By Armando Elkhoury
Known as the Flute of the Holy Spirit and the Harp of the Church, Jacob of Sarug (ca. A.D. 451 – 521) was among the Syriac Church Fathers such as Aphrahat (ca. A.D. 270 – ca. 345) and Ephrem (ca. A.D. 306 – 373) who interpreted and explained the Holy Scriptures using symbols and types. This prolific writer certainly possessed a great talent in searching them out throughout the Old Testament and in employing them in his mimre (verse homilies) to share the abounding riches he discovered in Scriptures, to propound his faith in Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of the living God, and to call others to this faith.
The entire Scriptures are, for Jacob, an abundant source of immeasurable spiritual riches, treasures, and valuable pearls. He found the Old Testament to be the typological path of the Son of God and the path already paved leading to Him for each page and each line announces the coming of Christ. The mysteries of the Son inundate it and shine brighter than any luminary traversing the skies. The Holy Scriptures and the Son of God are so intertwined, that Jacob likens the Scriptures to body parts whose soul is the Son Himself. For this reason, the Church cherishes and venerates them. Types and symbols are the best vehicle that could have been exploited to bequeath uninterruptedly the promise of the coming of Christ, and each of them represents in a specific way the Christ. According to Jacob,
The whole Testament is veiled after the fashion of Moses:
in him all prophetic books are depicted;
within the veil which lies over the Scriptures
there sits resplendent Christ as judge. (trans. Brock, Sebastian)
These types and symbols, which Jacob tirelessly fished out of the Old Testament based on people, events and prophecies, foretell not only the coming of Jesus Christ but would also prefigure His Church, which is inseparable from Him. In fact, the symbols of the Son do not proceed without the Church. Along the glowing beauty of the Son of God, the definition of all that is beautiful shone also forth the beauty and brilliance of His Church in the book of the Father. Moses, the great prophet and the spring of prophecy, who spoke with God and buried in his book all treasures, riches, fortunes and valuable pearls, beheld, with the exalted Eye of Prophecy, Christ, and His Bride, the Church. Jacob of Sarug did not just rely on his knowledge of scriptures to speak of the Church but petitioned God to infuse into him her mysteries as well.
Scouring the available literature on the subject of the theology of the Church as expressed by Jacob of Sarug leaves the researcher wanting. Since western scholars took notice of him, they have studied and published on his writings. However, the notions of the Church as explicated in his œuvres have been left virtually unexamined. Tanios Bou Mansour published a two-volume book that dealt overarchingly with Jacob’s theology. He systematized Jacob’s theological comprehension of creation, anthropology, ecclesiology, and sacraments (volume I), schematized his insights into Christology, Trinity and eschatology and, lastly, he provided Jacob’s exegetical and theological methods (volume II). The one chapter that Bou Mansour dedicated on the subject of the Church is the most extensive study currently available on the topic. Apart from Bou Mansour’s treatment of the subject at hand, the seeker can also avail themselves to the few scholarly publications like Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s paper on biblical women as images of Church in Jacob of Sarug. Nevertheless, she expounds one aspect of his rich ecclesiological imageries.
Other scholars have written on the Syriac Fathers’ views on the Church and her nature, albeit in the wider realm of the Syriac world. They amassed Syriac works belonging to different authors to extract and summarize a global Syriac worldview on the notions of the Church. As valid as this method may be, it does not allow for a deep access to an individual Syriac author’s thoughts. Both Hieronymus Endberding and François Graffin explored the theme of the Church as Bride in Syriac Liturgies and writings. While the former concentrated his efforts on that which could be found in the liturgy of the Church of the East, the latter had recourse to the Chaldean and Syriac breviaries and the homilies of Jacob of Sarug. Graffin, like Harvey, dealt with one ecclesiological theme found in Jacob’s mimre, i.e., Church as Bride. Robert Murray employed the same approach as Hieronymus and Graffin in his book, Symbols of Church and Kingdom – a reference book for those interested in Syriac symbols and types. Jacob of Sarug, however, does not fall within the time span of the Syriac literature that Murray surveyed. He did not, therefore, avail himself to Jacob’s writings. Wilhelm De Vries also disregarded largely Jacob’s works, albeit for reasons other than Murray’s. His research interest lied in the time span that witnessed the divisions of the Church, mainly, after the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) and, specifically, in Syriac authors who rejected it. Although Jacob of Sarug belongs to this time period, De Vries rarely quoted him for he did not count him as one of the non-Chalcedonian Syriac theologians since De Vries accepted Paul Peeter’s strong arguments which placed Jacob in the Chalcedonian camp.
Therefore, the objective of this doctoral dissertation (Director: Prof. Dr. Peter Bruns at the Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt in Eichstätt, Bavaria, Germany), aptly entitled Types and Symbols of the Church According to Jacob of Sarug, is to elucidate the typological approach that Jacob employed in his many mimre to explain his theological understanding of the Church.
Jacob the poet and biblical interpreter was no systematic theologian. Although his writings follow a certain order that fulfilled the purpose for which he tirelessly composed them, he did not arrange them following specific dogmatic themes, e.g., Christology, ecclesiology. Consequently, the student of Jacob has to ferret out the rich nuggets scattered throughout his impressive corpus and be satisfied with that which they could find knowing in advance that finding all of them could be a lifelong pursuit. Accordingly, the findings presented herein are in no way exhaustive but should provide the reader an ample overview of Jacob’s typological concepts of the Church.
Chorbishop Seely Beggiani, S.T.D. was Rector of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary from 1968 to 2013, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America from 1967 to 2014. He has researched and written on a variety of subjects including systematic theology, Maronite Church history, Maronite liturgy, Syriac theology, and Eastern Christian Spirituality.
His doctoral dissertation at The Catholic University of America in 1963 is entitled: The Relations of the Holy See and the Maronites from the Papacy of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) to the Synod of Mount Lebanon in 1736. His book, Early Syriac Spirituality: with special reference to the Maronite Tradition, was published by Catholic University Press in 2014. Among his published articles during the past 50 years are: “A Case for Logocentric Theology,” Theological Studies 32 (1971): 371-46, “Theology at the Service of Mysticism: Method in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite,” Theological Studies 57 (1996): 201-23, “The Typological Approach of Syriac Sacramental Theology,” Theological Studies 64 (2003): 543-557, and “The Incarnational Theology and Spirituality of John the Solitary of Apamea,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 21.2 (2018):391-421. In retirement, Chorbishop Beggiani is preparing a manuscript for publication entitled: “A Thematic Introduction to Syriac Spirituality.” He continues to offer courses in Maronite and Syriac studies at the Maronite Seminary and to offer lectures to various audiences.
St. Ephrem, who was proclaimed a Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Benedict XV, and Jacob of Serugh were two of the earliest and most important representatives of the theological world-view of the Syriac Church. A good part of their work was in the form of hymns and metrical homilies wherein theology was expressed in poetry. This present work strives to present their insights in a systematic form according to headings used in western treatises, while not undermining the originality and cohesiveness of their thought. The material is organized under the themes of the hiddenness of God, creation, and sin, revelation, incarnation, redemption, divinization and the Holy Spirit, the Church, Mary, the mysteries of initiation, eschatology, and faith.
This work notes the paradox of God’s utter mysteriousness and yet his presence in all that he has created. The kenosis (emptying) of the Word of God is found not only in the human nature of Christ but in the finite words of Sacred Scripture. The purpose of these actions is for the divine to make itself accessible to humans. The triple descent of the Son of God into the womb of Mary, the Jordan River at his baptism, and into Sheol at his death were actions directed both to redemption and divinization. The system of types and antitypes used in Sacred Scripture are employed to demonstrate the sacraments as extensions of Christ’s actions through history.
The goal of this work is to display the rich theological insights the early Syriac fathers provide to the tradition of the universal church. A second purpose of this work is to highlight the fact that the liturgical tradition of the Maronite Church, one of the Syriac Churches, is consistently and pervasively a living expression of the theology of these to Syriac church fathers. This is done through citations from the Maronite divine liturgy, ritual, and divine office.
While monographs on specific themes in St. Ephrem and James of Serugh have been published in English and other modern languages, this work aims to present a complete overview of the theological world-view of these Syriac writers.