- The History of the ‘Slave of Christ’: From Jewish Child to Christian Martyr by Aaron Michael Butts, Simcha Gross
The History of the ‘Slave of Christ’: From Jewish Child to Christian Martyr
Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2016
Pp. xii + 255. $60.00.
A story about a boy who barges in on his father’s dinner party wearing a new golden earring sounds more like the plot of an after school special than a sophisticated literary text. But saints’ lives are weird, and it is the odd details that distinguish one hagiography from the next. In this case, it is the boy’s piercing—not an anointed forehead or a white alb—that visibly manifests his baptism and conversion to Christianity. The emphasis on the earring turns what would otherwise be a generic and forgettable story into the memorable account of a Jewish shepherd boy who becomes the “Slave of Christ.”
The tale, impeccably translated from the original Syriac by Aaron Butts and Simcha Gross, unfolds in the late fourth century in the northern Mesopotamian city of Shigar, “while Magianism was still flourishing in the land of the Persians” (88). Eleven-year-old Asher ben Levi is the caretaker of one of his father’s flocks. Every day, he encounters a number of other boys at the local watering hole who are similarly tasked with their own fathers’ animals. While the beasts drink, the boys eat. Christians break bread with Christians, Magians with Magians, but [End Page 149] Asher—the only Jew—eats alone. He tries to join the Christians, but they push him away, claiming that Christians are not permitted to eat with Jews.
One day, tired of being excluded, Asher points to the spring from which the animals are drinking and demands to be baptized in it. Of course, the boys demur, insisting that both a priest and a church are necessary, but Asher wins them over with a heartfelt speech. As he emerges from the waters smelling sweetly of holiness, the boys welcome him into their fold with kisses and honors “as a groom on the day of his wedding feast” (96). They rename him ʿAb̠da da-Mšiḥā, the “Slave of Christ.” To seal the irregular baptism (and to prevent the new convert from backsliding into Judaism), one of the boys removes his golden earring and proposes that it serve as a sign upon ʿAb̠da da-Mšiḥā. As the reader soon understands, when the now Christian shepherd boy returns home, all involved seemingly interpret the Mosaic law as prohibiting the piercing of ears, except among slaves—which is what ʿAb̠da da-Mšiḥā has just become.
Despite this martyrdom narrative existing in two printed Syriac editions (both from the late nineteenth century) and multiple Syriac, Arabic (Garshuni), Armenian, and Georgian manuscripts, it is virtually unknown among historians of early Christianity. No doubt this is because the only other published study of it is a single article by J.-M. Fiey from the early 1960s. Butts and Gross have now substantively redressed this scholarly oversight and offered what will be a lasting contribution. In addition to an exhaustively footnoted critical edition and translation of the two streams of the Syriac text—both the early version and a later, but regrettably fragmentary, literary and theological elaboration—the authors provide the reader with an eighty-page introduction in which they discuss, among many other things, the development of the text, its literary devices and use of the Old Testament, and its connection to related literature in Greek and Latin, such as the legend of the Judenknaben recounted by Gregory of Tours, Evagrius Scholasticus, and others. In those legends, the “Jewish boy,” the son of a glass-blower, converts to Christianity and is nearly martyred in his father’s furnace.
In the History of the “Slave of Christ,” the biblical inspiration is not Daniel 3 but Genesis 22. After ʿAb̠da da-Mšiḥā interrupts Shabbat dinner with the story of his conversion and piercing—a story that includes barbed criticism of all the Jews gathered there—his father unsheathes a knife, chases him to the spring...