1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Syriac Literature
SYRIAC LITERATURE By Syriac is denoted the dialect of Aramaic which, during the early centuries of the Christian era, prevailed in Mesopotamia and the adjoining regions. The literary use of Syriac by Christians had its first centre in Edessa (Syr. Ūrhāi, modern Urfa), where, in all probability, the chief Syriac versions of the Bible were made. The use of the same dialect appears in the earliest Christian literature connected with such Mesopotamian cities as Nisībis, Amid, Mardīn, Taghrīth and Seleucia-Ctesiphon, as well as west of the Euphrates at such centres as Mabbogh (Hierapolis) and Aleppo, northwards at Malatiah and Maiperḳaṭ and in the districts of Lake Van and Lake Urmia, and to the east and south-east of the Tigris in many places which from the 5th century onwards were centres of Nestorian Christianity within the Sasanian Empire. In Palestine and western Syria, the home of pre-Christian Aramaic dialects, the vernacular Semitic speech had under Roman dominion been replaced by Greek for official and literary purposes. Apparently this state of things lasted till after the Mahommedan conquest, for Barhebraeus tells us that it was the caliph Walīd I. (A.D. 705-715) who, out of hatred to Christianity, replaced Greek by Arabic as the language of official documents at Damascus. Probably (as Duval suggests) the use of Syriac in these regions went hand in hand with the spread of the monophysite doctrine, for the liturgies and formulas of the Jacobite Church were composed in Syriac. Similarly the spread of Nestorian doctrines throughout the western and south-western regions of the Persian Empire was accompanied by the ecclesiastical use of a form of Syriac which differed very slightly indeed from that employed farther West by the Jacobites.
So far we have spoken only of the Christian use of Syriac. Of the pagan Syriac literature which issued mainly from Ḥarrān, a city about one day's journey south of Edessa, not a single example appears to have survived. From Christian writers we learn that Ḥarrān continued to be a seat of pagan worship and culture down to and even later than the Mahommedan era. A native of the city, Thābit ibn Ḳurra, in a passage from a Syriac work of his (now lost) quoted by Barhebraeus, speaks of the paganism of Ḥarrān as distinguished by its steadfast resistance to Christian propaganda. “When many were subdued to error through persecution, our fathers through God were steadfast and stood out manfully, and this blessed city has never been defiled by the error of Nazareth.” He goes on to attribute the world's science and civilization to pagan inventors; but it is not clear whether in this he is alluding specially to the culture of his own city. Anyhow, it is much to be regretted that no Syriac writing from Ḥarrān has survived.
Syriac literature continued in life from the 3rd to the 14th century A.D., but after the Arab conquest it became an increasingly artificial product, for Arabic gradually killed the vernacular use of Syriac.
In the literature as it survives many different branches of writing are represented—homilies in prose and verse, hymns, exposition and commentary, liturgy, apocryphal legends, historical romance, hagiography and martyrology, monastic history and biography, general history, dogmatics, philosophy and science, ecclesiastical law, &c. But the whole is dominated by the theological and ecclesiastical interest. All chief writers were bishops, inferior clergy or monks, and their readers belonged to the same classes. When we put aside one or two exceptionally fine pieces, like the hymn of the soul in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, the highest degree of excellence in style is perhaps attained in straightforward historical narrative—such as the account of the Perso-Roman War at the beginning of the 6th century by the author who passes under the name of Joshua the Stylite, or by romancers like him who wrote the romance of Julian; by biographers like some of those who have written lives of saints, martyrs and eminent divines; and by some early writers of homilies such as Philoxenus (in prose) and Isaac of Antioch (in verse). Nearly all the best writers are characterized by a certain naive and earnest piety which is attractive, and not infrequently display a force of moral indignation which arrests attention. These latter qualities are even more apparent in poetry than in prose. There are indeed but few specimens of Syriac verse which exhibit high poetic quality; except for a fairly copious and occasionally skilful use of simile and metaphor, there is little of soaring imagination in Syriac poets. On the other hand there is much effective rhetoric, and much skilful play of language.
As was to be expected, the better qualities of style were more often shown during the early centuries when the language was still a living speech. After it had been supplanted by Arabic in the ordinary intercourse of life its literary use was more and more affected by Arabic words and constructions, and its freedom as a vehicle of thought was much impaired. Nevertheless, so late as the 13th century it was still an effective instrument in the hands of the most many-sided of Syriac authors, the eminent Barhebraeus.
For the general history of culture the work of Syriac writers as translators is, perhaps, as important as any of their original contributions to literature. Beginning with the earliest versions of the Bible, which seem to date from the 2nd century A.D., the series comprises a great mass of translations from Greek originals—theological, philosophical, legendary, historical and scientific. In a fair number of cases the Syriac version has preserved to us the substance of a lost original text. Often, moreover, the Syriac translation became in turn the parent of a later Arabic version. This was notably the case with some of the Aristotelian writings, so that in this field, as in some others, the Syriac writers handed on the torch of Greek thought to the Arabs, by whom it was in turn transmitted to medieval Europe. The early Syriac translations are in many cases so literal as to do violence to the idiom of their own language; but this makes them all the more valuable when we have to depend on them for reconstructing the original texts. The later translators use greater freedom. It was not from Greek only that translations were made into Syriac. Of translations from Pahlavī we have such examples as the version of pseudo-Callisthenes' History of Alexander, made in the 7th century from a Pahlavī version of the Greek original—that of Kalilah and Dimnah executed in the 6th century by the periodeutēs Bōdh—and that of Sindbad, which dates from the 8th century; and in the late period of Syriac literature, books were translated from Arabic into Syriac as well as vice versa.
All our historical sources support the view taken above that Edessa, the capital of the kingdom which the Greeks and Romans called Osrhoene, was the earliest seat of Christianity in Mesopotamia and the cradle of Syriac literature. But as to the date and circumstances of its evangelization we have little reliable information. The well-known legend of the correspondence of Abgar Ukkāmā, king of Edessa, with Christ and the mission of Addai to Edessa immediately after the Ascension was accepted as true by the historian Eusebius (†340) on the faith of a Syriac document preserved in the official archives of the city. An amplified form of the same story is furnished by the Doctrine of Addai, an original Syriac work which survives complete in a St Petersburg MS. of the 6th century, and is also represented by fragments in other MSS. of the 5th and 6th centuries. This work was probably written at Edessa, about the end of the 4th century. It adds many new features to the shorter form of the story as given by Eusebius, among which is the noteworthy promise of Christ about the impregnability of the city—“Thy city shall be blessed and no enemy shall ever henceforth obtain dominion over it.” This is probably a later addition made to the legend at a time when such facts as the capture of Edessa by Lusius Quietus in 116 and its second capture and the destruction of its kingdom by the Romans in 216 had faded from memory. But whether in its longer or its shorter form, the whole narrative must be pronounced unhistorical. In all probability the first king of Osrhoene to adopt Christianity was Abgar IX., son of Ma’nū, who reigned from A.D. 179 to 214 or 216, and the legend has confounded him with an earlier Abgar, also son of Ma’nū, who reigned first from B.C. 4 to A.D. 7 and again from A.D. 13 to 50. A contemporary of Abgar IX. at Edessa was the famous Bardaiṣān, himself a convert from heathenism, who was of noble birth and a habitué of the Edessene court. It was no doubt partly under his influence—also possibly in part through impressions received by Abgar during his visit to Rome about A.D. 202—that the king's conversion took place. But Christianity must have reached Edessa some thirty to fifty years earlier. Our oldest native historical document in Syriac—the account of a severe flood which visited Edessa in Nov. A.D. 201—mentions “the temple of the church of the Christians” as overthrown by the flood. The form of this notice shows, as von Gutschmid and others have remarked, that Christianity was not yet the religion of the state; but it must for some time have had a home in Edessa. The same thing is seen from the fact that the heresy of the Marcionites was already showing itself in this district, for (in Tixeront's words) “heresies, in the first centuries at least, only spread in already constituted Christian communities.” And by a skilful piecing together of the date furnished by the oldest Syriac versions of the Bible—such as the derivation of the Old Testament version from the Jews, and the almost exclusive use of Tatian's Diatessaron as the gospel of the Syriac Church down to the beginning of the 5th century—F. C. Burkitt has shown it to be probable that the preaching of Christianity at Edessa reaches back to the middle of the 2nd century or even to about the year 135.
The Syriac versions of the Bible are treated elsewhere (see Bible) and may here be dismissed with a brief summary of facts and opinions. The received Syriac Bible or Vulgate (called the Pĕshiṭtā or “simple” version from the 9th century onwards) contains all the canonical books of the Old Testament. In the New Testament, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and the Apocalypse were originally left out, but Syriac versions were made at a later time. The Peshitta version of the Old Testament must have been originally made mainly by Jews, of whom we know there were colonies in Mesopotamia in the 2nd century. The translation was executed entirely from the Hebrew, but underwent later revision which brought it more into conformity with the LXX—this to a greater degree in some books than in others. The Peshitta New Testament—according to the convincing theory which at present holds the field—is not the oldest form of the Syriac version, at least as regards the Gospels. From the beginning of the 3rd to the beginning of the 5th century Tatian's Harmony or Diatessaron—whether originally compiled in Syriac, or compiled in Greek and translated into Syriac—was the current form of gospel in the Syriac Church. The text of the Gospels underlying it “represents the Greek text as read in Rome about A.D. 170.” Slightly later was made the Old Syriac version of the separate Gospels, which survives in two MSS.—the Curetonian and the Sinaitic—in two differing forms: but this never obtained much currency. Its text “represents, where it differs from the Diatessaron, the Greek text as read in Antioch about A.D. 200.” Then at the beginning of the 5th century, by the efforts of the masterful Rabbūlā, who was bishop of Edessa from 411-412 to 435, a new version or recension of the Gospels was made and incorporated in the Peshitta or Vulgate, the use of the Diatessaron being henceforth proscribed. Rabbūlā's text of the Gospels “represents the Greek text as read in Antioch about A.D. 400.” The history of the Peshitta rendering of the Acts and Epistles is less clear; apparently the earliest Syrian writers used a text somewhat different from that which afterwards became the standard.
Of the large number of Apocryphal books existing in Syriac the majority have been translated from Greek, one or two (such as Bar Sīrā or Ecclesiasticus) from Hebrew, while some (like the Doctrine of Addai above referred to) are original Syriac documents. Special mention may be made here of the tale of Aḥīḳar—the wise and virtuous secretary of Sennacherib, king of Assyria—and of his wicked nephew Nādhān. This is the Syriac version of a narrative which has had an extraordinary vogue in the world's literature. It is now known to have existed in Aramaic as far back as the 5th century B.C., appearing on Jewish papyri which were lately discovered by the German mission to Elephantine. It appears to be traceable in its Greek dress in writings of the philosopher Democritus and the dramatist Menander; it was certainly known to the author of Tobit and perhaps to the author of Daniel; some would trace its influence in the New Testament, in the parable of the wicked servant and elsewhere; it was known to Mahomet and is referred to in the Koran; it has been included among the tales in the Arabian Nights; and it survives in a good many versions ancient and modern. The old Syriac version, which is to be found in a number of MSS., was probably made from an early Aramaic version, if not from the original itself (which must surely have been Semitic). The Syriac has in turn become the parent of the Arabic, Armenian and Ethiopic—possibly also of the Greek and Slavonic versions.
Another deeply interesting Syriac Apocryphon is the Acts of Judas Thomas (i.e. Judas the Twin), which is included in the collection of Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. The Acts of Thomas is now generally recognized to be an original Syriac work (or “novel,” as Burkitt calls it), although a Greek version also exists. It seems to have arisen in Gnostic circles, and its tendency is wholly in favour of asceticism and celibacy. Among its peculiarities is the fact that Judas Thomas is regarded as the twin brother of Christ. The author has incorporated in it the finest poem to be found in all Syriac literature, the famous Hymn of the Soul. This depicts the journey of the soul from heaven to earth, its life in the body, and its final return to the heavenly home, under the figure of a Parthian prince who is sent from the court of his parents to the land of Egypt to fetch the serpent-guarded pearl; after a time of sloth and forgetfulness he fulfils his quest, and returns triumphant and again puts on the heavenly robe. According to Burkitt, the hymn must have been composed before the fall of the Arsacids and the commencement of the Sasanian Empire in 224. It is plainly Gnostic and may perhaps have been composed by Bardaiṣān or his son Harmonius.
Among recent editions of Apocrypha in Syriac may be mentioned those of the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Epistle of Baruch, and the Testament of Adam by M. Kmosko (Graffin's Patrologia Syriaca, vol. ii.).
Lives of saints and martyrs form a large group among Syriac books. Among such documents connected with the early history of Edessa we have, besides the Doctrine of Addai, certain martyrdoms, those of Sharbēl and Barsamyā assigned to the reign of Trajan, and those of Guryā and Shāmōnā and of the Deacon Habbibh under Diocletian and Licinius. All these documents, like Addai, belong probably to the 2nd half of the 4th century, and are quite unreliable in detail for the historian, though they may throw some light on the conditions of life at Edessa under Roman government. There are also accounts of martyrdoms at Samosāta (Assemani, Acta Mart. ii. 123-147), including that of St Azazail recently published by Macler (Paris, 1902). But the great bulk of the Syriac martyrdoms have their scene farther east, within the Persian dominions.
The life and writings of Bardaīṣan, “the last of the gnostics,” and in some sense the father of Syriac literature and especially of Syriac poetry, have been treated in a separate article. The Book of the Laws of the Countries, which embodies his teaching, was re-edited in 1907 by F. Nau (this also in the 2nd volume of Graffin's Patrologia).
An early Syriac document, probably of the 2nd or 3rd century, is the Letter of Mārā son of Serapion, which was edited by Cureton in his Spicilegium Syriacum. It is almost the only exception to the rule that all surviving Syriac literature is Christian. The author is in sympathy with Christianity, but is himself an adherent of the stoic philosophy. His home appears to have been at Samosāta.
By the beginning of the 4th century much progress had been made with the organization of the Christian church not only within the Roman district of Mesopotamia, but also to the east and south-east within the Sasanian Empire, round such centres as Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the Tigris (near Baghdad), Karkā dĕ-Bēth Sĕlōkh (modern Kerkuk) and Bēth Lāpāt or Gundēshābhōr (in the modern province of Luristan). The adoption of Christianity by Constantine as the official religion of the Roman Empire had an unfortunate effect on the position of the Christians in Persia. They were naturally suspected of sympathizing with the Roman enemies rather than with their own Persian rulers. Accordingly when Sapor II. (310-379) declared war on Rome about 337, there ensued almost immediately a somewhat violent persecution of the Persian Christians, which continued in varying degrees for about 40 years. One result of this and later persecutions of the same kind has been to enrich Syriac literature with a long series of Acts of Persian Martyrs, which, although in their existing form intermixed with much legendary matter, nevertheless throw valuable light on the history and geography of western Persia under Sasanian rule. One of the earlier martyrs was Simeon bar Sabbā’ē, bishop (? catholicus) of Seleucia from about 326 to 341 in succession to Papa, who in the face of opposition from other bishops had organized the church of Persia under the primacy of Seleucia. The Martyrdom of Simeon exists in two recension's which have been separately edited by M. Kmosko. Another early martyr was Millēs, bishop of Susa, who had distinguished himself in the opposition to Papa.
The two most important 4th-century writers—Aphraates and Ephraim—are dealt with in separate articles. The importance of the former lies in the simple cast of his religious thought, his independence of theological formulas, his constant adherence to the letter of Scripture, his quaint exegesis, and the light he throws on the circumstances of his time, especially (1) the feeling between Jews and Christians, and (2) the position and sympathies of the Christian subjects of Sapor II. The position and character of Ephraim are very different. He is the typical exponent in Syriac of unbending Catholic orthodoxy. He impressed his countrymen more than any other single writer, partly no doubt by his enormous fecundity in writing, but more by the stern piety and uncompromising dogmatism which pervade his works.
In the 2nd half of the 4th century lived the monk Gregory, who wrote a treatise on the monastic life. He spent part of his life in Cyprus, and was a friend of Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis. To the information given by Assemani (B.O. i. 170 seq.) we can now add the statements of Īshō-dĕnaḥ that he was a Persian by birth, and after being a merchant was led by a series of visions to take monastic vows. After a training at Edessa, he lived for a long time at Mt Īzlā in Mesopotamia, whence he proceeded to Cyprus, but returned to Mt Īzlā shortly before his death. His book on the monastic life mentioned by ‘Abhdīshō’ is not known to survive; but some discourses and a letter of his are still extant.
Before leaving the 4th century we may mention two other writers who probably both lived on into the 5th—Balai and Cyrillōnā. The former was the author of a good many poems; the longest—which is however by some attributed to Ephraim—is the work in 12 books on the history of Joseph, of which a complete edition was published by Bedjan in 1901. Other poems of his were edited by Overbeck in S. Ephraemi Syri, &c., opera selecta, pp. 251-336; and these have since been supplemented by Zetterstéen's edition of a large number of his religious poems or metrical prayers (Beiträge zur Kenntniss der religiösen Dichtung Balais, Leipzig, 1902). His favourite metre was the pentasyllabic. Cyrillōnā composed a poem on the invasion of the Huns in 395, and is by some regarded as identical with Ephraim's nephew Abhsamyā, who in 403-404 “composed hymns and discourses on the invasion of the Roman empire by the Huns.”
The 5th century was a time of storm and conflict in the churches of Mesopotamia and Persia, as in other parts of the Christian world. The teaching of Apollinarius that in Christ the Divine Word took the place of the human rational soul, thus seeming to do away with his possession of a true humanity, had led to a reaction by Paul of Samosāta, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Nestorius of Constantinople. Though with some points of difference, they agreed in emphasizing the permanence of the two separate natures in Christ, united but not mingled or confused, and laid stress on the reality of our Lord's human experience. One question on which great contention arose was as to the propriety of applying to the Divine nature attributes which belonged to the human nature—e.g. birth from a human mother—and vice versa. Hence the great dispute about the application to the Virgin Mary of the epithet θεοτόκος. It seems to have been the objection of Nestorius to the use of this expression which mainly led to his condemnation and deposition at the Council of Ephesus (431) under the influence of Cyril, when as patriarch of Constantinople (428-431) he had distinguished himself by his zeal for Nicene orthodoxy.
At Edessa the result of the conflict between the Nestorians and their opponents was long doubtful. When Rabbūlā, the fierce anti-Nestorian and friend of Cyril, died in 435, he was succeeded in the bishopric by Ibas, who as head of the famous “Persian school” in the city had done much to inculcate on his pupils the doctrines of Theodore of Mopsuestia. But the feeling against the Nestorian party grew in strength, till on the death of Ibas in 457 the leading Nestorian teachers were driven out of Edessa. The Persian school continued to exist for another 32 years, but was finally closed and destroyed by order of the emperor Zeno in 489. The Nestorian teachers then started a great school at Nisībis (which had been under Persian rule since Jovian's humiliating treaty of 363). By the energetic efforts of Barṣāumā, bishop of that city, practically the whole church of Persia was won over to the Nestorian creed. Western Syria, on the contrary, had partaken with Alexandria in the reaction from Nestorianism which finally crystallized in the Monophysite doctrine, that spread so widely through Egypt and Western Asia towards the end of the 5th century.
At the beginning of this century one of the most able and influential men in the Syriac-speaking church was Mārūthā, bishop of Maiperḳaṭ or Martyropolis. Without entering on the details of his ecclesiastical activity, we may note that he was twice associated with embassies from the Roman emperor to Yazdegerd I. (399-420); that along with Isaac, patriarch of Seleucia (390-410), he obtained from the Persian monarch a concordat which secured a period of religious toleration; and that he arranged for and presided at the Council of Seleucia in 410, which adopted the full Nicene creed and organized the hierarchy of the Persian Church. As a writer he is chiefly known as the reputed author of a collection of martyrologies which cover the reigns of Sapor II., Yazdegerd I. and Bahram V. By his history of the Council of Nicaea he made a great contribution to the education of the Persian Church in the development of Christian doctrine.
Rabbūlā, the powerful and energetic bishop of Edessa who withstood the beginnings of Nestorianism, and who gave currency to the Peshitta text of the four Gospels, abolishing the use of the Diatessaron, is dealt with in a separate article.
The next bishop of Edessa, Ibas, who succeeded in 435 at the death of Rabbūlā, proved himself a follower of the Nestorian doctrine (see above). As a teacher in the Persian school of Edessa he had translated, probably with the help of his pupils, certain works of “the Interpreter,” i.e. Theodore of Mopsuestia. Among these may have been the commentary on St John of which the complete Syriac version was published by Chabot in 1897. He may possibly have translated a work of Aristotle. To the Nestorian movement in Persia he rendered useful service by his letter to Mārī of Bēth Hardashēr, in which he maintained the tenets of Diodore and Theodore, while allowing that Nestorius had erred. On the ground of his writings he was condemned and deposed by the “robber synod” of Ephesus (449), but was restored by the Council of Chalcedon (451), after he had anathematized Nestorius. His death in 457 was followed by a strong anti-Nestorian reaction at Edessa, which led to the expulsion of many of the leading teachers.
On Isaac of Antioch, “one of the stars of Syriac literature,” see the special article. In spite of his over-diffuseness, he is one of the most readable of Syriac authors.
A Nestorian contemporary of Isaac, Dādhīshō‘, who was catholicus of Seleucia from 421 to 456, composed commentaries on Daniel, Kings and Ecclesiasticus. His chief importance in the history of the Persian Church lies in his having induced a synod of bishops to declare that church independent of the see of Antioch and of the “Western Fathers” (Labourt, p. 122 sqq.).
The most powerful missionary of Nestorianism during the 2nd half of the 5th century was Barṣāumā of Nisībis, whom his opponents called “the swimmer among the reeds,” i.e. the wild boar. Born probably between 415 and 420 he imbibed Nestorian doctrine from Ibas at the Persian school of Edessa, but was driven out in 457 on the death of his master, and went to be bishop of Nisībis. In a succession of missionary journeys he succeeded, partly by persuasion and partly (if his enemies are to be believed) by violence, in attaching to Nestorianism nearly all the Christian communities of Persia, with the exception of Taghrīth, which was always strongly Monophysite. He had many quarrels with his ecclesiastical superior the catholicus of Seleucia, but finally made peace with Acacius soon after the accession of the latter in 484. Among other severities towards the Monophysites, he persuaded the Persian king Pērōz (457-484) to banish many of them into the Roman dominions. One of his great aims was to secure for the Nestorian clergy freedom to marry, and this was finally sanctioned by a council at Seleucia in 486 (Labourt, op. cit., chap. vi.). Barṣāumā must have been bishop of Nisībis for nearly 40 years, but was dead by 496. His writings seem to have been chiefly liturgical: he gave the first set of statutes to the school of Nisībis, which was founded during his bishopric.
His fellow-worker Narsai, whom the Jacobites called “the leper,” but the Nestorians “the harp of the Holy Spirit,” apparently accompanied Barṣāumā from Edessa to Nisībis, where according to Barhebraeus he lived for 50 years. Barṣāumā appointed him head of the new school, where he taught rigidly Nestorian doctrine. He was a copious writer, especially in verse. Many of his poems have now been published. His theological position is clearly defined in a homily on the three doctors—Diodore, Theodore and Nestorius—published by the Abbé Martin in the Journal asiatique for July 1900.
On the less important companions of Barṣāumā and Narsai-Mārī, Acacius and Mīkhā, see Wright (op. cit. pp. 59 seq., 63 seq.). The M‘anā who accompanied them and became bishop of Rēwardashēr in Persia was not, as Barhebraeus supposed, the catholicus of Seleucia who held office in 420, but a much younger man. Like Ibas he had been employed at Edessa in translating the commentaries of Theodore.
Among the early Monophysites were two of the best of Syriac writers—Jacob of Sĕrūgh and Philoxenus of Mabbōgh, who have been treated in special articles. The one wrote mainly in verse, the other in prose. See also Joshua the Stylite.
Another early Monophysite was Simeon of Bēth Arshām, who by a series of journeys and disputations within the Persian empire did all he could to prevent the triumph of Nestorianism among the Persian Christians. He had considerable success at the time, but the ground he had won was soon reconquered by his opponents, except at Taghrīth and the surrounding district. It was after a successful disputation in presence of the Nestorian catholicus Bābhai (497-502/3) that Simeon was made bishop of Bēth Arshām, a town near Seleucia. He made several journeys to Constantinople, where he enjoyed the favour of the empress Theodora. It was there he died, probably about 532-533. His biography was written by John of Asia in the collection of lives of eastern saints which has been edited by Land (Anecd. syr. vol. ii.). His literary productions consist only of a liturgy and two exceedingly interesting letters. The one has for its subject Barṣāumā and the other Nestorian leaders in Persia, and gives a highly malicious account of their proceedings. The other, which has been often edited, is an account of a severe persecution which the Himyarite Christians of Najrān in south-west Arabia underwent in 523, at the hands of the king of Yemen. As Simeon had repeatedly visited al-Ḥirah and was in touch with the Arab kingdom which centred there, his letter is a document of first-rate historical importance.
Mention should be made of two other early Monophysite leaders who suffered persecution at the hands of the emperor Justin I. (518-527). The one is John of Tellā, author of 538 canons, answers to questions by the priest Sergius, a creed and an exposition of the Trisagion. His life was written by his disciple Elias, and also by John of Asia. The other, John bar Aphtōnyā, was the founder of the famous monastery of Ḳenneshrē, opposite Jerābīs on the Euphrates, and wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs, a number of hymns and a biography of Severus, the Monophysite patriarch of Antioch (512-519).
The life of the great missionary bishop Jacob Burdĕ‘ānā or Baradaeus, from whom the Monophysite Church took its name of Jacobite, belongs rather to ecclesiastical than to literary history. A native of Tellā in Mesopotamia, he obtained the favour of the empress Theodora while on a mission to Constantinople, and resided in that city for fifteen years (528-543). At the request of the Arab king of Ghassān he was sent on a mission to the East after being consecrated bishop of Edessa; and the rest of his life was spent in organizing the Monophysite Church of eastern Syria. We possess two lives of him—one by John of Asia in his collection of biographies, and another which may have been written by a priest of Jacob's original monastery of Pĕsīltā. Both are to be found in the 2nd volume of Laud's Anecdota syriaca. An excellent modern biography and estimate of Jacob has been written by Kleyn. A Syriac account of the removal of his remains from Alexandria, where he died in 578, to his old monastery of Pĕsīltā has been edited by Kugener in the Bibliothèque hagiographique orientale, pp. 1-26 (Paris, 1902). The activity of his life left him little time for writing, but he was the author of “an anaphora, sundry letters, a creed or confession of faith, preserved in Arabic and a secondary Ethiopic translation, and a homily for the Feast of the Annunciation, also extant only in an Arabic translation” (Wright).
A very different character from Jacob's was that of Sergius of Rās’ain, one of the best Greek scholars and ablest translators whom Syria has produced. Of his life little is known, and that little not wholly creditable. He wavered curiously in his ecclesiastical views, and ended by helping the persecutors of the Monophysite Church, to which he himself had belonged. He seems to have lived as a priest and physician at Rās’ain in Mesopotamia most of his life. About 535 he travelled on various ecclesiastical missions, and finally made a journey to Rome and thence to Constantinople (in this latter accompanied by the pope Agapetus). The result was to bring about the deposition and banishment of the Monophysites from the latter city. Sergius died almost immediately afterwards, in 536. Among the works which he translated into Syriac and of which his versions survive are treatises of Aristotle, Porphyry and Galen, the Ars grammatica of Dionysius Thrax, the works of Dionysius the Areopagite; and possibly two or three treatises of Plutarch. His own original works are less important, but include a “treatise on logic, addressed to Theodore (of Merv), which is unfortunately imperfect, a tract on negation and affirmation; a treatise, likewise addressed to Theodore, On the Causes of the Universe, according to the Views of Aristotle, showing how it is a Circle; a tract On Genus, Species and Individuality; and a third tract addressed to Theodore, On the Action and Influence of the Moon, explanatory and illustrative of Galen's Περὶ κρισίμων ἡεμρῶν, bk. iii., with a short appendix ‘On the Motion of the Sun’ ” (Wright). According to the historical compilation which passes under the name of Zacharias Rhetor, he also wrote a treatise on the faith. Some of his translations were revised at a later time by Ḥonain ibn Iṣḥāḳ (†873).
Another translator from Greek was Paul, Monophysite bishop of Callinīcus or ar-Raḳḳah, who, being expelled from his diocese in 519, retired to Edessa and there occupied himself in translating into Syriac the works of Severus, the Monophysite champion who was patriarch of Antioch from 512 to 519. This version appears to be quite distinct from that used by the compiler of the chronicle of Zacharias, and also from the version of “the 6th book of the select letters of Severus” which was made by Athanasius “presbyter of Nisībis” in 669 and has been edited by E. W. Brooks (London, 1902-1904).
That important legal work, The Laws of the Emperors Constantine, Theodosius and Leo, which was composed in Greek about 475, and “which lies at the root of all subsequent Christian Oriental legislation in ecclesiastical, judicial and private matters” (Wright), must have been repeatedly translated into Syriac. The oldest form is contained in a British Museum MS. which dates from the earlier part of the 6th century, and this was edited by Land (Anecd. syr. i. 30-64). A latter (probably Nestorian) recension is contained in a Paris MS., which was used along with the other by Bruns and Sachau in their exhaustive edition (Syrisch-römisches, Rechtsbuch, Leipzig, 1880). In Notulae syriacae (privately printed 1887) Wright edited the surviving fragment of a 3rd recension which is preserved in a 13th-century MS. at Cambridge. Finally Sachau has published three new redactions of the treatise from a MS. found at Rome in 1894 (Syrische Rechtsbücher, vol. i., Leipzig, 1907).
The last 5th-century author to be mentioned here is Aḥūdhemmēh, who was Jacobite metropolitan of Taghrīth from 559 till he was martyred by Khosrau Anōsharwān in 575. He wrote various philosophical works, also a treatise on grammar which is quoted by the later grammarian, John bar Zō‘bi. A Syriac life of him has been published by F. Nau, who appends to it the surviving fragment of his treatise on the composition of man as consisting of soul and body.
We may here take note of three important anonymous works, of which the first probably and the other two certainly belong to the 6th century.
The Mĕ‘arrath gazzē or Cave of Treasures, translated and edited by C. Bezold (Leipzig, 1883-1888), is akin (as Duval remarks) to the Book of Jubilees. It is an imaginary history of the patriarchs and their descendants. The work derives its name from the picturesque story of the cave where Adam deposited the treasure of gold, myrrh and incense which he had brought away from paradise: the cave was used as a burying-place by him and his descendants until the deluge. After the precious relics together with the bones of Adam had been saved in the ark, they were transported by Shem and Melchizedek to Golgotha under the guidance of an angel.
The tripartite narrative which is known as the Romance of Julian (the Apostate) has no claim to be regarded as an historical document. Its hero is Jovian, one of the feeblest of Roman emperors, and Julian is everywhere exhibited in flaming colours as the villain of the story. But as an example of Syriac prose style it is of the best, and the author at times shows considerable dramatic power.
A valuable historical source, though of small dimensions, is the Chronicle of Edessa, which gives a record, of events from 132-131 B.C. to A.D. 540—at first exceedingly brief, but becoming somewhat fuller for the later years. It appears to be thoroughly reliable wherever it can be tested. It has been three times edited—first by Assemani in the Bibliotheca orientalis (i. 388-417), secondly by L. Hallier (Leipzig, 1892) with a translation, introduction and abundant notes, and thirdly by Guidi with a Latin version (in Chronica minora, Paris, 1903).
On John of Asia or Ephesus, the eminent Monophysite bishop and earliest Syriac church historian, see the separate article. An historical work of somewhat similar character to John's is the compilation in 12 books which is generally known by the name of Zacharias Rhetor, because the anonymous Syriac compiler has incorporated the Syriac version or epitome of a lost Greek history written by that author. The Syriac work exists (not quite complete) in a British Museum MS. of about the beginning of the 7th century: this can be in part supplemented by an 8th-century MS. at the Vatican. From the latter Guidi published the interesting chapter (X. 16) which contains the description of Rome. The entire text of the London MS. was published by Land in the third volume of his Anecdota syriaca; and there is now an English translation by Hamilton and Brooks (London, 1899), and a German one by Ahrens and Krüger (Leipzig, 1899).
Of the other 6th-century Jacobite writers we need mention only Moses of Aggēl (fl. c. 550-570) who translated into Syriac some of the writings of Cyril, and Peter of Callinīcus, Jacobite patriarch of Antioch 578-591, who wrote a huge controversial treatise in 4 books, each of 25 chapters, against Damian, patriarch of Alexandria, as well as other less important works.
The Nestorian writers of the 6th century were numerous, but as yet we know little of their works, beyond what ‘Abhdīshō‘ tells us in his Catalogue. It will be sufficient to mention one or two. Joseph Hūzāyā (i.e. of al-Ahwāz or Khūzistan), who came third in succession to Narsai as head of the school of Nisībis, was the first Syriac grammarian and invented various signs of interpunction. Mārūthā, who was Nestorian catholicus of Seleucia from about 540 to 552 and a man of exceptional energy, made the only known attempt, which was, however, unsuccessful, to provide the Nestorians with a Bible version of their own. He was the author of many commentaries, homilies, epistles, canons and hymns. Paul the Persian, a courtier of Khosrau Anōsharwān, dedicated to the king a treatise on logic which has been published from a London MS. by Land in the 4th volume of his Anecdota. Bōdh the periodeutes is credited with a philosophical work which has perished, but is best known as the author of the old Syriac version of the collection of Indian tales called Kalīlah and Dimnah. He made it doubtless from a Pahlavī version. His translation, which was edited by Bickell with 811 introduction by Benfey, must be distinguished from the much later Syriac translation made from the secondary Arabic version and edited by Wright in 1884. Ḥannānā of Ḥēdhaiyabh, who nearly produced a disruption of the Nestorian Church by his attempt to bridge over the interval which separated the Nestorians from Catholic orthodoxy, was the author of many commentaries and other writings, in some of which he attacked the teaching of Theodore of Mopsuestia. An account of his theological position, derived from the treatise of Bābhai De unione, will be found in Labourt, op. cit. pp. 279 sqq. One of his followers, Joseph Ḥazzaya, was also a prolific writer.
“With the 7th century,” as Wright remarks, “begins the slow decay of the native literature of the Syrians, to which the frightful sufferings of the people during the great war with the Persians in its first quarter largely contributed.” The same process of decay was greatly promoted by the Arab conquest of Persia, achieved through the victory of Ḳādisīya in 636-637. The gradual replacement of Syriac by Arabic as the vernacular language of Mesopotamia by degrees transformed the Syriac from a living to a dead language. Apart from a few leading writers—such as Jacob of Edessa, the anonymous historian whose work has passed under the name of Dionysius of Tell-Maḥrē, Thomas of Margā, Dionysius Bar Ṣalībī, and Barhebraeus—there are not enough names of interest to make it worth while to continue our chronological catalogue. It will be sufficient to group the more important contributors to each of the chief branches of literature.
1. Theology.—Here we may first mention George, Bishop of the Arabs (†724), who wrote commentaries on Scripture, and tracts and homilies on church sacraments, and finished the Hexaēmeron of Jacob of Edessa. Bābhai the Elder, a leading Nestorian in the beginning of the 7th century and a prolific author, wrote many commentaries and theological discourses. Īshō‘yabh III., Nestorian catholicus from 647 to 657/8, wrote controversial tracts, religious discourses and liturgical works. Elias of Merv, who belongs to the 2nd half of the 7th century, compiled a Catena patrum on the Gospels and wrote many commentaries. Timothy I., catholicus 779-823, wrote synodical epistles and other works bearing on church law. Moses bar Kēphā (†903), one of the most fertile of 9th-century authors, wrote commentaries, theological treatises and many liturgical works. Other important contributors to this sphere of literature were Ishō‘ bar Nōn (†827/8), John bar Zō‘bī (beginning of the 13th century), Jacob bar Shakkō (†1241), and the great Nestorian scholar ‘Abhdīshō’ (†1318).
2. History.—Besides the important writers treated in separate articles, we need mention only four. Elias bar Shīnāyā, who in 1008 became Nestorian bishop of Nisībis, was the author of a valuable Chronicle, to which are prefixed numerous chronological tables, lists of popes, patriarchs, &c., and which covers by its narrative the period from A.D. 25 to 1018. Of this work, which exists in only one imperfect copy, the later portion was edited by Baethgen in 1884, and the earlier by Lamy in 1888. Another important Chronicle is that of Michael I., who was Jacobite patriarch from 1166 to 1199. Its range extends from the Creation to the author's own day, and it was largely used by Barhebraeus in compiling his own Chronicle. Till recently it was known only in an abridged Armenian version which was translated into French by V. Langlois (Venice, 1868); but the Syriac text has now been found in a MS. belonging to the library of the church at Edessa, and is in course of publication by J. B. Chabot. A work rather legendary than historical is the Book of the Bee, by Solomon of al-Baṣrah, who lived early in the 13th century. Lastly, acknowledgment must be made of the great value of the Catalogue of Nestorian writers, by ‘Abhdīshō’ of Nisībis, the latest important writer in Syriac. It was edited by Assemani in the 3rd part of his Bibliotheca orientalis, and has been translated into English by Badger.
3. Biography, Monastic History, &c.—Besides the important work by Thomas of Margā (q.v.) the following deserve special mention. Sāhdōnā, who was a monk in the Nestorian monastery of Bēth ‘Ābhē (the same to which Thomas of Margā belonged two centuries later) and afterwards a bishop early in the 7th century, wrote a biography of and a funeral sermon on his superior Mār Jacob who founded the monastery, and also a long treatise in two parts on the monastic life, of which all that survives has been edited by P. Bedjan (Paris, 1902). Whilst accompanying the catholicus Ishō’yabh II. (628-644) on a mission to Heraclius, Sāhdōnā was converted, apparently to Catholicism, and thereby caused much scandal in the East. The chief events in his life are narrated by Īshō‘dĕnaḥ. Another, Nestorian who, a few years later, wrote ecclesiastical biographies and other theological works was Sabhrīshō‘ Rusṭam, who lived at Mount Izlā and other monasteries. In the beginning of the 8th century David of Bēth Rabban, also a Nestorian monk, wrote, besides a geographical work, “a monastic history, called The Little Paradise, which is frequently cited by Thomas of Margā.” A more important work is The Book of Chastity, by Īshō‘dĕnaḥ, who according to ‘Abhdīshō‘ was bishop of Ḳaṣrā—but read Baṣrā—about the end of the 8th century. This work is a collection of lives of holy men who founded monasteries in the East, and is a valuable historical source. The work itself, or an abridgment of it, was discovered and published for the first time by J. B. Chabot (Rome, 1896). As the last under this head we may mention a late anonymous biography, that of the catholicus Yabhalāhā III. (1281-1317), which throws much light on the relations of the early Mongol kings with the heads of the church in their dominions. Among other interesting features it contains information about the Nestorian Church of China in the 13th century—Yabhalāhā was a native of Peking—an account of a journey through Central Asia, and a description of a visit to Europe by Rabban Ṣaumā, the friend of the catholicus.
4. Philosophy and Science.—Special mention may be made of ‘Ānānīshō‘ of Ḥĕdhaiyabh (middle of 7th century) well known as the author of a new recension of the Paradise of Palladius, and also the author of a volume on philosophical divisions and definitions; Romanus the physician (†896), who wrote a medical compilation, a commentary on the Book of Hierotheus, a collection of Pythagorean maxims and other works; Moses bar Kēphā, the voluminous writer above referred to; the famous physician Ḥonain ibn Iṣḥāḳ (1873), who wrote chiefly in Arabic, but deserves mention here by his services to Syriac grammar and lexicography, and still more by his translations of Greek philosophical and scientific works into Syriac and from Syriac into Arabic, becoming in a sense the founder of a school of translators; and Jacob bar Shakkō, whose work called the Dialogues treats of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, logic, philosophy and science.
5. Grammar and Lexicography.—Several of the authors in this department have already been mentioned. The more important, besides Jacob of Edessa and Barhebraeus, are ‘Anānīshō‘ of Ḥēdhaiyabh, Ḥonain ibn Iṣḥāḳ, his pupil Bar ’Alī, Bar Sarōshwai (early 10th century), Bar Bahlūl (middle of 10th century), Elias of Ṭīrhān (†1049), Elias bar Shīnāyā (above), John Bar Zō’bī (beginning of 13th century) and Jacob bar Shakkō.
Apart from the numerous editions of Syriac texts by M. Paul Bedjan, most of which have been cited above, nearly all the texts recently edited are included in one or other of three comprehensive series now running—viz. (1) Patrologia syriaca (Paris, 1894); (2) Corpus scriptorum christianorum orientalium—scriptores syriaci (Paris, 1907); (3) Patrologia orientalis (Paris, 1907).
- (N. M.)
- The sketch of the history of Syriac literature here presented is based on Wright's great article in the 9th edition of the Ency. Brit., which was afterwards published separately under the title of A Short History of Syriac Literature (London, 1894).
- Chron. syr., ed. Bruns, p. 120, ed. Bedjan, p. 115; cited by Duval, Litt. syr.3, p. 5.
- Chron. syr., ed. Bruns, p. 176, ed. Bedjan, p. 168. Thābit was the author of about 16 Syriac works, of which the majority survived in the 13th century, but all are now lost. Of his 150 Arabic treatises a few at least survive; see Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, i. 217 seq.
- On this subject, see especially Chwolsen's Ssabier und Ssabismus.
- On the mechanism of Syriac verse, see Duval's admirable section on la poésie syriaque (Litt. syr.3, p. 10 sqq.).
- Cf. Duval, op. cit. p. 303 seq.
- Cf. Tixeront, Origines de l'Église d'Édesse, p. 93, and Duval, op. cit. p. 99. The above view is more probable than that taken by F. C. Burkitt (Early Eastern Christianity, p. 14), that Eusebius knew of Christ's promise as part of the letter to Abgar, and purposely suppressed it as inconsistent with historical facts.
- See especially Lipsius, Die edessenische Abgar-Sage (1880), and the brilliant analysis of the legend by A. von Gutschmid in Mém. de l'acad. impér. des sciences de St Pétersbourg, tome xxxv. No. 1. The above dates for the kings' reigns are taken from von Gutschmid.
- Incorporated in the Chronicle of Edessa (Hallier's edition, p. 145 sqq.).
- Early Eastern Christianity, Lecture II.
- See the explanation in Burkitt, op. cit. p. 41 seq.
- The MSS. which contain the Syriac Massorah or tradition of the reading of the text pass over Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the case of the Nestorians also Esther. But all these books are quoted by Aphraates.
- That of F. C. Burkitt. See especially his S. Ephraim's Quotations from the Gospel (Cambridge, 1901); Evangelion da-mepharreshe (Cambridge, 1904), and the above cited Lecture.
- For the later Monophysite versions, none of which attained much popularity, see Wright's Syr. Lit. pp. 13-17, and for the single Nestorian attempt at revision, ibid. p. 19.
- See the lists in Wright, op. cit. pp. 5 seq. 25-27, and Duval, Litt. Syr.3 ch. viii.
- See F. Nau, Histoire et sagesse d'Ahikar l'Assyrien (Paris, 1909), p. 288 sqq.
- See especially The Story of Ahikar from the Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopia, Greek and Slavonic Versions, by F. C. Conybeare, J. R. Harris and A. S. Lewis (Cambridge, 1898); and Nau, op. cit. The latter has a very full bibliography.
- Of the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles there is the well-known edition and translation by Wright (London, 1871); the Acts of Judas were re-edited by Bedjan in the 3rd volume of Acta martyrum et sanctorum (Paris, 1892); of the Hymn of the Soul there is a fresh edition and translation by A. A. Bevan (Cambridge, 1897). See also Lecture VI. in Burkitt's Early Eastern Christianity.
- Burkitt (op. cit. p. 21 seq.) endeavours to claim a higher value for the narratives about Guryā, Shāmōnā and Habbībh, on the ground that these have left more trace in the later literature; but it is to be feared that all five martyrdoms are turned out in the same legendary mould.
- Cf. Duval, Litt. Syr.3 p. 241 seq.
- On the origin and early history of Persian Christianity see especially J. Labourt, Le Christianisme dans l'empire Perse (Paris, 1904), chaps. i. and ii.
- See many of the texts in Bedjan's Acta martyrum et sanctorum (Paris, 1890-1896). The valuable geographical results are exhibited in G. Hoffmann's Auszüge aus syrischen Akten persischer Märtyrer (Leipzig, 1880).
- Graffin's Patrologia, ii. 661-1045. Of the epistles, hymns, &c., attributed to Simeon nothing appears to survive but one or two hymns (ibid. 1048-1055). The Martyrdom had been previously edited by Assemani and by Bedjan.
- His history is in Assemani, Acta mart. i. 66 sqq., and Bedjan, ii. 260 sqq.
- Book of Chastity, par. 12.
- It is in Ephraim's favourite metre, the heptasyllabic, and all the MSS. but one attribute it to him.
- Chron. Edess. par. 40.
- Ibid. par. 47.
- New light on the theological position of Nestorius is to be obtained from the long-lost Book of Heraclides, a work of his own which has turned up in a Syriac version and has just been published by Bedjan.
- See Labourt, op. cit., especially pp. 87-90, 92-99.
- Some of these refer to events so late that they cannot be from his pen.
- See Duval, Litt. syr.3, p. 247.
- Labourt, op. cit. p. 254 sqq.
- See Feldmann, Syrische Wechsellieder von Narses (Leipzig, 1896); Mingana, Narsai, homiliae et carmina (2 vols., Mosul, 1905); and other editions of which a list is given by Duval, p. 344 seq. Four of the homilies which deal with liturgical matters have been given in an English translation, accompanied with valuable notes, by R. H. Connolly (Cambridge, 1909).
- The best edition is Guidi's La Lettera di Simeone Vescovo di Bēth-Arśām sopra i martiri omeriti (Rome, 1881).
- Edited by Kuberczyk (Leipzig, 1901).
- So called “because his dress consisted of a barda‘thā, or coarse horse-cloth, which he never changed till it became quite ragged” (Wright).
- Jacobus Baradaeus, der Stichter der syrische monophysietische Kerk (Leiden, 1882).
- See the details in Wright, pp. 90 sqq.; and cf. especially A. Baumstark, Aristoteles bei den Syrern vom V.-VIII. Jahrhundert (Leipzig, 1900); and V. Ryssel, Über den textkritischen Werth der syrischen Uebersetzungen griechischer Klassiker (Leipzig, 1880-1881). The latter singles out the version of the pseudo-Aristotelian Περὶ κόσμου as a model of excellence in translation.
- On these last see Baumstark, Lucubrationes syro-graecae pp. 405 sqq. (Leipzig, 1894); and Duval, Litt. syr.3 pp. 266 seq.
- Land, Anecd. syr. iii. 289.
- See Brooks and Hamilton's translation of the latter, p. 234.
- Patrologia orientalis, iii. 1 (Paris, 1906).
- Bezold's edition contains also an Arabic version.
- This author has hitherto been identified with Zacharias Scholasticus, who afterwards became bishop of Mitylene, but according to M. A. Kugener, La Compilation historique de pseudo-Zacharie le Rhéteur (Paris, 1900), this identification is a mistake.
- See a full account of his career in Labourt, Le Christianisme dans l'empire perse, pp. 163-191.
- Of this there is an English translation by Keith Falconer (Oxford, 1884).
- These have all been dealt with in separate articles.
- George's part has been translated into German by V. Ryssel (Leipzig, 1891).
- See O. Braun's article in Oriens christianus, i. 138-152; and Labourt, De Timotheo I. Nestorianorum patriarcha (Paris, 1904).
- Text and translation, by E. A. W. Budge (Oxford, 1886).
- See H. Goussen, Martyrius-Sahdonas Leben und Werke (Leipzig, 1897).
- Le Livre de la chasteté (ed. Chabot, pp. 67 sqq.).
- A fresh edition by Bedjan forms an appendix to his edition of Thomas of Margā (Paris, 1901).
- The text has been twice edited by Bedjan (Paris, 1888 and 1895), and there is a French translation, with copious notes, by Chabot (Paris, 1895); cf. also Journ. As. (1889), pp. 313 sqq., and Eng. Hist. Rev. xiv. 299 sqq.
- The Syriac versions made by him and his successors have unfortunately perished (see Wright, p. 213).