Sojourn in the Eternal City

by   |  04.19.11  |  Church History, Sabbatical, Translation

Dr. Jeff W. Childers, Carmichael-Walling Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University, offers some reflections on his recent trip to the Vatican Library in Rome:

Sojourn in the Eternal City

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Romipetae they called them—‘Rome-seekers:’ determined pilgrims crossing land and sea to reach the Eternal City, in hopes of receiving some benefit by visiting its holy places and communing with its sacred relics. Such a traveler was I.

Jeff in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City

In April 2011 I went to Rome, seeking the relics of John Chrysostom—but not the great preacher’s old bones, entombed in the Chapel of the Choir in St. Peter’s Basilica on Vatican Hill. Instead, I sought a different sort of relic, yards away from the Basilica. I wanted to get closer to the Golden Voice itself, by reading the words of Chrysostom preserved in ancient manuscripts housed in the Pope’s own library.

Exterior of the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana

Boasting the world’s greatest collection of ancient Christian texts, the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) reopened in September 2010 after a three-year closure for restoration work. The reopening cleared the way for me to request access to the Syriac manuscripts of Chrysostom’s works archived among the Library’s many treasures. Following on the heels of my sojourn at St. Catharine’s Monastery in February, my journey to Rome in April was the second leg of a quest to gather the surviving textual data of Chrysostom’s 5th-century Commentary on the Gospel of John in Syriac and prepare them for publication.

Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, still in use today but flourishing especially in Christian communities in the Middle East during the 3rd–13th centuries. Among the many Syriac texts that survive, manuscripts with the Syriac version of Chrysostom’s Commentary on John are very old but have never been edited, translated, or published. The goal of my project is to make these texts available to a wider readership, but first I must visit the various libraries where these literary relics now reside, study the manuscripts, and collect the texts. The support of ACU and the Loeb Classical Foundation has provided me the time and financial resources I need to make these pilgrimages.

Reading Room, BAV

The restored BAV is a lovely place to work, providing a marvelous environment in which to meditate on the eloquent words of the Golden Mouth as he explicates scripture. ‘Great is the profit from the divine scriptures and unending help comes from them,’ opens one of his homilies partly preserved in the manuscript Vatican Syriac 253, ‘for the divine sayings are a treasury of all sorts of medicines.’ As Chrysostom goes on to examine the account of the paralytic’s healing in John 5, he celebrates the beauty of the passage and administers its pastoral benefits to his audience—including one late-comer, a 21st-century researcher from the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University.

Leaf from 6th-7th century Syriac manuscript of Chrysostom

Chrysostom’s exegeses and preaching are marked by his devotion to Christ’s example, by passionate indictment against those who abuse authority, whether political or ecclesiastical, and by a relentless insistence that wealth pleases God only to the extent that it is used to relieve suffering and restore peace. At his affluent church in Constantinople, the capital of the emerging Byzantine Empire, these themes caused trouble for John among the rich and powerful. Largely due to his fiery preaching, he was banished from the pulpit, dying in exile as he journeyed to far-off Georgia in 407. He certainly never traveled to Rome—at least, not until manuscripts bearing his words made their way to the city, words destined to long outlive the deeds of his persecutors.

More than the remains of his mortal body, carried to Rome after Crusaders pinched them from Constantinople in 1204, I find the manuscript relics of Chrysostom’s teaching better preserve the force of his passion. He deserves the widest possible audience. Soon I hope to be able to expand his hearing by making available these remarkable texts in their Syriac version.

Jeff and his wife Linda tour Ancient Rome