For the past few years, while also completing his preliminary exams and writing his dissertation, Classics Ph.D. candidate Charlie Kuper has been working on a “side project.” He has been translating the Byzantine hagiography – a holy biography – of the Life of Martha from medieval Greek into English. Martha, who was born c. 505 in Antioch and died there c. 561, was the mother of Symeon the Younger (521–592), a very famous “stylite saint” in Syria. These saints were known for their extreme asceticism, living on pillars (Gk, styloi) for years on end.
When published, the book will appear as part of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press’s “Popular Patristics Series” and feature a full translation of the 14,000-word original text as well as a 40-page introduction.
Below, Charlie discusses how he came to the project – a real testament to the interdisciplinary ethos of the Graduate Group at Bryn Mawr College – how it evolved into a book manuscript, and what makes Martha such an interesting Byzantine figure.
How did you come to this manuscript project?
It started as a collaboration with one of my peers in the History of Art department. At a dinner party with other graduate students, Shannon Steiner (Ph.D candidate) told me about a project she had worked on at the University of Texas on objects and buildings mentioned in the Life of Symeon; the Life of Martha is a companion text. I started collaborating with her on the Life of Symeon text, and then got more and more interested in the Life of Martha. I’m very proud of the project because it really takes full advantage of the unique benefits of our Graduate Group – the project originated in collaboration with an art historian. I’ve consulted with an art historian, I’ve read the archaeology, and I’ve done the philology. It started as a collaboration.
Why hasn’t there been a translation until now?
There are a great number of texts like this yet to be translated into either French, German or English. The Life of Martha was first published in the Acta Sanctorum – the Lives of the Saints – which were published beginning in the 17th century by a group of Jesuit scholars known as the Bollandists. The Life of Martha was published in Greek with a Latin translation in 1685. However, a critical edition examining all of the manuscripts was not published until 1970 by Paul van den Ven, and it has really just been sitting around ever since, relatively overlooked. Furthermore, because the Life of Martha is a companion life that exists as an appendix in the second volume of the lengthy Life of Symeon, people have not paid it much attention. Basically it has slipped through the cracks. In the past 120 years, one article has been written on the Life of Martha, and that article only briefly refers to the hagiography as a means of backing up a different argument.
What was so interesting about Martha’s life?
For one, the Life of Martha purports to be the life of this woman, Martha, but it does not follow the standard form of ancient biographies – the narrative of one’s life from cradle to grave. The story begins a year before her death, and in fact Martha is dead a third of the way through the text. The subsequent two-thirds of the book contain details of her afterlife, her appearances to other people in visions and dreams. What really interests me is the complexity and unity of the narrative of this text—it was well thought out by the author, which isn’t true for all hagiographies. It is also interesting because there are very few examples of the lives of mothers of important saints that are this lengthy.
Historically, the circumstances of when it was written are of interest. Martha died in the middle of the 6th century, and I think the text was written in the ‘teens or twenties of the 7th century. I read it as a response to the fact that the Sassanians had sacked Jerusalem and stolen the relics of the true cross, which was extremely upsetting to Christians in the period. One of the most important events in the Life of Martha is that after she died, her son Symeon received letters from an important person in Jerusalem, letters of consolation, and as a present this person sent Symeon a relic of the true cross to commemorate her death. I read this as an emotionally motivated response—for good reason—but also as an example of propaganda– “yes, the Persians stole the cross but a portion of it is safe on our mountain.”
So would you say the book has something of a political motivation?
Well, that gets to a tough question: How to read hagiography? Is it historical? Is it pious devotion? Is it fiction? Is it propaganda? I’m in the camp that it is all of these things simultaneously. Political motivation or self-promotion doesn’t need to contradict a pious discussion of a holy person’s life and his or her miracles.
Who wrote the Life of Martha?
An anonymous monk in the community. However, the problem with hagiography is that more often than not, Christian authors have to show humility, which means not revealing your name and masking your involvement. So, the author only speaks of himself as a part of the collective, using plural pronouns throughout. But nevertheless I think there’s good evidence that it’s a single author.
How long have you been at work on the project?
Can you describe the translation process?
Reading and translating are totally different beasts. When I first started translating, I was really bad. Reading Greek with understanding and being able to translate Greek into publishable English are different skills. It’s a skill I’ve honed over time. I did another translation and that helped. Once you have a translation it takes several edits to improve the flow of the text. And there are also a few corrupt passages in the Life of Martha – parts that haven’t survived – so you have to make decisions about how to deal with this. I tend to leave it as is and then create a reconstruction and put that in a note.
The scarier thing is: I’m writing a book! I have to write an introduction, which I’ve never done before. You don’t learn how to introduce classical texts in school; that was the toughest part. How to introduce the text in a way that is meaningful to both a pious believer and the scholarly community? I wrote an initial draft but scrapped it and started over.
What’s next for you, Charlie?
For this project, the next step is a response to the last major article on the Life of Symeon, written in the 1990s by Déroche, but that’s for after I’ve graduated from Bryn Mawr. That’s the next step for this larger project. But the real Holy Grail would be to do a translation project on the Life of Symeon.
Charlie’s dissertation project focuses on a similar time period, but on more philosophical texts, the Latin dialogues from Late Antiquity. He plans to graduate in Spring 2017.