The best short introduction to Narsai’s life and thought was written by Lucas Van Rompay for the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (eds. Sebastian Brock, Aaron Butts, George Kiraz & Lucas Van Rompay). We are grateful to Gorgias Press and Prof. Van Rompay for permission to reproduce this entry here.
Narsai (d. ca. 500) [Church of the East]
Poet and teacher of exegesis at the School of Edessa and at the School of Nisibis; author of popular verse homilies (memre). The main sources for our knowledge of Narsai’s life are the two works attributed to Barḥadbshabba (the Ecclesiastical History and the ‘Cause of the foundation of the schools’) which, however, differ from each other at several points and are not always reliable.
Born in ʿAyn Dulba, near Maʿalta in northern Mesopotamia (within Persian territory), Narsai was orphaned at the age of sixteen and educated by his uncle, the abbot of the Monastery of Kfar Mari, west of the Tigris. At an unknown date he went to study in the School of Edessa, where he spent many years, first as a student and later as a teacher and director (‘Rabban’). His directorship, which probably did not begin before ca. 450, is said to have lasted twenty years, and came to an end with his expulsion. The date of this expulsion is uncertain; it may have taken place at any time between the death of the Dyophysite bp. Hiba of Edessa, in 457, and the official closure of the School in 489. Vööbus (46) suggests a date some time after 471. Following his expulsion, Narsai was well received in Nisibis by bp. Barṣawma, who persuaded him to found a new school in this city. Even though there was a fall out between Narsai and Barṣawma, which the sources blame on the bp.’s wife, Mamai, and which resulted in Narsai’s temporary absence from Nisibis, he remained the head of the new School until his death (ca. 500). The statutes of the School, dated 496, contain Narsai’s name.
During his years in Edessa, Narsai was exposed to the theology and the biblical interpretation of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), whose works were translated into Syriac in and around the School of Edessa in the first half of the 5th cent. and had a lasting impact on Narsai. In the Ecclesiastical History attributed to Barḥadbshabba, Yaʿqub of Serugh (portrayed here in negative terms) is explicitly mentioned as the one who preceded Narsai in composing memre and triggered Narsai’s response with compositions in this same genre (ed. F. Nau [PO 9.5], 612; ET in Becker 2008, 69). Narsai and Yaʿqub (who also spent some time in Edessa, probably in the 460s) are representative of the two different approaches to Theodore’s legacy: while for Narsai and the later E.-Syr. (Dyophysite) tradition Theodore became the most authoritative theologian and exegete, Yaʿqub and the later (Miaphysite) W.-Syr. tradition rejected him and instead remained closer to Ephrem’s writings (which inspired the E. Syrians as well) and found their main theological authority in Cyril of Alexandria (who sometimes is the explicit target of attack in Narsai’s memre). Even though it is unknown whether Narsai and Yaʿqub ever met in person in Edessa, they share a number of themes, motifs, and approaches, which must reflect their common Edessene background.
Narsai’s memre focus on salvation history as an ongoing learning process for humanity, in which Christ’s incarnation, with his two natures (God and man) preserved intact, is the key moment. Many memre deal with biblical interpretation, either OT or NT; others are devoted to specific liturgical feasts or address topics of theological or moral significance. One memrā (no. 11 in Mingana’s list; ed. F. Martin) is a defense of the three Antiochene teachers, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Nestorius. Narsai’s memre represent an important phase in the formation of E.-Syr. theological and exegetical tradition, which depended heavily on the thought of Theodore, but also was shaped by the E.-Syrians’ ‘agency and creativity in this process of reception’ (Becker, 125). The memre were widely read and used in the later tradition, e.g., by Cath. Timotheos I, who mentions and quotes them in his letters, by Ishoʿdad of Merv, who often relies on them in his own commentaries, and by Emmanuel bar Shahhare, for whom Narsai served as a model (and in whose collection of memre one of Narsai’s memre [no. 81] became entangled).
At present, 81 memre by Narsai are known to exist in mss., gathered together in collections intended for liturgical use. The majority are in the dodecasyllabic meter, while the rest are heptasyllabic. A. Mingana, who provided the first list of all existing memre, edited 47 of them in his 1905 publication. Several memre were edited separately, in particular by Ph. Gignoux (1968), F. G. McLeod (1979), E. P. Siman (1984), and J. Frishman (1992). A 1970 facsimile edition of a recent ms. includes 72 memre (several of them not published elsewhere). While W. F. Macomber in 1973 provided an inventory of all then known mss. containing Narsai’s memre, S. P. Brock’s 2009 ‘Guide to Narsai’s homilies’ gives a convenient synopsis of all existing editions and translations, taking the Mingana list of 81 memre (which was also adopted by Macomber) as its starting point.
Apart from the memre, a number of sugyoto carry Narsai’s name (ten are included in Mingana’s edition, vol. 2, 366-411), but most of these are very likely not his. In addition, a collection of four memre on Joseph (Gen. 37-48) has been attributed to Narsai and published under his name. This attribution cannot be substantiated (see the most recent and thorough analysis in K. S. Heal, Tradition and transformation: Genesis 37 and 39 in early Syriac sources [Ph.D. dissertation, Birmingham; 2008], 33-68, with further references).
A. Becker, Sources for the study of the School of Nisibis (Translated Texts for Historians 50; 2008), 47-72 (ET of Barḥadbshabba, ‘Eccl. Hist.’, on Narsai) and 150-152 (ET of Barḥadbshabba, ‘Cause’, on Narsai).
J. Frishman, The ways and means of the divine economy. An edition, translation and study of six biblical homilies by Narsai (Ph.D. Diss., Leiden; 1992). (Syr. and ET)
Ph. Gignoux, Homélies de Narsaï sur la création (PO 34.3-4; 1968). (Syr. and FT)
Homilies of Mar Narsai. Published by the Patriarchal Press (2 vols.; San Francisco, 1970). (Syr.)
F. McLeod, Narsai’s metrical homilies on the Nativity, Epiphany, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension (PO 40.1; 1979). (Syr. and ET)
A. Mingana, Narsai doctoris Syri homiliae et carmina, I-II (1905). (Syr.; repr. as Selected works of Narsai )
E. Pataq Siman, Narsaï. Cinq homélies sur les paraboles évangéliques (1984). (Syr. and FT).
L. Abramowski, ‘Narsai, Ephräm und Kyrill über Jesu Verlassenheitsruf, Mt. 27,46’, in Crossroad of cultures. Studies in liturgy and patristics in honor of G. Winkler, ed. H.-J. Feulner et al. (OCA 260; 2000), 43-67.
Becker, Fear of God.
J. Frishman, ‘Narsai’s Christology according to his homily “On the Word became flesh” ’, Harp 8/9 (1995/96), 289-303. (= on Hom. no. 81)
W. F. Macomber, ‘The manuscripts of the metrical homilies of Narsai’, OCP 39 (1973), 275-306.
F. McLeod, ‘Narsai’s dependence on Theodore of Mopsuestia’, JCSSS 7 (2007), 18-38.
K. McVey, ‘The Memra of Narsai on the three Nestorian doctors as an example of forensic rhetoric’, in SymSyr III, 87-96. (= on Hom. no. 11)
K. Pinggéra, ‘Das Bild Narsais des Grossen bei Barḥadbšabbā ʿArbāyā. Zum theologischen Profil der „Geschichte der heiligen Väter“ ’, in Inkulturation des Christentums im Sasanidenreich, ed. A. Mustafa and J. Tubach (2007), 245-59.
Vööbus, History of the School of Nisibis, 57-121.