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.