Thursday, May 19, 2011


Joëlle Beaucamp, Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet, Christian Julien Robin (ed.), Juifs et chrétiens en Arabie aux Ve et VIe siècles: regards croisés sur les sources: [actes du colloque de novembre 2008]. Monographies, 32. Paris: Association des amis du Centre d'histoire et civilisation de Byzance, 2010. Pp. 302. ISBN 9782916716237. €30.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Hagith Sivan, The University of Kansas (

Version at BMCR home site

Far away from the centers of Roman and Sasanid power and from the raging doctrinal debates of early sixth century, the historian of late antiquity runs into an astonishing phenomenon. In a bizarre twist of Byzantine-Persian rivalry and of post-Chalcedonian controversies, an unforeseen light is shed on the emergence of southern Arabia as contested political, commercial and theological arena. The region, Himyar (roughly present day Yemen), was strategically critical to the trading interests of both empires. The major local players were the rulers of Himyar and their neighbors across the Red Sea, the rulers of Axum (present day Ethiopia). In the late fourth century the Himyarite ruling house apparently converted to Judaism. A century later the Axumites annexed Himyar to their kingdom. In 522, when the chronology of Himyarite events suddenly acquires precision, prince Yusuf revolted again the Axumite overlords of Himyar. His first priority was to secure the coastal region. In the course of his operations he besieged the town of Najran, setting on fire its church and its clergy (523). The Axumite king, Caleb, invading Himyar, defeated Yusuf and executed the Jewish inhabitants of the kingdom.

The events of 522-523 received extraordinary coverage. We have sources in Syriac, Greek, Geez, Sabean, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Hebrew, Aramaic, some with Chalcedonian bias, others reflecting the views of miaphysites, yet more with a Nestorian twist. Virtually all the sources display one striking feature in common, namely anti-Judaism.

English readers have had opportunities for familiarizing themselves with Himyarite events largely through the efforts of Irfan Shahîd. In addition, K. A. Kitchen has published a Bibliographical Catalogue of Texts in the series Documents for Ancient Arabia.

In the last two decades French scholarship on the south Arabian peninsula in general and on Yemen in particular has undergone a veritable renaissance. A scholarly team headed by the editors of the volume under review created a series devoted to the editing, commentary, and analysis of major sources relating to the Najran episode. The first volume dealt with the text known as "The Martyrdom of Saint Arethas and his Companions," and appeared in 2007. The second, based on a 2008 conference, is a collection of articles, under review here, designed to highlight further research on the sources. Two more are in preparation. Both Beaucamp and Robin have already published important studies elsewhere. In 2009 alone two other related books appeared, one by Iwona Gajda on the kingdom of Himyar in its monotheistic phase, the other a volume of essays edited by Robin and Jeremie Schiettecatte on the historicity of the narrative sources in light of Axumite and Himyarite inscriptions.

The longest article in the collection here reviewed, by Robin, covers familiar territory by way of an effective overview of the politics, economy, and institutions of Najran in the early sixth century, including generous citations of primary sources, a chronological table, two maps and photos. The last part of the article examines toponyms, anthroponyms, and ethnonyms of a single source, the so-called Martyrdom of Azqir. Comparing these with epigraphical data, Robin concludes that the original version of the text was edited in Najran in Arabic at a "relatively late date" (namely the 8th century at the earliest), marking the elevation of Arabic to the status of a literary language.

Schiettecatte provides an archaeological survey of the site ultimately known as Najran from the middle of the first millennium BCE down to the seventh century, noting its toponymical mutations, its habitat, and the town's rise to prominence in the third century CE. The presence of a layer of ashes suggests the destruction of the town in the fourth century. The near total absence of artifacts that are ordinarily associated with the presence of a Christian community is especially intriguing in light of ample references to churches in the literary sources.

Gajda examines the nature of Himyarite monotheism in late antiquity which, as she claims, was not Jewish but rather inspired by Judaism. Nor did this Himyarite version of monotheism achieve the status of state religion. The conclusion rests primarily on argumentum ex silentio, namely the absence of references in Jewish sources to Judaism as Himyar's official religion, and the absence of explicit references in royal inscriptions to Jewish kings, with the exception of Yusuf. The precise nature of this south Arabian form of monotheism, deemed Jewish by most scholars, may never be resolved, not the least since little is relatively known of the Jewish community itself and of the manner in which Judaism was practiced by the Himyarites after the conversion of their royal house.

David Taylor undertakes a reexamination of the Syriac texts relating to Najran through stylistic comparisons. As he correctly points out, the Syriac Himyarite texts are all literary texts that have been remolded and reworked according to editorial concerns, as well as historiographical, theological, hagiographical, and stylistic considerations. He also provides a stemma that highlights both a lack of common authorship and literary inter-dependence. Since the main sources for the events at Najran are in Syriac, Taylor's assessment provides a vital point of departure for future scholarship on the vexed question of authorship, authenticity, and reliability.

Briquel-Chatonnet focuses on the two versions of the so-called First Letter of Symeon of Bet-Arsam, a short one preserved in Syriac histories and chronicles, and a longer one edited by Guidi, through an examination of its textual transmission and doctrinal components. That both versions underwent successive editorials seems evident from a comparison of their common themes and of their differences. With regards to the provenance of the manuscripts she discerns two traditions, "occidental" and "oriental," the latter largely reproducing Guidi's text with few yet significant differences, such as the attribution of the installation of a Jewish king over Himyar to Persia as an anti-Roman act. Based on the new dating of the Martyrdom of Aretas to the second half of Justinian's reign, she concludes that the longer version of Symeon's letter on which the Martyrdom depends is the closest in time to the events narrated. Throughout, both versions reflect a miaphysite bias as though composed as an apology.

Marina Detoraki, who edited and annotated an edition of the Martyrdom of Arethas, revisits the story's multiple sources. She tabulates episodes that appear in the three major sources relating to the Najran narrative, namely the Martyrdom, the Letter of Simeon of Beth Arsham and the Book of the Himyarites, concluding with the priority of the Letter as the chief source of the Martyrdom's compiler-redactor-narrator. Some differences are ascribed to lost sources which could have been used also by John of Ephesos. The prominence of anti-Nestorian polemics, perhaps somewhat out of place within the context of southern Arabia, reflects the christological concerns of the Greek compiler, while also echoing Syriac sources like those revealed by the second letter of Simeon of Beth Arsham.

Gianfranco Fiaccadori deals with the same martyrdom account, specifically with what he calls its "contextual composition," namely the place and time of the redaction of the Greek original. Generally ascribed to the first half of the sixth century, Firaccadori suggests a Palestinian, or rather Sinaitic compositional milieu based on the Martyrdom's allusions to locations in Palestine and the Sinai.

Joëlle Beaucamp revisits the activities of Justin and Justinian on the Red Sea by way of reassessing Irfan Shahid's contributions to the subject, as well as more recent views on the relationship between Rome and Persia in the sixth century. She concludes that Byzantine presence and interest in the remote shores of the Red Sea was fairly minimal until 531. Turning to a reassessment of the historical value of the Greek version of the Martyrdom of Arethas, where Byzantine intervention becomes a prominent feature of the narrative, Beaucamp attributes such sudden prominence to the author's own bias; in other words, this is a myth rather than reality.

The third section of the collected articles, "development of the tradition," groups articles that deal with Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Islamic sources relating to the Najranite massacre.

Bernard Outtier examines the Armenian and Georgian versions of the Martyrdom of Arethas, suggesting the Palestinian monastery of St Sabas and the 8th century as place and date of the Georgian translation; and positing a Palestinian milieu and the 7th century for the Armenian translation. Both texts reflect a lost Greek original.

Paolo La Spisa discusses the Arabic versions of the Martyrdom and their sources, with more to come upon completion of the edition that he is preparing.

An abstract of a paper delivered by Zeev Rubin is included, in homage to his remarkable scholarship in a career cut short by his death in May 2009. These are brief notes on Islamic traditions relating to Du Nuwas's rise to power, his conversion to Judaism, and several relevant Quranic verses. I can only add my own regret--Zeevic was my undergraduate mentor.

Alessandro Baudi, who edited an Ethiopic version of the Martyrdom of Arethas, revisits the Ethiopic sources of the Najranite story as well as the role of Ethiopia in the events surrounding the aftermath of the massacre. The sources include two long and undated inscriptions and a recently discovered 15th century manuscript enclosing a new Ethiopic version of the Martyrdom that appears more faithful to the Greek text that the other known Ethiopic version, although both hark back to an Arabic vorlage.

Muriel Debié discusses another Ethiopic response to the same events, the Kebra Nagast (Glory, or Dignity, of the Kings [of Ethiopia/Axum]), a 14th century historical romance with apocryphal overtones that extols Ethiopian royalty in general and Caleb, the Ethiopian king who vanquished the Judaized ruler of Himyar, in particular. This fictitious Caleb, as his biblical name indicates, recast his campaigns as a latter day conquest of Canaan, and himself as a reincarnation of the biblical Joshua's loyal companion. Debie tackles the difficult problem of the chronology of the text's various constituents. She reviews the idea of a redactional layer of the 6th or 7th century, based on a much discussed colophon in which the scribe refers to a 13th century translation from Coptic to Arabic of an Alexandrian original, and to a Geez translation a century later. She notes, as Shahid had done, the absence of reference to events beyond the 6th century. The main interest of this text as well as of those produced in southern Arabia lies in their emphasis on the role of the Ethiopian kings, rather than on the post-Chalcedonian context that frames the Greek versions of the same events.

Christelle Jullien points to the appearance of Sasanid rulers known from Syriac hagiography in sources relating to Najran. In this contextthey are depicted as pro-rather than anti-Christian. Michael Lecker follows the vicissitudes of the Christian-Najranite exiles between the early seventh and the early ninth centuries, a fascinating chapter about the formation of a diaspora and the cultivation of its memory of the lost homeland.

Each article is followed by a bibliography. There is no index. For those interested in developments in the margins of the Roman-Byzantine and Sasanid-Persian world on the eve of Islam, the volume provokes reflections. The spread of Judaism as far as southern Arabia, the rivalry between Himyar and Ethiopia, the far-reaching repercussions of the Chalcedonian debates, and the meddling of Byzantium and Persia in affairs along the Red Sea, all suggest that studies limited to the Mediterranean may miss a vibrant world beyond the Levant. Yet, this is not a volume for the uninitiated. It reads like an ongoing exchange among erudites intimately familiar with the intricacies of the evidence who, luckily for them, meet regularly to advance our understanding of a fascinating slice of antiquity.

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