Thursday, 7 February 2019
Kelli Gibson: How the cross was lost: the transmission and reception of Syriac legends of the True Cross
The Syriac tradition preserves two accounts of the discovery of the True Cross: the Protonike legend and the Helena legend. Although these two legends first circulated independently, in later manuscripts they appear side-by-side, causing narratival disjunction. If Protonike had already found the cross, why is it found again by Helena? To resolve this inconsistency, a short “narrative patch” appears, explaining how the cross was lost again after Protonike's discovery. But why place the stories one after another in the first place? This paper traces the transmission of the narrative patch back to two 9th-century Syriac treatises on the Feast of the Discovery of the Cross attributed to John of Dara and Moshe bar Kepha. They are the earliest known witnesses to narrate the two legends successively. Both treatises also deploy apologetic arguments to defend the veneration of the cross and rebut accusations of idolatry, a frequent topic of debate between Christians and Muslims. This paper argues that interreligious contact with early Islam could have provided the initial impetus to recount these two legends side-by-side, even if that required creative resolution of narratival disjunction.