Thursday, February 23, 2012


Robin Darling Young, Monica Blanchard (ed.), To Train His Soul in Books: Syriac Asceticism in Early Christianity. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011. Pp. xix, 215. ISBN 9780813217321. $34.95 (hb).

Reviewed by Kristi Upson-Saia, Occidental College (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

To Train His Soul in Books is a volume of essays written in honor of Sidney H. Griffith. Most scholars of late antiquity have encountered at least one arm of Griffith's scholarship. He is well-known for his translations and exposition of Syriac texts, which have given Syriac Christianity the attention it deserves to stand alongside Greek and Latin Christianities. Specifically, within this field, he has contributed ground-breaking scholarship on Ephrem the Syrian and on Syriac asceticism. Griffith is known too for his studies in Arabic Christianity and Christian-Muslim dialogue from the ancient to the contemporary period. The reach of his scholarship has been as wide as it has been deep.

The book opens with a lovely sketch of Sidney Griffith's life and scholarly work. Among many interesting insights, this reader was most intrigued by the way the editors situated Griffith within the Semitics Department (now the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures) at Catholic University, the department where he studied as a graduate student and where he now teaches his own students. Here the editors' biography of Griffith merges with a history of the department. The editors discuss the scholarly interests of Griffith's predecessors, the manuscripts they contributed to the collection of the Institute of Christian Oriental Research, and their cooperation with non-Catholic scholars during the post-war period (a period in which such cooperation was relatively rare). This history helps readers better understand the scholarly tradition to which Griffith belongs, as well as his work in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Finally, and fittingly for the title of the volume, readers discover that Prof. Griffith earned a graduate degree in library science, helping to explain the abundant care with which Griffith handles and analyzes texts, as well as his encyclopedic ability to work with an astonishingly wide range of sources. The editors outline Griffith's major scholarly contributions at the end of the introduction and attach at the end of the volume a supplemental bibliography—divided into subject areas—of Griffith's scholarship.

The essays in the volume represent extensions of Griffith's work on Ephrem the Syrian and on subsequent traditions of Syriac-speaking Christianity. Like the scholarship of Griffith himself, some essays make available new translations of Syriac texts. In chapter one, Joseph P. Amar provides readers with an English translation of the Vespers liturgy for the feast of the Announcement to the Bearer of God, Mary. The translation is accompanied by a nice discussion of intercalated psalmody in the liturgical tradition of the Syriac Maronite church. In chapter two, Francisco Javier Martínez translates into Spanish three of Ephrem's Hymns On Virginity, introducing his translations with a discussion of extant manuscripts and of the hymns' relation to Syriac ascetic and liturgical traditions. Finally, in chapter nine, Monica Blanchard translates into English selections from a yet-to-be-published Syriac manuscript by East Syrian monk Beh Isho' Kamulaya, selections in which the author focuses on "purity of heart."

Other essays are studies in the language, context, or lineage of Syriac texts and writers. In chapter three, Gary A. Anderson discusses the proper understanding and translation of Daniel 4:24, wherein Daniel offers King Nebuchadnezzar a way out of his impending doom: he can redeem/break-off (peruq) his sins through almsgiving/righteousness (sidqâ). At issue is how to understand this verse, which has been translated differently by Catholics and Protestants. Anderson demonstrates that the metaphoric language to describe sin shifts from the First Temple period—when sin is framed as a "stain" or a "burden"—to the Second Temple period, when the notion of "sin as debt" becomes more prevalent. He argues that such debt was understood to be "paid down" through a number of actions, one way being care for and gifts to the poor, inclining him to prefer this interpretation of the verse. In the fourth chapter, Alexander Golitzin offers a response to a recently published introduction, text, and commentary on the Syriac Apocalypse of Daniel. He argues that some curiosities of the text can be explained if we locate it within a monastic setting, taking into account the concept of "interiorized apocalyptic" and technical terms prevalent among Eastern Christian monasticism. In chapter five, Michael J. Hollerich delineates the relationship of the Syriac Life of Athanasius to other literature on Athanasius. He concludes that, while the Syriac text is largely derivative and thus not terribly helpful to historians interested in reconstructing the life of Athanasius, it is a fruitful source from which to understand how the figure of Athanasius served the interests of Syrians. Finally, Robin Darling Young's chapter focuses on the way in which Philoxenos appropriated Evagrius' soteriology, especially his ideas about the imitation of Christ. She then shows how Philoxenos used Evagrian soteriology to correct the monastic practice of Patricius, a monastic practice based on other aspects of Evagrian thought.

Still other essays analyze themes that cut across Syriac sources. Sebastian P. Brock, for instance, traces the meanings and uses of the term msarrqûtâ through a wide range of Syriac sources. Brock finds that the term, which builds from the "emptying" of Christ found in Philippians 2, is later applied to ascetics' renunciation of possessions, a stripping away of their passions, and ultimately their liberation—of body, soul, and spirit—from the world that demonstrated their spiritual maturity. (Here Brock's essay dovetails nicely with Golitzin's discussion of the "interiorized apocalyptic" a few chapters earlier.) In chapter seven, Susan Ashbrook Harvey surveys a theme rather than a term: she analyzes how and why the image of housekeeping came to be an especially useful image for a number of early Christian writers beginning in the fourth century. She argues that as early Christian ascetics' living arrangements changed—i.e., as they began to reside in single-sex households—men became responsible for more household chores and thus (male) writers came to see the productivity of the image of housekeeping to convey the on-going drudgery of the ascetic vocation, to evoke disgust for the "dirt," "stains," "lice," and "vermin" (which symbolize whatever is deemed "hateful to God"), and to advocate ascetic bodily practices (some quite harsh and violent, like ancient housework itself) to cleanse the "filth" from the ascetic's "house."

Finally, Shawqi Talia's chapter discusses the recent diffusion and demise of Neo-Aramaic. (He also includes a bibliography at the end of the chapter for students who are interested in the comparative philology of Neo-Aramaic dialects .) The volume closes with his beautiful Neo-Aramaic poem (with an English translation), entitled "Ode to Joy," composed in honor of Sidney Griffith.

While the volume certainly honors that range, type, and quality of scholarship Sidney Griffith has graced us with over the years, few readers will be interested equally in all of the chapters. Some essays seem intent on introducing Syriac sources and ideas to the scholar of early Christianity who does not already specialize in this part of the ancient Mediterranean (i.e., all Syriac terms are translated, all technical terms explained, and the plotlines of relatively unfamiliar texts described), while other essays are aimed at specialists in Syriac studies, presuming greater familiarity with the language and texts discussed. That said, the volume is a fitting tribute to a scholar whose work has and will continue to make an impact, both as a spokesman for and a specialist in several areas of study.

Table of Contents

Part I. Poetry and Ephrem the Syrian
1. Syriac Strophic Poetry: Intercalated Psalms, Joseph P. Amar
2. Efrén de Nisibe, Himnos De Virginitate, I-III, Francisco Javier Martínez
Part II. Texts, Terms, Metaphors
3. Redeem Your Sins through Works of Charity, Gary A. Anderson
4. A Monastic Setting for the Syriac Apocalypse of Daniel, Alexander Golitzin
5. A Syriac Life of Athanasius of Alexandria, Michael J. Hollerich
6. Radical Renunciation: The Ideal of msarrqûtâ, Sebastian P. Brock
7. Housekeeping: An Ascetic Theme in Late Antiquity, Susan Ashbrook Harvey
Part III. After Ephrem the Syrian
8. The Influence of Evagrius of Pontus, Robin Darling Young
9. The Syriac Discourses of Beh Isho' Kamulaya, Monica J. Blanchard
10. Ode to Joy, Shawqi Talia

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