A Secret and Spoken Sign: The Divine Remza in the Homilies of Narsai

The book of Revelation begins with a striking revelation of the divine voice. The author describes his isolation and exile on the island of Patmos—an isolation suddenly shattered by a “loud voice like the sound of a trumpet” (Rev. 1:10). Confronted by this voice, the author explains how he “turned to see the voice that was speaking to me” (Rev. 1:12). This curious turn of phrase is a vivid illustration of a certain difficulty encountered by early Christian authors—how could the revelation of the inscrutable God be captured and explained in human language? How could the mysteries of divine communication and revelation be perceived by humans and their limited senses? Divine communication might be radically different than its human counterparts. Voices, perhaps, might be seen. Several centuries later, a Syriac author by the name of Narsai encountered a similar difficulty. He too struggled to capture the nuances of divine revelation in human language. This paper examines one particular term that Narsai frequently used to depict divine communication—“remza.” Narsai was a prominent Syriac author, who was head of the School of Nisibis and who wrote many memre or verse homilies. As such, he is one of the most important representatives of fifth-century Syriac exegetical thought. Narsai helps us to understand the distinctive features of early Christian exegesis that took place outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. A cursory glance through Narsai’s homilies reveals that the term remza occupies a central place in his thought. The term is found scattered throughout Narsai’s homilies. But what does it mean? If we look through modern language translations of and commentaries on Narsai’s homilies, we discover that the term has been translated variously as the “Sign” (or: le Signe), the “Hint,” the “Gesture,” “Will,” or even as “Wink.” This paper is an attempt to parse out how this term functions within Narsai’s thought and how this term can help us better understand his exegesis and theology more broadly. Previous attempts to define this term in Narsai have tended to focus on a fairly narrow selection of data, looking primarily at a single, or small set, of homilies. As such, these definitions are limited in scope and are difficult to apply to the term as it is used in Narsai more broadly. In this paper, I argue for an alternative approach to understanding the meaning of the term remza in Narsai’s homilies, which looks at the use of the term in a wider selection of Narsai’s work and which traces resemblances in the use of this term in these different homilies, particularly focusing on how Narsai uses the term to reflect on the various aspects of divine communication. I offer a close textual analysis of three of Narsai’s homilies that prominently feature the divine remza: a homily on Creation, a homily on the Tower of Babel, and a homily on Jonah.