Friday, 8 May 2015

Scott Johnson: Historiography in Verse Exegesis: The Syriac Tradition and Romanos the Melode on 1–2 Kings

Several Syriac poems dealing with episodes in 1–2 Kings survive from Late Antiquity. These poems cover various stories, but scenes from the life of Elijah are most prominent. In this paper I will consider poems by Ephrem, Narsai, Jacob of Serugh, and Romanos the Melode (in Greek) in an effort to investigate how Kings was treated as a historiographical model by late antique poets in the East. This investigation focuses on how authoritative biblical texts shaped the habits of talking about the past in the Syriac tradition. These poets shared a collective memory, not least through liturgical celebration, which served their poetry both by providing content but also by framing their discourse about past events. This paper is not intended as a survey of the exegetical tradition on Kings but, instead, explores how exegetical poetry set cultural habits for claiming the biblical past in the Syriac tradition. The regular recitation of liturgical hymns meant that patterns of thinking about the past permeated into other genres of Syriac literature, such as prose exegesis and commentary, prose homiletics, epistlography, and historiography. With regard to historiography, this paper will close with a meditation on how the emergent chronicle tradition in Syriac took inspiration from both Greek ecclesiastical historical writing, represented by very early translations of Eusebius, as well as from the indigenous Syriac poetical tradition. In this fusing of horizons between poetry and historiography, specific perspectives on history and the past will be put forward as characteristic of Syriac writing in Late Antiquity.

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