Sunday, December 13, 2020

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Tranquility

 Arabic original here.


Once I asked an elder, "Why do you flee to the desert? Why don't you remain in the world where you can benefit and be of benefit?"

The elder replied, "If a person does not become like an angel, then he will not gain anything from the world. As for me, a wretched son of Adam, when I see the fruit of sin I desire it, I eat it and I die."

What did the Lord Jesus do?

"When He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray" (Matthew 14:23). This is to teach us that if we want to turn to God with a pure heart, we must remove ourselves a little from the din of the crowd.

Solitude helps us to be continually united to God. It helps one who prays to be more united to the hidden world within himself, so that he can struggle against various thoughts and inner temptations, imitating Christ in the salvific confrontation with temptations.

It is difficult for contemporary man to attain such inner experience while he is occupied with various outward concerns that prevent him from securing this outward tranquility as a prelude to attaining inner tranquility through prayer without distraction.

Attention to the inside produces inner wakefulness where the Holy Spirit becomes the starting-point for all activities and "those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Hebrews 5:`4).

The spiritual father possesses the virtue of discerning spirits.

This gift causes one to no longer regard the self as the center of the world, but to look to the other and become a being of communion.

Saint Macarius the Egyptian describes hell as "no longer being able to see the face of the other."

The work of the hesychast in his prayer is to unite the body to the soul under divine watch. Purity of heart in the ascetic struggle and hesychastic prayer do not aim to mortify sensation and erase the will, but just the opposite, to tame the human animal nature.

In this way savage beasts become tame and prayer causes man's passions to transform into a capacity for love of God and the neighbor.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Christian Arabic Bible Translations at the British Library

The blog of the British Library has posted a wonderful, illustrated, overview of the manuscripts of Arabic bibles in their collection written by Miriam Hjälm

Christian Arabic Bible Translations in the British Library Collections

The British Library holds an impressive collection of Christian Arabic texts, including many Bible translations which served a variety of communal interests. The character of the translations varies greatly. Most were based on Greek and Syriac Vorlagen but Hebrew, Latin, and Coptic source texts were also sometimes consulted. The communities were often bilingual – or even trilingual – which is reflected in many manuscripts.


Read the rest here.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Fr Oleg Davydenkov on Theodore Abu Qurrah

 Russian original here.

"Whatever Abu Qurra wrote about, he always had in mind a potential Muslim looking over his shoulder." An Interview with Archpriest Oleg Davydenkov

At the publishing house of PSTGU there have appeared two new books by Archpriest Oleg Davydenkov, a doctor of theology and head of the Department of Eastern Christian Philology and Eastern Churches at PSTGU: the scholarly monograph The Theology of Abu Qurra, Bishop of Harran and a book of translations, The Arabic Works of Theodore Abu Qurra, Bishop of Harran.

In connection with this, we interviewed Fr Oleg about the outstanding Arabic-speaking theologian, his literary legacy, the specifics of his theological thought and the world in which he lived.

Could you briefly describe the activities of the bishop Theodore Abu Qurrah so the readers can understand the historical dimensions of this figure?

Theodore Abu Qurrah, the most significant Melkite-- that is, Arabic-speaking Orthodox-- lived in the second half of the 8th and the early 9th century and presumably died around 830. Theodore was a native of the city of Edessa (today Urfa in Turkey). Most likely, he was a monk at the Lavra of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified in Palestine and then he became bishop of the city of Harran (in modern times a small village in Turkey near the Turkish-Syrian border).

Abbu Qurrah was a very prolific writer. The greater part of his immense literary legacy was composed and preserved in Arabic. Additionally, he was the author of a few dozen short theological-polemical treatises (opuscula) in Greek.

Thus, Theodore was the last Melkite author to write in Greek as well as the first famous Christian writer who began to compose theological works in Arabic. In one of his Arabic writings, Abu Qurrah also reports that he composed around 30 theological treatises in Syriac, but not one of them has survived down to our time. Several works of the bishop of Harran have survived only in Georgian translation.

What are the main orientations of Abu Qurrah's literary activity?

Bishop Theodore's sphere of interests is very extensive. He has many reflections on general philosophical topics: rational proof of God's existence, the nature of religious faith, the preconditions and methods of knowledge of God, the question of man's free will. In a few of his works, Abu Qurrah attempts to substantiate Christianity's superiority over other religions (he argues most of all with Judaism and Manichaeism) and to prove the truth and divinely-revealed nature of the Gospel.

A significant part of his literary legacy is made up of Christological polemics with both the Jacobites-Severians and the Nestorians, as well as the defense of icon veneration. Separate theological treatises are dedicated to presenting the Orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Church Councils and the authority of Church teaching.

A theme that runs throughout Theodore Abu Qurrah's works is the defense of the Christian faith in the face of Islam. Even when discussing purely Christian topics, he always has a potential Muslim reader in mind. The contemporary American scholar Mark Swanson comments that, "Whatever Abu Qurrah wrote about, he always had in mind a potential Muslim looking over his shoulder."

Even purely Christian topics, Bishop Theodore attempts to present in an apologetic manner, and not only with the aim of protecting certain positions of the Christian faith from Muslim criticism, but also to present Christian doctrine as a whole to Muslim readers as logically substantiated and consistent, to show that Christianity is not a superstition or a pagan relic, as Christian doctrine was often perceived by Muslim polemicists, but a serious theological and philosophical doctrine, meeting all the criteria of rationality and "science".

Did his polemic with Islam have success?

Undoubtedly, Abu Qurrah's opponents regarded him as a serious and dangerous antagonist. He was widely known in the Muslim environment and highly authoritative Muslim thinkers composed polemical works against him in particular.

Are any conversions of Muslims perhaps known?

It is difficult to speak of conversions. Only a few cases of conversion from Islam to Christianity in the Arab Caliphate of the 7th-9th centuries are known (the martyrs Abo of Tbilisi and Anthony Rawh). Even if such events did take place, they were carefully hidden because, according to Muslim law, conversion from Islam to any other religion was punishable by death.

To what degree was he known in Byzantium?

It cannot be said that he was well-known in Byzantium because his life took place during a period when contacts between Orthodox Christians living in the territory of the Arab Caliphate and their Byzantine correligionists were reduced to a minimum. Abu Qurrah himself, known as a zealous defender of icon veneration, apparently did not know anything about the Seventh Ecumenical Council! There are mentions of him specifically in some Byzantine authors, but they belong to a later time. The Greeks' interest in his writings emerged in the second millennium in connection with the development of polemic with Islam. Theodore was much better known in the Georgian Church and many of his works were translated into Georgian.

It should be mentioned that in the Melkite community itself, Abu Qurrah was not very well known after his death. The contemporary American specialist in Christian Arabic literature Thomas Ricks notes that Muslim writers played a greater role in preserving the memory of Abu Qurrah than the Orthodox community of the Caliphate: Muslim authors mention Theodore much more often than Melkite authors.

Judging by your words, Abu Qurrah was well-acquainted with the Arab world.

And not only the Arab [world]. Apparently, Theodore traveled a great deal. There is reason to believe that he visited Egypt. At least, there is evidence for this in authors of a later period and indirect evidence in Abu Qurrah's own works. If he traveled to Egypt, he probably also visited Sinai. After visiting Egypt, he undertook a journey to Armenia. In Theodore's works, there are references to his visit to Jerusalem, the Palestinian city of Azot, the village of Salkin, and the vicinity of Antioch.

Some historians believe that Abu Qurrah, as someone brilliantly-educated and with a fluent command of the Arabic literary language, must have studied for some time in one of the major centers of Arabic education, perhaps even in Baghdad, however nothing about this is known for certain.

How did Christians live in that Muslim world?

It would be incorrect to call this world purely Muslim, since in the late 8th and the first half of the 9th century-- this is the period of the Abbasid Caliphate's cultural flowering-- Christians made up no less than half the population within Greater Syria. Of course, the state was Muslim but the population largely remained Christian. Moreover, Christians occupied many important niches in public life.

For example, in science and education, Christians played a significant role and had an enormous impact on the development of Arab culture. The assimilation of the ancient Greek heritage by the Arabs took place precisely through Christians living in the Caliphate, among them Abu Qurrah: it is mentioned that he was the Arabic translator of some of Aristotle's works.

In both your doctoral dissertation and the book that we are discussing, the first parts are dedicated to the authors' philosophical terminology. It seemed to me that you are showing that the division between the dyophysites and monophysites at this philosophical level. I will allow myself a lengthy quote from your monograph: "In questions of ontology, Abu Qurrah acts as a principled and consistent opponent of the doctrine of personal substances (natures). The concept of personal nature, which in one way or another was inherent to practically all Monophysite theologians, received philosophical formulation in the works of John Philoponus and was the ontological basis for the doctrine of Christ's synthetic nature, which was fundamental for Severian monophysitism." Is it possible to say that the differences between the Christological systems was initially due to different philosophical positions?

I would not oversimplify the problem because these things are interconnected. On the one hand, it is not correct to underestimate the importance of the philosophical factor. Philosophy can indeed influence theology, especially during periods of crisis when a certain weakness appears in theological thought, when immunity to external influences decreases, philosophical ideas can penetrate into theology, leading to serious consequences. The 6th century is precisely a period when the philosophical influence on theology manifested itself very clearly.

On the other hand, I would not exaggerate the importance of philosophical influences. Philosophical ideas could lead to false theological views, but also the reverse: a given theological view could require appropriate philosophical arguments to justify it. Thus, out of that huge arsenal of means offered by ancient philosophy, theologians chose precisely those ideas and arguments that corresponded to their theological position. It is therefore extremely difficult to say which was primary in a given instance.

It should also not be forgotten that authors of that era were not "professional" philosophers and their worldview was based on Divine Revelation. As Protopresbyter John Meyendorf wrote, Byzantine theological thought was open to Greek philosophical problems, but it avoided being captured by philosophical systems. It would be completely incorrect to characterize ancient Christian writers as Neoplatonists, Stoics or Aristotelians. Being philosophically well-educated, the Fathers of the Church nevertheless did not bind themselves to any philosophical systems and they were able to choose from the entire ancient philosophical tradition those means that seemed useful to them for resolving this or that theological problem, for justifying their own position or criticizing their opponents.

Let's proceed directly to theological problems. In the chapter on Abu Qurrah's triadology, I found the most unexpected section, "On Logical Proof of God's Trinity." Could you briefly describe the tradition of logical proof and talk about Bishop Theodore's position within this tradition?

This is a feature of Arab Christian Trinitarian thought. For Byzantine theology, it was uncharacteristic to substantiate God's Trinity in a logical manner, since no one questioned this truth. All Christian heresies, apart from completely marginal anti-Trinitarians, accepted the Trinity as a fact given in Revelation, so there was no point in logically justifying why God is specifically a Trinity and not a duality or quadernity. The only meditation on this topic known to me is by Gregory the Theologian.

In a Muslim environment, everything was different. Christian Revelation had no authority for Muslims and they asked the question: "Supposing you believe that God is multiple in Persons, why precisely in three Persons and not four or ten?" It was necessary to find an answer to that question based not on Revelation, but on logical arguments. Many Arab Christian authors pay a great deal of attention to substantiating the thesis of God's Trinity. Abu Qurrah is one of the first to starting thinking about these issues.

Is it possible to draw an analogy between Arabic-speaking Triadology and the Western Scholastic tradition, which also attempts to rationally substantiate God's Trinity?

It is scarcely possible to speak of Arabic-speaking Christian thought having an influence on the Western Scholastics, although some parallels can be drawn. For example, Abu Qurrah's doctrine of the redemption somewhat similar to Anselm of Canterbury's juridical theory.

How self-evident is it that Europe did not know Melkite authors? After all, it received Aristotle through the Arabs...

Eastern Christian authors were perceived as schismatics in Europe, so their theological writings could not be authoritative for the Latin Scholastics. Exceptions are quite rare-- for example, the Orthodox author Qusta ibn Luqa (9th-early 10th century). His treatise, "On the Difference between the Spirit and the Soul," translated into Latin, was well-known in Medieval Europe and had a significant impact on Western anthropology and psychology (on the doctrine of the spirit). In terms of content, however, this treatise was primarily philosophical and not theological.

Let's discuss a little more the doctrine of redemption that you just mentioned. Here's a quote: "Thus Abu Qurrah demolishes the contradiction between the rigor of Divine Law, which unconditionally demands the punishment of a sinner, and God's mercy, which seeks his forgiveness, by means of substitutionary sacrifice: sin must necessarily be punished, but the punishment can be transferred from one person to another. Christ takes upon Himself the punishment that we deserve." You spoke of parallels with Anselm of Canterbury. To what degree is such a teaching traditional in Orthodox theology?

Certainly, juridical images have been used by the Fathers of the Church since ancient times-- the very word "redemption" is of a purely juridical character. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself uses this juridical term. We see the same thing in the Apostle Paul and many ancient authors, for example Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. Nevertheless, among Byzantine authors there is no attempt to present the mystery of redemption in the form of a strictly logical system constructed exclusively in juridical terms.

The Greek Fathers usually present the doctrine of redemption either as a complex of biblical soteriological images such as Christ the High Priest, Christ the King, Christ the Prophet and others, or historically. That is, as a sequence of biblical events, each of which having a certain redemptive significance, starting with the eternal Council, then further through the Incarnation, life and teaching among people, through death on the Cross, the Descent into Hell, the Resurrection of the dead, down to the Ascension into heaven.

Abu Qurrah was one of the first authors of the Byzantine tradition (which he can, without a doubt be called, despite the peculiarities due to his place of residence, language and specific apologetic tasks), who tried to present the doctrine of redemption as a coherent logical system.

To what extent was his approach taken up afterwards?

If we are talking about our own time, the emphasis on substitutionary sacrifice, characteristic of Bishop Theodore, is not typical of contemporary Orthodox theology. In the first half of the 20th century, the juridical theory came under very harsh criticism for some of its extremes. This is not to say that  ideas contained within this theory have been totally rejected, but nevertheless, alternative theories appear in the 20th century. Some, such as the moral theory of redemption, have not been successful. There have also been more interesting attempts to return to patristic doctrine and find other principles for constructing a theory of redemption.

Nowadays they talk about the organic theory of redemption-- this term is used, for example, in the Orthodox Encyclopedia. In accordance with this theory, sin is understood not in the juridical sense and not as an immoral act, but primarily as a sickness of nature. We see this approach in Vladimir Lossky, Archpriest George Florovsky and some contemporary Greek theologians.

This, however, also has its own limitations: it is hardly possible to express the mystery of redemption only in natural categories, since sin also affects man's personal sphere. Thus, although the organic theory made it possible to better see the weaknesses of both the moral and the juridical theories and contributed to a deeper understanding of patristic doctrine, it is not obvious that it can be accepted as an adequate expression of the Tradition.

Many thanks! I would like to ask two more questions: one about the Christological section and another about ecclesiology. You entitled first section in the chapter "Christology" "Abu Qurrah's Formal Christology." In what sense "formal"?

In the sense that Christology, like some other elements of dogmatic teaching, find expression in specific theological formulas. Moreover, the set of these formulas is quite limited. In order to understand the Christological doctrine of this or that author, it is first of all necessary to establish the set of Christological formulas that he uses. Then it is necessary to determine how he uses them because one and the same formula can be understood by different authors in significantly different ways. Thus, in the section you mentioned, the discussion is about the theological-Christological formulas used by Abu Qurrah and unpacking their content.

The concluding section of your monograph is dedicated to ecclesiology. It seemed to me that Theodore Abu Qurra's doctrine of the Church is very consonant with the current situation: his ecclesiology is a response to a significant amount of division within the Church. Could you describe the characteristic features of his doctrine of the Church?

His ecclesiological views are quite original and we find no analogues for them either among Byzantine or Arabic-speaking authors of that time. Abu Qurrah very carefully elaborates a theology of the Councils into which he embeds a specific idea of papal "primacy." He does not, of course, use the word "primacy," and Abu Qurrah's doctrine can in no way be equated with the later Roman Catholic doctrine of papal primacy, which some Catholic authors attempt to deduce in him. Nevertheless, Abu Qurrah clearly speaks about the Bishop of Rome's special place in the Church and his special powers, stressing the role of the Popes of Rome in the history of the Ecumenical Councils. What aims was Theodore pursuing with this?

Most likely, it was an apologetic device directed against both Muslims and non-Orthodox Christians, primarily Monophysites and Nestorians. They both had a common argument according to which the Ecumenical Councils were manifestations of the political life of Byzantium, since they were called by the emperors. In their rhetoric, the Councils' participants appeared to be unfree in their decisions because they were under pressure from the emperor and his administration and therefore their decisions could not have religious authority.

It was therefore necessary to find some external authority who, on the one hand, had great importance in the life of the Church and on the other hand was located outside the jurisdiction of the Byzantine emperor. In Theodore's doctrine, the Bishop of Rome becomes the bearer of such authority.

Thus, Abu Qurrah's doctrine of the Councils is supplemented by the concept of the special powers of the Bishop of Rome who, according to Abu Qurrah, convened the Ecumenical Councils, no Council could take place without his consent, and who had a special charism to preserve intact the Orthodox faith as formulated by the Councils and to instruct his fellow bishops in the faith. We note that Theodore does not place the Pope above the Councils. He does not claim that the Bishop of Rome himself infallibly formulates the common faith of the Church. In his system, the Church's infallible authority is the Councils themselves, not the Pope of Rome.

Turning to your book of translations, I will start with a somewhat provocative question: why would a contemporary Russian-speaking reader read an Arab theologian of the 9th century?

Why should he read the great Cappadocians, John of Damascus, Maximus the Confessor? Abu Qurrah is a prominent representative of the Christian theological tradition, one of the authors who concludes the era of the Ecumenical Councils. In terms of his theological level, he is not inferior to the Greek Fathers. The prominent German scholar of Christian Arabic literature, Georg Graf (the first scholar of Abu Qurrah's works who translated a large part of his treatises into German and also wrote an essay in which he gives an outline of his theological system) places Abu Qurrah as a thinker above John of Damascus. That is a very high assessment!

That is, it cannot be said that his merit is in systematizing and translating into Arabic?

Theodore did not actually translate the Greek Fathers. He was the first to establish a conceptual-terminological system of Christian theology in Arabic and that was very important. Moreover, he one of the ones who laid the foundations of Christian apologetics against Islam. Since Abu Qurrah was a very independent and original thinker, his theological thought may be of interest to those concerned with the patristic heritage, no less than the theology of the most significant Byzantine Fathers.

Which of Abu Qurra's works did you translate?

The goal was to translate all of Abu Qurrah's Arabic works that have been published to date, a total of 19 texts, ranging from huge treatises that span dozens of pages in translation to short excerpts of one or two pages.

This, of course, is not all of Abu Qurrah's legacy. In addition to the Greek treatises published by Jacques Paul Migne, several not-yet published Arabic texts are known. John Lamoreaux, a prominent American scholar of the theology of Abu Qurrah's, writes that he knows of at least six unpublished Arabic works of Abu Qurrah, some of which, from his point of view, contain interesting dogmatic material.

The Priest Alexander Treiger, also a prominent specialist of Eastern Christian literature from Halifax in Canada, has put forward the hypothesis, which is plausible in my opinion, that some of Abu Qurrah's works have been preserved under the name Thaddeus of Edessa. At least two such works are known, dating from the early 9th century, and they quite plausibly belong to Abu Qurrah.

In fact, you have opened him up to the Russian reader.

Out of Abu Qurrah's Greek works, three treatises have been recently translated into Russian by Grigory Benevich and Fedor Benevich. They accompanied their translations with short articles giving a very general idea of Abu Qurrah's theology. To date, however, there have been no systematic studies of Abu Qurrah's work in Russian. And non of his Arabic works-- not even a small fragment-- had been translated into Russian.

In conclusion, is it possible to all Abu Qurrah's system fully Orthodox?

Without a doubt, he is an absolutely Orthodox author, a continuator of the Byzantine patristic tradition. It must be said that what largely prompted me to write this work was a study by a Protestant scholar from Syria, Najib George Awad, the author of one of the most comprehensive studies of Abu Qurrah's theology. It is typical for Awad to contrast Arab Christian theological thought to Byzantine [theological thought]. In my opinion he differentiates them too sharply. My conclusions are precisely the opposite: with all the peculiarities of the theological discourse due to external circumstances, Theodore Abu Qurrah's dogmatic system, Trinitarian doctrine and Christology are fully Orthodox.

Father Oleg, thank you very much for the conversation!