The Liturgical Theology of Patriarch Išo’yabh IV in
Nestorian Questions on the Administration of the Eucharist
J. Michael Joncas
University of Notre Dame
Spring Semester 2003
Patriarch Išo’yabh IV wrote what would come to be known as Nestorian Questions on the
Administration of the Eucharist in the early eleventh century. This document provides important
historical evidence about the liturgical practices of the Church of the East, but it also reflects the
changing way in which liturgical theology was being done. At the time that Išo’yabh composed
the work under examination, he was bishop of Nuhadra and master of an unnamed, but well-
respected school. He had been a monk at the High Monastery1 and previously served as a
deacon in Mosul. He concerned himself with what he saw as the poor state of liturgical affairs
that had developed in the Church of the East.
The literary form adopted by Išo’yabh is conditioned by these concerns with contemporary
problems. The editor of the Nestorian Questions, Willem Cornelis van Unnik, compares the
Quaestiones of Išo’yabh with similar question and answer materials on the liturgy, namely the
Expositiones written by Išo’yabh’s teacher, George of Arbela. What the latter gives is
“explanations of what is found in the liturgical books, while the category we have in view tries to
solve difficulties arising from the performance of the liturgy since theory of the books and
practice of the Church were often different; and many cases were not provided for in the
liturgical books. In Expos[itiones] we find the logical order that is missing in our treatises. It
may safely be ranked with the Catechisms.”2 Van Unnik has grouped Išo’yabh’s 123 questions
into several categories, but the questions are not systematically arranged as one would expect for
a pedagogical text, but rather the questions arise as they occurred to the author.
While his primary source of liturgical theology comes out of the practices he observed,
Išo’yabh made recourse to traditional, historical precedent. In fact, the questions he asks are
See van Unnik, W.C. Nestorian Questions on the Administration of the Eucharist, by Isho’yabh IV: A contribution
to the history of the Eucharist in the Eastern Church. Haarlem, Netherlands: Joh. Enschedé en Zonen, 1937. See pp.
148-149 that addresses “What was this High Monastery?”
van Unnik, pg. 103.
asked of an old man, of whom Išo’yabh writes: “I wish to appeal to the witness of the very old
men, ancient of days, in order that I may speak with confidence and without hesitation…”3 In
reply, the old man says that he “will give an answer, not from [him]self nor from [his] own
knowledge, but from the old men whom [he] saw and questioned with accuracy.”4 Of course this
may be regarded as merely the proper humble deference, but additionally this conveys the degree
to which tradition is taken as authoritative ; Išo’yabh and his contemporaries wished to see their
liturgy as reaching back into the ancient days. The legitimacy of the enterprise of asking
questions is established through this introduction as well. Questioning was something in which
this elder engaged with his own elders: questions and answers facilitate the type of historical
continuity desired by Išo’yabh. Paradoxically, however, many of the questions which Išo’yabh
is concerned are questions that arose precisely because situations were not the same in eleventh
century Mosul and Nuhadra as they were in sixth century Edessa or first century Palestine. The
myth is that nothing has changed, while the very fact that the questions must be asked in earnest
indicates that they represent novel problems.
In questions 87 through 104 Išo’yabh addresses some acts and objects in the mass, applying
the question and answer method and doing liturgical theology out of the context of contemporary
87 Question: How many times do we sign over the Paghra and De ma? Answer: Three times; apart from
the signing of the Paghra with the De ma and of the D e ma with the Paghra.
88 Question: Which are these signs and in which places (of the Liturgy) should they be made? Solution:
The first at: “The grace of…”; the second at: “And for all…” and the third at: “…lifting up…”.
89 Question: I saw some of the old men who did not sign at the first “The grace of…” while the rest
signed (there) and (do so) up till now. Solution: Those who do not sign at the first “The grace of…”
say this: “Three signs only should be made and not four; one at: “And for all…”, the second at:
“…lifting up…”, and the third with the Paghra over the De ma and with the D e ma over the Paghra. But
the rest sign at the three Canons, and say that the fourth sign is separated from these three, because it is
the union of the Paghra with the De ma and of the D e ma with the Paghra. (They take) their argument
from the Ordination-service, when the Ordainer signs three times over the Ordained, and fourth time
van Unnik, pg. 157.
van Unnik, pg. 158.
being when he says: “N.N. is set apart, consecrated and perfected for the work of the priesthood, in the
name of the Father.” The same is the case with the fourth sign over the Qurbana which is (that of) the
What arises out of the exchange in questions 87 through 89 is the way in which Išo’yabh and
his interlocutor consider all signings to be instantiations of the same service. Whether it is the
signing of the bread, the signing at ordination, or the signing during the anaphora, all the
signings are to be done in the same number. How they are counted varies somewhat, but there is
a consistency among each of those who espouses one or the other way of signing. Each sign is,
therefore, not viewed as some act in itself, but rather as a type of prototypical signing. Van
Unnik observes that “the Consecration and the manner in which it was performed was conceived
of as a unit; and that every consecration of whatever formulary was thought to have the same
90 Question: How many times are the signs which the priest makes in the time of the Qudasha? Solution:
91 Question: Which are they? Solution: Three over himself; three over the Paghra and Dema; and three
over the people.
92 Question: Mark them clearly for me. Solution: Over himself: the first at: “…and that we may raise…”;
the second, when he signs the Bukhra; and the third, when saying “One holy Father, one holy Son,…”.
93 Question: Those over the Qurbana are known as they have been spoken of above; (but) those over the
people which are they? Answer: The first is at the second: “The grace of…”, when the priest raises his
voice, and although he signs over his own person, he lifts his hands upwards, in order that he may sign
the Cross over the people; and then the people bow and adore, because the Mysteries were finished at
the “The grace of…”, and kiss the Cross with the symbol of which they have been signed. The second
is at: “The gift of the grace of…”; and the third at: “He who has blessed us…”.7
What one first observed in the exchanges in questions 90 through 93 concerning the precise
time for signing is the manner in which these questions express a profound concern for legal
detail. Išo’yabh does not ask what it means that the priest blesses himself, the sanctified bread as
the Body of Christ, and the assembly as the Body of Christ, but is only concerned that it be
executed properly. This sort of legalism is considerably different than the mystagogical
van Unnik, pp. 177-178.
van Unnik, pg. 260.
van Unnik, pg. 178.
catechesis practiced by Theodore of Mopsuestia and the sacramental theology developed by
Cyrus of Edessa.
94 Question: I saw deacons who said in receiving the chalice to bring it out to the people: “Bless, o my
Lord”, and took the veil from the chalice and immediately they returned it and so went out. What
symbol does this represent (lit. is this mystery)? Answer: The deacons are following unknowingly a
tradition which they see from one another.
95 Question: Show me clearly what symbol is therein? Solution: The deacon says: “Bless, o my Lord”
and he bows his head, because he expects to participate in the signing which the priest makes over the
people, together with them. 8
Concerning himself with an act of the deacon’ s which he does not understand, Išo’yabh asks
the elder for the meaning of the action. While van Unnik notes some interesting comparisons
with other liturgical rites, what one first notices is that the elder does not answer Išo’yabh’s
question. Instead of the meaning of the symbol, Išo’yabh’s interlocutor explains the source;
namely, an unreflected upon tradition. Išo’yabh tries once more to get from the old man, who by
his own admission saw the ancients do the liturgy, the meaning of the diaconal invocation, but
instead he learns only of the subsequent action. In this question we also have Išo’yabh use the
technical term, whose best equivalent is sacrament, namely mystery (Raza, pl. Razeh). While he
does not expound his own liturgical theology, he has what may be called a sacramental theology
that understands that each Raza has some symbol, or rather meaning, attached to it.
96 Question: I saw some priests who in taking the Bukhra said in the moment of the last signing: “We
draw nigh, o my Lord, in the true faith” and signed the symbol of the cross over the Bukhra which was
in their hands, with their thumb. Answer: This is blameworthy and practised only by men of the
villages and of the mountains. But you, o Brother, be careful never to let a man practise this!9
The warning given Išo’yabh is strong and unmistakable: only those people in the liturgical
backwaters do this and you must not do it. No explanation of the meaning of the symbolic
gesture is given to substantiate why one ought not to do so, but it is clearly regarded as a
reprehensible practice. Historically it is not known whether this practice was an innovation
outside of the urban area of Mosul due to inadequate education of clergy and poor
van Unnik, pp. 178-179.
van Unnik, pg. 179.
communication with the unban center, or whether it was more likely a tradition that had fallen
out of customary use in Mosul, but had been retained in the hinterland, like the celebration of
Agape meals. 10 Again, this indicates the myth of traditional liturgy: Išo’yabh wants to do the
liturgy as it was done for time immemorial, but gestures are memorable for only a few
generations and change easily.
97 Question: When the deacons come from the Bema carrying the Cross and the Gospel, on which side
must he who carries the Cross stand, and on which side he who carries the Gospel? Solution: He who
carries the Cross must stand on the righthand side, with his face turned towards the people, because
coming out first, he enters first, and they go to meet him and kiss him.
98 Question: Why must the censer in the time of the Qudasha stand on the lefthand side and not on the
righthand side? Solution: Because the censer must be at the righthand side of the priest, as he is the
consecrator of the Paghra and (also because they burn the perfume) in honour of the Qurbana and of
the priest and of the holy words that come forth from his mouth.
99 Question: Why must the Paghra, when placed (on the alter) be placed on the lefthand side and the
chalice on the righthand side? Solution: Because when the priest turns his face towards the altar and
the East, his (right) hand consecrates the Paghra and absolves the people.11
Questions 97 through 99 concern themselves with the placement of liturgical elements. It has
sometimes been charged that liturgists are more concerned with moving objects than with
moving hearts. Here is an example of such liturgical legalism which seems to obscure more and
more the visible spiritual meaning. The questions Išo’yabh asks are detailed and indicate an
awareness of present praxis, as is indicated by his asking why something must be done in one
fashion, namely the customary manner, and not another. That something could be arbitrary
never occurs to Išo’yabh; every action of the Razeh must have some meaning to which it is
100 Question: What symbol is there in the two fans which are in the hands of the two deacons which stand
round the altar, on the righthand side of the priest and at his left, when he consecrates? Solution:
Because they fill the place of Gabriel and Michael who were at the sepulchre of our Lord. Although
there are many angels there two only have charge of the service of the altar and of the priest who
van Unnik, pg. 264.
van Unnik, pg. 179.
van Unnik, pg. 179.
Question 100 is the mystagogical explanation for the two fans which the deacons hold during
the anaphora. The starting point for Išo’yabh’s liturgical theology is, once again, observable
practice. Additionally, he relies on apocryphal stories of which two angels must have been
present at the tomb of the Lord when he was resurrected. Only in the Gospel according to Luke
do two angels appear and in none of the Gospel accounts are they named. Van Unnik notes that
Gabriel and Michael are prominent angels in the Expositiones of the Church of the East, and thus
one would expect that in the absence of knowing which two angels the deacons represent that the
most esteemed archangels will be invoked. Again, Išo’yabh would not be satisfied with an
answer that it was arbitrary or that symmetry demanded there be two fans; and neither is his
likeminded elder satisfied with such explanations. There must be a meaning to every aspect of
every Raza, if only it can be gleaned from the ancients.
101 Question: There was once a dispute as to which was greater, the Cross or the Gospel. Answer: Some
people say that the Cross is not greater than the Gospel, nor the Gospel greater than the Cross. These
two are one. The Cross fills the place of Christ, while the Gospel is His message, His word and His
In question 101, Išo’yabh returns to the same objects as were addressed in question 97,
namely the Cross and the Gospel. Although Išo’yabh does not make this explicit, the context of
this question seems to have arisen out of the same procession from Bema to Sanctuary
mentioned in question 97. Given that, the Gospel book represents the part of the liturgy where
the presider and his retinue would have been in the Bema – what we would now call the Liturgy
of the Word. The procession from the Bema to the Sanctuary, where the remembrance of the
mystery and sacrifice of the Cross was to be enacted, represents the beginning of what would
now be the Liturgy of the Word. It is not a stretch to see Išo’yabh as asking which is greater: the
proclamation or the rememoration? The answer Išo’yabh receives is that while some privilege
van Unnik, pg. 180.
one over the other, they are best conceived as one element, much as the Paghra and De ma are
considered in union.
102 Question: How many times does the priest say in the Mysteries: “Peace be with you”? Solution: Three
times; once before the Gospel; the second time after the Canon: “…and that we may raise…”; and the
third time before: “One holy Father”. Their meaning is the peace which our Lord gave unto His
disciples after His resurrection: once on the Sunday of the Resurrection, another time on the New
Sunday, and the third time at the Sea of Tiberias when John said: “It is the Lord.” 14
In question 102 the three proclamations of “peace be with you” are seen as bearing the
meaning of the three events of Jesus offering his peace to his disciples after the resurrection. The
specific post-resurrection texts to which Išo’yabh refers are John 20:19, 20:26, and 21:7. This
rememorative interpretation is not typical for Išo’yabh, although it is an adroit answer to
Išo’yabh’s search for symbolic meaning in the Razeh.
103 Question: If a Metropolitan or a Bishop be present at the beginning of the Mysteries, and the priest
takes the Cross, when (the procession) comes out for the Bema, where must the priest who carries the
Cross stand, on the righthand or the lefthand side? Solution: The Bishop stands before the altar, his
face (looking) to the West, and the Cross on the righthand side on the righthand of the Bishop. The
Cross comes out first and they kiss first the Cross and then the hand of the Bishop. Those who make
the Cross stand at the lefthand side, do it for the sake of the two following reasons: either from
ignorance or price, as they consider themselves higher than the Cross.15
Again Išo’yabh focuses on questions concerning the use of the Cross and the Gospel,
liturgical objects which were essential for the Mass to be considered valid. 16 That these objects
were required for the Mass seems to reinforce the interpretation of question 101, namely that the
objects serve as a symbolic mapping for the two temporal elements of the celebration of the
Mass. (Note also that these temporal elements are spatially mapped to the Bema and Sanctuary,
respectively). Aside from these more speculative matters, question 103 further indicates what
has become quite clear througho ut this examination of Išo’yabh’s Quaestiones, namely that his
liturgical inquiry and liturgical theology is rooted in practical questions which were set in the
context of his contemporary milieu.
van Unnik, pg. 180.
van Unnik, pg. 180.
van Unnik, pg. 283.
104 Question: Show me the meaning of the Throne in the Temple or in the House of Prayer, and of its
decorative work and its coverings. Answer: The Throne in the Church is like Golgotha on which it is
believed that the Cross of our Saviour was fixed. The big cross at its head (represents) the wood on
which our Lord was crucified. The Cross on the Throne which is at the top of Golgotha is the image of
Christ on the Cross. The Gospel which is at the side of the Cross represents the word of Christ our
Lord with his Gospel and commandments, in the likeness of a king holding in his hands the scepter of
the reign. The purple -coloured covering which is over the Cross is the likeness of (the purple with)
which the priests covered our Saviour when they brought Him out to be crucified. The two fans at the
two sides are the two robbers at the right and the left (of Christ). 17
This final question in van Unnik’s grouping of Išo’yabh’s treatment of acts and objects in the
Mass is, like question 100, a mystagogical interpretation of an object in the Mass: the Throne.
Van Unnik has some discussion as to what architectural element Išo’yabh means by the Throne,
but it seems that it can only represent the presider’s chair in the Bema. 18 Whatever the case may
be historically, what is of concern here is the manner in which Išo’yabh allegorically interprets
the decoration of the Throne to do liturgical theology. Every element of the decoration of the
Throne is mapped onto some event of the crucifixion of the Lord and the whole Throne itself is
Golgotha. A cross rememoratively represents the Cross on which Christ was crucified, paired
with the Gospel as one would expect. As was the case with Germanus of Constantinople, an
inaccuracy is made by confusing the royal imagery of purple cloth with the entrance of Jesus into
the Temple priesthood, which is itself a confusion of Biblical sources. Finally, the two fans are
not interpreted as the two archangels at the tomb on the day of resurrection, as they were in
question 100, but rather as the robbers flanking Jesus. Išo’yabh here has used Biblical events in
the life of Jesus and rememoratively placed them in the context of the present liturgy.
The result of the interpretation of the Throne as Golgotha in question 104 is a curious
juxtaposition with his similar rememorative interpretive move in question 100. There, the altar is
the like the tomb of the resurrected Lord, whose presence is being heralded by archangels,
whereas here the altar is the locus of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. Although this seems
van Unnik, pp. 180-181
van Unnik, pg. 270.
imprecise, this does not seem to result from inattentiveness on Išo’yabh’s part. Rather, it seems
to be Išo’yabh’s attempt to hold in balance two aspects of the Christ event—death and
resurrection—into one temporal Raza (mystery).
The liturgical theology evidenced in Išo’yabh’ s Nestorian Questions on the Administration of
the Eucharist, marks a continuation of the trajectory set by Theodore of Mopsuestia, Cyrus of
Edessa, and others who did liturgical theology in the church of the Orient. Išo’yabh did theology
that was both deeply rooted in the contemporary questions of the community which he oversaw,
but was also so legalistic that it is difficult to see any use for his particular questions in a
contemporary Chaldean or Assyrian context. What does emerge, however, is the deep respect
that Išo’yabh and his elders had for the received tradition; they accepted the traditions and
allowed those to form the structure on which meaning was imbued, rather than reconstructing the
liturgical celebration due to theological inquiry. They recognized the importance of an
immutable and eternal liturgical tradition, even if that was not the case historically.
Given the authority accorded tradition, the liturgy itself was justification for its practice and
existence. Even where scriptural sources were used non-critically, they were not used as proof-
texts, but rather explanatory texts to add a deeper and richer texture of meanings to the events.
The tendency towards seeing the liturgy as eternal and not humanly constructed, however,
tended to articulate itself in an excessive legalism that is bogged down in particulars. The lesson
one can draw from how Išo’yabh did liturgical theology is that liturgical theology must be
contextualized, can profitably be based on the present and traditiona lly received liturgical
practice, but at the same time must not become so contextualized that the liturgical details
swallow up the theological realities one wishes to reflect upon. To Išo’yabh’s credit, however,
these were not his concerns, as he was dealing with what is depicted as rampant liturgical
inconsistency that needed to be curbed and corrected by the gentle reproof offered by Išo’yabh
and his witnesses who were heir to the practice of the ancient days. As van Unnik states at the
opening of his edition, “Immutable and traditional; these two adjectives are generally used to
characterize the Near East.” And this characterization is not without reason.