The Second Syriac Book to Read: The Book of Steps


By Robert Kitchen

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Short Biography

Robert Kitchen

Robert J. Kitchen, a renown-scholar in Syriac studies, began reading The Book of Steps (ܟܬܳܒܳܐ ܕܡܰܣ̈ܩܳܬܳܐ) in 1974 with Professor Fr. Alexander DiLella in the Semitics Department of The Catholic University of America. Robert earned a BA from Springfield College, Springfield, Massachusetts; M.Div, Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California; MA in Syriac, Semitics Department, The Catholic University of America; and D.Phil, University of Oxford, studying with Sebastian P. Brock.

He is a retired United Church of Christ and United Church of Canada minister, serving for 43 years in Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Saskatchewan until 2016. He is a Senior Lecturer in Syriac Patristics, Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy, Södertälje, Sweden; and Visiting Professor in Syriac New Testament Exegesis, MA in Syriac Theology program, University of Salzburg, Austria. He has translated The Book of Steps and The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, both for Cistercian Publications. He and his wife, the Reverend Mary-Ellen McGreal Kitchen, reside in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Where does one begin in reading Syriac literature? If you have worked through Coakley-Robinson’s Syriac Grammar, and are ready to read something more weighty than the simple exercise sentences, it is not an easy task to choose the right text or book to read. The Bible or the Peshitta is an obvious choice since it is a central part of worship and theology, and there are many English translations available, but the Syriac is a translation from the Greek, so not totally a native text.[1]

The consensus has usually been the twenty-three Demonstrations or essays of Aphrahat the Persian Sage, the last dated at 345, written somewhere in the Sasanian Persian Empire during Shapur II’s long-term persecution of Christians.[2] It is usually thought to be the earliest Syriac literary work of length and substance. The Demonstrations treat systematically the classical theological topics – faith, love, simplicity, prayer – and then a number of occasional discourses and sermons on situations arising in the Persian church of that day. Aphrahat’s Syriac is elegant, but straightforward enough for a Coakley-Robinson graduate to work her way through with a dictionary at hand.

I have another suggestion.

It does not have to be the first Syriac book you read, just do not wait too long: The Book of Steps (ܟܬܳܒܳܐ ܕܡܰܣ̈ܩܳܬܳܐ), or as it used to be entitled, the Liber Graduum. The Syriac critical edition was published in the same series as Aphrahat’s Demonstrations in 1926.[3] Martien Parmentier and I published an English translation and introduction in 2004.[4]

The Book of Steps is a singularity for all of early Christianity, a collection of 30 mēmrē documenting the development, success and failure of a Christian community sometime in the fourth century, also in the Sasanian Persian Empire. The author intentionally maintained his anonymity and offers only one geographical reference (do you know where the Lesser Zab River is?).[5] The Book of Steps appears to be the collected works of the spiritual leader and teacher of this dynamic Christian community, and while each of the 30 discourses are labeled mēmrē, there is a range of literary genres – rules for the community and its individuals, sermons, Biblical interpretations, debates regarding criticisms of his theological views – all of which are full of images of how this church functioned in real life. What is singular about The Book of Steps is that one is able to read about how a living religious community, warts and all, tried to live the Gospel. The author was attempting to create and nurture a Perfect Church, but in a way similar to the Apostle Paul in his letters, he was quite willing at times to tell them how imperfect they were.

The Syriac of this anonymous author is also straightforward and manageable for a relative newcomer to the language. The anonymity of the work extends as well to its dating, for there are no historical references to help us pinpoint when he wrote, although it was likely over a matter of years, if not decades. A recent study of merit places the work in the early part of the fourth century, before Aphrahat.[6] 

The core innovation of the author’s writings and the church he worked to nurture is his organization of the community around two consecrated levels – the Upright (kīnē – ܟܺܐܢ̈ܶܐ) and the Perfect (gmīrē – ܓܡܺܝ̈ܪܶܐ). While no ritual of commitment is noted, both appear to be consecrated groups within the church. Other Christians are mentioned taking part in the church’s worship and activities without adhering to the higher standards of the kīnē and gmīrē.

The kīnē consist of lay people who can be married and have children, jobs, own property and possessions and money – but the Upright are called to minister to those in need, feeding and clothing the poor, visiting the sick and the imprisoned – and to provide the necessities for the Perfect.

The gmīrē are considered the elite group who follow all the requirements of the major commandments of Christ, as identified by the author. This means being celibate, having no possessions, not even a home, and not working – in order to live the life of ceaseless prayer, teaching and mediating conflicts. The institution and practice of monasticism had not yet emerged at this time in this location, but the Perfect do present an intriguing experiment heading in that direction, although they were not yet “monks” in the classic definitions.

The author had constructed a strict division of obligations and duties for the two levels – one group is not allowed to do the work of the other, and in particular, the Perfect must never try to do something only the Upright are assigned to do. Not being allowed to work, the Perfect cannot help someone in need, the hungry or thirsty, or injured, for that is the role of the Upright. The author insists that once the Perfect drift away from their life of ceaseless prayer and get involved in the problems of ordinary people, they have fallen from their calling – fallen down to the level of the Upright. The high barriers the author had erected in his depiction of this superior form of Christian life would prove to be the partial downfall of his Perfect Church. There’s more to tell about this another time.

The rule not to work has stood out as the most unorthodox and striking requirement for the Perfect, especially in light of the monastic movement which would insist upon manual labor for monks as an essential part of their spiritual discipline. There is a good theological rationale for this non-working, rooted in classical Syriac understanding of God’s creation.

The kingdom of heaven is a much used image for salvation in the Syriac and other churches, but for the Syriac mentality, ultimate salvation means returning to the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve ate the fig (in Syriac tradition, that’s the fruit!). What was it like before the fig? Adam and Eve did not even know they were naked, so no sexuality. And they did not work because God provided everything for them. The author even says God would have provided children for them. But after the fig, they are consigned to bear the pain of child-birth and the sweat of labor in order to eat.

The author of The Book of Steps took this very seriously as a model for the perfect, mature and complete spiritual life. No sense just thinking about it, however. The way to achieve such a life and re-enter Eden is to start living in the Garden right now. The two principal rules for the Perfect were celibacy and not working, and so being dependent upon others to provide for them. Listening to the author in many of his mēmrē, this worked well and failed miserably. That needs a lot of explaining, again for another day.

The last thing to mention for now is the last days of The Book of Steps. The 30th mēmrā is the second longest in the collection, and concludes without hinting that this is the end. I am not sure the author knew it at the time, but it was the end. Nothing more was written, no one knows what happened to this Christian community, or even exactly where it was located. And we still don’t know who was the author. A sobering thought for a church that thought it could be Perfect. But we have do have their pastor’s diary and it is worth reading and listening to several times at least.

Read the Peshitta, of course, and perhaps Aphrahat, if you want; but you need to read The Book of Steps. I will write more about its finer points in a little while. 


[1] Gorgias Press has just issued Syriac-English New Testament, a bi-lingual version of the New Testament, Syriac text with facing English translation.

[2] The critical edition of the Syriac text is in J. Parisot, Aphraatis Sapientis Persae Demonstrationes (Patrologia Syriaca, vol. 1-2; Paris, 1894-1907). English translations are by Adam Lehto, The Demonstrations of Aphrahat, the Persian Sage (Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2010) and Kuriakose Antony Valavanolickal, Aphrahat. Demonstrations (Mōrān ’Eth’ō 23-24; Kottayam: St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, 2005).

[3] M. Kmosko, edit., Liber Graduum (Patrologia Syriaca 3; Paris, 1926).

[4] R. A. Kitchen & Martien F. G. Parmentier, The Book of Steps: The Syriac Liber Graduum (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2004).

[5] A tributary of the Euphrates in northeast Iraq, south of Erbil.

[6] René Roux, ”Antimarcionitica in the Syriac Liber Graduum: A Few Remarks”, Augustinianum 53:1 (2013): 91-104.

One Comment on “The Second Syriac Book to Read: The Book of Steps

  1. Thank you❗️Please do tell us about all this another time. PLEASE❗️

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