This material, which is presented solely for non-commercial educational/research purposes, appeared in the journal The Muslim World in three installments: LVIII, No. 2 (1968), 105-119; LVIII, No. 3 (1968), 194-217; and LVIII, No. 4 (1968), 317-333.
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The oldest available manuscript of the Old Testament according to the Pshitto version is the British Museum Add. 14425, transcribed at Amid by a deacon named John in A.D. 464. The canonical books of the Old Testament in this version are essentially those of the Hebrew Bible, except for the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, which are excluded by both Eastern and Western Syrian manuscripts. Eastern Syrian manuscripts, however, exclude the book of Esther, too. Nevertheless, all of these books, whether included in the Pshitto or not, were cited by Syrian Fathers like Afraates (Aphrahat) (21), in the middle of the fourth century, and St. Ephraim (22). Other extant copies of the Syriac Old Testament such as the Florentine MS. Laurent. Or. 58, date back to the ninth century.
According to the Syrian Bishop Yeshu Dad (d. 852), the Pshitto was translated into Syriac in the time of Solomon at the request of Hiram, King of Tyre. Another tradition credits the priest Asa or Ezra with this translation (23). Burkitt maintains that the Syriac translations of the Old and New Testaments date back to the time of Abgar V, King of Edessa, who was converted to Christianity by the apostle 'Addai (Thaddeus) (24). According to Nestle, Bar Hebraeus makes the strange statement that, according to Eusebius (cf. Hist. Eccles., VI, xvi, 4, and VI, xii), Origen found the Syriac version in the keeping of a widow at Jericho (25). Eusebius, to be sure, mentions that one of the translations used by Origen includes the remark that it was discovered at Jericho, in a tub, in the time of Antonius the son of Severus (26). Why and how Bar Hebraeus got the idea that the version was Syriac is not known. Still other writers are of the opinion that no information is available about the Pshitto, and that even Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) did not know anything about it (27). Likewise, he seems to have known nothing about the person who translated some of the Scriptural books, mainly the Psalms, from Palestinian-Aramaic into Hebrew, and thence into Greek and Syriac (28). However, Paul B. Kahle, in his book The Cairo Geniza, is inclined to agree with other writers that the Pshitto was a translation made by Jews for a Jewish community. This community can only be that of what is now Arbela, or 'Arbil, in Iraq (29). Reference should be made also to the theory advanced by F. Crawford Burkitt, that "the Church in Edessa at the earliest period of its existence took over from the Synagogue a vernacular rendering of the Old Testament (30). As will be seen later, the substantiation of these two theories will depend ultimately upon whether Christianity was first established in Edessa or in Adiabene, and it is to that dispute that we now turn.
In a special chapter on the origin of the Pshitto and its relation to the establishment of Christianity in Edessa, Kahle gives an analysis of the different opinions on the subject. Kahle states positively at the outset that "we have no information whatsoever about the origin of the Pshitto, the Syriac translation of the Old Testament. Even Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) did not know by whom or where it was made" (31). Kahle accepts the British Museum MS. Add. 14425 as the oldest Syriac manuscript containing the canonical books of the Old Testament. While it differs from other manuscripts, he notes that it seems to be in harmony with the Hebrew Bible. The studies made of the different manuscripts of the Syriac Old Testament have, however, led to uncertain conclusions.
Professor W. S. Barnes, who edited the Pentateuch in Syriac for the British and Foreign Bible Society (London, 1914), finds the Florentine MS. Or. 58 (9th century) of "seriously lessened" value in fixing the text of the Pshitto. John Pinkerton, on the other hand, considers that MS and the British Museum MS. Add. 14427 as important and reliable as MS. 14425 (32).
Pinkerton observes that although this MS. presents a literal translation, its style is smoother and freer than that of the two other manuscripts. He remarks that since St. Ephraim (d. 373) was familiar with the text type represented in the British Museum MS. Add. 14425, it should be regarded as the oldest text of the Syriac Pentateuch, and cannot be the result of any later revision of the Hebrew text (33). Pinkerton concludes that a text of the type of the British Museum Add. 14425 must have been the work of a Jewish community. This Jewish translation, later taken by the Christian Church, was gradually improved and amplified, and finally became the standard text. Kahle seems to be convinced by Pinkerton's conclusion (34).
The question which seems to be Pinkerton's main concern, as to the identity and location of this Jewish community, is partially answered by Burkitt. Like Pinkerton, Burkitt is of the opinion that the Old Testament in Syriac is a direct translation from the Hebrew. Throughout the Old Testament, particularly the Pentateuch, the Pshitto appears to be the work of one who was well versed in Hebrew and fully acquainted with Jewish translations. The Pshitto may have undergone revision at a later period, probably by Christians; yet, judging from its elements, which are essentially Hebrew, we are certain that it is not the work of Christian Syrians. Therefore, the Pshitto was the work of masterful and learned Jews, and was meant to be used by the convert Jews in Edessa (35).
To illustrate this point, Burkitt refers to the traditional story which maintains that the apostle 'Addai (Thaddeus) first preached the Gospel in Edessa. Eusebius first related the story that Abgar, King of Edessa, heard of the miracles of Jesus and wished He could come to his city and heal his incurable disease. Abgar wrote to Jesus, inviting Him to Edessa, and offered to share with Him his small principality, and also to protect Him from the Jews' antagonism. Jesus, we are further told, answered Abgar that after His ascent to heaven, He would send one of the disciples to cure him. Consequently, Thomas, one of the Twelve, by a divine impulse sent 'Addai, one of the Seventy, to Edessa, where he healed Abgar and preached the Gospel in that city. This in brief, is the story which has been rejected by some Western writers as strictly a legend, while historians of the Eastern churches believe it to be authentic. Their position is supported by Eusebius, who relates with confidence that "The epistles themselves were taken by us from the archives of Edessa and then literally translated by us from the Syriac language" (36). Coming back to our subject, Burkitt observes that, according to this story, Addai, while in Edessa, remained with one Tobit, son of Tobia(s), a Jew from Palestine. Furthermore, 'Addai's preaching was successful among Jews. This indicates that Edessa was a center of Jewish life before it became a center of Christianity. Burkitt's conclusion may be cited here in full:
Thus we may infer that the Old Testament in Syriac was originally a vernacular rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures made by Jews for Jews resident at Edessa and speaking the language of the country (37).It has been mentioned previously that John Pinkerton presented the ideas that the Pshitto was made by Jews for a Jewish community, but without identifying this community. Kahle tries to solve the problem of identifying this community by citing the opinion of Joseph Marquart, who points out that the home of this Jewish community is Adiabene, a kingdom situated between the two rivers Zabs (the present site of 'Arbil in Iraq) (38). For information on this Jewish community, Kahle refers to Josephus, who relates in his Antiquities of the Jews the chronicle of the small Jewish community and the Jewish dynasty of Adiabene (39). This Jewish community is believed to have become influential by the conversion of the royal family and a great number of prominent families, who naturally needed a Bible written in the Syriac language of Adiabene. Kahle seems quite certain that at least the Pentateuch, and perhaps more of the Syriac Old Testament, was introduced into Adiabene in the middle of the first century B.C. The text of the Bible, he believes, was translated into the Syriac of Adiabene by some of the Palestinian Jews who had settled there. Kahle also assumes that the presence of a Jewish community in Adiabene must have helped to pave the way for the Christian mission. He seems to agree with Joseph Marquart's conclusion that "the Christian mission did not start among the pagan population of Edessa, the later center of Christianity, in the East, but among the Jewish population of Adiabene" (40).
Kahle also states that this suggestion has been proved to be correct by the Chronicle of Arbela, written by the sixth-century Nestorian Mshiha Zkha. This work was discovered, edited, translated into French and published by Alphonse Mingana in 1907. The text of this chronicle has also been carefully investigated by Sachau, who translated it into German and published it in 1915. Kahle, remarking on the great value and authenticity of this chronicle, cites Adolph Harnack's statement, "We have here a very valuable document from the provinces of the Roman Empire" (41).
The main theme of the Chronicle of Arbela, which Kahle and other writers have cited, is that the missionary activities of the apostle 'Addai started in Adiabene some years before A.D. 100, and that about this time 'Addai baptized a certain Phkidha and sent him to Arbela, where, for the next ten years, he served as the first bishop of the Christian converts from Judaism (42). This new Christian community obviously used the same Old Testament which they had possessed before their conversion. Furthermore, the Chronicle describes the missionary activities of 'Addai in other parts of Mesopotamia, but does not particularly mention Edessa. Although Harnack assigns the missionary activities of 'Addai in Edessa to the year A.D. 100, yet he admits that in reality nothing is known about him. This leaves Kahle with no doubt that Christianity began in Adiabene, not Edessa.
According to the Doctrine of 'Addai, an apocryphal Syriac document of the late fourth century, 'Addai went to Edessa and healed King Abgar in fulfillment of the promise of Jesus. As a result of the healing of Abgar and the preaching of 'Addai, the Edessan royal family and many citizens were converted to Christianity. By the order of Abgar, 'Addai built a church in Edessa. Day by day, a large multitude of people assembled and attended the prayers and listened to the reading of the Old Testament and the "Ditonron," believed by William Cureton to be the Diatessaron (43). The death of 'Addai occurred shortly before that of Abgar, in A.D. 45, so that the ministry of 'Addai in Edessa covered a period of about ten or eleven years.
The Doctrine of 'Addai seems to be in complete opposition to the Chronicle of Arbela. Kahle, however, thinks that the legend of 'Addai was imported into Edessa and developed there to substantiate the conversion to Christianity of Abgar IX (A.D. 179-217), with whom Bar Daysan had friendship. He also believes that the earliest evidence of Christianity in Edessa is the mention of the destruction of a church there by a great flood (A. D. 201). For this and other reasons, Kahle dismisses the Doctrine of 'Addai as bearing no historical relation to the beginning of Christianity in Edessa (44).
His argument, however, appears unconvincing because of his failure to identify the "'Addai" of the Chronicle of Arbela. Furthermore, neither he nor Harnack provides any information about this 'Addai, except that he was mentioned by Mshiha Zkha, the writer of the Chronicle, as the apostle who preached the Gospel in Adiabene. If the chronicler of Arbela regards 'Addai who ordained Phkidha as a bishop of Adiabene about A.D. 100 as the same 'Addai who was one of the Seventy Evangelists, it is most unlikely that this apostle lived long enough to carry out such activity. Even if we assume that the writer of the Chronicle of Arbela confused the name of 'Addai with that of his disciple 'Aggai, it is also unlikely that 'Aggai lived to the end of the first century. There is, however, an extensive body of evidence which appears to contradict the assertions made by the chronicler of Arbela. Bar-hadh-Bshabba, a Nestorian chronicler of the sixth century and most probably a contemporary of Mshiha Zkha, states positively that "the establishers of the church of Edessa are 'Addai and his disciples." Although he does not mention the name of this disciple, we know definitely that he was named Man (45).
We also have it on the authority of Jacob of Edessa (d. 708) that when Abgar V, King of Edessa (d. 50 A.D.) was converted by 'Addai, he sent to Jerusalem a group of transcribers who translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Syriac and brought it back to Edessa (46). This copy seems to have been collated with the Greek version in the fourth century and was later revised, together with the New Testament, by Rabula, bishop of Edessa (d. 435). This is also confirmed by Bar Hebraeus, who, according to Assemani, states that "some Books of the Old and New Testaments were translated at Edessa in the time of Abgar and 'Addai" (47). Assemani also mentions that "there is a record preserved of a very ancient copy of a Gospel written in the hand of Aggaeus ('Aggai), himself the disciple and successor of Addaeus ('Addai), in the year of the Greeks 389, or A.D. 78" (48).
Another Syrian chronicler, commonly known as the Anonymous Edessan (ca. twelfth century), relates that "'Addai performed his first service in the eastern part of a large pagan temple in Edessa. This temple was built in the time of Seleucus near a water spring in the Western section of the city. This temple was decorated and also stood on pillars made of marble. Abgar the King, as well as the citizens of Edessa, attended the services held by 'Addai and received the holy communion. Afterwards, this temple was called the Temple of the Savior" (49). Another Nestorian writer, Bishop Solomon of Basra (c. 1222), states in his Book of the Bee that "'Addai was from Paneas and he preached in Edessa in Mesopotamia in the days of Abgar" (50).
Michael the Great (d. 1199), Syrian Patriarch of Antioch, even provides us with a list of the bishops who succeeded 'Addai in Edessa. Although Burkitt cites this list to support his view, yet "because of confusions and imperfections," especially in the order of the list, he is doubtful whether Michael himself composed it (51). Kahle seems to agree with Burkitt's view on this matter (52). But closer study shows that Burkitt, not Michael, is the one who is confused, apparently due to his misreading of some of the names mentioned in the list.
Michael gives the names of the Edessan bishops in this order. 'Addai, 'Aggai, Palut, 'Abshlama, Barsmayya, Tiridit, Bozni, Shalula, 'Abda, Guriya, 'Abda, Ezni, Oshtasab and 'Aggi (53). Burkitt reads the names of the two bishops called 'Abda as "slave" and "another slave." Then he complains, "What Michael means by 'another slave' I do not know." For this and other reasons he thinks that the whole list is extremely confused (54). To be sure, 'Abda in Syriac does mean "slave," but in this list of the bishops of Edessa it is used as a proper name, analogous with the name 'Abd in Arabic. Michael must surely have known the Doctrine of 'Addai, which is assigned to the latter half of the fourth century, and quite possibly used it in compiling his list. Yet he does not mention the ordination of Palut, a disciple of 'Addai, who, according to the Doctrine of 'Addai, received the Hands of Priesthood by Serapion, patriarch of Antioch (191-211), and the omission suggests that he regarded the account of this incident as spurious. Furthermore, he lists the names of three bishops not cited in the order of bishops given by the Doctrine of 'Addai. These names may have come from other sources, about which, unfortunately, we have no information.
Despite these differences, the list compiled by Michael provides further evidence of the early establishment of Christianity in Edessa. In view of these facts, we may conclude that Christianity began in Edessa, not Adiabene, in the first half of the first century. Also, the Christian community of Edessa used a version of the Old Testament which had been translated from Hebrew and which was apparently the source of the Syriac Pshitto. It is not unlikely that this version survives in the copy of British Museum Add. 14425, which dates back to the fifth century. As for the preaching of 'Addai in Adiabene, it seems more acceptable to assume that after he healed Abgar and preached the Gospel in Edessa, 'Addai also made a wide journey of the neighboring areas, including Adiabene, where he preached the Gospel before his return to Edessa, where he died in 45.
The preceding pages show that the Doctrine of 'Addai places the use of the Old as well as the New Testaments, which it calls the "Ditonron," in the middle of the first century. William Cureton suggests that this "Ditonron" must be the Diatessaron which had been compiled by Tatian. Cureton cannot be quite correct, since the evidence that Tatian compiled the Diatessaron between A.D. 152-172 does not accord with our knowledge of the Doctrine of 'Addai, which has historical if not canonical validity (55). Burkitt suggests that the "'Addai" of the Syriac tradition, who evangelized Edessa and used the Diatessaron, and Tatian, who (according to Eusebius and Epiphanius) compiled the Diatessaron, probably in Rome, and returned to Mesopotamia before A.D. 170, are one and the same, 'Addai being Tatian's native Semitic name as Saul was the native name of St. Paul (56).
This assumption is hardly credible if the element of time is taken into consideration, for at least sixty years elapsed between the death of 'Addai and the birth of Tatian. Even if 'Addai might be identified with Tatian, still it is inconceivable that the Christian community in Edessa in the first half of the first century possessed a complete version of the Gospels which this alleged "'Addai-Tatian" used as the basis for his Diatessaron. Therefore, 'Addai and Tatian are two different persons.
Tatian, who calls himself "the Assyrian," was born about 110 A. D., probably in Adiabene. He was raised a heathen and studied the sciences of the Greeks. After a long journey into many countries he reached Rome, where Justin the martyr converted him to Christianity. Tatian returned to Mesopotamia, probably to Edessa, about A.D. 172 and began to promulgate his heretical teachings (57). He is said to have died in A.D. 180 or shortly thereafter (58).
It is most probable that the word "Ditonron," mentioned in the Doctrine of 'Addai, is a later interpolation. However, the fact remains that the early church of Edessa must have relied on the oral tradition of the Gospel, or probably used a single Gospel at least until the middle of the first century.
William Wright is of the opinion that a Syriac version of the Gospels, along with other parts of the New Testament, must have existed in the second century, and that it was probably the source from which Tatian compiled his Diatessaron (59). Even if such a version existed and was in use before the Diatessaron, it was forced into the background when the Diatessaron gained great popularity in the early Syrian church. Aphrahat quoted it, and St. Ephraim wrote a commentary upon it which until recently survived only in an Armenian version (60). Other sources erroneously attribute a translation of the separate Gospels to Palut, an early bishop of Edessa (61). The Diatessaron, however, remained in use until Rabula, bishop of Edessa (411-435) ordered that versions of the separate Gospels should be used in its place.
Theodore of Cyrrhus (423-457), we are told, subsequently destroyed more than two hundred copies of the Diatessaron. As a result, no Syriac version of the Diatessaron has survived, except for a few passages cited by Yeshu' Dad, bishop of Haditha, in his commentary on the Gospels (62).
Besides the fragments of the Diatessaron, we have later Syriac versions of the separate Gospels which were closely associated with it. Of these Gospels, which were probably translated into Syriac about A.D. 200, only two survive. The first of these is the Curetonian (early fifth century), so called after William Cureton, who discovered it and published it in 1858 (63). The other one is the Sinaitic palimpsest (fourth century), discovered by Agnes Smith Lewis in the Convent of St. Catherine in Mount Sinai in 1892, and published in 1894 (64). Although the readings of the two versions differ, both were influenced by the Diatessaron.
In the first quarter of the fifth century, Rabula undertook the revision of the text of the Separate Gospels according to the original Greek. Soon this revised version was authorized by the church and began to supersede the Diatessaron. This version contained the four Gospels, the Acts, three general epistles (James I, Peter I, John I) and fourteen epistles of St. Paul (65).
This version of the New Testament underwent a series of later revisions. The first one was made by Philoxenus of Mabug, assisted by the chorepiscopus Polycarp. According to William Wright, Philoxenus and Polycarp produced a "literal translation of the whole Bible in the year 502" (66), and soon this version became the standard work of the day. In the year 616-617 Paul, bishop of Tal Mawzalt, translated into Syriac the Hexapla text of Origen by order of the Patriarch Athanasius I. This version was highly esteemed by the Syrian writers, especially Bar Hebraeus, who quoted it and preferred it to the Pshitto of the New Testament (67). In 616 the New Testament of Philoxenus of Mabug was revised by Thomas of Harolea (Tuma al-Harqali) at Alexandria. In addition to the Canonical Books of the Pshitto, the Hardean version contained the four shorter epistles (68). Finally, Jacob of Edessa, while in retirement at the monastery of Tal 'Adda (704-705) undertook the revision of the text of the Pshitto with the help of the Greek version. Of this version five copies survive, some of which were transcribed in the year 719-720. This translation, however, never gained popularity in church circles (69).
Christianity, as we saw, began not in Adiabene, but in Edessa, and the Christian community there was the first to use the Syriac version of the Old Testament translated from the Hebrew. As the capital of the small Syrian principality, called by the natives "'Urhoi" or "Callirrhoe" ("She with the beautiful waters"), Edessa was destined to become not only the center of Christianity, but the center of literature in Mesopotamia (70). Being part of the Church of Antioch, under the jurisdiction of its Patriarchal See, the famous school of Edessa was the place where the Syriac-speaking Fathers of the fifth century initiated the great task of translating the theological writings of the Greek Fathers as well as works of Peripatetic philosophy, into Syriac. This period boasted great writers, poets, and philosophers, including Bar Daysan, Aphrahat (the Persian Sage), St. Ephraim and many others.
Perhaps the most celebrated of those men whose literary works and religious views had great impact on Syriac Literature were Bar Daysan (154-222) (71) and St. Ephraim (d. 373), "the Prophet of the Syrians." Although they had in common an unsurpassed knowledge of their native Syriac tongue, their religious views were diametrically opposed.
From the same period as the oldest Syriac text of the Holy Bible, we have the dialogue On Fate between Bar Daysan and his disciples. This Syriac philosophical treatise, which was discovered, translated into English, and published by William Cureton in 1855 presents a profane attitude rather than the religious outlook characteristic of Syriac literature. According to Eusebius, Jerome, Theodoretus and Epiphanius the title of this dialogue was On Fate, but the Syriac manuscript edited by Cureton gives the title as "The Book of the Laws of the Countries" (72). To be sure, the dialogue contains a discussion of destiny, as well as of the different customs and laws of the nations known at that time. Yet in all probability the Syriac title is more correct, since it was presumably the author's original title. Although the title On Fate may well have been appended by the later Greek writers who alluded to this dialogue, this writer accepts that title as better known to Western scholars. We should also note here the opinion of some critics, that the dialogue On Fate was not written by Bar Daysan, but was retold by one of his disciples, Philip. Bar Daysan, however, is the main speaker and takes a leading part in the conversation.
For our information on Bar Daysan we are indebted to Eusebius, the celebrated church historian of the fourth century, and to Michael the Great, the Syrian Patriarch of Antioch (d. 1199). Both authors give different accounts about Bar Daysan, but they agree on one point: he was a heretic. Burkitt, who regards the Chronicle of Michael the Great as "a serious source of historical information in those passages where there is a good reason to believe that Michael and his predecessors have all copied faithfully from a much older source," accuses him of being ignorant and prejudiced in his account of Bar Daysan (73). His main argument is that the philosophy of a free thinker like Bar Daysan could not be easily packed into the compendiums of annallists, and that in later ages Bar Daysan was considered a great heretic and schismatic (74).
But this argument can hardly be justified. If Michael has copied faithfully from a much older source, then there is no reason to discredit his account concerning Bar Daysan. As a matter of fact, non-Syrian writers since the beginning of the fourth century recognized Bar Daysan as a heretic. According to Eusebius, he was a man of great abilities and a powerful disputant in the Syriac tongue. He also composed treatises against Marcion and others who had heretical ideas, among them his treatise On Fate, addressed to a certain Antonius (75). These treatises were translated into Greek by one of Bar Daysan's friends. Bar Daysan was also a powerful speaker, and therefore capable of attracting many followers. Yet, as Eusebius relates, although Bar Daysan was a disciple of the heretic Valentinus, he afterwards rejected most of his fiction and apparently returned to his own correct opinion. But he did not entirely wipe away the filth of his old heresy (76).
In the dialogue On Fate, the disciples of Bar Daysan inquire about the cause of evil, particularly moral evil, in this world, and ask, "Why did not God create us so that we should not sin and be guilty?" Bar Daysan begins by defending the free will of man, asserting that God meant him to be free and even made him equal with the angels. Man, therefore, is not like the moon, the stars, and other spheres, which have no free will of their own, but are subjected to fixed rules and ordinances which they must follow. For the sun, he argues, cannot defy the laws of nature by refusing to rise, or the stars by refusing to shine. However, the greater goodness of God to man has manifested itself in the gift of free will, which is not possessed by these elements, and by which man can justify and govern himself. God, therefore, did not mean to create man as an instrument without will or freedom.
Bar Daysan goes on to explain that the moral commandments or principles given to man are not hard to execute, as one of his disciples, Awida, had thought. He remarks that men are not asked to do anything which they are unable to do.
For the moral principles contained in the commandments, such as not to steal or to commit adultery, are subject to the mind of man, and are associated not with the power of the body, but with the will of the soul. Bar Daysan also explains that to do good is easier than to avoid evil, for good is man's own, and hence man feels happy when he does good. Furthermore, by doing good, man pleases his conscience. Evil, on the other hand, is a disturbance of the sound nature of man. Those who do wrong are agitated and troubled. Thus, men are different because they act differently. If all men acted or thought the same way, then they would be governed by a same nature; they would have no free will. Because men are free, they are to be held responsible for their acts.
Bar Daysan also discusses the ideas of astronomers, whom he calls 'Chaldeans,' concerning the decree of Fortune by which men are governed. These Chaldeans attributed to the influence of the stars all the actions of men, good or bad, as well as all the circumstances that befell them, such as sickness or health, and wealth or poverty. Other people, Bar Daysan maintains, think that this belief of the Chaldeans is fallacious. For these people, Fortune does not exist, but is merely an empty name. In the opinion of these people, things great or small, as well as physical defects and human faults, happen to man by chance. Still others maintain that all bad things that happen to men are nothing but punishments inflicted upon them by God.
After discussing these beliefs, Bar Daysan presents his own opinion. He acknowledges that men are influenced by nature equally, by Fortune differently, and by their free will each as he wishes. Many things in life are subject to the laws of nature, including physical growth, generation, old age, eating, drinking, etc. These things are not influenced by Fortune. When the operations of nature are fulfilled, however, then Fortune interferes to influence things. Therefore, both physical perfection and deformity are products of Fortune. Similarly, all abominations, filth, indecency, and extravagance, and the like, are influenced by Fortune. Whenever the cause of nature or that of the stars becomes disturbed, Fortune, to be sure, causes this disturbance. As Fortune influences nature, it is in turn influenced by the free will of men. Behind these elements stands God, who ordained how life was to be and who alone determined the perfection of all His creation. But Fortune influences only part of the lives of men, since they are enabled by the gift of free will to act as they find fitting. As a result of this free will, men in different places have established different laws of their governance. Bar Daysan then proceeds to discuss these laws.
Taken with the ideas in the second part of the dialogue, this summary of his philosophy presents Bar Daysan as agnostic, believing in one Almighty God who has created the world and who is the support of all His creatures. God first created the four basic elements, fire, water, light and darkness, and determined for each of them a certain amount of freedom. Each of these elements is endowed with generative and destructive powers. Acting in His own wisdom, then, God allowed evil in this world, but will create a new world free from evil. He created not only man, but the angels to whom He granted an equally free will. Man is composed of mind, soul, and body; all things concerning his life, death, happiness, unhappiness, richness, poverty, are influenced by the stars.
The dialogue On Fate reveals Bar Daysan as a man of exceptional talents, very well-read, especially in the science of the Chaldeans. Likewise, we see that Bar Daysan knew how to think for himself, unhampered by the religious restrictions of his time. He did not follow the idea of any established school of his time, but rather established his own school. We are informed that he headed a school in Edessa, and that some of the Greek scholars who visited this school observed that the young Bar Daysan represented most appropriately the Christian culture (77). Bar Daysan's teaching and poetry, which were very popular in Edessa, must have had a great influence on the Syrians.
In fact, this surviving treatise On Fate and the life of its author attest to the fact that the Syrian mind was no less imaginative or competent than the Greek mind. As a philosopher and a free thinker, Bar Daysan may be judged on his merits. To the Syrians of the third century, however, his philosophy did not serve to advocate the cause of Christianity or that of the Church. His ideas must have threatened the well-being of the Church, which St. Ephraim later felt constrained to defend. At the tine of Bar Daysan, the Church, more concerned with salvation, had no use for his philosophy.
The Syrian Church, then, knew Bar Daysan as a heretic following Valentinus, who preached Dualism, while in the dialogue On Fate he appears as a believer in Christ. He may have expressed his belief in Christ after rejecting his heresy. Yet the Syrian Church in the fourth century made every effort to suppress his heretical ideas, and, as we shall see, St. Ephraim was the bitterest opponent of Bar Daysan's heresy.
According to St. Ephraim, "Bar Daysan wrote madrashe (metrical hymns) and provided them with tunes. He composed Psalms and put them into metrical forms, arranging the words by means of measures and balances. In these songs, Bar Daysan offered to the guileless, bitter things in sweet guise, in order that, though feeble, they might not choose wholesome food. He sought to emulate David, to deck himself out in his graces, that, like him, he might be exalted; one hundred and fifty Psalms did he likewise compose. His truth he forsook, my brethren, while imitating his number" (78).
This statement provides little information about the specific nature of his heresy. Likewise, St. Ephraim's fifty-fifth hymn against heresies, does not quote from Bar Daysan's verse extensively enough to give us an insight as to the nature of his beliefs. St. Ephraim did not refute the ideas of Bar Daysan one by one, but merely extracted certain passages and formulated metrical refutations of them.
Bar Daysan, a powerful poet, masterful in his choice of words, used his metrical talents to propagate false doctrines. By setting his metrical compositions to charming tunes, he made them a more powerful instrument for moulding the popular mind, which was thoroughly amenable to musical verse. These songs remained popular until the fourth century, when St. Ephraim, intending to fight Bar Daysan's heresy, drew upon his own poetic ability to defend the truth, employing the same meters as Bar Daysan. Thus the songs of Bar Daysan lost their popularity, were neglected, and finally were lost (79).
Michael the Great (d. 1199) gives us a clearer picture of Bar Daysan's heresy. He relates that "Bar Daysan says that there are three chief Natures and four Existences, which are reason, power, understanding and knowledge. The four powers are Fire and Water and Light and Spirit (Wind), and from these come the other existences of the world, 360 in number. Bar Daysan also says that He who spoke with Moses and the prophets was the Chief of Angels, and not God himself; and that our Lord was clothed with the body of an angel, and from Mary was clothed the shining Soul, which thus took form and body. Furthermore, the Upper Powers gave man his soul, the Lower Powers gave him the limbs, the Sun gave him the brain and the Moon and Planets gave him the other parts" (80).
According to Bar Hebraeus, Bar Daysan called the Sun the "Father of Life," and the Moon the "Mother of Life" and declared that at the beginning of each month the Mother of Life takes off her dress, which is light, and cohabits with the Father of Life and gives birth to children to increase and enrich the population of the Lower World" (81). Whether the ideas contained in these teachings are heretical or not, the fact remains that Bar Daysan confused many pagan teachings with his Christian belief, and the Church could not tolerate this confusion. If Bar Daysan had been an Orthodox Christian, the early Fathers of the Syrian Church would never have branded him as a heretic. Rubens Duval is correct in concluding that it is difficult to deny the heresy of Bar Daysan, according to the testimonies of the ancient fathers of the church and their refutation of it (82).
In addition to the dialogue On Fate, Bar Daysan composed many other works, which Ibn al-Nadim lists in his Kitab al-Fihrist, and he may have written the history of Armenia, which he intended to evangelize (83). The complete loss of these books is to be regretted.
The teachings of Bar Daysan carried on by his disciples after his death in 222, were popular even after the emergence of Islam and influenced the theological doctrine of al-Rafida sect. Some Muslim learned men even used the name of Bar Daysan as a nickname, as did Abu Shakir al-Daysani, and some also wrote under the name al-Daysaniyya, derived from Bar Daysan (84).
Probably the most celebrated of all the Syrian learned men and Fathers of the church is St. Ephraim, commonly known as Ephraim Syrus (The Syrian). St. Ephraim was born at Nisibin about 303 A. D., to Christian parents. There he studied under the pious bishop Jacob, who is said to have taken young Ephraim with him to the Council of Nicaea (325). About this year, Bishop Jacob appointed Ephraim a teacher at the school of Nisibin, which he had established.
Ephraim served in this school under its succeeding principals, among them Baboy, Walgash and Abraham, whom he praised in his early poetry. He remained in his teaching position here for thirty-eight years, until 363, when the city of Nisibin was occupied by the Persians. With the demise of the school of Nisibin in this year, Ephraim and other members of the faculty withdrew and established the school of Edessa, also called the "Persian school" because its teachers had come from the area under Persian domination (85). Ephraim died in 373 A.D.
St. Ephraim, the most prolific figure in Syriac literature, achieved greater distinction as a poet than as a prose writer. The sheer bulk of his poetic output, the variety of topics he treated, the different meters he used with apparent facility, and above all, the sincerity and unpretentious spirit which pervade his compositions make him indisputably the Syrian poet par excellence.
St. Ephraim must have composed poetry at an early age when he lived at Nisibin, probably after reading the poetry of Bar Daysan and his son Harmonius, who, like his father, was a great poet. He is said have composed twenty-one poems on Nisibin and the calamities which befell that city after its occupation by the Persians. After he moved Edessa, he added many other lines to these compositions, bringing the total to seventy-three poems. These poems were edited and published by Gustav Bickell in 1866, under the title Carmina Nisibena (86).
Most of Ephraim's poems were composed in his favorite seven-syllabic meter, which later carried his name (the "Ephraimite" meter). A great number of his madrashe were also composed in this meter, although he used a variety of other meters as well. These madrashe generally are songs of variable strophic structure, usually followed by an 'Unith (refrain), and intended to be sung by an alternating choir. St. Ephraim composed madrashe against the heresies of Marcion, Mani, Bar Daysan and the Arians. Other madrashe dealt with a variety of religious and polemical themes.
Another type of hymn composed by St. Ephraim is the 'maymar, which is sharply distinguished from the madrashe. In effect, the 'maymar is a homily, much more limited in strophic structure, most often containing four or six verses of equal length, to be recited by a single performer.
The prose writing of St. Ephraim consists of his commentaries on Genesis and part of Exodus. His commentaries on the Diatessaron and on the Pauline epistles survive only in the Armenian language. Other major prose works are his two discourses against early heresies (addressed to Hyppatius and Domnus), two tracts on the Most High, and an epistle to the monks who dwelt in the mountains (87). Many other prose writings have been erroneously attributed to him.
St. Ephraim represents an age in which the Syrians wielded tremendous spiritual influence as the propagators and defenders of Christianity against pagan and heretical ideas. Early Church Fathers, whether Greeks, Syrians, or Romans, shared the common cause of preserving their Christian faith. To this end they began to write history, compose religious hymns, and interpret the Holy Scriptures; to this end, too, St. Ephraim directed his voluminous poetical writings. To his countrymen, St. Ephraim was the exemplar of Christian zeal, wisdom and eloquence. To the contemporary Greek Fathers of the church, he was the "Mental Euphrates of the Church, from whom the whole company of believers, being watered, produced a hundredfold the fruit of faith; and the fertile vine of God, putting forth the fruits of the sweet clusters of doctrine, and refreshing the children of the church with the fullness of divine love" (88).
St. Ephraim and his works reflect the struggles of a spiritual being against a predominantly pagan world. He was more than a poet portraying the events of his time, or trying to make a living by praising men. He was, as his fellow-men called him, "the Prophet of the Syrians," "the Sun of the Syrians," "the Harp of the Holy Spirit" and "Ephraim the Great" (89). In fact, his poems were so much loved and venerated that most of them became part of the church rituals in his lifetime. It is in this particular function that the works of St. Ephraim should be studied and evaluated.
St. Ephraim and his works have become the target of much criticism by some contemporary Western writers. Burkitt, who gives a rather loose paraphrase of Bar Daysan's treatise On Fate in his Early Eastern Christianity, attempts to present St. Ephraim as "spiteful" toward Bar Daysan. While praising Bar Daysan's ideas, he states that they "give a true picture of Bar Daysan and his disciples more than the spiteful polemics of St. Ephraim or the unintelligently repeated catchwords" (90). Burkitt also expresses his regret that the church considered Bar Daysan a heretic. Martin Sprengling goes a step further: "clearly and flagrantly, now wilfully, more often stupidly, Ephraim misunderstood Bardaisan" (91).
St. Ephraim need not be defended against such groundless accusations and severe judgments. The long heroic spiritual record of the celebrated Father of the early church sufficiently justifies the defense of his faith and church against heresies. These writers more appropriately should have investigated the causes which motivated St. Ephraim to retaliate against the heretical hymns of Bar Daysan by composing hymns embodying the true Christian belief. In this regard we may ask why St. Ephraim took so much pain and effort to refute the teachings of Bar Daysan. Surely St. Ephraim who followed Bar Daysan by more than a century, was bitter not against the person of Bar Daysan, but against his teachings, which must have contained heretical views. It must also be remembered that the treatise On Fate, which contains pagan ideas, does not alone constitute a criterion for Bar Daysan's orthodoxy or heterodoxy; his numerous songs, which have been lost, would be a better basis for judgment.
The poetry of St. Ephraim also has been criticized. Burkitt thinks that St. Ephraim is repetitious, and that his style is allusive and unnatural. He also maintains that while St. Ephraim's thought may seem deep and subtle, when unraveled it is generally seen to be commonplace (92). Commenting on an excerpt from St. Ephraim's lengthy poem on Nisibin as characteristic of his poetry, Burkitt states, "I can see no merit either of simplicity or of subtlety in the choice of words; the main thought... is set forth in the most unattractive fashion" (93). Burkitt questions not only St. Ephraim's poetical faculty, but also his theology and Christology. In brief, he depicts St. Ephraim in the most unfavorable manner.
Rubens Duval seems to be more fair and understanding of St. Ephraim's poetical achievement. After stating that St. Ephraim's prolixity may be found annoying, he adds that "we should not condemn it without taking into account the taste of the Syrians, who loved to repeat and develop the same thought. The Syrians saw excellence where we find fault" (94).
Western commentators are at some disadvantage in assessing the literature of the early Syrian church. Extreme opinions are likely to reflect a certain cultural remoteness which would likely render the conclusions of these writers vulnerable. Indeed, it requires more than the ability to read Syriac in order to understand and appreciate the spirit, style, and themes of works by men of the stature of St. Ephraim. One must be in tune with the spirit of the age before he is in a position to praise or condemn the poetry or the ideas it contains.
The patristic literature of the early Syrian church reflects the spirit and the circumstances of the time in which it was composed. The fact that this literature was written in Syriac heightened its appeal to the people who spoke that language. While it is true that much of the literary production of the Fathers of the church was recondite, yet their works will always remain a monument of sanctified genius and a source of the history of the early church.
Unlike most of this patristic literature, the writings of St. Ephraim were composed for a popular audience. The metrical form of the homilies of St. Ephraim proves that they were meant to be more pleasant to the ear and closer to the heart. The Syrian audience of the fourth century undoubtedly had a strong liking for poetry, and it is therefore not difficult to understand how Ephraim captured the attention of the people, as Bar Daysan had done a century earlier. Indeed, poetry was the sharpest weapon St. Ephraim could have used to fight the heretical teachings of Bar Daysan. His prolixity seems to have enchanted, rather than annoyed his audience, for the Syrian mind was receptive and attentive to religious poetry. Even in the present time, when Syriac is neither spoken nor understood by the Arabic-speaking Syrians (mainly concentrated in Iraq), Syrian worshippers delightedly listen for hours to the hymns composed by St. Ephraim.
St. Ephraim was first and foremost a poet, not a theologian. The very few treatises where he expresses some theological ideas are no sufficient basis for regarding him as a theologian, much less for attempting to derive from his teachings some kind of systematic theology. Perhaps the highest qualities of this "Prophet of the Syrians" are his close union with mankind and his deep understanding of the sentiment of his audience, who acknowledged his spiritual control over them. "His poems," writes Henry Burgess, "come home to the heart by their recognition of the events of everyday life, and by their constant reference to the joys and sorrows which are identified with our humanity. Many of them indeed are polemical, but even those abound with literary qualities which can make controversy pleasing. We are mistaken if his poems are not found to vibrate in unison with some of the most concealed and delicate chords of the heart" (95).
The next phase of Syriac Literature was distinguished by the translation of Greek philosophy and religious writings into Syriac. This translation movement, which began in the middle of the fifth century and extended into the tenth century, is of the highest importance in the intellectual history of the ancient Middle East. The Syrians, who, through their trade with the West, had served as agents of civilization, now assumed a similar role in spreading the Greek philosophy and sciences (96). Translations were first made from Greek into Syriac, but after the Arab conquest of Syria and Persia, a great deal of translation was done from Syrian and the original Greek into Arabic. Thus the Syrians became the masters of the Arabs. Indeed, asserts Renan, "The Arabs saw nothing in philosophy except through the Syrians" (97).
According to Jurji Zaydan, the Syrians were an active and intelligent people who devoted themselves to learning whenever they were left unharassed by conquerors and persecutors (98). In Mesopotamia they had more than fifty schools, of which the school of Edessa was most famous. It was here that the Syrians initiated the translation and study of Peripatetic philosophy (99).
The influence of Greek culture on Syria should not be ignored, but it has been greatly exaggerated by some writers. Ernest Renan, for example, attempts to depict Syria from the time of Alexander the Great as a province completely Hellenized in its ways of life and thought. He regards the literature of Syria as more Greek than Syriac and even defends the theory that Jesus and His disciples spoke Greek rather than Aramaic (100). With respect to Peripatetic philosophy, Renan observes that the Syrians did not choose Aristotle, but rather received him from the Greeks. He is thus led to believe that "there is an unbroken succession from the Alexandrian School to the Syrians, and from the Syrians to the Arabs" (101).
The fallacy in Renan's theory is that he overestimates the influence of Greek centers of learning such as Alexandria and Antioch on Syrian society, civilization and culture in the fifth century. While Alexandria and Antioch were truly Greek-speaking cities, their influence was predominant only in the coastal towns of Syria. Their effect on the thinking and way of life of the inhabitants of the interior regions was insignificant. This is demonstrated by the fact that when the Arabs occupied Syria, they did not find a Greek-speaking or even grecized population, but a Syriac-speaking population with Syrian customs.
It is true that some of the Syrian and Palestinian intellectuals of this period, such as Zacharias of Mytilene and others, studied at Beirut. Antioch or Alexandria and wrote in Greek; yet there was also a host of writers whose only literary medium was Syriac. Indeed, the Syrians seem to have had for some time a bilingual culture. Renan appears not to recognize that they had long been acquainted with the Greeks' language and learning, not from their studies at Alexandria, but through the direct influence of Hellenistic colonization during the Seleucid period (102).
For example, the letter of Mara Bar Saraphion to his son, which dates back to the second century, is obviously of a Stoic character, and its author appears to be quite familiar with Greek knowledge as well as with the Greek philosophers. Mara writes that "man should rejoice in his prosperity like Polycrates, or in his valor like Achilles...or in his skill like Archimedes, or in his wisdom like Socrates, or in his learning like Pythagoras" (103). Mara also questions the death of Socrates and the burning of Pythagoras by the people of Samos. He states that "Socrates is not dead because of Plato; neither Pythagoras because of the statue of Juno" (104). Additional traces of direct Greek influence are evident in the dialogue On Fate of Bar Daysan.
At the same time, Renan's theory of an unbroken succession from the Alexandrians to the Syrians and from the Syrians to the Arabs appears doubtful, or at least not quite clear. Dr. Max Meyerhof, who has brilliantly analyzed the transmission of Greek knowledge from Alexandria to Baghdad, thinks that the evidence of direct transmission has been lacking to scholars until this day (105). After explaining that the school of Alexandria was still in existence when the Arabs conquered Egypt, and that it may well have played a role in transmitting science to the Arabs, Meyerhof rightly observes that "our knowledge of the intellectual life at the school of Alexandria after the fifth century A.D. is, generally speaking, little and worthless" (106). Meyerhof also discusses the Arabic historical sources which provide information about the school of Alexandria, but cautions that they contain numerous errors and often confuse historical events. Even Hunayn b. Ishaq and his son Ishaq knew little, if anything, of what had been at Alexandria two or three centuries earlier. The only information Hunayn gives is that there were study rings at Alexandria, where a group of pupils might attend the "school" of a tutor to study medicine. So more than one of these private schools existed at Alexandria before the Arab conquest, but there is no evidence that Peripatetic philosophy was taught at Alexandria at that time. All that is certain is that, after embracing Christianity, the Alexandrian Greeks began to apply philosophy to religion, with the result that neo-Platonic and neo-Pythagorean ideas arose and became predominant (107). For the translation and transmission of Greek philosophy and science, one must look not to Alexandria and Antioch, but to Edessa, Nisibin, Ras'Ayn and Qinnesrin.
The school of Edessa was no doubt the center of study of Syriac and Greek. Virtually nothing is known about the most ancient Syrian translators, but the oldest of the Edessene manuscripts, which have survived in the British Museum MS. 12150 (dated towards the end of A.D. 412), provide information about some translations from Greek into Syriac. This MS contains the Recognitions of Clement, the Discourses of Titus of Bosra against the Manichees, the Theophania ("Divine Manifestation of our Lord") by Eusebius, and his History of the Confessors in Palestine (108). The first Syrian translator known to us is Mana of Beth Hardasher in Persia, a resident at Edessa in the earlier part of the fifth century. Mana, whom Simon of Beth Arsham sarcastically nicknames "The Drinker of Ashes," devoted much of his time to translating the Greek commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), and also translated a number of books from Persian into Syriac. Mana's work was later carried on by Nestorian members of the school of Edessa, like Kumi, who translated other works by Theodore of Mopsuestia (109). Other Greek commentaries by Gregorius Nazianzen, Gregorius of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and Basilius were translated into Syriac by the students of the school of Edessa.
It was in the first half of the fifth century that Peripatetic philosophy was revived because of the development of a new dogma which split the Syrian church forever into two hostile camps. This was the heresy of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople (428-431), himself a Syrian from Marash (Germanicia) . This heresy, which ascribed to Christ two separate natures as well as two wills and persons, was not, to be sure, first propagated by Nestorius. In fact, he was preceded by Theodore of Tarsus and his disciple Theodore of Mopsuestia, who held the same heretical views, and who both taught at the school of Antioch (110). Nestorius, however, was the one who adopted and promoted this heresy, adding to it his rejection of the epithet "Theotokos," applied to the Virgin Mary. Nestorius was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (431), but his heresy found supporters among the students of the school of Edessa, who seem to have been fascinated by his teaching. This would explain why Nestorius' adherents endeavored to translate the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia into Syriac, and why they devoted themselves to the study of Aristotle. According to Renan, these Nestorians, who were "seduced from the Orthodox faith, strove to apply indiscriminately the logic of Aristotle in elucidating the teachings of Christ" (111). The Nestorians, however, are to be regarded as a division of the Syrian church, and Renan is incorrect in terming them "the descendants of the Peripatetic school" (112).
The Nestorians in Edessa were bitterly opposed by Rabula, bishop of Edessa (d. 435), who in defense of the Orthodox faith expelled the Nestorians (432) and ordered the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia burned (113). After his death, Rabula was succeeded by the Nestorian Bishop Hiba (Ibas), who, as a follower and translator of Theodore of Mopsuestia, had gained the title of "The Interpreter" (114). At the second Council of Ephesus (449), Hiba was condemned for espousing the Nestorian heresy, but he was reinstated at the Council of Chalcedon two years later and occupied the episcopal see of Edessa until October, 457 (115). The school of Edessa, however, never recovered from the great Nestorian schism and was finally closed down by the order of the emperor Zeno in 459 A.D.
The Nestorians, then, were first to begin translating the writings of Aristotle. Prominent among them was Probus (in Syriac, Prophas), who is said to have been the archiater [chief physician] and archdeacon of Antioch (116).
Probus' exact dates are not known, although Abd Yeshu, a prominent Nestorian historian, makes him contemporary with Hiba and Kuma (Cumas) and names him as their collaborator in translating the works of Theodore of Mopsuestia and some of the writings of Aristotle. The British Museum MS. 14660 contains the commentary of Probus on Aristotle's De Interpretatione, in five sections, imperfect at the beginning. He is also credited with having translated and commented upon other parts of the Organon and the Isagoge of Porphyry (117). Renan asserts that Probus does not merely restate Aristotle's ideas, but actually explains them. In general, however, very little is known about the Nestorians' translations of Peripatetic philosophy during this period. Following the great division of the Syrian Church the Nestorians found refuge in Persia, where Narsay and other learned men established the great school of Nisibin.
Better known during this period is Sergius of Ras 'Ayn, who died at Constantinople about 536 A.D. Sergius, who is said to have studied at Alexandria, achieved great fame among the Eastern and Western Syrians as a physician and a student of Aristotle. His translations covered the whole range of theology, ethics, mysticism, physics, medicine, and philosophy. Although Renan seeks to prove that the Nestorians preceded the Orthodox Syrians in translating Aristotle, he admits that among the "Jacobites," Sergius of Ras 'Ayn "is unanimously called the one who first brought Aristotle into the Syriac language" (118), and describes him as the best of all the Syriac translators (119). Victor Ryssel, who has carefully studied the various versions of Sergius' translation of Aristotle's Peri Kosmou, and compared them with the Greek texts, thinks that Sergius expresses faithfully the thought of the author. He also considers this translation particularly skillful, concluding that Sergius knew how to render the sense as well as the details of the original Greek (120). This judgment seems to refute the statement of Ibn Abi Usaybia that Sergius' translation was mediocre, and that Hunayn b. Ishaq corrected him (121).
Another well-known Syrian philosopher is Ahudeme (d. 575), metropolitan of the East. He wrote seven philosophical books the most important of which are The Book of Definitions, Religious Liberty, and two short treatises entitled Man as a Microcosm and Refutation of the Ideas of Philosophers. In most of his writings Ahudeme appears as a critical and original writer. The vast knowledge which he acquired while fulfilling his many responsibilities as an indefatigable missionary is most surprising, according to Behnam (122).
The study of philosophy was further carried on by the school of the monastery of Qinnesrin (The Eagles Nest), located on the Euphrates opposite Europos (Jerabis). This monastery was founded by John of Aphtonya (d. 538), who had escaped the persecution of the emperor Justinian. Among the prominent students of Quinesrin were Thomas of Harclea (d. 627); his disciple Athanasius of Balad (d. 686) who translated the Isagoge and many Greek religious writings; Severus Sabukht (d. 667); and the celebrated divine poet and writer, Jacob of Edessa (d. 708).
Of Sabukht's writings there survive a treatise on the syllogisms in the Analytics Priora of Aristotle, and a commentary on the De Interpretatione. In addition, we possess his letters to Ithalaha of Mosul on certain terms in the De Interpretatione, and those addressed to the periodeutes Yunan on some points in the logic of Aristotle. Sabukht also composed a treatise on the astrolabe (123).
In addition to the writing and translation of books of philosophy, Syriac Literature during this period covered a wide range of topics. Theology, religious poetry, and commenaries on the Scriptures were perhaps the most extensively treated subjects. Jacob of Saruj (d. 521), Philoxenus of Mabug (d. 523), Paul of Callinicus (d. 528), Mara of Amid (d. 529), Paul of Talla (d. 617), John of the Sedras (d. 648), and Marutha of Takrit (d. 649), stand as the most eminent Syrian writers and poets.
The Syrians also concerned themselves with the study and practice of medicine. Sergius of Ras 'Ayn has already been mentioned as an outstanding translator of medical as well as philosophical books. Indeed, medicine was taught along with philosophy in the Syrian schools. Famous among these was the school of Gundishapor, established in the time of Khosru Anushirwan (521-579), which became the main center of the study of medicine and philosophy on Persian territory. It was, moreover, the primary source of court physicians for Caliphs of Baghdad in a later age.
The Syrians did not write much about natural history, for their interest was directed to religious studies. However, they translated a book on physiology from Greek. The anonymous writer of this book, probably composed at Alexandria in the first half of the second century appears to have relied on the knowledge of natural history in the pre-Christian era. Many additions were made to this book, which may have some relationship with the Hexameron of St. Basil. Bar Bahlul [10th century] is said to have used a Nestorian version which, in addition to the original chapters, contained a section on geography and natural objects, such as trees and stones (124).
The Syrians also translated a book on agriculture (Geoponica), a copy of which survives in the British Museum MS. 14662. The original copy of this treatise contained fourteen chapters, to which were later added two more, dealing with animal husbandry and the cultivation of different plants (125).
The writing of history constitutes an essential part of Syriac Literature during this period. Syrian historians should be considered trustworthy for having mainly restricted themselves to events that they themselves witnessed. Early writings, such as the Doctrine of 'Addai and the story of King Abgar, shed light on the beginnings of Christianity in Edessa, even though many interpolations in their texts were made afterwards. However, since these documents were preserved at the royal archives of Edessa (as has been attested by Eusebius, who had personally examined and translated them), they should in all probability be regarded as authentic historical evidence.
One of the earliest of these Syriac historical writings, which contained chronicles of the Persian and Byzantine empires, was the Acts of Martyrs. As these martyrs lived in both Persian and Byzantine territory, the chronicles of their martyrdom contain valuable descriptions of the political and administrative conditions of the two empires. Furthermore, these chronicles specify the exact dates on which the historical events they record took place. Of these writings, there survive the acts of Sharbil, who had been a high priest of idols and was converted to Christianity; the martyrdom of Barsmayya, bishop of Edessa; and the martyrdoms of Habib the deacon, Shamuna and Guriyya (126).
Besides the Acts of Martyrs, Syrian writers composed biographies of their eminent men, including Rabula, bishop of Edessa; Alexius the man of God; Simon, the Stylite; John of Talla; Dioscorus, patriarch of Alexandria; and the Nestorian Catholici Mar 'Abba and Sabr Yeshu' (127).
In the writing of general history, which did not begin until the sixth century or shortly earlier, the Syrians were influenced by their Greek contemporaries. In this period appeared the history of Yeshu [Joshua] the Stylite; the famous history of John of Ephesus, who combined biography with church history in a magnificent literary style; and the history of Qura, a priest of Edessa, who gives a detailed account of the church in the time of Justinian II (565-582) (128).
Michael the Great probably relied on the last two of these in writing his Chronicle (129). Famous among the Nestorian chroniclers of this period are Mshiha Zkha and Bar-hadh-Bshabba Arbaya, who have been previously cited. Apart from these original Syriac writings, Greek histories like those of Eusebius and Zacharias Rhetor were translated into Syriac.
This era also witnessed the beginning of Syrian mysticism and mystical writings. Available evidence indicates that the earliest work on mysticism was the Book of Hierotheos commonly attributed to the Syrian writer Stephen Bar Sudayli (d. 510). This work spread widely in Syria and continued to influence Syrian mystical ideas through the Middle Ages. The impact of this important work on Syrian writers of succeeding generations, especially on Bar Hebraeus, the most renowned Syrian mystic, was tremendous. Perhaps the most elaborate treatment of the Book of Hierotheos and the mysticism of Bar Sudayli is A. L. Forthingham, Jr's work titled Stephen Bar Sudaili The Syrian Mystic and The Book of Hierotheos (Leyden, 1886).
This period may rightly be considered the golden age of Syriac literature, filled as it is with the names of great writers, poets, theologians, historians, and translators. It was also a period in which the Syrian church was split into two hostile camps, never to meet again. Despite its obvious disadvantages of weakening the church, this rift served as an impetus to the translation of the logic of Aristotle, in which both sides found grounds for defending their doctrinal disputes. It also facilitated the conquest of Syria and Persia by the Arabs, whose domination diverted the Syrians from their destructive hostility to the beneficial and constructive task of translating the knowledge of the Greeks into Arabic. However much Renan and Wright may disdain the Syrians as a mediocre people, the Syrians made many original contributions to the culture of the Middle East, and their role as translators was absolutely essential to the preservation of ancient Greek knowledge.
Although the church was exposed to tyrannical persecution by the Byzantines and the Persians, the Syrians not only continued their literary production, but also carried the torch of the Gospel as far as Arabia in the south, and to Turkistan and China in the east.
The literature of the Nestorians in this period, unlike that of the Western Syrians, is known to us only in general terms. After the great schism of the Syrian church in the fifth century, the Nestorians lived mostly in Persian territory, far from Syria; hence, almost nothing is known about their literature. Still, the literature of the Nestorian Syrians did not surpass that of the Western Syrians. In this regard, Duval correctly observes that the Nestorians did not have prose writers or poets of as high caliber as Jacob of Saruj, Philoxenus of Mabug, Sergius of Ras 'Ayn and John of Asia (130).
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