Monday, October 23, 2017


Robert R. Phenix, Jr., Cornelia B. Horn, The Rabbula Corpus: Comprising the 'Life of Rabbula', His Correspondence, a Homily Delivered in Constantinople, Canons, and Hymns; with Texts in Syriac and Latin, English Translations, Notes, and Introduction. Writings from the Greco-Roman world, 17. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017. Pp. cclviii, 509. ISBN 9780884140788. $99.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Daniel King, Cardiff University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

A powerful and influential bishop of the mid-fifth century, the bilingual (Greek/Syriac) Rabbula makes a fascinating case study of ecclesiastical-political life in the border provinces of the Empire. The various texts associated with this infamous personality are not all authentic, but they are all both under-utilized and yet full of precious evidence for the social historian. We can therefore be enormously grateful for the present volume presenting texts and translations of all the Syriac texts relating to what the editors have dubbed the 'Rabbula Corpus'.

The volume opens with a monograph-length introduction which, despite the authors' self-effacing claim that the purpose of the volume is not to become the defining monograph on its subject but only to "summarize the results of recent research efforts and provide a basis for interpreting the Rabbula corpus" (p. xviii), nonetheless achieves most of the aims that such a monograph would encompass.

Chapter 1 places Rabbula in his cultural world, the complex picture of the religious matrix of the Near East in late antiquity. Phenix and Horn have a clear grip on the variety of religious practices that were still current in the fourth century, the enduring multiformity of Christianity in the eastern provinces and the significance of Rabbula in bringing about the political victory of Nicene Christianity in Edessa.

Chapter 2 summarises the meagre scholarship to date on Rabbula, laying out the different areas of research that intersect with his life, from the literary study of his biography to his role in the formation of the theology of the Armenian church.

Chapters 3-4 tackle the Life of Rabbula itself, being a literary-critical study of its place in ancient biographical literature. These chapters show how the Life follows the standard rhetorical patterns of encomium-writing well known in the region for centuries, and constitute a Christianising adaptation of this Hellenistic genre. What is truly significant, of course, is that this is a Syriac and not a Greek text; hence the Life becomes "one of the earliest examples of classical Kunstprosa in fifth-century Syriac." Especially interesting for the religious politics of the region is the antagonistic relationship between Rabbula's biography and the Doctrina Addai, which presents an alternative vision of the Christianisation of Edessa (pp. liv-lviii). Similarly, a comparison with the Life of Alexander Akoimetes (ch.4, pp. lviii-lxx) sheds light on the literary inflections of the triumph of Christianity in Syrian cities such as Baalbek and Chalcis, and the negotiations of power between increasingly established ecclesiastical institutions and the more instinctively violent activities of the rural ascetics.

In chapter 5, Phenix and Horn explore what we really know about Rabbula's life and background. Especially notable is the extensive discussion of the gradual encroachment of Hellenic cultural themes and Greek-Christian modes of theological discussion into the heretofore isolated world of Syriac Christianity. This Hellenisation of Syrian Christianity has long been a thorny, and sometimes political, issue. Here, however, the matter is laid out clearly and concisely. Rabbula clearly contributed in important ways to this process, while being by no means its lone exemplar. He was a Greek, brought up in a city (Chalcis) in which many inhabitants probably spoke an Aramaic dialect, and who, as he moved east to become bishop of Edessa, brought with him a certain level of expectation in the production of theological literature which expedited the 'assimilation' of Hellenic into Syriac culture. Either personally or through his patronage, he was responsible for the translation of a Christological tract of Cyril of Alexandria, the technical terminology of which set new standards for the expression of theological ideas in Syriac, a full half century before Philoxenus of Mabbug more famously criticised the Syriac language itself for being incapable of holding accurately onto the finer nuances of Greek. Phenix's own work on the poet Balai has already shed important light on the complexities of this whole process, but much basic philological and literary work in the sources still needs to be carried out before an accurate and satisfying account of it can be drawn up. The present volume is an important step in that process, but generalisations such as that "there are important lines of connection between the practical theology of the Neoplatonists and the development of eremitical monasticism in Syria" (p. cviii) require considerably more evidence to feel persuasive.

Chapter 6 proceeds to describe the conversion and early ascetical lifestyle of the subject. For the social historian, it is intriguing to note how Rabbula sought to establish his position in Edessa by means of buying social capital for himself through extensive almsgiving, even though his theology had been disowned by his metropolitan. Rabbula appears to have bypassed the traditional patronage networks of the local elites and to have established for himself a power base among the other pro-Cyrillian monasteries and groups within the city.

Chapter 7 briefly discusses issues surrounding Rabbula's episcopal election, especially how he related to the groups involved in the Meletian schism in Antioch. Chapter 8 traces Rabbula's interactions with the various religious groupings that still permeated Edessan society in the fifth century. As the authors emphasise, the boundary lines between the various sub-groups of Jews, Christians, and pagans have still not been definitively drawn by modern scholarship and the vague assertions of Rabbula's biographer do nothing to alleviate this situation.

In chapter 9, we are given a more extended treatment of Rabbula's involvement with the Council of Ephesus. Phenix and Horn tend to favour the recently conceived view that Rabbula was always a Cyrillian even before the council, and that he was not personally present there. If they are right, it would have the significant implication that the Collectio Casinensis (one of the most important collections of canonical documents from the period) deliberately falsified Rabbula's signature on the canons of the Synod of the Orientals. The ideological proclivities of the various collections gathered in the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum have not always been taken into consideration when used as historical evidence – but these discussions about Rabbula's involvement show us that care must be taken with these types of data.

Three chapters follow, outlining further aspects of Rabbula's episcopacy: how he garnered social capital by establishing a system of poor relief and organised his diocese so as to bring the loose ascetical systems characteristic of Syriac Christianity under the control of the church authorities. The final chapter of this introductory material briefly discusses Rabbula's reform of the Syriac Bible and his possible role as instigator of the Peshitta. This is a substantial and complex issue which will benefit from more extensive treatment.

Once all these deservedly extensive matters are out of the way, the volume gets down to the business at hand with the text collection that the editors have dubbed the 'Rabbula corpus'. This consists for the most part of reprintings of texts already edited and published, in some cases more than a century ago, all presented with high quality translations.

The following texts are offered:

1. The Life of Rabbula
2. Homily at Constantinople
3. Three Collections of Canons
Admonitions for the monks
Commandments and Admonitions for the Priests and the Children of the Covenant
Canons for the Monks Attributed to Rabbula
4. Letters
Correspondence with Cyril of Alexandria
Correspondence with Andrew of Samosata
John of Antioch, Letter to the Bishops of Osrhoene
Rabbula, Letter to Gemellina, Bishop of Perrhe
5. Syriac Translation of Cyril of Alexandria's De recta fide ad Theodosium
6. Hymns Attributed to Rabbula
Two Hymns Preserved in the Hymns of Severus of Antioch
Hymns Preserved in the Eight Tones

In the introductions to the texts themselves, the editors describe the manuscript basis and the editing history of each. The Life (text no.1) was already extensively discussed in the introduction. I missed a more extensive discussion of the Homily (text 2), the date and setting of which are nowhere explained. There is then a useful and judicious, not to say cautious, discussion of the authenticity of the various canon collections attributed to Rabbula (text no.3, pp. ccxxv-ccxxix) – much of this summarises and agrees with the extensive researches of Vööbus. It is an important question insofar as, since it was only at Chalcedon (451) that the imperial church began seriously to regulate monastic practices, any canons that predate Chalcedon constitute important evidence for earlier attempts to control the monks. Some of "Rabbula's canons" fall into this category.

Among the letters (text 4), the most noteworthy is perhaps that of Andrew of Samosata to Rabbula (ccxxxiv-vii; pp. 148-73), the text of which is here presented in full, gathered together from its various citations and excerpts, so that its significance within the fallout from the Council of Ephesus may become apparent. Also included are some letters that shed light on Rabbula's role in the controversy surrounding the post-Ephesine Formula of Reunion, without being by him or addressed to him. The letter to Gemellina rounds out the rather limited corpus of extant correspondence.

Text 5 is a Syriac translation of an important work of Cyril's that the latter sent to Rabbula together with one of his letters. It has generally been assumed that it was Rabbula himself who had it translated – if so, making it a key early witness to the Syriac appropriation of Greek theology. The editors made use of Bardenhewer's German version of the Greek original, but omit to notice that an English translation was published in 2014 in the Fathers of the Church series (Catholic University of America Press).

The final set of texts consists of the corpus of hymns attributed to Rabbula. The introductory material (pp. ccl-cclviii) contains a full discussion of their complex publication history, and there is an Appendix offering a concordance between the extant editions. Since there is really no hard evidence one way or the other regarding their authorship, one's conclusions on the matter depend simply upon whether one begins by suspecting all such attributions in manuscripts, or giving them credence. Peter Bruns recently saw no reason to doubt the attributions to Rabbula; Phenix and Horn see no reason to accept them.

There are a small number of further texts that are discussed (pp. ccxlii-ccl) in relation to the 'corpus' but not actually reproduced in the texts-section of the volume; viz. translation of a Christian Palestinian Aramaic fragment from a different recension of the Life of the Man of God, which happens to contain the part of that hagiography (already known in a Syriac version) that relates to Rabbula; a possibly spurious fragment of a canon relating to those who sacrifice sheep for the dead; and a recently published inscription mentioning Rabbula.

The translations themselves are generally excellent. They remain close enough to the wording and arrangement of the original to serve as cribs to those needing to follow the Syriac, but they do not hesitate on occasion to use equivalent turns of phrase, e.g., a Syriac text that reads literally, "it is not that we speak after the teachings of an author," is rendered as, "it is not that we speak from the promptings of a script" (p. 91).

The Rabbula Corpus is an important and expertly executed piece of work. Publications such as the present one are badly needed in order to bring into their deserved light great figures from antiquity such as Rabbula, whose works are often veiled in the obscurity of old half-baked editions. Although Phenix and Horn frequently shy away from claiming that they are writing the definitive monograph on Rabbula that we need, nonetheless their research is a major step forward. It is vital reading not merely because of what we learn of Rabbula himself, but for all who are interested in the religious history of the Near East in Late Antiquity.


  1. Dear Dr. King:

    On behalf of both Professor Horn and myself I extend to you our thanks for your review. I write not only to acknowledge your great stamina in reading through this one-volume cure for insomnia, and for your time and consideration in writing a perspicacious prospectus, which I think all readers should appreciate, but also I write here to address those who are much less familiar with Syriac matters, so as to warn them, that this work contains several infelicities of translation, a few outright mistakes, and several typographical errors in both the English as well as the Syriac texts. These mistakes and errors were committed by me, and are not the result of the copy editor, or of the typesetter. At some point I would like to make openly available a list of errata for the volume, so that students will not be led astray by these mistakes. Professor Horn, who worked very hard on many aspects of this volume, does not bear the blame, either, as the translations and the proofreading of the Syriac fell to me.
    I am particularly sensitive to this issue, as I have complained in written reviews about the poor quality of proofreading of other Syriac volumes, and rightly so. I hope that the users of this volume shall read the inevitable critique to appear in the German scholarly press, which will be a more detailed Chapter of Faults than what I dare to offer here.

    This critique should not be interpreted as calling to question, or as diminishing in any way, the accuracy, quality, or objectivity of Dr. King's review.

    As this reply is long enough, I shall not provide any further details about the very long process and the difficult circumstances under which this volume appeared, circumstances which are not the fault of anyone who assisted in bringing this volume to publication, except myself.


    Robert Phenix

  2. I should also like to point out, that Dr. King's work on the material related to Cyril of Alexandria's On the Correct Faith plays an important role in both the text and translation section, as well as in helping to clarify Rabbula's relationship to Cyril in the Introduction to this work.


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