The Contributions of Early Syriac Martyrdom Narratives to the Christian Identity

By: Sophie Epstein

Professor Natalie Reynoso’s teaches a course titled Faith and Critical Reason here at Fordham, but her research reflects the fundamental relationship between the two. Echoing the Jesuit emphasis upon how religious study enhances the intellectual mind, she examines early foundations of Christian identity. More specifically, she “focuses on death as an embodied transition in early Christian martyrdom narratives from the Syriac tradition.”

In the early Syriac tradition, conclusions about identity in relation to the body and its treatment can be drawn. Ancient Christian texts in Syriac, an important dialect of the Aramaic language, often relay stories of how Christian identity was established under the Zoroastrian ruling elites of the Sasanian empire, especially as this identity concerns martyrdom narratives that are considered to be part of the second period of persecution and martyrdom in the Syriac tradition. The events in the martyrdom narratives that fall within this second period of persecution — roughly mapped onto modern-day Iraq and Iran — occurred from the mid-fourth to the mid-seventh centuries. Close study of martyrdom narratives produced at the time reveals the struggles faced by converts from Zoroastrianism to Christianity, who, for a number of reasons, were considered a threat to the empire and were therefore persecuted through torture. The patterns or discontinuities in the various processes underwent by bodies of martyrs in the studied texts reveal key factors that cultivated Christian identity. Professor Reynoso examines how hagiographers — scholars that wrote these religious texts — “ascribed identity onto the bodies of these martyrs while they continued to experience many bodily changes” over the course of their lives and after their deaths. Professor Reynoso further explains, “My interrogation of early Christian thought often avails itself of the tools of critical theory, and particularly queer and gender theory to reconfigure the relationship between two related conceptual constellations: body, identity, and selfhood on the one hand and sex, gender, and sexuality on the other.”

While she is currently a fourth-year Ph.D. student, Professor Reynoso did not initially imagine that her study would take the course it did; how did she arrive at such nuanced questions? After reading texts within both the Latin and Greek traditions in early Christianity, her preliminary goal was to focus became her co-advisors, and as thus have been instrumental in helping her go about the research for her dissertation and in challenging her thinking at every stage of this project. She is also grateful to be part of this small academic subfield, Syriac Christianity, which she has found to be “warm and welcoming to young scholars who are just coming up in the field.” She expressed how she hopes the field will continue to grow so that the language can be preserved, and the texts can continue to be read and studied. 

It is important to acknowledge that a huge portion of the process for humanities research tends to entail gathering sources and determining their relevance. But because most sources that would be useful to Professor Reynoso have not been translated from Syriac, her first step was grasping the language, which she considers the most challenging but most rewarding part of her research. While gaining Syriac proficiency certainly takes time and commitment, she says that she “considers having access to these texts in their original language to be a gift.” Deep readings of the work of past scholars and secondary sources also offer perspective to draw conclusions.

Professor Reynoso says that she is always finding new pathways to study in her field of research, but her focus lately has been on the fascinating presence of animals in these texts. While the mention of sacrificial lambs was more commonly seen in martyrdom narratives, different and less-expected animals also make appearances. In “The Martyrdom of Anahid,” for example, dogs and wasps both play important roles in the narrative. In Zoroastrian tradition, dogs are partially responsible for breaking down corpses by eating their flesh, but while Anahid is being persecuted, she tries to insult her torturer by referring to him as a dog. Wasps surround her body to retain its purity for days after she has passed away. Deciphering what is directly from Zoroastrian tradition as compared to what is from Christian rituals requires much detailed reading and cross-referencing. Animals are therefore employed in various ways, whether they are referenced in derogatory ways or admirable ones. Their symbolism is part of what shapes Christian identity in these early texts.

Much research has been gravely interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Professor Reynoso explains that while she has encountered some challenges due to this, work has also provided an escape. Lately, concentration is more difficult for most, since research is not occurring in the typical workspace. It can also be hard to acquire texts because libraries are limited in what they can obtain, since some texts are on hold. Having an engaging professional community alleviates some of this difficulty. Professor Reynoso believes that it is really special to share these texts with such a small population of people who can actually read them, and that this work can serve as “a nice way to step away from all the things our world is going through right now, even if only briefly.”

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