The author, who was earliest known as hakkimis artaya ("the Persian sage"), was a subject of Sapor II and was probably of heathen parentage and himself a convert from heathenism. He seems at some time in his life to have assumed name of Jacob, and is so entitled in the colophon to a manuscript of AD 512 which contains twelve of his homilies. Hence he was already by Gennadius of Marseilles (before 496) confused with Jacob, bishop of Nisibis; and the ancient Armenian version of nineteen of the homilies has been published under this latter name. However, the Jacob of Nisibis who attended the council of Nicaea died in 338, and our author being a Persian subject, could not have lived at Nisibis, which became Persian only by Flavian's treaty of 363. That his name was Aphrahas or arhftdh we learn from comparatively late writers -- Elias of Nisibis (11th) and Bar-Hebraeus. George, bishop of the Arabs, writing in AD 714 to a friend who had sent him a series of questions about the Persian sage, confesses ignorance of his name, home and rank, gathers from his homilies that he was a monk, and of high esteem long in the clergy. The fact that in 344 he was selected to draw a circular letter from a council of bishops and other clergy to the churches of Seleucia and Cteiiphon and elsewhere -- included in our collection as homily 14 -- is held by Dr W Wright and others to prove that he was a bishop. According to a marginal note in a 14th century manuscript (B.M. Orient. 1017), he was "bishop Mar Mattai," a famous monastery near Mostil, but it is unlikely that this institution existed so early.
The homilies of Aphraates are intended to form, as Professor Burkitt has shown, "a full and ordered exposition of the Christian faith." The endpoint is that of the Syriac-speaking church, before it was touched by the Arian controversy. Beginning with faith as the foundation, the writer proceeds to build up the structure of doctrine and duty. The first ten homilies, which form one vision completed in 337, are without polemical reference, a mysterious setting-forth of the conflict between Rome and Persia under the imagery of Daniel, the sons of the covenant monks or ascetics, penitents, the resurrection, humility. Those numbered 11-22, written in 344, are almost all directed against the Jews; the subjects are circumcision, passover, the sabbath, persuasion (the encyclical letter referred to above), distinction of meats, the substitution of the Gentiles with the Jews, that Christ is the Son of God, virginity and holiness, whether the Jews have been finally rejected or are yet to be restored, provision for the poor, persecution, death and the last th nes.
The 23rd homily, on the "grape kernel" (Is. lxv. 8), written in 344, forms an appendix on the Messianic fulfilment of prophecy, together with a treatment of the chronology from es lam to Christ. Aphraates impresses a reader favourably by a moral earnestness, his guilelessness, his moderation in controversy, the simplicity of his style and language, his saturation in the ideas and words of Scripture. On the other hand, he is guilty of cumbrous repetition, he lacks precision in argument and is prone to digression, his quotations from Scripture are often inappropriate, and he is greatly influenced by Jewish exegesis. He is particularly fond of arguments about numbers. How he and his surroundings were untouched by the Arian conflict may be judged from the 17th homily -- "that Christ is the Son of God." He argues that, as the name "God" or "Son of God" was given in the Old Testament to men who were worthy, and as God does not withhold from men a share in His attributes--such as sovereignty and fatherhood--it was fitting that Christ who has wrought salvation for mankind should obtain this highest eb me.
From the frequency of his quotations, Aphraates is a specially important witness to the form in which the Gospels as read in the Syriac church in his day; Zahn and others have shown that he -- mainly at least -- used the Dialessaron. Finally, he bears important contemporary witness to the sufferings of the Christian church in Persia under Sapor (Shapur) II so well as the moral evils which had infected the church, to, the sympathy of Persian Christians with the cause of the Roman Empire, to the condition of early monastic institutions, to the practice of the Syriac church in regard to Easter, etc.
Editions by W Wright (London, 1869), and J Parisot (with Latin translation, Paris, 1894); the ancient Armenian version of the homilies edited, translated into Latin, and annotated by Antolli (Rome, 1756). Besides translations of particular homilies by Bickell and EW Budge. Cf. also CJF Sasse, Prolegomena in Aphraatis Sapientis Persae sermones homileticos (Leipzig, 1879); J Forget, Vita et Scriptis Aphraatis (Louvain, 1882); FC Burkitt, Early Eastern Christianity (London, I9o4); J Labourt, Le Christianisme dans l'empire perse (Paris, 1904); J Zahn, Forschungen I; "Aphraates and the Diatessaron," vol. ii. pp. 180-186 of Burkitt's Evangelion Da-Mepharreshe (Cambridge, 1904); articles on "Aphraates and Monasticism," by RH Connolly and Burkitt, Journal of Theological Studies (1905) pp. 522-539.