Abraham of Qidun was a 4th century Syrian hermit, who was born at Qidun (Khidana), not far from Edessa (today’s Urfa on the Turkish side of the the Syrian-Turkish border) to wealthy and noble parents. The date of his birth is not known. The chronicle of Edessa gives the year 356 AD as the beginnning of his life as a hermit, and an 8th century Syriac manuscript gives December 1, 367 as the date of his death. According to his Life, he married a woman of noble descent, but soon after the marriage being consummated he made his plans of leading an ascetic life known to his wife and left her to go and live a hermit’s life in a cave in the close vicinity of Edessa. On having become a hermit, he was asked by his bishop to also become a priest and convert the pagans in the nearby village of Qidun. The story of his life as a hermit is basically a succession of acts of self-chastisement and struggles with the devil, who was intent on seducing Abraham, – like he did with so many other hermits –, to break his self-imposed regime of total renunciation. Within the chain of attempts at seduction, the story of Abraham and Mary marks the final and last attempt, which, on the face of it, appears to turn out a success for the devil, but only to make the devil’s ultimate defeat the more definitive by giving the event an unexpected interpretative turn. The apparent defeat of Abraham is explained to the reader in one of the very few longer narrator comments as Abraham’s ultimate sacrifice and the most radical act of self-denial, viz. the abandonment of the integrity of his hermit’s life for the sake of saving the soul of his niece.
So, what is the story of his niece, then? Late in life Abraham took charge of the daughter of his recently deceased brother, a girl of 7 years by the name of Mary, who apparently had no one else to go to. Abraham makes up his mind to raise her as a hermit and teach her the essentials of a hermit’s life. She is allotted a cave-cell of her own, in front of Abraham’s cell, separated from his cell by a door. Mary followed Abraham’s example in all respects, but by the time she came of age, her outward beauty attracted the attention of a young man pretending to be a hermit, too. This scoundrel succeeded in seducing Mary to commit with him an act of ‘dirty impiety’, which it is needless to say what it consisted in. After having committed her sin, Mary repents and leaves her cell out of shame, unbeknownst to her uncle. In a long monologue she bewails her fate and argues that, now that she failed so utterly, she could never expect to find forgiveness and grace anymore, neither from her uncle nor from God. As if to stress her utmost degradation, she enters a brothel to become a whore. Only two days after Mary left him, Abraham came to realise through a dream that his niece is no longer with him. In a nightmare vision he saw a serpent devouring an immaculate dove, and on awakening a bad foreboding makes him call his niece whom he discovers to be there no longer. He then asks the help of an acquaintance to go and find out her whereabouts. After two years her secret abode is discovered and made known to Abraham, who in the guise of a soldier leaves his cell to go and bring Mary back. He enters the brothel and behaves as a regular brothel customer, drinking wine and eating meat and asking for the most beautiful girl on offer, so as not to betray his identity to his niece, who he is afraid might try to flee from him out of shame. It is this act of breaking his strict rules of abstinence, which marks the ultimate sacrifice. In exchange for the spiritual salvation of a lost soul, he gives away in the spur of the moment an entire life time of strictest austerity and self-chastisement, which it is to be understood become entirely devaluated by this one act. In the seclusion of a private chamber within the brothel, Abraham makes his identity known to his niece, who bursts into tears and will not believe that there still is hope for her. Finally, she returns with her uncle to the hermitage, where Abraham is wise enough to allot the inner cell to her this time, where he himself used to live. Both lead henceforward a life in strictest austerity, and Mary survives her uncle (according to the text found in the Bdinski Sbornik) by another 50 years never departing from the path of virtue again.
Though, Mary is considered a saint like her uncle, it is obvious that the story is less about her than Abraham. Mary’s part is to set the story going by charging Abraham with a problem he as the true hero has to solve. The centerpiece of this story is his self-sacrifice and the message underlying it all, is God’s boundless mercy, which even the most abject sinners may hope for, if only they repent. Mary is, accordingly, not depicted as a model saint, whose biography one is recommended to follow. She is at best a lucid show-case for those who may for one reason or other despair of finding God’s mercy.
Having this story at the outset of the Bdinski Sbornik could possibly point to a reader who only late in life entered on the path of a monastic life, after having possibly led a life of luxury and abundance before. If this be true, the function of the opening story will more likely be didactic than biographic. It does not focus on the personality of its saintly figures, but it conveys a fundamental message in the form of a simple and lucid tale. The story of Abraham and Mary is more reminiscent of the so-called ‘stories which are useful for the soul’ (the Greek diegeseis psychopheleis), which we find in Paul of Monemvasia’s collection of stories or in Palladius’ Historia lausiaca or in the Apophthegmata patrum, than it is of a proper saint’s life.
The Slavic text of the Life of Abraham is a translation from Greek. The Greek text, again, is translated from an older Syriac source. It appears that the Syriac original was translated into Greek at a quite early date. Remains of a papyrus at the Louvre dating from around the year 700 contain a fragment of the story of Abraham and Mary. The earliest extant Syriac manuscript sources of this text date from the 6th century, but it stands to reason that the text originated at an earlier period, probably not long after the death of its protagonists Abraham and Mary. A composition at the end of the 4th or the beginning of the 5th century can be safely assumed, though not proven, of course. The authorship of the text is unknown, though there is a long-standing tradition of assigning it to Ephrem the Syrian (*306, †373). There are, indeed, some indications, which are strongly suggestive of his authorship on the face of it. Firstly, Ephrem the Syrian composed a well-known cycle of 15 hymns (madrāshê) in honour of Abraham of Qidun. Then, Ephrem the Syrian spent the latter part of his life at Edessa in close vicinity to Abraham, after having spent most of his prior life at Nisibis. When in 363 Nisibis, however, was lost to the Persian Empire, Ephrem saw himself forced to move to Edessa, where he in theory could have encountered Abraham still among the living, whom we know to have died in 366. Finally, the story of Abraham and Mary itself mentions a certain Ephrem as being the friend of Abraham, and this Ephrem is obviously held in high esteem for his spiritual authority. Specimens of his wisdom are even given in litteral quotes within the story. As a matter of fact, the Story itself is here in line with a later, 10th century Syrian source, Bar Bahlūl’s Lexicon, which claims that Abraham was a companion of the great Ephrem, who composed many madrāshê and encomia about him. This looks like irrefutable evidence of Ephrem the Syrian’s authorship, indeed, and it is little wonder that it inspired a firm belief in his authorship early on. But then, there are also indications against Ephrem’s authorship. The last chapter of the Syriac original mentions consistently in all extant manuscripts Ephrem’s sepulchre, and it is difficult to discount this as a later addition to the original. Furthermore, the author of Abraham’s Life was apparently not well acquainted with Ephrem’s biography. On having committed her sin, Mary bewails her fate referring among others to the personal instructions she received from her uncle and his friend Ephrem. Thus, she would have met Ephrem at least 12 years prior to her uncle’s death. Since Abraham died in 367, Ephrem would have to have been on the spot already in 355. As pointed out above, Ephrem came to Edessa only in 363. Since Ephrem the Syrian could not have possibly mixed up his own biography, there is no way of his being the author, unless the Ephrem of the story is meant to be someone else. As a matter of fact, the oldest extant Syriac sources do not mention Ephrem as the author of the Life of Abraham. Notwithstanding these indications, due to the close association of both Ephrem and Abraham, within the later Syriac, and also within the Byzantine tradition the Life of Abraham is consistently identified as Ephrem’s work, and this traditional assignment has been adopted later on by the Slavic text tradition.
Though both Greek and Slavic tradition share the authorship assignment for the Life of Abraham, this text occupies a very different position in both traditions. Within the Greek tradition the text is mainly found in hagiographic collections, above all the menologium, and to a lesser extent in individually arranged hagiographic-ascetic miscellanies. Though, all these sources would indicate Ephrem as the author in the text’s rubrication, it apparently never found its way into one of the highly divergent work collections of Ephrem the Syrian, now commonly subsumed under the name of Ephrem graecus. In opposition to this, the Slavic translation of the text is almost exclusively found within the so-called Paraenesis, i.e. a collection of sermons, held to be authored by Ephrem the Syrian. In this fairly uniform collection the Life of Abraham is assigned a fixed position as the 48th chapter. Outside this collection, the text is hardly ever found within the Slavic tradition. As a matter of fact, only two full menologia register the text, which may be taken as an indication that it was seen less as a written testimony in support of a saint’s cult, but that it was rather appreciated as an instructive and edifying narrative on a par with other popular sermons and treatises.
There can be no doubt that the text was originally translated within the context of the Slavonic translation and compilation of the writings of Ephrem the Syrian, which yielded the Paraenesis. The Paraenesis, fragments of which are attested in the 11th century Rila Glagolitic Folia, has been shown to belong to the most archaic layer of Bulgarian translations, dating back to Tsar Symeon’s times, i.e. to the beginning of the 10th century. The early origins of the translation is confirmed by the linguistic features of the Story of Abraham and Mary, among which we find a word of Protobulgarian origin (kurělьkъ ‘manner, appearance’ instead of the more common Slavic obrazъ; probably dreived from the Chuvash (Volga Bulgarian) verb root kör- ‘to see’). From Bulgaria the original translation found its way into Russia, to be reproduced there in dozens of manuscripts (most of them Paraenesis collections) without, apparently, ever being subjected to a principled revision. In Bulgaria the same text became, however, subject to a thorough revision, most prominently to be seen in the Lesnovo Paraenesis. The Lesnovo revision, however, appears not to have been further disseminated, so that all remaining witnesses can be said to belong to one uninterrupted chain of transmission. Of course, as time went by and variant readings accumulated, regional versions of the text emerged. In Russia, where we also find the oldest attestation of the text in the 12th century Uspenskij Sbornik, the text seems by and large to preserve more of its original features, whereas the Serbian and Bulgarian text witnesses appear to display a somewhat revised profile, without there being clear traces of a principal revision. Strangely enough, among the South Slavic witnesses the Bdinski sbornik stands out by siding more often than not with the more conservative Russian regional profile. Rather than assuming a direct Russian ancestry for the Bdinski Sbornik, however, this ought to be taken as an indication of the provincial character of this miscellany, which was compiled at Vidin outside the Bulgarian centers of learning.
Though forming part of the Life of Abraham of Qidun, the Story of Abraham and Mary gives a strong impression of being an independent text altogether. It even has its own introduction, which clearly sets it off from the rest of the Life on formal grounds. It lends itself quite naturally to being separated from the full Life and copied independently. Within the Slavic tradition this seems, however, to have happened only twice. For the compilation of the Bdinski Sbornik this was an obvious thing to do. Within this collection of saintly female figures the reproduction of the full Life of Abraham would have been pointless. Extracting the story from the Life was a less compelling choice for the 14th century miscellany from the Library of the Serbian Patriarchate no. 219. Within the Greek tradition, extracting the Story from the Life was apparently more common. There are five attested cases, only one of them being, by the way, a gendered miscellany (meterikon) like the Bdinski Sbornik. The obvious formal independence of Story and Life has inspired the idea that both texts must have led an independent life prior to their being combined to form one text. Accordingly, an earlier version of the Life without the Story ought to be expected in either the Syriac or the Greek tradition. Such a version does, however, not exist. It has therefore been suggested that the Story existed as an independent text prior to the composition of the full Life of Abraham, and that the full Life is basically a later add-on to the original story, possibly meant to give formal support to the establishment of a saint’s cult for Abraham of Qidun.
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