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.

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: