RECONSIDERING ‘CHRISTIAN’: Context and Categorisation in the Study of Syriac Amulets and Incantation Bowls
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For over a hundred years scholars have debated, inconclusively, whether the Syriac amulets and incantation bowls from Sasanian Mesopotamia belong to a Christian, or any other cultural or religious, tradition. This dissertation addresses the four elements in these Syriac apotropaic devices that modern scholarship has suggested are traces of Christianity, but, instead of emphasising or trying to trace their origin or religious identity, I analyse the possibly Christian elements according to their use and function. My approach introduces recent insights and perspectives from research on late antique Jewish and Greco-Egyptian amulets into the study of the Syriac apotropaic devices. Moreover, this thesis is the first investigation of the biblical references, the invocations of Jesus, the liturgical formulae and the different cross-motifs that includes all instances of the elements from all published Syriac amulets and incantation bowls. My analysis consists of a structural comparison of the use and function of the possibly Christian elements, first with other, comparable elements in the Syriac apotropaic devices themselves, then in the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (JBA) incantation bowls and Greco-Egyptian amulets, and finally in other sources and genres across Late Antiquity. The aim of this analysis is twofold: First, I wish to refine and possibly reorient the understanding and discussion of the context(s) of the Syriac bowls and amulets, and second I assess whether ‘Christian’ is a relevant analytical and/or descriptive category in the study of these Syriac apotropaic devices. Concerning the context of the Syriac apotropaic devices, I find that the four possibly Christian elements seem to engage with a wider, shared universe of salient figures and topic-clusters, which encompasses, but is not restricted to, Christian tradition and teaching. Consequently, I conclude that ‘Christian’ is not a useful analytical category when studying this material, but it may be a relevant descriptive category in certain respects for some of the artefacts. This revision of the study of Syriac amulets and incantation bowls presents a more nuanced picture of the apotropaic devices and their interaction with contemporary culture and phenomena, which in turn contributes to the expanding knowledge of late Sasanian Mesopotamia and early Syriac traditions.