Reviews of

Tradition and Innovation

In Baptism, Brill, Mystagogy, Narsai of Nisibis, Nathan WITKAMP, Patristics, Sofia Puchkova, Theodore of Mopsuestia on January 4, 2021 at 1:49 pm
Cover Tradition and Innovation: Baptismal Rite and Mystagogy in Theodore of Mopsuestia and Narsai of Nisibis

2021.1.1 | Nathan Witkamp. Tradition and Innovation: Baptismal Rite and Mystagogy in Theodore of Mopsuestia and Narsai of Nisibis. Supplements to Vigiliae Chrisitanae 149. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2018. ISBN 9789004377851.

Review by Sofia Puchkova, KU Leuven.

The book of Nathan Witkamp, a research fellow of the Netherlands Centre for Patristic Research, presents the first comprehensive comparative analysis of the baptismal rite and mystagogy in the Catechetical Homilies of Theodore of Mopsuestia and in the 21 and 22 memre of Narsai of Nisibis. Challenging the generally accepted view that Narsai had been primarily and significantly influenced by Theodore to the extent that up till now he was regarded as a mere copyist of his teacher, Witkamp demonstrates Narsai’s creativity in the use of Theodore’s material and of the sources of the East Syrian liturgical tradition.

The book is well-organized. The first chapter addresses the terminological issues of Theodore and Narsai’s understanding of notions related to baptism (e.g., “mysteries,” “baptismal rite”). The accurate inquiry of these terms allows Witkamp to picture the structure of the baptismal rites adequately in the second chapter. The following chapters are dedicated to the analysis of a particular ritual unit of the baptismal rites described by two authors. Each chapter consists of similar parts: 1) description of the rituals and their mystagogy in Theodore, 2) description of the same rituals in Narsai, 3) contextualization of the rituals in the Syrian tradition, 4) comparative analysis of rituals and mystagogy of both authors under consideration and 5) conclusion. The part dedicated to contextualization seems to be especially advantageous methodologically, since it helps to avoid attributing some similarities between the rites to Theodore’s influence, in case these similarities are, in fact, a result from the common liturgical tradition shared by both authors.

The first chapter reveals the major divide between the rituals that precede the mysteries (before the signing of the forehead) and the rituals of the mysteries (signing of the forehead, baptism, post-baptismal rituals). The order of the rituals of the first group in Theodore and Narsai drastically differs: the former begins with enrolment and concludes with apotaxis and syntaxis, whereas the latter starts from apotaxis and finishes with enrolment. By contrast, the rituals of the mysteries exhibit less difference. Narsai’s account is only lacking the prebaptismal anointment of the entire body and postbaptismal initiatory rituals, which indicates that he witnesses a rite more archaic than Theodore’s.

Among the rituals that precede the mysteries, enrolment, having a different position in the rites of two authors, apparently, should function differently. In Narsai, it is no longer an administrative act of registration for baptism, as in Theodore, but it has symbolic meaning as a declaratory confirmation of the baptismal examination, which, as the scholar assumes, precedes the baptismal rite. On the level of mystagogy, Theodore’s idea of enrolment of candidates as citizens of the heavenly city is completely absent in Narsai. Although the latter mentions a candidate as “heir, son, and citizen,” this designation is better understood in the framework of Narsai’s own baptismal theology inspired by the parable of the prodigal son, but not through Theodore’s metaphor of heavenly citizenship and teaching on filial adoption.

Exorcism is another point of divergence between Theodore and Narsai’s accounts, having different positions in their rites: after enrolment in the former and between apotaxis and syntaxis in the latter. The difference in position forms different mystagogy: for Theodore, the candidate, first, should be delivered from the power of Satan and, then, he will have strength to renounce him, whereas Narsai’s candidate, in accordance with the parable of the prodigal son, first, refuses the devil and, then, becomes free from him. Most importantly, Narsai’s pattern “apotaxis-exorcism-sytaxis” is reflected in other Syrian liturgical sources; hence, his account demonstrates a baptismal rite, quite independent from Theodore’s. Nevertheless, Narsai’s interpretation of exorcism as lawsuit betrays his reliance on the bishop of Mopsuetia. In spite of being also attested in the East Syrian tradition, this metaphor in Narsai has a clear resemblance with that in Theodore.

Proceeding to the investigation of apotaxis and syntaxis, Witkamp points out the penitential prayer before this ritual unit in Theodore’s account, which is lacking in Narsai’s. Additionally, there are differences in the bodily movements during apotaxis/syntaxis. Nevertheless, the mystagogical exposition of the formula demonstrates one significant detail that witnesses Narsai’s use of Theodore’s homilies. The interpretation of “angels of Satan” as seven heresiarchs, with one difference (Marcion in Theodore and Eutyches in Narsai) clearly indicates the dependence of the latter on the former – dependence, but a creative one. 

With regard to the signing of the forehead, there are, again, more differences between Theodore and Narsai than similarities. For example, in Theodore, the signing has a twofold nature: it closes the rituals that precede the mysteries and begins the mysteries themselves. This is not the case for Narsai, whose rite does not have such a clear stress on the beginning of the mysteries. Contrary to Theodore who is silent about consecration of oil, Narsai emphasizes the blessing of oil and highlights its importance as a mean through which the Spirit bestows His gifts on the candidate. In this emphasis and close association of the signing and baptism, he resembles other East Syrian sources, but not Theodore. It is also remarkable that this concept of parrhesia, or of freedom, so important for Theodore’s baptismal theology, is absent in Narsai and is replaced in him by the anti-heretical emphasis on the Trinity. Instead of the sign of parrhesia, the signing depicts the names of the Trinity on the forehead of the candidate, and these names frighten the demons.

As far as baptism proper is concerned, Theodore and Narsai’s rite and mystagogy mainly share common tradition. The rites reflect the general pattern of three immersions, invocation of a passive baptismal formula, leaving the font and putting on a special white garment. The baptism is interpreted as dying and rising with Christ and as rebirth and re-creation, the themes attested in the East Syrian tradition. As for dissimilarities between the rituals, contrary to Theodore, Narsai witnesses the additional invocation of the Trinity that introduces three immersions; he also mentions embraces and kisses of the baptized by the bishop and community after baptism. Narsai’s mystagogy reflects various traditional baptismal images not attested in Theodore, e.g., forgiveness of sins, cleansing, marriage metaphor, etc. Concluding his analysis of the accounts of baptism in two authors under consideration, Witkamp states that Narsai certainly read and used Theodore, but not as a mere imitator, and in many cases when the similarity between them occur, this similarity is not a result of a direct influence, but an indication of common tradition they shared.  

Nathan Witkamp’s solid and thorough research exhibits a good critical engagement with the Syriac text of Theodore and Narsai’s homilies, as well as with its different modern translations and with secondary literature. Although some scholar’s assumptions remain somewhat debatable (e.g., dating of Theodore’s Catechetical Homilies and his treatise Against Macedonians, and the number of exorcisms according to Theodore’s account), his work is highly recommended not only to the specialists in Theodore and Narsai, but also to all scholars of liturgy.

Sofia Puchkova
KU Leuven
sofia.puchkova [at]


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