Upson-Saia Receives Prestigious Award

Occidental College’s Kristi Upson-Saia received the Best First Article Prize from the North American Patristics Society (NAPS) for her article, "Caught in a Compromising Position: The Biblical Exegesis and Characterization of Biblical Protagonists in the Syriac Dialogue Hymns."

Based on the recommendation of members of the editorial and advisory boards of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, NAPS awards the prize to the best first article published in the field of patristics – the study of the history and theology of early Christianity – in a scholarly journal.

 "I’m very excited that my article was chosen," said Upson-Saia, an assistant professor of religious studies "It’s quite an honor in my field."

Upson-Saia is one of the few American scholars who read Syriac, an ancient Aramaic language that was spoken throughout much of the Middle East in the first several centuries C.E. Her winning article, published in HUGOYE: Journal of Syriac Studies, examines a selection of Syriac hymns she translated and analyzed. The hymns are defined by a standard form: each contain a dialogue between two biblical characters that follows a scriptural passage. At a certain point, the hymn author "freezes" the biblical scene and has the characters discuss a theological or social issue of contemporary relevance.  The biblical characters in these hymns frequently explore all of the possible solutions of the issue at hand before finally pronouncing a verdict.

"Someone singing the hymn wouldn’t have the Bible in front of them so they wouldn’t know where scripture ended and the interpolation began," Upson-Saia said. "It’s a clever way to corral congregants to a certain way of thinking – widening the parameters of scripture in order to sanction issues not originally discussed there. Congregants are even allowed to entertain ‘unorthodox’ viewpoints as long as they ultimately end up at the ‘right’ place."

In order to discuss the topic fully and keep the conversation going, biblical characters are frequently portrayed as ignorant or dense at best and disobedient and heretical at worst. "The hymns make the biblical figures vulnerable and this was unique in early Christianity. When Christians were still struggling to be recognized as a legitimate group, they vigorously defended the motivations, acts and beliefs of their forefathers."

In studying ancient Christian texts such as these hymns, scholars discern how early Christians viewed the authority of their holy texts, as well as the manner in which they interpreted and even expanded them, noted Upson-Saia. She believes that studies in ancient biblical interpretation continue to be relevant in a world in which the Bible still plays an important role in a wide range of social and theological issues.

Upson-Saia has taught at Occidental since 2006.