The Life of St. Rabbula of Edessa Essay

The Life of St. Rabbula of Edessa


This paper seeks to summarize the life of St. Rabbula of Edessa and place him within a regional, theological and social context of the Byzantine far east in the first half of the 5th century. The basic issues covered here are the basic transitions in his life, his social role nad his view of the church and the place of the bishop/ascetic in the world of social reform and activism. Furthermore, this paper seeks to place this saint in the basic meta-narrative of Christian history in the Nestorian/Monophysite struggle that was only beginning in Rabbula’s lifetime.

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            Peter Brown holds that the great age of the early ascetics can be reduced to two general stages: first, the stage of the Egyptian hermits. This stage is marked by a strong sense of individualism, almost an anti-social approach to life in the harsh terrain of the Egyptian desert.  On the other hand, the next stage takes place in Palestine and Syria, and includes not so much an anti-social approach, but rather an approach where the hermit lives on the fringes of the town, part of the town’s life and acting largely as a arbiter and mediator (Brown, 90-97).

            The subject of this paper is without doubt a son of the latter movement of asceticism, that of St. Rabbula of Edessa, major Christian center in the Byzantine far east, and a polyglot region. Rabbula is shown in an anonymous biography as an activist rather than as a philosopher or theologian, a man who made a lasting impression on the region.

            St. Rabbula was born into a wealthy family in Edessa. Like other figures such as St. Augustine, his mother had become Orthodox, while his father was not only a pagan, but a priest of the local urban cult. The strong will of his mother not only brought Rabbula to the Orthodox faith, but to a life of intense asceticism. Like in the life of St. Antony, a great transition in Rabbula’s life is when he rejects his former privileged life and becomes a true ascetic and solitary in the desert (Segal, 91).

            There are two changes of status in St. Rabbula’s life that are worthy of note: the first, already mentioned, the rejection of riches and the acceptance of the life of hardship for Christ’s sake, the purification of the flesh. But there is a sort of compensatory stage where the saint becomes a bishop. This secondary transition of status is almost a dialectical synthesis of his previous movement: the first is the transition of negation: wealth to voluntary poverty, but those two moments are synthesized in his becoming a bishop (elected circa 411). This is because as a bishop, he is a major figure, even a civil figure in the Roman/Byzantine scheme of things. On the other hand, like many sainted bishops, Rabbula never stopped his ascetic regimen, and not only that, but even write an immensely important monastic rule that extended his monastic experience from himself to the monks within his important diocese. (Connolly, 159ff). Therefore, his life is written as an almost perfect Hegelian dialectic: wealth, poverty, and social importance within an ascetic regimen. In other words, a synthesis is reached where civil and religious importance and privilege is intertwined with the ascetic life and its extension throughout his diocese.

            St. Rabbula is a major public figure in the capacity of bishop, but even more so in the fact that he was a major reformer of monasteries in his diocese, and even more importantly, he became a major figure in the fight against Nestorianism, increasingly popular in the Byzantine empire at the time.  According to the anonymous Life of Rabbula, it was clear that this man of action wanted one real end: the purification and good order of his diocese and the entire empire (Segal, 91-92).

            Peter Brown, in his analysis of the later Palestinian and Syriac hermits, of which Rabbula was one, the basic purpose of the Syriac version of the hermit was a complex series of social ideas and social action. The idea of Rabbula becoming a bishop makes more sense in the Syriac (the Greek influences Syriac, to be more precise) version of the solitary life than the Egyptian one. Since the Syriac ascetic life was far more social and reformist than the Egyptian version, becoming a bishop with a strong ascetic bent was almost iconic in the region, it was, in other words, a natural transition, especially if the ascetic life was to follow him to the bishop’s chair.

            St. Rabbula’s social role was two fold: first, to fight heresy of all kinds, and second, to assist the poor. In fact, more than anything else, the Greek life of St. Rabbula stresses his love of the poor more than anything else, even going so far as to claim that no new churches were built in his tenure, but many almshouses and hospitals, especially catering to lepers as social outcasts (Connolly, 152-158, also see Bonnersock, 255-258).

            In a certain sense, the author of the anonymous life holds that there is an immediate connection between the life of a bishop, the life of an ascetic, and the life of a social reformer, these are one and the same struggle, contra the Egyptian, anti-social hermits (Connolly, 153-156). Even more, a further connection within the Orthodox master narrative can be seen, as all the above duties are synthesized within the Orthodox context, that is, true asceticism can never be separated from true theology. The very fact that an ascetic should and could be a social reformer is connected to the later decisions of Chalcedon: Christ is both human and divine. The Monophysites held that Christ is only divine, or more accurately, that the humanity was swallowed in a new, divine synthesis, and hence, the autonomy of the human is lost. While St. Rabbula was a true social reformer and a supporter of St. Cyril of Alexandria, he was not what would later be called a monophysite. In accepting the theology of St. Cyril, he was not becoming a monophysite heretic, but in stead, rejecting the more dominant heresy in his diocese, the dio-physite heresy of Nestorius. The question is moot regardless, since the definitions of Chalcedon were not handed down until 451, while St. Rabbula died in 435 (Segal, 92). Therefore, even if the saint leaned towards what was later condemned as monophysitism, he cannot be considered a heretic prior to the existence of an authoritative council. In other words, it is natural that Rabbula would lean to st. Cyril when, in the far east where Edessa is located, the dominant heresy was the opposite of monophysitism. Therefore, even if Rabbula lived after Chalcedon, it would be difficult to prove that he was a monophysite, since it is natural that one fighting Nestorius would lean a bit too far to St. Cyril (Doran, 41-64 and 122-126).

            Therefore, the Orthodox church has quite a debt to pay to Rabbula in his battle against the “eastern” heresy of Nestorius. Now, while the “grand narrative” that convulsed the empire for centuries to come, that of Chalcedon versus Alexandria and the Syriac Jacobites, there were smaller, but no less irritating, heretical fish to fry in the region around the diocese of Edessa. The sects of the gnostics, Sadduceans and the bizarre Borborians also found a home in the polyglot and multi cultural morass of Edessa. Since most of these heretical groups were syncretic in many respects, it made sense that the philosophically sophisticated, Greek influenced far east would be the center for numerous sects and syncretic ideas (Segal, 92). In a city that is highly polyglot and multi cultural, it seems natural that sects would arise seeking to synthesize all religious ideas in the area: the strict Jewish monotheism, the older Persian Mithra-worship, Orthodoxy, Nestorianism, smaller ascetic sects, etc, all seemed to be synthesized in these new heretical groups. But Rabbula held that such an approach is improper, since one cannot hold several positions that are mutually contradictory, and therefore, Rabbula needed to cleanse his diocese of such semi-pagan aberrations. Needless to say, the various sects who were removed from the area or enticed to come back to Orthodoxy viewed Rabbula as a persecutor, but Rabbula viewed himself as a crusader for the Nicean truth against the strictly philosophical and semi-pagan syncretism of the heretics (Hackel, 28-30).

            What then do we have as a biographical narrative? It seems that we see a historically accurate picture that flows from the very nature of not only Christianity, but a major urban center such as Aleppo and Edessa. The anonymous Greek life seems historically accurate because what is being related makes sense given the polyglot and sophisticated nature of the region. The writer does not stress the miracles of the saint, but his activity both doctrinally and in terms of social activism. Furthermore, the picture painted by the Greek writer is also born out by the primary source writings from the saint, especially that of the monastic rule, translated by Connolly (1907). Therefore, these connections will now form the conclusion:

            1. Bonnersock holds that the writer of the life if Greek. It is also clear that the education that Rabbula received as a child was also Greek and hence, highly sophisticated. Therefore, one can conclude that the life of Rabbula is easily written since there is a clear cultural connection between the writer and the subject, the world of the elite Greek philosophical dn literary education that makes a great deal of sense for the office of bishop.

            2. The movements of the saint from the wealthy life to the poor ascetic life may not merely derive from the Christian approach to asceticism, but also from the example of Socrates or event eh Stoics, who held that material riches were nothing. Christianity wisely took from the work of both Greek schools of philosophy in that the theology of the Bible is so close to the basic moral approach of the Platonists. But what Rabbula is doing is putting the work of Socrates and Christ into action, into the world of assisting the poor and reforming society.

            3. This can also be seen in the monastic rule written by the saint. Several issues should be understood here. First, the asceticism of the monks was to be maintained at all costs. Throughout the life of the saint one can sense the strong connection between doctrinal correctness and the ascetic life. In other words, there is a connection between the experience of the saint and the doctrines under debate at the time. IN other words, if the ascetic can feel the power of the Holy Spirit as an empirical entity, and Christ’s will working through Him, then the theology of Nestorius should be opposed, since the will of Christ is not really something amenable to the human life. This is also true of the monophysites, though for the opposite reason. Both monophysitism and Nestorianism are rejected, so to speak, in both the ascetic life and the life of the social reformer, since the idea is that the human world (the flesh) needs to be suffused with the divine, hence, rejecting the absorption idea of the Alexandrians and the separation idea of Nestorius. Putting this differently, the doctrinal struggles of the 4th and 5th centuries are clearly connected to how one views the nature of social life (Connolly, 160ff). In his monastic rule, the saint rejects the Egyptian model of asceticism in that the solitaries, the strict recluses, were to be few (cf Connolly’s translation, esp paragraph 18).

            4. It remains, however, that regardless of the fact that the individual monastic was to have few possessions, it does not follow that the monastery and the diocese that oversees it should not have many possessions. The fact is that the diocese of Edessa had to be wealthy enough to support and constructions of the dozens of hospitals and poor houses that the life recollects he built. Therefore, while remaining an ascetic, it had to be the case that the diocese itself was to be wealthy, but this wealth existed for the benefit of the poor only and never for the self enrichment of the monk or bishop as a person.

            What then, could his view of social life be? The basic theory of life has already been deduced: a strictly “humanist” approach to the world, an approach made into official doctrine by the later synod of Chalcedon. Human nature, human life and culture was to remain an autonomous element in the world, but not completely separated as Nestorianism implied. What wa important to the saint was doctrinal purity and a social order where the poor were cared for and placed back on their feet, and this was the point of monastic landholding and diocesan wealth. It is significant that writers such as Brown hold that there is a connection between the increasing cleavages among social classes and the rise of Syrian monasticism. The connection is that as classes began to grow separate, and as the empire saw the rise of what might loosely be called “feudalism,” the monastic (of which Rabbula was one) developed in to a social institution, often intervening in social life on behalf of the poor against the wealthy. Brown refers to this era in Byzantine history as that of a “crisis in leadership,” a vacuum that was filled by the Orthodox hermit (Brown, 82-85). This concept is iconically represented in the Greek life of the saint in that he was both social reformer and ascetic. As mentioned above, this is a synthesis–not to mention historically and morally attractive idea–of his privileged upbringing and the poor life of the ascetic: that of the socially powerful ascetic bishop. If anything, this is what the life is trying to get across. The Life itself holds that Rabbula did not engage in the ritual refusals when he was elected bishop, but rather threw himself into the role without hesitation (Segal, 91). This can not be taken as a sign of arrogance or a desire for power, but a sense of a strong social role and social purpose: the saint saw a powerful diocese of the Orthodox church rent asunder by sectarianism, division and heresy. One can conclude that the saint did not believe he had the time to go though the ritualist refusals of the role, and that time was short, he needed to begin his reforming and his harsh measures before the rot of heresy got any worse.

            In conclusion, the life of the saint shows a powerful social figure who loved the poor, gave generously, and spent his life distributing both his personal and diocesan resources both to help the poor and ill as well as purge this powerful and wealthy region of heresy. This paper has rejected the much later assertion that the saint was a monophysite, only in the basic argument that first, there was no such heresy before Chalcedon and second, that leaning to St. Cyril is insufficient to convict one of a much later heresy. The fact that the bishop took harsh measures is justified on the grounds of church unity, social harmony and the fact that the synod of Nicea was universally the symbol of the Orthodox faith and practice. The saint backed up his measures with the true Christian spirit of love and devotion to both doctrinal clarity and social welfare, never one at the expense of the other, as the twin heresies of Nestorianism and monophysitism imply. These heresies are not theological hair-splitting, but rather the social and political basis of a religious world view, a world view that our saint shared, lived and died. He deserves the accolades given him and should be rescued from his current obscurity.


Brown, Peter. “The Rise and Function of the Holy man in Late Antiquity.” The Journal of Roman Studies 61, 1971, 80-101

Connolly, RH “Some Early Rules for Syrian Monks.” Downside Review, 25, 1907, 152-162. (This also contains the full text of the Rule for Monks of St. Rabbula)

Doran, Robert. Stewards of the Poor: The man of God, Rabbula and Hiba in Fifth Century Edessa. Cistercian Press, 2006

Hackel, Sergei. The Byzantine Saint. St. Vladimir’s Press, 2001 (cf esp “Hellenistic and Oriental Origins” by Han J.W. Drijvers)

Rousseau, P. Greek Biography and Pangyric and Late Antiquity: The Transformation of the Classical Heritage. University of California Press, 2000. (Cf esp Glen Bonnersock’s “The Syriac Life of Rabbula and Syrian Hellenism”)

Segal, JB. Edessa: The Blessed City. Oxford University Press, 2005



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