study of Syriac Literature Dr. Matti Moosa

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THE MUSLIM WORLD Hartford Seminary Foundation, LVIII, No. 2, 1968

The systematic study of Syriac Literature and sciences and related subjects began in Europe at the close of the seventeenth century. Eastern writers, whether of early or recent periods, whether Syrians or not, did not concern themselves with the scholarly study of Syriac Literature until recently, when the Syrian Patriarch of Antioch, Mar Ignatius Aphram Barsoum, published his comprehensive work entitled al-Lu’Lu’ al-Manthur (The Unstrung Pearls), or, as he gives the title in French, Histoire des Sciences et de la Litterature Syriaqite, in 1943. This work was republished in 1956. An evaluation of this book will be given later.

Even concerning the art of poetry, which is considered one of the Syrians’ foremost literary achievements, there is no evidence that Syrian writers have done any systematic work. The oldest work on Syriac poetry, however, was first composed by Severus Bar Shabbo, metropolitan of the Monastery of Mar Matta, near Mosul, Iraq, who lived in the beginning of the thirteenth century. Unfortunately, this work has been lost, and we know about it only from the author’s reference to it in the fourth chapter of the second part of “The Book of Treasures.” From this treatise we know that this bishop gave a summary of the principles of Syriac religious poetry, its authors, and the dates of its introduction into church rituals. Another treatise on Syriac poetry, composed in Arabic by P. D. Gabrielem Cardahi the Maronite, appeared in Rome in 1875, under the title al-Kanz al-Thamin (Liber Thesauri De Arte Poetica Syrorurn). In this treatise Cardahi explained the meters of Syriac poetry, adding short biographies of Syrian poets with specimens of their poetry. But he did not discuss the development of Syriac poetry or even give a historical account of its development.

In 1896, the Syrian Roman Catholic bishop of Damascus, Monsignor Dawud (David), published his two volumes in Arabic, al-Lum’a al-Shahiya (Grammaire de la Langue Arameenne); at the end of the second volume1 he devoted a chapter to Syriac poetry and prosody, mentioning the names and works of the most famous Syrian poets. Although the writer had attempted to fill a gap in the studies of Syriac poetry and made a good start in this direction, yet his attempt is far from being complete or perfect. The most recent attempt to study the different aspects of Syriac literature, however, was initiated by Rev. Paulos Behnam, the present Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Iraq, who wrote in his Arabic magazine al-Mashriq (published in Mosul, 1946-1953) a series of articles on Syrian culture. In these as well as many other articles, Archbishop Behnam studied critically the origins and the development of the Syriac language and literature, and evaluated the opinions of Western scholars who had written on the subject. Unfortunately, he did not continue this commendable endeavor. In 1949, two Egyptian professors of Syriac Literature from its beginning to the Muslim conquest; but it is merely an uncritical summary of Western works on the subject. Moreover, the fact that the work is unannotated makes it difficult for the reader to evaluate the opinions of the authors. In fact, the two writers frequently reach faulty conclusions and commit many errors.

In the West the learned French scholar, Eusebius Renaudot (1646-1720) was first to realize the significance of the study of Syriac literature. He must be credited with introducing the study of the Syriac church, its fathers, and its liturgies to the Western world. Thirty years before the learned Maronite prelate Joseph Assemani published his first volume of the Bibliotheca Orientails in 1719, Renaudot had finished his translation and annotation of a great number of Syriac liturgies, but this work, unfortunately was never published. Until his death in 1720, Renaudot waited patiently for the Syriac characters which the French Minister of Finance, Colbert, promised to furnish for the publication of his work. Assemani would probably not have achieved such wide fame if the work of Renaudot had been published. According to J. B. Chabot, the works of Renaudot are more comprehensive and informative than the works of Assemani.(1)

In spite of his fame as an eminent scholar and his popularity among Western students of Syriac literature, and in spite of the fact that four volumes of his Bibliotheca Orientalis are the most exhaustive works ever written on Syriac studies, Assemani may be considered a biased source, unreliable in his translation of some Syriac texts. According to William Wright, Assemani tried hard in the first volume of the Bibliotheca Orientalis to prove that Jacob of Edessa (d. 708) was not a “Monophysite” – that is, he did not believe in the 1tone incarnate nature” of Jesus Christ – but in the second volume he gave up this attempt in despair.(2) But if we realize that Jacob of Edessa was obviously an adherent of the dogma of the “one incarnate nature” as is unanimously affirmed by Eastern as well as Western writers, we may reach the conclusion that Assemani attempted to depict the works and belief of Jacob of Edessa with a Chalcedonian coloring.

Assemani’s prejudice against the Syrian Orthodox writers is not hard to explain. His unjustified hatred of the celebrated Philoxenus of Mabug is but an example. We have it on the authority of William Wright that “Assemani never misses an opportunity of reviling him.” (3) He called him “Scelestissimus haereticus” (B.O., ii.II) (“a most wicked heretic”); “flagitiosissimus home” (p. 12) (“a thoroughly shameful man”); and added “ecclesiam Dei tanquam ferus aper devastavert” (p. l8) (“he devastated the church of God like a wild boar”). But he was obliged at the end to own (B.O., II, 20) “scripsit Syriace, Si quis alius, elegantissime, atque adec inter optimos hujusce linguae scriptores a Jacobo Edesseno collocari meruit” (“he wrote Syriac as elegantly as any other man, and so deserved to be classified by Jacob of Edessa among the finest writers of this language”).

Furthermore, Assemani’s infidelity in translating has been proven by Rev. Henry Burgess in The Repentance of Nineveh by Ephraim Syrus (London, 1853). Assemani apparently twisted parts of the text of St. Ephraim on the repentance of Nineveh in accordance with his Roman Catholic prejudice. In this regard, Rev. Burgess relates that “the sentiment of Ephraem is simple enough, and quite scriptural, but Assemani gives it a turn purely papistical, by as gross an abuse of words as perhaps was ever perpetrated in controversy.” (4) Burgess adds that “This specimen of infidelity will justify the animadversion we have often felt it our duty to make on the Latin translation of Ephraem and to show how impossible it is to get at his (Ephraem’s) real opinions by any Catholic medium.” (5)

Following the work of Assemani, we have Gustav Bickell’s Conspectus rei Litterariae Syrorum (Munster, 1871), which is a brief analysis of the Bibliotheca Orientalis with some editing. William Wright’s Syriac Literature (London, 1894) originally appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1887); a few brief additions were made for its posthumous publication in book form.

La Litterature Syriaque by Rubens Duval (Paris, 1889), covers in detail the history of Syriac Literature down to the thirteenth century. Its organization, comprehensiveness, and ease of style afford the reader an excellent insight into the subject.

Early Eastern Christianity, by F. C. Burkitt (London, 1904), consists mainly of lectures on the early Syrian Church of Edessa, but touches upon some aspects of Syriac literature. The author seems to be confused about the true history of Edessa and the Syriac names of its Kings, which he erroneously makes Arabic.
Theodor Noldeke’s Aramaische Literatur (Leipzig, 1906) and Brockelmann’ s Die Syrische und die Christliche Aratische Literatur (Leipzig, 1907) are rather brief accounts of Syriac literature.

Still another major work is Geschichte der Syrischen Literatur by Anton Baumstark (Bonn, 1922). The author has meticulously provided comprehensive, copious references and notes. The information given by the author, however, is so condensed that it would be difficult for the non-specialist to find his way through it. Moreover, the book is more factual than analytical.

J.B. Chabot, in addition to les Langues et la Litterature Arameenne (see notes above) also wrote a short book, without notes, entitled La Litterature Syriaque (Paris, 1935), in which he discussed the development of Syriac Literature until the thirteenth century.

Mention should also be made here of George Graf’s Geschichte der Christliclien Arabischen Literatur, published in the Vatican City, 1944. The second volume of this work contains most of the writings of the Syrians, as well as Coptic writers who wrote in Arabic or translated Syriac works into that language. This volume also includes the manuscripts containing the Arabic writings of Syrian writers, with copious description and commentaries on each of them. This work is most comprehensive, and highly valuable for the study of the Christian literature of the Syrian Church after the Arab conquest.

The study of Syriac literature, then, originated in the East but was brought to its fullest development by Western writers. As Assemani, an Easterner by birth and tradition, used his important knowledge to shape Western ideas on Syriac literature, so today it is the Westerners following his lead who have formulated the views generally accepted in the East.

It is against this rather tenuous, uncertain background, that Patriarch Barsoum projects his Kitab al-Lu’Lu’ al-Manthur. We can justly appraise the author’s historical account only by acknowledging its indebtedness to earlier scholarship, yet recognizing its uniqueness in an exaggerated nationalistic tone and in an unremitting accumulation of compendious, detailed information.

Patriarch Barsoum (1887-1957) came to prominence in 1918 when he was designated Bishop of Syria, and after World War I he achieved recognition not only as a man of religion, but also as a scholar and as a representative of the Syrians’ national interests. In 1933, he was formally elected Patriarch of Antioch, and showed himself an active head of the Church until his death. Despite his numerous responsibilities within the Church, Barsoum devoted much of his time to writing on the religion, languages and history of his people. Al-Lu’Lu’ al-Manthur, then, was not the solitary work of an unlearned Eastern Patriarch, but part of the considerable output of a man thoroughly conversant with his subject.

What purpose did Barsoum have in writing this book? We may begin to answer such a question by considering its title. The French title is quite misleading: Histoire des Sciences et de La Litterature Syriaque clearly suggests that the book resembles the Western studies of Syriac literature. We should prefer the Arabic title, Kitab al-Lu’lu’ al-Manthur fi Tarikh al-‘Ulum wa al-‘Adab al-Suryaniya (The Unstrung Pearls of the History of Syriac Sciences and Literature). The metaphorical implication of this title is evident: the work aims to present information which lies outside the scope of Western studies.

The Introduction, written not only in Arabic but also in French and Syriac, indicates more precisely the nature of the work. Barsoum states that he hopes to fill the existing gaps in the knowledge of Syriac literature, and to pay tribute to the language of his church. He notes that at the beginning of the present century there commenced a revival of interest in the history of science and literature, but adds that “Aramean science and literature” have received insufficient treatment from Western writers. Duval, Wright, Baumstark, and Chabot have, he says, devoted their attention to what they recognize as science and literature” in the general sense (but, it is implied, they have passed over the extensive body of sacred literature in Syriac). Also, Barsoum notes, of these writers only Baunstark gives any consideration to Syriac Literature after the end of the thirteenth century.

Barsoum proposes to treat here several subjects omitted by earlier writers, including calligraphy, versification, the rites of the church, geographical sketches of Syrian cities, historical documents, the history of literature from 1290 to the present, and works and manuscripts previously unknown. In another chapter he summarizes the works of those Orientalists who have preserved Syrian culture, and criticizes writers who have sought to lessen the influence of the Syrians’ knowledge.

The immediate audience for which Barsoum wrote includes two groups: historiographers and philologists, who may seek more knowledge of Syriac literature; and the faithful members of the Syrian church, whose national feeling he hopes “may be reinvigorated in their ancestral spirit.” Additional evidence of the restricted audience to which the book appeals lies in the assertion that it “treats only Western Syrian scholars and writers, to the exclusion of the Eastern Syrians (Nestorians) and what is known of the meager culture of the Malkites and the Maronites.” For Barsoum, the prospect of a fruitful and beneficial “social result,” the resurrection of the cultural heritage of the Syriac-speaking community, is full recompense for the difficulties and material expenses of preparing this work, which represents the “fruit of our untiring labor over a period covering nearly a third of a century of our Episcopal and patriarchal life.”

Structurally, the book may be divided into three distinct sections. The first, containing thirty-one chapters, concerns the religious literature and other related writings extant in Syriac. After introductory chapters on the Syriac language and literature, the expositions on Syrian centers of learning and libraries, Barsoum treats in detail the Christian literature which has survived, including liturgies, the books of rituals used in the church, and the lives of great men of the Church. The second part presents biographies of 292 prominent Syrian writers; fifty-six of these have not previously been cited by Western writers. In the third part are appendices giving the names of Syrian calligraphers, meanings of foreign terms in the book, geographical names, lists of monasteries, an index of biographical references, and lists of saints.

Judged in terms of its author’s stated purpose, al-Lu’Lu’ al-Manthur must be considered highly successful. In fact, it was received enthusiastically not only by those members of the Syriac-speaking community for whom it was written, but also by Nestorian and Muslim scholars. Viscount Philip de Tarrazi, a Roman Catholic writer, offered this judgment:

al-Lu’Lu’ al-Manthur is indeed a very valuable work which deserves respect and consideration. Its learned author has enumerated the compositions of the famous writers and scientists from ancient times down to the present, in greater detail than any author before his time. His opening chapters demonstrate his thorough knowledge of his subject and his precision… he has filled a great gap in the history of our literature and sciences, which have adorned the Christian East for many centuries… (6)

The widespread appeal of al-Lu’Lu’ al-Manthur for Eastern readers may readily be understood, for in approach and method it closely resembles other Eastern scholarly works on similar subjects. Especially, we may compare the work of Barsoum with the four-volume history of Arabic literature of Jurji Zaydan, Kitab Tarikh ‘Adab al-Lugha al-’Aratiya (Cairo, 1911), and with K. L. Istarjian’s Tarikh al-thaqafa wa al-adab al-armani (History of Armenian Culture and Literature: Mosul, 1954).

Zaydan, observing that no Eastern writer before him has undertaken such a task, seeks to relate the Arabs’ literature to their political history; to depict the growth and decline of their sciences; to give biographies of the leading figures of Arabic sciences and literature, together with pertinent bibliographical material; and to categorize the books extant in Arabic according to their subjects. While Zaydan presents his material largely within a chronological framework, Barsoum focuses on the types of Syriac literature, particularly compositions of a religious character. Yet both works draw extensively on biographical material, and both are primarily encyclopedic in nature, though Zaydan1s is wider in scope. In general, the straightforward style in which Zaydan writes is more fluent than that of Barsoum, whose syntax is sometimes involved, and whose language is often metaphorical.

Istarjian seems in his history of Armenian literature to have a purpose rather like that expressed by Barsoum in the Introduction to al-Lu’lu al-Manthur. Like Barsoum, Istarjian is intensely proud of the cultural traditions of his people. The periods which the two men cover are nearly identical, but while Barsoum limits his discussion to religious literature, Istarjian also deals with secular literature, approaching his subject through a consideration of literary genres. Nevertheless Istarjian, too, is concerned primarily with presenting biographical material1 and his work, like al-Lu’Lu’ al-Manthur, is factual rather than analytical.

Thus, the work of Patriarch Barsoum is wholly consistent with the prevailing tradition of Eastern scholarship. This is not to say, however, that Eastern scholars concern themselves solely with the accumulation of factual evidence. Indeed, an excellent contemporary work of ‘Anis al-Makdisi, al-Ittijahat al-’Adabiya fi al-’Alam al-’Arabi al-Hadith (Literary Trends in the Modern Arab World: Beirut, 1963), reflects their growing interest in interpretative literary scholarship, al-Makdisi discusses the Arabic literature of the twentieth century not in terms of its types, but in terms of its political, social, and aesthetic significance.

From a Western viewpoint, it may be argued that Barsoum, writes in an unscholarly manner. Perhaps we can more readily comprehend the merits and defects of his work by comparing it with that of Ruhens Duval, La Littrature Syriaque.

Duval provides a historical account of the origins, development, and decline of Syriac literature, and adds brief biographical sketches of the leading Syrian writers. He takes his account only to the end of the thirteenth century, while Barsoum offers much information on the writers from that time to the present. Duval, by adopting a chronological approach, and by considering within the scope of his work the literary activity of both Eastern and Western Syrians, succeeds more fully in placing Syriac lit’arature in its historical context. Neither writer attempts genuine criticism of Syriac literature; Duval turns his attention to its subjects and external forms, while Barsoum enumerates but does not evaluate the works of Syrian writers. Finally, we may note, Duval quotes at length, but carefully, from the work of earlier scholars; Barsoum too frequently presents evidence without identifying its source.

It is evident, then, that the Western reader must accept al-Lu’Lu’ al-Manthur on its own terms, as the work of an Eastern scholar writing for an Eastern audience. He must also bear in mind that Barsoum is the Patriarch of Antioch, the head of the Syrian Church, and that his dominant attitude is one of pride in the literary achievements of the Church Fathers; indeed, this must be his attitude if he is to fulfill his purpose.

To be sure, this pride often leads to undue exaggeration, particularly of the antiquity of the Syrians’ language and the greatness of their literature. Barsoum does not document convincingly his identification of Syriac with Aramaic nor does he furnish sufficient proof that Christ and the Apostles spoke Syriac. His dogmatic assertion that Syriac Literature rivals that of the Greeks seems all the more unpalatable because it is made without reference to any clear standard of judgment. One finds it difficult to accept the statement that the Syriac books now extant are the oldest in the world, and impossible to believe that the library of the monastery of the Syrians in Egypt is the most ancient in the world.
In other instances Barsoum gives us good reason to call into question his reliability both as a scholar and as a judge of literature. His declaration that the Pshitto was produced by Christianized Jews in the first century, for example, may be sound, but the author does not offer substantiation. In his discussion of early Syriac literature, he quite erroneously assigns the composition of the Look of Tobit to the fifth century B.C., and again offers no evidence to support his contention. He praises St. Ephraim, Jacob of Edessa, and Bar Hebraeus, often excessively, at the expense of other important writers such as Bar Daysan and Aphrahat. His treatment of the main themes of Syriac poetry is somewhat marred by his vague definition of satire. Finally, by centering his attention largely upon the Christian literature which the Syrians produced, Barsoum minimizes the importance of their role as translators.

Despite these faults, the work of Patriarch Barsoum has significant value for student of Syriac literature. Unlike his Western predecessors, he does not depend heavily on the work of Assemani, but draws much information trout the Syriac manuscripts surviving in churches and monasteries throughout the Middle East, and from other original sources. The wider range of first-hand material available to Barsoum generally does not lead him to conclusions at odds with those drawn by Western scholars, but frequently enriches his presentation of factual information. Wright, for example, in his biographical sketch of Bar Hebraeus, cites only the Bibliotheca Orientalis and Bar Hebraeus’ own writings; Barsoum furnishes additional evidence from the metrical biography of Bar Hebraeus and his brother, by Gabriel of Bartali.

The chief significance of al-Lu’Lu’ al-Manthur, however, lies not in its additions to our knowledge concerning major figures in Syriac literature, but in its treatment of topics which Western writers have not considered. Barsoum has given us here a thorough and illuminating exposition of the art of calligraphy. His discussion of the rites of the Church takes us into an area which has not been explored in other studies of Syriac literature. The consideration of the various types of church music gives us an all too brief insight into what may quite properly be regarded as one of the highest forms of literary expression sought by the Syrians. This part of the work is clearly derived in part from ancient sources, about which Barsoum is unfortunately not explicit. The informative discussion of Syriac liturgies appears to be original, rather than derivative; Barsoum indicates in this section that he has read both Renaudot and Michael the Great, but because of his life in the Church he is thoroughly familiar with the practice of the liturgy, and in fact has even read seventy-four of these liturgies himself. His catalogue of liturgies is far more extensive than any compiled by Western scholars; to Philoxenus of Mabug, for example, he attributes certainly two liturgies, and tentatively another, whereas Wright cites only one, and that on the authority of Renaudot and Assemani. (7)

Western writers seem accustomed to remark disparagingly that the Syrians devoted themselves largely to the writing of Christian literature, and to pass over this literature rather quickly; as a result, their view of Syriac Literature is incomplete. It is equally true, however, that al-Lu’Lu’ al-Manthur, on account of its preoccupation with the Christian writings, presents an inaccurate picture of the whole of Syrian literature. Those who wish general knowledge of the Syriac language and literature will no doubt profit most from the treatments of these subjects by Duval and Baumstark. Those who seek more detailed knowledge should find the work of Patriarch Barsoum of immeasurable importance.

The development of Syriac Literature may be divided, in terms of its general characteristics and literary merit, into three stages. The first period, extending from the pre-Christian era to the eighth century A.D., is represented both by the few surviving pagan works and by the far more extensive Christian literature. The latter half of this period may be regarded as the golden age of Syriac literature. The production of native religious literature by the luminaries of the Syrian church was carried on side by side with the translation of Greek philosophy into Syriac.

The second period, lasting from the eighth to the close of the thirteenth century, coincides largely with the time of the Arabs’ domination of Syria and Iraq. Although the Syrians of this period created many original works in a wide range of fields, their most important literary activity was the transmission of Greek philosophy and medicine into Arabic, without which the retransmission of much of ancient learning into Europe, between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, could not have been accomplished.

The third period, which extends from the thirteenth century to the present time, is commonly considered the age of the decline of Syriac literature. After many centuries of Arab rule, the Syrians saw their native language replaced to a considerable extent by Arabic. Nevertheless, despite their limited range of themes and the restricted nature of their audience, Syrian writers have continued to produce a sizable body of indigenous literature, in the same beautiful language used by their predecessors for two thousand years or more.


1-See J. B. Chabot. La Litterature Syriaque(Paris, 1935), pp. 9-10. Chabot also refers to H. Omont, Inventaire de la Collection renaudot a la Bibliotheque Nationale See also, by the same author, Les Langues et la Litterature Armeenne (Paris, 1910), translated into Arabic by Anton Shukri Lawrence (Jerusalem, 1930), p. 5.

2-William Wright, Syriac Literature (London, 1894), p. 141.

3-Wright, p.74.
664-The Repentance of Ninevah, by Ephraim Syrus. Trans. By Rev. Henry burgress (London, 1853), Introduction, pp.20-21.According to Burgess, Ephraim says that “God gives forgivness, a word concerning which there can be no difference.”Yet Assemani renders the sentence “Indulgenatiam adjecit, id est, Clavium potestatem.”(“He adda indulgence, that is the ‘power of the the keys’.”)

5-loc. Cit., p.21.

6-Viscount Philip de Tarrazi, Asdag ma kan an Tarikh lubnan (The Most True Account of the History of Lebanon), in Arabic (Beirut, 1948), I, 432.

7-Wright, Syriac Literature, p. 74, mentions one anaphora by Philoxenus of Mabug, but refers us to Renaudot, II, 310, and to Assemani, B.O., II, 24. He also cites Renaudot as the source of this information in his Catalogue of Syriac Manuscript in the British Museum.
THE MUSLIM WORLD Hartford Seminary Foundation, LVIII, No. 2, 1968