Genesis 3:15 in the Sahidic Version of Jacob of Serugh’s memrā on the Ascension of Christ

Just recently, I have identified and edited the Sahidic version of Jacob of Serugh’s verse homily on the Ascension of Christ.[1] This text is not only the first attestation of Jacob of Serugh in Coptic, but it may also be the first evidence of a direct translation from Syriac into Coptic, with the exception of some texts discovered in the milieu of the Manicheans of Kellis.

As my article is currently under review, I will not give many details about it. (Later edit, December 2015: the article has now been published as “The Sahidic Version of Jacob of Serugh’s Memrā on the Ascension of Christ,” Le Muséon 128 (2015) 49-83, and can be read HERE.)

However, I will briefly discuss here an interesting feature of the Sahidic version of Jacob’s homily. Remarkably, although the text is translated from Syriac, the Coptic translator adjusted the biblical quotations and allusions in such a way as to conform to the Sahidic version of the Bible. It is well-known that the ancient translations of the Bible are not uniform, but they often contain different readings. These variae lectiones confer originality to each version. Choosing to adapt the Syriac according to the Sahidic Bible, the translator deviated from the original, preferring an adjustment that certainly sounded more familiar to a Coptic audience.

For example, verse 236 (Bedjan p. 819, verse 21) of Jacob’s memrā reads in Syriac ܡܘܬܐ ܘܦܟܝܪ ܐܕܡ ܘܫܪܐ ܓܪܣܐ ܘܦܥܝܥ, “death was bound, Adam was freed, and the serpent was bruised.” Mentioning the bruising of the serpent, Jacob of Serugh refers to the messianic prophecy of Genesis 3:15. This was a widespread patristic exegetical tradition, which saw in this Old Testament passage a reference to Christ, the descendant of Eve who defeated the Devil. There is also an Arabic version of Jacob’s homily on the Ascension, which accurately translates the bruising of the serpent as وأنرضت الافعى. However, the Coptic text is so different that my first impression was that it must be corrupted,

1“and the serpent watched his head.” Luckily, everything became clear when I checked the Sahidic version of Genesis 3:15.

But let’s have a closer look at the text. In order to understand properly the translational option of the Sahidic, one must compare the different versions of the biblical passage envisaged here. Thus, in the Masoretic text of Genesis 3:15, God curses the serpent saying, [הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ רֹ֔אשׁ וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב,[2 “it (i.e. the seed of Eve) will bruise your head, and you will bruise its heel.” The LXX version differs at this point, αὐτός σου τηρήσει κεφαλήν, καὶ σὺ τηρήσεις αὐτοῦ πτέρναν,[3] “he will watch your head, and you will watch his heel.” The fulcrum of the patristic exegesis of 3:15 is the translation of the Hebrew masculine singular pronoun הוּא by αὐτός, which is also masculine singular. However, while in Hebrew the pronoun connects well with the masculine “seed,” in Greek σπέρμα is neuter.[4] This apparent disagreement constitutes the basis for the patristic interpretations of the passage as foretelling Christ’s final victory over the Devil.

More important for the present question, as can be seen above, the LXX (on which the Sahidic version is based) renders the Hebrew verb שׁוּף“to bruise, to trample, to crush” by τηρέω “to guard, to watch.” This refers to the seed of Eve (or to the mysterious masculine personage) watching the serpent’s head in order to bruise it, and to the serpent lying in wait in order to bite man’s heel. Jacob of Serugh knew Genesis 3:15 only according to the Peshitta, which follows closely the Hebrew text, [ܗܼܘܢܕܘܫܪܫܟ.[5 Precisely to this version he referred when he said that the “serpent was bruised (ܦܥܝܥ).”

However, although the Sahidic version of the Genesis rightly translates τηρέω by 1it differs both from the Masoretic text and the LXX because it says, 1,[6] “he shall guard/watch his heel, and you, in your turn, will guard/watch your head.” Thus, in the Sahidic Genesis 3:15 the serpent does not watch to bite man’s heel, but rather watches its own head not to be crushed by man.

Only now it becomes apparent why the Coptic translation of verse 236 reads, “the serpent guarded/watched (roeis) his head”[7] instead of “the serpent was bruised.” This reading does not find support either in the Syriac original of Jacob’s homily or in the Greek LXX, but only in the Sahidic version of Genesis 3:15.

In my article, I discuss whether the translation of the memrā was made by a Copt who knew Syriac or rather by a Syrian who learned Coptic. The peculiar rendering of verse 236 seems to suggest that the translator must be a Copt familiar with the Sahidic Bible. On the other hand, it is not impossible to imagine that the translation was made by a Syrian who anticipated the problems a Coptic audience may have, and adapted it according to the Sahidic text of Genesis. Be that as it may, the Sahidic version of Jacob of Serugh’s memrā raises many questions, some of which I address in my forthcoming article.

[1] Syriac text in P. Bedjan, S. Martyrii, qui et Sahdona quæ supersunt omnia (Paris – Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1902) 808-832. The Syriac text edited by Bedjan has been taken over and translated into English in T. Kollamparampil, Jacob of Sarug’s Homily on the Ascension of Our Lord (Texts from Christian Late Antiquity, 24. The Metrical Homilies of Mar Jacob of Sarug, 21; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010).

[2] R. Kittel, Biblia Hebraica (Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt, 1937) 4.

[3] A. Rahlfs, Septuaginta: Id est Vetus Testamentum graece iuxta LXX interpretes vol. 1 (4th edition; Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt, 1950) 5.

[4] J.L. Ronning, The Curse on the Serpent (Genesis 3:15) in Biblical Theology and Hermeneutics (Ph.D. thesis; Westminster: Glenside, PA: Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, 1997) 14.

[5] Biblia sacra juxta versionem simplicem quæ dicitur Pschitta vol. 1 (Beirut: Typis typographiæ catholicæ, 1951) 4 (in Syriac numerals).

[6] A. Ciasca, Sacrorum Bibliorum fragmenta copto-sahidica Musei Borgiani vol. 1 (Rome: Typis Eiusdem S. Congregationis, 1885) 1; same text published in A. Amélineau, “Fragments de la version thébaine de l’Écriture (Ancien Testament),” Recueil de travaux relatifs à la philologie et à l’archéologie égyptiennes et assyriennes 7(1886) 197-216, at 199.

[7] The Coptic verbs hareh and roeis are synonyms in this context.


About Alin Suciu

I am a researcher at the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities. I write mostly on Coptic literature, Patristics, and apocryphal texts.
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