BMCR 2000.07.22

P. Michigan XIX. Baptized for Our Sakes: A Leather Trisagion from Egypt (P. Mich. 799). Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, bd. 120

, P. Michigan XIX. Baptized for Our Sakes: A Leather Trisagion from Egypt (P. Mich. 799). Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, bd. 120. Stuttgart and Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1999. xi + 115.

David Martinez has prepared a critical edition of a very interesting religious text preserved on leather of uncertain Egyptian provenance and dated paleographically to about the seventh century CE. He includes the customary diplomatic and critical texts (along with a high-quality photograph of the document), a detailed commentary, and an Introduction that addresses subjects such as meter, phonology, and theological implications, all prepared with his typical adroitness and sensitivity to linguistic features.

The text, in thirty-one lines, contains “an acrostic meditation on the central aspects of the life and passion of Christ, interlaced with three repetitions of the Trisagion refrain” — Holy is God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal — followed by a short meditation on the famous vision of the prophet Isaiah (chap. 6) in which the Trisagion first appears, then another Trisagion interposed with images of creation quoted from the Septuagint, and finally a brief invocation to worship. The central theme of this text is therefore the Trisagion as both a conceptual and a liturgical utterance: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, God of hosts; the whole earth is full of your glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

In Jewish tradition and its early hybrids like Christianity, Isaiah’s revelation of this song — the hymn of the Seraphim before the face of God — provided the basis for the idea of a heavenly liturgy: a ceaseless praise of God carried on by angels in heaven that might compensate for whatever impurities afflicted the liturgies that priests performed. The Trisagion — or Kedushah or Sanctus — represented both the existence of a heavenly liturgy and the specific liturgy that angels performed; and hence one finds considerable evidence among early Jewish texts (Dead Sea Scrolls, the Books of Enoch, Apocalypse of Abraham, portions of Apostolic Constitutions) and early Christian writer (Book of Revelation, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Martyrdom of Perpetua, Origen, Serapion of Thmuis) that devout conventicles of Jews and Christians were modeling their own liturgies after that of the angels, ritually merging with the heavenly choirs by singing their songs. It is of little surprise to find both Kedushah and Trisagion assuming important places in Jewish and Christian liturgical systems by the end of the fourth century ( Euchology of Serapion of Thmuis and Liturgies of St. James and St. Basil).

In his brief summary of the tradition, Martinez offers a tentative distinction between “angelic” and “ecclesiastic” Trisagion prayers — that is, between texts meant to describe the angels’ hymns and texts meant to serve as human hymns (9n.22). Both the literature and, later, iconography surrounding the Trisagion and Kedushah make it quite clear that such distinctions could not have operated in practice: the angelic descriptions were meant to be templates for the participation of the Elect, while the liturgies were meant to invoke the participation of the angels. In the Michigan Trisagion, for example, the first major section that dictates human praise with the Trisagion is immediately followed by a rich allusion to Isaiah’s vision: “Isaiah, the mighty-voiced among the prophets, whose knowledge transcends all the created order, saw the uncreated nature. And the seraphim sing with three blessings to one being and lordship, Holy, holy is God,” (ll. 40-45 Martinez).

In line with the early Jewish tradition in which angels recited God’s attributes, the Michigan Trisagion includes a version of Isaiah’s angelic utterance expanded with divine epithets: Hagios ho Th(eo)s … hagios ischuros … hagios athanatos. Martinez attributes these epithets to the author’s close use of the Book of Revelation (4:8) rather than any extracanonical materials like Enoch or Apocalypse of Abraham. However, the verbal links with Revelation are weak, while the extracanonical texts were widely read in antique Egypt and had a great influence on the formation of Christian traditions there. Biblical heroes (like Isaiah) and their visionary capacity — a “knowledge transcending all the created order”, as this text puts it — were the objects of deep reverence among Egyptian Christians, so pseudepigraphic texts in their names carried unique authority (see my “Legacy of the Jewish Apocalypses in Early Christianity: Regional Trajectories” in The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity, ed. VanderKam and Adler [Assen & Minneapolis, 1996], 142-200). One particular text, the Ascension of Isaiah, developed the original “Trisagion vision” from the Bible into an extensive narrative of Isaiah’s ascent through the heavens and their choirs. Although lacking the words of the Trisagion itself, Ascension of Isaiah seems to have been known in Egypt by Athanasius’ time ( Festal Letter 37). Martinez might have explored the religious context of this text more fully.

The Michigan Trisagion adds such praise-epithets to hymnic details of Christ’s life: the star from heaven, his birth from Mary, his baptism by John, and the stages of the passion. The passion imagery itself is quite vivid: “Hosts of martyrs and prophets assembled … By night he was betrayed, whom they crucified on the tree … For the Lord of all submitted to suffering…Beating him, crucifying him,…all this he suffered at the hands of lawless men” (ll. 16-30, tr. Martinez 38-41). Such phrases seem well-situated to the rich Egyptian martyrological tradition; indeed, Christ here appears as a kind of ur -martyr. Furthermore, as Martinez notes, such images of humiliation, juxtaposed as they are to the Trisagion epithets and subsequent images of God as Pantokrator, give the text a cumulative power through the alternative of pain and triumph.

How would a text like this have functioned for Egyptian Christians of late antiquity, and which side would its author have taken in the theological debates over Christ’s nature? Martinez devotes a section of his Introduction to this latter topic, but with no certain conclusion. Although provenance would suggest a Monophysite orientation (for Monophysites were quick to appropriate Isaiah’s Trisagion), this text’s attention to broad aspects of Christ’s life might fit Chalcedonian creeds (16-20). As for the function of the Michigan Trisagion, Martinez wavers between a liturgical context and a more private or systematic context. Several details lead him to choose a baptismal setting, allowing that such liturgical poetry might well also have served a didactic or ideological function in late antiquity — e.g., instructing initiates in particular nuances of the faith before baptism (21-28). Of course, given the talismanic or “magical” powers of the Trisagion — written or chanted — in early Christianity and Judaism (as Martinez admits, 8n.21), one wonders whether this document could not have assumed different functions at different times. Although it admittedly lacks the profusion of nomina sacra that usually indicate a poem or scripture quotation’s talismanic function, the Michigan Trisagion seems to have been kept rolled up like an amulet and would have lent itself to a variety of uses. There are a great number of Egyptian Christian texts whose functions are obscure according to historians’ usual classification, and it is sometimes useful to broaden our conceptions of how texts functioned in religious life.

With his meticulous edition Martinez has performed an invaluable service in releasing this intriguing document of Egyptian Christianity to historical scholarship. To be sure, one might have wished for more substantive discussion of the history and use of the Trisagion and other liturgical fragments in Egyptian Christianity, but exhaustive studies are not the goal of Teubner editions. Martinez’s work will be best rewarded by the attention that scholars now give to the document.