and let them be reared in your bosoms; that when ye shall come to the Chief Pastor, ye may offer to Him all your sheep in completeness, and so He give you what He has promised: Where I am ye also shall be. These things, brief as they are; will be sufficient for the good pastors and leaders.”

Aphrahat had earlier spoken of the pastor feeding the sheep. Now he speaks of what this food is.

#8 The Steward brought me into the Kings treasury and showed me there many precious things; and when I saw them my mind was captivated with the great treasury. And as I looked upon it, it dazzled my eyes, and took captive my thoughts, and caused my reflections to wander in many ways. Whoever receives thereof, is himself enriched and enriches (others). It lies open and unguarded before all that seek it; and though many take from it there is no deficiency; and when they give of that which they have received; their own portion is greatly multiplied. They that receive freely let them give freely as they have received. For (this treasure) cannot be sold for a price, because there is nothing equivalent to it. Moreover the treasure fails not; and they that receive it are not satiated. They drink and are still eager; they eat and are hungry. Whosoever is not thirsty, finds not ought to drink; whoever is not hungry, finds nothing to eat. The hunger for it satisfies many, and from the thirst for it flow forth water-springs. For the man who draws nigh to the fear of God is like the man who in his thirst draws near to the water-spring and drinks and is satisfied, and the fountain is not a whit diminished. And the lands that needs to drink in water, drinks of the fountain, but its waters fail not. And when the land drinks, it needs again to drink, and the spring is not lessened by its flowing. So is the knowledge of God. Though all men should receive of it, yet there would come no lack in it, nor can it be limited by the sons of flesh. He that takes from it, cannot take away all; and when he gives, he lacks nothing

One man cannot receive all the King’s treasure….When a man stands on a lofty mountain, his eye does not (equally) comprehend the near and the distant; nor, when he stands and counts the stars of heaven can he set limits to the hosts of the heaven. So when he draws nigh unto the fear of God, he cannot attain to the whole of it; and when he receives much that is precious, it does not seem to be diminished; and when he gives of that which he has received, it is not exhausted, nor has it come to an end for him. And remember, my beloved, what I wrote to thee, in the first discourse about faith, that whoever has freely received ought to give freely as he has received Therefore… as I have been able to obtain now from that treasure that fails not, I have send unto thee from it… .For the treasure fails not for it is the Wisdom of God; and the steward is our Lord Jesus Christ.

The food that the shepherd must feed his flock with is the knowledge of God and the Wisdom of God. Aphrahat now encourages the shepherds…. “labour to read those books which are read in the church of God. (interesting phrase). Hear these things from me without wrangling. “Whatever thou hearest that assuredly edifies, receive; and whatever builds up strange doctrines, overthrow and utterly demolish. For wrangling cannot edify. But I, my beloved, as a stonecutter have brought stones for the building, and let wise architects carve them out and lay them in the building; and all the laborers that toil in the building shall receive rewards from the Lord of the house.”