Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

The Figure of Abraham in the Metrical Homilies of Jacob of Sarug: Its Literary and Theological Context

This project is a close and sensitive contextual study of Jacob of Sarug's (ca. 451-521 AD) metrical homily "On Abraham and His Types" (memra109).

The so-called  memra, a metrical homily, is a textual genre characteristic of Classical Syriac Literature. Its most prolific practitioner was Jacob of Sarug (ca. 451-521 AD) to whom more than 700 of such texts have been ascribed. The core of the project is a close and sensitive contextual study of his metrical homily  On Abraham and His Types ( memra109). This text is representative of its kind, both concerning the topic and the literary form. Serving as an “Archimedean point”, it can further illuminate the intellectual background against which a distinctive literary genre of Syriac literature has emerged as well as the position of its author within the flourishing exegetical discourse of his time. 

Despite its central position within the Syriac tradition, the peculiar principles along which a memra was composed, its technical vocabulary and its blend of exegesis, systematic theology, liturgy and rhetoric are still very much in need of thorough research. The project will focus on the role of the biblical figure of Abraham as a central motif within Jacob’s  memre. Based on this paradigm case, it aims at revealing the distinctive features of this particular genre against the wider background of its literary-historical and its theological context, the so-called “Sitz im Leben” of the text. Such a contextualization, however, will go beyond the limits of Syriac literature. In the past few years much work has been devoted to the impact of the Greek “Second Sophistic” on Early Christian writing, especially regarding the rhetorical techniques and devices used by the pupils of the pagan orator Libanius–that is, Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329–378 AD), Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 326–390 AD) and Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 331–394 AD)–in their systematic and homiletic works. Yet the question whether there was in fact a direct relationship between Jacob of Sarug’s complex and elaborate style and the application of traditional rhetoric to homiletic purposes frequently found, for instance, in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers, has not been treated so far: is there a direct dependence or did Jacob merely work in an analogous way? 

Tracing the connections with Greek rhetoric could, however, provide a plausible explanation for the puzzling fact that the bloom of Syriac literature in the fourth and fifth century AD already shows a full array of discursive style and argumentative techniques. Since the history of Syriac literature can be tracked down into pagan times, it is clear that these complex rhetorical devices constitute for a great part a striking innovation. The process which gives rises to many new possibilities of the Syriac language cannot be detached from the accompanying literary-historical developments, that is, the rise of the memre and other exegetical literature. Since the language had to be applied to the completely new genre of rhetorically polished exegetical treatises, requiring the possibility to handle subtle and abstract interpretations, it necessitated the development of suitable tropes and figures. The potential relationship between a Syriac writer like Jacob and the Greek “Second Sophistic” might provide a specific literary-historical background against which these developments become understandable. 

The biblical figure of Abraham was also extremely prominent in exegetical works composed by other members of the School of Edessa, such as the works of Ephrem (ca. 306–373 AD), the anonymous homilies on Abraham published by Brock, and the homilies of the Nestorian theologian Narsai (ca. 399–502 AD). All of these writers, however, exhibit remarkable differences when compared with the peculiar style of Jacob’s works. This is indeed a situation which has to be explained. Hence, the very manner in which the figure of Abraham is being treated in various comparable texts can illustrate, by means of a very specific example, the underlying exegetical principles of the respective writers. Such a comparison will thus help to uncover not only a possible connection of Jacob of Sarug with the main exponents of a Christian application of the Greek rhetorical tradition, but also to determine Jacob’s place within the history of preceding Syriac literature more clearly. This can, in turn, serve to delineate the development of the influence of Greek rhetoric on Classical Syriac writing. Lastly, the project is a case-study of the  memra as such: Jacob’s metrical homilies were, notwithstanding later development, considered normative for this genre by other Syriac theologians and consequently had a major impact; work on his texts is thus representative for the most characteristic literary form within the Syriac tradition.

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