Paul of Tarsus rewrote Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab


Traveling to Damascus with tribal companions, Paul of Tarsus fell to the ground from a flash of great light.  He was blinded.  Paul’s companions took his hand and led him to Damascus.  Three days later, they parted, as did the su‘lūk and his tribe in Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab:

Get up the chests of your mounts
and leave, sons
of my mother.  I lean to a tribe
other than you.

What must be was at hand.  The tribal outcast adopted others as kin.  The su‘lūk described a fierce trinity:

I have three friends: a brave
heart, a bare
blade, and a long
bow of yellow wood,

Smooth and taut,
bedecked with jeweled tokens,
secured with a crossbelt,

And when it lets the arrow slip
it twangs,
like a child-bereft mother,
grief-struck, who moans and wails.

The beautiful bow delivers death.  The whole of creation was groaning in labor pains for a new man.

Paul was such a man.  He was set apart from the lives of men of his time:

I’m no quick-to-thirst,
herd ill-pastured at dusk,
calves ill-fed
though their mother’s udders are untied,

No foul-breathed cringer,
asking her in every affair
what to do,

No ostrich,
gangly, stupified,
as if a sparrow were beating up and down
in his heart,

No malingerer, stay-at-home,
evening and morning coated with kohl
and perfume,

No tick,
worthless, indolent
leaping up, when startled,

Nor bewildered by the dark
when the towering emptiness
turns astray the traveler, lagging,
frantic, losing his way.

They gloried in their shame.  Their god was their belly.  The su‘lūk learned the secret of contentment in being well-fed and in going hungry:

Sometimes I have nothing,
sometimes all I need.
Only one who gives himself,
far-seeing, will prosper.

The new way was unafraid of suffering:

I have trodden through darkness and drizzle,
on fire with hunger,
grinding inside, shivering,
filled with dread.

Five times I have received from the Jews forty
lashes minus one. Three times I was
beaten with rods.
Once I received a stoning.
Three times I was
for a night and a day I was adrift
at sea. On frequent journeys,
in danger from rivers,
danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles,
danger in the city, danger in the wilderness,
danger from false brothers and sisters
in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night,
hungry and thirsty, often without
food, cold and naked.

He walked on, proclaiming death’s defeat.

As the sun set in the desert, from a summit in the midst of chaste females, he gave thanks for a child.

*  *  *  *  *

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Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab (Arabian Ode in “L”) is “by common consent … recognised as one of the greatest of all Arabic poems.”  Jones (1992) p. 139.  Scholars have debated at length whether the poem is from fifth or sixth century Arabia, or was forged in the eighth century by Basran poet-transmitter Khalaf al-Ahmar.  Nothing above is meant to claim literally that the poem pre-dated Paul of Tarsus.  The quotations from Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab are from the translation in Sells (1989) pp. 24-31.  Other translations are Jones (1992 ) pp. 142-84 (with line-by-line analysis) and Stetkevych (1993) pp. 143-50.  The Arabic text is online here.

Su‘lūk (plural form, saālīk) is an Arabic word now typically understood as meaning a brigand or a destitute man, a man separated from his tribe.  Su‘lūk poetry is a recognized type of pre-Islamic poetry.  Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab is the most famous su‘lūk poem.

Paul of Tarsus was of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin.  Paul described himself:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city {Jerusalem} at the feet of Gamaliel {a prominent rabbi}, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God

Acts 22:3.  See also Philippians 3:4-6.  The quotation above from Paul is from 2 Corinthians 11:24-27, with added lineation of the prose.  For other allusions above to Paul’s words, see Acts 9:1-22, Romans 8:22-23, Romans 1:1, Philippians 3:19, 4:11-2, and Romans 5:12-17.

With appreciation for Paul of Tarsus, the su‘lūk gains moral and imaginative complexity.  The su‘lūk typically has been understood as an outcast in this world:

The traditional definition of the world su‘lūk — poor, needy, having no property, no reliance on anything; a thief, robber — lends support to the interpretation of the su‘lūk as a liminal, antisocial character.  … In psychological terms, we might view the su‘lūk, then, as one whose course of development is arrested, perverted, or diverted.

Stetkevych (1993) p. 87.  Apart from “thief, robber” and the moral shading of an atypical path of development, that description could well characterize types of holy men and women in a variety of cultures.  A proposed etymology roots su‘lūk in “to travel along a road.”  Id.  Paul of Tarsus and other holy persons understood themselves to have chosen to travel along a different road.

Ancient Arabic poetry has provided important insight into Christian scripture.  In the context of figuring the coming of God’s kingdom, Jesus declares:

Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

{ ὅπου τὸ σῶμα ἐκεῖ καὶ οἱ ἀετοὶ ἐπισυναχθήσονται }

Luke 17:37; similarly, Matthew 24:28.  Vultures are a common motif in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry of blood vengeance.  The Arabic poetry of blood vengeance suggests that the correct translation of the Greek ἀετός in Luke 17:37 and Matthew 24:28 is vulture, not eagle. Stetkevych insightfully explained:

we can surmise that the vultures that feed on the carcasses of those slain in vengeance may be an expression — mythic or metaphoric — for the souls of those slain kinsmen who are thereby avenged, or perhaps even the souls of the ancestors of the clan in general.  … Such an assumption would complete the logical structure of the poem of blood vengeance: the vital forces of the slain enemy would serve in a direct way to nourish the souls of the dead kin, and the repeated occurrence of the image of the vulture in the poetry of blood-vengeance would thus be explained by its requisite role in this ritual code.

Stetkevych (1993) p. 69.  For related discussion, id. pp. 67-73.  In Paul of Tarsus’s terms, Jesus suffered death as the sacrificial victim whose blood redeemed his kin, all of humanity, from sin-determined death for all time.

The aphorism “where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” exists in many other instances of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin literature. For Hebrew, see Job 39:30. For Latin, see Seneca, Epistles 95.43; Martial 6.62.4, and Lucan 6:550-1. For Greek, see Lucian, Navigum (The Ship) I, and Claudius Aelianus, De Natura Animalium 2.46. The Greek and Latin references all post-date Jesus’s death. For discussion, Ehrhardt (1964) pp. 53-8.

Jerome’s late-fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) used aquila {eagle} for the Greek ἀετός in Luke 17:37 and Matthew 24:28. Subsequent Latin literature followed Jerome’s translation. For example, the monk Peter Damian in eleventh-century Italy wrote:

Where the body is, there by right the eagles congregate,
where with the angels the holy souls are refreshed,
citizens of the fatherland together eating one bread.

{ Ubi corpus, illic jure congregantur aquilae,
Quo cum angelis et sanctae recreantur animae,
Uno pane vivunt cives utriusque patriae. }

Peter Damian, “At the font of eternal life, the parched soul thirsts {Ad perennis vitae fontem mens sitivit arida}” st. 15, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 179, my English translation benefiting from that of id. Here are a Latin text and alternate English translation, and a sung version.

[image] Swiss sword, dating about 1500. Image thanks to Rama and Wikipedia.


Brittain, Frederick. 1962. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: with plain prose translations of each poem. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Ehrhardt, Arnold. 1964. The Framework of the New Testament Stories. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Jones, Alan. 1992. Early Arabic Poetry. Vol. I. Marāthī and ṣu’lūk poems. Reading: Ithaca Press.

Sells, Michael Anthony. 1989. Desert Tracings: six classic Arabian odes. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.

Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney. 1993. The Mute Immortals Speak: pre-Islamic poetry and the poetics of ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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