edited by j. edward walters
eerdmans, 439 pages, $55
A voice of sighs, of groaning, of laments, a cry of my heart, I offer up to you, O seer of secrets.”
Thus begins the Book of Lamentations by Gregory of Narek, a tenth-century Armenian saint. I first came across the book in 2013 in Beirut, where an Armenian bookseller gave me an Arabic translation of the text. He told me he regularly sells copies in both Armenian and Arabic. Little did St. Gregory know that his words would still be read over a millennium after he wrote them. His translated writings can be easily obtained in many languages, including English. The relative availability of his writings stands in contrast to much of the literature of the churches of the Middle East, which at best remain confined to obscure academic journals, difficult to get without access to a university library. However, an excellent new volume of translated texts, Gregory of Narek's included, offers a remedy. In these pages, the modern reader will find many pearls of what we might loosely call Middle Eastern Christianity—or, more accurately, the non-Latin and non-Greek Eastern Christian traditions that date back to the earliest days of the church.
Edited by J. Edward Walters of the Hill Manuscript Museum and Library in Minnesota, Eastern Christianity: A Reader offers clear and readable English translations of foundational texts from the Christian literature of the Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Coptic, and Ethiopic languages. Each language, and each text, has a short introduction from the translator. Texts range from tales of martyrdom and devotional literature to apologetics and histories of Christian controversy. The book covers a wide range of topics and is suitable for both spiritual reading and academic study.
Eastern Christianity opens a window upon the subject most relevant to Christianity in the Middle East today, namely the churches’ relationship with Islam. Sometimes Muslims are alluded to explicitly, sometimes between the lines. One text is by the renowned scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq, best known for translating Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic in ninth-century Baghdad during the Abbasid caliphate. His treatise in the book is entitled “How to Discern the True Religion.” He opens by asking, “How can a man know that his own profession of faith is true, while what others profess is false?” He lays out six reasons why a man might accept a lie as true, such as when he is “unwillingly compelled by force” or when he “willingly flees from a state of constraint and hardship . . . he thus transfers himself from it to one wherein he hopes for ease and abundance.”
For Hunayn, Christianity’s origins offer a clear refutation to these reasons. Christianity, he writes, “was not accepted through the might of some king or through compulsion at the hands of some prince. Rather, all the kings and princes of the earth showed themselves hostile to it and sought to drive everyone from it.” Furthermore, those accepting Christianity in its earliest days were forced to go from a life of ease to a life of burden, not the other way around. Christianity didn't improve their social status, but lowered it. They were often forced to cut ties to their families. In other words, earthly gain was hardly a reason for the initial spread of Christianity. Hunayn found these compelling reasons for one to assess the validity of Christianity, and contrasted these reasons with he who defends his religion “because he inherited from his ancestors, or because he got it from some Scripture or from some prophet who proffered inspired verses, or because it is founded on his own investigation.”
Elsewhere in the book, the twelfth-century Catholicos of the Armenian church, Nerses Shnorhali, laments the lack of commitment to prayer among his faithful. He compares their level of dedication to that of the Muslims. Introducing a prayer that he urges his followers to pray five times a day, he laments: “And if any Christians neglect learning and praying this, let them be reproved by the erroneous sect of Muhammad, who even in battles do not forgo the prayers that he taught them, let alone at a peaceful hour.”
Eastern Christianity shines light on the riches of the Middle Eastern churches and their respective literary canons. These ancient branches of Christianity still survive today, hanging on in their homelands, but some of them are at serious risk of disappearing. When we hear of the dangers facing Christianity in the Middle East, it is many of the peoples and traditions of this book that are existentially threatened. One hopes that a better understanding of the history of Middle Eastern Christians, which this book provides, will prompt action to help save them in the present.
Samuel Sweeney is president of the Mesopotamia Relief Foundation in northeastern Syria.
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