Trying to be Perfect: The Latest Adventures in the Syriac Book of Steps

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History of Christianity


While perfection is the goal of most people and most ethical and moral systems, we quickly learn that it is rarely achieved by human beings or their institutions. That does not stop most people from trying to be perfect and sometimes inflicting their version of perfection upon others.

A little known phenomenon in early Christian history is recorded in a lengthy Syriac collection of 30 homilies entitled The Book of Steps. Written in the late-fourth century in the Persian Empire, the anonymous author and spiritual leader of a Christian community describes the manner in which he has developed and formed his community in an era before the beginning of monasticism, along with its accomplishments and disappointments. The author details the organization of the Christians into two levels - the Upright, essentially laity who perform the active works of Christian charity; and the Perfect, a group committed to celibacy, prayer and teaching, not owning property, and not working for good theological reasons.

The Book of Steps is the rare occurrence of an ascetical text that evokes the aroma of a living community of faith in which the authortalks about the practicalities of living a life of perfection, and then surprisingly admits that some of the Perfect have been less than perfect and the Upright have become almost perfect. There are references to persecutions and violence from witwhin and without the community in a remarkably frank narrative written between the lines.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the study of this large and complex work, and the intention of this lecture is to unveil a perfectly intriguing, yet secluded episode of Late Antique Christianity.

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