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James of Nisibis: Ancient Quester for the Lost Ark

The beginnings of Syriac Christianity are mostly lost in the mists of time, but among the first figures to emerge from the fog is St. James of Nisibis, whose feast is July 15 on the Roman calendar. James was a renowned ascetic who spent his youth living a severe regimen in the mountains of Kurdistan. By popular demand he was summoned to become the first (or second) bishop of Nisibis, in northeastern Mesopotamia, and he served during a period of great cultural change, from 309 until his death in 338. Among his notable accomplishments was the spiritual formation of St. Ephrem, whom James ordained a deacon. James took part in in the Council of Nicaea in 325; and, according to one history, he later distinguished himself by raising a prayer for the death of Arius, the arch-heretic — a prayer that was rather suddenly fulfilled. The Christians of Nisibis also credit James’s supplication for their protection against the advances of the Persian emperor Shapur II. For this last accomplishment he was called the “Moses of Mesopotamia.” He is among the most beloved saints of the churches of the Syriac and Armenian traditions.

The local Church saw tremendous growth under James’s leadership; and he accommodated it by establishing an excellent catechetical school and building a great basilica, whose ruins survived into modern times. It is said that he led the first Christian expedition in search of Noah’s ark, setting the long-ago precedent for very recent newsmakers. James never reached the summit of Mount Ararat; he was too old to finish the climb; but legend has it that an angel retrieved him a piece of the ark as a consolation prize.

The Syriac Fathers are too much neglected in the West. We have a duty to remedy our ignorance, if we’re to be truly catholic. Of course, there are books aplenty to help us in this pleasant task. Hubertus Drobner’s massive manual of patrology — which is due out in English any day now — includes a respectable section on the Syriac Fathers. Jesuit Father Robert Murray’s Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition is pricey, but worth it. An affordable and accessible introduction is Sebastian Brock’s Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life.