Patristics


It has been some time since I have presented a translation of my own of a Syriac source here. To be honest, I had allowed my command of Syriac to become rusty through neglect, something I have begun trying to rectify. As part of this effort, I present here a translation of a Syriac scholia, or short selective commentary, on a passage from the book of Genesis. The author is Mar Jacob of Edessa, a prominent and productive Syriac Christian bishop and writer of the seventh century (A.D.). This text, while explicating a passage about Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, is really an examination of freedom of will and the mechanics of human wrong-doing, with the verse in question acting as a jumping-off place, and supporting evidence, for the centrality of human freedom in moral action.

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 Behold! If you do good, I will accept you (Gen. 4:7a): And also, I am accepting of you if you do good. These are an evident indication that God wills the repentance of man, and receives his repentance. And He is longsuffering with him, and gives him also means that call him to this, because He wills his salvation.

But, if you do not do good—upon the door sin is crouching. You are turned towards it and it has mastery over you (Gen. 4:7b): These [words] point out that mastery of the house[1] and freedom of will belong to humans, and that one wills by his own will. One calls to sin that it come upon him and have mastery over his soul. If he does not will it, sin is not able to draw near to him. That is, it crouches upon the door of your mind, like a fierce animal outside of the gate of a house. If you turn towards this by your own will, and open up to it, it enters and has mastery upon you. And if you do not will, it is not able to enter against you.

By means of these you are clearly taught that Satan is not the sower of sin able to compel, or govern with force the rule of the house of the human mind, and sin is not the seed itself of evil. For this Cain was condemned, for he did not come to repentance of these things, though he opened the door to sin by his own will, and it entered and took mastery over him, as God said to him, and he murdered his transgression-less brother, from envy alone.

Mar Jacob of Edessa, Scholia on the Old Testament


[1] That is, mastery of the human body, or perhaps the soul: the exact meaning of the phrase, here literally translated, is a bit ambiguous.

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I have removed to a distance, Benevolent One, I dwelt in the desert
and I was hidden from You, the sweet Master.
I came under the night of life’s worry,
and there I sustained many stings and wounds,
having gone up I bear many blows in my soul,
and I cry out amid the suffering and trouble of my heart:
have mercy, have pity on me the transgressor!
O soul-loving doctor Who alone loves mercy,
Who heals the weak and wounded as a gift,
cure my bruises and wounds!
Drip the oil of Your grace, my God,
and anoint my injuries, wipe out my infections,
form scar tissues and bind up my severed
members, and remove all the scars, Savior,
and heal the whole of me completely as before
when I did not have defilement, when I did not have any bruise,
nor infected injury, nor stain, O my God,
but calm and joy, peace and meekness,
and holy humility, and patience,
the illumination of long-suffering and excellent works,
long-suffering and utterly unconquerable power.
Hence much comfort from tears each day,
hence the exultation of my heart
gushed forth like a spring, flowed everlastingly,
and was a stream dripping honey, and a drink of merriment,
continuously turning in the mouth of my mind.
Hence all health, hence purity,
hence cleansing of my passions and vain thoughts,
hence dispassion was with me like lightening,
and always associated with me. Understand me spiritually,
I who say these things, be not wretched, defiled!
The dispassion produced in me is the unutterable pleasure of communion,
and boundless desire for the wedding feast, for union full of God,
partaking of which I also became dispassionate,
I was burned up with pleasure, blazing with desire for it,
and I shared in the light, yes, I became light,
higher than all passion, outside all wickedness.
For passion does not touch the light of dispassion,
just as the shadow or darkness of night cannot touch the sun.
And so having become such, and being such a kind,
I was relaxed, Master, as I took confidence in myself.
I was dragged down by worry about perceptible matters,
I fell down, wretched, to the concern of life’s problems,
and I become cold like black iron,
and lying around for a long time I took on rust.
Because of this I shout to You asking to purified anew,
Benevolent One, and to be lifted up to the first
beauty, and to enjoy fully Your light
now and always unto all ages. Amen.

St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), Hymn 46. Trans. Daniel Griggs

The following is an excerpt from a commentary on the Song of Songs by the tenth century Armenian scholar Gregory of Narek (945?-1003). Like many medieval Christian exegetes in both Eastern and Western traditions, Gregory’s exegesis tends to be allegorical: he interprets the text through a system of correspondences between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ meanings. Like many medieval exegetes, for Gregory this ‘allegorical’ method operates alongside a view of Scripture and Scriptural truth that allows for and even demands multiple perspectives, valuations, and interpretations of the same text. As he notes in this brief excerpt, ‘full understanding of the sacred Scriptures’ is ultimately unattainable, given their divine inspiration: just as God is ultimately uncircumscribable and undefinable, the Scriptures He has revealed ultimately elude a final pinning down. Their truth unfolds continuously through the process of reading, meditation, practice, and exegesis.

This does not mean, for Gregory or any other exegetes, that commentary should simply proceed as the exegete wishes (though allegorical interpretations can sometimes seem as such). Rather, Gregory and others operated within particular traditions and tendencies of interpretation, building upon the work and meditation of others, often reproducing or expanding upon previously established sets of correspondences and interpretations. For instance, in this excerpt and throughout his commentary on the Song of Songs, Gregory makes use of the Patristic-era theologian and exegete Gregory of Nyssa. He is also drawing upon an old, and exceedingly broad, tradition of allegorically and typologically reading the Song of Songs. In Gregory of Narek’s reading, the Beloved is the human soul, while the Lover (in the Armenian translation of the Scriptures, the Nephew) is Christ. It is from this basic correspondence—one of several possible allegorical or typological correspondences commonly encountered in medieval exegetes—that the rest of his interpretions proceed.

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5.6 I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word: See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of His knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that which I had received when I opened.

For that reason she says, My Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen than He at once withdrew, swift as the lightning. And my soul went out with his word; that is, ‘having obtained a small glimmering of His words my soul left me and pursued His words.’ To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had obtained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain. By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person yearns after the maning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.

Gregory of Narek, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 148-9.

One can never be faulted who speaks of Love and Beauty,
For however far his speaking goes, it will never reach the end.
A child speaks to his parent with love,
While his father listens affectionately to all that he says to him.
And when he hears the questions that are posed to him,
He accepts them just as if someone were speaking of serious things.
Even when he chatters a lot without making clear what he is saying,
He is happier with his speech than he would be the speech of philosophers.
So I, like the child before his father,
I am going to speak now before God with great love.
Now I am going to speak, and if I say too little- oh, I will not say too little!
For it is easier for love to speak too much, as much as it desires!

Jacob of Serug (d. 521), Homily on the Judgment of Solomon, ll. 37-48, trans. by Stephen A. Kaufman

The following is a translation of two short exegetical texts by Mar Jacob of Edessa, a Syriac Christian bishop, ascetic, and exegete who lived and wrote in the second half of the 600s. The texts are fairly self-explanatory: Mar Jacob is examining the story of Elijah and the ravens, found in 1 Kings 17. Jacob’s approach is two-fold: first, he looks at what was apparently a disputed question about the ‘literal’ or ‘fleshly’ meaning of the passage, namely, whether the food brought by the angels was from the ‘common’, pre-existing creation of God, or whether it was a new creation equivalent to God’s initial act of creation. A similar question was in play concerning the ram that replaces Isaac in the famous mountain-top sacrifice story. If I am remembering correctly, this was a question that occupied Jewish exegetes as well; I am not sure if similar issues show up in Islamic exegesis or not. The second question Mar Jacob is interested in is the ‘typological’ significance of the story, or, as he also phrases it, the spiritual or mystical meaning. If you will, this meaning lies ‘deeper’ in the text, connecting the story to the larger story of Christ. Typology runs throughout Mar Jacob’s exegesis, which of course is not unusual: typology is arguably the uniting theme in ancient and early medieval Christian exegesis, Syriac, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Ge’ez, and so on.

My translation here is more provisional than usual; my Syriac skills are not up to par with my Arabic, at least not yet, and a couple of lines here still leave me stumped as to their exact meaning. As with any text in any language, and exegetical texts particularly, full comprehension only comes through entering into the complex, multifaceted thought-worlds that inform even as short a text as this. I am still very much in the process of exploring those vast late antique and medieval thought-worlds that writers like Mar Jacob helped created and inhabit.

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From the Fifteenth Scholium: On the Ravens Who Brought Sustenance to Elijah the Prophet

The ravens brought sustenance to Elijah the Prophet who was hiding before the Jordan- meat in the evening and bread in the morning. The [following] question precedes spiritual interpretations (ta’uria– from Gk. theoriaruhnita) that are manifest by these words, speaking the literal word on account of these, investigating the ineffable on account of this

which people ask: whether it was a new creation commanded by God, namely, the bringing of sustenance to the Prophet who had fled and was persecuted: or whether it was from the pre-existing and common creation of God, Maker of all that is. And we say: that the bread and the meat, which were brought by the ravens, were from this common creation, created by Him who is creator of all. They were not a new creation that was created, each day, one by one, through a command of God, as is the surmise of [some] men. And these [the meat and bread] were from a man who feared God and the prophet. By the command of God he placed them before the ravens, so that they took them up and transported them to Elijah- in the morning bread made from grains baked and toasted by fire; and in the evening meat of animals that had been boiled with fire. These ravens were winged ceatures that ate meat, but were servants due to the command of God, who is powerful over all.  And they were not angels, as [some people] say foolishly. And the story is thus [known] from history.

Demonstration of the Depicted Likeness of the Ravens, the Bread, and the Meat Brought to the Prophet:

There is also spiritual significance that comes from these typological words. The meat that in cloudy times and in the evenings was brought to the prophet, is for us an announcement: the action [of bringing the meat] is a type of the sacrifice of animals, that was until then by means of the shadowing darkness of the law obscured, and that was given to the community hidden beyond the physical Jordan. The bread that was by morning given to the prophet hidden beyond the Jordan is depicted for us as a type of the heavenly, divine bread that is quickened in the dawn of the new creation: for the set-apart community of the Messiah, which has crossed over this and the spiritual Jordan. Ravens are impure beasts, yet are ministers [of God] which are appointed as symbols for us: of those priests of the Church of the Messiah, although from the [impure] nations, [are priests] of the Body and Blood the Messiah, a lamb with no spot, no sin: heavenly, vivifying bread. This is the significance of these words.

His jaws, like dishes of incense, emit a fragrance of processed ointments. (Song of Songs 5:13, Armenian version)

This indicates the meticulous, deeply ruminated words of the teaching of vardapets [scholars and teachers of the Armenian Church]. They are guides of the Church, who by the continual, unwearied motion of their jaws sweeten the minds and thoughts of humanity with sweet, processed ointments. The things collected in pure hearts, as in a dish, they spread out before people, neither obscuring the incomprehensible things in great profundity, nor making the mysteries of God too plainly obvious. Instead, they dispense the knowledge of Scripture at an intermediate level of instruction, so that it may neither be despised as something negligible, by being too easily acquired, nor cause despair among those who desire to learn, by its unintelligibility. Rather, with a modest effort, they are able to garner the words of Scripture into their hearts’ store. As animals which graze and ruminate and regurgitate their food, so also do vardapets bring up again the words of the Holy Spirit gathered in their hearts. Regurgitating and ruminating on them, chewing them fine by the unwearying motion of their jaws, they dispense from their mouth the enlightenment of the sacred Scriptures, like processed ointment, into the minds of humanity.

Gregory of Narek, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 154-5.

In secular usage, meditari means, in a general way, to think, to reflect, as does cogitare or considerare; but, more than these, it often implies an affinity with the practical or even moral order. It implies thinking of a thing with the intent to do it; in other words, to prepare oneself for it, to prefigure it in the mind, to desire it, in a way, to do it in advance- briefly, to practice it… To practice a thing by thinking of it, is to fix it in the memory, to learn it. All of these shades of meaning are encountered in the language of the Christians; but they generally use the word in referring to a text. The reality it describes is used on a text, and this, the text par excellence, the Scripture par excellence, is the Bible and its commentaries. Indeed, it is mainly through the intermediary of ancient biblical versions and through the Vulgate that the word (meditation) has been introduced into the Christian vocabulary, particularly into monastic tradition, where it was to continue to retain the new shade of meaning given it by the Bible. There, it is used generally to translate the Hebrew hāgā, and like the latter it means, fundamentally, to learn the Torah and the words of the Sages, while pronouncing them usually in a low tone, in reciting them to oneself, in murmuring them with the mouth. This is what we call “learning by heart,” what ought rather to be called, according to the ancients, “learning by mouth” since the mouth “meditates wisdom”: Os justi meditabitur sapientiam. In certain texts, that will mean only a “murmur” reduced to the minimum, an inner murmur, purely spiritual. But always the original meaning is at least intended: to pronounce the sacred words in order to retain them; both the audible reading and the exercise of memory and reflection which it precedes are involved. To speak, to think, to remember, are the three necessary phases of the same activity.

To express what one is thinking and to repeat it enables one to imprint it on one’s mind. In Christian as well as rabbinical tradition, one cannot meditate anything else but a text, and since this text is the word of God, meditation is the necessary complement, almost the equivalent, of lectio divina… For ancients, to meditate is to read a text and to learn it “by heart” in the fullest sense of this expression, this is, with one’s whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.

Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, pp. 16-17

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