Two narrative texts from the long eleventh century exemplify all the complexities of Byzantine storytelling culture — narrative multiplicity, intricate manuscript transmission, and translation to and from Greek, Arabic, Georgian, and Slavonic:
Barlaam and Ioasaph (the Christian version of the life of Buddha) and the Life of Theodore of Edessa.
Both were translated from Georgian into Greek by Euthymios the Athonite (ca. 955-1028), abbot of the monastery of the Georgians on Mount Athos, sometime in the late tenth century, and then both were quickly translated from Greek into Arabic and/or Slavonic; both texts also have earlier, pre-Georgian substrata in Greek as well as in Arabic.
While Barlaam and Ioasaph has been a much studied text, The Life of Theodore, Bishop of Edessa, by contrast, has been less on the spotlight. The Life is a fictional biography of a monastic and later bishop, named Theodore (a literary double of the influential Christian Arab ninth- century theologian Theodore Abū Qurra). The fictional Theodore begins his career at the Lavra of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, becomes bishop of Edessa in Syria, travels to Bagdad, and manages to befriend and convert the Arab Caliph — who later becomes a Christian martyr at the hands of his angered subjects.
The tale is sprinkled and interlaced with various other stories, including that of a young relative of Theodore who becomes a neo-martyr after rejecting the sexual advances of the wife of another Arab ruler. At the heart of it all lies the Christian fantasy that the major enemy, the most formidable “other” (the Arab Muslims) could indeed be transformed into the familiar, the brother, the Christian. Euthymios’ text (like his Barlaam and Ioasaph) is furthermore an exquisite mosaic of inter-texts from the Byzantine literary, rhetorical, and theological canon.
Over the course of the programme’s eight years, our three project teams will work together in order to produce critical editions of the four versions of the Life of Theodore of Edessa, along with English translations, and detailed commentary, with an emphasis on the narratological aspects of the texts as well as the transformations of the story from one version to another.
The Arabic text is as yet unpublished; the Greek version was edited but with limited evidence and no apparatus of sources, more than a hundred years ago; similarly old and outdated are the editions of the Slavonic versions; finally, renewed work is necessary for that part of the text which originates in Georgian.
The new editions, translations and commentaries will make explicit how the Byzantine and Byzantinizing storytellers remade the legend to resonate with their audiences by responding to shifts in communal and personal anxieties, some of which remain broadly relevant to us today.