Theology 565 Liturgical Theology

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					   The Liturgical Theology of Patriarch Išo’yabh IV in

Nestorian Questions on the Administration of the Eucharist

                     Andrew Casad


                    J. Michael Joncas

                     Theology 565:

                   Liturgical Theology

                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
            (above) union.5

    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.