Aphrahat the Persian Sage, also known
as Aphraates (280-345), was a church leader in Syria who wrote a lengthy series
of sermons in acrostic form, called Demonstrations – one composition for each of the 22 letters
of the Syriac alphabet. This was completed by A.D. 337, and was supplemented by a 23rd homily in 345.
Aphrahat was a contemporary of Eusebius of Caesarea, and from
a distance he heard of the spiritual transition of those in charge of the government of
Aphrahat (The Persian Sage)
Among the implications of this is that neither the Sinaitic Syriac MS, nor the Curetonian Syriac MS, nor the Syriac Peshitta (if its Gospels-text is correctly assigned to the late 300s), constitutes the earliest extant Syriac evidence regarding how the Gospel of Mark concluded, for Aphraates lived before any of those witnesses were produced. It may be worthwhile to draw attention here to Aphrahat’s testimony regarding the final portion of Mark (which has been utterly ignored by many commentators).
In the 17th paragraph of Demonstration One: Of Faith, Aphrahat wrote, “And when our Lord gave the sacrament of baptism to His apostles, He said to them, ‘ Whosoever believes and is baptized shall live, and whosoever believes not shall be condemned.’”
Thus Aphraates used what we know as Mark 16:16 in Syriac in 337. He expressed no doubts about it whatsoever. (Non-Syriac-reading English readers may consult, to see the context, John Gwynn’s English translation of Demonstration One, (in Volume 13 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series), which I rely upon for these quotations.)
At the end of the same paragraph, Aphrahat writes, “He also said thus, ‘This shall be the sign for those who believe; they shall speak with new tongues and shall cast out demons, and they shall place their hands on the sick and they shall be made whole.’” Although the passage is quoted very imprecisely (notice the absence of any reference to the signs being done “in my name,” and the absence of any reference to serpent-handling and poison-drinking), what Aphrahat quotes here is clearly based on Christ’s words in Mark 16:16-18.
Aphrahat is regarded as a frequent user of Tatian’s Diatessaron, but his quotation is significantly different from the passage found in the Arabic Diatessaron. The differences may be very probably attributed to the later conformation of the Arabic Diatessaron to the text of the Syriac Peshitta. (The Arabic Diatessaron is itself an echo of a Syriac source.)
Let us accept, for the moment, that Aphrahat was utilizing the Diatessaron when he wrote the 17th paragraph of Demonstration One: Of Faith. In which case, we have here, embedded in Aphrahat’s writings, a quotation from a source no later than 175 (namely, Tatian’s Diatessaron). (To put this another way: Aphrahat quoted from Tatian's Diatessaron, which - if the completion of the Gospel of Mark is correctly assigned to the year 68 - was made by Tatian less than 110 years after the autograph of the Gospel of Mark was written, using copies of the Gospels earlier than any complete copies that have survived to the present day.]
(Not to detour, but, another neglected author, the Armenian known as Eznik of Golb (also known as Yesnik Koghbats‘i), also used Mark 16:17-18 in the first half of the 400s, writing in his composition De Deo (a.k.a. “Against the Sects”) 1:25, “And again, ‘Here are signs of believers: they will dislodge demons, and they will take serpents into their hand, and they will drink a deadly poison and it will not cause harm.’” This appears to be a citation that Eznik made from memory. Notice, by the way, Eznik's inclusion of the words "into their hand" in v. 18.)
Some additional evidence that Aphrahat, writing in Syriac, was using Tatian’s Diatessaron is found in Demonstration 2, paragraph 20, where he states that Jesus “showed the power of his greatness when he was cast down from a high place into a valley, yet was not harmed.” This statement is not based on anything in the canonical Gospels as we know them; it is based on a quirky rendering of Luke 4:29-30 which recurs when the episode is described by other writers who used the Diatessaron. (It is not in the Arabic Diatessaron; at this point the Arabic Diatessaron’s exemplar has been, again, conformed to the text of the Peshitta). A few decades after Aphrahat wrote, Ephrem Syrus wrote (I rely on others for the English translation), “When they cast him down from the hill, he flew in the air.” (More has been written about this interesting detail (by the late William Petersen for instance), but I focus here upon Aphrahat’s testimony.)
If it is granted that Aphrahat wrote Demonstration 23 in 345 (shortly before he died), then he must have had more than Tatian’s Diatessaron to work with, because (a) it is generally granted that the Diatessaron, as produced by Tatian, did not include Jesus’ genealogies, and (b) in Demonstration 23, paragraph 20, Jesus’ genealogy is quoted as it appears in Matthew 1:13 to 16.
Whether or not Aphrahat is regarded as the author of Demonstration 23, Aphrahat was definitely the author of Demonstration One: Of Faith and thus, his testimony from 337 (prior to the production of Codex Sinaiticus) provides us with a window on a Syriac text that existed in his lifetime.
(A good transcript of Aphrahat’s Demonstrations 1-10, produced in 474, exists today as British Museum Add. MS. 17182. The same MS includes Demonstrations 11-23, written down in 510.)
Aphrahat has been confused with another Syriac author, Jacob of Nisibis, partly because Aphrahat took the name “Jacob” at his baptism. (Jacob of Nisibis was among those who attended the Council of Nicea in 325.) Although John Burgon, in 1871, pointed out that Aphahat’s Demonstrations were wrongly attributed to Jacob of Nisibis (Burgon pointed this out on p. 26 of The Last Twelve Verses of the Gospel of Mark, calling Aphrahat “Aphraates”). Nevertheless Jacob of Nisibis was named in the textual apparatus of the first edition of the UBS Greek New Testament (1966). This may be an indication of how little attention was paid to John Burgon by the compilers of the Nestle-Aland NTG and the UBS GNT in its first and second editions.
Rather than replace Jacob of Nisibis’ name with Aphrahat’s name, the textual apparatus for Mark 16:17-18 in the fourth and fifth editions of the UBS GNT features neither. For those who rely on the textual apparatus of the UBS GNT4 and UBS GNT5, it is as if Aphrahat’s support of Mark 16:16-18 in Demonstration One, instead of being changed from an incorrect identification (as Jacob of Nisibis) to a correct identification (as Aphrahat), has blinked out of existence.
No doubt this was merely an editorial oversight; certainly Carlo Martini and Kurt Aland and Bruce Metzger would never have thought of attempting to evade or silence an important voice such as Aphrahat’s. (I would like to imagine that Aphrahat’s name did not appear in the textual apparatus of NA27 simply because there was not enough room on the page to include it – but, alas, I cannot, because half of the page of NA27 that features Mark 16:17b-20 is entirely blank. The editors of NA27 found room to include GA 2427 (which has turned out to be a forgery made in the 1800s) in the apparatus for Mark 16:18, and GA 579 (from the 1200s), but somehow they did not find room to include Aphrahat’s name.) (A novice reader, unfamiliar with the complex nuances of evidence-citation and apparatus-making, could get the impression that the selection of witnesses in the apparatuses of the Nestle-Aland NTG and UBS GNT has been somewhat biased.)
The GNT’s current editors are welcome to express their penitence (or serve as proxy-voices for previous editors) by including Aphrahat’s name in the textual apparatus of the yet-to-be-released 6th edition. Perhaps someone by then will still dare to rely on such an unreliable source for patristic evidence as the UBS GNT’s textual apparatus has been.
(A final note about Aphrahat: he believed strongly that baptism is central in conversion – that is, he did not treat it as an optional afterthought. In his Demonstration 6, Concerning Monks – in which Aphrahat’s writing seeps with Scripture-references like a dead skunk smells like skunk – he writes, in the 14th paragraph, the following (translated into English from Syriac): “Remember the warning that the apostle [St. Paul in Ephesians 4:30] gives us: ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit whereby ye have been sealed unto the day of redemption.’ For from baptism do we receive the Spirit of Christ. For in that hour in which the priests invoke the Spirit, the heavens open and it descends and moves upon the waters [cf. Gen. 1:2]. And those that are baptized are clothed in it. For the Spirit stays aloof from all that are born of the flesh, until they come to the new birth by water, and then they receive the Holy Spirit. For in the first birth they are born with an animal soul which is created within man and is not thereafter subject to death, as he said, ‘Adam became a living soul.’ [Cf. Gen. 2:7] But in the second birth, that through baptism, they received the Holy Spirit from a particle of the Godhead, and it is not again subject to death.”)