Situated beyond the eastern frontiers of the Empire, Nisibis (modern-day Nusaybin in Eastern Turkey) stood at a crossroads of cultures, customs, and languages. Adam H. Becker’s Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom examines the School of Nisibis during the sixth and early seventh centuries CE and situates it within the diverse intellectual and pedagogical currents of the era. The book thus forms part of an increasingly large and important collection of recent classical, biblical, and late antique studies that investigate the overlap of the phenomena of shared spaces and distinct boundaries.
Becker begins by outlining the general Syriac milieu of the School movement, in which there was a long-standing tradition that envisioned conversion and discipleship pedagogically. In some cases, these terms were framed by narrative Lives of figures such as John of Tella and Mar Aba, whose personal religious experiences provided models for the understanding of Christianity as a form of learning. “Christianity for certain East-Syrian males,” Becker observes, ” was literally a form of pedagogy with its own institutions and way of life. This led to the development of a whole social group who could be imagined as such” (39-40).
Becker next shifts his focus to the relationship between the School of the Persians and the School of Nisibis. On the surface, it seems clear enough: the School of the Persians, located in Edessa, was closed in the year 489 on account of its theologically deviant teaching, at which time some of its members fled east to Nisibis, beyond the limits of the Empire. But such a neat theory is fraught with difficulties, as Becker demonstrates. He identifies several major problems that have plagued the scholarly appreciation of the nature and influence of the School of the Persians, including critical inconsistencies among the primary sources and, most significantly, a failure to read them in their appropriate contexts. For example, Becker proposes that at this period the conception of a ‘School’ had yet to acquire its institutional meaning. Rather, it more probably was employed as means of distinguishing, largely along ethnic lines, among the various legitimate groups of Christians in cosmopolitan Edessa, in a manner reflective of the so-called voluntary associations that will be familiar to scholars of early Judaism and Christianity. Becker challenges the idea of simple, linear trajectory linking the School of the Persians to that of Nisibis, positing instead that while the latter represents an intensification of some aspects of the former, in many other ways the School of Nisibis institutionally and pedagogically broke new ground.
Chapters Five through Seven are the core of the book, and provide a close examination of the School of Nisibis through a detailed analysis of the document known as the Cause of the Foundation of the Schools. Becker argues that this fundamental text, which is crafted as an address to an incoming class of students, may be most correctly be understood as having roots in multiple literary genres: the East-Syriac “cause” genre; the Greek protreptic (an exhortation to convince another to adopt the contemplative life); the scholastic “chain-of-transmission”; and the collective biography. The Cause arranges the history of the world as a series of schools whose sequence describes the chronicle of the transmission of learning, from time of Creation, when God instructed the angels, to the late sixth century CE and the tenure of Henana of Adiabene as the head of the School of Nisibis. What distinguishes the School intellectually, as Becker carefully delineates, was, on the one hand, its patent dependence on the Neoplatonic theological and exegetical traditions of late antiquity, which for the School were assimilated through the writings of thinkers such as Theodore of Mopsuestia (translated from Greek into Syriac), and, on the other hand, the manner in which the School adopted and shaped these traditions into a distinctive, hybrid philosophy that was equally informed by its native Syriac scholastic developments.
In the book’s final two chapters, Becker extends his scope beyond the historical and intellectual contours of the School of Nisibis to chart, in a preliminary fashion, the larger terrain of the East-Syrian school movement, especially its monastic contexts. He suggests that East-Syrian schools fit an extant tripartite typology of Monastic Schools, Independent Schools, which functioned independently of monastery or church, and Village Schools, which were small schools unassociated with monasteries or large ecclesiastical centers. Becker discusses how western monasticism, imported by the wholesale translation of Greek theological texts into Syriac, effectively rewrote early monastic history and erased crucial elements of the Syriac past. Some texts, like the works of Evagrius of Pontus, stressed the primacy of inspiration over learning. This attitude would have stood in some tension with the epistemology of the Cause and thus the School of Nisibis. At the heart of the matter was an epistemological debate concerning how one came to know God. The monastic circles and their intellectual antecedents tended toward spiritual and personal avenues, typically revelation or mysticism. For the School, the divine was understood through a rational, philosophic process conducted via the intellect and instruction. At the same time, Becker stresses that this debate should not cause us to overlook the fact that schools and monasteries had much in common, and it was not unusual for a young man to pass through the former on his way to the latter.
If the book has a minor fault, it is that it occasionally reads too much like a revised dissertation (as it is: Princeton, 2004). Its presentation is occasionally mechanical, especially with respect to the sections in most chapters where the previous research is dutifully introduced and then discussed. While Becker does not discuss the epistemological debate outlined in Chapter Nine in light of the full spectrum of its patristic, rabbinic, and early Islamic contexts, this is properly the subject for another study.
Overall, this is an impressive, well-written book that should appeal to a variety of scholars. Despite its importance, relatively little attention has been hitherto devoted to the School of Nisibis or to its many points of contact with the richly textured culture with which it cohabitated. With this study Becker has opened a new window on these subjects. Sensitive to the nuances of his sources, his evaluations are relevant, lucid, and convincing. It is also clear that he exhibits a ready familiarity with what by any standard is a remarkably wide range of scholarly fields, which includes but is not limited to the late Neoplatonic philosophical traditions, early Syriac Christianity, and the reception and interpretation of ancient traditions in the late antique period. The idea of study as a religious practice and of learning as a religious category will strike a chord not only among scholars of classical and biblical antiquity, but also among mediaevalists, particularly those who study phenomena related to scribes and the intricacies of scribal culture. For all these reasons, and in addition to its obvious utility for specialists, Becker’s book might be read fruitfully by any historian, philosopher, or theologian who is interested in the intersection of cultures in the Graeco-Syriac East of late antiquity.