19 July 2013

Bringing out treasures old and new
from the ‘third lung’ of Christianity

In the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

On the closing day of the IOCS summer school in Cambridge this morning [Friday 19 July 2013], Dr Sebastian Brock “brought out treasures old and new,” as Professor David Ford acknowledged.

In a morning filled with poetry, Dr Brock was speaking at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies summer school in Sidney Sussex College on ‘The Syriac Tradition I: Angels and Their Roles.’

Dr Brock, who was known to many us for his work on translating the Psalms, is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Oxford and a Professorial Fellow of Wolfson College.

His current projects include editing unpublished Syriac texts, Greek words in Syriac, diachronic aspects of Syriac word formation, and Syriac dialogue poems. His recent publications include From Ephrem to Romanos: Interactions between Syriac and Greek in Late Antiquity (Aldershot, 1999), and Treasure-house of Mysteries (Crestwood, 2012).

The cloisters in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Dr Brock said we often think of Christianity as Latin West and Greek East, and that one Pope had recently referred to these as the “two lungs” of Christianity. However, he offered the Syriac tradition of the East as the “third lung” of Christianity.

This is a unique but oft-neglected tradition in the Church, whose insights include a tradition of doing theology in poetry.

In the Old Testament, it is not always clear who is an angel and who is a messenger, he said, and just as this is a problem for translators of the Septuagint it is a problem too for translators into Syriac.

Angels became revealers in the Book of Daniel; in the apocryphal Book of Jubilees, an angel who mediates the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai; and angels interpret visions and apocalyptic messages. The Dead Sea Scrolls show too that they became associated with the Heavenly Liturgy.

The Syriac canon does not include II Peter, Jude and Revelation, so there is less speculation about angels in the Syriac tradition.

In Hebrew, the word for angel is the same as the word for a messenger (mal’ak), and the same way there is double usage in Greek (Ἄγγελος, angelos). However, Syriac differentiates between mal’aka (angelos) and ‘ira (waker or watcher, Greek εγρηγορός, egregoros).

Genesis 1 does not mention the creation of angels. When are they created? Why is it not mentioned in the creation accounts?

In his lecture, Dr Brock drew on a wide range of works and writers, including Aphrahat, writing in the early fourth century outside the Roman Empire, in the Persian empire in what is now Iraq; Ephrem, who died in 373, a poet; the Book of Steps (Liber Graduum), in the second half of fourth century; John the Solitary, a monastic writer in the early fifth century and a great spiritual writer who has recently been rediscovered; Jacob of Serugh (died 521), a wonderful exegete of Biblical texts who preached his sermons in poetry – of his 763 homilies, half have been translated; the Cave of Treasures from the sixth century; Martyrius, who wrote The Book of Affection in the early seventh century; Dadisho‘ and Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian), in the late seventh century; and Joseph the Seer in the eighth century.

These all worked in what was the Persian Empire, including present-day Syria, Iraq and Iran.

He also drew on Isho’dad of Merv, ninth century; Barhebraeus (died 1286); and Solomon of Bosra’s Book of the Bee from the 13th century.

Many of these writers said the angels were created on the first day, along with heaven and earth.

They offered Hierarchies of Angels, which were similar those listed by Dionysius the Areopagite (ca 500), who gives nine hierarchies of angels, in three groups of three, but which can be traced in Saint Paul’s Letters.

For example, Isaac of Nineveh gives slightly different orders, but again he lists them in three groups of three.

Human beings, unlike angels, are created in the image of God. Ephrem points this out in his Hymns of Faith:

The Seraph could not touch fiery Coal with his fingers,
the coal only just touched Isaiah’s mouth;
the Seraph did not hold it, Isaiah did not consume it,
but us our Lord has allowed to do both!

Or, as Joseph the Seer wrote in his pre-Communion Prayer:

It is a matter of great awe, Lord, that Your Body and Your Blood, O Christ our Saviour should be consumed and drunk with that same mouth which receives ordinary food and drink. Lord, you did not give to the Spiritual Beings what I am receiving now!

In the Syriac tradition, Satan’s fall is due to his envy of humans being created in the image of God. In the Book of Job, Satan is simply the accuser, not the devil. But later in the Syriac tradition, he turns aside, and so rebelled against God.

Syriac writers have a unique literary genre, the disputation dialogue in poetic form, adapted to a Biblical context. He drew our attention to some of these including the Dialogue of the Angel and Zechariah, the Angel and Mary, Satan and the Sinful Woman, the Cherub and the Repentant Thief, and Death and Satan in Saint Ephrem. There are more examples in his recent book, Treasure-house of Mysteries (Crestwood, 2012).

Angels above the choir stalls in the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In his second lecture this morning, Dr Brock spoke on ‘The Syriac Tradition II: Imitating the Angels.’

A “watcher” in Syria means someone who is awake, in a state of wakefulness. The Syrian Orthodox Liturgy includes in the Sunday Lilyo (Night Office) the prayer:

Awaken our drowsiness out of submersion in sin so that we may give thanks to Your wakefulness, O Waker who does not sleep; revive our dead state out of the sleep of death and corruption so that we may worship Your compassion; O Living One who does not die, make us worthy to praise you and bless you together with the glorious assembles of the angels in heaven who give you praise, for You are glorious and blessed in heaven and on earth, O Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Angels are a model of how to live the ascetic life, and a model of how to give praise to God.

John the Solitary (John of Apamea) wrote:

Holy people, even though their nature is inferior to that of angels in this world, nevertheless in the spiritual world their nature is increased, so that they become like angels of God; then they will see the angels in the course of associating with them.

The heavenly liturgy was seen as a model for the earthly liturgy in the Dead Sea Scrolls:

The Cherubim prostrate themselves before God and bless [cf Ezekiel 1]. As they arise a whispered voice is heard, and there is a roar of praise. When they drop their wings, there is a whispered divine voice. The Cherubim bless the image of the throne-chariot above the firmament, and they praise the majesty of the luminous firmament beneath His seat of glory.

In the Qedushah at the Morning Synagogue Service:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts (Isaiah 6: 3): the whole earth is full of His glory. And the Ophanim and holy Hayot with a noise of great rushing lift themselves up towards the Seraphim and offer praise saying, ‘Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place’ (Ezekiel 3: 12).

This idea is taken over from Judaism into Early Christianity.

He spoke too of the three Churches – the Heavenly Church, the Church on Earth and the Church of the Heart.

The Syriac writers say the same liturgy should be taking place in the altar of the heart as is taking place in heaven and at the altar in the Church. But the same idea can also be found in Isaiah 6: 3 in the Aramaic Targum:

‘Holy’ in the heavens on high, in the home of His Shekinna; ‘holy’ on earth, the handiwork of His might, ‘holy’ in the age of ages, Lord of hosts; all the earth is full of the radiance of His glory.

This year’s summer school concludes this afternoon with a Service of Thanksgiving in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College.

Leaving the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)


Anonymous said...

Dear Patrick, your blog posts are excellent. I have been posting them on twitter. Thank you for taking the time to share your wonderful travels and insights. Richard @handofflowers

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you Richard