Nisibis, School of

The School of Nisibis was an E.-Syr. institution of learning founded in part by refugees from the School of Edessa after the latter was forcibly closed by the religious and political authorities in 489, because it had become an exegetical circle of dyophysite Christians whose Antiochene theology was no longer welcome in a Roman Empire split by Christological controversy. The School of Nisibis flourished through the early 7th cent., after which time our sources become sparse. Aside from the actual school documents, numerous texts from the period and later refer to members of the Ch. of E., including those who would go on to become important authors, martyrs, bishops, and catholicoi, as studying at the School.

The most important sources for the School of Nisibis are: 1. the two sets of canons, similar to those of a monastery, instituted in 496 and 602, and material deriving from their later ratifications; 2. the last two chapters of the Ecclesiastical History of Barḥadbshabba, which consist of separate lives of Narsai, the first head of the School and its founder along with Barṣawma of Nisibis, and of Abraham of Beth Rabban, its head for several decades in the 6th cent.; and 3. The so-called ‘Cause of the Foundation of the Schools’, attributed possibly to the same Barḥadbshabba.

Study at the school was centered primarily around scripture and its interpretation. The sources refer to different types of teacher: the elementary instructor (mhaggyānā); the reader (maqryānā); and finally the exegete (mpaššqānā), who was the sole occupant of this office and the head of the School. Judging from the different offices of instruction and anecdotes from various texts, students acquired a broad range of learning at the school, from basic literacy to knowledge of the E.-Syr. exegetical tradition, the basics of Aristotelian logic, and the forms of composition and debate. The exegesis of the School was heavily based on the E.-Syr. reception of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), who was treated by many as the exegetical and theological authority. One genre associated with the School and other E.-Syr. schools seems to have been the ‘cause’ (ʿelltā), which was focused primarily on the aetiological discussion of E.-Syr. festival days.

We know little about the actual physical space of the School, for example, where it lay in modern Nusaybin. However, by the mid-6th cent. it was endowed with a local village all the proceeds of which went to it, and baths were built both for the brothers and as a means of revenue. The rules suggest that the School was within the town, but that a social separation between members and local citizens was maintained. Aside from the teaching staff, the School also had a rabbaytā, or steward, who was responsible for both discipline and the day-to-day running of the institution.

The School may have served as a model to other E.-Syr. schools, varieties of which spread in the Sasanian Empire through the 6th cent. This, along with theological controversy surrounding Ḥenana of Adiabene, its head at the turn of the 7th cent., may explain its eventual decline.

    Primary Sources

    • A. H.  Becker, Sources for the Study of the School of Nisibis (2008).
    • F.  Nau, La seconde partie de l’histoire de Barhadbesabba ʿArbaïa (PO 9.5; 1913).
    • A.  Scher, Cause de la fondation des écoles (PO 4.4; 1908).
    • A.  Vööbus, The Statutes of the School of Nisibis (1961).

    Secondary Sources

    • Becker, Fear of God.
    • Vööbus, History of the School of Nisibis.
    • Reinink, ‘Edessa grew dim and Nisibis shone forth’.


How to Cite This Entry

Adam H. Becker, “Nisibis, School of,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Nisibis-School-of.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Adam H. Becker, “Nisibis, School of,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Nisibis-School-of.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Becker, Adam H. “Nisibis, School of.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Nisibis-School-of.

A TEI-XML record with complete metadata is available at https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Nisibis-School-of/tei.

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