Human Perfection in the Thought of Bābai the Great: Tradition and Development in East Syrian Theology

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2022

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This dissertation examines the development of ideas about human nature and perfection in late East Syriac Christian thought through the writings of Bābai the Great (c. 551-628). It argues that Bābai develops an East Syrian approach to transformative participation in God that allows his theology to be seen as a localized analogue to deification. In terms of intellectual history, I also show how Bābai’s writings consistently use other late ancient sciences to construct his theological anthropology, especially Greek medicine and philosophy transmitted into Syriac through the work of an active translation movement. Bābai wrote at a significant stage in the development of Christian theology, practices, and institutions in the Sasanian Empire. As a monastic and ecclesial leader, he played a central role in this process during his lifetime and through the influence of his writings on later generations. For this reason, Bābai’s writings demonstrate important developments in dyophysite or Antiochene theological anthropology and reflect currents in the vibrant intellectual atmosphere of late ancient Mesopotamia.

First, I show how Bābai’s formal Christological theory of two hypostases (qnōmē) in a union of person (parṣōpā) allows him to develop a dyophysite version of the exchange of properties. The human nature of Jesus receives everything of divinity except nature. But Bābai applies this exchange asymmetrically, likely due to his opponents who appeared to endanger the transcendence of God. Second, I trace how Bābai’s dyophysite emphasis on preserving the order of nature licenses his use of medical knowledge for theology. Bābai uses late ancient biology to analyze the delayed ensoulment of Christ in the womb while defending his Christological theory. In doing so, he argues for the near non-separability of body and soul. Moreover, his use of biology indicates that Bābai is one of the earliest instances of East Syrian medicalization in theology, a development usually placed later in the 7th century. Third, Bābai’s conflicts with competing ascetic groups claiming perfection in this life allowed him to develop a dialectic of preparatory natural perfection leading to superadded eschatological perfection. By re-reading the work of Evagrius of Pontus against his opponents, Bābai outlines the ascetic and sacramental path of progress in this life and the gift of spiritual perfection in the next. Finally, I argue that Bābai’s idea of the resurrection reflects his ideas about the transformation that human nature undergoes in participation in God. His understanding of the resurrection body preserves specific lineaments of human form while also indicating their healing and suffusion with divine light. In discussing the resurrection body, Bābai also offers an idiosyncratic argument that the wounds of Christ in Jn 20.20 were a temporary but real miracle. In sum, Bābai reflects a significant development of earlier traditions of East Syrian towards a robust theology of human perfection in which human nature is transformed by participation in God.

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Tilley, Nathan (2022). Human Perfection in the Thought of Bābai the Great: Tradition and Development in East Syrian Theology. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25829.

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