Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Review of Payne, A State of Mixture

MARGINALIA REVIEW OF BOOKS: When Christians Became Iranian – By Kyle Smith. Kyle Smith on Richard Payne’s A State of Mixture
Payne’s book arrives at a blossoming moment for religious studies in Iran. Until quite recently, the Jews and Christians of the Sasanian Empire were seen as — and usually studied as — discrete religious communities, groups that were siloed off from each other and the wider Sasanian society. It was assumed that they pursued a sectarian way of life legislated over by the exilarch (in the case of Jews) or the patriarch (in the case of Christians). Yet, among other recent collections, the essays edited by Geoffrey Herman in Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians: Religious Dynamics in a Sasanian Context (2014) explain how Jews and Christians in Iran — far from inhabiting parallel or independent worlds — were deeply imbedded in a conversation with each other, one that incorporated the prevailing Zoroastrian culture in which they lived. This realization is the starting point for Shai Secunda’s The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context (2013) and Richard Kalmin’s Migrating Tales: The Talmud’s Narratives and Their Historical Context (2014), both of which clearly show that even the most important literary contribution of Sasanian Jews, the Babylonian Talmud, cannot be read in isolation, but must rather be understood within the broader Sasanian context out of which multiple religious and legal literatures, including the Talmud, emerged.


Payne’s book is a welcome intervention. It is an expertly conceived and beautifully written counterpoint to earlier studies of Christian history in the Sasanian Empire that take Christian martyrdom narratives and legal literature at face value. In his meticulous reading of East Syriac sources and the Middle Persian literatures and histories that underlie them, Payne has substantially contributed to a new body of scholarly studies that is quickly revising our understanding of the place of Christianity in the Sasanian period. Literarily marvelous Syriac sources such as the Martyrdom of Pethion and the History of Karka still have not been translated into English. But in addressing these and other texts in a broad and syncretic study of Christianity in Sasanian Persia, Payne has succeeded in showing that the new path forward for late ancient Christian studies is one that points due east.
The publication of Payne's book was noted here last year. A past post on Herman's book is here; past posts on Secunda's book are here and links; and a past post on Kalmin's book is here.