Abstracts

Daniel Becerra, Duke University

Title: Narsai and the Ascetic Self

Abstract: In recent years, several studies—not least those by Catherine Chin, Brian Matz, and Kuriakose Valavanolickal—have explored the relationship of biblical exegesis and ascetic formation in late ancient Christianity. Such works tend to highlight the ways in which the act of interpretation both presupposed and contributed to the formation of ascetic subjects (broadly construed). Building upon this body of scholarship, and limiting my analysis to Narsai’s memre on the Parable of the Ten Virgins, this paper seeks to explore the question: In what ways does Narsai frame interpretation of the parable as an ascetic event and how does he conceptualize the ascetic subjectivity that results from this event? I will argue that Narsai’s memre portrays biblical exegesis as a collaborative ascetic endeavor, involving multiple actors—both human and non-human—and seeks to facilitate the formation of a collective (rather than individualized) ascetic self.

 

Adam Becker, New York University

Title: Names in Fervent Water: Ritual and the Mediating Power of the Divine Name in Narsai’s Memre

Abstract: This paper will examine the role of the divine name in Narsai’s works, in particular the function it has according to Narsai in the baptismal ritual. Narsai includes in his account of the baptismal ritual a description of the officiating priest introducing the ineffable name of God, which in turn is an effective agent in the ritual. Narsai’s understanding of the divine name will be related to his theology of names and the heightened concerns about materiality and vision we find attested in his discussions of divine revelation. By the end I will argue that for Narsai the divine name serves to resolve a paradox constituted by the problem of mediation in ritual.

 

Jeremy Brown, The Catholic University of America

Title: SYMBOLS AND SERPENTS: HOMILIES BY NARSAI AND JACOB OF SERUGH ON THE BRONZE SERPENT

Abstract: In this paper, I will examine both Narsai and Jacob of Sarug’s homilies on the bronze serpent described in Numbers 21 and then referenced by Jesus in John 3. I will analyze each homily individually and consider the themes, devices, and vocabulary employed by the authors. Finally, I will compare these homilies in order to better understand how different literary influences and theological convictions manifested themselves in the writings of these authors.

The homilies on the bronze serpent provide a rare opportunity to analyze Narsai’s exegetical method when the constraints of historical context have relaxed because of Jesus’ use of the account in John 3. Thus, these homilies highlight the similarities between the authors. Whether interpreting according to historical context or symbolically, Narsai and Jacob of Sarug utilize common themes and vocabulary throughout the homilies on the bronze serpent. This seems to indicate the influence of both a common literary tradition and a similar educational experience in Edessa. These homilies demonstrate that both authors share a great deal in common when a passage such as this one allows the Antiochene exegete to interpret symbolically. However, these two writers differ in a few key areas.

One of the key differences is their position in the Christological debates. Narsai clearly associates himself with the Dyophysites, while Jacob of Sarug comes to be associated with the Miaphysites. However, only Narsai blatantly states his position in the homily on the bronze serpent. Another difference is their exegetical method. The Antiochene exegetical method is demonstrated by Narsai’s reluctance to interpret the bronze serpent as a symbol for Christ. In contrast, Jacob of Sarug begins his homily by declaring that the bronze serpent is a symbol for Christ. A final difference is the tone, intended audience, and intended usage of the homilies. Jacob of Sarug adopts a pastoral approach in contrast to Narsai’s more educational and philosophical approach.

Despite their differing Christological and interpretive positions, the similarities between Narsai and Jacob of Sarug outnumber their differences in these homilies. Their shared literary background and training from the School of Edessa is revealed thanks to the reference to the bronze serpent in John 3. The authors utilize shared themes, vocabulary, and interpretations as both Narsai and Jacob of Sarug are free to interpret both historically and symbolically. The Homilies on the Bronze Serpent provide a valuable opportunity to recognize the exegetical tendencies shared between Narsai and Jacob of Sarug.

 

Dmitrij F. Bumazhnov, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (bumazhnov@gmx.net)

Title: Who are the opponents of Narsai in the memra on the apostles Peter and Paul?

Abstract: In the second part of his memra on the apostles Peter and Paul Narsai delivers prolonged polemics against an unknown group of Christians whose most important mark seems to be their rejection of the apostle Paul and his teaching. Paul Krüger, who provided a German translation of the memra in 1958, suggested that Narsai’s opponents had been Christians with a strong Jewish-Christian background. A close reading of the text shows, however, that Krüger overlooks some important details in the presentation of the group in question. Does his identification hold true despite these misinterpretations? In the paper, I will try to argue whether or not Krüger was right.

 

Jeff Childers, Abilene Christian University

Title: In Search of Jesus: Performative Christology in Narsai’s Memre on Baptism

Abstract: As a complementary pair of expositions on Christian initiation, Narsai’s memre On Baptism (22/39) and On the Mysteries of the Church and on Baptism (21/38) have attracted considerable scholarly attention. These homilies provide crucial evidence for understanding early Christian baptismal traditions, attesting to practices that distinguish early Syrian baptism as possibly more primitive than its contemporary western parallels. Attention has focused mainly on the components and sequence of the rite, especially the prebaptismal anointing; to a lesser degree on Narsai’s rich imagery. Recent research has called into question the presumption that Narsai’s presentation is largely derivative, i.e. copied from Theodore of Mopsuestia. This paper builds on past research to pursue a theological question: What Christology funds Narsai’s presentation of baptism in these memre? Christian baptism traditionally bears strong christological and ecclesiological connections; furthermore, as a persecuted dyophysite theologian and churchman, Narsai’s christological commitments normally run close to the surface. Yet as more than one scholar has noted, Narsai’s christology in these memre might be judged “weak.” By attending to the depth and dynamics of Narsai’s imagery and certain performative elements in his presentation of baptismal practice, this paper will attempt to elucidate the Christology embedded in Narsai’s memre on baptism.

 

Sofia Fomicheva, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany (sofia.fomicheva@mail.uni-goettingen.de)

Title: Mar Narsai’s Anti-Jewish Polemics: between Tradition and Innovation

Abstract: This paper explores Narsai’s anti-Jewish polemics in his Memre “Against the Jews”, “On Jonah”, “On Nativity” and other works. There are two sides in his attitude towards the Jews: a traditional anti-Jewish argumentation and a rather innovative one. For example, Syrian theologian speaks of Christians and Jews as belonging to one group. Narsai calls himself a co-heir (bar yartūṯā) of the Jewish people. Narsai uses in his works a number of terms, namely, bat qālā, yaṣrā, syāg nāmūsā whose Hebrew equivalents (bat qôl, yēṣer, syāg ltôrā) have had a long history within Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic literature. He uses also one exegetical method that seems to be similar to Jewish exegetical methodṭārîqôn. Nicolas Séd and Adam Becker focused on some analogies between Narsai’s terms and their equivalents in the Rabbinic literature. In the paper, I will try to argue, whether or not the usage of concepts with Jewish background as well as Narsai’s peculiar attitude to the Jews could reflect his dependence on some Jewish/Christian-Jewish traditions.

 

Philip Forness, Goethe University, Frankfurt

Title: The Construction of Metrical Poetry in the Homilies of Narsai and Jacob of Serugh

Abstract: The production of an extensive corpus of homiletical literature stands as one of the great cultural achievements of the Syriac churches during the fifth and sixth centuries. The metrical qualities of these sermons emphasize their high literary style. Scholarship on Syriac poetry has overcome the dismal reviews it received in the nineteenth century. Yet studies dedicated to Syriac poetry as such—from its forms to its effects on narrative and interpretation—remain slim. This presentation seeks to address a foundational question about a particular meter in order to address broader questions about the translation and interpretation of Syriac metrical homilies.

The homilies of Narsai and his younger contemporary Jacob of Serugh make extensive use of a common meter. Narsai uses twelve-syllable couplets divided into three four-syllable feet per line (4 + 4 + 4 / 4 + 4 + 4) in sixty-nine of his eighty-one extant homilies. Jacob uses this same meter in nearly all of his over four hundred extant homilies. Twelve-syllable couplets, which became a standard meter in Syriac literature and liturgy, seems to appear first with these authors. An analysis of their sermons thus reveals a form of Syriac poetry in its initial stages.

This presentation compares Narsai’s and Jacob’s  construction of twelve-syllable couplets. I have chosen ten homilies from each author to identify shared and distinctive features. The comparison proceeds through several metrical units observable within their poetry. For each metrical unit, I briefly identify the formal features of the poetry and then explore at length their relevance for questions of translation and interpretation. I begin by investigating their use of the metrical foot and individual lines as distinct units of meaning. Here the similarities suggest a common tradition or training. Yet Narsai and Jacob take different approaches to understanding the distinctiveness of each line within the couplet. Here the self-imposed constraints of their approach to this meter allow different possibilities of expression and interpretation.

 

Kelli Gibson, Assistant Professor, Abilene Christian University (keb00c@acu.edu)

Title: Narsai’s Memra for the Feast of the Cross: An Early Syriac Apologia Crucis

Abstract: This paper argues that Narsai’s memra “On the Feast of the Discovery of the Holy Cross” transforms a recently established feast day into an occasion for the apologetic defense of the cross and crucifixion. The memra is thus an early exemplar of a tradition of cross-themed apologetics associated with the Feast of the Cross in Syriac-speaking churches, both East and West. The memra is comprised of three sections: a theological exposition on the place of the cross and crucifixion in the divine economy (vv. 1-122); an extended catena of the types of the cross found in nature and scripture (vv. 123-209); a more loosely organized section that defends the veneration of the cross against accusations of idolatry, alludes briefly to Constantine and Helena, and exhorts Christians to confess unanimously the saving sign of the cross (vv. 210-294). The memra illuminates Narsai’s social, theological, and polemical context. Thematic similarities between this homily and Athanasius of Alexandria’s Contra Gentes-De Incarnatione raise intriguing questions about the theological traditions that accompanied the spread of this popular feast. In the heyday of florilegia and catena production, Narsai compiles the earliest extensive catena of types of the cross in Syriac literature. While Narsai’s memra almost certainly influenced the East Syrian liturgical tradition, his catena also has marked similarities to those found in later West Syrian memre for the Feast of the Cross. Equally notable is the predominantly polemical content of this and later homilies for the Feast of the Cross. Narsai’s commemoration of the discovery of the cross is above all a celebration of the victory of Christ over death and of the Christian faith over rival religions. In a sociologically resonant passage, Narsai vigorously defends the veneration of the cross from accusations of idolatry. As far as one can tell from the literature that survives, such accusations were rarely levelled in Byzantium prior to the early seventh century, but in Narsai’s Persian context opponents were perhaps all too eager to call out apparent Christian hypocrisy. As an apologia crucis, Narsai’s memra for the Feast of the Cross displays the broad brush-strokes of a shared apologetic tradition that later writers appropriated for their own contexts.

 

Kristian S. Heal, Brigham Young University

Title: Narsai’s Proems: A Comparative Poetics

Abstract: TBD

 

Robert Kitchen, Minister (Retired), Knox-Metropolitan United Church, Regina, Saskatchewan

Title: The Ascetic Narsai: Ascetical and Monastic Practice and Theology in the Mēmrē of Narsai

Abstract: Narsai’s mēmrē explore a wide range of topics – Biblical stories and parables, nearly equally divided between Old and New Testament, liturgical celebrations, ecclesiological definitions, the theology of the sacraments, and the major events of Christian theology.  Seldom does he bring to the fore the ascetical discipline undergirding the Christian life, but it is present in a minor key in most mēmrē.

Four mēmrē will provide the foundation of this exploration of Narsai’s perception and interpretation of asceticism: No. 13 “On Supplication and Fasting”; No. 19 “On Works”; No. 50 “On Humility”; and No. 77 “On the Three Children.”  Several other mēmrē will offer shorter depictions of Narsai’s ascetical theology.

Asceticism has had an enduring legacy in Syriac Christianity, but its most widely known and notorious aspects feature severe physical deprivation and abuse.  The corpus of writings by Narsai, utilized for education and worship, rarely mentions such extreme asceticism.  Instead, he concentrates on prayer and fasting, obedience and humility, from which not only monks, but laity as well can be inspired and disciplined to practice and develop.

Narsai’s writings were composed during the early development of monasticism in the Church of the East, so in addition to his practical and theological understanding of asceticism, he witnesses to the status of asceticism and monasticism at the end of the fifth-century Persian Christianity.  Such references will be noted and placed into the context of what is known of Church of the East asceticism during this period, particularly with reference to the Persian Martyr Acts.

 

Craig Morrison, The Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, Italy (craigmorrison58@biblico.it)

Title: Narsai’s Understanding of the Human Person

Abstract: Narsai’s biblical homilies, which focus more on the human person than on the mystery of God, challenge the listener to greater self-awareness through authentic discernment. The person is “the image of the creator”, “the image of Adam” or simply “the image” (borrowing language from Gen 1:27). That “image,” Narsai insists, is rational and terms such as “mind” and “thoughts” are omnipresent in his writings. The mind has an inclination toward jealousy, lust, and other vices, but these inclinations can be bridled by human discernment, the “charioteer” of human nature. Thus the acumen of the person’s mind is critically important for the human soul, which is a treasury of discernment. When traps and snares blind discernment with a false outward appearance  of vain glory , then human appetites run wild in the human heart. Snared by carnal desire, David confesses that he failed to discern because iniquity blinded him from discernment. The wandering Israelites were bitten by serpents because they failed to discern that God was protecting them in the desert. The prodigal son wonders how he lost his ability to discern. Other biblical figures, such as Enoch and Elijah, become “guides for human nature” who can lead the person to authentic discernment. Narsai even describes his own biblical interpretation as an act of discernment . This paper will trace how Narsai’s language for discernment functions as a vehicle for understanding the nature of the human person.

 

Ellen Muehlberger, University of Michigan

Title: Extraordinary Conceptions: Insemination and Theories of Reproduction in Narsai’s Thought

Abstract: In the text given the title On the Symbols of Church and Baptism (Macomber 38, Mingana I:341-56), Narsai memorably described the ritual of baptism with the terms of human sexual reproduction: the priest in his work casts seed on the womb of the baptismal water to engender a new child, namely the baptized Christian. It can be tempting to read this scene with through the lens frequently adopted for metered texts in Syriac, namely, to consider it a metaphorical description, the distribution of the priest’s seed a symbol pointing to the significance, but not the reality, of the mechanism of baptism. And, indeed, reading for symbolism in religious texts can be fruitful for scholars, but it often suspends analytical engagement rather than encouraging it, as judgments about the poetic nature of claims can remove them from physical, theological, or ontological consequence. This is especially likely to happen if the claim identified as a symbol seems to the reader incongruous with the reality it is used to describe. Most modern readers would be amused or taken aback by the image of the priest inseminating the baptismal font to father a new Christian. Yet Narsai had an extensive array of theories of sacred insemination, and my paper will consider them, together with this scene, as components of a system of thought. Various agents—angels, John the Baptist, and yes, priests—work by means of seed, their contributions engendering new people, new situations, and new ritual states. I will consider these extraordinary conceptions alongside Narsai’s ideas about the conception of Christ, to develop an analysis of his theories of reproduction. In this, I expect to be in conversation with scholarship about Narsai generally, but also with work on late ancient Christology and the history of medicine more specifically.

 

Eva Rodrigo, PhD Candidate, Universidad Eclesiástica San Dámaso

Title: Painting Metaphors as a Means of Theological Expression in Narsai

Abstract: Following the well-known “clothing metaphors” of Ephrem’s writings, which are so versatile and fruitful for his theological thought, I intend to analyze the “painting metaphors” used by the other “Harp of the Spirit”, Narsai of Nisibis. He employed these metaphors to understand God, creation, the human person, sin, and the Incarnation, and they allowed him to plumb the depths of these theological mysteries.

 

Colby Scott, PhD Candidate, The Catholic University of America

Title: Rhythm and Reproof: A Case Study of Rhythmic Figures in Narsai’s Heptasyllabic Homily on Reproof

Abstract:

Like many Syriac authors, Narsai (d. ca. 503) was a poet-preacher and composer of numerous (300+) isosyllabic Verse Homilies (mēmrē).  Although the majority of the 81 surviving mēmrē attributed to Narsai are dodecasyllabic verse (4/4/4 + 4/4/4), twelve mēmrē survive in heptasyllabic verse (7+7).  This paper is a case study of a few common rhythmic features in Narsai’s heptasyllabic Verse Homily on Reproof, Appropriate for Fasting and Supplication (mēmrā 15).

Even though the verse mēmrā is one of the most common genres in Syriac literature, prosodic analysis in modern academic literature has usually been content to simply note the syllabic meter while passing on to other pressing matters (Carl Griffin’s work on Cyrillona is one notable exception).  Likewise, many translations obscure or ignore the rhythms inherent in this vast body of literature.  This paper focuses on rhythm analysis as a means of improving translation and cultivating an appreciation of Narsai’s poetics.

A discussion of poetic rhythm cannot simply be reduced to metric analysis.  For, in addition to the somewhat regular, physically controlled, sequence of pulsations that constitute meter, rhythm is also experienced through regions of increasing and decreasing semantic tension (cf. Derek Attridge and Richard D. Cureton).  Poetic rhythm is “multidimensional” in that low-level movements (e.g. stress prominence within intonational units) are themselves part of larger movements (e.g. semantic prominence within phrasal units) and these movements are themselves part of even larger text level movements.

While remaining aware of rhythm’s multidimensionality, this paper focuses on mid-level (and thus readily translatable) rhythmic features.  Specifically, Narsai’s sermon consistently arranges its 7+7 syllable lines into stanza-like pairs, which form a semantic and rhythmic unit.  These units are examined in terms of phrasal scansion, where rhythm is understood as periodic movement away from a point of departure (anticipation) toward a point of arrival (resolution) and departure and arrival themselves are frequently sustained through various modes of extension.  In this homily, the quasi-stanzaic structure is rhythmically reinforced through the regular placement of local departure at the start of each 7+7 / 7+7 unit.  Nevertheless, the sermon’s rhythmic regularity avoids monotony by varying the length and type of extension.

Within these “stanzaic” groups, there is a strong tendency for information flow to be organized around strings of three to five nouns in genitive or appositive relationship.  Through somewhat regular and periodic placement of these noun-strings, the rhythm and coherence of the stanza is heightened.  Moreover, these noun strings are particularly striking in their frequent avoidance of attributive adjectives through the use of abstract nouns (-ūtā) in construct and substantive adjectives in apposition.

The paper concludes by anticipating further study into the ways the “stanzaic” level movements contribute to the text’s larger movements and themes.

 

Ute Possekel, Harvard Divinity School

Title: The Baptism of Jesus in the Theology of Narsai

Abstract: Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is one of the key moments in the Gospel narratives. It is commemorated by the churches in the East at the feast of Epiphany, celebrated on 6 January. Consequently, this pericope – of vital importance for a formulation of christological doctrine as well as for the understanding of Christian baptism – is often addressed in sermons preached at Epiphany, but it is discussed also in treatises on baptism and elsewhere. Narsai develops the topic at length in his ‘Memra on the Epiphany’ (ed. McLeod, PO 40.1), but touches upon it also in other memre.

This paper will present an analysis and contextualization of Narsai’s understanding of the baptism of Jesus and its implications for his theology of Christian baptism. After a detailed exposition of Narsai’s thought on the subject, the paper will explore both antecedents (especially in the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia) and the reception of Narsai’s understanding of Jesus’ baptism at the School of Nisibis among the next generation of teachers (focusing on Thomas of Edessa).

 

Erin Walsh, PhD Candidate, Duke University

Title: ‘How the Weak Rib prevailed against the might of Demons!’: Female Biblical Figures in Narsai’s Poetry

Abstract: Narsai’s scathing rebuke of Eve in his memra, “On the Reproof of Eve’s Daughters and the Tricks and Devices They Perform,” paints a grim picture of human sexuality and the enduring strife between men and women.[1] Employing tropes of anti-feminist rhetoric, Narsai draws a strong connection between human depravity and the moral failing of Eve. Narsai scrutinizes Eve’s use of language, and by extension he attempts to delineate the various guises and forms of temptation. Given the paucity of memre dedicated to female biblical characters and related themes, Narsai’s views on women have been assessed largely on the basis of this single published memra. While authors such as Ephrem and Jacob of Serugh have been frequently studied with an eye to their rendering of female biblical characters and themes, Narsai has not received such attention. What vision of female sanctity does Narsai offer? Are there links between his depiction of Eve and other memre that feature women characters in a positive light?

Previously unpublished and untranslated, Narsai’s memra, “On the Canaanite Woman,” stands out among his larger body of work for its sustained treatment of a single female New Testament figure. Narsai crafts this unnamed female into a model of religious piety and zeal for all Christians to emulate. There are deep resonances between this memra and “On the Reproof of Eve’s Daughters” on the level of lexical and thematic links.  Serving as an “antitype” to Eve, the Canaanite Woman is depicted through a similar vocabulary of impulses and internal promptings. Both women are noted for their use of language, but the Canaanite Woman is extolled for her discernment and spiritual acuity. Through the addition of speech and extended monologue, Narsai creates a portrait of psychological and emotional depth.

In the concluding lines of his memra “On the Canaanite Woman,” Narsai refers to her as the “Weak Rib” who defeated the strength of Satan and his followers. This line recalls the creation of Eve and invites the listener to hear the Canaanite Woman’s story through the lens of the Genesis account.  The larger narrative frame of the memra reinforces the connection between the Canaanite Woman’s encounter with Jesus and the universal sinful condition. By attempting to trace themes across Narsai’s memre, I distinguish between vices (and virtues) that are distinctive to the female sex and those which are attributed to men and women alike. My paper begins to sketch a fuller picture of how gender and sexuality function in Narsai’s memre through comparing his treatment of Eve, the Canaanite Woman, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. As a result larger questions of Narsai’s theological anthropology and theory of virtue come to the fore.

[1] C. Molenberg, “Narsai’s Memra on the Reproof of Eve’s Daughters and the Tricks and Devices They Perform.” Le Muséon 106 (1993): 65-87.

 

James E. Walters, Assistant Professor, Rochester College

Title: “Where Soul Meets Body: Bodily Sensation and the Sleep of the Soul in Aphrahat and Narsai”

Abstract: It has been noted that the concept of the “sleep of the soul” appears in the works of both Aphrahat and Narsai (Aph., Dem. 6, 8; Narsai, Memra 66). However, the previous treatments of this topic remain sparse and cursory, and they fail to contextualize this issue within the broader context of the soul-body problem in late antiquity. In this article, I will provide a brief comparison of Aphrahat’s and Narsai’s conceptions of the relationship between the soul and the body and situate their views within a broader landscape the soul-body debate in late antiquity, including Christian, Jewish and Greco-Roman sources. In so doing, I will argue that both Aphrahat and Narsai are more aware of contemporary philosophical debates than previously recognized.