Narsai Workshop at BYU

For the next few days I’ll be in Utah, attending a workshop on Narsai, a 5th-century Syriac poet, exegete, and preacher. The workshop is hosted by the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART) at Brigham Young University.

I’m very much looking forward to this workshop, primarily because I think Narsai is a very understudied figure, particularly for someone with a surviving corpus of over 80 metrical homilies.

My paper for this workshop stems out of my previous research on Aphrahat’s conception of the body-soul relationship and the idea of the “sleep of the soul” after death. Narsai is frequently said to support the theory of the sleep of the soul, so I set out to do a comparative analysis of the ways that Narsai and Aphrahat talk about the soul and its properties, the relationship between the soul and body, and what happens to the soul at death and at the resurrection.

In preparation for this presentation, I translated Narsai’s memra “On the Soul”, which was a lot of fun, though quite difficult at times. Translating poetry is always difficult, but it is made all the more difficult when you are trying to tie down the way a poet is using technical vocabulary like that employed in late antique christological debates. So, I look forward to hearing the other papers at this workshop to hear how others have made sense of Narsai’s vocabulary and style.

The short answer to the research question I set out to answer is: Aphrahat and Narsai do not share much in common, and Narsai doesn’t really support the concept of the sleep of the soul.  The long answer to this question is the topic of my paper, and it will eventually be published in a volume containing the conference proceedings.

Nautical Navigation: A Soul/Body Metaphor in Narsai

I’m currently translating a memra by Narsai, a 5th-century Syriac author known as one of the earliest and most significant proponents of “Nestorian” dyophysite Christology in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon (for more info, see also here). I’m doing the translation in preparation for a presentation at a workshop dedicated to Narsai that’s coming up soon.

The specific memra that I’m translating, # 66 according to the calvis of Narsai’s memre prepared by Kristian Heal at BYU, is known by the title “On the Soul.” Throughout this memra, Narsai frequently relies on extended metaphors to illustrate his teaching about the soul’s relationship to the body. As I was translating, one particular metaphor caught my attention: the metaphor of a captain of a ship. Here are the lines in question along with a (rough draft!) translation.

ܒܩܲܠܝܼܠܘܼܬܼܵܗ̇ ܥܵܒܲ̇ܪ ܝܲܡܵܐ ܐܲܝܟ ܕܲܒܼܝܲܒܼܫܵܐ:

ܘܠܵܐ ܡܸܬܿܛܲܒܲܥ ܝܘܼܩܪܵܐ ܕܦܲܓܼܪܹܗ ܒܹܝܬܼ ܡܲܚܫܘܼܠܹ̈ܐ ܀

ܐܲܝܟ ܐܹܘܩܝܼܢܵܐ ܬܲܠܝܵܐ ܒܐܸܠܦܵܐ ܕܦܲܓܼܪܵܢܘܼܬܹܗ:

ܘܲܡܢܲܛܪܵܐ ܠܹܗ ܡ̣ܢ ܢܸܟܼܝܵܢܹ̈ܐ ܕܠܵܐ ܢܸܬܼܚܲܒܲܠ ܀

ܠܘܲܥܕܵܗ̇ ܪܵܕܹܐ ܐܲܝܟ ܡܲܠܵܚܵܐ ܒܟܼܵܘܟܿܒܼ ܢܘܼܗܪܵܐ:

ܘܗ̤ܝ ܬܵܪܨܵܐ ܠܹܗ ܫܒܼܝܼܠ ܡܲܪܕܲܝܼܬܵܐ ܠܲܠܡܹܐܝܢ ܫܲܝܢܵܐ ܀

“By her speed it crosses the sea as if upon land,

and the weight of its body does not cause her to sink in the floods.

Like an anchor she clings, the captain of its corporeality,

keeping it from injuries, so that it is not harmed.

Following her direction, it travels like a sailor in the starlight,

and she navigates the path of [its] journey to a safe harbor.”


There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the metaphor itself, but the beauty of Narsai’s poetic imagery is striking. I was especially drawn to the final two lines because of how evocative–and yet elusive–the precise metaphor is. What exactly is the soul in this metaphor? Is it the light? Is it the sailor? Is it the ship’s navigational system? Is it somehow all of the above?

In other words, what makes this metaphor so interesting to me is its playfulness; Narsai refuses, even in metaphor, to commit to a single image to illustrate the soul-body relationship. Instead, he provides a panoply of related images, allowing the hearer/reader to be immersed in a sea (pun intended) of symbols.

In fact, the translator may feel like they are drowning in Narsai’s dense metaphors at times, but ultimately the payoff is worth it.

Classical Languages as Euphemism

When working on a translation recently, I came across an interesting gloss in A Compendious Syriac Dictionary, edited by J. Payne Smith (Margoliouth). Under the entry for ܩܢܝܐ (qanyā), we see the following:


The gloss that drew my attention was the final one: virga virilis. Or, in plain English: “a penis”. What drew my attention was the retention of the Latin phrase in a Syriac-English dictionary (for those unaware, this dictionary is an abbreviated version of a Syriac-Latin Dictionary, the magnificent two-volume Thesaurus Syriacus edited by R. Payne Smith).

Unsurprisingly, virga virilis is one of the definitions that shows up under the entry for ܩܢܝܐ in the Thesaurus Syriacus (Vol. 2, col. 3654, gloss #6). The Compendious Syriac Dictionary translates all the other definitions into English, so the only apparent reason for this “euphemistic” translation is that the editor apparently wanted to avoid the embarrassment of using a “vulgar” word like penis in the dictionary entry. Thus, the Latin translation stood in as a substitute.

Apparently this was a somewhat practice for the late Victorian era, as this phenomenon also appeared in both Greek and Latin dictionaries, and in English translations of various works. E.A. Wallis Budge’s translation of Bar Hebraeus’ “Laughable Stories”, for example, frequently translates the more vulgar “stories” into Latin, which leaves Latin paragraphs interspersed throughout an otherwise completely English translation.

Primarily I think this practice is humorous because of what it suggests: that somehow it’s less vulgar to only render something in Latin rather than in English. Then again, considering the etymology of vulgar as “common” or “ordinary usage,” technically it is less vulgar to use Latin instead of English since Latin would be less commonly used/understood.

On the other hand, though, given the likely audiences of these works–people who are likely to know multiple languages, including Latin–what purpose is this really serving? It’s not like the Compendious Syriac Dictionary was ever going to be a NYT Bestseller or end up in the hands of impressionable youths searching for dirty words in Syriac.

NAPS 2017 Paper

I recently delivered a paper at #NAPS2017 (the annual meeting of the North American Patristics Society). My paper was part of a two-session panel that I helped co-organize with Kyle Smith and Philip Forness.

The topic of the paper was the use of the Syriac word taḥwitha (ܬܚܘܝܬܐ) as a title of a work in late antiquity, particularly with respect to the Demonstrations of Aphrahat, the Persian Sage. More specifically, I argued that it is likely that this “title” was added later by an editor, and thus they are not original to the corpus. The full abstract is below.


“Collecting Writings and Constructing a Genre: The Demonstrations of Aphrahat as an Edited Anthology”

The fourth-century Syriac corpus known as the Demonstrations and attributed to Aphrahat is difficult to classify with respect to genre. In fact, it is often taken for granted within scholarship on the Demonstrations that “demonstration” (Syr = ܬܚܘܝܬܐ) is a genre itself. After all, each of the twenty-three individual Demonstrations begins with a heading that includes this word. However, this classification fails on two grounds: 1) it is an otherwise unknown genre; no other work in Syriac literature claims to be a “Demonstration.” And 2) more importantly, the assumption that “Demonstration” is a genre masks the diversity of writings with the corpus of the Demonstrations and even ignores data within the corpus that might help us classify the individual Demonstrations more specifically and accurately.

I have argued elsewhere that the Demonstrations as they are preserved in the Syriac tradition are an edited corpus of previously existing writings. In this paper, I will expand on this argument by examining evidence for smaller collections of writings that make up the Demonstrations based on various terminology for genre found within the corpus. Additionally, I will argue that the “genre” of Demonstration was the creation of the literary editor who compiled the writings into their final form. In so doing, I will reflect on the broader question of what we know about early Syriac literary production and the ways that ancient editorial practices have affected our understanding of genre in Syriac literature.


And here’s a tweet from a friend who was present to document it: