Christ “The Hostage”: A Theme in the East Syriac Liturgical Tradition and its Origins
Dr Sebastian Brock
This article originally appeared in Logos. Festschrift fur Luise Abramowski, ed. H.C. Brennecke, E.L. Gramsuck, and C. Markschies (= Beiheft, ZNTW 67). Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1993Sebastian P. Brock is widely acknowledged as the foremost and most influential academic in the field of Syriac language today. Dr Brock is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute and a Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. Dr Brock completed his BA degree at the University of Cambridge, and a DPhil at the University of Oxford. He has been a prolific authour in the field of Syriac studies and his numerous publications are widely available.
Sebastian P. Brock is widely acknowledged as the foremost and most influential academic in the field of Syriac language today. Dr Brock is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute and a Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. Dr Brock completed his BA degree at the University of Cambridge, and a DPhil at the University of Oxford. He has been a prolific authour in the field of Syriac studies and his numerous publications are widely available.
On a number of occasions in the East Syriac liturgical book known as the hudra (approximately a Festal Hymnary) one encounters passages which speak of “the hostage from our race” (hmayrā d-men gensan), where the reference is to the “homo assumptus”1. Thus in two passages which each recur several times we have:2
“O Lord, … Who in Your compassion lowered Yourself to Your flock, and Who, out of Your love, took from our race a peace hostage (hmayrā d-Šaynā, lit. hostage of peace) and made Him a choice for Yourself for the purpose of Your economy.”
“Blessed is the Good One … (Who) came from heaven for our salvation and took from our mortal race a hostage for His3 glory, and He granted Him to become leader and head.”
The phraseology is of course entirely in harmony with the East Syriac christological tradition with its sharply diphysite character. As it happens, in both the passages quoted the wording has been altered in the Chaldean (Eastern Rite Catholic) edition of the hudra by P. Bedjan4 and in the second one the term “hostage” has been removed altogether, reading “… and took human nature from our race and united it with His qnōmā, and He became leader and head.” Bedjan’s edition excises “hostage” on two further occasions,5 but in others it has been left; his hesitance in dealing with such phraseology in fact turns out to have been unnecessary, for (as we shall see) it can be traced back to roots respected by Chalcedonian as wel as by strictly East Syrian tradition. Before turning to these roots, however, it will be important to look at the wider background of the term “hmayrā,” or “hostage.”
Syriac “hmayrā” is a loanword from Greek ὃμηροϚ, and the borrowing must have taken place very early in the history of Classical Syriac for it already features a number of times in the Peshitta Old Testament.6 Although by no means a common word, it occurs in native Syriac writers of all periods7 and still features in two recent dictionaries of Syrian Orthodox provenance, thus representing twentieth-century usage.8
Greek ὃμηροϚ and Syriac “hmayrā” started out with entirely different connotations from those that the term “hostage” has acquired in the present century, above all in the light of events of recent years in the Middle East. In antiquity9 the hostage was not seize by violence, but was handed over by one side to another as a pledge that the first side would honour an agreement into which it had entered.10 Very often the relationship between the two sides would be that of a vassal kingdom and an imperial power (i.e.m in late antiquity, Roman or Sasanian), but on occasion the two sides might be equals who exchange hostages (as happened after the peace treaty between Persia and Rome in 363.)11
Where there is imparity in the status of the two parties (and this is of course the model behind the theological use of the imagery) the hostage concerned would be selected, mostly from among younger members of the royal family, by the hostage-giving side;12 furthermore (and again in total contrast to modern times) the hostage was well treated13, and very often the hostage would benefit from an education that would probably be far superior to what he might have received at home.14 The results of such an education can be observed in the pretentious verse epigram which Antonius, son of Abgar IX., put on the tombstone of his brother who had died in Rome:15 we learn from Dio Cassius16 that Abgar IX. had been detained in Rome by Caracalla, and though Dio does not specify that his two sons were kept there as hostages, it seems likely that this was the case, given the evidently rather tense relationship between Rome and the Kingdom of Osrhoene at the time (in 213 Edessa was made into a colonia).17
“Hmayrā” in the literal sense occurs a number of times in surviving Syriac literature. Aphrahat speaks of Hezekiah’s children being “led off as hostages to the King of Babylon” (sic)18; likewise Daniel “was led off as a hostage on behalf of his people”.19 Elsewhere, referring to events in the fourth century AD, we hear of daughter of a king of Armenia held “in hostage” (ba-hmayrā) at some stronghold in Media who nevertheless managed to steal the corpse of the martyr Aqqebshma20, while the so-called “Julian Romance” mentions Roman hostages which the Persians took in the peace settlement of 363.21 Temporary hostages, taken from Edessan nobility by Kawad a hundred and forty years later, are mentioned in the Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite.22 A particularly instructive passage in the Chronicon ad annum 123423 tells how, at the end of the siege of Constantinople in 626, the Persians “sent to heraklios and made an accord and peace with him, and they gave him hostages to confirm the agreement that had taken place between them, the hostages being selected by the emporor from among the children and brothers of the Persians, among whom was also the son of Shahbaraz.” Here, remarkably, the normal pattern of Byzantine-Sasanian parity is evidently broken, and the hostages are selected by the receiving party.
More of direct interest for the background of “hmayrā” in a christological context are various metaphorical uses of the term. In Ephrem the children killed by Herod are “slain hostages, clothed in symbols of the killing of the Slain King”;24 probably taking his cue from this passage Narsai says that “the children became, through their slaughter, peace hostages, and the King in His love received them as firstfruit.”25 Dead children are likewise referred to as “hostages” by Jacob of Serugh;26 in this case they are Job’s, and Jacob has Job rebut Satan with the words “Blessed is (God) who has taken off for Himself ten hostages from His householder, and now they are looked after by Him, for He is going to make them live in His royal palace.” In another memra by Jacob27 we find Abraham telling Isaac, as he prepares to sacrifice him, “I am going to send you off as a hostage to the great King; set off, and wait for me in the Kingdom on high until I come myself.”
In these passages the hostages’ future home at the court of the heavenly King is clearly seen as being to their own advantage, as well as to that of those who provide them. The paradox of the hostages being killed, or dead, no doubt has its roots in the paradox of the Christian proclamation of the “Slain King.” The connection between hostages and death in these literary uses of the metaphor also turns up in a somewhat different context, where the hostages instead escape from death. In his homily on Enoch and Elijah Narsai says of Enoch that “the Lord of the universe took him as a peace hostage and preserved him in life in order that he might prolclaim life to the members of his race.”28 Similarly, in another of his homilies Narsai states that God took Enoch and Elijah as “hostages of love, for the peace of humanity; and as long as they are in the abode of life our hope is assured.”29 It may well be that Cyrus of Edessa had this passage in mind when he said concerning Elijah “that he would be taken from this temporal abode as a hostage of immortal life, and he would be preserved in the spiritual treasury as a pledge (rahbōnā, ὰρραβών) of the resurrection.”30 “Hostage” in the context of escape from death is also used in connection with the three people whom Christ raised from the dead; thus Narsai writes that Christ “led off three hostages from Death, the corruptor of humanity, until He should demand from him the entire creation, at the end of time.”31
The last passage is very close to another context in which Death is envisaged as handling over a hostage to Christ. In his series of poems on the Descent of Christ to Sheol Ephrem speaks of Death as finally offering to hand over Adam as a hostage for Christ to take off to His kingdom:32
(Death Speaks) “O Jesus the King, accept my petition,
and with my petition take for Yourself a hostage:
lead off Adam as a noble hostage,
for in him are buried all the dead, just as, when I received him,
all the living were hidden in him.
As a first hostage I have given You the body of Adam;
ascend now, and reign over all:
when I hear Your clarion-call
I will bring out the dead with my own hands, for Your advent.”
A variation on the same theme is found in Ephrem’s Sermo de Domino Nostro XXV: “The heavenly King put on armour of humility and vanquished the embittered one, leading off from him, as a hostage, word of good conduct.”
The transition from Adam as the hostage led off by Christ from Death to the “body of Adam” which the divine Word “put on” is surprisingly enough provided by an archaic Syrian Orthodox baptismal ordo, where in a long series of adjurations, the priest addresses Satan as follows:33
“I adjure you by Him who put on the body of Adam, and ascended and sat at the right hand of Him who sent Him, and He made it (sc. the body of Adam) a hostage between heaven and earth, breaking down the barrier of enmity (Eph 2,14) and effecting peace between Father and His creation.”
This passage neatly illustrates how easy it was to move from Adam, the hostage taken off from Death by Christ, and to shift to “the body of Adam,” assumed, or “put on” by the Word, which is itself now described as a hostage, and at the same time is separated from the theme of the Descent. In the aftermath of the christological controversies of the 430s such language of (in modern terminology) the “homo assumptus” was confined to the Church of the East, and so it is no surprise to find Narsai have God tell Abraham:34
“I am asking of you a sacrifice of love, Abraham My friend,
offer it up to me as the right ordering of love demands.
I intend to take from his daughters a hostage for peace;
tread out a path for truth by means of a sacrifice in symbol.”
“You have led off a peace hostage from our race that is riddled with wrongdoings
now He (sc. the “homo assumptus”) is escorted with the glories of Your divinity.”
Similarly (but reverting to the Descent theme) Cyrus of Edessa speaks of “those things which God, with His divine power, has brought about with us by means of the resurrection from the dead of the hostage who brought about (lit. of) our reconciliation, our Lord Christ.”36
No doubt it is writers like Narsai and Cyrus of Edessa who provide the more immediate background to the imagery of Christ has a hostage that we encounter in the hudra. But, as the occurrence of the theme in an archaic Syrian Orthodox baptismal ordo suggests, its roots go back a long way in Syriac tradition, and the usage can be found already in both Aphrahat and Ephrem in the fourth century.
We have already seen that Aphrahat introduces the term “hostage” into a biblical context. In one such passage which has already been quoted37, after saying that Daniel was led off as a hostage on behalf of his people,” Aphrahat goes on “and the body of Jesus was a hostage on behalf of all peoples.” He introduces the same theme in three other passages, particularly important among which is Demonstration XXIII, 5138, where the association with Adam is also found:
“Great is the gift of the Good (God) towards us, for there has been led off from us a hostage by the King, one who is appropriate to Him, and He has made Him a friend and guardian of the border – that is to say, the Son of Adam, the body from Mary which was taken from among us to the region of life; and (that) weak body became strong, and it received a glory greater and more wonderful than that which Adam stripped off at his (fall to) low estate.”
Another passage in Demonstration XXIII, dated 345, is also worth quoting at some length, since it provides the key to interpreting what would otherwise be an obscure passage in Demonstration VI, written nearly a decade earlier, in 337. Demonstration XXIII, 50 reads:39
“When He (sc. the King) came, He took a pledge (rahbōnā) from us and went (back) to His place; and He said to us, “You are in Me, and I am in you” (John 14:20), and the Apostle said “He raised us up and sat us with Him in Heaven” (Eph 2:6). The “head” of our resurrection is the body which He put on from us; and He freed it from subjection and raised it up to Himself; He confirmed His promises to us, that we should be with Him, openly saying, “Where I am, you too shall be” (John 14:3). Henceforth let us rejoice in the hostage which has been led off from us and (now) sits in glory with the glorious King.”
“Putting on the body” is of course a standard metaphor for the incarnation in early Syriac writers;40 what is important to recognise is the freedom and variety of terminology in connection with the metaphor of “putting on”: the Word (in Aphrahat’s language here, “the King”) may put on the body, the body of Adam, our body, humanity, or even Adam. It seems clear that Adam typology is rarely far away from the mind of these authors, and it is this close connection between Adam’s body as the hostage given by Death to Jesus the King (Ephrem) and Adam’s body which the Word puts on at the incarnation that provides the origins of the sort of language we encounter in the East Syrian hudra.
The passage from Aphrahat just cited is also of interest in that it describes the body which the King puts on as a “pledge” (rahbōnā, ὰρραβών) as well as a “hostage”; this provides us with our sole link with Greek tradition, for, whereas ὃμηροϚ never (to my knowledge) is used of Christ’s body, ὰρραβών occasionally is.41
Aphrahat’s quotation of verses from John 14 in the course of this passage enables us to unravel a rather dense sentence in Demonstration VI, 10,42 where Aphrahat exhorts his readers with the words “Let us bring up/magnify (nrabbe, a double entendre is intended)43 well the King’s Son who is with us, seeing that a hostage in exchange for Him (hlāpaw[hy]) has been led off from us.” In the light of Demonstration XXIII, 50 we can see that “the King’s Son who is with us” is the indwelling presence of Christ in believers, while the hostage is the resurrected body of Adam which the King’s Son (simply a variant title, alongside King, for the Word) had put on. Aphrahat can thus be seen to be pointing to the idea of complementarity in salvation history: at the incarnation the King’s Son puts on the body of Adam, and then at the Resurrection He takes this “hostage” from humanity and enthrones Him at the right hand of the King, His Father; in exchange for this hostage, who is brought up in the court of Heaven, we are to bring up (in the sense of allow to grow, as far as His presense within us is concerned) and magnify the King’s Son whom we have ourselves “put on” at baptism. Elsewhere, of course, the indwelling presence of Christ is spoken of as ὰρραβών,44 so that we then have the fully balance picture: Christ’s human body is the hmayrā from the subordinate human ream taken to the Kingdom of Heaven, while Christ’s indwelling Spirit is the rahbōnā/ὰρραβών which baptised humanity receives in exchange (Aphrahat in this passage expresses it the other way round).45 Exactly the same scenario is envisaged by Ephrem in two passages. The clearest is in the Commentary on the Diatessaron XXI, 33:
“Seeing that a pledge (rahbōnā) of life (or, salvation) had been taken by Him from those subjected to death, and from (human) nature over which death had come to reign, He was raised up and He enthroned him, the hostage from (lit. of) those below, at the right hand: and he furthermore sent them a true pledge (rahbōnā) from His own nature, (namely) the Spirit, the Paraclete, (as) the pledge of life/salvation.”
Even though the Commentary on the Diatessaron may not be exactly from Ephrem46 in its present form, much of its thought is in harmony with that of the genuine hymns, and the gist of the present passage is closely paralleled in one of the Nativity hymns (XXII, 40):
“Depth and Height stood amazed that Your Nativity has subdued the rebels; for we have provided a hostage47 for You, You have given us the Paraclete: a hostage went up from us, the Commander, descended to us. Blessed is He who took and who sent.”
In the previous stanza Ephrem had provided the background of clothing imagery and the idea of exchange:
“… You put on our visible body: Your hidden power will clothe us!48
Our body became Your garment, Your Spirit has become our robe,
Blessed is He who has adorned – and adorned us.”
It is noticeable how earlier writers, and especially Aphrahat and Ephrem, usually introduce the idea of God as King whenever they employ hostage imagery: the position and role of hostages in power politics of their time was clearly very much a reality in their minds. By contrast, in the passages in the hudra where Christ’s body, the “homo assumptus,” is described as a “hostage,” the connection between hostages and kings has evidently faded into the background for in only in one of these passages (no. 7) is the Father or the Word described or addressed as King, even though this title is frequent enough elsewhere.49
Early Syriac theological writing is characterised by a wealth of imagery, intended to point to the variety of the different aspects of the mystery of the incarnation. With the advent of the christolotical controversies, certain images became suspect in the eyes of one side of the theological divide and so were dropped by that party, and left to survive only in the writing of their opponents.50 Such was the fate of the imagery of the hostage, a notable feature of the fourth-century Syriac writers Aphrahat and Ephrem, but dropped by the subsequent West Syriac tradition.51 Even in the East Syrian tradition its survival is almost entirely confined to a verse or liturgical texts, being entirely absent from such writers as babai the Great; nor is this surprising, for prose writers by then were primarily concerened with the theological agenda and terminology that originated in the Greek tradition.
It is a particular pleasure to offer this brief exploration of a distinctive metaphor belonging the East Syrian christological tradition to a scholar who has illuminated that tradition with such acumen, insight and distinction.
In the printed editions of the East Syrian hudra “hmayrā” evidently occurs only in christological context; the following list provides all the passages which I have noticed. H denotes Darmo’s edition, and BC refers to the Chaldean form edited by Bedjan (for references, see notes 1 and 4. I have deliberately kept the translations rather literal).
The first two passages feature on several occasions.
- “O Lord … who lowered Yourself to it (= Your flock) in Your compassion, and who took from our race a Hostage of peace, out of Your love, 1and made him a choice abode for Yourself for the intention of Your economy1.”
1…1 “and You united him with Your divine qnŌmā for the fulfilling of Your economy” BC.
H I, 221 = BC I, 130 (2nd Sun. After Epiphany); H I, 227 = BC I, 134 (Mon. Epiphany week 2); H I, 492 (Tues. Epiphany week 7; BC different); H II, 120 (Sun. Entry of Fast; BC omits); H II, p. 372 (Sat. Fast week 5; BC different); H III, 578 = BC III, 404 (Mon. Consecration of Church, week 1); H III, 605 = BC III, 427 (Fri. Consecration of Church, week 3); H III, 620 = BC III, 439 (Thurs. Consecration, week 4).
- “Blessed is the Good One … and He came from heaven for our salvation, and took from our mortal race1 a Hostage for his honour2, and He gave him to become1 leader and head.”
1…1 “human nature, and united it with His qnŌmā, and He became” BC III, 116, 120.
2 “for His qnŌmā” BC I, 125.
Consonant with this passage is the gloss “izgaddā” which is given to ” hmayrā” in Bar ‘Ali’s Lexicon (see R. Payne Smith, Thesaurus Syriacus I, col. 1020).
H I, 215 = BC I, 125 (Tues. Epiphany week 1); H I, 226 (Mon. Epiphany week 2); BC different); H III, 135 (Pentecost; BC different); H III, 199 = BC III, 116 (Sun. Apostles week 3); H III, 204 = BC III, 120 (Tues. Apostles week 3); H III, 700 (Exaltation of Cross; BC different).
- “Blessed is the Hostage from our race who revealed His glory in our humanity, and who was baptised, in order to sanctify us, by John His best man (hdŌgeh).”
H I, 638 = BC I, 413 (Epiphany).
- “The Father cried out, the Son was baptised, and the Spirit descended1 on the member of our race (bar gensan), the Second Adam, the Hostage who was from (among) us1.”
1 … 1 “in the type of a dove the Spirit descended and remained with Him” BC.
H I, 242 = BC I, 147 (Sun. Epiphany week 4).
- “In fear all heavenly and earthly beings stand amazed, not daring to look upon Him, upon the Mystery, the Hostage who (is) for their salvation (or, life.”
H II, 468 = BC II, 344 (Wed. Fast week 7).
- “Mighty salvation has taken place for us, for our Saviour has arisen from the tomb. Let all peoples send up glory1 to the hostage which he took from us1.”
1 … 1 to Jesus the King, member of our race” BC.
H II, 537 = BC II, 397 (Resurrection).
- “Praise to our King, full of mercy, who saved us in (the person of) the Hostage who was from us; O Lord of all, praise to You.”
H III, 667 (Transfiguration, BC different).
- “To the Hidden One who dwells in the heights, who bent down in His love towards our race in order to enrich us with the wealth of His divinity, and to make us heirs in His Kindgom; and he took from our race a hostage to his honour, and made him a temple (ναὀς) for His hidden nature, by (means of) the equal union in which there is no split or division.”
H III, 676 (Transfiguration; BC different).
- “And You, O Lord, (are) the Hostage who is from our race, in the first firstfruits (1 Cor 15:20) which You took from us.”
H I-III, 80 of appendix = BC I-III, 74 of appendix (Qala 9).
- “… who lowered Himself to humility in order to raise up our fallen state to the exalted rank of His divinity; and in (the person of) the Hostage He took from us, He associated us in the glory of His majesty.”
H I-III, 147 of appendix = BC I-III, 131 of appendix (Qala 16).
One final passage is worth noting, even though the “hmayrā” does not occur there:
“Had you not, O Lord, profited us on high in heaven with the fugitive (srīdā) from us, who pleases You continually, we might have resembled Sodom in the wickedness of our actions.”
H III, 515 (Tues. Moses week 1; om BC III, 351-352). The passage based on Isaiah 1:9 where the term “srīdā” occurs in the Peshitta, both in the Old Testament and in the verse’s quotation in Rom 9:29 (Greek σπἑρμα; the Syriac translator here, as elsewhere, deliberately adopts the phraseology of the Syriac OT).
1 I use the edition of the hudra edited by T. Darmo, Ktābā da-qdām wad-bātar wad-hudra wad-kaškōl wad-gazzā w-qālē d-‘udrānē ‘am ktābā d-mazmūrē (3 vols.), Trichur 1960-62 (= H); the relevant passages are collected and translated in the Appendix.
2 For references, see Appendix, passages no. 1 and 2.
3 It is not clear to whom the suffix refers: it could be “the Good One “(i.e. joining the hostage to his own glory), or the hostage (i.e. for his glory, or “our mortal race” (i.e. its glory); the first is perhaps the most consonant with the East Syrian christological tradition is general.
4 P. Bedjan, Breviarium iuxta ritum syrorum orientalium id est Chaldaeorum (3 vols.), repr. Rome 1938 (= BC). For the alteration to the first passage, see the Appendix (no. 1).
5 See Appendix, passages 4 and 6
6 Num 21:29 (Hebrew pe-lēt(īm); Isaiah 18:2 (Hebrew Şīrīm); I Macc 1:10; 7:7; 9:53; 10:6-9; 11:62; 13:16.
7 Examples from Aphrahat, Ephrem, Liber Graduum, Narsai, Jacob of Serugh etc. are quoted below; some further references can be found in the standard lexica. For Aphrahat, see also A. Schall, Studient Über griedscische FremdwÖrter im Syrischen, Darmstadt 1960, 100.
8 It is present in S. Atto’s SuryaniÇe-TurkÇe SÖzluk, Enschede 1990, and in Kyrillus Jacob and Asmar Elkhoury’s The Guide: the First Literacy-Colloquial Syriac Dictionary, Stockholm 1985. For the background to these dictionaries see my “Some observations on the use of Classical Syriac in the late twentieth century”, ISSt 34 (1989) 363-375.
9 For hostages in the Late Antiquity see A. Aymard, Les otages barbares du début de l”empire, JRS 51 (1961) 136-142; D. Braund, Rome and the Friendly King, London 1984, 12-16; J. Matthews Hostages, philosophers and pilgrims, and the diffusion of ideas in the Late Roman Mediterranean and Near East, in; F.M. Clover and R.S. Humphreys (eds.), Tradition and Innovation in Late Antiquity, Madison 1989, 29-49, esp. 37-41; A.D. Lee, The role of hostages in Roman diplomacy with Sasanian Persia, hist. 40 (1991) 366-374. From the linguistic point of view; R. Roos, Oἱ ὁμηρεύοτες. On the terminology of ancient hostages, in: S.-T. Teodorsson (ed.), Greek and Latin Studies in Memory of C. Fabricius, SLS 54 (1990) 158-164.