1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Isaac of Antioch
ISAAC OF ANTIOCH, “one of the stars of Syriac literature,” the reputed author of a large number of metrical homilies, many of which are distinguished by an originality and acumen rare among Syriac writers. As to the identity and history of the author considerable difficulty has arisen. The statements of ancient writers, Eastern and Western, were collected by Assemani (B.O. i. 207–214). According to these accounts Isaac flourished under Theodosius II. (408–450), and was a native either of Amid (Diarbekr) or of Edessa. Several writers identify him with Isaac, the disciple of S. Ephraim, who is mentioned in the anonymous Life of that father; but according to the patriarch Bar Shūshan (d. 1073), who made a collection of his homilies, his master was Ephraim’s disciple Zenobius. He is supposed to have migrated to Antioch, and to have become abbot of one of the convents in its neighbourhood. According to Zacharias Rhetor he visited Rome and other cities, and the chronicle of Pseudo-Dionysius of Tell-Mahrē informs us that he composed poems on the secular games of 404, and wrote on the destruction of Rome by Alaric in 410. He also commemorated the destruction of Antioch by an earthquake in 459, so that he must have lived till about 460. Unfortunately these poems have perished. He is of course to be distinguished from Isaac of Nineveh, a Nestorian writer on the ascetic life who belongs to the second half of the 7th century.
When we examine the collection of homilies attributed to Isaac, a difficulty arises on two grounds. (1) The author of some of the poems is fervently orthodox or Catholic (see especially Nos. 1-3 in Bickell’s edition=62-64 in Bedjan), in other and more important homilies (such as Bickell 6, 8=Bedjan 59, 61, and especially Bedjan 60) the doctrine is monophysite, even though Eutyches and Nestorius are equally condemned. (2) One of the monophysite homilies, the famous poem of 2136 lines on the parrot which uttered the Trisagion in the streets of Antioch (Bickell, 8=Bedjan 61), appears to have been written at Antioch after Peter the Fuller (patriarch 471-488) raised the dispute about the addition to the doxology of the words qui crucifixus es pro nobis. It is therefore scarcely possible that the author of this homily should be the same who composed the lost poems on the secular games in 404 and on the sack of Rome.
Moreover, Lamy (S. Ephraemi hymni et sermones, iv. 361-364) and Bedjan (Homiliae S. Isaaci, i. pp. iv-ix) have recently called attention to statements made by Jacob of Edessa (708) in a letter to John the Stylite. He says there were three Isaacs who wrote in Syriac:—two orthodox (i.e. monophysite), and one a Chalcedonian heretic (i.e. orthodox or Catholic). (a) The first, he says, a native of Amid, and pupil of S. Ephraim, visited Rome in the time of Arcadius (395-408), on his return journey suffered imprisonment at Byzantium, and afterwards became a priest in the church of Amid. (b) The second was a priest of Edessa, and flourished in the reign of Zeno (474-491). He went up to Antioch in the time of Peter the Fuller. Jacob then tells the story of the parrot (see above). (c) The third was also an Edessene. At first in the days of Bishop Paul (510-522) he was orthodox (monophysite): but afterwards in the time of the Chalcedonian (Catholic) bishop Asclepius he became Nestorian (Catholic) and wrote poems setting forth Nestorian doctrine.
With such conflicting evidence it is impossible to arrive at a certain result. But Jacob is an early witness: and on the whole it seems safe to conclude with Bedjan (p. ix) that works by at least two authors have been included in the collection attributed to Isaac of Antioch. Still the majority of the poems are the work of one hand—the 5th-century monophysite who wrote the poem on the parrot. A full list of the 191 poems existing in European MSS. is given by Bickell, who copied out 181 with a view to publishing them all: the other 10 had been previously copied by Zingerle. But the two volumes published by Bickell in his lifetime (Giessen, 1873 and 1877) contain only 37 homilies. Bedjan’s edition, of which the first volume has alone appeared (Paris, 1903) contains 67 poems, viz. 24 previously published (18 by Bickell), and 43 that are new, though their titles are all included in Bickell’s list.
The writer’s main interest lies in the application of religion to the practical duties of life, whether in the church or in the world. He has a great command of forcible language and considerable skill in apt illustration. The zeal with which he denounces the abuses prevalent in the church of his day, and particularly in the monastic orders, is not unlike that of the Protestant reformers. He shows acquaintance with many phases of life. He describes the corruption of judges, the prevalence of usury and avarice, the unchastity which especially characterized the upper classes, and the general hypocrisy of so-called Christians. His doctrinal discussions are apt to be diffuse; but he seldom loses sight of the bearing of doctrine on practical life. He judges with extreme severity those who argue about religion while neglecting its practice, and those who though stupid and ignorant dare to pry into mysteries which are sealed to the angels. “Not newly have we found Him, that we should search and pry into God. As He was He is: He changeth not with the times. . . . Confess that He formed thee of dust: search not the mode of His being: Worship Him that He redeemed thee by His only Son: inquire not the manner of His birth.”
Some of Isaac’s works have an interest for the historian of the 5th century. In two poems (Bickell 11, 12=Bedjan 48, 49), written probably at Edessa, he commemorates the capture of Bēth-Hūr (a city near Nisibis) by the Arabs. Although the historical allusions are far from clear, we gather that Bēth-Ḥūr, which in zealous paganism had been a successor to Ḥaran, had been in earlier days devastated by the Persians: but for the last 34 years the Persians had themselves suffered subjection. And now had come a flood of Arab invaders, “sons of Hagar,” who had swept away the city and carried all its inhabitants captive. From these two poems, and from the 2nd homily on Fasting (Bickell 14=Bedjan 17) we gain a vivid picture of the miseries borne by the inhabitants of that frontier region during the wars between Persia and the Romano-Greek empire. There are also instructive references to the heathen practices and the worship of pagan deities (such as Baalti, Uzzi, Gedlath and the planet Venus) prevalent in Mesopotamia. Two other poems (Bickell 35, 36=Bedjan 66, 67), written probably at Antioch, describe the prevalence of sorcery and the extraordinary influence possessed by “Chaldeans” and enchanters over women who were nominally Christians.
The metre of all the published homilies is heptasyllabic. (N. M.)
- W. Wright, Short Hist. of Syr. Lit. p. 51.
- The fullest list, by G. Bickell, contains 191 which are extant in MSS.
- The trustworthy Chronicle of Edessa gives his date as 451–452 (Hallier, No. lxvii.); and the recently published Chronicle of Michael the Syrian makes him contemporary with Nonus, who became the 31st bishop of Edessa in 449.
- The date of Isaac of Nineveh is now known from the Liber fundatorum of Īshō’-děnah, an 8th-century writer; see Bedjan’s edition, and Chabót, Livre de la chasteté, p. 63. Assemani (B.O. i. 445) had placed him late in the 6th century, and Chabót (De S. Isaaci Ninivitae vita, &c.) in the second half of the 5th.
- Lamy (op. cit. iv. 364-366) has pointed out that several of the poems are in certain MSS. attributed to Ephraim. Possibly the author of the orthodox poems was not named Isaac at all.
- Assemani’s list of 104 poems (B.O. i. 214-234) is completely covered by Bickell’s.
- From a really noble poem (Bedjan 60) on the problem whether God suffered and died on the cross.
- Possibly in the war at the beginning of the reign of Bahrām V.: but on the uncertainty see Nöldeke, Gesch. d. Perser und Araber, 117.
- Probably at the hands of the Hephthalites or White Huns of Kūshan: cf. Isaac’s mention of the Huns in 1. 420 of the 1st poem.
- The author refers to the weeping for Tammuz (1. 125 of the 1st poem), and speaks of his city as illustrious throughout the world (ib. 1. 132).