November 23, 2022
Episode 154: Paul Pasquesi on Christian Asceticism in the Late-Antique Syriac World
‘They’re being deified; therefore the Holy Spirit is God.
A fascinating Christian culture grew up in the late antique Sassanian-Roman borderlands. This Syriac Christianity developed distinctive literature, culture, theology, and – as we learn in this interview with Syriacist and specialist historian Paul Pasquesi – a tradition of intense ascetic practice aimed at preparing the devotee for the reception of divine visions.
The interview covers (among other topics):
• Contextualisation in terms of ‘monasticism’ versus ‘asceticism’ in late antiquity, with some discussion of early Christian technical terms like enkrateia (sexual self-control), sarx (flesh), sōma (body), and so forth,
• The Syriac language and its relevance for the history of Christianity, Judaism, and more,
• A community, known as Bnay/Bnāt Qyāmā (‘Sons/Daughters of the Covenant’) among other names, of celibate ascetics living within the early Syriac Christian communities rather than apart in the wilderness; these people seem to have been pursuing a form of angelification while still alive on earth,
• The context of the Sassanian persecution of Christians from c. 337-c. 379 and various other political and social pieces of context relevant to the development of eastern Christianity in our period,
• Our earliest references to ‘spiritual athletes’ in the sense of performative ascetics seeking out exposure to the elements, sleep-deprivation, fasting, and other extreme rigours as preparation both for death and for extreme altered states of consciousness, visionary and otherwise,
• Some discussion of the range of textual traditions – Hebrew scriptures like Ezekiel and Isaiah, New Testamental writings like Paul, John (understood as the Apostle, the Evangelist, and the Revelator) and the Gospel of Thomas – being drawn upon by these early ascetic movements as they define what they are attempting to do,
• Pasquesi’s use of modern medical research in an attempt to deepen our understanding of the somatic aspects of these ancient ascetic practices,
• And the absolutely extraordinary, technical, psychological literature surviving in Syriac – notably the Makarian Homilies – clearly aimed at attaining visionary states in a programmatic way.
Works Cited in this Episode:
Paul Pasquesi cites a very wide range of literature in this interview; rather than mentioning each instance here, we refer the listener to the Recommended Reading below, where the most accessible translations, primary critical editions, and so forth for our Syrian friends have been gathered. As for the other stuff we talked about:
On the Pseudo-Clementine literature, see the next episode, number 155.
Eusebius on Constantine’s letter to Shapur: Life of Constantine Book 3
Joseph and Aseneth: see introduction and translation in James H. Charlesworth. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume Two: Expansions of the ”Old Testament” and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works, volume 1. Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 2021, pp. 177 ff.
Josephus on Helen and Zates: Judean Antiquities 20.17—96, LCL 10-51. See Marciak, Michał. Izates, Helena, and Monobazos of Adiabene: A Study on Literary Traditions and History. Germany: Isd, 2014 and Idem. Sophene, Gordyene, and Adiabene: Three Regna Minora of Northern Mesopotamia Between East and West. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
The new Syriac text of part of Porphyry On Matter: Yuri Arzhanov, editor. Porphyry ”On Principles and Matter”: A Syriac Version of a Lost Greek Text with an English Translation, Introduction, and Glossaries. Number 34 in Scientia Graeco-Arabica. De Gruyter, Berlin, 2021.
The Four who Ascended to Pardis: Tosefta Hagigah 2:2, elaborated in Bavli Hagigah 14b and Yerushalmi Hagigah 9:1
Our interview with Francis Flannery referred to is Episode 54.
Ross Kraemer thinks Joseph and Aseneth isn’t Jewish: Kraemer, Ross Shepard. When Aseneth Met Joseph: A Late Antique Tale of the Biblical Patriarch and His Egyptian Wife, Reconsidered. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015. Compare e.g. Ahearne-Kroll, Patricia D. Aseneth of Egypt: The Composition of a Jewish Narrative. United States: SBL Press, 2020.
Michael Stone’s editions of Armenian canon-lists: Stone, M. (1973). Armenian Canon Lists I — The Council of Partaw (768 C. E.). Harvard Theological Review, 66(4), 479-486. Idem “Armenian Canon Lists III: The Lists of Mechitar of AYRIVANKc (c. 1285 C.E.).” The Harvard Theological Review 69, no. 3/4 (1976): 289–300. Idem. “Armenian Canon Lists II – The Stichometry Of Anania Of Shirak”, Harvard Theological Review, 1975, Volume 68, No. 3-4, pp. 253-260; Idem. “Armenian Canon Lists III – The Lists Of Mechitar Of Ayrivankc (c. 1285 Century)”, Harvard Theological Review, 1976, Volume 69, No. 3-4, pp. 289-300; Idem., “Armenian Canon Lists IV – The List Of Gregory Of Tatcew (14th Century)”, Harvard Theological Review, 1979, Volume 72, No. 3-4, pp. 237-244., pp. 253-260; Idem. “Armenian Canon Lists V: Anonymous Texts.” The Harvard Theological Review 83, no. 2 (1990): 141–61; Idem. “Armenian Canon Lists VII: the poetic list of Arak’el of Siwnik’ (d. 1409).” Harvard Theological Review 104, no. 3 (2011): 367
Isaac of Nineveh/ Qatraya/the Syrian:
The First Part:
- The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Revised Second Edition trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery. (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011).
- Mystic Treatises By Isaac of Nineveh trans. A.J. Wensinck (Amsterdam: Uitgave Der Konikklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen, 1923).
The Second Part:
- Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian): ‘The Second Part,’ Chapters IV—XLI trans and ed. Sebastian Brock (CSCO 555/554, SST 225/224; Lovanii: Aedibus Peeters, 1995).
The Third & Fifth Parts:
- Isaaco di Ninive. Terza Collezione. Trad and ed. Sabino Chialà (CSCO 637/638, SST 246/247; Lovanii: Aedibus Peeters, 2011).
- Isaac the Syrian’s Spiritual Works ed. and trans. Mary Hansbury (TCLA 45; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2016) III: 1—337; V: 339—397.
- La Collection des Lettres de Jean de Dalyatha: Édition critique du Texte Syriaque Inédit, Traduction Française, Introduction et Notes par Robert Beulay (PO 39.3.180; Turnhout, Belgique: Brepols, 1978).
- Colless, Brian Edric. The Mysticism of John Saba. PhD Disertation and edition (Melbourne: Graduate Theological Union, 1969).
- The Letters of John Dalyatha trans Mary Hansbury. (TCLA 2; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2006).
- Jean de Dalyatha. Homélies I—XV trans and ed. By Nadera Khayyat (University Antonine, UPA, 2007).
- Joseph Hazzaya. Lettre sur les Trois Étapes de la Vie Monastique: Édition Critique du Texte Syriaque Traduction et Introduction Paul Harb and François Graffin (PO 45.2.202; Turnhout, Belgique: Brepols, 1992).
- Mystical Treatises by Joseph Hazzaya (& ‘Abdisho‘ Hazzaya) Alphonse Mingana, Early Christian Mystics (Woodbrooke Studies VII; Cambridge: Heffer & Sons, 1934), ET: 178—184, 148—175 (respectively), ST: 256—261, 262—281 (respectively).
- Joseph Hazzaya On Providence text, translation, introduction Nestor Kavvadas (TSEC VIII; Leiden: Brill, 2016).
- Kitchen, Robert A., The Syriac Book of Steps. Fascicle 1. TCLA 12; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009.
- ___ and Martien F.G. Parmentier, The Syriac Book of Steps 2-3. Fascicles 2-3. TCLA 12b-c; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2011.
- Berthold, Heinz. Makarios/Symeon, Reden und Briefe. Die Sammlung I des Vaticanus Greacus 694 (B), 2 vols. GCS 55-56; Berlin, 1973.
- Fitschen, Klaus., Pseudo-Makarios, Reden und Briefe: Eingeleitet, Übersetzt Und Mit Anmerkungen Verscen (BGL 52; Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 2000).
- Dörries, Hermann, et al., Die 50 Geistlichen Homilien Des Makarios. PTS 4; Berlin, 1964.
- Maloney, George A., S.J. Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter. Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1992.
- Mason, A.J. Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius the Egyptian. London, 1925.
- Aleo, Francesco. Pseudo-Macario, Discoursi: Introduzione, traduzione, note e indici a cura. CDTP 206. Roma: Città Nuova, 2009.
- Desprez, Vincent. Pseudo-Macaire: Œvres Spirituelles, I: Homélies propes à la Collection III. SC 275; Paris, 1980.
- Klostermann, Erich and Heinz Berthold, Neue Homilien des Makarios/Symeon, I: Aus Typus III. TU 72; Berlin, 1961.
- Staats, Reinhart. Makarios-Symeon: Epistola Magna. Eine messalianische Mönchsregel und ihre Umschrift in Gregors von Nyssa “De Insitituto Christiano.” Göttingen, 1984.
Theodoret of Cyrrhus
- Canivet, P. and A. Leroy-Molinghen, Historia Religiosa Sources Chrétiennes; Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1977-79.
- Price, R.M. A History of the Monks of Syria. Cistercian Studies 88; Trappist, KY: Cistercian Publications, 1985.
Beh Ishoʿ (8th c.)
- Text / Translation: Blanchard, M.J. 2011. ‘The Syriac Discourses of Beh Ishoʿ Kamulaya’. In: R.D. Young & M.J. Blanchard (eds), To Train His Soul in Books: Syriac Asceticism in Early Christianity. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, pp. 176–188 [contains ET of some fragments based on Washington, Institute of Christian Oriental Research, Syriac 18].
Altered States of Consciousness, Angelomorphic Transformation, Asceticism, Esoteric Christianity, Evagrius of Pontus, Gospel of Thomas, Gregory of Nyssa, Interview, Judaism, Late Antiquity, Pseudo-Clementine Literature, Qumran Scrolls
November 26, 2022
A real catch 22 in the study of esotericism is clearly the argument from silence. But, I have always assumed that detailed descriptions of techniques were absent from earlier texts for this very esoteric reason? I have not found a scholar who will forward such a speculation, though? This assumption was always bolster by our common human-mess as was discussed, what James H Austin calls “perennial psychophysiology” (Zen and the Brain … xix). I thank your guest, Paul Pasquesi, for his willingness to explore this type of evidence.
November 27, 2022
To be fair, Mateusz Stróżyński in Episode 113 (≈ 41:00 min.) specifically forwards the notion of spiritual practices as traditionally orally protected esoteric content…
November 29, 2022
What a great episode! I had never heard of most of this, and it’s fascinating stuff.
I haven’t read the Makarian Homilies (yet!), so apologies if the answer is obvious, but when you say they might be our earliest Western “meditation manual”, how are you distinguishing them from, say, the Mithras Liturgy? Is it about an increasing emphasis on describing “subjective” states, or?
November 29, 2022
Actually, the Mithrasliturgie is a good point. If i were to try to put my delighted, off the cuff comment in the interview on some kind of scientific footing, I guess I would go with the fact that the Makarian material (as with Sufi, Buddhist, and Kabbalist materials I’m familiar with, and probably other traditions as well that I’m unfamiliar with) kind of lists different outcomes, analyses states of consciousness you are likely to encounter upon the way, and so forth. It allows for customised tailoring of the student’s progress depending on their state. So ‘if you are suffering from the sin of pride, do this, but if sexual desire is your main obstacle, do that instead’.
This is different from the Mithrasliturgie, which says ‘inhale the rays of the sun, say these words, and then you’ll see this and this, and then this will happen.’
But actually, this distinction I’m trying to draw isn’t very solid: although the Mithrasliturgie does have a very different style from these longer manual traditions, it’s still blatantly a meditation manual.
November 29, 2022
Makes sense to me. Thanks for the detailed answer!
December 3, 2022
Marginalization of the female element of the tripartite God as “Sophia” is very fascinating, as the Christian religion gets more and more canonized…
December 4, 2022
Indeed. But note here, in the Syriac Christian tradition (still alive and well, and fully ‘canonised’) the Spirit has always been, and remains, feminine. She’s not Sophia, but she’s part of the godhead. So it’s not always just a story of ‘Gnostics’ being suppressed by ‘Orthodox’. Sometimes the Orthodox have a divine feminine, and it’s mainstream.
December 5, 2022
Great insight, thanks! Could you suggest some sources for me to delve more into this?
December 6, 2022
Sorry, Fotis, I’m not a specialist here. Have a look for work on the divine feminine in Christianity and see what comes up!