The Return of a Lost Daughter

Jacob of Serugh on the Healing of the Canaanite Woman

In: Syriac Theology: Past and Present
Martina Aras
Search for other papers by Martina Aras in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access


The concept of suffering and healing is self-evident in the writings of the early Syriac Fathers1 which, by extension, show the importance of this concept to Syriac theology. A distinctive terminology for the concept of suffering and healing is fully developed in the writings of Ephrem the Syrian and in those of Jacob of Serugh.2 Both Ephrem and Jacob played a significant role in the shaping of the early Syriac tradition, and even today, their metrical writings and liturgical hymns are used in the Syriac Orthodox Church.

In this paper, I will analyze one of Jacob’s metrical writings on suffering and healing, namely, his homily on the Canaanite Woman as told in the Gospel of Matthew 15:21–28.3 My analysis will exemplify the Syriac concept of suffering and healing, shed further light on the elements of humility and boldness, and also draw on Eleonore Stump’s methodological insights of how to approach narratives.4 Jacob’s homily on the Canaanite Woman read as a narrative in light of Stump’s methodological insights may guide the reader closer to the experience of the Canaanite Woman and engage the reader in the suffering and healing of the Canaanite Woman.

After a discussion of Jacob’s suffering and healing terminology, I will analyze Jacob’s reading of the story of the Canaanite Woman which focuses on the complex inner life of the Canaanite Woman and emphasizes the nature of suffering as essential to the healing process.


In his theological thinking and biblical exegesis, Jacob is influenced by Aphrahat and even more by Ephrem. Jacob carefully interprets the tradition anew and breathes new life into it so that it is applicable and meaningful to his own audience. Like Ephrem, Jacob developed a homiletic language marked by distinctive dramatic poetry, which made his theological preaching aesthetically beautiful and appealing to his listeners. Jacob was a productive poet-theologian and contributed immensely to the dynamic tradition of the Syriac Orthodox Church.5

The early Syriac theology of Aphrahat, Ephrem, and Jacob cannot be guided only by modern Western theological methods resulting from Scholastic theology. This is simply because the methodological nature of early Syriac theology is different from Scholastic theology. Unlike Scholastic theologians, early Syriac Fathers expressed theology in rich symbolism and dramatic poetry, with creative dialogues between dramatic figures. The dialogical character of early Syriac theology is particularly important, for an essential theological openness is made possible by it.

In his homiletical exegesis, Jacob explores interpersonal relationships through dramatic dialogues between certain biblical figures. For example, in his homily on the Canaanite Woman, the dialogue between the suffering Canaanite Woman and Jesus the healer generates insights of any interpersonal relationship. Therefore, anyone listening to Jacob’s homily can relate either to the woman’s suffering or to the healer’s perspective.

In Stump’s momentous work on the problem of suffering, the importance of the second-person perspective emerges. Stump develops and uses it in narratives in a way that is complementary to Jacob’s homiletical exegesis. Stump approaches the problem of suffering by closely reading biblical narratives to detect what is not said. She pays attention to unnoticed connections present in the biblical narratives and tries to discover how these affect and change the suffering person.

What is the second-person perspective in narratives? The most frequent perspectives used in narratives are the first-person and third-person. As for the second-person, which is less common than the others, it is still relevant for the Syriac Fathers, and especially for Jacob. A person reading a story told in the second-person perspective stands to grasp a deeper understanding of the text and the lived experiences of the narrative’s figures. Through the second-person, which is commonly used in the homilies of early Syriac Fathers, the modern reader might grasp something existentially important about life. Stump says, “There are things we can know that are philosophically significant but that are difficult or impossible to know and express apart from stories.”6

As noted, a story or a narrative could be told in third, second or first-person perspective. For Stump, the most important perspective is the second. Before taking a closer look at the second-person perspective, it is helpful to clarify that the knowledge gained from stories is not propositional knowledge (knowledge that), i.e. the impersonal knowledge of value-free facts that is the domain of the natural sciences, but rather a kind of experiential knowledge.7 For Stump, narratives are the medium for this knowledge because they give a reader access to aspects of reality that the analytical-philosophical method misses.8

Narratives can trigger the emotions of the reader. Certain nuances are highlighted by narrative storytelling. Aspects arise consciously which might have been ignored otherwise. The visualisation of certain situations is also a significant component. For this reason, this method is particularly important for ethics (for example, Nussbaum). The activation of emotions can educate morally and in this way also contributes to the cultivation of morality.

For example, people with certain diseases need to feel understood and to put their disease into a larger context, so that the experience of the disease can receive a meaning that did not exist before. Narratives possess more than a mere intellectual understanding of a situation. Stump sees potential in how they awaken or transform our sense of particular phenomena.

With perspectives, we have already noted that the first and the third-person are more frequent than the second. By first-person perspective, the reader experiences the direct consciousness of a person and that person is always “me”. By contrast, with third-person perspective, the reader possesses indirect knowledge about a person other than “me” through the presence of a narrator, for example. Second-person perspective is fundamentally different from these two because it requires direct interaction with another person.9 In this context, Stump’s enlightening words provide further clarity on the different reader perspectives in narratives:

In a first-person experience, I am directly and immediately aware of a person as a person, but that person is only myself. It is also clear that a second-person experience is different from a third-person experience. For a third-person experience, one person has knowledge of the states of another but not in virtue of being conscious of that other as a person. A second-person experience is, therefore, different in character from a first-person or third-person experience because it is necessary for a second-person experience, as it is not for a first — or third-person experience, that you interact consciously and directly with another person who is conscious and present to you as a person, in one way or another.10

As we shall see in his homily on the Canaanite Woman, Jacob makes frequent use of the second-person experience.

The Homily on the Canaanite Woman

The encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite Woman — a woman suffering for her daughter’s sake and also social and gender injustices — is beautifully portrayed by Jacob in his homily on the Canaanite Woman. The homily addresses suffering, faith, and healing — in particular three distinctives on healing. In the present article, we examine two important themes in Jacob’s homily related to suffering, faith, and healing: the theme of the Sun of Righteousness (vv. 1–34) and of the Canaanite Woman as a harp for the Undivided Faith (vv. 113–144).

The first theme is a healing metaphor that originated in ancient Mesopotamia but was commonly used by Christian authors of late antiquity as a metaphor for the healing work of Jesus. These Christian authors drew from a Mesopotamian wealth of linguistic images and enhanced them in a unique way with Christian ideas. The second example analyses the internal processes. We learn very little about the people Jesus had healed from the biblical healing stories. The language and the expansion of the biblical narrative provide the first clues for spaces and possible answers to questions the listener may ask.11

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite Woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Mt 15:21–28)12

The Sun of Righteousness/ܫܡܫܐ ܕܙܕܩܘܬܐ (vv. 1–34)

In the first section (vv. 1–34), Jacob begins his homily with introductory words about the greatness of God, God’s actions in the world, and his unbeatable power. Jacob describes the work of God using opposite pairings, such as light and darkness. Jacob describes human darkness and the power of God. On the phenomenon of darkness (ܚܫܘܟܐ) he mentions the cloudy/dark road (ܕܐܘܪܚܐ ܟܡܝܪܬܐ) and shadow (ܛܠܠܐ) among other things. These are broken by the incidence of light and the rays it emits.

What does Jacob mean when he speaks of darkness and light? Jacob uses darkness as a metaphor of the many sufferings of the human experience. This Darkness assumes different qualities and kinds related to the idea of “Satan”. This darkness is often qualified as “being passive”. It is the darkness which blinds us (v. 3), or which makes life gloomy (v. 4). Error and wrong thinking also originate from darkness (v. 9). Darkness makes us infirm and wounded (v. 11) and also weak, sick, and poor (vv. 13, 15). Furthermore, darkness makes one blind, one paralytic, one possessed by demons (v. 16ff). Darkness is related to sin (v. 20) and it kills the plants (v. 21). It harms us (v. 25), gives birth to hate (v. 28) and arguments (v. 29). Darkness makes us doubt (v. 30f).

The darkness versus light antithesis contrasts evil and good or Satan and God/Jesus. According to Jacob, the light “slays” the darkness that “blinds the world”. And “great Light” (v. 1) is connected to the Lord. “The Radiance of the Father” illuminates the gloomy road (v. 3f). The “Sun of Righteousness” drove away the error and showed the “Way of Life” (v. 10). He also showered healings (v. 11) and sprinkled his medicine upon the sick (v. 13). He gave “forgiveness to sinners” (v. 20) and kept with his breath harm from many (v. 24). While darkness blinds us, light gives us sight again. The darkness is conquered by the light.

The ever-shining bright light illuminates the cloudy street and shadows. For Jacob, this does not negate the existence of darkness but rather it underlines where the shadows lie. The presence of contrast provides recognition. Jacob illustrates these various manifestations of darkness. The world experiences these shadows and the night belongs to the rhythm of the day that God created. The light and darkness, which appears in Jacob’s various homilies, describes Jesus as the source and medium of luminosity and a light for the salvation of the world.

Jacob views the ups and downs of the whole history of salvation through the imagery of light (nuhrā) and darkness (ḥešūkā). The aspects of darkness are wrong discernment, lack of the understanding of divine purpose, idols and idolatry.13

As the “Sun of Righteousness” (ܫܡܫܐ ܕܙܕܝܩܘܬܐ), Christ shows the “Way of Life” (ܐܘܪܚܐ ܕܚܝܐ)14 according to Jacob. The image of the “Sun of Righteousness” represents a name for Christ in the book of Malachi 4:2.15

Three verses later it is stated that the sun of righteousness will shine upon those who fear the Lord. According to MT [Masoretic Text], this sun will have healing in its wings. In P [Peshitta], however, the sun of righteousness will have healing ‘on its tongue’ and so may indicate the group’s teacher.16

The “Sun of Righteousness” is already associated with the topic of healing in the Syriac version of the Old Testament (Peshitta). According to Othmar Keel, a look at the Biblical exegesis of the book of Malachi shows this metaphor has its origins in both ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.17

Across the ancient East, the upper level of the universe was represented by a circle or disk with wings on either side. The disc symbolized the sun and the wings were the heavenly vault or the rays of the sun. In Mesopotamia, this winged sun disk was a representative of the sun god Shamash. A deeper look into this symbolism explains the concept of justice. Shamash as a deity worked with the principles of law, more precisely with the principle of justice and beneficence. The sun thus signified justice. These ideas were not foreign in ancient Israel. David L. Peterson explains that there was growing evidence of the worship of Yahweh through the use of solar metaphor in ancient Israel.18 It is this connection between healing and judgement or justice that Jacob also stresses throughout his homily. The report that the Canaanite Woman heard was in Jacob’s words, “Behold, the Judge of the World is passing by” (v. 79). This led her to run to him. In any case, the sun deity was linked to the topic of healing.

With the “Sun of Righteousness” title, Jacob emblematically introduces healing. In the light of Jacob’s understanding of healing, one can understand why he describes Jesus as “the Judge of the World”. Suffering often arises from injustice and the situation of the Canaanite Woman was exactly this whether by the sickness of her daughter, her gender, or the belonging to the pagans. Diane Blachert describes her situation:

People understood the daughter to be possessed by a demon. She was now caught in the realm of death. It could be that she was being punished for her own sin or that of her parents (cf. John 9). Because she was in the realm of death, she was not part of the living community. This family is faced with the day to day stress of illness compounded by attitudes and beliefs which increase their isolation and, thus, their suffering. […] The family is mute, isolated, dominated by the situation, turned in on itself and powerless.19

Note that the structure of the person’s experience of suffering perpetuates the injustice, which explains the person’s state of desperation.

The explicit introduction of the healing topic also includes the use of medical metaphors such as “healing” (ܚܘܠܡܢܐ) or his “medicine” (ܐܣܝܘܬܐ).20 The miracles are an integral part of his idea of salvation:

ܣܡܝ̈ܐ ܚܙܝܢ ܘܡܫܪ̈ܝܐ ܡܬܚܠܡܝܢ ܗܘܘ܆ ܕܝܘ̈ܐ ܛܪܝܕܝܢ ܐܦ ܕܟܦܝܦܝܢ ܡܬܦܫܛܝܢ ܗܘܘ. ܫܡܥܐ ܠܕ̈ܘܓܐ ܘܢܘܗܪܐ ܝܗܒ ܗܘܐ ܠܕܠܐ ܢܘܗܪܐ܆ ܕܟܝ ܓܪ̈ܒܐ ܘܠܚܛܝ̈ܐ ܝܗܒ ܫܘܒܩܢܐ.

The blind saw and paralytics were healed. / Demons were driven out, so that the bent were made straight. / He gave sound to the deaf and light to those without light. / He cleansed lepers and gave forgiveness to sinners (vv. 17–20).

Jacob underlines that Jesus’s healing miracles were free of charge and unconventional, and that he was in no way provoked by the oppression he himself experienced. Jacob illustrates through contrasting opposites the action and work of Jesus which brought healing and also exposed the ignorance, resentment, hatred and oppression on the part of the “circumcised” people. Jacob positions the healing experience of the Canaanite Woman alongside the scepticism and rejection of Jesus’s work on the part of the Jews, whom Jacob describes as circumcised.21 The list of miracles does not seem the main criteria for Jacob, but is synchronously in the service of the strengthening of faith, which is one of his main concerns:

ܢܚܬ ܐܝܟ ܡܛܪܐ ܒܐܪܥܐ ܕܝܗܘܕ ܕܟܪܝܗܐ ܗܘܬ܆ ܘܐܝܟ ܥܩܪ̈ܐ ܟܪ̈ܝܗܐ ܫܘܚܘ ܗܘܘ ܡܢ ܥܪ̈ܣܬܐ. ܠܫܐܕ̈ܐ ܛܪܕ ܗܘܐ ܕܐܫܬܠܛܘ ܗܘܘ ܥܠ ܐܢܫܘܬܐ܆ ܘܒܪܘܚ ܦܘܡܗ ܙܓܪ ܢܟܝ̈ܢܐ ܡܢ ܣܓܝ̈ܐܐ.

He descended like rain on the land of Judah which was sick / and like plants the sick sprouted from their beds. / He cast out the evil spirits possessing humankind, / and with the breath of His mouth He kept harm from many. (vv. 21–25)

The following example shows how Jacob explicitly and plausibly explains this healing metaphor, where he honors the faith and the inner attitude of the Canaanite Woman. Jacob relates this healing experience to the Canaanite Woman, insofar that it regards the possibility of the complete healing of her daughter. When Christ is able to cleanse lepers and forgive sinners, he can also heal daughters and release the oppressed from injustice. This passage provides a reason for her to become sensitive to God’s grace and run after Jesus when he crossed into the land of pagans (v. 35), which Jacob describes within the following passages.

The Canaanite Woman: A harp for the Undivided Faith (vv. 113–144)

In this section, the idea of the undivided faith, as developed by Eleonore Stump with reference to Aquinas, has application to Jacob’s account of the Canaanite Woman. I will develop the idea that the undivided faith of the woman in Jacob’s reception enables a deep understanding of the inwardness of the Canaanite Woman. The idea of the undivided faith Jacob developed had an enormous impact on the healing process of the daughter, and the mother herself.

Although the explanations for these internal processes are characteristic of modern ideas, by immersing oneself in this narrative, the depth of faith and the inwardness of the woman can be recreated. In addition to reproducing the Bible into a coherent narrative form, the homilies offer a space for moral and ethical questions. In the case of Matthew’s periscope, the questions the listeners might have asked are how the mother asked for the healing of her daughter. Which form of prayer, which inner attitude, and which belief was required for the sufficient healing? These are questions that focus on the inner life of the mother and daughter.

Undivided faith is a recurring motif in this homily. Undivided faith stands to contrast the pagans with their many deities and divided faith with those who believe in one God and have a true undivided faith.

The section begins with the irony that the gospel was proclaimed by the Canaanite Woman and the prophecy was rejected by the daughter of the people. Those who were familiar with the scriptures dishonoured the revelations of prophecy while those who worshiped idols were among the first to preach. A pagan woman knew that Jesus was the Son of David and could cast out demons but the faithful congregation rejected him while he healed her. The pagan woman called out in the middle of the crowd with a loud voice so that the people would know how great he was. Jacob goes on to say that despite her pagan origins, she knew that only Jesus was able to cast out demons:

ܠܡܠܟܐ ܩܒܠܬ ܥܠ ܡܪܘܕܐ ܕܐܣܓܝ ܫܚܩܗ̇܆ ܕܗܘ ܡܫܟܚ ܗܘܐ ܕܠܚܣܝܢܐ ܒܚܝܠܗ ܢܐܣܘܪ. ܠܐ ܪܗܛܬ ܗܘܬ ܨܝܕ ܐܠܗ̈ܐ ܕܟܢܥܢܝ̈ܐ܆ ܕܝܕܥܬ ܗܘܬ ܠܗ ܕܝܫܘܥ ܡܚܪܒ ܠܦܬܟܪ̈ܝܗܘܢ. ܗܘܬ ܟܢܪܐ ܠܗܝܡܢܘܬܐ ܕܠܐ ܦܘܠܓܐ܆ ܟܕ ܩܥܝܐ ܗܘܬ ܕܒܪܗ ܕܕܘܝܕ ܪܚܡܥܠܝ.

To the King she made accusation about the Rebellious One who increased her torment, / because He was able to bind the Strong One with His might. / She did not hasten toward the gods of the Canaanites, / because she knew that Jesus would destroy their idols. / She became a harp for the faith that was undivided, / when she cried out, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me! (vv. 124–128)

It is interesting that Satan is said to be “the Strong One” at this point (ܚܣܝܢܐ/v. 124), because Jacob previously used a similar title for Jesus (v. 83/gabār ܓܢܒܪ). What is striking is the use of different words in Syriac for the same association. The observation that a certain power is attributed to Satan through this title also seems an important remark by Jacob. So it is assumed that the daughter’s sickness is not an easily curable matter. This motivated the mother to hurry in her pursuit of Jesus’s mercy.

These verses particularly express the mother’s inwardness and depth. The resulting strength of the Canaanite Woman is particularly obvious in Jacob’s homily. She knew how to deal with her adverse circumstances in a flourishing manner. The daughter’s sickness/demon which certainly would have been perceived by others as a threat did not prevent her from acting at the right moment. The woman’s apparent desperation and confusion in her situation did not deter her comfort in the news that Jesus would come.

The storyteller says a lot about this intruding message by repeating the arrival of Jesus, which almost becomes a refrain in the first half of the hymn: “He came to the border of Tire and Sidon, as you have heard […]” (v. 89).22 Finally, the Canaanite Woman takes the step toward Jesus and cries out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (v. 128). This articulation is the first step of healing. The “crying out” (ܩܥܐ) underlines the confrontation, which is connected with the articulation. Her long speech that follows not only reveals the depth but also her trusting relationship which we encounter as fiducial23 resilience:

ܗܘ ܡܪܘܕܐ ܒܝܫ ܕܒܘܒܪ̈ܐ ܐܪܡܝ ܓܝܣܐ܆ ܘܫܒܗ̇ ܠܒܪܬܝ ܬܐ ܐܗܦܟܝܗ̇ ܡܢ ܬܘ̈ܩܠܬܐ. ܕܝܘܐ ܡܥܪܩܠ ܫܦܝܪ̈ܬܐ ܦܓܥ ܒܛܠܝܬܐ܆ ܘܡܥܣܗ̇ ܕܬܫܢܐ ܦܩܘܕ ܠܗ ܡܫܢܐ ܡܢ ܕܘܝܬܐ. ܛܪܘܢܐ ܕܣܢܐ ܠܓܢܣܐ ܕܐܢܫܐ ܗܐ ܡܢ ܐܕܡ܆ ܠܒܪܬܝ ܐܫܛܝ ܕܬܘܒܕ ܗܘܢܗ̇ ܕܡܫܝܢ ܗܘܐ. ܡܠܟܐ ܕܐܬܪܐ ܛܪܘܕ ܢܘܟܪܝܐ ܡܢ ܐܘܚܕܢܟ܆ ܒܪ ܕܘܝܕ ܐܢܬ ܘܛܢ ܘܩܛܘܠܝܗܝ ܐܟ ܕܠܓܘܠܝܕ. ܠܐ ܢܫܬܥܠܐ ܥܘܪܠܐ ܒܒܪܬܝ ܘܢܒܙܚ ܒܗ̇܆ ܐܥܕܗ̇ ܡܢܗ ܘܬܗܘܐ ܕܝܠܟ ܡܐ ܕܦܪܩܬܗ̇. ܕܘܝܕ ܐܒܘܟ ܦܪܩ ܠܟܢܘܫܬܐ ܘܗܘܐ ܡܠܟܐ܆ ܘܐܥܒܪ ܚܣܕܗ ܕܦܠܫܬܝܐ ܡܢ ܡܫܪܝܬܐ. ܐܦ ܗܘ ܕܘܝܕ ܡܛܠ ܐܡܪܐ ܕܐܒܐ ܩܛܠ ܗܘܐ܆ ܕܒܛܝܠܐܝܬ ܢܛܘܪ ܥܢ̈ܗ ܕܠܐ ܢܟܝܢܐ. ܒܛܝܠ ܗܘ ܠܟ ܡܪܝ ܥܠ ܡܪܥܝܬܟ ܛܒ ܡܢ ܕܘܝܕ܆ ܦܩܘܕ ܠܗ ܠܫܐܕܐ ܡܪܦܐ ܛܠܝܬܐ ܕܕܒܝܪܐ ܠܗ.

The Rebellious One, evil of ways, cast forth a group of bandits, / and captured my daughter; come, lead her back from offense. / The demon who confuses beauties has attacked the young girl, / and drives her mad; command him to leave the wretched girl. / The tyrant who hates the human race—behold!—since Adam, / drives my daughter mad so that she loses her mind that was calm. / O King of the Land, drive out the foreigner from Your jurisdiction; / You are the Son of David, be zealous and kill him like Goliath. / Do not let the Uncircumcised One mock my daughter and revile her; / wrest her from him and she will be Yours when You have freed her. / David, Your father, freed the assembly and became king, / and he removed the reproach of the Philistine from the camp. / Again David, for the sake of a lamb, killed a wolf, / so that he might guard his flock diligently without harm. / For Your part, my Lord, You care for Your flock more than David did, / command the evil spirit to leave the girl who is under its control. (vv. 129–144)

Dorothee Sölle, a well-known German theologian, also speaks of the multidimensionality of suffering when she describes three dimensions of suffering “as the root of suffering in the physical and social body of man.”24 From the three dimensions of suffering — physical, psychological, and social — the social dimension has received the least attention in theology.25

If one pays attention to the situation of the Canaanite Woman before she went to Jesus, it is assumed that she was isolated, abandoned, and expelled. The only way to overcome her helplessness was to accept it and overcome it by meeting Jesus with a deliberate challenge. Sharing her suffering with him and the determination not to silence her scream changed everything. Sölle represents the overcoming of suffering in three phases. First, the suffering person isolates herself, is dumb and speechless (phase 1). Then she begins to accept her suffering and expresses it intensely and clearly in a psalmist language (phase 2) so that acceptance and overcoming then lead to solidarity (phase 3) and change.26

The quoted part of the speech by the Canaanite Woman excellently expresses the language of the phase of expression/confrontation (phase 2), which Sölle regards as indispensable by naming it the “stage of articulation.”27 The linguistic elements of the request and the expression of hope are clear. Jacob grants the Canaanite Woman a right to participation that she has fought for herself. The listener is confronted with a passion that does not come across as a testimony of submission but as a self-determined appeal to God’s justice and goodness.

At the same time, we counter the innocence of the woman and her daughter. The contrast of good versus evil, illness versus health, demons or Satan versus God clarifies the cause and the solution of the sickness. The terms by which the Canaanite Woman describes Satan, evil, and the demons testifies to Jacob’s understanding of atonement. How are death, sin, and Satan related in Jacob’s theology and how can they be overcome?

In addition to the understanding of atonement, the process of deification, which is linked to the idea of redemption, also offers an important trail in the direction of faith and healing. Within the Syriac Orthodox theology, deification is an integral part of the understanding of salvation. In the context of the subject of soteriology, divinization, and healing, Eleonore Stump offers an interesting approach with her healing course through justification and sanctification. It considers the two components of justification and sanctification as a moral and spiritual regeneration process. Hereby the integration of the will for good and learning to love oneself and God is displayed as the way to reach regeneration.28

Deification as a Healing Process

One thought that is closely linked to soteriology in Orthodox theology is the understanding of theosis as sanctification or deification. In our homily, this understanding of Jacob is fundamentally linked to the healing process of the daughter and mother, too.

When discussing deification in Syriac theology, we must recognize that we are dealing with a completely different language than Greek. The Syriac world and the Syriac way of thinking are different from Greek-Hellenistic mindsets and consequently these affects the way theosis is framed.29 For example Serafim Seppala says:

Deification of human nature is not only a doctrinal difficulty and existential challenge; it also opens linguistic and semantic problems. One might say that the deification-related thought in Greek and Syriac sources had a common direction but different roads that went parallel ways. Certainly, the idea of deification was a central thought for a big number of Syriac authors, like Ephrem and the East Syrian mystics, but still they all were reluctant to use a specific term for it. Instead, they expressed it either with an exchange formulas corresponding to those of Irenaeus, Athanasios and others, or with the commingling terminology, in the case of mystics.30

The early history of deification in Syriac sources are roughly comparable to the Greek tradition, even if the early Syriac resources are not entirely patristic. In the Syriac sources, however, there is a conviction that the fate of Christians goes far beyond a simple restoration of the post-laparist state (the state after the Fall from Paradise) and that this is shared with God himself.31

The peculiarity of the Syriac approach lies in the retention of the poetic character. As with other subjects, this poetic language is set out in symbols and typologies. If deification is mentioned, then this is understood in the sense of a poetic image and not as a theological concept that is discussed and analysed.32

A systematically developed doctrine of deification is found in the Byzantine tradition. The Russian theologian Sergej Sergeevic Choruzij emphasizes the tangible reality in the relationship between God and men in the doctrine of deification where there is primacy of the experience of communion with God.33 In this context, deification from the Orthodox perspective is by no means only a theoretical and systematic concept, but a reality experienced in the earthly life.34 As a result, the Romanian theologian Daniel Munteanu summarizes the statements of following Christ’s love and deeds by Clement of Alexandria as the ethics of Imitatio-Christi.35

In receiving and following the words of Christ, man steps up on the path of knowledge of God and communion with God. According to Clement of Alexandria, Imitatio-Christi is only done in harmony with the wisdom of the logos, when faith is put into practice. “The whole value of human freedom lies in the possibility of its use as medium towards that likeness of God […] which is at once our destiny and our choice.”36

Deification is about forming and maturing into one’s authentic nature (or who one is meant to be) which is the person whom God created from the beginning (in the Imago Dei). To return there, God woos human freedom through an educational process and thereby enables man to achieve greater freedom. The divine archetype was revealed to man through the incarnation of God which enabled “the new dynamic ontological participation of man with God”.37

The Eastern ideas of salvation are therefore about the personal development of man and salvation is understood as a dynamic offer of man’s developmental opportunities.38 Jacob of Serugh expresses this similarly for Syriac theology and understands baptism as the basic prerequisite for Christian existence:

Jacob of Serugh repeats this theme when he says, “Baptism gives back to Adam the robe of glory which the serpent had stolen from among the trees”. For Jacob, besides the robe, the baptized also put on zayna, protective armor, against the arrows of Satan.39

In one of the oldest Syriac texts, the Odes of Solomon speaks of “putting on Christ” (putting on Christ, 7.4; 13.12) or that we clothe in his holiness (clothing ourselves in his holiness 13.3). Ephrem first formulated the metaphor in this formula: “He gave us divinity, we gave him humanity” (H. de fid. 5.7).

Ephrem even extends the idea of exchange in an original way to include God’s self-communication in the anthropomorphic images of Scripture: “He clothed himself in our language, so that he might clothe us in his mode of life” (H. de Fid. 31; trans. Brock).40

Adam and Eve were created with free will for a divine purpose. But they have abused their freedom in trying to hastily attain divinity by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. For this reason, the divinity that was promised by the fruit of the tree of knowledge has lapsed and instead they passed mortality on to their descendants. Yet, God took pity on humanity and exercised mercy by undoing the effects of the fall through the incarnation of the logos: “Divinity flew down to draw humanity up, with the result that now man has become a god just as he desired” (C. Nis. 48. 17–18; trans. Brock).41

Nevertheless, divinity in this lifetime can only be understood nominally: “God in his mercy called mortals gods by grace” (H. de fid. 29. 1; trans. Brock). Only at the resurrection will people be crowned with glory. In this life, however, they can keep their hearts pure and thereby approach the incomparable glory of God (H. de Par. 9. 26). As an example, Ephrem cites Moses:

Our model is Moses, who ascended to the mountain summit: “Nourished with the divine glory, he grow[s] and shone[s] forth” (H. de Par. 9.22; trans. Brock). At the resurrection our bodies will be spiritualized and our souls furnished with wings, enabling us to mount up to union with God.42

Deification in the Canaanite Woman: Her Undivided Belief as an Indication of Unity with God

In the homily of Jacob, many of his linguistic images illustrate a striving for unity with God. In particular, the metaphor of “undivided faith” seems to offer an indication of the doctrine of deification. As a recurring motif in the homily and especially with regard to the teaching of theosis in the Syriac tradition, it can be interpreted that the Canaanite Woman achieved the healing of her daughter through her inner state. In his homily, Jacob hints at the process of personal development of the Canaanite Woman and refers to her aim, which was not only her daughter’s healing, but especially her daughter’s unity with God. Through her own development and maturation, the divine could initiate in the woman herself and thereby extend greater freedom and boldness to speak unhindered: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (verse 128)

Eleonore Stump describes the state of man after the Fall from Paradise as “divided”. For this reason, the psychological structure shows a certain degree of disintegration. This state not only reduces the coherence of one’s own self-image and one’s own expressions of will, but also the ability to be close to oneself.43 According to Aquinas, the ability to be close to oneself or to love oneself is a prerequisite for building closeness to another person. Aquinas thinks a successful and lasting integration of a person’s psychological structure only occurs if they want the good “with all their hearts” and strive for it.44

Stump complicates the fulfilment of this condition by identifying that after the Fall, no one is sufficiently integrated around the good. The human condition is characterized by an inner conflict and a strong tendency towards being morally wrong. The desire to be first leads to a kind of willed loneliness, the tendency to close oneself to others and to experience strife.45

This inner state is an obstacle to the fact that God can get close to a person (willed loneliness).46 To overcome this conflict between people, Stump introduced the concept of sanctification. Man can ask God for help to strengthen his own will for the good and thereby become himself. This wish is only realized by giving up one’s own resistance to God (justification) because man cannot do good by himself.

In the surrender of sanctification, a person lets go of the effort to bring her will through her own activity into the state she wants it to have. Instead, she seeks God’s aid for her will, to strengthen her will in the good she herself wants to will. In the process of justification, a person lets go in a more radical way. In justification, she surrenders to God by letting go of activity in the will, so that God can regenerate her will without breaking it.47

Justification and sanctification are part of the same moral and spiritual process because they are essentially based on successful interpersonal relationships.48 Because the inner structures of man are already solidified and overcoming inner conflict is not easy, suffering also belongs to the process of healing. Suffering is sometimes a warning sign of even greater evil (separation from God). Regarding the multidimensionality of suffering, Stump points out the difficulty of recognizing the connections between suffering and human flourishing, which are often slight or hard to detect.

This sketched approach by Stump describes the process of sanctification close to how the Syriac fathers have illustrated it. The homily of the Canaanite Woman exemplifies this when Stump opens deeper insights into what is happening at the encounter between Jesus and the woman. As a result, both the methodological approach of Stump, which is explicit in the second-person experience, and her so-called “healing cure” (sanctification), open up a modern approach to the texts of the Fathers.

The “undivided” faith is a recurring theme in this homily. In verse 127, it is written: “She became a harp for the faith that was undivided.” What does it mean? It is described as a contrast between the pagans with their many gods, who have a “divided” faith, and those of the true faith in one God which is “undivided.” A closer look at the whole homily views the “undivided” faith as “healthy” faith (verse 184) which in love would “grant her that whatever she desired would be hers” (verse 335). We will find this description of “undivided” love/faith in Stump’s work as well.

Following Aquinas, one understands that only those who are internally integrated can truly love wholeheartedly.49 The opposite is being divided within oneself. Stump refers to Aquinas’s account of the nature of love, which includes two steps: Firstly the desire for the good of another person or of oneself. Secondly the desire for the union with the other or with oneself. But a person can be double-minded and therefore be divided in him or herself. Then as Aquinas describes, the person wants and does not want at the same time. The union for this person is distracted.50

Given Aquinas’s account, the “undivided” faith of the Canaanite Woman signals her internal integration. She desired the real good for her daughter because the ultimate real good is union with God.51 As true love is understood as wholehearted and integrated, Jacob clearly defines “the love that is true (as) not divided” (v. 156). Because of her love and faith, she was already healed from this internally divided condition. “If he wills whole-heartedly, he will ipso facto be integrated in will”.52

The Canaanite Woman’s wholehearted integration could also explain why she was so brave and shameless in her demands. She genuinely desired union with God for her daughter while simultaneously desiring real good for herself. “With healing she will become yours” (v. 98) declared the Canaanite Woman. She knew by God’s healing her mind would be restored (verse 100) and he would also heal her daughter’s internally divided condition. The Canaanite Woman’s volitions and desires were not incompatible with the healing of her daughter. This is why her love was truly wholehearted and internally integrated around what is good.

As we have seen, it seems that Jacob’s metaphor of undivided faith points to a development in the Canaanite Woman that is reminiscent of the soteriological content of theosis.


The two examples of the Sun of Righteousness and the undivided faith reveal how closely the topic of healing is linked to Syriac theology. It has become particularly clear that the medical metaphors have their origins in ancient Mesopotamia, where the Syriac church fathers originate from. This led to their inclusion of cultural influences into their Christian reinterpretation of the metaphors. “The Sun of Righteousness” is still a common and widely used expression in the Syriac liturgy and also the story Canaanite Woman is commemorated in the liturgical calendar of the Syriac Orthodox church on the 4th Sunday of the great lent.

The narrative exegetical tradition with its decorated homilies, shown by Jacob, is already relational which is why Stump’s methodical second-person perspective bridges as a modern approach. Similar to Stump’s suffering, the process of healing directly belongs to the orthodox concept of deification. It is assumed that the church fathers also see unity with God as a process of maturing internally and also toward God, in whom suffering can provoke a deeper dimension.

I would like to conclude with the words from Jacob that wonderfully testify to the maturation process of the Canaanite Woman and her process of sanctification:

ܠܐ ܥܢܗ̇ ܡܚܕܐ ܕܠܐ ܬܫܠܐ ܠܗܿ ܡܢ ܫܘܪܝܐ܆ ܫܛܗ̇ ܕܬܘܣܦ ܥܠ ܢܨܚܢ̈ܐ ܕܗܝܡܢܘܬܗ̇. ܐܕܫ ܘܥܒܪ ܐܝܟ ܡܗܡܝܘ ܐܗܡܝ ܡܢܗ̇܆ ܕܢܚܘܐ ܗ̱ܘܐ ܕܚܘܒܐ ܕܫܪܝܪ ܠܐ ܡܬܦܠܓ.

He did not answer immediately lest she be silent from the start. / He disdained her so that she would increase the victories of her faith. / He neglected her and passed her by as though He utterly shunned her / to show that the love that is true is not divided. (verses 153–156)

Selected Bibliography

  • Ammann, Christoph. “Moralische Bildung,” in Matías Martínez, ed. Erzählen. Ein interdisziplinäres Handbuch (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2017), 259262.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bar Sudhaile, Stephen, and Russell, Norman. The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Beck, Edmund. Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen de Fide (CSCO 154; Louvain: Durbecq, 1955).

  • Beggiani, Joseph. Early Syriac Theology: With special reference to the Maronite Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2014).

  • Blachard, Diane. “The Gentile Woman: Engagement with SufferingConsensus 20/2 (1994).

  • Brock, Sebastian P. The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem. 2nd ed. (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1992).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gasser, Georg. Leid: Durch das Dunkel zum Heil? Eleonore Stumps Theodizee-Ansatz in Wandering in Darkness (Innsbruck: Institut für Christliche Philosophie, 2013).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Greshake, Gisbert. “Der Wandel der Erlösungsvorstellungen in der Theologiegeschichte”, in Leo Scheffczyk, ed. Erlösung und Emanzipation (QD 61; Freiburg: Herder, 1973), 69101.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harvey, Ashbrook S., and Brock, Sebastian P., eds. Jacob of Sarug’s Homilies on Women whom Jesus met (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2016).

  • Henkel, Jürgen. Dumitru Stăniloae: Leben – Werk – Theologie (Freiburg: Herder, 2017).

  • Keel, Othmar. The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (New York: Seabury Press, 1978).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kollamparampil, Thomas. Salvation in Christ According to Jacob of Serugh. An Exegetico-theological Study on the Homilies of Jacob of Serugh on the Feasts of Our Lord (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Munteanu, Daniel. “Glaube, Bildung, Ethik und Theosis. Ostkirchliche Pädagogik anhand der Theologie von Clemens von Alexandrien,” International Journal of Orthodox Theology 10:1 (2019).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sedmak, Clemes. Innerlichkeit und Kraft, Studie über epistemische Resilienz (Forschungen zur europäischen Geistesgeschichte 1; Freiburg: Herder, 2013).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Seppala, Serafim. “The Concept of Deification in Greek and SyriacEcumenical Journal Sibiu (RES) 11/3 (2019): 439455.

  • Shemunkasho, Aho. Healing in the Theology of Saint Ephrem (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2004).

  • Sölle, Dorothee. Leiden: Annehmen und widerstehen (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag GmbH, 1973).

  • Stump, Eleonore. Wandering in Darkness, Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

  • Weitzman, Michael P. The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

  • Wickes, Jeffery. St. Ephrem the Syrian: The Hymns on Faith (The Fathers of the Church 130; Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Cf. Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem, 2nd ed. (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1992), 99.


Cf. Aho Shemunkasho, Healing in the Theology of Saint Ephrem (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2004).


For an English translation of Jacob’s homily on the Cannanite Woman, see Ashbrook S. Harvey and Sebastian Brock, eds., Jacob of Sarug’s Homilies on Women whom Jesus met (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2016), 1–50. The translator of the homily in question is Reyhan Durmaz.


Cf. Eleonore Stump, Wandering in Darkness, Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1–80.


In her contribution to this volume, Cornelia Horn also describes the huge influence Jacob had for the Syriac Tradition and the impact and the potential he may have for today.


Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 40.


Cf. Christoph Ammann, “Moralische Bildung,” in Matias Martinez, ed., Erzählen. Ein interdisziplinäres Handbuch (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2017), 259–262.


Cf. Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 67.


Cf. ibid., 77.


Ibid., 76–77.


Why does Jesus initially ignore the suffering of the Canaanite woman who asks him for mercy and help? Apparently, the Canaanite Woman does believe that Jesus is the Lord, yet her Lord turns away from her, and in the same vein, his disciples reject her. Still, she does not give up. She kneels before Jesus, calls him Lord again, and asks for help. One is bewildered by Jesus reaction. He calls her a dog. At this point, Jesus exclaims, Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. In a word, why would Jesus ignore the suffering of the Canaanite Woman and call her a dog before answering her prayer? These are the main questions of my dissertation. For the length of this article is limited, I will focus on a few here, which I will list below.


New Revised Standard Version.


Cf. Thomas Kollamparampil, Salvation in Christ According to Jacob of Serugh. An Exegetico-theological Study on the Homilies of Jacob of Serugh on the Feasts of Our Lord (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010), 345.


Harvey and Brock, Jacob of Sarug’s Homilies on Women whom Jesus met, v. 10.


Also Ephrem, in his fourth hymn on faith, describes Christ as the Sun of Righteousness. For a critical edition of the Syriac text of Ephrem’s hymns on faith, see Edmund Beck, Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen de Fide (CSCO 154; Louvain: Durbecq, 1955). For an English translation based on Beck’s text, see Jeffery Wickes, St. Ephrem the Syrian: The Hymns on Faith (The Fathers of the Church 130; Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015).


Michael P. Weitzman, The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 230.


Cf. Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 27–30.


Cf. David L. Peterson, Zechariah 9–14 and Malachi: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 225.


Diane Blachard, “The Gentile Woman: Engagement with Suffering,” Consensus 20/2 (1994): 13.


Harvey and Brock, Jacob of Sarug’s Homilies on Women whom Jesus met, v. 13.


Thus, in their introduction to Jacob of Sarug’s Homilies on Women whom Jesus met, 2, Asbrook and Brock say: “Jacob contrasts the Canaanite Woman’s affirmation of Jesus’ powers with the skepticism and rejection of his works by the Jews, a familiar anti-Jewish rhetoric of late antique Christian authors.”


Also: “When he crossed into the land of pagans with His disciples” (v. 35); “He crossed the boundary of Tyre and Sidon and He astounded them” (v. 37); “The strong One entered …” (v. 57); “The Good Physician walked in the world and visited it” (v. 73); “And when He hastened to the land of pagans, as we said, the news prompted the Canaanite Woman to come to Him” (vv. 75–76); and “the Strong One [Christ] came to the border of the discerning Woman” (v. 83).


Clemes Sedmak, Innerlichkeit und Kraft, Studie über epistemische Resilienz, Forschungen zur europäischen Geistesgeschichte, Bd. 1 (Freiburg: Herder, 2013), 40–41, introduces the term of the fiducial resilience as a trustworthy relationship which is achievable through the on holding of the absolute. This category of resilience is drawn by Meister Eckhardt.


Dorothee Sölle, Leiden: Annehmen und widerstehen (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag GmbH, 1973), 25.


Cf. ibid., 26.


Cf. ibid., 94.


Ibid., 95.


Cf. Georg Gasser, Leid: Durch das Dunkel zum Heil? Eleonore Stumps Theodizee-Ansatz in Wandering in Darkness (Innsbruck: Institut für Christliche Philosophie, 2013), 8.


Cf. Serafim Seppala, “The Concept of Deification in Greek and Syriac,” Ecumenical Journal Sibiu (RES) 11/3 (2019): 439–455, 444. Or as Brock, The Luminous Eye, 148, says, “There is one feature in particular of Ephrem’s spiritual world vision which excellently illustrates how close he is, when it comes to fundamentals, to some of the great theologians of the Greek-speaking Church. Although their manner and mode of expression is often far apart, yet the basic content of what they are saying is essentially the same.”


Seppala, “The Concept of Deification in Greek and Syriac,” 454.


Ibid., 321.


Norman Russell mentions a book dealing with “systematic” exception which is linked to Stephen Bar Sudhaile. Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 321.


Cf. Jürgen Henkel, Dumitru Stăniloae: Leben – Werk – Theologie (Freiburg: Herder, 2017), 266.


Cf. ibid., 266.


Cf. Daniel Munteanu, “Glaube, Bildung, Ethik und Theosis. Ostkirchliche Pädagogik anhand der Theologie von Clemens von Alexandrien,” International Journal of Orthodox Theology 10:1 (2019): 196.


Cf. ibid., 197.


Cf. Gisbert Greshake, “Der Wandel der Erlösungsvorstellungen in der Theologiegeschichte,” Erlösung und Emanzipation (1973): 80.


Cf. ibid., 69–101.


Cf. Chorbishop Seely Joseph Beggiani, Early Syriac Theology: With special reference to the Maronite Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2014), 113.


Cf. Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, 320–321.


Ibid., 320–321.


Ibid., 322.


Cf. Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 150.


“Unlike Frankfurt, then, Aquinas holds that no one can be whole-hearted in evil. For Aquinas, it is not possible for a person’s mind or will to be internally integrated in moral wring. Rather, internal integration is possible only for a person single-mindedly understanding and whole-heartedly desiring the good.” Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 126.


Cf. Gasser, Leid, 6.


Cf. Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 150.


Ibid., 171.


Gasser, Leid, 8; Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 171.


Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 125.


Cf. ibid., 100.


Cf. ibid., 101.


Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 130.

  • Collapse
  • Expand