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Bnay Qyāmā and Bnāt Qyāmā also known as “Children of the Covenant” Warner, Jonathan


The Bnay Qyāmā and Bnāt Qyāmā ("Sons of the Covenant" and "Daughters of the Covenant" respectively) were Syriac Christian ascetics first attested in the fourth century CE. These individuals, sworn to an ascetic and celibate life, served public and liturgical functions within Syriac churches and communities. Evidence of their activities survives in remarks in a variety of religious treatises and hagiographical texts as well as rules promulgated by religious leaders. This article summarizes the known origins, social significance, and ecclesiastical functions of the bnay/bnāt qyāmā. The precise social and linguistic origins of the designation are debated. The noun often translated “covenant” (qyāmā) derives from the root qwm (“to stand”), and it has a wide range of meanings, including status, station, oath, and contract. Robert Murray has suggested an origin for the term in baptismal rites, where the catechumen took a proverbial “stand” and rose from the waters (Murray 1974/5). According to another view, the related noun for “resurrection” (qyāmtā) may have played a role in this use of bnay qyāmā (cf. Luke 20:36). Finally, M.R. Macina has argued that the term related to Greek kanon and tentatively proposed that the bnay qyāmā – “members of the [church] institution” – were more integrated into the clerical hierarchy (Macina 1999). If we are to believe fourth and fifth-century martyr narratives which claim that children of the covenant were targeted in the persecutions of Diocletian and Shapur II, “covenanters” probably existed as pre-monastic ascetic movement in the third century (Harvey 2005, 126). The most important early source is Aphrahat’s sixth demonstration which dates to around 336/7 and describes the renunciatory ideal of the bnay qyāmā. His text, replete with military and athletic imagery, exhorts the children of the covenant to reject the refinements and attachments of the world and instead embrace a spiritual marriage with Christ. Aside from passing references to the group in hagiographies and church histories, most of our knowledge of the bnay/bnāt qyāmā derives from lists of canons, most notably the rules attributed to Rabbula, bishop of Edessa in 411-32 (see Phenix and Horn 2017), but also in canons attributed to Maruta of Maipherqat in the fifth-century and John of Tella in the sixth-century (see Vööbus 1975 and 1982). These rules prescribe communal and celibate living, either with ones family or with fellow children of the covenant (of the same sex). It can be inferred that vows of poverty were not required based on their prohibition from usury and exemption from collections from priests. Clothing was to be uniform and modest, and outside business and legal entanglements were not allowed. Prayer and fasting were their primary responsibilities, but they also cared for church administration, the staffing of hospitals, and the care of the poor. One feature of the “covenanters” which distinguishes them from later monastic communities in the west was their central role in public liturgical singing. The bnāt qyāmā were particularly unique in this regard (on which, see Harvey 2005). The fifteenth canon of the synod of Phrygian Laodicea restricted singing in church to these women. According to Jacob of Sarug, Ephrem the Syrian (late 4th c.) established a choir of women to sing his hymns. In this role, they embodied and taught the eschatological and soteriological ideals of the wider religious community. By the medieval period the bnay/bnāt qyāmā had declined in importance. On the one hand, the bnāt qyāmā became assimilated with deaconesses and nuns. On the other hand, bnay qyāmā were eclipsed by both clerics within the ecclesiastic hierarchy and cenobitic monks. Aside from a smattering of literary references, the bnay/bnāt qyāmā had largely disappeared by the tenth century. The geographic extent of the bnay/bnāt qyāmā was much broader than the region marked here, namely the Roman province of Osroene in the fifth century, which was chosen both for the sake of simplicity and due to the importance of Edessa as a cultural and religious center. Syriac Christianity and the institution of the bnay/bnāt qyāmā certainly extended into other provinces of the Roman empire and the Persian empire to the east.

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