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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity


from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world


The Life of *Rabbula (bishop of Edessa, ob. 435/6, S01211) is written in Syriac in Edessa during the 5th c. It describes the life and virtues of the bishop, with reference to such miraculous events as healings and exorcisms.

Evidence ID

E02378

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint

Life of Rabbula

Summary:

The narrative opens with a brief preface, in which the author extols the virtues of Rabbula and presents his work as 'an icon of the excellent way of life of Mar Rabbula the bishop, the pride of our city, so that he might be to us and to every generation a paradigm that stimulates [us] to imitate his virtues'. (pp. 65-66 of the Doran translation)

The holy man is said to be the only offspring of a rich and noble couple living in the city of Qenneshrin (Chalcis) in Mesopotamia. Whereas his father was pagan, his mother was Christian. Well-educated and fluent in Greek, Rabbula remains pagan, notwithstanding the efforts of his mother and his Christian wife. (pp. 66-67)

The young Rabbula converts to Christianity after a visit to the hermit Abraham. Having heard about healing miracles performed by this holy man, who lived in the vicinity of Qenneshrin, Rabbula decides to visit him. During the visit, he witnesses the healing of a sick woman and decides to embrace Christianity. After being instructed in Christian doctrine, first by the bishop of Qenneshrin Eusebius, and then by the bishop of Aleppo Acacius, Rabbula visits 'the shrine of the heroic martyrs Cosmas and Damian', where he meets an acquaintance who had been cured of blindness, and is inspired to offer a song to God. After this full conversion, he goes to 'the monastery of the holy Marcian the recluse,' where he makes a promise to pursue the monastic way of life. For his baptism, Rabbula travels to Palestine, where he visits the holy places in Jerusalem and is baptised in the Jordan. (pp. 67-71)

Upon his return to Qenneshrin, Rabbula sells his estates and sets free his slaves, distributes his wealth to the poor and joins the small ascetic community gathered around the hermit Abraham. His mother, wife and children join monasteries as well. (pp. 71-73)

When his fame as an ascetic grows and people start to come to visit him, Rabbula moves to a more distant location, where he lives alone, engaged in 'constant prayer, the liturgy of the psalms, and the reading of the Scriptures'. While spending time in ascetic feats and fighting Satan's temptations, he is supported by a layman, who regularly brings him food. When the members of his monastic community learn about Rabbula's whereabouts, they visit him and persuade him to come back. After that, Rabbula and bishop Eusebius make a trip to the city of Baalbek (Heliopolis), a major pagan centre. Ardent with the desire to become martyrs, they try to attack the pagan shrine, but are beaten up by the local pagans. (pp. 73-75)

When Diogenes, the bishop of Edessa dies, Rabbula is elected in his stead. His activities as the city's bishop include, among other things, the project of a new translation of the New Testament from Greek into Syriac as well as active engagement in charitable initiatives. Taking seriously his episcopal duties, Rabbula aims at reforming all groups within the Church, i.e. priests, monks and laymen. Admonishing and threatening, he tries to compel the city's clergy to live a modest life, appropriate to their vocation. He takes great care to appoint to the office only worthy candidates. Rabbula also oversees the ascetic communities of men and women, providing them with the rules of proper behaviour. (pp. 75-83)

At the same time, Rabbula continues to keep his ascetic regimen, including fasting, praying, weeping, dressing modestly and shunning any luxury. As a confirmation of his spiritual authority, sick people are healed and demons are exorcised by the power of his prayer. It is related that people would seek to procure contact relics, such as pieces of his clothes
'How many times would the people, because of the fervour of their faith in him, rend his garments in their desire, and exchange the garments among themselves like a relic (ḥnānā) so that a blessing might be transferred from his clothing to many of them?' Furthermore, some believers name their children after Rabbula - 'many from the city and from the whole province trustingly named their sons and even their daughters with the honoured name of Rabbula for a blessing. For his flock kept close under the wings of his name and of his prayer for protection, and implored its full healing to attain a long life.' (pp. 83-87)

Rabbula's episcopal duties include protection of such weak members of urban society as the poor, orphans and widows. He exerts his authority to convince the rich citizens of Edessa to donate money on behalf of the poor. In addition, Rabbula is engaged in dispensing justice, adjudicating between citizens in the bishop's court. (pp. 88-91)

An important aspect of Rabbula's episcopal office finds expression in defending the truth of Christianity, while fighting against various heterodox groups present in Edessa, such as the followers of Bardaisan, Arians, Marcionites, Manichaeans, Gnostics of various sorts, and Messalians. He also makes efforts, partially successful, to convert the local Jews. An extended part of the narrative is dedicated to Rabbula's campaign against the heresy of Nestorius, which involves a journey to Constantinople, where the bishop publicly confutes Nestorius' teaching. (pp. 91-99)

The narrative lays a particular emphasis on Rabbula's care for the urban poor, to whom the bishop distributes alms and on whose behalf he restores and upgrades the city's hospital, establishing also separate hospitals for women and for lepers. (pp. 99-102)

Having been in office for twenty-four years and three months, Rabbula dies in the month of August, after a month-long illness. When he falls ill in the month of July, the bishop receives a revelation about his imminent demise and, anticipating it, he distributes alms for the last time. When he dies, Rabbula is greatly mourned by the citizens of Edessa. His body is put into a wooden coffin, to prevent people from tearing it apart into bits of relics
'they hastened to cover his pure body in a wooden coffin (glusqmā d-qaysā) made from materials inside his dwelling, so that his holy body might not be torn apart by the hands of all the people pressing forward in their love to take from him a relic (ḥnānā) in their faithfulness'. He is buried in the city's cemetery. Posthumous miracles, such as healings and exorcisms, are reported to take place at his grave. The narrative concludes with the author's hope for Rabbula's intercession. (pp. 102-105)

Text: Overbeck 1865. Translation: Doran 2006. Summary: Sergey Minov.

Cult Places

Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave

Non Liturgical Activity

Composing and translating saint-related texts
Explicit naming a child, or oneself, after a saint
Saint as patron - of a community

Miracles

Miracle during lifetime
Miracle after death
Healing diseases and disabilities
Exorcism
Apparition, vision, dream, revelation

Relics

Contact relic - cloth

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops

Source

The Life of Rabbula is an account of the life and achievements of the famous 5th c. bishop of Edessa Rabbula (411/2-435/6). An original Syriac composition, it was almost certainly produced in Edessa, not very long after the death of Rabbula. A firm terminus ante quem for the Life is provided by the fact that it appears in a 6th c. manuscript: ms. British Library Add. 14652 (see Wright 1870-1872, vol. 2, 651).

Syriac text:
Overbeck 1865, 154-209; English translations: Doran 2006, 65-105; Phenix & Horn 2017, 3-83; German translation: Bickell 1874, 166-211. For general information on Rabbula, see Blum 1969; Graffin 1988; Drijvers 1996, 1999. On various aspects of the Life, see Peeters 1928; Bowersock 2000; Phenix 2005; Phenix & Horn 2017, xvii-cclviii.


Discussion

The Life bears witness to the local cult of Rabbula that began to develop in the city of Edessa soon after his death in the year 435/6. The bishop is presented as a powerful intercessor, who performed miracles of healing and exorcism both during his life time and after death. His efficacy as a holy man is confirmed by the report that already during his life time people tried to procure contact relics of his garments. To that protective function is also related the practice amongst some believers of naming their children (apparently even some girls) after the bishop.

The text does not tell us where precisely the shrine of Saints Kosmas and Damianos was located, which Rabbula visited (at p. 69 of Doran's translation), but it must have been in the region of Chalcis and Beroeia (Aleppo), where the story of Rabbula's conversion is set. Nor does it tell us whether the man who had recovered his sight, whom Rabbula meets there, had been healed at the shrine - though this is probable. This passage is one of the very earliest we have for these two doctor saints.


Bibliography


Main editions and translations:

Overbeck, J.J.,
S. Ephraemi Syri, Rabulae episcopi Edesseni, Balaei aliorumque opera selecta e codicibus syriacis manuscriptis in museo Britannico et bibliotheca Bodleiana asservatis primus edidit (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1865).

Doran, R.,
Stewards of the Poor: The Man of God, Rabbula, and Hiba in Fifth-Century Edessa (Cistercian Studies Series 208; Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2006).

Phenix, R.R., Jr., and Horn, C.B.,
The Rabbula Corpus: Comprising the Life of Rabbula, His Correspondence, a Homily Delivered in Constantinople, Canons, and Hymns (SBL Writings from the Greco-Roman World 17; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017).

Bickell, G.,
Ausgewählte Schriften der syrischen Kirchenväter: Aphraates, Rabulas und Isaak v. Ninive, zum ersten Male aus dem Syrischen übersetzt (Bibliothek der Kirchenväter [30]; Kempten: Jos. Kösel, 1874).


Further reading:
Blum, G.G., Rabbula von Edessa. Der Christ, der Bischof, der Theologie (CSCO 300, Subs. 34; Louvain: Secrétariat du CorpusSCO, 1969).

Bowersock, G.W., “The Syriac Life of Rabbula and Syrian Hellenism,” in: T. Hägg and P. Rousseau (eds.),
Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 255-271.

Drijvers, H.J.W., “The Man of God of Edessa, Bishop Rabbula, and the Urban Poor: Church and Society in the Fifth Century,”
Journal of Early Christian Studies 4:2 (1996), 235-248.

Drijvers, H.J.W., “Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa: Spiritual Authority and Secular Power,” in: J.W. Drijvers and J.W. Watt (eds.),
Portraits of Spiritual Authority: Religious Power in Early Christianity, Byzantium, and the Christian Orient (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 137; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 139-154.

Graffin, F., “Rabboula d’Édesse,” in:
Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique: doctrine et histoire (Paris: Beauchesne, 1988), vol. 13, 12-14.

Peeters, P., “La Vie de Rabboula, évêque d’Édesse († 7 août 436),”
Recherches de science religieuse 18 (1928), 170-204.

Phenix, R.R., Jr., “Kunstprosaische Elemente in der
Vita Rabbulae. Ein Blick auf das Encomium an den Helden,” in: M. Tamcke and A. Heinz (eds.), Die Suryoye und ihre Umwelt: 4. deutsches Syrologen-Symposium in Trier 2004. Festgabe Wolfgang Hage zum 70. Geburtstag (Studien zur orientalischen Kirchengeschichte 36; Münster: LIT, 2005), 281-293.

Wright, W.,
Catalogue of Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum, Acquired since the Year 1838. 3 vols (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1870-1872).


Record Created By

Sergey Minov

Date Last Modified

22/09/2020

Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00385Kosmas and Damianos, brothers, physician martyrs of SyriaCertain
S00784Rabbula, bishop of Edessa, ob. 435/6ܪܒܘܠܐCertain


Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
Sergey Minov, Cult of Saints, E02378 - http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E02378