Philip Michael Forness, “Preaching and Religious Debate: Jacob of Serugh and the Promotion of His Christology in the Roman Near East,” Ph.D. diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 2016.
Homilies as Historical Sources
What did ordinary people know about abstract theological debates? Homilies are tantalizing sources for scholars who wish to reconstruct the experiences of Christians from diverse levels of society. What did they hear within their places of worship about Scripture and the lives of saints? The reality, though, is more complex. A long editorial process brought homilies from the mouths of preachers to ink on parchment. Patrons, producers, scribes, owners, and readers of manuscripts all shaped the homilies that reach us today. Sermons demand a rich methodology to peel back these layers and reveal the connection between what was preached and what has been transmitted.
My dissertation, “Preaching and Religious Debate,” investigates homilies as a source for understanding social history. The sermons of John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo contain a wealth of information about the places and contexts in which they preached. But this sets them apart from most extant homilies. Indeed, the homilies falsely attributed to Chrysostom and Augustine far outnumber their authentic works. These works were often written in non-classical languages and feature in the literature of a wide variety of eastern Christian communities. Scholars have little hope of finding the context of any one of these pseudonymous homilies.
I seek to answer questions about the homiletical literature in general by focusing on these texts within Syriac literature. Syriac homilies from late antiquity provoke an exploration of the possibility of using sermons without a defined context as historical texts. Around seven hundred homilies authored in Syriac survive from the fourth through sixth centuries. Yet most have resisted efforts to identify their dates, locations, and liturgical settings. By attending to these texts, we are forced to confront the difficulty of interpreting the seemingly de-contextualized remains of most sermons from late antiquity.
Developing a Methodology for Interpreting Homilies
My dissertation advances an approach for historically situating homilies without contextual information based on a case study of an individual author. The extensive literary corpus of the fifth- and sixth-century Syriac author Jacob of Serugh (451–521) contains over four hundred sermons, forming the third largest homiletical corpus from late antiquity. Yet Jacob’s preaching provides almost no revealing asides, interruptions from the audience, or comments on liturgical, social, or geographical contexts. Further, the homilies have resisted most efforts at dating. This corpus, in short, represents most homiletical literature from late antiquity and calls for a new approach.
We need to understand the extensive editorial process of homilies before we can use them as sources for social history. Late antique preachers delivered sermons in a variety of liturgical settings. Scribes in the Greek and Latin worlds recorded their words through the development of shorthand. Preachers and others edited these homilies as texts for circulation. Individuals and communities then gathered these edited homilies into collections organized around the biblical text and on specific topics or as the literary corpora of major figures. Homilies that survive from late antiquity bear some relationship to texts preached within liturgical settings during late antiquity. But we also need to account for the imprint that their circulation in late antique manuscripts has left on them.
A complex approach to the problem of homilies as historical sources demands attention to the process of transmission. We may find that certain genres of homilies permit a view into the liturgical settings in which late antique audiences encountered homilies. We will best interpret other homilies as literary texts that circulated among reading communities. When this spectrum is taken as a guide, we may contextualize individual homilies on different levels.
A Case Study on the Homilies of Jacob of Serugh
This methodological framework undergirds the case study on homilies that forms the core of my dissertation. The first chapter narrates the four-hundred-year debate over whether Jacob of Serugh opposed or supported the Christology promoted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. A consensus gradual emerged in the 1970s that Jacob supported a non-Chalcedonian or miaphysite Christology, even if he was less direct in his views than his peers. The length and tenacity of this scholarly discussion reflect the difficulty of connecting Jacob’s writings to the thought and concerns of his contemporaries.
To this end, the second chapter turns our focus to a little researched debate that serves as a key for unlocking the relationship between Jacob of Serugh’s homilies and the post-Chalcedonian Christological controversies. The Emperor Zeno issued a Christologically focused edict in the year 482 which he intended to unite pro- and anti-Chalcedonian factions. This edict, which became known as the Henotikon, draws on the language of the miracles and sufferings of Christ as representative of the divinity and humanity of Christ.
The third chapter investigates Jacob of Serugh’s subtle use of this pairing of miracles and sufferings in his letters. His correspondence with a monastery outside the city of Antioch shows his direct involvement in a debate over the Henotikon—including the miracles and sufferings of Christ—at the beginning of the 510s. His letter to a military leader concerning the siege of the city of Edessa in 519 shows his productive use of this phrase from the Henotikon to exposit Christology. His lengthy epistle to a Christian community in the south Arabian city of Himyar around the same time reveals his efforts to communicate a staunchly non-Chalcedonian Christology beyond the Roman Empire. These letters connect Jacob firmly to the debate over the Henotikon at the beginning of the second decade of the sixth century.
The first three chapters set up the final three chapters which are at the heart of the dissertation. The fourth chapter consists of a survey of homilies across Latin, Greek, and Syriac literature with attention to the specific problems posed by working with Syriac sources. It fully develops the methodology described in the previous section in this post.
The fifth and sixth chapters feature detailed case studies on three of Jacob’s homilies that reveal a range of approaches needed to contextualize his homilies. Jacob of Serugh’s Homily on the Faith contains a survey of theological doctrine ranging from the incarnation to ecclesiology to the Trinity to soteriology. The content of this homily reflects other late antique homilies known to have been preached before a range of audiences, from narrow gatherings of ecclesiastical elites to preparatory catechesis for neophytes.
The sixth chapter explores two exegetical homilies that meet expectations for homilies preached before ordinary audiences in late antiquity. The first of these homilies treats Deuteronomy 18:15–18 on the prediction of a future prophet. Jacob uses typological exegesis to draw in better known aspects of Moses’s life in order to interpret this passage typologically as a reference to Christ. Jacob’s use of Moses-Christ typology fits a tradition of homilies for the transfiguration, including a pro-Chalcedonian homily that features the language of the miracles and sufferings of Christ. The second homily treats Matthew 16:13–20, which includes Simon Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. Jacob’s contemporaries Philoxenos of Mabbug and Severus of Antioch each put forth miaphysite Christological interpretations of this passage. Jacob’s own interpretation matches theirs.
The language of miracles and sufferings appears in each of these homilies. It forms a strong link to Jacob of Serugh’s letters and the wider debate over this language among his peers. Jacob not only deemed it important to include this language and its very specific allusions to Zeno’s Henotikon in letters read by elites. But he also utilized the very same phrase to explain his Christology to the larger audiences that may have gathered to hear his catechetical and exegetical sermons. No evidence survives for the reception of these teachings among ordinary audiences. But this textual evidence links these homilies to a specific and known theological debate. Jacob of Serugh attempted to communicate the content of this debate to wider audiences.
The conclusion discusses Jacob’s Homily on the Council of Chalcedon as a contrast to the three homilies explored in chapters five and six. This homily also contains the pairing of miracles and sufferings but it permits the identification of no obvious liturgical context. Indeed, it is among the first known homilies on ecumenical councils and is best interpreted as a text that circulated among reading communities. Taken as a set of four homilies, we are able to see a spectrum of homilies that are best interpreted as circulating literary texts to those that were preached in some form within liturgical settings. When we view Jacob of Serugh’s sermons on such a spectrum, we are able to glimpse the wide range of audiences to which he sought to communicate his specific, miaphysite understanding of Christology.
Prospects for Future Research
My dissertation forms an extensive case study that demonstrates a methodology for connecting otherwise decontextualized homilies to known historical events. It highlights the circulation of homilies in manuscript collections within late antiquity as a productive avenue for historically situating homilies without a defined liturgical context. It also suggests how we might begin to account for the differences between homilies preached in liturgical contexts in late antiquity and the homilies that reach us in manuscripts today.
Syriac homilies will be of value for investigating the communities that produced, read, and circulated homilies in late antiquity. A great number of manuscripts dating to the sixth and seventh centuries preserve homilies, which is unparalleled in the Greek and Latin traditions. The possibility of bringing together the extensive research on John Chrysostom’s and Augustine of Hippo’s sermons with the material evidence for Syriac homilies in late antiquity represents a promising avenue of research. We will then be in a better place to understand the process by which homilies have reached us today and to peel back the layers that suggest what ordinary people may have gained from preaching.
Philip Michael Forness is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Late Antique Christianity in the Near East at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main.