Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Kairos Palestine

Following the model of the Kairos Document, a statement published in 1985 by black South African theologians decrying apartheid, Arab Christian leaders in Palestine, representing all the major confessions, have drafted their own document calling for a Christian response to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It was apparently drafted with the participation of Archbishop Atallah Hanna, the only Arab on the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and was signed by Patriarch Theophilos III.

The document itself can be downloaded in PDF here and the supporting website can be found here. I encourage everyone to take a look.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Abdallah ibn al-Fadl's Kitab Bahjat al-Mu'min

Although almost none of his works have been edited and even fewer have been translated into English, the deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki is one of the most important Orthodox intellectual figures of the 11th century and was considered a saint by the 17th century Patriarch of Antioch Macarios ibn al-Za’im. Here is the introduction to him and an excerpt of one of his works, taken from Melkites by Fr. Ignatius Dick.

A deacon of the Church of Antioch in the eleventh century, versed in philosophy and patrology, Abdallah ibn al-Fadl left a considerable literary work. He translated into Arabic a substantial part of the works of the Greek Fathers (John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, Sophronios, John Damascene) and provided the Melkite Church with the scriptural versions used in the Liturgy. This translation became the basis of our modern editions. He also composed in Arabic personal works filled with the ideas of the Fathers and ancient philosophers. These works are mostly compilations and theological dissertations on specific questions. One of his principle works is Kitab Bahjat al-Mu’men, (Book of the Joy of the Faithful), dated by the author himself in 1052. It contains four parts divided in 365 questions and answers according to the days of the year, allowing the faithful to read one question a day. There are 100 questions on fundamental notions of philosophy and theology. 100 questions and answers are taken from a work attributed to Caesarios of Nazianzos, brother of Gregory of Nazianzos. One hundred deal with theological and exegetical subjects (82-91 on the Liturgy). The last sixty-five questions and responses handle exegesis of the Old and New Testaments. Here we give the translation of some passages of this unpublished work, according to manuscript 37 of the Greek Catholic Metropolis of Aleppo.

If someone says: How do we prove the oneness of God, may He be praised? Answer: Say that this is the unanimous agreement on this subject from all the nations, despite the variety of their confessions and the variety of their tendencies. The inhabitants of the world are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, philosophers, and idolaters. Without previous encounters or consultation, they unanimously assent to the unity of the substance of God. The Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Bardesanites, and similar others admit two eternal principles, testifying that one is God and the other Satan. Despite their error and the aberration of their belief in the eternity the cursed one who is created, they believe in one God because they do not name another God, but Satan.
The philosophers maintain the oneness of God. In fact, Plato asserts that the form of all things was in the mind of the Giver like chiseled shapes in a seal, thus, referencing oneness. After speaking about the four elements in his book On the Sky and the World, Aristotle says, “We have to speak about the One who is the cause of all that is, for it is not fit, after having spoken about these things, to neglect to speak about the One who is the cause.” And shortly after that he says, “He is God the creator, good, organizer and savior of all, and the celestial bodies draw their power from him.” And in another one of his books titled On Generation and Corruption, after having said that the sun and the stars move and see all things, he asserts that over them, “There is another who leads them and is not at all influenced by another. He is always immutable and unchangeable and one in number.” He proves in speech 8 of The Natural Recital that he is immaterial. Pythagoras says that the principle of all numbers is unity; this is the indication that God, the most high, is one from all times. And he says, “As unity is indivisible, not formed of parts, and not preceded by another number but the number coming after it, similarly, it is with God the Creator.”
When it comes to idolaters, although they name their idols “gods,” they assert over them that there is an ancient god that has no one above him. Certain theologians said that one could not conceive two without the existence of one. And one cannot conceive one without the existence of two. The same way, if you have a servant, you can have two, and if you have two, there must be one, and one is previous and the two are composed from him. This shows that the Creator is one and is eternal. This is a sufficient response for those that are intelligent, grace be to God. And blessed John Damascene, the doctor, priest and Chrysorroas says, “It is completely impossible that two principles without beginning exist because by nature one is the principle of all duality.” (Part one, question four.)

If someone asks: What the word gospel means, why do you call the book that speaks about Jesus Christ, “gospel”? Answer: Say that the word gospel is a Greek word that in Arabic means bishara or good news, for it announces to us the birth of Jesus Christ from the Virgin Mary, the salvation that we obtained by faith in Him, and the end of unbelief and idolatry. It announces to us the deliverance from slavery of Satan and of enslavement to original sin, meaning the sin of Adam, the first ancestor. It also announces to us the entrance into the Kingdom if we follow the faith with good deeds. This is why it is called gospel, that is, good news. (Part three, question one.)

If someone says: What does the Gospel mean to us? Answer: Say that it means for us the presence of the Word of God who appeared in it. He did not talk to us in the cloud and the trumpet as He spoke to Moses in the cloud, the lightening, and the sounds of the trumpets with uproar, obscurity, and fire on the mountain, or as He spoke to the prophets on future subjects in their dreams. Rather He appeared in the clarity of a true man. (Part three, question two.)

To one who says, does it make sense that Christians say, God the Most High is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and believe in three gods? Answer: Say, the Christians do not believe in three gods. But, they believe that God the Most High, is one in His essence and triune in his attributes. His essence does not resemble the other essences and His attributes do not resemble the other attributes. And they say that he is reasonable and possesses a Word. And the Word is the Son. They also say that He is living and His life is the Holy Spirit. And they believe that these three attributes are one nature, one substance, one Lord, and one indivisible Creator in His essence and not split in His entity. He is three, undivided hypostases in their nature and their substance. The Father is qualified as reasonably living and the incarnate Son is the substantial word of God and the Holy Spirit is His eternal life. And they say that the Father is the principle of the Son and the Holy Spirit and that the Son and the Holy Spirit are His principles and that the three of them are one, eternal, and immortal God. (Part three, question four.)

If someone says: How could the incarnation of God the Word Happen in accordance with sound reason? Answer: Say: one of the basic principles asserts that the most generous donor is the one who gives the best realities. The other thesis says that the creator, praised and extolled, is the best and most generous donor. The deduction from these two theses is that God, may He be praised, gives us the best realities. If we add to this conclusion another basic principle, namely that the essence of the blessed Creator is the best reality, by association of the two theses, it follows that God who gives the best reality consequently gives his own essence. And this is convincing to show the necessity of the incarnation. (Part three, question six.)

Melkites by Ignatius Dick

It’s a shame, though a very understandable one, that most books on the history of Arab Christianity were written by Catholics, and often Eastern Catholics. This is especially true, of course, in western languages. Such works range widely in quality from the indespensible Histoire du Mouvement Litteraire dans l’Eglise Melkite by Fr. Joseph Nasrallah to the unbelievably shoddy and polemical History of the Melkite Patriarchates by Fr. Cyril Charon Korolevsky. Given that there is no book on the history of Arab Orthodoxy in a western language from an Orthodox source, probably the best book in English on the history of the Patriarchate of Antioch during the Arab period is Melkites: Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics of the Patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem by Fr. Ignatius Dick, a Greek Catholic priest based in Aleppo. This English edition is a translation and update of a French edition and is published by the Melkite Greek Catholic eparchy in the US.

The 200-page book is divided into seven chapters—History, Doctrine, an Anthology of Melkite Literature, Sacred Art, Spiritual Life, Community Profile, and Ecclesial Organization. It is followed by statistical tables for the Orthdox and Greek Catholic populations of various Middle Eastern countries and a bibliography of related works in English. The original French edition had a much more extensive bibliography covering most modern languages, so it’s a serious loss that the English edition’s bibliography is so needlessly impoverished.

Fr. Dick is a competent scholar of Arab Christianity in the pre-modern period, and so his history, while brief, is generally quite accurate and informative given the current state of research in the field. The Orthodox reader, however, should be warned that because it was written specifically for a Catholic audience, it does write about events immediately before and after the schism of 1724 with a strongly Catholic bias. Also, its attempts at bolstering the Greek Catholic foundational myth by portraying Antioch as having always been pro-Roman to some degree are not as well-supported as the author imagines. However, non-polemical research on the Orthodox community in greater Syria in the Arab and Ottoman periods is still at best still in its infancy.

What makes this book really worthwhile, however, is the fifty-page anthology of Melkite* literature from St. Romanos the Melodist through the modern period. While the selections from Antiochene Greek literature can be found elsewhere, many of the selections from Arabic works are not available in English, sometimes not in any western language at all, and in a few cases were translated from unedited manuscripts unavailable to anyone except a few specialists. Thus, the translation from Ibrahim ibn Yuhanna the Protospatharos’s (fl. in the second half of the 10th century) life of the martyred Patriarch Christopher of Antioch (d. May 23, 967) is to my knowledge not available in English. His translation of the deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki’s (fl. ca. 1050) Kitab Bahjat al-Mu’min is a translation from an unedited manuscript. The extract from Nikon of the Black Mountain’s (d. very early 12th century) Pandektes is from an unedited Greek manuscript (the fact that this very influential work, originally written in Greek and immediately translated into Arabic, hasn’t been edited in any language save Slavonic is a travesty!). The translation from Paul of Antioch/Sidon’s (mid 12th century?) Letter to a Muslim Friend had previously only been translated into French, but I’m hoping a full English translation will come out in about a year and a half. The translations of Ottoman-era and early modern texts focus entirely on Orthodox-Catholic relations, from a strongly ecumenical Greek Catholic perspective and are only of marginal interest except to hobbyists of ecumenism.

The other chapters of the book, while well-informed, are all written from the perspective of Greek Catholics as ‘Orthodox in Communion with Rome’ and are only somewhat informative to those uninterested in that particular problematique. All that said, while this book has some serious drawbacks for an Orthodox readership, it contains the best presentation available in English of the History of Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians and also presents an extremely valuable contribution in the form of the translated anthology. We can hope that in the not-terribly-distant future the groundwork laid by scholars such as Fr. Dick can be built upon in a way accessible to a broader audience.

*As discussed before on this blog, the term ‘Melkite’ was the term most often used in Arabic in the pre-modern period by Orthodox Christians to distinguish themselves from other Christian sects, who also all call themselves ‘Orthodox’. After the schism of 1724, this term fell out of favor with the Orthodox, but was kept by the Greek Catholics of Syria. Fr. Dick, in searching for an accurate term to use in his book, attempts to revive the broader application of ‘Melkite’.