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School of Nisibis

The School of Nisibis (Syriac: ܐܣܟܘܠܐ ܕܢܨܝܒܝܢ), for a time absorbed into the School of Edessa, was an educational establishment in Nisibis, modern-day Turkey. It was an important spiritual center of the early Church of the East, and like Gundeshapur, is sometimes referred to as the world's first university.[1][2][3] The School had three primary departments teaching, Theology, Philosophy, and Medicine. The most famous of the School's teachers was Narsai who was previously heading the School of Edessa.

The School was originally founded in 350 in Nisibis. In 363, when Nisibis fell to the Persians, St. Ephrem accompanied by a number of teachers left the school. They went to the School of Edessa, where St. Ephrem took over the directorship of the school there. It had been founded as long ago as the 2nd century by the kings of the Abgar dynasty. When St. Ephrem took over the school, its importance grew still further.[4] After the Nestorian Schism, when the Byzantine emperor Zeno ordered the school closed for its teachings of Nestorian doctrine, deemed heretical by Chalcedonian Christianity, the School moved back to Nisibis.


  • Early history 1
  • Exile to Edessa 2
  • Center of Syriac theology 3
  • Influence on the West 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6

Early history

The school was founded around 350 by Mar Yaqub after the model of the school of Diodorus of Tarsus in Antioch. It was an ideal location for a Syriac school: located in the center of the Syriac-speaking Assyrian world, and still inside the Roman empire, which had just embraced Christianity. Most of Mesopotamia was under Sassanid Persian rule, which at that time was trying to revive the ancient Zoroastrian religion.

Exile to Edessa

The Persians gained Nisibis soon after, in 363, and the school was moved westward to a preexisting school located in Edessa, Mesopotamia, where it was known as the 'school of the Persians'(Eskuli d-Forsoye/Eskuli d-Parsaye in Edessan Aramaic/Syriac). There, under the leadership of Ephrem the Syrian, it gained fame well beyond the borders of the Syriac speaking world.

Meanwhile in Antioch, Theodore of Mopsuestia had taken over the school of Diodorus, and his writings soon became the foundation of Syriac theology. Even during his lifetime they were translated into Syriac and gradually replaced the work of Ephrem. One of his most famous students was Nestorius, who became Patriarch of Constantinople, but for the doctrine he was preaching, ran afoul of Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril sought to brand Nestorius as a heretic, and at the First Council of Ephesus in 431, had Nestorius formally censured. The resulting conflict led to the Nestorian Schism, which separated the Church of the East from the Western Byzantine form of Christianity. The opponents of Nestorius attacked his Theodore's school of Diodorus as well, and the Syrians answered by giving protection to the followers of Nestorius. In the year 489 the Byzantine emperor Zeno ordered the school closed for its Nestorian tendencies, and it returned to Nisibis.[5]

Center of Syriac theology

Back in Nisibis the school became even more famous. It attracted students from all the Assyrian churches, many of its students embodied important church offices, and its teaching was normative. The exegetical methods of the school followed the tradition of Antioch: strictly literal, controlled by pure grammatical-historical analysis. The work of Theodore was central to the theological teaching, and men like Abraham of Beth Rabban, who headed the school during the middle of the 6th century, spent great effort to make his work as accessible as possible. The writings of Nestorius himself were added to the curriculum only about 530.

At the end of the 6th century the school went through a theological crisis when its director Henana of Adiabene tried to replace Theodore with his own doctrine, which followed Origen. Babai the Great (551-628), who was the unofficial head of the Church at that time and also involved in reviving the strict Syrian monastic movement, refuted him and in the process wrote the normative Christology of the Church of the East, based on Theodore of Mopsuestia.

A small sampling of Babai's work is available in English translation.[6] The Book of Union is his principal surviving work on Christology. In it he explains that Christ has two qnome (essences), which are unmingled and eternally united in one parsopa (personality). This, and not Nestorianism, is the teaching of the Church of the East.

Influence on the West

The fame of this theological seminary was so great that Pope Agapetus I and Cassiodorus wished to found one in Italy of a similar kind. Although the troubled times prevented their wishes from being realized, but Cassiodorus's monastery at Vivarium was inspired by the example of Nisibis, about which he had learned from the Quaestor Junillus during his time in Constantinople.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Jonsson, David J. (2002). The Clash of Ideologies.  
  2. ^ Spencer, Robert (2005). The politically incorrect guide to Islam (and the Crusades).  
  5. ^ Foster, John (1939). The Church of the T'ang Dynasty. Great Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. p. 31. The school was twice closed, in 431 and 489 
  6. ^ "Bawai the Great Speaks Concerning Faith". Archived from the original ( mirror) on October 9, 2006. Retrieved October 9, 2006. 
  7. ^ M.L.W. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe: A.D. 500 to 900 second edition (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1957), p. 96

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