Book Review: The Wisdom of the Pearlers Trans. and Intro. / Brian E. Colless

Posted by on Sep 11, 2011 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on Book Review: The Wisdom of the Pearlers Trans. and Intro. / Brian E. Colless

Cistercian Publications, 2008.  ISBN: 9780879073169.  ~$25
Recently there has been a great interest among the general public, and to a lesser extent, among scholars.  This book seems to be aimed more at a public audience than at an academic one.  Part of this desire stems from the popularization of Islamic origins courtesy of Ibn Warraq, Andrew Rippin, and the cheap reprints of John Wansbrough’s seminal works publish more than 30 years ago.  The Cistercian Studies series is not geared toward this goal, but does have many books that cover Syriac topics, such as Sebastian Brock’s theology-biography of Ephraim the Syrian (303-373), recent publications with original Syriac side-by-side with English, and now this.
This book is especially important because mysticism in general is hard to understand, especially something so foreign as the Syriac version.  Nevertheless, Brian Colless is our guide with an Introduction that covers more than half the book, with selections from the most famous and influential of those discussed.  Be warned: there is no Syriac in this book, only the English translations.  I bought this thinking I was getting Syriac texts, but no.  The general reader may not care in this case since it is a little known language with grammars and dictionaries running into the $100s.
In any case, this serves to introduce the topics in Syriac mysticism, the items they were concerned most about, and their development through various figures.  What is striking is that it did not start out with a fast development, and in fact, the greatest mystics were monks who lived in the 6th and 7th centuries, tapering off in the 8th and eventually disappearing almost altogether by the 13th century.  What is even more fascinating is that most of these developments had a great impact on developing Islamic theology which emerged out of Mesopotamia, and the Persian Gulf region (the same locale for the highest activity of Christian theology as well).  Also of note is the influence of Buddhism.  Colless believes there is some substance to the idea that Buddhism was the originator of Christian asceticism and the turning away from the world.  Buddhism certainly had an impact on Mani (founder of Manichaeism), and India seems to be an important place in Syriac Christianity, not just by being the destination of Judas Thomas, but also because of the mystical tradition that was already there.  In the “Song of the Pearl” the East is the centre of the poem.  This poem is part of the “Acts of Thomas” that was composed 2nd-3rd centuries and was very influential among East Syriac Christians, and Indian Christians.
Colless admits there are many topics of interest, but he chose to focus on the pearl, and the imagery of pearlers who were divers into the ocean to get them (they are from clams and are formed when something gets inside the shell, and this white substance forms around it to make it less bothersome).  This does make for an interesting read.
The book cover has a picture from a Gospel manuscript from the 13th century in Iraq.  This is appropriate since the image is the Transfiguration and gives a hint of what is in the book.  Many of the poems deal with Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Many of these ideas should be familiar to Western Latin based Christians (eg. Catholics, Protestants), and also to Eastern Orthodox (eg. Greek, Russian) since many of the foundational ideas come from saints and men who are held in high esteem by all traditions.
Dionysius the Areopagite is a case in point.  He is said to have been a companion of Paul in Acts, but the writings attributed to him were composed in the early-6th century, and survive in Syriac and Greek from that time.  These writings were very influential to the theologians in both those languages, and we know that John Damascene (d. 780) studied them.  They were translated into Latin in 858, and men such as Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus wrote commentaries on them, so we can truly see how important this set of writings was.
The anthology itself is very impressive, containing the most pertenant of passages, as well as Biblical and internal references (internal to this book where ideas are found in more than one author).  The bibliography and source list of available texts and translations is also impressive, giving an indication of how much of the tradition has been studied.  All-in-all, a must-have for those interested in foreign traditions, Eastern Christianity, and the origins of Islam.