Nisibis in the 5th Century: First Christian University in History

It has been often taught that the first Universities were in Europe, and particularly so when it comes to “Christian” ones. But this must be re-evaluated when considering that there were several centers of learning in Asia centuries before Oxford, Bologna, Paris and others existed. In my blog post The First Universities were in Asia, not Europe, I wrote about places like Taxila, Gundeshapur and Nisibis.

Nisibis, started in 489 A.D. after the closing of a similar center of learning in Edessa, became over the next few centuries a place where not only theological studies were available, but also medicine and philosophy. Nisibis and Edessa are both cities still existing today in the nation of Turkey. Nisibis, now known as Nusaybin, is in the far SE corner of Turkey near the Syrian and Iraqi borders. It no longer has a Christian university or indeed even a Christian community, the last Armenian Christians forced to leave after World War I.

Called by one scholar “the first Christian University in the world” (Mattam 1988:147), and by another “the greatest missionary training school that the continent of Asia has ever had” (Barnes 1900: 82), Nisibis is little known today. It was started by members of the Church of the East in Asia, spreading from first century Edessa on through Nisibis and out into many other parts of Asia. The Church of the East are known not only for their mission ventures in Asia especially over the first 1400 years of Christianity, but also for their scholarship and activities in translation. They set up major centers of learning also in Mt. Izla and Beit Abhe in Mesopotamia, Gundeshapur in Persia, Merv in Central Asia, as well as Nisibis and Edessa. These centers often grew from or were alongside monasteries.

By the sixth century Nisibis had hundreds of students drawn from all over Asia and even Europe. Its curriculum of study developed over time, including lectures on the Old and New Testaments and particularly the Psalms, medical studies including the texts of Galen, and Greek philosophy. Other subjects taught included history, geography, astronomy, and writing and reading. In a primary source document from the sixth century, the Statutes of Nisibis, the subjects taught at Nisibis are not listed in a systematic way as we would find today, but can be deduced from several references throughout. According to this document, students began their studies with a reading of the Psalms, and even to gain admission they would have already learned to read at the village level.

Upon entrance into the university, their subjects included how to read more advanced texts in Syriac and Greek among other languages, and pronounce what they read correctly. This foundation was then built upon with many other subjects as mentioned above. In my own research on Nisibis and other similar institutions, I have looked at the question of what subjects relating to mission training were available. It is not completely clear from the primary sources, but texts by Church of the East Fathers like Ephrem, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and especially Narsai, (perhaps the most famous principal of Nisibis) were studied and included exposition on mission-related content.

The influence of Nisibis extended far beyond its historical and geographical context in far eastern Turkey. At this center of learning/university, students were trained in translating texts. Indeed, it would be Church of the East monastic missionary scholars who would have a key role in translating Greek texts into Syriac, and then from Syriac  into Arabic as commissioned by Abbasid Muslim rulers based in Baghdad , and then later from Arabic into Latin which came to Europe and helped stimulate a wave of passion for learning. One scholar even wonders if Nisibis and places like it in Asia are owed an “unsuspected debt” by Oxford, Cambridge, Paris and other European universities. (Wigram 1909:63) I would agree that they are.

I hope someday to be able to visit the city of Nusaybin. Though there are not even ruins there now, I would love to walk its streets and say a prayer of thanks. Thanks to all those faithful men and women of the Church of the East, all those educators who have left records of their labors, and all those that haven’t. There are so many stories we will never know from places like Nisibis. But we do owe it to them to be able to tell the stories we do have record of, and not continue to live in ignorance of their accomplishments.

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