Posted by on Feb 6, 2014 in Library | Comments Off on THE SENTENCES OF THE SYRIAC MENANDER (Third Century A. D.) T. BAARDA

“Menander “ the Sage said: …” These words introduce a collection of wisdom sayings written in the Syriac language. The purpose of the author in drawing up this anthology of maxims was to show his readers how they could best live in a world in which good and evil, misfortune and fortune are mingled in an unpredictable way. Passing through a world of this nature, people need to be provided with direction, and the author gives such guidance by means of various counsels. The work is often designated a florilegium, and this seems to be a fairly good name for the collection, whose maxims have apparently been taken from the current stream of wisdom tradition.

The exact number of sayings in the collection is not certain. In the present translation of the Florilegium, I have divided the text into 474 longer and shorter lines (including the opening and concluding lines) and abstained from any division into separate sayings. I did not wish to add another division to those already existing. J.-P. Audet counts 96, F. Schulthess 101, P. Riessler 103, and A. Baumstark no less than 153 sayings, preceding the closing line (474): “Menander has come to an end.”

The nature of the book may be adequately defined as wisdom literature in the form of practical rules for human behavior. Found in it are precepts, prohibitions, paradigms, and short characterizations of human attitudes. It does not contain a philosophical definition of wisdom, but instead a very pragmatic view of it (see II. 27-33). Wisdom is the art of living. The entire range of this practical wisdom is brought into focus: how to live with parents, children, women, brothers, and friends; how to behave while drinking or eating; how to use riches; how to deal with older people, slaves, and enemies.

It is very difficult to find a clear order in the sequence of the various counsels. This lack of system may be due to the fact that the author drew upon various sources, each with an order of its own. There are a few thematic groups of sayings, such as those on adultery and fornication (II. 45-51), on eating and drinking (II. 52-66), and on servants (11. 154-66). The short definitions at the end of the collection (II. 402-38) create the impression of having belonged to a specific source of sayings from which the author borrowed several lines. Besides this Florilegium there exists a short Epitome, which, too, is attributed to Menander. From the place of the Epitome in the manuscriptbetween extracts from Greek authors and philosophers–it is clear that the author of the manuscript considered Menander to be a Greek author, and it is obvious that he must have been thinking of the famous representative of the New Comedy in Athens (c. 300 B.C.). There is, of course, no one who entertains the notion that this writer was the actual author of the collection, but A. Baumstark has suggested that someone could have collected the various sayings from the plays of the renowned Menander . Others have compared the Florilegium with the anthologies of short sentences (monostichs) which circulated under the name of Menander long after his death. But apart from the short maxims in lines 402-38 and a few other logia in the collection, there is nothing comparable to the monostich genre. Why was the name Menander attached to our Florilegium? Was it because the collector also drew upon a source of monostichs ascribed to Menander and took the opportunity to connect this famous name with his collection of sayings?


The Syriac text which underlies the present translation of the large Florilegium was published by J, P. N. Land in 1862. His edition was based upon the famous British Museum manuscript or.Add.14.658 (987.18°), fols. 163v.-67v. It appears that Land’s text is less exact than one could have hoped for, but the corrections afforded by W. Wright ( 1863), F. Schulthess ( 1912) and J.-p Audet ( 1952) give us sufficient tools for a reconstruction of the Syriac text. The date of the manuscript is most probably the seventh century.

The Syriac text of the short Epitome has been edited by E. Sachau in his publication of profane Greek writings in Syriac translation ( 1870) .His text was based upon the British Museum manuscript Or.Add.14.614 (773.4b), more accurately that part of the manuscript which dates from the eighth or ninth century .

The younger text of the Epitome is not based upon the older text of the Florilegium but presupposes a slightly different recension of the latter, which at least in one instance seems to have preserved a better text (cf, Florilegium II. 470-73 and Epitome ll. 34-39).

Original language

The original language may have been Syriac. In that case we must assume that a Syriac-writing author collected these various maxims. His source could have been popular wisdom circulating in his environment, but the possibility should not be excluded that he made use of written collections in another language, such as Syriac, Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek.

The original language may have been other than Syriac. In that case, the author of the Syriac collection functioned as a translator. If he was a translator, one cannot totally exclude the possibility that he added some material of his own to the existing collection which he rendered into Syriac. But then what is the original language of the anthology? Is it a Hebrew wisdom text There is no decisive argument for that theory. It seems to be safer to assume, as do most scholars, that the Syriac author rendered a Greek anthology.


Since the collection consists of wisdom sayings, it is very difficult to assign a specific date to it. Wisdom, as a matter of fact, has the air of timelessness. Moreover, collections of this kind are apt to be gradually enlarged during the period of their transmission, so that even a tentative fixing of date of a logion does not necessarily mean that the whole collection must be of the same time or provenance. We may make the following observations:

a. The slight differences between the large Florilegium and the short Epitome suggest that there may have been various copies of the Florilegium in, or probably before, the seventh century.

b. The Syriac of the Florilegium seems to be of a very archaic character. This may point to the possibility that the text had already had a long history in Syriac-speaking regions.

c. The foregoing observations do not give us sufficient evidence for a more exact date of the original Syriac text. Dating it in the fourth century would be no more than a guess.

d. But even if we could date the Syriac text, this would be of little help if the text is a translation from another language. And if the work is a genuine Syriac collection, we would still have no certainty regarding the data of the potential sources which the collector drew upon.

e. If a Greek origin is assumed, there are also no clear guides for an exact dating. It is generally taken for granted that the text originated in the Roman period. Some scholars find a latest possible date in the fact that schools for gladiators gradually disappeared after Constantine due to successive imperial rules. This would imply that the advice given in lines 34-44 cannot be dated after c. 400. An earliest possible date is found in the laws of Hadrian and Antonine with respect to the treatment of slaves: The master was not permitted to kill his slave. This would imply that line 159 ought to be dated after c. 150.

From these data one can conclude that the collection is most probably a product of the third century . This may seem a reasonable conclusion, but it presupposes not only that the implications based upon the lines mentioned are valid but also that these lines are original.


There is no indication which might give us a clue as to the provenance of the FIorilegium. Therefore it is not surprising that most scholars have abstained from any discussion about its place of origin. J.-P. Audet is the only one who dares to put forward a thesis about the country of the author, whose mention of “water” in line 3 and a supposed mistranslation in line 365 are sufficient for Audet to conclude that our author is an Egyptian. His arguments are not persuasive; nevertheless, it is possible that our document comes from Egypt. But it seems safer to conclude that there is too little evidence to endorse a specific provenance.

Theological importance

Because we do not know exactly when, where, and by whom the work was written, its theological importance is diminished to a certain extent. Moreover, the fact that it is a book of wisdom sayings makes it hardly possible to systematize the author’s own convictions. For example, it is very difficult to discover a clear concept of God in the various sayings:

a. God is the Creator: He made man (361), and he is also the ultimate cause of everything that comes into existence (7).

b. God determines the space of life for everyone (391-92, cf. 449f.), and he also mingles for all both bad and good things (393). Man, however, should not complain against God for the bad things which life brings with it (453f.). Only the fear of God is able to liberate man from the evil (394-95), and at the end of life God has provided Sheol as a place of rest for men after their hard labors (47Of.).

c. God is to be praised (8) and feared (9, 123, 394). He hates the adulterer (47f.), the bad servant (161), the evil man (168), impurity and prodigality (352). The sinner who offends his parents can expect only God’s punishment (22-23). The fear of God frees one from evil (394-95).

d. God shall not cast down forever or humiliate eternally (116f.); he remains the God to whom one can pray (39, 202) and to whom one may call upon in times of distress (124). He will listen to prayers (125); he will take us by the hand and raise us after our fall (108).

From these data one may feel tempted to say that the author is a monotheist, which would fit in with the theory of a Jewish origin of the book (although in my opinion most of these utterances would fit in equally well with the assumption of a Gk. writer). At times, our author speaks of God in a rather impersonal way, as for example when he is presented as determining the fate of men’s lives; at other times, however, the reference is more personal , as for example when he appears to be a God who listens to the prayers of men.

There is one great problem. In lines 263f. there is a clear indication of polytheism, which seems to contradict the thesis of a Jewish origin. Is this a later insertion? Is it a mistranslation on the part of the Syriac translator? Or is the author, himself a monotheist, describing the practices of a pagan-cult priest? If the author was a Jew, could he then write about’ , gods’ , as a result of a heterodox background? Or did he merely wish to give to his work the air of a pagan document?

These questions cannot now be answered. As long as the exact place, date, and provenance of the work are unknown, it is not possible to say anything very significant about the theological position of the author and his writing.

Relation to canonical books

In a eulogy on silence (311-13)-“There exists nothing better than silence. Being silent is at all times a virtue. Even if a fool is silent, he is counted wise”-we find a striking similarity to Proverbs 17:28: “If a fool can hold his tongue, even he can pass for wise” (cf. also Sir 20:5). This is one of the agreements between Syriac Menander and the Old Testament wisdom literature that made Frankenberg conclude that the FIorilegium was an early Hebrew wisdom book, breathing the same spirit as Proverbs and Sirach. This conclusion is not sufficiently warranted, but the references to canonical and apocryphal wisdom literature which he offers (several of which are noted in the margin of the translation) are a necessary addition to the one-sidedness of scholars such as Land and Baumstark, who had an eye only for the “Greek” atmosphere of Syriac Menander. In fact, they so focused upon the Greek world that they did not even mention Proverbs in this connection; they merely referred to the monostichs and plays of Menander, which do not offer a very good parallel to the line in question.

It should be kept in mind that a sentence such as that found in line 313 could be a later addition to the two foregoing lines. Such could have been inserted by a translator or a copyist; certainly a Christian who knew his Bible could have edited and expanded this document.

Relation to apocryphal books

A Jewish provenance of the maxims was suggested partly because of several striking parallels between Syriac Menander and Sirach. A very close resemblance is found between the concluding lines (458-73) and Sirach 38: 16-23 (cf. 22: II). In the margin of the translation many other references to Sirach are found, which might seem to support a relationship to Jewish wisdom literature.

One should, however, be aware that there is a complication involved here: Jewish wisdom is closely connected with oriental and Greek wisdom literature in general. For example, we read in Sirach 8:7, “Do not gloat over a man’s death; remember that we all must die [or ‘be gathered’].” A similar maxim is also found in our text, lines l26f.: “Do not rejoice over a dead man, over one who dies, because all men will go to the eternal house. They are mortal.” But the same thought is expressed in a saying ascribed to Menander: “ Because you are mortal, do not make mirth over one who is dead.” Is this Jewish wisdom or Greek wisdom? In addition, we may refer to the legend of Ahiqar as well: “Son, rejoice not in the death of your enemies, for death impends for you as well” (Arm. B 78; cf. Syr. 60: “My son, rejoice not over the enemy when he dies”). Is it, therefore, oriental wisdom? It is clear that mere parallels cannot decide the question as to whether the Florilegium has a Jewish origin, since Jewish wisdom arose from the fruitful soil of Mediterranean and oriental wisdom traditions in general.

Relation to the pseudepigraphical literature

The reference to Ahiqar brings forward another point. One may say that the legend of Ahiqar is a good specimen of oriental wisdom literature, but the fact that fragments of an Aramaic book of Ahiqar were found in Elephantine make it sufficiently clear that this wisdom book had found a place in the library of a heterodox Jewish community at a very early date (c. 400 B.C.). In the present translation a few references are drawn to the book of Ahiqar , but here I should like to point out one quite interesting parallel between the sixth maxim of the book’s Syriac version and Syriac Menander 246f.: “My son, commit not adultery with your neighbor’s wife, lest others should commit adultery with your wife” (Ah Syr. ) and’ , Just as you do not wish your wife to commit adultery with another , likewise also do not wish to commit adultery with your neighbor’s wife” (Syr Men). Does this parallel application of the negative golden rule to adultery prove that the maxim is a Jewish counsel? Or does it merely furnish evidence that it is a specimen of oriental wisdom in general?

Another writing to be mentioned here is Pseudo-Phocylides, a hellenistic Jewish wisdom , poem. This document contains some interesting parallels to sayings found in Syriac Menander (see the margin of the translation). One of them is found in Pseudo-Phocylides l09f.: “When you are rich, do not be sparing; remember that you are mortal. It is impossible to take riches and money (with you) into Hades,” which can be compared with Syriac Menander 368-73: “If you have goods, if you have possessions, live on your possessions as long as you are alive. ..remember. (can)not use (his) goods in Sheol …” Similar thoughts are found not only in the Old Testament (cf. Job 1:21; Eccl 5:17-19) but also in Greek and Latin writings.

It is clear that the agreements between either Ahiqar or Pseudo-Phocylides on the one hand and the Syriac Menander on the other do not prove that the latter work is of Jewish provenance. Our document belongs to the world of wisdom of which Ahiqar and Pseudo Phocylides are part, and therefore it may have been a writing of a Jewish author .

A rabbinic parallel?

“Everything that is hateful to you, you should not wish to do that to your neighbor” (250f.); with these words the author of the Florilegium presents a peculiar form of the negative golden rule. The idea expressed by this maxim is found in many cultures and among many peoples, but the specific form of the saying seems to point in the direction of Jewish tradition. Land’s only reference is to a parallel in the Menandric monostich “Let us not practise the things that we find fault with”; he fails to mention even Tobit 4:15 (“Do to no one what you would not want done to you”), which is to my knowledge the closest parallel in Greek (the maxim of Orion of Thebes ‘ ‘what you would hate to have your equals cause to happen to you, do not do to others” is a Christian paraphrase of Tob 4:15). A close parallel to the saying in Syriac Menander is the word ascribed to Hillel in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a: “what is hateful to you, you shall not do to your neighbour” (cf. TargJerI on Lev 19:18). Is this, as some maintain, a clear indication of a Jewish origin of the Florilegium ? We should keep in mind that this’ , Jewish’ , form of the sentence was known to Syrian and Persian Christians of the fourth century, since it appears in Liber Graduum and Aphrahat, It may also have been adopted as Gospel text in the Diatessaron of Tatian at a very early stage of Syrian church history.

We are confronted, consequently, with another question: Is the saying in question Jewish or Christian? We have a notice regarding the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus (related by the biographer Larnpridius) which tells us that he was fond of saying quod tibi non vis, alteri ne feceris (‘ ‘that which you do not wish for yourself, do not do to another’ ‘), a maxim he had learned from some Jews or Christians and which he loved so much that he ordered that it be prescribed as a rule for the palace and for the public buildings. Is it a Jewish or a Christian maxim? It is difficult to decide that question, both in the case of the Emperor and in the case of Syriac Menander. Does the occurrence of the maxim imply that the author of our writing was a Jew? Or was he a pagan, and was the saying added by the translator or by a copyist, who may have been a Christian? Or could not a pagan author have incorporated the saying in his writing, since a pagan writer could well have borrowed from Jewish or Christian traditions, as did Emperor Alexander Severus?

Menandric inQuence?

In the foregoing observations on apocryphal parallels a reference was made to a monostich ascribed to Menander, As the marginal annotations of the translation demonstrate, however , there are more parallels within the “Menandric” corpus, “No one who is righteous will easily become rich’ , is a good example of these parallels, for it appears to be very similar to the maxim “Radiant and comely are riches, but the good man hardly acquires them” (425f.). Line 65, “Blessed is the man who has mastered his stomach and his lust,” reminds us of the monostich “It is a good thing to master one’s stomach and lust.” A paraphrase of the “Menandric” maxim “Honour your father, respect her who gave birth (to you)” is found in lines 94-98 of Syriac Menander. The thoughts expressed in lines 377-81 are almost a convincing elaboration of the adage, “If you exert yourself when you are young, you will enjoy a flourishing old age, ‘. These examples will suffice to show that there are several close links between the text of Syriac Menander and the collections of monostichs that circulated under Menander’s name in the Greek world. One ought, therefore, not to exclude the possibility that the collector of our text-Jewish or not-may have used such anthologies, and that he even took the name attached to them to promote his own collection of wisdom sayings.

A Jewish pseudepigraphon?

In spite of the several demonstrable agreements with the “Menandric” tradition, there is a strong consensus among scholars (apart from Land and Baumstark) that our text has nothing to do with Menander. Since the publication of Frankenberg’s thesis, the Jewish parallels can no longer be left out of consideration; but his far-reaching conclusions (that the text was originally a Jewish wisdom book, written in Heb,) were not such that they could really convince all scholars. Audet posited what may be termed a kind of synthesis of the earlier theses that argued for respectively a Greek or a Jewish origin when he stated that the Florilegium was a product of an author from the so-called God-fearing circles. Of course, one could just as easily defend the thesis that the work was authored by a cultured pagan writer who, in drawing up this collection of wisdom sayings, incorporated additional material in it from the oriental wisdom traditions, including Jewish ones, with which he was familiar. It is very difficult to decide the matter. Still, it has become accepted practice to class the work under the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, simply because there is no place elsewhere for it. F. Schulthess, who was very resolute in his rejection of a Jewish origin, published his contribution on Syriac Menander in an old Testament periodical, and Stiihlin, who is very skeptical about the suggestion that it is a Jewish book, deals with our Florilegium in the section dealing with Jewish pseudepigraphic literature of a large historical work on Greek literature. Syriac Menander should be included among the Pseudepigrapha until there is decisive proof that it ought to be dealt with under another heading.

English translation

The following translation of both the Epitome and the Florilegium is the first attempt to provide an English version of these texts. Since it is the product of a Dutch reader of the Syriac text, it is subject to those failings which might stimulate others to a retranslation which exploits all the possibilities of the English language. In the margin the reader will find a number of references to other wisdom literature: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, Wisdom, Tobit, Ahiqar, the maxims of Pseudo-Phocylides, and the monostichs of Menander (MenM; the numbering is that of Jaekel).

I have abandoned any attempt to give a new system of numbering to the various sayings. The only numbering used is that which divides the Syriac text into lines. For convenience, however, I have also added to the text the numbers which Baumstark (8), Riessler (R), Schulthess (S), and Audet (A) have used in their translations to distinguish the separate sentences of the Florilegium. Similarly, I have also divided the Epitome into lines, except that here I have added Sachau’s numbering of the various sayings. In the margin of the Epitome I have made references to the parallel sayings in the Florilegium. In the notes I refer to Land’s translation.



Land, J. P. N. Anecdota Syriaca I. Leiden, 1862; (Syr.), 64:21-73:18. (Cf. also the corrections by W. Wright in Journal of Sacred Literature 4th series, 3 [1863] 115-30: and by J. P. N. Land, Anecdota Syriaca II. Leiden, 1868; pp. 25f.)

Sachau, E. lnedita Syriaca, Eine Sammlung syrischer Obersetzungen von Schriften grie-chischer Profanliteratur. Vienna, 1870; (Syr.), 80:1-81:10. (Cf. J. P. N. Land, Anecdota Syriaca II, pp. 20f.)


Audet, J.-P. “La sagesse de Menandre l’Egyptien,” RB 59 (1952) 55-81. (This French rendering is a version based upon a comparison of the text of Land with the photographs of the MS; in some cases this version equals that of Schulthess, or even improves it, but in other cases, Audet loses to Schulthess.)

Baumstark, A. “Lucubrationes Syro-Graecae,” Jahrbiicher fur klassische Philologie.Supplement-8and 21; Leipzig, 1894; pp. 473-90. (This Lat. version of the text is not a real improvement of the first translation.)

Frankenberg, W. “Die Schrift des Menander (Land, Anecd. Syr. I, 64ff.) ein Produkt der jtidischen Spruchweisheit,” ZAW 15 (1895) 226-77. (Frankenberg presents his readers with a paraphrasis of the text in German, which also contains several more literal translations of the maxims.)

Land, J. P. N. Anecdota Syriaca I. Leiden, 1862; pp. 156-64 (emendations and additions, Anecdota Syriaca II. pp. 17-19). (Land’s Lat. translation has the normal weaknesses of a first translation.)

Riessler, P. Altjudisches Schrifttum ausserhalb der Bibel. Heidelberg, 1928 (repr. 1966); pp. 1047-57, 1328f. (Riessler’s version is apparently based on the [text and] translation of Land; the neglect of Schulthess. version by Riessler diminishes the value of his German rendering of the sentences.)

Schulthess, F. “Die Spruche des Menanders,” ZAW 32 (1912) 199-224. (This first complete German version was made on the basis of a fresh comparison of [photographs of] the MS text.)


Baumstark, A. Geschichte der syrischen Literatur. Bonn, 1922; especially pp. 169f.

Krauss, S. “Menander 1,” JE. vol. 8, pp. 473f.

Kiichler, M. Friihjudische Weisheitstraditionen. Orbis biblicus et oriental is 26; Gottingen, 1979;. pp. 303-18.

Schrnid, J. “Menandros, Spliiche des M.,” LTK2, vol. 7, col. 266.

Schrnid, W., and Stuhlin, 0. Geschichte der griechischen Literatur. Munich, 1920; vol. 2. pp. 41f., 46, 623.

Schiirer, E. Geschichte des judischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi. Leipzig, 19()94; vol. 2. pp. 622-24.