Keeping Narsai’s memre in memory

07.12.2017 | Blair Hodges

Can humans truly capture the divine with pen and paper? It can feel like trying to gather smoke armed only with a butterfly net. Nevertheless, Christians over the centuries haven’t always been deterred by the degree of difficulty, with many expressing their faith not only through ritual and art, but also by the written word. Some of the most remarkable Christian writings aren’t found within the Bible itself, but are rather inspired by the Bible. Homilies—scriptural commentaries often clothed with beautiful expression—tell us a lot about how early Christians interpreted scripture, how they understood God and themselves, how they worshiped Christ and hoped for a better world. Theology was expresses in “memre”—teachings formed into lyrical verse. Sadly if intriguingly, few ancient homilies survive today, making the ones we have all the more precious. Consider Narsai, a fifth-century homiletic theologian from Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). His name means “potent utterance,” and, appropriately enough, he crafted some remarkable and moving memre on topics like baptism and the Eucharist. Only eighty-one of Narsai’s homilies are still around, but they provide us with a lot of information about early Christianity. Surprisingly, they’ve never been collected and translated into English before.

Ute Possekel discusses “The Baptism of Jesus in the Theology of Narsai”

In June, over a dozen scholars specializing in early Christianity gathered at Brigham Young University to wrestle with questions surrounding the ancient figure, and to prepare for what Institute associate director Kristian Heal calls an ambitious translation project. Heal and Carl Griffin—along with Institute visiting scholar Catherine Taylor and scholar-in-residence Luke Drake—exchanged ideas about the project with scholars hailing from the University of Michigan, Duke University, and Harvard Divinity School, among other places. According to Griffin, the presentations opened many new windows into Narsai’s genius as a poet, theologian, and exegete. “The quality of the papers was exceptional,” Griffin said. “They are certain to provoke much future discussion and research. The translation project this conference inaugurates will not only foster the study and appreciation of Narsai, but also serve to fill a fundamental gap in the western understanding of eastern Christianity.”

Kristian Heal addresses scholars at last month’s Narsai gathering

Despite Narsai’s status as a foundational figure in the East Syrian Christian tradition, his works are largely untranslated and have been understudied in the West—something this team of scholars aims to rectify with the projected four-volume work including translated and annotated versions of all eighty one Narsai memre. ​”Narsai’s works are like a hidden treasure-house, which we hope to crack open for all English readers,” Heal said at the conference’s conclusion. “With the help of an international team we can contemplate completing a lifetime’s wor​k in just a few years. Once the whole body of Narsai’s surviving work is available I’m sure we’ll see a widening stream of interesting and illuminating studies that will help us really come to grips with this rather enigmatic fifth century Christian luminary.” We can’t wait to see how this project helps keep Narsai’s memre in memory.

Left to Right: Kelli Gibson, Ute Possekel, Erin Walsh, Eva Rodrigo, Aaron Butts, Robert Kitchen, Ellen Muehlberger, Kristian Heal, Philip Forness, Craig Morrison, James Walters, Kevin Ball, Jeremy Brown