August 2016 Articles

The Life of a Saint

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Even as he completed his preliminary exams and began writing his dissertation, Classics Ph.D. candidate Charlie Kuper, M.A. ’13, has been busy with “a side project”: a translation of the Byzantine hagiography of the Life of Martha from medieval Greek into English. Martha (c. 505–c. 561) was the mother of Symeon the Younger, one of the ascetic stylite saints, so called because they lived on pillars (styloi in Greek) for years on end.

Recently, History of Art Ph.D. candidate Nathanael Roesch spoke with Kuper about the project and its evolution into a book manuscript and what makes Martha such an interesting Byzantine figure.

Nathanael Roesch: Who wrote the Life of Martha?

Charlie Kuper: An anonymous monk in the community. The problem with hagiography is that Christian authors have to show humility, not revealing their name and masking their involvement. So the author speaks of himself only as a part of the collective, using plural pronouns. But nevertheless there’s good evidence that it’s a single author.

NR: What interested you about the text?

CK: The Life of Martha purports to be the life of this woman, but it does not follow the standard form of ancient biographies: a cradle-to-grave narrative. The story begins a year before her death, and Martha is dead a third of the way through. The subsequent two-thirds of the book contain details of her afterlife, her appearances to people in visions and dreams.

What interests me is the complexity and unity of the narrative—it was well thought-out, 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. I read it as a response to the Sassanian sack of Jerusalem, when they stole the relics of the true cross. One of the most important events in the Life of Martha is that after she died, her son Symeon received letters of consolation from an important person in Jerusalem and, as a present, a relic of the true cross to commemorate her death. I read this as an emotionally motivated response but also as propaganda: Yes, the Persians stole the cross, but a portion of it is safe on our mountain.

NR: So the book has a political motivation?

CK: That gets to a tough question: How to read hagiography? Is it historical? Is it pious devotion? Fiction? Propaganda? I’m in the camp that it is all of these things. Political motivation or self-promotion doesn’t need to contradict a pious discussion of a holy person’s life and miracles.

NR: How did the project come about?

CK: It started as a collaboration with one of my peers in the History of Art department. Shannon Steiner 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. So the project takes full advantage of the benefits of our Graduate Group: I’ve consulted with an art historian, I’ve read the archaeology, and I’ve done the philology.

NR: How long have you been at work on it?

CK: I got interested in the Life of Martha in 2013. When I realized that I would need some formal training in early medieval Greek literature, I applied to Dumbarton Oaks [an important research center for Byzantine studies] and received a fellowship for the Byzantine Greek Summer School of 2014. There, I was able to read the text closely with Alice-Mary Talbot, one of the experts in hagiography. When I finished the translation, I sent it to her, and she suggested that I try to publish it as a book. I was floored.

NR: Was it hard to stay with it?

CK: It was just something I did in the evenings for entertainment. It was just fun. I certainly had the ambition early on, or the hope really, to publish it.

NR: What’s next?

CK: 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 Holy Grail would be to do a translation project on the Life of Symeon.

Charlie Kuper’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. When published, his translation of the Life of Martha 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.

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