Book of Steps Liber Graduum, Ktābā d-massqātā

Proposed dates range from mid-4th cent. to ca. 430. Collection of thirty Syriac discourses (memre) preceded by an introductory essay (mamllā) on the spiritual life and the pursuit of perfection. The anonymous author gives very few historical or geographical details in the memre, but one reference points to a location of the author and his spiritual community in northeast Iraq near the Lesser Zab River.

The collection does not have a Syriac title. Its Latin title (Liber Graduum) was given by Michael Kmosko in his 1926 critical edition of the Syriac text (with Latin translation), referring to the ascetical steps (massqātā) one must climb along the steep road to the heavenly city of Christ. This term is mentioned only in two memre, numbers 19 and 20. Kmosko utilized fifteen mss., only three containing more than five memre.

Kmosko theorized that the the book was a primary text of the Messalian movement in the mid-to-late-4th cent. This view was accepted by I. Hausherr and dominated scholarship for the next thirty years. In the 1950’s A. Vööbus challenged the Messalian characterization of the book and directed scholars towards its witness to early Syriac asceticism and spirituality. Others focused on the pneumatology (A. Guillaumont), ecclesiology (R. Murray), anthropology and prayer (A. Kowalski), structure (L. Wickham), and christology and asceticism (D. Juhl).

The thirty memre are of uneven length and utilize a variety of genres: extended biblical exegeses, sermons, discourses on ascetical method. The dominant theme threading throughout the collection is the description of the two statuses of Christian life: uprightness (kenutā) and perfection or maturity (gmirutā) and those individuals who attempt to embody these ways of life — the Upright (kene) and the Perfect (gmire).

Writing in the midst of a pre-monastic religious community, the author of the ‘Book of Steps’ attempted to counter a decline in the standards and fervor among the Perfect. The first half of the collection presents a rule for both levels as the ideal to which they aspire. The second half contains a variety of materials, with the last six memre advocating the legitimacy of the Upright.

The titles of the memre are: Preface by the editor of the collection; 1. Author’s introduction; 2. About those who want to become Perfect; 3. The physical and spiritual ministry; 4. On the vegetables for the sick; 5. On the milk of the children; 6. On those who are made Perfect and continue to grow; 7. On the commandments of the Upright; 8. On one who gives all he has to feed the poor; 9. On Uprightness and the love of the Upright and the prophets; 10. On fasting and the humility of body and soul; 11. On the hearing of Scripture when the Law is read before us; 12. On the hidden and public ministry of the church; 13. By the same author on the ways of the Upright; 14. On the Upright and the Perfect; 15. On Adam’s marital desire; 16. On how a person may surpass the major commandments; 17. On the sufferings of our Lord who became through them an example for us all; 18. On the tears of prayer; 19. On the discernment of the way of Perfection; 20. On the difficult steps which are on the road of the City of our Lord; 21. On the tree of Adam; 22. On the judgments which do not save those who observe them; 23. On Satan and Pharaoh and the Israelites; 24. On repentance; 25. On the voice of God and of Satan; 26. On the second law which the Lord established for Adam; 27. About the history of the thief who is saved; 28. On the fact that the human soul is not identical with the blood; 29. On the discipline of the body; 30. On the commandments of faith and the love of the solitaries.

    Primary Sources

    • R. A.  Kitchen and M. F. G.  Parmentier, The Book of Steps. The Syriac Liber Graduum (2004). (ET, incl. further references)
    • M. Kmosko, Liber Graduum (PS 3; 1926). (Syr. text with LT)

    Secondary Sources

    • K.  Fitschen, Messalianismus und Antimessalianismus (1998), 104–128.
    • A.  Guillaumont, ‘Situation et significance du Liber Graduum dans la spiritualité syriaque’, in SymSyr I, 311–22.
    • K. S. Heal and R. A. Kitchen (ed.), Breaking the mind: New studies in the Syriac Book of Steps (2014).
    • D. Juhl, Die Askese im Liber Graduum und bei Afrahat (Orientalia Biblica et Christiana 9; 1996).
    • N. A.  Khalek, ‘Methods of instructing Syriac-speaking Christians to care for the poor: A brief comparison of the eighth Mēmrā of the Book of Steps and the Story of the Man of God of Edessa’, Hugoye 8.1 (2005).
    • R. A.  Kitchen, ‘Conflict on the stairway to heaven: The anonymity of perfection in the Syriac Liber Graduum’, in SymSyr VII, 211–20.
    • R. A.  Kitchen, ‘Becoming perfect: The maturing of asceticism in the Syriac Book of Steps’, JCSSS 2 (2002), 30–45.
    • R. A.  Kitchen, ‘Syriac additions to Anderson: The Garden of Eden in the Book of Steps and Philoxenus of Mabbug’, Hugoye 6.1 (2003).
    • R. A.  Kitchen, ‘Slouching Towards Antioch: Biblical Exegesis in the Syriac Book of Steps’, in Syriac and Antiochian Exegesis and Biblical Theology for the 3rd Millennium, ed. R. D. Miller (2008), 64–95.
    • R. A.  Kitchen, ‘Making the Imperfect Perfect: The Adaptation of Hebrews 11 in the 9th Mēmrā of the Syriac Book of Steps’, in The Reception and Interpretation of the Bible in Late Antiquity, ed. L. DiTommaso and L. Turcescu (2008), 227–51.
    • A.  Kowalski, Perfezione e giustizia di Adamo nel Liber Graduum (OCA 232; 1989).
    • A.  Kowalski, ‘Die Gebete im Liber Graduum’, OCP 55 (1989), 273–282.
    • D.  Lane, ‘The Book of Grades, or Steps’, Harp 14 (2001), 81–8.
    • R.  Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom (1975), 34–6, 263–269.
    • C. Stewart, Working the earth of the heart: The Messalian controversy in history, texts, and language to AD 431 (1991).
    • A.  Vööbus, ‘Liber Graduum: Some aspects of its significance for the history of early Syrian asceticism’, in Charisteria Ioanni Kõpp octogenario oblata (PETSE 7; 1954), 108–28.
    • A.  Vööbus, History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient, vol. 1 (CSCO 184; 1958), 178–84, 190–7; vol. 3 (CSCO 500; 1988), 1–18.
    • L.  Wickham, ‘The Liber Graduum revisited’, in SymSyr VI (1994), 177–87.


How to Cite This Entry

Robert A. Kitchen, “Book of Steps,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Book-of-Steps.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Robert A. Kitchen, “Book of Steps,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Book-of-Steps.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Kitchen, Robert A. “Book of Steps.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Book-of-Steps.

A TEI-XML record with complete metadata is available at https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Book-of-Steps/tei.

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