Announcing Spring 2014 Seminar in Syriac at the University of Iowa

Peshitta Gen. 1

Peshitta Gen. 1

I shall be offering a course in Syriac Readings (RELS:4960/7900) open to upper-level undergrads and graduate students in the spring semester of 2014.

Students should have competency in Biblical Hebrew, and the completion of one of my Aramaic courses (Biblical or Targumic) is highly recommended as a prerequisite.

The first part of the course will introduce students to Syriac script and grammar using Thackston’s Introduction supplemented by the Eisenbrauns update of Nöldeke’s Grammar, while the course will conclude with a series of readings.

Texts to be read in the course include the standards (excerpts from the Peshitta and some Doctrine of Addai), as well as a special treat: because I cover the Greek pseudepigraphical story of Joseph and Aseneth in my “Banned from the Bible: Intro to Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha” course (RELS:3247 – with continued thanks to my Pepperdine professor Randall Chesnutt, who wrote his dissertation on Joseph and Aseneth), I thought we’d end the semester reading a less popular, but well-known text located in the British Museum, written by an unknown West Syriac writer dating to the late 6th century CE. The author composed an Ecclesiastical History that included a translation of part of a lost Ecclesiastical History by the Greek writer Zacharias Rhetor. The work is commonly referred to as Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor. This Syriac text is of interest because books 1-2 of Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor contain a Syriac translation of the History of Joseph and Aseneth, which is often skipped in English translations because it is already known in the Greek.

Joseph and Aseneth (and be sure to visit my colleague Dr. Mark Goodacre’s Aseneth Home Page) is a well-known, ancient apocryphal expansion of the biblical account of the patriarch Joseph’s marriage to Aseneth, the daughter of the Egyptian Priest of On (Heliopolis). This popular ancient love story serves an apology explaining why a righteous Israelite patriarch like Joseph would marry the daughter of a pagan priest. The answer: Joseph and Aseneth explains how Joseph’s wife converted to monotheism and belief in the Hebrew God before she married Joseph (a detail the Bible “left out”).

Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor’s Syriac account of Joseph and Aseneth is of note because just prior to his retelling of the story, the author writes a letter to a certain Moses of Ingila, asking for a translation and whether there is a deeper allegorical (θεωρία) interpretation of the story beyond the literal narrative. Some have argued that Moses of Ingila’s response attempts to interpret the story of Joseph and Aseneth allegorically, as a gnostic union of the soul (represented by Aseneth) with the divine Logos/Word of God (represented by Joseph). Likewise, there have been many who have argued (largely unsuccessfully) that the text is an allegory, with Joseph symbolizing anything from Jesus to Israel. For her part, some scholars have understood Aseneth’s description as the “Bride of God” in 4:2 as representative of a redeemed Israel, or of the matriarchs of the Bible, or perhaps even the practice of voluntary virginity, which was increasingly popular in Christian circles in the late first and early second centuries. But the employment of symbolism does not an allegory make, and while some scholars have argued that the text is a distinctly Christian text, most scholars conclude that the text is distinctly Jewish, while allowing that the text may possess some evidence of later Christian reworking, especially eucharistic interpretations of the meal of bread and wine within the story. However, the attempts by multiple scholars (cf. Chap 1 of Chesnutt) to interpret the story allegorically ultimately fall short, as any allegorical interpretation must be highly selective of particular details, and therefore necessarily ignores many other details within the story that simply do not fit the supposed allegory, relegating claims of allegory to the realm of wishful thinking. The story must ultimately be read as what it is: a Jewish narrative apology for the patriarch Joseph’s mixed marriage, with possible, occasional Christian reworking.

Anyone attempting an allegorical interpretation of Joseph and Aseneth, and arguing for anything other than an apology for why Joseph married a non-Israelite (and the daughter of a pagan priest at that), is grasping at speculative straws, and attempting (like the author of the Syriac text) to stretch the text into something it was never designed to do. Whether it be a gnostic interpretation of the text, or an attempt to argue something truly ridiculous and sensational, for example, that the story somehow represents Jesus and Mary Magdalene (as “Bride of God”, requiring an appeal to separate Gnostic texts like Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip), and that this allegorical representation from six centuries after the life of Jesus, relying on the weaving together of multiple Gnostic texts composed a full century after the life of Jesus, somehow provides “evidence” of aspects of Jesus’ actual, historical life – such allegorical interpretations are the height of unsubstantiated speculation.

As Chesnutt concludes:

“While no one doubts the presence of symbolic and allegorical elements, the trend now is toward a method which recognizes those elements of symbolism and allegory which are straightforward and explicit in the narrative of Aseneth’s conversion rather than those supposed to be encoded deep within it.” (Chesnutt, From Death to Life, p. 45).

Thus, reading the story of Joseph and Aseneth in Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor will allow students to exercise their Syriac skills, hone their Greek comparative skills, engage the vast array of published scholarship on the text, and the seminar should produce contributions that can enhance future offerings of the Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha course.

So sign up today for Readings in Syriac, because who knows – knowledge of ancient languages like this may come in handy some day :-)

(And may I offer an eternal tip of my hat to UCLA’s Yona Sabar, who taught me Syriac. Thank you Yona!)

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