BARDAISAN (or Bardesanes) of Edessa (154–222 ce) was a philosopher, an ethnographer, and the first Syriac Christian theologian, later regarded as unorthodox.
Only a few events are known about the life of Bardaisan (Bar Dayṣān, or "son of [the local river] Dayṣān"). He attended the court of the king of Edessa, Abgar VIII (176–211), and probably fled from Edessa to Armenia after Abgar IX was taken prisoner by the Romans in 216. Bardaisan had a son who introduced metrical hymns in Syriac, which were imitated by later Syriac poets. Edessene Christianity of his time did not have a hierarchical structure, but was divided into various groups, such as the Jewish-Christians, the "orthodox" Christian minority, the Gnostics, and the Marcionites, who later came into conflict with Bardaisan and his school.
What can be ascribed to Bardaisan shows his familiarity with both Greek philosophy (Platonism, Stoicism) and Hellenistic astrological and ethnographic culture (works on India and Armenia are mentioned by some sources). In Edessa, Bardaisan founded a circle in which scientific and religious questions were freely debated. Only in the fifth century did Bishop Rabbula succeed in eradicating the Bardesanites from Edessa.
The sources for the doctrines of the Bardesanites include The Book of the Laws of the Countries, preserved in Syriac and probably written in that language, and quoted by later Greek authors in an ancient Greek version. This work has the literary form of a dialogue between Bardaisan and his disciples and deals with the relation between free will and fate. In the dialogue, Bardaisan declares that two factors affect human life: (1) nature (kyānā), namely, the natural constitution (to be born, grow up, procreate, grow old, and die); and (2) fate (ḥelqā); that is, the accidents that can either reinforce or oppose the natural constitution (e.g., wealth, poverty, illness). Humans, whose bodies undergo the influence of both nature and fate, in their quality of God's images are provided with free will (ḥērūtā), which is placed in the intellect—a conception in which Jewish and Christian elements are mingled with Aristotelian philosophy. To prove this assumption, Bardaisan delivers a speech, well known in late antiquity, where, by describing the customs and the laws of different peoples (including Jews and Christians), he shows their independence from fate. The last sentences indicate that fate and its elements are part of the order imposed by God after a crisis that took place among the original entities.
The Bardesanite sources also include the antiheretical works of Ephraem of Syria (306–373); that is, Prose Refutations and Hymns against Heresies, to be compared with four cosmogonic traditions, preserved by Syriac authors from the sixth to the tenth centuries, describing the Bardesanite doctrine of the origin of the world. According to these sources, from eternity there are four entities (ītyē) —light, wind, fire, and water—in a wandering state (Gn. 1:2). Some disciples of Bardaisan maintain the atomic nature of the entities. God resides over the entities as their lord; darkness underlies them. For a reason independent from God—either the breath of the wind or an accidental (šegmā) event (gedšā) —the entities begin to damage each other. Darkness arises, partially defiling the entities. The "word of thought" (mēmrā d-tarʽītā), corresponding to the middle Platonic and Stoic logos (or, according to Bardaisanʼs disciples, a set of three kinds of spiritual atoms), is sent by God to separate darkness from the entities. From what is still defiled, the logos establishes the world in such a way as to be progressively purified. Ephraem mentions the "diffusion of life," which apparently is a spiritual element, whose connections with the logos are not clear. He reports that, according to Bardaisan, the human body is created by the archons of fate and is destined to dissolution—the soul is a corporeal but light element, whereas the intellect is a fragment of the divinity. The resurrection is therefore spiritual. Before the coming of the savior, human souls were imprisoned in the astrological regions because of Adam's sin; afterward, only pure souls and intellects can reach God.
Ephraemʼs Hymn against Heresies 55 quotes Bardesanite verses mentioning the following Gnostic figures: the father and the mother of life (compared to, or identified with, the sun and the moon), who beget (through sexual union) the son of life as well as two female figures—the holy spirit and the youthful spirit. The youthful spirit, who is destined for a wedding feast, calls upon God in the words pronounced by Christ on the cross (Mt. 27:46). The father of life and the mother of life also beget the paradise and several astrological entities.
Later heresiological accounts, written in Syriac and Arabic by Christian and Muslim authors, testify to the reduction of Bardesanite doctrine to a strict dualism similar to Manichaean dualism. These sources also report Bardesanite mythology and a theory of seven atomic entities, which are also mentioned by Ephraem.
Although the astrological and mythological aspects of Bardesanite thought influenced the culture of such later dissident groups as the Audians (fourth century) and the Sabians of Ḥarran (sixth century onward), Manichaeism appears to be more sensitive to Bardaisanʼs theological speculations. Maniʼs (216–273) lost work The Book of Mysteries was directed against Bardaisan's ideas about the human soul. Other differences can also be detected between Bardaisan and Mani. For Bardaisan, for example, darkness is not an active principle, as it is for Mani, and Bardesanite anthropology is apparently more optimistic than Manichaean anthropology. However, a partial reception of Bardesanite ideas by Mani seems certain, and includes the three periods of cosmic history (the original situation, crisis and mixing, and final separation), the formation of the world as an instrument of purification, and the two couples, the father and mother of life and the sun and moon.
There are two main controversial issues about Bardesanite doctrines: (1) the ideological unity of Bardesanite texts; and (2) their relationship with the Gnostic family. Some scholars, for whom The Book of the Laws of the Countries reflects Bardaisanʼs own ideas, maintain the ideological unity of all Bardesanite texts (despite differences of language) and deny their Gnostic character. Others, disqualifying the authenticity of the dialogue as a document of Bardaisan and regarding it as a late and catholicizing product, interpret the other fragments as a clear witness to Bardaisanʼs close proximity to Gnosticism. A possible third interpretation sees Bardesanite texts as the product of different authors who support in varying ways an anti-Marcionite theology adverse to systems that divide God the creator too sharply from God the savior, based on the assumption that the original crisis took place not within God, but within a distinct principle (the entities) subordinated to him.
The standard reference book about Bardaisan, his life, his school, and his writings, with a listing of the essential editions of the sources, is Han J. W. Drijvers, Bardaiṣan of Edessa (Assen, Netherlands, 1966). On the Syriac sources see Alberto Camplani, "Note bardesanitiche," Miscellanea marciana 12 (1997): 11–43. On the Arabic sources see Georges Vajda, "Le témoignage dʼal-Māturidī sur la doctrine des Manichéens, des Daysanites, et des Marcionites," Arabica 13 (1966): 1–38 and 113–128; and Wilferd Madelung, "Abu ʾisa al-Warraq über die Bardesaniten, Marcioniten, und Kantäer" in Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des vorderen Oriens: Festschrift für Bertold Spuler, edited by Hans R. Roemer and Albrecht Noth, pp. 210–224 (Leiden, 1981). On Porphyriusʼs Greek quotations from a work on Indian customs, see Franz Winter, Bardesanes von Edessa über Indien: Ein früher syrischer Theologe schreibt über ein fremdes Land (Innsbruck, 1999). On the philosophical collocation of The Book of the Laws of the Countries see Albrecht Dihle, "Zur Schicksalslehre des Bardesanes" in Kerygma und Logos: Festschrift für Carl Andresen, edited by Adolf Martin Ritter, pp. 123–135 (Göttingen, Germany, 1979), reprinted in Antike und Orient: Gesammelte Aufsätze, edited by Viktor Pöschl and Hubert Petersmann, pp. 161–173 (Heidelberg, Germany, 1984).
For a general presentation of the critical debate on Bardesanite thought, see Alberto Camplani, "Rivisitando Bardesane: Note sulle fonti siriache del bardesanismo e sulla sua collocazione storico-religiosa," Cristianesimo nella Storia 19 (1998): 519–596. Representatives of the unitarian and antidualistic interpretation of Bardesanite texts, apart from Han J. W. Drijvers, include Edmund Beck, "Bardaisan und seine Schule bei Ephräm," Le Muséon 91 (1978): 271–333; and Javier Teixidor, Bardesane d'Edesse: La première philosophie syriaque (Paris, 1992). Representatives of the Gnostic interpretation include the following scholars: Taeke Jansma, Natuur, lot en vrijheid: Bardesanes, de filosoof der Arameeër en zijn images (Wageningen, Netherlands, 1969); Barbara Aland-Ehlers, "Bardesanes von Edessa—ein syrische Gnostiker," Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 81 (1970): 334–351; and Prod O. Skjærvø, "Bardesanes" in Encyclopaedia Iranica, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, vol. 3, pp. 780–785 (London and New York, 1989).
Alberto Camplani (2005)