Posted by on Jul 25, 2016 in Library | Comments Off on COMMENTARIES ON THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS


The Syrian scholars devoted their utmost efforts to studying and commenting on the Holy Scriptures. Had the many volumes of commentaries not been lost we would have today a complete library of these alone. The oldest of these commentaries belongs to St. Ephraim who wrote them while teaching at the School of Edessa. Yet all that survived was the commentary on Genesis, a great part of Exodus and scattered verses from other books of the Scriptures. His commentary on the New Testament has been lost too, but an exposition of many Biblical verses in his poems and homilies can be found.
St. Ephraim’s disciple, Aba, wrote a commentary on the Gospel, a discourse on the Book of Job and an exposition of the ninth verse of the forty-second Psalm. Jacob of Saruj wrote many maymars (metrical homilies) containing copious commentaries on numerous subjects in the Holy Bible. The commentary of Philoxenus of Mabug on the Gospels has reached us. Moreover, we have the commentaries of Anba John bar Aphtonia on the Song of Songs, of Daniel of Salh on the Psalms in three volumes and of Marutha, maphrian of Takrit on the Gospels which has been quoted by the monk Severus of Antioch. The commentary of Jacob of Edessa on the Holy Bible have also reached us either in his private writings or epistles.
Regarding the commentaries of George Bishop of the Arabs, none of them have reached us except those quoted by later commentators. Furthermore, Rabban (doctor) Lazarus of Beth Qindasa compiled a commentary on some of the Pauline epistles, and Patriarch Jurjis I (George) commented on the Gospel of St. Matthew, John of Dara has a commentary of which nothing is known except his quotations from Bar Salibi’s commentary on the New Testament. From Moses bar Kipha, metropolitan of Barumman and expositor of the New and Old Testaments we have portions of the commentary on Genesis and the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John as well as those of the Epistles of St. Paul.
According to Bar Hebraeus in his Ausar Roze (Storehouse of Secrets), other commentators were the priest, Andrew of Jerusalem, deacon Zoura (Zura) of Nisibin (quoted by Bar Salibi in his commentary on the Old Testament), and the Rabban Yuhanna (John), the disciple of Marun, who wrote a commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Most prominent in this field is Jacob bar Salibi, metropolitan of Amid (d. 1171), who contributed elaborate commentaries on both Testaments. In these masterful commentaries he cited the opinions of the erudite commentators before him. He commented on the Old Testament in many volumes and then abridged his work with a commentary of adequate length. Unfortunately, his first commentary was lost but the second survived. Furthermore, his commentary on the New Testament has become authoritative. Bar Hebraeus’ Ausar Roze (Storehouse of Secrets) contains a commentary on the Old and New Testaments which he adorned with rare traditional as well as philological material. He also made observations on previous commentaries which uncovered and solved problems with unequaled erudition. Besides, the maphrian Barsoum II al-Madani (d. 1454) abridged and commented upon Bar Salibi’s commentary of the Gospels, Patriarch Behnam of Hidl made a selection of the commentaries of the Salhi on the Psalms, and David of Hims abridged parts on the same commentary.1
It may be known that the pioneer commentators until the eighth century provided us with the results of their endeavor. Their commentaries varied from short to long. The commentators of the second period made use of the works of their predecessors, especially the commentaries by the leading Christian fathers like Ephraim, Basilius, John Chrysostom, Cyril and Severus as well as the Syrian commentators who followed them. They chose from their opinion whatever they desired, added to them what they thought they could add, and, to a small extent, developed these commentaries. Thus, Bar Salibi after presenting the different opinions on the subject leaves it up to the reader to choose what he thinks the most appropriate for him.
The method used by these commentators was either to comment on the text verse by verse or confine their commentary to a group of verses. Some of them, however, followed the method of the school of Antioch which emphasized the literal meaning. Others followed the method of the school of Alexandria which emphasized the symbolic and spiritual meaning, while still others such as Bar Salibi combined both methods.



In ancient times some writers fabricated apocryphal treatises of the Old Testament which were spread among the Eastern Christians especially the Syrians. Among these are the Parva Genesis or The Book of Jubilees, the Testament of Adam of which only fragments remain,1 the Book entitled the Cave of Treasures2 ascribed to St. Ephraim, and the Conversation of Moses with God on Mount Sinai published by Hall in Chicago in 1888. In 1887 William Wright published a Psalm and four songs, one of which was Psalm 151, which begins, “I was young in the house of my father”, taken from the Septuagint. The first song was the prayer of King Hezekiah when he was pressed by his enemies, the second was the song of the Israelites when Cyrus permitted them to return to their country, the third and the fourth were the songs chanted by King David after he wrestled with and killed the wolf and the lion which had each snatched a lamb from his flock. Also, the Apocalypse of Baruch was published by Ceriani in the Book of Ezra and the fourth book of Maccabees.3 The latter was republished by Barnes with six Syriac texts relating to the martyrdom of the Maccabees. Mention has also been made of the story of Ahiqar (abridged from an Aramaic copy written earlier than the Book of Tobit in the seventh or fifth centuries B.C.) which was published by Rendel Harris in Cambridge in 1898 and translated into French by Francis Nau in 1909.
The apocryphal writings of the New Testament translated from the Greek are extensive. There is, however, an obvious difference between them and the originals such as the Testament of Our Lord which appears in the Consittutions Apostolorum, believed to have been written in the beginning of the fifth century, the fabricated Gospel of the Infancy of our Lord also written in the fifth century and later the Doctrina Apostolorum written in the middle of the third century, the letter of St. Jacob Bishop of Jerusalem to the Christian Italian Cydorotus informing him of the judgement of Tiberius Caesar against the Jews, and the minutes of the trial of our Lord before Pontius Pilate (which was copied from the Gospel of Nicodemus together with the letters of Herod and Pilate whose copy was found in the Didascalia Apostolorum preserved in our Church in Midyat and is believed to have been transcribed around the eighth century). It was published by Mgr. Rahmani in the second volume of his Studia Syriaca.4
Regarding the story of the Virgin Mary and the Life of Our Lord on Earth, it may be said that they were abridged from the protevangelium Jacobi and the Gospels of St. Matthew, the Gospel of the Infancy of Our Lord or the Gospel of St. Thomas the Hebrew and the Gospel of the Nativity and Assumption of the Virgin in six chapters (extant in many libraries, one being a copy from our patriarchal library in Hims finished in 1468; it was translated into English and published by Wright in London in 1865,5 and was republished by Mrs. A. Lewis in 1902 after a copy in the Library of Mount Sinai.) The story of the Virgin Mary was translated into English and published by Budge in 1899.

Moreover, there survive in Syriac only The Story of Pilate, the Funeral of the Virgin, the Apocalypse of St. Paul, the Death of John, and the Acts of Matthew, Andrew and Thecla.6 The Gospel of the Apostles written in the eighth century was published by Rendel Harris in 1900. A great many copies of the Acts and martyrdom of Peter and Paul, the Life of St. John, the Acts of Philip and the Apostle Thomas called Judas Thomas also survive. There are several copies of these acts apparently written in Syriac around 332 with a Gnostic touch especially the Song of the Soul which is unique and of authentic Syriac origin. It was versified in a six-syllable meter containing one hundred and five refrains. It was edited, translated and published by Bevan in 1897. Also preserved in Syriac are the texts of two treatises on virginity ascribed to St. Clemis (Clement) of Rome (d. 101), but they were most likely written at the end of the third or in the fourth century. The apocryphal teaching of Peter in Rome is of much later period and is remotely connected with the apocryphal Acts of this Apostle.



We may add to the semi-apocryphal literature the following:
1. The Didascalia Apostolorum. No one would ignore the value of this magnificent ancient work which has become the foundation for the six books known as Constitutiones Apostolorum. The Didascalia contains the different canons of the entire church: categories, ranks, conditions and religious duties of the faithful such as prayer, fasting and the like. It is established that these canons were instituted by some pious church fathers in the beginning of the third century taken from the traditions of their predecessors, the evangelists who in turn received them from the Apostles. They modified them according to the traditions and customs of their time and ascribed them to the twelve Apostles. The Greek origin of the Didascalia is lost, but thanks be to God, an ancient Syriac copy which dates back to the third century, i.e., very close to the date of its writing, has survived. It was published by Paul Lagarde in Leipzig in 1852 according to a copy in Paris which was given as a gift by the Archduke of Tuscany to Eusebius Renaudot in the beginning of the eighteenth century and was republished by Mrs. Gibson in 1903 in London and also translated into many European languages, for example French (by Francis Nau in 1912). A copy of the Didascalia completed in 1204 is preserved in our library at Hims.
2. The Doctrine of Addai, or Addaeus is a very old treatise indicating the existence of the Apostle Addai and his successor Aggai. It avers that when the King of Edessa, Abgar the Black, heard of the news of Christ and the healing which he did without medicine in Palestine, he wrote Christ, inviting Him to Edessa to cure the king of his disease and share his kingdom with him. The Lord Jesus replied that before His ascension into heaven He would entrust one of His Apostles to cure the king physically and spiritually. Addai, the Apostle who was designated for this task, visited the king after the Pentecost, cured him and called him to Christianity. The king as well as pagans and Jews embraced the new faith. Subsequently, Addai destroyed the heathen temples and built the first church in Edessa which he administered until the end of his days, appointing Aggai his successor. He was buried in the tombs of the Edessan Kings. Orientalists believe that this event took place in the middle of the second century, but in our Ecclesiastical History we have proved that it took place in the first century.1
Eusebius the historian knew this doctrine in its original copy, but additions were made to it at the end of the fourth century such as the story of the messenger of King Abgar presenting to him the picture of Christ, the imaginary story of the discovery of the Cross by Brotonica, wife of Claudius Caesar (41-54 A.D.), which, of course, was derived from the story of the Empress Helen. It was translated and published by G. Phillips in London in 1876.
In St. Mark’s Library in Jerusalem there is a copy of the Testament of our Lord written by Clemis (Clement) in eight chapters, the second book of Clemis translated by Jacob of Edessa to Syriac in 687 and the Doctrine of Addai under Nos. 153 and 247.


– Mor Ignatius Aphram Barsoum