Introduction to the Anonymous Chronicle of Edessa Up to the Year 1234 AD (Part 1)

1. The Chronicle

     The Anonymous Chronicle Up to the Year 1234 A.D. is one of the most important Syriac chronicles in the tradition of Syriac historical chronicles.[1]  Although little is known about the author, it is likely that he was a Monophysite monk[2] from Edessa who completed his work in the second quarter of the thirteenth century C.E.[3]  The chronicle is divided into two volumes: one dealing with secular history and one dealing with church history.[4]  The chronicle is preserved  in a fourteenth century manuscript.  The Syriac text was edited by J. B. Chabot and is available in the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium series.[5]  The translation offered here – my own translation, which will appear in future posts – covers sections ninety-four to one hundred and ten of the secular history.  In this post I will begin to introduce the chronicle by summarizing the sections dealing with the rise of Islam.  Future posts will summarize other sections and a translation will eventually follow.  The translation in particular will be helpful because English translations of this text are not readily available.  Placing it online should prove helpful for those interested in this chronicle.

2. The Rise of Islam

      Sections ninety-four and ninety-five describe the rise of Muhammad, the initial spread of Islam, and the beliefs and practices of this newly-founded religion.  What is particularly interesting about this section is that it opens a window for the modern reader into how Islam was viewed by Syriac-speaking Christians living under Muslim rule when the Muslim kingdoms were first expanding.[6]  When viewed in this light, this section produces many significant insights.

     First, the chronicler attributes the early success of Islam not to the strength of its monotheistic beliefs but to the greed of its first adherents.  Muhammad promised his early followers that God would give them a land flowing with milk and honey, words that echo God’s promises to the people of Israel in the Hebrew Bible,[7] and he made good on this promise by leading small raiding parties into Palestine.  When these raiding parties returned to their homes in Yathrib the people, who had initially not followed Muhammad, converted to Islam because of the wealth they could secure.  Muslim raids expanded beyond Palestine, not because they wanted to spread the message of Islam, but because their lust for spoil could not be satiated by the wealth of Palestine alone.  Thus, for the chronicler, the root of Muslim success was much baser than Muslims themselves may have believed.

     Second, the chronicler attributes the ultimate success of the Muslim armies over the Byzantine Empire to the judgment of God.  In language reminiscent of the Deuteronomistic History, the chronicler states that the Muslim principality became an established kingdom because God wanted to chasten his people for their sins.  This theme is picked up again in section one hundred and two, which describes the wickedness of the Byzantine Emperor toward the Monophysites of Edessa.  The chronicler viewed the conquering of Edessa both as the judgment of God against the Byzantines and also the means by which God rescued the Monophysites from imperial persecution.  The details of this section will be discussed in a future post.

     Third, the chronicler is aware that Muslim and Christian beliefs are ultimately incompatible but is content to note the differences and remains surprisingly irenic in his tone.  In section ninety-five, the chronicler highlights several points of variance between Islam and Christianity including their beliefs about the Trinity, the crucifixion of Christ, the nature of Paradise,[8] and their views about marriage but stops short of caricature or prolonged censure.  Likewise, the chronicler does not explicitly call Muhammad a false prophet, which would have been imprudent for a Christian living under Muslim rule to assert, but formulates his descriptions of Muhammad’s revelations and status as a prophet in a way that casts doubt on their veracity.[9]  Perhaps the chronicler’s restraint in vilifying Muhammad and the beliefs of Islam is due to his belief that God sent the Muslims to punish the Byzantines and to rescue the Monophysites from persecution.  The chronicler’s descriptions of the beliefs and practices of Islam are quite accurate and no doubt reflect the reality of Christianity existing under Muslim rule.

The translation of this section will appear in a future post.

[1] S. Brock, A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature (Kerala, India: St Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, 1997), 74.

[2] See below.

[3] Matti Moosa (“The Crusades: An Eastern Perspective, With Emphasis on Syriac Sources,” The Muslim World  93, 251) notes that the Patriarch Aphram Barsoum believed the author “was a monk from the Barsoum Monastery near Melitene, probably born at Edessa in 1160.”

[4] Ibid, 251.

[5] J. B. Chabot,  Anonymi auctoris Chronicon ad annum Christi 1234 pertinens (CSCO 109.  Syr. syri 36.  Louvain: Imprimerie Orientaliste L. Durbecq, 1952).

[6] Although this Chronicle was written around the year 1234 C.E., the views expressed in these sections are much earlier.  As was stated above, chroniclers incorporated previously written material and did not significantly alter or update the material.

[7] E.g. Exodus 3:8.

[8] Muslim views of Paradise would have been particularly incompatible to the ascetic form of Christianity practiced in the Middle East.

[9] The chronicler subtly  notes that Muslims call Muhammad a prophet and that Muhammad claimed to have received revelations from God.  Cf. the description of Muhammad in the Chronicle of Theophanes (Trans. Harry Turtledove; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 34-35.

The Significance of Origen for Appropriating the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

OrigenThe books of the Old Testament contain many stories that interpreters find difficult to appropriate as Christian Scripture.  Some texts seem too remote from our present context to be relevant, some texts seem to be at odds with the principles of grace, love, and forgiveness that are so prominent in the New Testament, and some texts are simply difficult to understand quite apart from our struggle to appropriate them as Christian Scripture.

But despite these difficulties, the church – right from the very beginning – has affirmed the place of the Old Testament as an indispensable and non-negotiable portion of Christian Scripture.[1]  The church believed that all scripture was inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16); the church believed that the books of the Old Testament were relevant for Christian faith and practice (Rom. 4:23-24; 15:4; cf. 1 Cor. 10:6, 11); and they condemned in the strongest terms those who did not recognize the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament and those who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different than the God of the new.[2]

However, the mere acceptance of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture did not solve the problems associated with appropriating it as Christian Scripture.  The church has found it extremely difficult to appropriate the message of the Old Testament for Christian readers and hearers.[3]  In many ways, these challenges have remained the same throughout church history and the lessons that have been learned, both positive and negative, need to be appropriated by the church today.  While it is true that the accumulated wisdom of the centuries has not led the church to perfection, the church can learn a great deal from its past as it presses forward in its continual struggle to understand the relevance of the Old Testament for Christians today.

One of the most significant figures in the church’s struggle to appropriate the Old Testament as Christian Scripture is Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254 C.E.).  Origen is, at the same time, one of the most influential and most controversial figures in the history of Christian interpretation and Christian theology.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, commenting on Origen’s eventual condemnation by the church, describes his legacy as follows:

[W]hile the jar was breaking into a thousand pieces and the name of the master was being overwhelmed and stoned, the fragrance of the ointment was coming forth and “filling the whole house.”  For there is no thinker in the Church who is so invisibly all-present as Origen….[His] is a voice that drives straight through everything, always pushing on, without fanfare and without fatigue, almost, it seems, without an obvious goal, possessed almost to the point of insanity, and yet with a cool, unapproachable intellectual restraint that has never again been equaled.[4]

While many interpreters would prefer to sweep the broken pieces under the rug and allow the fragrance from the ointment to dissipate in the wind, Origen’s significance for Christian appropriation of the Old Testament cannot be underestimated or ignored.

In this regard, I would like to explore the lessons that can be learned, both positive and negative, from Origen as he interprets of the story of Lot and his daughters from a Christian point of view.   I have chosen this story in particular because Origen is often accused of depreciating the value of the literal meaning of the biblical text[5] and Origen himself stated that “it would take quite a search” to find the usefulness of the story of Lot and his daughters when interpreted exclusively on the literal level.[6]  This will give us opportunity to see in detail how Origen sought to find in this story something that could be appropriated by believers on the other side of the cross.  I will begin by describing Origen’s exegetical methods as he describes them in On First Principles.[7]  Next I will analyze Origen’s interpretation of the story of Lot and his daughters by comparing his interpretation to a close reading of the biblical text.  Throughout this analysis I will draw lessons, both positive and negative that can be learned from Origen’s method of interpretation for contemporary appropriation of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

Part 2 – Origen’s Exegetical Method (next week).

[1] This does not mean that Christians were fully agreed on the extent of the canon or the text of books whose content in the Septuagint varies considerably from its content in the Masoretic Tradition.  See Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: It’s Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody, Massachussets: Hendrickson, 1995), 208.  “[T]here can be no question that the OT Scriptures were viewed by the earliest church as an authoritative source for Christian faith and life, even though the boundaries of the canon had not yet been fully decided.”

[2] For the role played by heretical sects in the formation of the church’s views on the Old Testament see John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 35-62.

[3] For an excellent history of this struggle in the Patristic period see the various essays included in Magne Sæbø(ed.), Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation.  Volume I: From the Beginnings to the Middle Ages (Until 1300) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996).

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar (ed.), Origen: Spirit & Fire.  A Thematic Anthology of His Writings, trans. Robert J. Daly (Washingdon, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984), 2.

[5] See, in particular, R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory and Event (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002;  repr., Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1959).

[6] Origen, “Homily 5 on 1 Samuel,” in Origen, trans. Joseph W. Trigg (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 200.

[7] Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth with an introduction by Henri de Lubac (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973).

Geerhardus Vos vs. Brevard Childs – What’s the Difference?

When I was a student at Toronto Baptist Seminary, the main textbook that we used for our course on Old Testament Biblical Theology (that is, Old Testament theology) was Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments.  Vos was famous for two things at TBS: (1) his extremely difficult writing style (which seems pretty easy now 11 years later and after reading pretty much anything by Ephrem Radner!) and (2) introducing us to a new (at least to us) and exciting way of reading the Old Testament – through the lens of biblical theology.

When people familiar with Geerhardus Vos and Reformed biblical theology in general see Brevard Childs’ works on display at their local Christian bookstore (okay, maybe not the average Christian bookstore!) they often wonder what the difference between the two really is.  So in this post I’m going to look at the main difference that I see between Geerhardus Vos and Brevard Childs.

The main difference between Vos’ Biblical Theology and Childs’ Old Testament Theology is that Vos’ main concern is the events behind the biblical text while Childs is primarily concerned with the text itself.  Take a look at these two quotes:

Geerhard Vos – “ [T]he study of the actual self-disclosures of God in time and space which lie back of even the first committal to writing of any Biblical document, and which for a long time continued to run alongside the inscripturation of revealed material; this last-named procedure is called the study of Biblical Theology.(Biblical Theology, 5, emphasis mine)

Brevard Childs – “The initial point to be made is that the canonical approach to Old Testament theology is unequivocal in asserting that the object of theological reflection is the canonical writing of the Old Testament, that is, the Hebrew scriptures which are the received traditions of Israel.  The materials for theological reflection are not the events or experiences behind the text, or apart from the construal in scripture by a community of faith and practice.” (Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, p. 6)

Now if you’re not very familiar with Old Testament theology outside of the Reformed tradition, you might think that Vos has the most “biblical position” because as evangelicals we believe, for the most part, that the truthfulness of the theology contained in the Old Testament depends on certain events having actually happened.  The quote from Childs seems to go against that – keeping in mind that in the very next sentence he says that “the literature cannot be isolated from its ostensive reference.”

But I would say that Childs has the better position.  Here are a few reasons:

(1) You don’t have to actually know what happened in history to be able to understand what the theology contained in or assumed by the biblical texts is.  What actually happened in history may be important (for some people) in terms of how you evaluate that theology but, in the end, it’s not very important for how you understand that theology.

(2) Not everything in the Bible is based on or reflects on events that actually happened in history.  As I noted in my previous post, the prime example of this is OT wisdom literature, which, for the most part, makes no reference to “God’s saving acts” in redemptive history.  The truthfulness of Proverbs – at least in terms of how we evaluate it – is not based on whether or not certain events happened; it’s based on whether or not its wisdom actually works (at least in its own historical context).  It is no coincidence that Vos only cites OT wisdom 10 times in total.  Compare that with 94 references to Exodus, not including passages that are cited more than once.

(3) From a theological perspective, God gave the church the canon, not the revelatory events behind the canon.  This may seem counterintuitive but the book of Amos has more authority for the Christian than the actual preaching of Amos.  I’m tempted to say the same thing about the gospels but that might be going too far.  But, in the end the gospels are all we have and they have more authority for the Christian than a historian’s reconstruction of the life and teaching of Jesus, regardless of how Wright it might be.  My point is that there is a difference between inspiration and canonicity (not everything that’s inspired made it into the Bible) and that there is a difference between events and how these events are depicted (it’s the depiction of the event that is important from a theological perspective).

(4) The field is called biblical/Old Testament theology, not the actual events or revelatory acts behind the biblical text theology.  Enough said.

There are other differences between the two writers but, for me, this is the main difference.  Childs (in theory) is more focused on the Bible whereas Vos (in theory) is more concerned with what lies behind the text.  I added the words “in theory” because, as is often the case in biblical theology and Old Testament theology, there is a huge difference between how a person articulates their methodology and what they actually do in their own writing.  But (in theory!) Childs’ approach is much more attractive than Vos’.