Kristian Heal’s new book, Genesis 37 and 39 in the Early Syriac Tradition, available now

01.25.2023 | The Maxwell Institute

Kristian Heal’s new book, Genesis 37 and 39 in the Early Syriac Tradition explores the Syriac reception of the story of Joseph and offers an unprecedented glimpse into late antique Syriac literary culture. The story of Joseph inspired the greatest narrative poem written in Syriac, as well as many other diverse and imaginative texts. Heal’s study discusses the retellings of the story of Joseph through a typological lens and how they became an important focus of Christian and Jewish rhetoric. To summarize Genesis 37 and 39 in the Early Syriac Tradition, Heal provided five answers to questions readers may have about his book. 


How do you describe this book to your family?

My family have been living with this book for many years. My second son is called Joseph and he just turned 24, and that’s almost as old as this book project. So, this book has been the answer to the question of what I’m doing when I’m not at home for a long time. Describing the book to them and others is more fun than having to account for the time that it took to research and write though! My family love stories. They all read a lot—we have the library fines to prove it! So, when I describe my book to them, I describe it as a celebration of the story of Joseph. I think the best way to celebrate a good story is to reread it and then retell it. This is what the Syriac Christians did with the story of Joseph, and they did it again and again for a thousand years. They story is retold in prose and poetry. It is dramatized and expanded. Excerpts of it are retold, and some encounters become lively dialogue poems between two main characters in the story, such as Joseph and Potiphar’s wife and Joseph and Benjamin. In this book, I gather up all these retold stories, and then proceed to explore the variety of ways that they tell the story. 


Why the early Syriac tradition?

The story of Joseph has been retold from ancient times until today (think of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, or the Joseph Prince of Dreams movie). It was retold with the Jewish tradition by Philo and Josephus, and retold by such Christians as Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Romanos. It even appears in the Quran as the twelfth Surah and so was retold in the Islamic tradition. But the most abundant retellings of the Joseph story are found in Syriac. Syriac is the Aramaic dialect used by Christians in the regions now including South East Turkey, northern Syria, Iraq, Iran and Southern India. Christianity flourished in the Middle East and further East from apostolic times until today. And most of these Christians spoke, wrote or worshipped in Syriac. I started studying this language as an undergraduate and have been hooked ever since. 


Why do you only focus on Genesis 37 and 39 in this book?

This project was always planned to result in a two-volume study. In the Syriac Christian tradition, the story of Joseph was read as a type of Christ. Read this way, the story of Joseph is a type of the suffering and death of Christ, or his descent, and the glorious resurrection and triumphal return of Christ, or his ascent. In fact, the story of Joseph has two descents, the first from favored son to slave, and the second from favored slave to prisoner. These descent stories are the focus of this first volume. In the next volume, I will treat the ascent of Joseph through to his eventual reuniting with his family (Genesis 40–46)


Why did the book take so long to complete?

Answering this question may get me in trouble! The book began as a PhD thesis submitted to the University of Birmingham in the UK for my PhD degree in Theology. I was working full-time at the Maxwell Institute while I wrote that thesis, so it took 8 years, which is twice as long as normal. When I finished, I was serving at the director of the Institute’s Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, and so my attention was quickly turned towards projects dealing with manuscripts and with digital humanities projects. However, when I was appointed as a Research Fellow five years ago, I was able to return to the project. In the meantime, a major new source had been published, and many new manuscripts had been digitized in the Middle East by the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library together with their Middle Eastern library partners. I had to translate the new texts, survey the new manuscripts, and produce a completely new description of all of the Joseph sources. I also augmented or rewrote the main chapters to take into account the new information that had come to light since the PhD thesis, and then I wrote a new introduction. I survey nearly three dozen sources in the book, and consulted more than three score manuscripts in this revision process. In other words, I had a lot of fun!


What are you most excited about with this book?

Mostly that it’s done! That’s not entirely true, of course. This book and its companion are thrilling to me for several reasons. I love the retelling of biblical stories, and I love how texts are transmitted in manuscripts and in traditions. The Bible is not monolithic or static, but generative and alive in the Christian tradition. These stories have absorbed ancient Jewish traditions about Joseph, and in turn, they have influenced how Joseph was understood in the Islamic world. I’m thrilled by this idea of a story transcending time, place, language, and religion. Exploring the story of Joseph has been like tracking something vibrant and alive across a millennium of sources and manuscripts. Like Joseph himself though, the story has been hard to grab hold of, illusive and beautiful at the same time!