Walters, James Edward. Aphrahat and the Construction of Christian Identity in Fourth-Century Persia. Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, 2016.
My dissertation began—as many dissertations do, I imagine—with a simple question: What in the world is going on in this text? The text in question came from the Demonstrations, a fourth-century Syriac corpus attributed to an author known as Aphrahat, the Persian Sage. More specifically, the text to which my question referred was Demonstration 17, in which Aphrahat makes the argument that Jesus is both Messiah and Son of God by using only proof texts from the Hebrew Bible because this argument was directed “against the Jews.” I had only just learned Syriac, so I dove in head first, working out Syriac grammar and puzzling rhetorical arguments with equal amounts of confusion on both. As I continued reading the rest of the Demonstrations, along with all the secondary literature I could get my hands on, that question of “what is going on here?” just kept nagging me.
As I continued reading secondary literature on the Demonstrations and on early Syriac Christianity more broadly, I became interested in the historical narratives in which Aphrahat played a role, primarily narratives about Christianity in the Persian Empire, persecution, and Jewish-Christian relations. In these historical narratives, the Demonstrations are typically used as a straightforward historical source with very little critical attention paid to Aphrahat’s rhetorical, discursive arguments. In other words, even though the “linguistic turn” (to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Clark’s History, Theory, Text) has significantly shaped the way that scholars have read and interpreted Christian texts form the Greco-Roman world, this shift has been slow to reach early Syriac sources. Though, certainly, Syriac sources have not been ignored completely, and critical approaches are increasing in recent years. In her work on Ephrem, Christine Shephardson provides an excellent example of reading Syriac sources against the grain in order to identify the theological motivations that stand behind anti-Jewish polemic. And even more recently, Kyle Smith has offered a significant challenge to the uncritical use of early Syriac texts as historical sources. One of the goals of my project is to bring Aphrahat studies up to speed on this front and to broaden the conversation about rhetoric and reality in early Syriac Christianity.
The Demonstrations—a corpus of twenty-three individual treatises (Syr. taḥwitha = “demonstration”)—is, to be quite frank, an odd collection of texts. Within this collection, there are generic writings on faith and love (Dem. 1-2), an apocalyptic style meditation on war (Dem. 5), a description of the early Syriac ascetic group known as the bnay qyama (Dem. 6), instructions to church leaders (Dem. 10), a presumed synodal letter (Dem. 14), and a series of anti-Jewish arguments (Dems. 11-13, 15-21) that appear to reflect active competition between Aphrahat’s community and a rival Jewish community. This apparent conflict has attracted some scholarly attention over the last century, and Aphrahat has frequently been used as a historical source for Jewish-Christian relations in the Sasanian Empire. In this scholarly literature, though, there has been no consensus on the precise identity of the Jewish opponent in the Demonstrations. Primarily, this debate has centered on the question of whether Aphrahat’s writings reflect knowledge of Rabbinic Judaism or a Jewish community largely unaware of, and thus untethered by, Rabbinic teachings. But, this approach to the debate—regardless of how it is answered—presumes that there was a “real” Jewish opponent and that Aphrahat’s writings accurately reflect this opposing community.
This provides my point of departure from previous scholarship on Aphrahat and Judaism: I argue that “the Jews” of Aphrahat’s anti-Jewish polemic are entirely a rhetorical construct. Thus, this Jewish opponent serves as a literary device through which Aphrahat instructs his readers and constructs Christian identity. Aphrahat’s depiction of Christian identity is dependent upon his particular construction of Jewish identity; the latter provides the foil against which the former emerges. Moreover, I argue that the context for this rhetorical Jewish opponent is the diversity of early Christian identity in Sasanian Persia, which Aphrahat attempts to unify through his writings.
The first three chapters of my dissertation serve as prolegomena. In Chapter 1, I construct a methodology for employing identity theory as a lens for reading the Demonstrations by surveying both sociological literature on identity and secondary literature that applies “identity” frameworks to late ancient texts. In this survey, I am particularly interested in the construction and regulation of communal boundaries through the identification and description of “the other.” In other words, I found identity theory to be a helpful framework because I am interested in the discursive act of description and the ways that such description functions as a boundary marker between religious communities.
I found identity theory to be particularly useful for a fresh reading of the Demonstrations because it forced me to step back and consider the ways that Aphrahat describes and defines the identities in question. In fact, it’s somewhat ironic to say that Aphrahat constructs “Christian” identity because he does not use the word “Christian” as a descriptor. Rather, Aphrahat delineates between “the people” (i.e. the Jews) and “the people from among the peoples” (or sometimes “the peoples”), his chosen moniker for his own community. By employing identity theory, I paid attention to the ways that Aphrahat constructs difference between “the people” and “the peoples,” particularly in those places where similarity might threaten to overwhelm constructed boundaries (shared Scripture, shared past, shared God).
In Chapter 2, I provide an in-depth introduction to the Demonstrations as a corpus, with particular interest paid to their reception history both in the later Syriac tradition and in other Eastern Christian languages (Armenian, Arabic, Georgian, and Ethiopic). Chapter 3 is a broad historical sketch of both the political and religious world of fourth-century Sasanian Persia. My primary goal with this sketch was to survey the religious “options” one might be faced with in the Persian Empire in Aphrahat’s lifetime, and particularly to show the diversity of Christian traditions that were alive and well in the fourth century and beyond in the Syriac-speaking world. Thus, in addition to Jewish and Zoroastrian traditions, I consider evidence for Marcionite, Bardaisanite, and Manichaean communities in the fourth century, attempting to place Aphrahat’s project of identity formation in a broader, more vibrant religious context.
The final three chapters provide the heart of my argument about identity formation in the Demonstrations. The first piece of this argument is a reconsideration of Aphrahat’s treatment of the body-soul relationship and the implications of that relationship in Christian practice (baptism) and belief (bodily resurrection of the dead). Despite some of the unique aspects of Aphrahat’s treatment (e.g. sleep of the soul), the substance of his argument has received surprisingly little attention. Aphrahat frames the topic of the body-soul relationship as a debate with an unnamed opponent about the correct interpretation of 1 Cor. 15 (who didn’t argue about 1 Cor. 15 in late antiquity?). Rather than trying to identify a particular opponent (Marcionite, Bardaisanite, etc.), I present Aphrahat’s argument within the context of broader Jewish, Christian, and para-Christian interpretive traditions about the creation of humanity and God “breathing” the soul into humanity (Gen 2:7) and the subsequent concept of sense-perception associated with the soul-body problem in late antiquity. As such, I read Aphrahat’s argument within a broad interpretive stream that ranges from Rabbinic texts to Nag Hammadi texts, from Aristotle to the Stoics, from Philo to the Manichaeans, and from Ephrem to Augustine.
The purpose of this comparison is to show the ways that Aphrahat’s discussion of the soul-body relationship fits into a much broader conversation than previously thought. One of the implications of this comparative treatment is that Aphrahat may not have been as “isolated” from more significant currents of Christian discourse as he is often assumed to be. Another implication—more significant to the thesis of my project—is that Aphrahat’s writings should not be considered a “univocal” witness to early Syriac Christianity. The debate that Aphrahat engages over the soul-body issue is not mere philosophical speculation; he ties this issue into an interpretive argument about the bodily resurrection and the correct reading of Paul. With this in mind, Aphrahat’s complex argument about the soul/body, baptism, and the resurrection is not representative of “early Syriac Christianity,” but rather evidence of the diversity of Christian identity in the Syriac-speaking world. And, furthermore, it is this picture of diversity that provides the backdrop against which Aphrahat constructs a vision of Christian identity that includes some, but excludes others who might provide rival visions of Christian identity.
Chapters 5 and 6 focus more narrowly on Aphrahat’s depiction of the Jews. First, in Chapter 5, I lay out my argument for reading “the Jews” of the Demonstrations as a literary device. In particular, I analyze Aphrahat’s use of an interlocutor whom he generally refers to as “a sage of the Jews.” Upon closer examination, however, it becomes quite apparent that “interlocutor” is not even the right term; after all, nearly every time Aphrahat addresses this “sage,” he does so with a rhetorical question and the sage is never even given a voice. Likewise, Aphrahat frequently sets up an interpretive question by claiming a rival Jewish interpretation, which he (of course) subsequently “proves” to be false based on his own exegesis. The Jewish arguments that Aphrahat employs, though, ring hollow in the rhetorical echo chamber that his writings create.
Moreover, I argue that the closest comparisons to Aphrahat’s arguments about the Jews are found not in his near contemporary, John Chrysostom, whose vituperative treatment of the Jews suggests a real rivalry and competition for loyalty, but rather in the Greco-Roman contra Iudaeos literature of the second century, namely Justin Martyr and Tertullian. I do not argue that Aphrahat knew and relied on either of these authors; rather, I attempt to show that the nature of his anti-Jewish polemic is similar to theirs, showing the same kinds of concerns. Aphrahat’s writings, however, have not been subjected to the same kinds of literary and historical analysis as Justin’s and Tertullian’s. So it has far too long been assumed that Aphrahat confronts a “real” Jewish opponent while Justin and Tertullian clearly construct a literary opponent.
Finally, in Chapter 6, I argue that the heart of Aphrahat’s anti-Jewish polemic is an approach to the Hebrew Bible that I call a “comprehensive hermeneutic of reversal.” In this chapter, I provide examples of the many ways that Aphrahat re-interprets texts of the Hebrew Bible so that they serve as both critiques of “the people” and as prophecies foretelling the turning of God’s favor toward “the peoples.” No text is safe from Aphrahat’s exegetical reversal; from the narrative of Abraham’s call to the words of Moses, from Joshua leading the people into Canaan to the prophets and their unrelenting critiques, Aphrahat finds ample proof for the reversal of God’s blessing hiding behind every jot and tittle. Through his creative exegesis, Aphrahat re-writes Jewish history in Christian terms, inscribing Christian identity as a palimpsest written over sacred Jewish texts. The new meanings that emerge from Aphrahat’s re-interpretation produce not just new ways of reading the texts, but new texts altogether.
Ultimately, I argue that Aphrahat’s hermeneutic of reversal is the most significant aspect of identity construction. Employing this interpretive strategy, Aphrahat re-signifies Scripture itself, stripping text after text of their Jewish “meaning” and re-interpreting them as either indictments of the Jews or foreshadowing for Christians. The construction of the identity of the “people from among the peoples” is rooted in the exegetical decimation of “the people.” In effect, the purpose of Aphrahat’s comprehensive hermeneutic of reversal is to take an originally Jewish text and make it function as Christian Scripture.
By way of summary: in this project, I argue that Aphrahat articulates an uncompromising vision of Christian identity, dependent upon yet distinct from its Jewish roots. This image of Christian identity is also distinct from other, unspecified Christians who misunderstand and misinterpret Scripture. Aphrahat’s construction of Christian identity thus creates difference out of similarity on two fronts: on one side, Aphrahat lays claim to Jewish traditions and Jewish texts, yet he clearly distinguishes “the people from among the people” from “the people;” on the other side, Aphrahat engages in exegetical arguments with unnamed Christian opponents—from those who argue that there will be no bodily resurrection to those who are confused about the correct time for the celebration of the Christian pascha.
The complex nature of Aphrahat’s construction of Christian identity suggests that these texts should not be read as straightforward accounts of Christian-Jewish relations in fourth-century Sasanian Persia. Rather, it suggests that neither “Christian” nor “Jewish” identity was neatly defined. Thus, the Demonstrations are not a historical artifact of the Christian community of fourth-century Persia seeking to establish itself against the established Jewish community; rather, they attest to the discursive efforts of one author to shape the reality of his Christian community by offering a rhetorically constructed image of the Jews as a negative example.
The Demonstrations as a work is thus an image that projects a particular reality— a hoped for reality—but this image should not be confused with “historical” reality. The clean lines that Aphrahat draws between “Jew” and “Christian” are easy to mistake for social boundaries that separated distinct communities unless we, as modern readers, recognize that it is Aphrahat’s very articulation of these boundaries that calls them into question. But the “location” of the boundary between Jew and Christian is only one piece of Aphrahat’s construction of religious identity in the Demonstrations. Aphrahat is not protecting Christian identity from being collapsed with Jewish identity; he is constructing Christian identity from the inchoate mass of beliefs, texts, practices, and rituals that populated the late antique religious landscape.
With this project, I am certain that I have not fully answered the question of “what is going on” in the Demonstrations. I still have many questions that remain unanswered, but I think that I made some progress in satisfying my initial curiosity. And maybe that’s all one can hope for when a dissertation topic won’t leave you alone.