The Syriac Book of Steps collects 30 sermons by a late 4th century anonymous author in the Persian Empire. The author details the spiritual life, highlighting the duties and problems of two ranks of committed Christians, the Upright and the Perfect.
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The Book of Steps is a collection of 30 sermons and Biblical interpretation by an anonymous author living in the Persian Empire (modern Iraq) during the late 300's. One of the largest examples of early Syriac literature, the Book of Steps describes the struggle of a Christian community prior to the advent of monasticism to live a faithful, committed life in the pursuit of perfection. The author details the aspirations and standards of the two ranks of Christians in his community: the Upright ones—married lay people who work in the world and perform the various acts of Christian charity—and the Perfect ones who are celibate, do not work, but live a life of prayer, while wandering through the region teaching and mediating conflicts. The Book of Steps is a unique work because it presents a living portrait of an actual religious community, not an idealized one, in the midst of a hostile culture. While the author advocates an ascetical lifestyle, this community does not practice the extreme physical asceticism so often associated with the Syriac church during this period. Unlike many works on the spiritual life, the author gradually seems to withdraw his praise for the higher rank, the Perfect, and begin to encourage, if not favor, the lower rank, the Upright.
Volume 3 contains the Syriac text and English translation of Mēmrē 21–30. The final 10 mēmrē examine the return to Edenic perfection, the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, repentance, and the gradual elevation of the Upright ones even as the Perfect ones fall from their disciplined way of life.
Robert A. Kitchen is the Minister of Knox-Metropolitan United Church, Regina, Saskatchewan. He holds a D.Phil in Syriac Language and Literature from the University of Oxford. Along with Martien F. G. Parmentier he has translated the Book of Steps for Cistercian Publications.