Nisibis, School of
NISIBIS, SCHOOL OF
About the middle of the 4th century nisibis was known as a center of theological studies, counting among its teachers St. ephrem. When the city came under Persian rule in 363, St. Ephrem and the school moved to Edessa within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. After the Council of Ephesus in 431 a large number of Nestorians settled in Edessa and, for a short period, took over control of the theological school. Because of imperial persecution, however, they were forced to seek refuge outside the empire and moved to Nisibis, where their opposition to the official Roman doctrine and, consequently, to the Roman emperor earned them the protection of the Persian rulers. The theological school of edessa was continued in Nisibis under the patronage of the Nestorian metropolitan Bar Sauma. Its foundation can be dated to about 457, the year in which its first great teacher, Narsai (Narses), who had taught in Edessa, arrived and began lecturing on theology, a task that he continued for some 40 years. For 200 years or more the school of Nisibis flourished under a succession of famous teachers, such as Abraham, the nephew of Narsai, Paul, Elias bar Sīnājā, ‘abdisho (Ebedjesus) bar Berīkā, and others. The number of students seems to have been considerable; Abraham de beth Rabban, the second successor of Narsai and rector of the school for 60 years, had over 1,000 students. The graduates of the school filled the episcopal sees throughout the then prosperous Church in Persia, so that the entire Church in that region and in its missionary areas became Nestorian in doctrine. The foundation of another theological school about 541 by Aba Mar in Seleucia-Ctesiphon was a strong blow to Nisibis, and the establishment of the school of Baghdad about 830 led to its rapid decline.
From the beginning the theological teaching at Nisibis was based on the works of Nestorius, Diodor of Tarsus, and in particular, theodore of mopsuestia. In general, the instructors at Nisibis limited themselves to explaining the doctrine of Theodore, especially his commentaries on Scripture, adding very little of their own. Among the Nestorians Theodore was known as "The Commentator" par excellence. Following the pre-Chalcedonian terminology of Theodore they spoke of two natures and two hypostases with one prosopon in Christ. The doctrine was officially accepted by the Persian Church in a synod at Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 486 and again in 612.
The curriculum and the statutes of the school of Nisibis, undoubtedly based upon those of Edessa, have been conserved, and they probably represent the oldest statutes of any Christian theological school known to exist. The detailed regulations were revised and made stricter in 496 and again in 590. The course of studies lasted three years, and instruction was given gratuitously. The school was under the direction of a rector (Rabban) and a master who, aided by a council, was in charge of disciplinary and financial matters. There were two principal professors: the first, referred to as the Interpreter, explained Scripture according to the commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia; the other was known as the Master of the Lessons. The students were obliged to live in community, somewhat similar in organization to a modern seminary. They studied in a common hall where the desks differed according to students' ranks. They were forbidden to enter the Roman (Byzantine) Empire without special permission. The school was practically exempt from episcopal jurisdiction and enjoyed a number of civil privileges as well.
A description of the organization and the spirit of the school is given by a 6th-century teacher: Mar Barhadbešabba ‘Arbaya, Cause de la fondation des écoles [ed. A. Scher, Patrologia Orientalis, four (Paris 1908) 317–404, Syriac text with French translation]. A history of the school and an account of the teaching of Narsai and Abraham have been given by the same author [Patrologia Orientalis 9 (Paris 1913) 588–631].
Bibliography: r. nelz, Die theologischen Schulen der morgenländischen Kirchen (Bonn 1916) 77–110. a. baumstark, Geschichte der syrischen Literatur (Bonn 1922) 113–115. i. ortiz de urbina, Patrologia syriaca (Rome 1958) 107–111. w. de vries, Sakramententheologie bei den Nestorianern (Orientalia Christiana Analecta [Rome 1935–] 133; 1947); Der Kirchenbegriff der von Rom getrennten Syrer (ibid. 145; 1955). w. f. macomber, "The Christology of the Synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, a.d. 486," Orientalia Christiana periodica 24 (1958) 142–154; "The Theological Synthesis of Cyrus of Edessa, an East Syrian Theologian of the Mid-Sixth Century," ibid. 30 (1964) 5–38.
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