In Pursuit of Syriac Manuscripts : Arthur Vööbus

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In Pursuit of Syriac Manuscripts
Author(s): Arthur Vööbus
Source: Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2, Colloquium on Aramaic Studies (Apr., 1978), pp. 187-193
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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ARTHUR VOOBUS, Lutheran School of Theology and University of Chicago

I now invite you to accompany me on pathways in pursuit of manuscripts in the lands of the Syrian Orient where I have carried on my search for new manuscript sources

in the service of the advancement of our field. My paper will lead us in a direction that is

very far from the regular traffic. Seldom do historians meet one another in these untrod-

den pathways in the lands washed by the Tigris and Euphrates. In fact, I do not know

of anyone who has undertaken and carried out such a task of searching for Syriac manu-

scripts in such remote areas-not since the days of Elias Assemani1 and his explorations.2

In 1707 he was dragged out of the Nile along with thirty-four Oriental manuscripts, after the boat which was carrying him on the first stage of his journey had sunk. It has

usually been assumed, and wrongly so, that all manuscript sources necessary for re- search on intellectual, spiritual, and religious culture of the Syrian Orient are located in the libraries in Europe and that all that is necessary is to consult the manuscripts available in these collections and conveniently described in the catalogues. Every study published in the field of Syrology can testify to this, for they do not reveal the slightest awareness that these materials, however valuable, are only a part of the total spectrum of evidence.


It was in 1935 when I began manuscript research, realizing that a very important area of scholarship had been neglected, i.e., manuscript collections in the Syrian Orient, without which no hope exists for advancement in this area of study. It was then that I

decided to undertake a methodological and systematic search.3
This undertaking was necessary in order to clarify the situation with respect to the

manuscript collections there, about which almost nothing was certainly known. The

information contained in some of the catalogues and lists of manuscripts published long

ago4 had become antiquated because of the upheavals and catastrophes which had swept over the Syrian Orient, bringing distress and destruction to the people there, who have had to suffer so frequently. It could therefore be assumed that old locations of the manuscript collections were no longer accurate, and new places had to be established for them or for parts of them. It could also be assumed, unfortunately, that during such

1A Maronite in the service of Pope Clement XI.

2 The manuscripts, which had been acquired from
the Syrian Monastery in the Egyptian Desert, were
allowed to dry and were then transported to Rome.
These and many others, which were gathered on
similar expeditions by his cousin Joseph Simon and Annihilation, Papers of the Estonian Theological

[ JNES 37 no. 2 (1978)]
? 1978 by The University of Chicago.

All rights reserved. 0022-2968/78/3702-0011$00.81.

Society in Exile, vol. 14 (Stockholm, 1963), pp. 14 and 62 f.

4 Mainly by Addai Scher who described the manuscripts in the Chaldean collections.


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Assemani, were to constitute the first collection of

Syriac manuscripts in Europe, in the Vatican Library. 3About the beginning of this long-range under-

taking, see my book The Department of Theology at the University of Tartu: Its Life and Work, Martyrdom


difficult times the number of extant manuscripts was reduced. As a result, nothing was

known for sure about the fate of the works in these collections. Thus, my work became an

exploration intended to shed light on a terra incognita–with all the surprises which an undertaking in such a domain can present. This task is precisely what has occupied my

life and work. This decision inaugurated a long period of manuscript search, much longer than I could have envisioned at that time. Since then, I have traversed the

plains of Syria and Mesopotamia, the mountain regions of Kurdistan and Iran, and visited the monasteries and churches from Sinai to the Armenian borders and from

Sarfeh in Lebanon to the western regions of Iran. In places where, according to previous information, I expected to view manuscript collections, I found none; and in places where I was prepared to find nothing, I found many. Indeed, I chanced upon collections about which there had been no previous knowledge at all.

The search began with the collections of manuscripts in Palestine, where the most

important collection is in the Syrian Monastery of St. Mark. Very little was known of its

contents. There I had the first of a great many surprises: what Baumstark5 and Macler6

had been allowed to see was only a very small portion of it. Furthermore, after their

visits, the riches in the collection remained inaccessible.7 I also studied various collections

in Lebanon, particularly manuscripts of the patriarchate8 located in the Monastery of Sarfeh, Harissa. Nothing had been known of this collection even though it had been

accessible to some visiting scholars. Here was a veritable treasure chamber providing the excitement and anticipation that only a previously unknown collection of manuscripts can offer;9 its impact upon me was very great.

Still greater finds were awaiting me in Syria. Discovery of some of the collections of manuscripts even demanded some detective work as, for example, in the case of tracing the works of the once legendary collection housed in Edessa, which Professor Sachau was allowed to see only through a window and whose remnants, salvaged from the destruc- tion, were located in the Church of Mdr Georgi in Aleppo.1o The greatest thrill came when my search took me to the residence of the patriarch in Damascus, where I saw manu- scripts never before seen in the West. Unforgettable remains the moment when, after several annual visits and periods of study there, I was finally allowed to enter the literary sanctuary, the library, and stand before the entire collection.”1 The feeling of elation at being the first scholar from the West to have had the privilege to be in the midst of all these unique records remains indelible in my memory.

I eventually carried my exploration further into Mesopotamia, first in the region of

5A. Baumstark, “Die liturgischen Handschriften 9I owe profound gratitude to the late Patriarch des jakobitischen Markusklosters in Jerusalem,” Cardinal Ignatius Gabriel Tappuni and to the Oriens Christianus 1 (1911): 103 ff., 286 ff. and 2 present Patriarch, Ignatius Anton II Hayek, for all (1912): 120; idem, “Die literarischen Handschriften
des jakobitischen Markusklosters in Jerusalem,”
Oriens Christianus 2 (1912): 120 ff. and 317 ff., and
3 (1913): 128 ff.

6 How little was shown to F. Macler, can be seen

in his Notice des manuscrits syriaques conserves dans

la Bibliothkque du Couvent des Syriens jacobites de brought them to Aleppo where one part of the Jdrusalem (Paris, 1920). community established its new home. If only this 7 “L’accbs aux manuscrits de S. Marc est devenu brave deacon with his love for manuscripts could

plus difficile, pour ne pas dire impossible,” J. M. have known more about the value of them!
Voste, “Notes sur les manuscrits syriaques de 11With deepest gratitude and reverence I must Diarbekir et autres localit6s d’Orient,” Le Musion 50 pay tribute to the kindness of Patriarch Ignatius (1937): 346. Jaqob III.

8 This collection belongs to the patriarchate of the Syrian Catholic Church in Beirut.

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their kindness.
10 I have been told that during these times of

horror, destruction, and massacres, which also engulfed Edessa, a deacon went into the library and put as many manuscripts as he could on two donkies, and joining the crowds of his fleeing fellow-refugees,

12With deepest gratitude and reverence I must pay tribute to the kindness of Patriarch Paulos II Cheikho.

13 The collection belongs to the archbishopric of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

14However, the archbishop of the monastery remained adamant in his refusal to allow access to the collection as long as he lived.

15The bulk of the collection in the Chaldean archbishopric in Diyarbakir, which Vost6 did not find, “Notes sur les manuscrits syriaques de Diar- b6kir,” p. 348, I found in the attic of the Church of Mdr Petyan.

16In particular the collection of manuscripts in the Church of Mar Qyriaqos in Anhel especially deserves to be mentioned. For a long time it remained inaccessible, so that only perseverance and patience finally won out.

17Among the collections in private hands, the largest which I have found belongs to Mr. Tuma Basaranlar in Diyarbakir. Among these codices, there is also a very ancient parchment manuscript of the gospels. See my article “Neuentdeckung sehr alter syrischer Evangelienhandschriften,”
Christianus 57 (1973): 57 ff.


Iraq. The collection of manuscripts in the patriarchate in Baghdad had been known only as it existed in earlier days.12 But great changes had taken place in the collection since

it had left Mosul. New important manuscripts brought from unknown places had been combined with those which belonged to the old collection. However, the greatest excite- ment was awaiting me in the northern regions of Iraq, an area whose riches, made inaccessible by periodic wars and other kinds of obstacles, totally obsessed me. There I chanced upon completely unknown collections in churches and monasteries, a telling example of which are the manuscripts in the archbishopric in the church of MArTiimd in Mosul.13 Like a fortress, some of the collections proved difficult to conquer, both because of popular prejudices and the custom of keeping manuscripts jealously hidden from foreigners. The most problematic was the collection in the Monastery of MAr Mattai. Upon seeing the monastery, perched upon the side of a high mountain like the nest of some bird, I at once realized what difficulties lay ahead of me before I could view this treasure chamber so long held secret.’4

The greatest obstacles appeared when I endeavored to expand exploration to the part of Mesopotamia in Eastern Turkey-difficulties which required many years of effort to obtain special permission from the Turkish government to enter a region which for a long time had been closed and restricted. Finally, a direct appeal to the Turkish president,

General Giirsel, salvaged the situation, and at last in 1964 I was granted a special permit to enter the restricted area. Thus, after so many years of frustration, disappointment, and impatient waiting, my search could be carried on in the remaining part of Mesopo- tamia, where previously only my thoughts had been able to wander. Although I did not have any specific information regarding the possibilities of finding manuscripts there, I thought that an expectation for great things was justified on moving closer to the heartland of ancient Mesopotamian Christianity and culture, Tfir cAbdin. It was thus

that I began to tour the residences of bishops and priests, searching sacristies, cellars, attics in churches and monasteries, as well as chests and bookcases in private homes. Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what had been awaiting me so long. I have been in many places which have surprised me with their unexpected riches; now I was not only able to rediscover collections whose existence had been known but which had disappeared from sight,15 but also chanced upon entire collections about whose existence there had never been a word published. All these places have brought excite- ment and joy, feelings which are still alive today when I think of all the adventures of my explorations. Even the churches in the villages16 with small communities provided surprises beyond anticipation. The following may indicate the wealth of manuscript materials. Firstly, in terms of number, the collections there exceed those elsewhere by far. (The list of all the collections in bishoprics, churches, monasteries, and in private hands17 is so vast that I must abstain from introducing the names of them here.) Among

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other collections of manuscripts, that in the archbishopric in Mardin, also previously unknown to scholars, excells them all.

When in 1964 Archbishop Philoxenos J6hannin Dalabdni opened the door, it was with a feeling of reverential awe that I stepped over the threshold of the library.18 I saw before me something I had never seen in the Orient. The wealth of materials overwhelmed me. Hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts were literally crowded around me. Indeed, all this was like a dream. Hardly had I time to recover from one surprise when the next manuscript brought me another; I felt like a small boy on the shore of a boundless sea.

These experiences were accompanied by nights when I could not sleep because of the accumulated excitement and joy of discovery. There I had encounters which have left memories which will remain with me as long as I live. Such a vast number of hitherto unknown sources represents riches whose discovery I could never have imagined. As a student, I was deeply moved by reading the famous collection A Thousand and One Nights, which portrays the Orient in all its charm. I particularly enjoyed the stories of discoveries of hidden treasures. Indeed, this boyhood enchantment was an omen of the excitement which would attend my discoveries in Tilr cAbdin. In concluding this part of my presentation, I must say that it is only a small segment of the panorama which can be presented here. However, the total outcome of the exploration is revealing in view of the fact that virtually nothing had been known about the manuscript collections in the stream of the West Syrian tradition. The list of manuscript collections in Baum- stark is instructive-in fact his knowledge is limited to the manuscript collection of the Syrian St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem,19 and as we have already seen, even here he could know only about a small portion of these materials.20 And even this small amount remained inaccessible for a long time.21 Moreover, the catalogues of manuscripts in the collections of the Chaldean churches published by the tireless Archbishop Addai Scher had left the impression that in terms of number and value of collections, only the Chal- dean communities should be considered. I now began to realize the real situation. The manuscript collections in the West Syrian group were numerically larger, and thus, in terms of extent could compete with those in the Chaldean collections.

What these discovered manuscript collections mean or may mean for scholarship can be seen in the edition of a series of volumes entitled Catalogues of Syrian Manuscripts in Unknown Collections in the Syrian Orient. The first volume bears the subtitle Syriac Manuscripts in Istanbul22 and is now in press.


In order to give at least some idea about the way in which our knowledge has been enriched by these literary treasures, we have to discuss the discoveries in terms of individual manuscripts or groups of them. It is impossible to do justice to such a wealth of materials easily. All I can hope to do in my presentation is to mention a number of selected sectors in our field and single out some of the most important discoveries in each area.

18With profound gratitude I keep the memory of 19Baumstark, Geschichte der syrischen Literatur Archbishop Philoxenos J6hanndn D6olabini (d. 2 (Bonn, 1922), p. 3.

November 1969), who not only opened his manu- script treasures to me, but as a true scholar and saintly person wished that these riches be made known and preserved in this way.

20 See nn. 5 and 6 above.
21 See n. 7 above.
22 In Papers of the Estonian Theological Society

in Exile.

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In connection with the text of the Old Testament, my special interest lies with the Vetus Syra, the ancient texts in Syriac which have retained their Targumic background. As such, these texts are quite archaic and very valuable and contribute to research on the ancient Palestinian Targums as well. This area of scholarship attracted me long ago, and as a result, I published my manuscript findings on the Pentateuch.23 My research also extended to the area of prophetic texts and the Psalter, with significant results. A similar project concerns the Vetus Syra of the New Testament. In order to clarify definitively a phenomenon about which there had been too much guess work and specu- lation, earlier investigations in this area had led me to the most archaic strata in the history of the Gospel text in Syriac. In 1951, I was able to publish a volume24 of these discoveries for which I used only texts drawn from the patristic sources-materials which for the first time revealed the importance of the Vetus Syra in textual history even in later centuries-contrary to all established axioms. This work has been very time-con- suming; it has taken more than twenty-five years to produce the second volume. The new materials in this volume include Gospel manuscripts, liturgical codices, lectionaries, portions of codices, fragments, stray leaves, and remnants of destroyed manuscripts reused as binding materials. Only very patient work has revealed a path to these ancient strata of the Vetus Syra in the Old and New Testament, paths which are often very subtle and difficult to discover. The fruits of this search in both projects are very great. However, since moments of synthesis must be prepared for by years and even decades of tireless labor and research, such bright moments come only as a reward after the long and tiring perusal of hundreds of uninteresting codices, second and third rate manu- scripts, tracing pericopes in the lectionaries, lessons buried in the liturgical books, examining fly leaves, and scrutinizing materials used for binding after the dismantling of stuffed covers.

The reward for my search in another area of the history of the Old Testament-the

Syro-Hexapla-has been far beyond any expectation. My hands trembled when in Midyat, in eastern Turkey, I held the Pentateuch in the version of the Syro-Hexapla. It was with an unusual feeling that I took up this volume of extraordinary size and appear- ance. When I opened the manuscript, it at once became clear what lay before me. I can be brief regarding this discovery, since the facsimile edition of this unique work came out recently.25 You can witness there what unbelievable sources have come to light. Moreover, this edition has inaugurated the edition of a cycle of startling discoveries now in the process of preparation. You can well understand my enthusiasm when in Mardin I came across two extraordinary and very precious lectionaries, which in a special way make their contributions to these discoveries.

Very rich, too, is the harvest for the history of the other versions of the New Testa- ment. When I located the remains of the version authorized by Philoxenos of Mabbiig, it finally became possible to settle a centuries-old dispute as to which was the version produced by Philoxenos and which the work of Thomas of Harkel.26 Furthermore, I

23 See my Peschitta und Targumim des Penta- Hexapla: A Facsimile Edition of a Midyat Manuscript teuchs: neues Licht zur Frage der Herkunft der Peschitta Discovered 1964, CSCO Subsidia, vol. 45 (Louvain, aus dem altpalistinischen Targum, Papers of the 1975).
Estonian Theological Society in Exile, vol. 9 (Stock- 26 See my Early Versions of the New Testament: holm, 1958). Manuscript Studies, Papers of the Estonian Theo-

24 See my Studies in the History of the Gospel Text logical Society in Exile, vol. 6 (Stockholm, 1954), in Syriac, CSCO Subsidia, vol. 3 (Louvain, 1951). pp. 110 ff.

25 The Pentateuch in the Version of the Syro-

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have had the great fortune of locating a manuscript which will at last settle another old dispute about another book of the New Testament, for in Mardin I came across a very rare codex, a text which no scholar had ever seen-the Book of Revelation according to the version of Thomas of Harkel.27 The measure of surprises is not yet full: this codex also is furnished with a previously unknown colophon which gives detailed information about the preparation of this version.

In the area of the exegetical sources, particularly precious are the works that enable us to trace the hermeneutical traditions to earlier periods, sometimes even to the very earliest. There is a thrill that comes from the hope that in this way we can penetrate the

traditions from Aramaic-speaking Christianity in Palestine. Completely new and very important sources on the Old Testament as well as the New Testament biblical exegesis, which can aid us in our pursuit, have also come to light. For example, in an earlier work,

when dealing with some remains of the exegetical writings of Ma56 bar Kaphd, I lamented the loss of his commentaries, uniquely valuable both for exegesis and for the history of the text of the Old Syriac version of the Gospels. It is therefore easy to under- stand my excitement when I finally discovered this lost work, namely the commentary on the Gospel of Luke, in the Church of the Forty Martyrs in Mardin-a very precious unicum.28 A bit later, I had the luck to discover yet another commentary by the same

important author.29
Ecclesiastical legislation has attracted my special attention to an ever-increasing

degree: the documents issued by officials such as patriarchs, metropolitans, bishops, and abbots. Their provenance alone stamps these texts as sources of first-rate importance. As official documents they are also datable and identifiable and bear a touch of imme- diacy that is useful to a historian striving for objectivity. Discoveries of all kinds of canons relative to ecclesiastical practice and monasteries and schools are so rich that they

have inspired me to undertake the major project of collecting, editing, and investigating all these legislative materials. Among these precious documents is a unicum, a corpus of the canonical sources of the West Syrian Church. It is amazing that a single manuscript can contain so many totally unknown documents. After the edition of this unique and

priceless monument of legislative sources in four volumes,30 this project31 comes very near its completion, dealing with the West Syrian tradition and also bringing closer the realization of the edition of the discoveries regarding the East Syrian tradition.

The harvest in the area of early Christian literature is so great that it is impossible to

introduce even some of the most important of these riches. I shall mention only the

Syriac Didascalia, as due to the recent discoveries, it is now possible to publish the first critical edition32 of this jewel among early Christian documents.

Historical sources have also been my special interest. This type of source has been enriched by hitherto unknown biographies, histories, narratives, encomia, panegyrics, martyrologia and menologia, correspondence, and related records. Among these materials, a special place is occupied by sources dealing with the intellectual history and the

27 See my The Apocalypse in the Harklean Version: Discovery of a Unique Manuscript, A Facsimile Edition, CSCO Subsidia (in press).

28 See my article “Die Entdeckung des Lukaskom-

mentars von M66S bar KCphd,” Zeitschrift fiUr die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 62 (1971): 132 ff.

29 See my article “D6couverte du commentaire de MR6B bar Kiphd sur l’Pvangile de Matthieu,” Revue biblique 80 (1973): 359 ff.

30 See my The Synodicon in the West Syrian Tradition, CSCO Scriptores Syri (Louvain, 1975-76), pp. 367-68 and 375-76.

31 See my Syrische Kanonsammlungen: Ein Beitrag zur Quellenkunde I: Westsyrische Original- urkunden, CSCO Subsidia, vols. 35 and 38 (Louvain, 1970).

32 See my The Didascalia Apostolorum in Syriac, vols. 1-2, CSCO Scriptores Syri (in press).

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Syriac Manuscripts with Translation and Annotations, Papers of the Estonian Theological Society in Exile, vol. 28 (Stockholm, 1977).



history of educational institutions. The enrichment that Christianity has provided for life has always been a source of particular fascination to me.33 Discoveries which I was privileged to make permit me to expand research on educational institutions and the role they have played in the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates and even later beyond the confines of their religious communities, especially among the Muslims.

Investigations in patristic literature have been just as rewarding. Not only have unknown sources emerged, but also totally unknown authors have been resuscitated.

Particularly rich are the finds belonging to the literary heritage of Jacqab of Seriig, one of the coryphees from Mesopotamia. In fact, it is amazing how great are the newly

discovered manuscript riches, as gigantic and heavy parchment volumes, such as have never been seen in the West, have come to light. These are discoveries which have made

possible a project covering the entire literary heritage of the mzmrz of Jacq6b. Thus, through this undertaking, for the first time a repertory of the manuscript evidence for the total heritage of a Syrian author has been published.34

Particularly rich are the finds in the sources concerning spirituality, which enable us

to illuminate for the first time the evolution of this powerful and influential stream of

thought and life in Mesopotamia. Astounded at the huge collections of ascetic and

mystical writings, I have often held in my hands a manuscript of worm-eaten, wrinkled folios which proved invaluable in an investigation of a movement whose role and

importance are far beyond the confines of Syrian Christianity, namely Sufism.
I would also like to report on the very exciting discoveries in the area of Greco-Syro translation literature as well. Not only has the manuscript evidence of extant sources

of the Greek fathers been increased, but also completely unknown documents lost in

Greek, documents about whose existence we had no inkling, have emerged. It suffices

to mention new, important sources for the Syro-Roman Law Book, a precious and

unique document of jurisprudence of which an entirely unknown recension has been

found.35 In connection with these discoveries, a word should be said about another

genre of translation literature, namely translations from Arabic. I must refer to an

extraordinary discovery which throws light on a very interesting phenomenon, the translation of Islamic laws into Syriac.36

As this brief account shows, the reward of all these endeavors has been very great. It speaks of joys and excitements which have helped me to overcome heat, thirst, stomach troubles, sleepless nights, and fatigue. Materials of kaleidoscopic variety have

been discovered,37 important for the history of Christianity in the Syrian Orient, its

literature, intellectual culture, educational institutions, administration, thought, disci-

pline, piety, cult, liturgy, canon law, and history of religions and philology in general. Each branch proves to be valuable beyond estimation. The study of these newly found materials yields one paramount conclusion: each source constitutes a veritable, almost inexhaustible, reservoir of information and inspiration.

33 As exemplified by my History of the School of 3″See my Important Manuscript Sources for the Nisibis, CSCO Subsidia, vol. 26 (Louvain, 1965). Islamic Law in Syriac: Contributions to the History of 34See my Handschriftliche Uberlieferung der Jurisprudence in the Syrian Orient, Papers of the Mimri-Dichtung des Jacqdb von Serfg, vols. 1-2, Estonian Theological Society in Exile, vol. 27

CSCO Subsidia, vols. 39-40 (Louvain, 1973); third (Stockholm, 1975).
and fourth vols. of this work in press. 37 See my New Important Manuscript Discoveries

35 See my Discovery of an Unknown Recension of for the History of Syriac Literature, Papers of the the Syro-Roman Lawbook: Facsimile Edition of Three Estonian Theological Society in Exile, vol. 30 (in

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