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Narsai (sometimes spelt Narseh or Narses; Syriac: ܢܪܣܝ, Narsai, name derived from Pahlavi Narsēh from Avestan Nairyō.saȵhō, meaning 'potent utterance', the name of a yazata; ca. 399–ca. 502) was one of the foremost of Syriac poet-theologians, perhaps equal in stature to Jacob of Serugh, both second only to Ephrem the Syrian. He is the most important writer of the Church of the East, in which he is known as the 'Harp of the Spirit'. Although many of his works are likely lost, around eighty of his mêmrê (ܡܐܡܖ̈ܐ), or verse homilies are extant.
Narsai was born at ‘Ain Dulba (ܥܝܢ ܕܘܠܒܐ) in the district of Ma‘alta (ܡܥܠܬܐ) in the Sassanid Empire (today in Dahuk Governorate, Iraq). Being orphaned at an early age, he was raised by his uncle, who was head of the monastery of Kfar Mari (ܕܝܪܐ ܕܟܦܪ ܡܪܝ) near Beth Zabdai (ܒܝܬ ܙܒܕܝ). Narsai spent ten years as a student at the School of Edessa, and later returned there to teach (c. 437), eventually becoming head of the school. Perhaps in 471, Narsai left Edessa after disagreeing with the city's bishop Cyrus (471–498). With the help of his friend Barsauma, who was bishop of Nisibis (although Narsai and Barsauma's wife do not seem to have seen eye-to-eye), Narsai re-established the School of Nisibis. When his former school was ordered closed by Zeno in 489, it seems that many of his faithful staff and students came to join Narsai in Nisibis. Evidence from the first Statutes of the School of Nisibis, drafted in 496, shows that Narsai was still alive, and he must have been a venerable old teacher in his nineties. Narsai died sometime early in the sixth century and was buried in Nisibis in a church that was later named after him.
All of Narsai's extant works belong to the distinctive Syriac literary genre of the mêmrâ, or homily in verse. He employs two different metres — one with couplets of seven syllables per line, the other with twelve. The mêmrê were designed to be recited in church or religious school, and each one being an exposition of a particular religious theme. The later Syriac writer Abdisho bar Berika of Nisibis suggests that Narsai wrote 360 mêmrê in twelve volumes along with prose commentaries on large sections of the Old Testament and a book entitled On the Corruption of Morals. However, only eighty mêmrê remain, and none of his prose works.
- Major collection of Narsai's works, containing the full text of 47 memre and the incipits of 34 more — Mingana, Alphonse (1905). Narsai Doctoris Syri Homiliæ et Carmina (in Syriac and Latin). Mosul.
Works in modern translation
- Six memre on creation — Narsaï (1968). Philippe Guignoux, ed. Homélies de Narsaï sur la création: Édition critique du texte syriaque. Patrologia Orientalis 34, fasc. 3–4 (in French). Turnhout/Paris: Brepols.
- Four memre on baptism and eucharist — it is now academic consensus is that Homily 17 is not by Narsai, but must be from the sixth century — Narsai (1909). Richard Hugh Connolly, ed. The liturgical homilies of Narsai. Texts and studies (Cambridge, England) vol. 8, no. 1. Cambridge University Press..
- Five memre on dominical feasts — Christmas, Epiphany, Passion, Easter, Ascension — these show Narsai's christological opposition to Cyril of Alexandria in a few places — Narsai (1979). Frederick G McLeod, ed. Narsai's metrical homilies on the Nativity, Epiphany, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension: critical edition of Syrica text. Patrologia Orientalis 40, fasc. 1. François Graffin. Turnhout: Brepols.
- Six memre on Old Testament topics — Enoch and Elijah, Flood, Blessings of Noah, Tower of Babel, Tabernacle, Brazen Serpent — J Frishmann (1992). "Narsai's Memre on Old testament Topics". University of Leiden (dissertation).
- Five memre on Parables of Jesus — Ten Virgins, Prodigal Son, Rich man and Lazarus, Workers in the Vineyard, Wheat and Tares — Narsaï (1984). Emmanuel Pataq Siman, ed. Cinq homélies sur les paraboles évangéliques (in French). Paris: Cariscript.
- Memra on the Three Doctors (Diodore of Tarsus, Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia) — Martin, F (1900). "Homélie de Narsaï sur les trois Docteurs" (&NDASH; SCHOLAR SEARCH). Journal asiatique 15: 469–525.[dead link]
- Becker, Adam H (2006). Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom: The School of Nisibis and Christian Scholastic Culture in Late Antique Mesopotamia. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: University of Pennsylvania. ISBN 978-0-8122-3934-8.
- Brock, Sebastian P (1997). A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature. Mōrān ’Eth’ō 9. Kottayam, Kerala, India: St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute. p. 36.
- Vööbus, Arthur (1965). History of the School of Nisibis. Corpus scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 266, subsidia 26. Louvain: Secrétariat du CSCO.
- Wright, William (2001) . A Short History of Syriac Literature. Piscataway, New Jersey, USA: Gorgias. pp. 58–59. ISBN 0-9713097-5-2.