A Critical Comparison of the So-called ‘Lawsuit’ in the Baptismal Rites of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Narsai of Nisibis

in Vigiliae Christianae
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Theodore of Mopsuestia’s baptismal homilies 1-3 and Narsai of Nisibis’ liturgical homilies 21 and 22 are valuable sources concerning the Syrian baptismal liturgy. It is commonly held that Narsai’s rite is heavily influenced by Theodore’s. Some scholars even go that far to picture Narsai as Theodore’s copycat. Such a view would have profound consequences for our perception of continuity and discontinuity within the Eastern baptismal tradition. However, the present comparative study of an often neglected pre-baptismal part of the rite both Narsai and Theodore describe as a “Lawsuit” or “Judgment” (dinā) reveals significant differences between both liturgies that make an exclusive dependance improbable. These differences must be taken into account if we want to get a clear picture of the relationship of both rites with each other and the larger Syrian tradition.

A Critical Comparison of the So-called ‘Lawsuit’ in the Baptismal Rites of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Narsai of Nisibis

in Vigiliae Christianae




Hugh M. RileyChristian Initiation: A Comparative Study of the Interpretation of the Baptismal Liturgy in the Mystagogical Writings of Cyril of Jerusalem John Chrysostom Theodore of Mopsuestia and Ambrose of Milan (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press/Consortium Press1974) defines Mystagogy as: “The instruction which is imparted to help the candidates understand the meaning of what is said and what is done in the liturgy of his initiation into the Christian life... instruction in the meaning of the mysteries.” (p. 2).




Even until today McLeodTheodore of Mopsuestia8-9.


MitchellFour Fathers on Baptism53.


Bryan D. Spinks“The Rise and Decline of Sin and the Devil in the East Syrian Baptismal Tradition,” Studia patristica 26 (1993): 72. See also pp. 70 and 74 where in a similar way Spinks questions the authenticity of Narsai’s rite.


Paul F. BradshawThe Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (2nd edition; New York, NY: Oxford University Press2002) rightly remarks that “a very different picture emerges if we observe not what appears to have been common but what was distinctive or unique about the baptismal process in each place” (p. 146 see also pp. 14 and 170).


E.g. George E. Saint-Laurent“Pre-baptismal Rites in the Baptismal Catecheses of Theodore of Mopsuestia,” Diakonia. 16 no. 2 (1981): 118-126 passes over the Lawsuit and starts with the renunciation. Even Riley in his elaborate study Christian Initiation only makes a passing reference to the “courtoom scene” (p. 53). Concerning Narsai e.g. Thumpeparampil “Mar Narsai” whose “main objective... is a structural analysis” (p. 226[126]) of homily 22 and 21 completely ignores the Lawsuit.


RileyChristian Initiation70-74.


Dominic E. Serra“Syrian Pre-baptismal Anointing and Western Post-baptismal Chrismation,” Worship 79 (2005). “The ancient Syrian pattern appears to be the following: catechumenal preparation leading to an apotaxis/syntaxis the anointing (signing) of the forehead... the water bath the eucharist. The Western pattern is rather: catechumenal preparation culminating in a period of exorcism... This period of exorcism culminates in the apotaxis accompanied by an exorcistic anointing followed by the syntaxis that is simultaneous with the baptismal bath and sealed by the consecratory chrismation which is originally christic and later more explicitly pneumatic. The eucharist follows as the culmination of initiation.” (p. 339). This means that Narsai’s fifth century pattern is still in general agreement with the older Syriac tradition while Theodore’s fourth century pattern has already undergone some influence of the Western rite. For an overview of the influence of the Western pattern on West Syria see Maxwell E. Johnson The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Revised and Expanded Edition; Collegeville Minnesota: Liturgical Press 2007) 115-157 and especially pp. 153-157.


According to R.F.G. Burnish“The Role of the Godfather in the East in the Fourth Century,” Studia Patristica 17 no. 2 (1982): 562these “duly appointed persons” (aylēn dsimin ʿal hānā litt. translated as “those who are appointed for this”) are the sponsors. However this identification is questionable as neither the employed Syriac nor a pluralis seems ever used to refer to the sponsor or godfather.


RileyChristian Initiation70-74.


Bryan D. SpinksEarly and Medieval Rituals and Theologies of Baptism: From the New Testament to the Council of Trent (Burlington: Ashgate2006) 45 states that Theodore in portraying the rite as a court trial in a sense demythologizes the exorcism and the renunciations. However given the Western influence on West Syriac liturgy during the fourth and fifth centuries (see n32) could it not be possible instead that Theodore testifies to a stage where a former non-exorcistic Lawsuit evolves into an exorcism?


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