BMCR 2019.08.21

Preaching Christology in the Roman Near East: A Study of Jacob of Serugh. Oxford early Christian studies

, Preaching Christology in the Roman Near East: A Study of Jacob of Serugh. Oxford early Christian studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. x, 322. ISBN 9780198826453 $100.00.


The homilies of Jacob of Serugh (451-521 AD) number between three and four hundred; the only collections from late antiquity larger than this are those of John Chrysostom and Augustine. But, despite the size of his oeuvre, this is the first monograph that endeavors “to situate Jacob of Serugh’s homilies within concrete historical situations” (p. 21). Philip Michael Forness examines these texts in connection with several overlapping topics: Jacob’s role in the development of miaphysite Christology and the Syriac Orthodox Church; the study of late antique homilies in general; and theological controversies as a social phenomenon (i.e., how the ideas spread beyond the theologians themselves). Forness presents his study as a model for future work on these texts, which undoubtedly will increase in the coming years. Along with other Syriac texts, the works of Jacob of Serugh are becoming more accessible thanks to the resources at, as well as the recent volumes of The Metrical Homilies of Mar Jacob of Sarug included in the series Texts from Christian Late Antiquity.1 As a result of the ongoing collaborative efforts that are producing and facilitating editions and translations of Syriac texts, we can expect to see a surge of scholarship on Syriac texts in late antiquity, and additional work on Jacob of Serugh in particular.2

Although this corpus is vast, it does not offer many obvious clues about the precise context of the homilies’ delivery or their audiences. Forness is straightforward about these limitations and is admirably undeterred. Although we do not know the exact locations and occasions for these homilies, we do know that Jacob was bishop of Batnae, not far from Edessa (where he was educated), and was involved in debates about the Council of Chalcedon, and his influence can be seen in the later dissemination of his work in its original language as well as in translations. Forness finds ways to further contextualize Jacob’s homilies: by uncovering connections to the works of Jacob’s contemporaries, by using comparative evidence from the study of other late antique preachers, and, especially, by engaging in a detailed analysis of theological terms and biblical exegesis. In addition to producing a case study of how a bishop explained Christology during a pivotal time for eastern Christians, Forness hopes to inspire others to interpret Jacob’s homilies—as well as the thousands of anonymous or pseudepigraphical homilies from late antiquity—within their historical context. Even if the precise date and location—or author—of a text is impossible to know, Forness argues, we should still try to discern what is possible to learn from it. The starting point of this study is that the theological doctrines that were dividing Christian communities from each other were not confined to conversations among learned bishops: Christology affected all levels of society during the conflict between Chalcedonians and miaphysites.

Chapter One examines how to study sermons as historical texts. Forness encourages us to think broadly about the audience(s) of homilies: he emphasizes the importance of both the initial delivery and subsequent circulation among readers. He raises a number of good points about the “imagined audience” (p. 29) of the preacher and how manuscripts can reflect the concerns of later readers. A fuller discussion of the villages and churches Jacob visited as a rural cleric ( periodeutes) and then small- town bishop would have been worthwhile here.3 This chapter also provides overviews of various issues related to the study of late antique sermons: their composition, the notes taken by stenographers, preachers’ editing of their own collections, and their later influence in manuscript form.

A good deal of the book focuses on a specific Christological issue and not exclusively on Jacob’s preaching. Chapter Two turns away from the study of homilies to Christology and a specific theological “phrase” —the juxtaposition of Christ’s “miracles and his sufferings” —which was a way of representing the nature of his divinity and humanity in late antique Christological discussions. Forness traces this specific Christological point from the fourth through sixth centuries, noting in particular its appearance in the canons of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and Emperor Zeno’s Henotikon in 482. As the debates over Christology continued, both Chalcedonian and miaphysite authors used the juxtaposition of “miracles and sufferings” to support their own views and criticize their opponents. Forness establishes the significance of this phrase in order to support his subsequent analysis of Jacob’s use of it: contrary to the view that his homilies are ambiguous in their Christological allegiance, Forness argues that Jacob actively participated in this theological controversy.

Chapter Three continues to examine Jacob’s engagement in Christological debates by tracing his use of “miracles and sufferings” in some of his letters. These letters addressed the abbot of an influential monastery, an important military official (Bessa), and the Himyarites (a Christian community in south Arabia). In all of these cases, Jacob refers to “miracles and sufferings” to explain his own miaphysite Christology and to argue against opposing views. Forness demonstrates how the phrase is tied to Jacob’s support of the Henotikon (Jacob says this directly in his letter to the abbot). The main point of this chapter is to provide necessary context for the subsequent chapters’ study of this phrase in Jacob’s homilies. Along the way, however, Forness also includes fascinating and detailed background information, which includes: the relationship between military officials and bishops in the Roman Near East (pp. 99-104); an account of Bessa, a Goth stationed with the Roman army in Edessa (pp. 104-111); and an overview of the miaphysite Christians in south Arabia (pp. 115-125).

Forness turns to the subject of Jacob’s homilies in the remaining three chapters, which analyze four homilies that draw upon the Christological language of miracles and sufferings. Chapter Four examines Jacob’s Homily on the Council of Chalcedon, including a detailed account of previous scholarship on this text. Although we know little about the circumstances of its initial delivery, its appearance in early manuscripts, Forness argues, indicates that it circulated among readers during Jacob’s own lifetime. He demonstrates that the Christology in this homily is consistent with Jacob’s letters (which helps to solidify the case for its authenticity) and that the early circulation of the manuscript shows that its readers were engaged in discussions about the Council of Chalcedon. Although elsewhere in the book (pp. 31-2; 227) he observes that manuscripts can reveal information about the readers, he does not speculate about who these readers might have been—were they monks? bishops?—but perhaps there is no way to know.

Chapter Five examines a lengthy (1,300 lines) catechetical sermon, again with an eye to Jacob’s references to miracles and sufferings, and provides examples of how Jacob adjusted key terms to accommodate meter and oral context. These references show that the same Christological expressions that circulated among experts could also be presented to lay audiences. One key difference is that Jacob refers directly to his theological opponents in his letters, but only uses “identifiable quotations” (p. 185) in his homilies. This approach, Forness argues, would have satisfied ecclesiastical leaders while remaining “accessible to all levels of society” (p. 185). Forness does not speculate on why Jacob would avoid naming names—was it because laypeople would frown upon ad hominem attacks, or because it would cause confusion?

The final chapter examines two exegetical homilies that also feature passages on Christ’s miracles and sufferings in explaining miaphysite Christology. These two selections represent “remarkably ordinary” homilies that would, like the homily examined in Chapter Five, appease theological experts while also reaching “all levels of society” (p. 187). The latter point remains underdeveloped: what makes the theology of the homilies particularly accessible? Is it the lack of direct references to rival theologians? While Jacob engaged with the controversy over Chalcedon in his preaching, using the same terms and examples (e.g., miracles and sufferings) that appear in key theological works (such as the Henotikon), his references to opposing views are subtle. But Forness does not explain why Jacob would take a softer approach to theological divisions when preaching. In both Chapters Five and Six, there seems to be an underlying assumption that both the preacher and audience preferred to avoid confrontational matters; if so, this should be explained more clearly.

Although concentrating on one particular theological phrase can at times seem too exhaustive, Forness consistently reminds his readers how this relates to our understanding of broader developments of this period: homilies can reveal how ideas spread among the “anonymous audiences of elites and non-elites, of clergy and laity, of learned and unlearned” (p. 223). Indeed, this case study should encourage additional study of the “slogans” and chants from the various theological controversies of late antiquity; this book is an effective demonstration of how the details of the Church Councils and theological treatises reached beyond the ecclesiastical leaders and their immediate circles. Forness’s learned examination of a key figure in the Syriac tradition and his connection to religious divisions developing during his lifetime also provides an example of how to study homilies within their historical context. This book will be valuable for anyone interested in Jacob of Serugh in particular or the development of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the theological discussions that followed the Council of Chalcedon. As a detailed case study, it is also an important contribution to the scholarship on homilies as historical texts and on the development and spread of theological knowledge.


1. This series, published by Gorgias Press, includes texts in their original languages, English translations, and commentary, and aims to publish all of Jacob’s surviving homilies: Texts from Christian Late Antiquity. On, see in particular Forness’s contribution, “A Brief Guide to Syriac Homilies. Another recent example of collaboration can be seen in the essays collected in Daniel King, ed., The Syriac World, London: Routledge, 2019.

2. An impressive amount of forthcoming work on Jacob of Serugh is listed on the online table: Syriac Editions and Translations in Progress.

3. The book includes two maps (xiv-xv) but the discussion the towns and villages where Jacob preached (pp. 35-6) is quite short. In terms of Jacob’s congregations, Forness refers to briefly (pp. 34, 39), but might have discussed in greater detail, the findings of Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “To Whom did Jacob Preach?” in Jacob of Serugh and His Times: Studies in Sixth-Century Syriac Christianity, ed. George Anton Kiraz (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010), 115-31.