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Sensory Experience and the


Women Martyrs of Najran
RICHARD BARRETT
The account of the Women Martyrs of Najran in the Second Letter of Simeon
of Beth Arsham provides a witness to the martyrdom of a Christian community against the backdrop of sixth-century geopolitical conflict. There is a level
of detail in these texts that strongly suggests that they are intended to be read
and understood in relation to Christian sacramental and liturgical practice.
Simeon, in disseminating these accounts to the greater Christian community,
wishes to glorify the faith of these women in a way that, leaving their sanctity
beyond doubt, will ensure their commemoration by the Church at large. He
accomplishes this by means of language that carries liturgical and sacramental
meaning, linking the acts of these specific martyrdoms to the larger context of
Christian sensory experience.

INTRODUCTION AND THESIS


The account of the women martyrs of Najran in the Second Letter of
Simeon of Beth Arsham provides, in graphic detail, a witness to the martyrdom of a Christian community against the backdrop of sixth-century
geopolitical conflict. As Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey
observe, on a political level these martyrdoms reflect the power struggle
I offer my most sincere thanks to my advisor and mentor Professor Edward J. Watts,
who inspired the paper with his assurance in the spring of 2007 that he would not
likely be persuaded by my observations. My gratitude of course is due to the anonymous reviewers who provided valuable and necessary feedback on earlier drafts and
helped to shape the final form. Portions of the paper were presented at the Medieval
Studies Symposium at Indiana University on 29 March 2008 and the Dorushe Graduate Student Conference on Syriac Studies at University of Notre Dame on 5 April
2008, and I am grateful to the participants for their comments and encouragement,
Professor Sidney Griffith in particular. Additional appreciation is due to Megan Barrett. Any remaining errata are, naturally, mine and mine alone.
Journal of Early Christian Studies 21:1, 93109 2013 The Johns Hopkins University Press

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between the two great empires, Persian and Byzantine.1 Simeon uses
graphic imagery to depict a group of faithful willing to die for their beliefs;
however, Simeon also includes a level of detail which strongly suggests that
he intends these depictions of violent events to be read and understood in
relation to Christian sacramental and liturgical practice. This study analyzes Simeons narrative descriptions of the bodily experiences of Elizabeth the Deaconess, Tahna and her companions, and Ruhm, using Susan
Ashbrook Harveys work on the late antique Christian sensing body as a
theoretical framework.2 It subsequently argues that Simeons presentation
of these experiences transforms them from tragedy into sacramental events
that may encourage and inspire, rather than horrify and discourage, the
Christians under Simeons charge.
The Second Letter of Simeon of Beth Arsham is one of three Syriac documents which provide an account of the deaths of many Christians in the
town of Najran, the other two being Simeons First Letter, and the so-called
Book of the Himyarites, the latest of the three sources.3 Simeon, a sixthcentury Syrian Orthodox bishop, is the likely author of all three.4 Brock
and Harvey characterize these three Syriac sources as having a very close
connection . . . with frequent agreement between them.5 For purposes
of this brief examination, focus will be given to Simeons Second Letter.
PREVIOUS STUDIES AND PRESENT OBJECTIVES
Much of the scholarship on the women martyrs of Najran has focused on
historiographical and textual analysis. Irfan Shahids commentary, in addition to situating the text in a historical context, also incorporates stylistic
1. Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian
Orient, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage (Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press, 1987), 100.
2. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006).
3. For an overview of these three texts, see Brock and Harvey, Holy Women,
100104. The critical edition of the Syriac text may be found in Irfan Shahid, The
Martyrs of Najrn: New Documents, Subsidia Hagiographica (Bruxelles: Socit des
Bollandistes, 1971), iiixxxii. Shahid also provides a translation; for sake of convenience, English text given here will prefer Brock and Harveys translation for the narrative of the women martyrs and Shahids for all other references.
4. The authorship of the two letters is not presently in dispute; for a discussion of
authorship of the Book of the Himyarites, see Shahid, Martyrs of Najrn, 13235.
John of Ephesus gives a biography of Simeon in Lives of the Eastern Saints, no. 10
(PO 17:13758).
5. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 102.

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and rhetorical issues, such as an examination of Simeons borrowing of


biblical sources in the recounting of the narrative.6 Huxley uses the Greek
hagiographical account in the context of the other sources to piece together
a chronology of relevant events before and after the martyrdoms.7 Brock
and Harvey use Simeons account as a case study for how a community
received a memory of violence, as well as a means to reconstruct conflicts
between Christian and non-Christian groups on the frontier of the Roman
world, and contemporary points of view about women.8 Most recently,
there have been critical textual studies of the Greek and Arabic versions
of the Martyrium Sancti Arethae, the most important source not in Syriac
for the events in question, and which focuses on Harith (Arethas in
Greek), the Najranites leader.9 An edited volume collects papers examining the incident via the theme of late antique Jewish-Christian relations in
the Arabian Peninsula.10 Other studies consider matters such as a liturgical text composed for the commemoration of the martyrs of Najran, the
Kontakion for Saint Arethas and his companions.11
This study seeks to explore further an aspect of Brock and Harveys
scholarshipnamely, how Simeon contributed to this communal memory
by constructing sensory experience in terms of liturgical details that would
have been familiar to his intended audience. Harvey elsewhere argues that
the worship experience in this period was fundamental to the shaping of
sensory perception. Effectively, liturgythat is to say, modes of public
ritualfunctions, at least in part, as a form of religious rhetoric that is
vital to the articulation of religious identity in late antiquity.12 She further
6. Shahid, Martyrs of Najrn.
7. G. L. Huxley, On the Greek Martyrium of the Negranites, Proceedings of
the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics,
Literature 80C (1980): 4155.
8. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 3, 1522.
9. Marina Detoraki, Jolle Beaucamp, and Andr Binggeli, Le martyre de Saint Arthas et de ses compagnons: dition critique, Bibliotheca hagiographica graeca (Paris:
Association des amis du Centre dhistoire et civilisation de Byzance, 2007). Juan Pedro
Monferrer-Sala, Redefining History on Pre-Islamic Accounts: The Arabic Recension
of the Martyrs of Najran (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010).
10. Jolle Beaucamp, Franoise Briquel-Chatonnet, and Christian Julien Robin,
eds., Juifs et chrtiens en Arabie aux Ve et VIe sicles: regards croiss sur les sources:
[actes du colloque de novembre 2008], Monographies (Paris: Association des amis
du Centre dhistoire et civilisation de Byzance, 2010).
11. Marina Detoraki, Un kontakion indit et le culte de Saint Arthas Constantinople, ByzZ 99: 1 (2006): 7391.
12. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Locating the Sensing Body: Perception and Religious
Identity in Late Antiquity, in Religion and the Self in Antiquity, ed. David Brakke,
Michael L. Satlow, and Steven Weitzman (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press,
2005), 158.

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argues that Syriac Christianity in particular [depicted] the body as an


architectural space in which the human-divine relationship was enacted,
and that liturgy was the context for this enactment, locating individual
practice in the context of the ritual practice of the Christian religious community.13 Rogers, in examining the pneumatology of late antique Syriac
sources, makes a similar argument, observing that liturgy is central to the
Christian construction of the body.14 In other words, liturgy cultivated
what Harvey refers to as spiritual sensesthat is, sensory perception
of encounters with the divine is relocated [beyond] the confines of the
natural, finite world and of the physical body within it, yet [are] bodily
experienced and known by their recipients.15
Isaac the Syrian, writing in the seventh century, is an important witness
to this idea, with a significant cultural and geographic proximity to Simeon
of Beth Arsham (even if slightly later). He writes in his Mystic Treatises
that the heart is the central organ of the inward senses; this means the
sense of senses, because it is the root. And if the root is holy, so also are
all the branches.16 The senses must be trained in order to achieve this
holiness, however: As long as the senses are alive to the shock of every
accident, thy soul is to be deemed dead.17 Isaac assumes a liturgical context for this training, referring to all this zealous labour, the reciting of
Psalms, the performing of the services, [and] the frequent kneeling during
regular praying.18 Nonetheless, for Isaac, the issue of spiritual senses is
grounded in an experience of love:
Blessed is he that has eaten from the bread of love which is Jesus. Whoever
is fed with love is fed with Christ, who is the all-governing God. Witness is
John who says: God is Love. Thus he smells life from God, that lives with
love in this creation. He breathes here of the air of resurrection. In this air
the righteous will delight at resurrection. Love is the kingdom of which our
Lord spoke when He symbolically promised the disciples that they would
eat in His kingdom: You shall eat and drink at the table of my kingdom.
What should they eat, if not love? Love is sufficient to feed man in stead of

13. Harvey, Scenting Salvation, 18182.


14. Eugene F. Rogers, After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources
Outside the Modern West, Radical Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 2005), 2.
15. Harvey, Scenting Salvation, 169.
16. Isaac, Mystical treatises (Myst. treat.), 2.29 (ed. and trans. A. J. Wensinck and
Paul Bedjan, Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh [Wiesbaden: M. Sandig oH. G.,
1969], 20).
17. Isaac, Myst. treat., 30.210 (ed. and trans. Wensinck and Bedjan, 142).
18. Isaac, Myst. treat., 17.138 (ed. and trans. Wensinck and Bedjan, 95).

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food and drink. This is the wine that gladdens the heart of man. Blessed is
he who has drunk from this wine.19

Here, Isaac highlights one of the key premises for the present study; that
is, the manner in which ritual practices mold the perception of sensory
experiences.
For the purposes of the present study, then, Simeons Second Letter will
be examined for narrative details that may be illuminated by a ritual context using Harvey as an interpretive framework. The Second Letter is of
particular interest due to a number of unique features. As a late antique
martyrdom account written for a Syriac Christian audience, Simeons letter falls within Harveys rubric, and seeing how certain details match up
with known liturgical texts and practices either from or in close proximity
to the period and region in question will help clarify exactly how Simeon
is choosing to communicate the particulars of this event to his audience.
From a historiographical perspective, this will also provide an alternative understanding of some of the more graphic details to one presuming
a radical spirit-body dualism. While such a reading is tempting, particularly in narratives where it appears to be a vital point that a martyr or
an ascetic is denying the body or deliberately injuring the flesh, Harvey
makes a compelling case that such a view is anachronistic and does not
sufficiently take ascetic and devotional writings from late antiquity on
their own terms. Rather, the fundamental relationship of sensory experience to epistemology is assumed to include an understanding of God, and
this sensory experience in late antiquity is constructed through the bodily
experience of liturgy. Thus, to see sensory details as informed by common,
normative liturgical experience makes better sense of these sources as they
would have been received.20
THE MARTYRDOM ACCOUNTS
IN SIMEONS SECOND LETTER
Simeons Second Letter is unique due to a particular emphasis on women
martyrs.21 Shahid suggests that Simeon is intentionally attempting to shame
his male audience,22 noting Simeons own words: If women also have persevered heroically in their contests for the sake of Christ, how much more

19.
20.
21.
22.

Isaac, Myst. treat., 43.31617 (ed. and trans. Wensinck and Bedjan, 21112).
Harvey, Scenting Salvation, 171.
As noted in Shahid, Martyrs of Najrn, 127.
Shahid, Martyrs of Najrn, 127.

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ought we to abandon both our wretched sheds and opulent residencies


and be with Christ in the fair mansions which are prepared for us in his
Fathers dwelling.23 In emphasizing the martyrdoms of women, Simeon
includes particular accounts not mentioned in his First Letter, and expands
others. In particular, Elizabeth the Deaconess and Tahna are not mentioned
in the First Letter at all, and Ruhms death is far more briefly accounted
for.24 Elizabeth is mentioned in the Book of the Himyarites but this section
of the manuscript is badly mutilated,25 and of the chapters concerning
Tahna and her companions, little survives in the Book beyond the titles.
Elizabeth the Deaconess, Tahna and her companions, and Ruhm are the
very martyrdoms in the Second Letter under consideration; consider first,
however, how Simeon frames these martyrdoms. Simeon first enumerates
all those who are in the church when it is burned:
The Jews amassed all the martyrs bones and brought them into the church,
where they heaped them up. They then brought in the priests, deacons,
subdeacons, readers, and sons and daughters of the covenant, and laymen
and women as well. . . . They filled the church up from wall to wall, some
2000 persons according to the men who came from Najran; then they
piled up wood all round the outside of the church and set alight to it, thus
burning the church along with everyone inside it.26

In this way, Simeon establishes that this is an event happening to a Christian community, not merely to individuals on their own.
In addition, sensory experience is noted as an important element of this
martyrdom of the community by those who are voluntarily participating
in it: Come, friends, that we may take pleasure in the fragrant offerings of the priests.27 While this is in and of itself not a new point and
is prefigured by earlier martyrs lives such as that of Polycarp (as will be
seen), the martyrdom experience is located in a context of worship as a
community, framing the experience liturgically and sacramentally. It also
establishes the disconnect between physical and spiritual experience that
is prevalent throughout.

23. Sim. Ep. 2.30 (Shahid, Martyrs of Najrn, 62).


24. As seen in the version collected in The Chronicle of Zuqnin. Edited and translated
by Amir Harrak, The Chronicle of Zuqnin Parts III & IV: A.D. 488775, Mediaeval
Sources in Translation 36 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1999).
The reference in question is at 3.5867 (Harrak, 7884). Further discussion below.
25. Shahid, Martyrs of Najrn, 155.
26. Sim. Ep. 2.7 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 105).
27. Sim. Ep. 2.7 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 105).

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Elizabeth the Deaconess


After the Himyarites set fire to the church, Elizabeth the Deaconess, the
sister of Paul, the bishop of Najran,28 is first shown attempting to join the
Najranite Christians who were being burned alive inside by the Himyarites.
On learning that the church was in flames, with the members of the
covenant and the bones of her brother inside it, she dashed out of the
house where the Christians had hidden her and went straight to the church,
crying out, I shall go to Christ with you, my brother, with you my brother
and with all the rest of you . . . I have come from outside [the church] in
order to enter it and to be burnt along with the bones of my brother and
with the priests his companions.29

She is captured by the Himyarites, who tie her up and begin to torture
her. First she is given a mock crown: Then they produced some clay and
fashioned something resembling a crown; this they placed on her head,
saying to her in mockery, Receive your crown, servant of the carpenters
son!30
Elizabeth is then burned with hot oil: Next they modeled the clay into
the shape a basin on top and heated up some oil in a pan; this they poured
onto the top of her head when it was on the boil. At her request, it is
then poured on her a second time: When her entire head was scalded,
the Jews said to her, Perhaps it is too cool for you? Would you like us to
heat it up again? The blessed woman was unable to speak for pain, but
she did manage to make a sign to them, softly indicating to them, Yes,
I would.31
Finally, barely alive, she is tied to a camel and dragged violently out
into the desert, and Simeon concludes, This is how the blessed Elizabeth
was crowned.32
To look at Elizabeth the Deaconess with an eye towards the question of
ritual detail and spiritual senses, recalls her statement of purpose: I shall
go to Christ with you, my brother, with you my brother and with all the
rest of you . . . I have come from outside [the church] in order to enter it
and to be burnt along with the bones of my brother and with the priests
his companions. She is expressly seeking to participate in the common
experience of the Christian community to which she belongs; that is, she

28.
29.
30.
31.
32.

Sim.
Sim.
Sim.
Sim.
Sim.

Ep.
Ep.
Ep.
Ep.
Ep.

2.7 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 105).


2.7 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 1056).
2.8 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 106).
2.89 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 106).
2.9 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 106).

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wishes to participate in the qurbana, the offering, the public


service of being bodily burned alive.
Therefore, the question becomes, are there specific ways in which Simeon
depicts her experience liturgically? That is, is there a particular sacrament
to which he relates her martyrdom, or is it described more generally? One
might initially read the texts emphasis on Elizabeths desire to die with
my brother [the bishop] and with the priests his companions as Simeon
intending to depict her as becoming a priest herself by this experience.
The specific details Simeon provides regarding Elizabeths martyrdom,
however, suggest a more explicit connection to the anointing with oil that
occurred at baptism. In summary, she is given a crown by her torturers,
she has boiling oil poured twice on her head, and Simeon concludes her
story by describing her as crowned (ethkllth). Syrian baptismal practice
contemporary with the Najran martyrdoms includes a twofold anointing
of the head with oil; this is in fact a distinct characteristic of the Syrian
baptismal rite.33 In addition, while the image of a martyrs crown is clearly
relevant to Simeons description of the crowning of these women, there
are other liturgical uses of crowning which are applicable, all using the
same Syriac root kll. The Syrian baptismal rite explicitly uses an image
of crowning to refer to the act of baptism: By means of baptism . . . may
he receive the crown of victory (nqbl klila dzkutha) of the calling from
on high.34 Literal crowns appear to have been employed in baptisms in
places throughout Asia Minor and the Middle East,35 with one form of
the Syrian baptismal rite, attributed to Basil of Caesarea, utilizing a short
service of loosening the crown on the seventh day after baptism.36
That the oil is boiling is also significant from a sacramental point of
view. In the Syrian Christian literature, heat is specifically identified with
the Holy Spirit; for example, in the liturgical poetry of Ephrem the Syrian, the Trinity is illustrated using the image of the sun, with the sun itself
corresponding to the Father, the light to the Son, and the heat to the Holy

33. Sebastian P. Brock, Studies in the Early History of the Syrian Orthodox Baptismal Liturgy, JTS n.s. 23 (1972): 25ff.
34. Giuseppe Assemani, Codex Liturgicus Ecclesiae Universae in XV. Libros Distributus in Quo Continentur Libri Rituales, Missales, Pontificales, Officia, Dyptichia
& C. Ecclesiarum Occidentis, & Orientis (Cod. Lit.), 4 vols. (Rome: Ex Typographia
Komaruk, 1749; reprint, Gregg International Publishers Ltd., 1968), 1:248.
35. T. Thompson, The Offices of Baptism and Confirmation (Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 1914), 60.
36. Assemani, Codex Liturgicus, 3:23437. See discussion in Sebastian P. Brock,
The Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, ed. J. Vellian, Syrian Churches
Series, 2nd ed. (Pune, India: Anita Printers, 1998), 9:73.

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101

Spirit.37 This heat primarily manifests itself as fire, by means of which


the Holy Spirit first and foremost consecrates: In fire is the symbol of
the Spirit, it is a type of the Holy Spirit who is mixed in the baptismal
water so that it may be for absolution, and in the bread, that it may be an
offering.38 Rogers expands on this, observing that the fire of the Spirit
can kindle the human offering only because the human heart has already
caught fire by the same Spirit.39 Along similar lines, another idea linking
the anointing of oil with heat is Brocks observation that Syrian baptism
frequently uses the image of the newly baptized as sheep being branded,
thus bearing a mark of ownership; this is absolutely fundamental in
the Syrian tradition.40
The baptismal rite also makes explicit that the anointing is for the
grafting into . . . the holy, catholic and apostolic church.41 Therefore, it
is this act that brings the catechumen into the church, and therefore into
the community; this is consistent with Elizabeths stated objective of participating in the same thing as the rest of the community.
The priest performing the baptism prays the following: And fashion your Christ on those who are about to be reborn through my weakness.42 The word for Christ (mshiha the anointed) and the word for oil
(meshha) are homophonic in Syriac, allowing for wordplay which draws
a close connection between the two, such as this example from Ephrem:
From whatever angle I look at the oil, Christ looks out at me from it.43
An apotropaic function is attributed by eastern writers to the oil used
in baptism as early as the fourth century by Cyril of Jerusalem,44 and earlier than that by the so-called Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of
Rome,45 which refers to it as oil of exorcism.46 This attribute
is also present in the Syrian baptismal rite, which says that the anointed
37. Ephr., Hymns on Faith (H.Fid.) 73.1 (trans. Sebastian Brock, The Harp of the
Spirit: Eighteen Poems of Saint Ephrem, Studies Supplementary to Sobornost 4 [San
Bernardino, CA: The Borgo Press, 1988], 83).
38. Ephr. H.Fid. 40.10 (trans. Brock, 27).
39. Rogers, After the Spirit, 131.
40. Brock, Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, 147.
41. Assemani, Codex Liturgicus, 1:255.
42. Assemani, Codex Liturgicus, 1:230.
43. Ephr., Hymns on Virginity (H.Vir.), 7.14.6 (Brock, The Harp of the Spirit, 51).
44. Cyr. H. catech. 20.3 (PG 33:1080); for a discussion of this point, see Thompson, Baptism and Confirmation, 3334.
45. For a discussion of when to date Hippolytus, see Gregory Dix and Henry Chadwick, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, Bishop and
Martyr, 2 ed. (London: The Alban Press, 1992), dh.
46. Hipp. Apost., 21.7 (Dix and Chadwick, Apostolic Tradition, 34).

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catechumen is armed with [the oil] against every working of the adversary.47 Brock notes that anointing the baptisand is discussed in the liturgical text as the preparation of athletes for spiritual combat, with the
oil having the function of dazzling Satan.48
The martyrdom of Elizabeth the Deaconess, therefore, is presented
by Simeon as having been experienced as a baptism, using language and
images with which the Syrian Christian audience would have been able
to identify it as such.

Tahna and Her Companions


Following Elizabeths martyrdom, her family members sneak out of the city
at night to find her body, anoint it, and give it a proper burial. Simeons
account then turns to the martyrdom of Tahna, her daughter Ummah, and
her servant Hudayyuh. By contrast to Elizabeth, these women die because
they are successful in their attempt to enter the burning church:
Another woman named Tahna, hearing that the church was burning, seized
her daughters [Ummahs] hand . . . and they went off to the church to be
burnt. When her maidservant [Hudayyuh] saw her, she said, My lady,
my lady, where are you off to? The church is on fire and the [faithful] are
being burnt in the fire. Her mistress replied, I too am going along to be
burnt up with the priests, both I and my daughter here[.] The maid said,
I adjure you by Christ, my lady, take me with you so that I too may enjoy
the fragrance of the priests. So her mistress took her by the hand, and the
three of them entered the church and were burnt to death along with the
priests.49

Following their death, Tahnas younger daughter, who stayed behind in


the house, is captured: This blessed ladys younger daughter, who was
also called Hudayyah . . . stayed in the house. The Jews, however, caught
her, set fire to the house, and threw her into the fire . . . and threw her in
a second time; then they repeated this a third time, and so the blessed girl
was crowned.50
Here again the burning church is central to the action, with the impetus
for these women being the desire to participate more fully in the experience of the community, which is located in the context of liturgical experience: The maid said, I adjure you by Christ, my lady, take me with you
so that I too may enjoy the fragrance of the priests. So her mistress took
47.
48.
49.
50.

Assemani, Codex Liturgicus, 1:255.


Brock, Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, 55.
Sim. Ep. 2.10 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 107).
Sim. Ep. 2.11 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 107).

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her by the hand, and the three of them entered the church and were burnt
to death along with the priests.51 The concept of the fragrance of the
priests is important enough for Simeon to repeat, and it functions on at
least two different levels. Devotional use of incense during liturgy in Syrian practice can be substantiated as early as the late fourth century, with
incense being referenced as being at the altar in the Syrian Apostolic Constitutions, canon 3;52 Harvey notes that by the late fifth century, incense
was a staple of Christian prayer practice, public and private, wherever
the church was found.53 As well, a fifth-century Syriac commentary on
the Divine Liturgy says, The censer which the deacon takes around the
whole nave indicates the care of God over all, and the abasement and sweet
fragrance that is in Christ.54 The significance of incense in particular, per
Harvey, is epistemological; sense perception in a liturgical context is a
primarybut of course by no means the solemeans by which religious
knowledge is acquired in late antiquity.55
It may also function as being evocative of martyrdom accounts where
the burning flesh of the saint is described as having a sweet odor, such as
Polycarp: For we took part of a particularly sweet smell, like a blowing
censer or some other precious aromatic spices (
, ).56
As well, Ephrem the Syrian provides relevant imagery in a fourth-century
homily: Come, let us make our love a great, common censer. Let us offer
up our songs and prayers like incense to the One Who made His cross a
censer to the Divinity, and offered His blood on behalf of us all.57 Ephrems
words liken Christ himself as a sacrificial offering of incense and encourage Christians to follow his example.58
Since Simeons text explicitly mentions the fragrance of the priests in
51. Sim. Ep. 2.10 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 107).
52. Const. App., 8.47.3. Edited by Marcel Metzger, Les constitutions apostoliques,
Sources chrtiennes 336 (Paris: ditions du Cerf, 1987), 3:274.
53. Harvey, Scenting Salvation, 77.
54. Sebastian P. Brock, An Early Syriac Commentary on the Liturgy, JTS n.s.
37:2 (1986): 393.
55. Harvey, Scenting Salvation, 77.
56. M. Polyc., 15.2 Edited by Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek
Texts and English Translation, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic,
2007), 322.
57. Ephr., Homily on our Lord 8.3. Translated by Edward G. Mathews, Jr. and
Joseph P. Amar, St. Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Prose Works, ed. Kathleen McVey,
The Fathers of the Church 91 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America
Press, 1994), 285.
58. See discussion in Harvey, Scenting Salvation, 79.

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connection to the burning church, the reference appears to be specifically


that of incense. Therefore, Simeon explicitly and consistently ties these
martyrdoms to the language and sensory experience of liturgical worship,
albeit without a connection to a specific sacramental practice in the way
that he does for Elizabeth.
The martyrdom of the second Hudayyuh, on the other hand, involving as it does her being crowned (ethkllth, as with Elizabeth) by threefold immersion in fire, is a clear allusion to baptism; threefold immersion
in, or pouring of, water being common practice is attested at least as far
back as the late first-century Didache 59 as well as in Hippolytuss Apostolic Tradition.60
However, Rogers observes that in baptism, the body of the believer
being baptized becomes itself an element of the sacrament;61 recall, then,
Brocks examination of the identification of heat and fire with the Holy
Spirit in the Syriac sources. As an image of fire, the Holy Spirit signifies
both the reception and consecration of a sacrifice.62 Brock observes that
the latter aspect is most appropriate when considering the coming of the
Holy Spirit onto the oil and water of baptism, also bringing forward this
text from a Syrian Orthodox prayer of exorcism: . . . the Father rejoices,
the Son exults, the Spirit hovers; the baptismal water is set aflame with fire
and the Spirit.63 Further support for this may be found in Ephrem: Fire
and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized; Fire and Spirit are
in our baptism.64 Indeed, it is present in the New Testament, when John
the Baptist tells his followers: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit
and with fire.65
As such, it is clear that for Syriac writers, Christian baptism is a baptism
with the Holy Spirit and with fire.66 Given, then, the specific image of a
threefold immersion, as well as the explicit connection between fire, the
Holy Spirit, and baptism in the Syriac sources, it is reasonable to conclude
that Simeon depicts the martyrdom of the second Hudayyuh as a baptism,
and that it is intended to be understood in relation to that sacrament.
59. Did. 7.14 (Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 354).
60. Hipp. Apost. 21 (Dix and Chadwick, Apostolic Tradition, 3338).
61. Rogers, After the Spirit, 56.
62. Brock, Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, 28.
63. Brock, Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, 28.
64. Ephr. H.Fid. 10.17. Edited and translated by Sebastian Brock, St. Ephrem:
A Hymn on the Eucharist (Hymns on Faith, No. 10) (Lancaster, UK: J. F. Coakley,
1986), 13.
65. Matt 3.11.
66. See Brock, Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, 200.

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Ruhm
Simeon then recounts the martyrdom of Harith and the leaders of the city
in front of the Himyarite king. After a handful of other incidents, he turns
to Ruhm, Hariths wife. The particulars of the martyrdom of Ruhm, as
noted earlier, are specific to Simeons Second Letter. The account of Ruhms
death in the First Letter is significantly abbreviated:
As I realized that [Ruhm] would not renounce Christ in any way, in order
to terrorize the rest of the Christians, I gave order to throw her down on
the ground; her daughters were slaughtered and their blood ran down to
her mouth, and then her head was severed.67

In the account of the Second Letter, the level of detail is far more intriguing. Ruhm is initially spared by the king, who hopes to claim her for his
own, and she grieves that she has not been granted a martyrdom. Following a public proclamation of faith in which she announces her intent to
be martyred,68 Ruhm is brought along with her daughter and her granddaughter before the king, all dressed up as for a wedding feast.69 Ruhm
tells the king, Cut off our heads, so that we may go and join our brothers
and my daughters father.70 Her granddaughter refuses to deny Christ, at
which point both daughter and granddaughter are killed and their blood
poured into Ruhms mouth.
Then they got her to stand up again, and the king asked her, How did
your daughters blood taste to you? She replied, Like a pure spotless
offering; that is what it tasted like in my mouth and in my soul. The king
gave orders at once that she be executed. [ . . . ] The blessed Ruhm . . .
together with her granddaughters Ummah and Ruhm, were crowned on
Sunday, 20 November.71

As with Elizabeth and Tahna, liturgical nuance is signaled once again


by the prospective martyr seeking to die in the context of her Christian
community: Cut off our heads, so that we may go and join our brothers
and my daughters father.
Drinking her daughters blood is clearly a Eucharistic image; the fifthcentury Syriac commentary on the Divine Liturgy tells us, The altar indicates to us Emmanuel, who is the Tree of Life; and the bread and wine on
it the body of God in which blood was also present, they being the fruits
67.
68.
69.
70.
71.

Chron. Zuq. 3.62 (Harrak, 81).


Sim. Ep. 2.2224 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 11113).
Sim. Ep. 2.25 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 113).
Sim. Ep. 2.25 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 113).
Sim. Ep. 2.26, 27 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 11415).

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of the Tree of Life.72 In her speech to the town, Ruhm even refers to her
life up until that point as having been spent in a temporary tabernacle
(mashkna dzabna), with this being the term used for the container on the
altar that contains the consecrated bread and wine.73
Ruhms description of the taste reinforces this: Like a pure spotless
offering; that is what it tasted like in my mouth and in my soul. Christ,
of course, is understood as the pure spotless offering,74 at once confirming the Eucharistic image as well as giving Christological overtones to her
daughters deaths.
It is also significant that Simeon describes Ruhm and her daughters as
being dressed up for a wedding feast, a wedding being another communal, liturgical event at which the participants would have received crowns,
this practice in Syria going back at least to the fourth century, attested to
by Gregory of Nazianzus75 and John Chrysostom.76 This can be understood as corresponding to the parable of the wedding garment;77 another
possible scriptural reference is the wedding in Cana, which in late antique
Christian exegesis is frequently treated as having Eucharistic overtones,78
Ephrem of Syria being one exegetical example.79
Ruhms sensory experience in this matter is informed by her spiritual
senses, and this is made explicit by the identification of her soul as the
source of sensory information. The Syriac sources explicitly tie the Eucharist to an experience of the senses, with the reception of Communiona
sensory experience of taste via the bread and winebeing also the reception of a vision of Christ, a sensory experience of sight.80 Ruhms martyrdom, therefore, is presented as having been experienced as a partaking of
the Eucharist, and Simeon uses language that would have made this clear
to his audience.

72. Brock, Early Syriac Commentary, 393.


73. Sim. Ep. 2.24 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 113).
74. cf. Eph 5.2: And walk in love, to the degree that the Christ also has loved
us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling
savor ( ).
75. Gr. Naz. ep. 231 (PG 37:374BD).
76. Chrys. hom. 9 in 1 Tim., PG 62:546. See discussion in John Meyendorff,
Christian Marriage in Byzantium: The Canonical and Liturgical Tradition, DOP
44 (1990): 99107.
77. Matt 22.114.
78. See Meyendorff, Christian Marriage in Byzantium, 104.
79. Ephr. H.Vir. 33 (Brock, The Harp of the Spirit, 5255).
80. Brock, Early Syriac Commentary, 392.

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CONCLUSION
Through a careful reading informed by the shared liturgical practice of the
time and place, it is possible to see more to such texts than mere graphic,
violent detail intended to shock or otherwise manipulate the intended audience. It should be no particular surprise that Simeon uses liturgy as a point
of reference; he draws heavily upon texts, both biblical and extra-biblical,
he expects his audience to be familiar with, as is well-documented.81
Employing language that evokes familiar communal practices serves the
same rhetorical function. As well, it is typical for martyr accounts from
the Middle East to draw their style and rhetorical approaches from a wide
variety of genres.82 That said, it is clear that there are layers of meaning
in these accounts; crowning in particular is an image functioning on
several different levelsthe crown of martyrdom, the crown of baptism,
the crown of marriage. Recall, however, Harveys observation that sensory experience in late antique Christianity functions as a form of rhetoric
drawing on ascetic and liturgical practice as well as scriptural exegesis,
incorporating individual experience into the shared, ecclesial ritual experience of the worshipping community. Given this, the fact that the express
purpose of all three martyrs examined here is articulated as joining the
Christian community as fully as possible supports a liturgical reading of
Simeons textthat is, Simeon constructs these experiences in the Second
Letter so that they are received and understood in the context of the shared
worship practices of the ecclesial community.
Simeons emphasis on the elements of baptism may well be engaging
the earlier notion of baptism of blood, in which an unbaptized martyr
could nonetheless be said to have received baptism through their martyrdom.83 In this case, the deaths of Elizabeth and Hudayyuh presumably do
not replace a water baptism, but rather the sacramental transformation
of their martyrdoms may be seen as adding to, or perhaps fulfilling, their
previous baptism, completing the fashioning of Christ onto them.84
To return to the matter of gender in Simeons Second Letter and how this

81. Shahid, Martyrs of Najrn, 177.


82. Theofried Baumeister, Martyr Invictus: Der Martyrer als Sinnbild der Erlsung
in der Legende und im Kult der frhen koptischen Kirche (Mnster: Verlag Regensberg, 1972), 23ff.
83. e. g., Bas., de Spiritu Sancto 15:36: Already some in the struggles over godliness, while enduring the death on behalf of Christ . . . needed none of the sacraments
() of water unto their salvation, having been baptized in their own blood
(PG 32:132, translation mine).
84. Assemani, Codex Liturgicus, 1:230. See discussion above.

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impacts the present analysis, Stephen Davis argues that the female martyrs
body in the late antique/early medieval Middle East consistently functions
as an icon of resistance that is used to negotiate religious boundaries.85
There is clearly an element of this at work in Simeon, given the religious
nature of the Himyarites aggression and the focus on the bodily experiences of women martyrs in the Second Letter. However, there appears to
be more to it than that. Simeons overt presentation of the women martyrs
as examples to men implies that he is intentionally depicting these martyrdoms in a way that reverses gender expectations. Certainly the women
are far more active in their resistance to the Himyarites than any of the
men; Simeon depicts Harith himself as doing little more than standing
naked and speaking to the Himyarite king, whereas Ruhm, his wife, has
far more agency in her section of the narrative, and is able to change her
own fate. This presentation of the womens deaths as having liturgical
overtones is part of Simeons reversal; their martyrdoms are transformed
sacramentally in a way that does not happen for the men.
Simeon is disseminating these accounts to the greater Christian community so that the martyrs will be commemorated in the liturgy of the
churches in the region.86 He also wishes to glorify the faith of these women
in a way that, leaving their sanctity beyond doubt, will ensure their commemoration by the Church at large, and will to some extent shame his
male fellow believers. In these three particular martyrdom accounts, by
means of language that carries liturgical and sacramental meaning, linking the act of martyrdom and the sensory experience accompanying it, he
accomplishes these goals. As Shahid notes, a church was built in Najran
shortly after these events that was dedicated to the Holy Martyrs, and relics of the martyrs were enshrined in the citys new churches.87 The martyrs
of Najran entered the Synaxarion for the Syrian and Ethiopian churches,
and while the Ethiopian Synaxarion explicitly names Caleb, the Ethiopian
king, as responsible for their cult, Shahid argues that their veneration is
more likely to have been due to Simeons direct suggestion to Caleb.88 These
events are still commemorated liturgically by todays Syrian Christians;
24 October continues to be observed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
85. Stephen J. Davis, Variations on an Egyptian Female Martyr Legend: History,
Hagiography, and the Gendered Politics of Medieval Arab Religious Identity, in Writing True Stories: Historians and Hagiographers in the Late Antique and Medieval
Near East, ed. Arietta Papaconstantinou, Muriel Debi, and Hugh Kennedy, Cultural
Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010), 20517.
86. See Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 101.
87. Irfan Shahid, Byzantium in South Arabia, DOP 33 (1979): 29, 41.
88. Shahid, Byzantium in South Arabia, 61.

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of Antioch as the feast of St. Arethasor al-Harith, whom Simeon refers to


as the glorious Harith,89 also Ruhms husbandand his companions.90
The deaths of the Women Martyrs of Najran are given meaning, not
just in terms of the experience of martyrdom shared by their local Christian community, but also in terms of the liturgical experience of the wider
Christian world. By providing these details only in a letter that already
focuses largely on the martyrdoms of the women of Najran, Simeon elevates
their sanctity over their male counterparts. Paul, bishop of Najran and
brother of Elizabeth the Deaconess, was burned in the church with his fellow priests; Elizabeth, on the other hand, was tortured to death, alone, in
a manner which she not only endured silently, but which was transformed
into a sacramental experience for her. In providing these accounts with
this kind of detail, Simeon transfigures these images of violence, turning
them into images of victory and sanctity for the late antique Christians
commemorating them.
Richard Barrett is a doctoral student in the Department of History at
Indiana UniversityBloomington.

89. Sim. Ep. 2.18 (trans. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women, 108).
90. Synaxarium Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae (Syn. Eccl. Const.), 24 October.
Edited by Hippolyte Delehaye, Synaxarium Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae (Bruxelles:
Socit des Bollandistes, 1902), 15960.