CHAPTER 9 TO 13 (Kitab al-Lulu al-Manthur fi Tarikh al-Ulum wal-Adab al-Suryaniyya) (History of Syriac Literature and Sciences) by Patriarch Ignatius Aphram Barsoum Translated By Dr. Matti Moosa

Posted by on Sep 8, 2022 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on CHAPTER 9 TO 13 (Kitab al-Lulu al-Manthur fi Tarikh al-Ulum wal-Adab al-Suryaniyya) (History of Syriac Literature and Sciences) by Patriarch Ignatius Aphram Barsoum Translated By Dr. Matti Moosa



Among the Syrian poets are found the genius, the gifted craftsman, and those who combine the qualities of each. You also find the mediocre poet and, finally, the scribbler of verse.
In the first category St. Ephraim stands as a highly talented and immortal poet who won the crown of poetical genius by his masterpieces. Into splendid poetry which poured out of his heart without artificiality or constraint, he translated the details of Christian doctrine and its mysteries. His successful artistic style, bearing his own stamp and seal, has never been imitated. Among the strong characteristics of his poetry are affluence, profundity, innovation, powerful style and the ability to handle adroitly the varieties of poetic creation.
Under the second heading come Jacob of Edessa, Bar Subto, Bar Qiqi, Bar Sabuni and Bar Andrew. Bar Andrew expertly formed his style and worded his verse with marked spontaneity. Most of his poetry could well be placed within the first category.
Those who combine the faculties of genius and giftedness are Isaac of Amid, Isaac of Edessa, Jacob of Saruj and Bar Hebraeus. Jacob of Saruj is distinguished for the creation and thorough examination of new concepts. Despite the length of his poems, which number in the hundreds, his poetry was still sound and intact. The reader is immediately struck by the unlimited abundance, and by the penetrating spark of poetry which suggest to him that he is undoubtedly facing a messenger inspired by a divine power. Bar Hebraeus overwhelms you with his elegant expression, lucid style, natural rhyme and his various enchanting, delicate, harmonious and artistic forms. He opens his poems with an exquisite introduction which leaves the reader no other choice than to follow him to the end. But when the reader has reached this end, he finds himself more anxious to discover what is beyond this point, and the next, and the one following. Bar Hebraeus’ impeccable poems especially his masterpieces reveal the power of his spirit and art, and the vastness of his knowledge and poetical ability. Indeed, very few other poets were able to achieve such harmony and simplicity in their poetry.
Famous for their illuminating introductions, clear expression, and exquisite style are Cyrillona, Asuna, Balai and Jacob of Edessa, particularly in his madrash on the Passion of Christ.
In the mediocre category come Anton of Takrit, Ezekiel of Melitene, Abu Nasr al-Bartulli, al-Hidli, Nuh the Lebanese and Simon of Tur Abdin. Their poetry is characterized by pleasant introduction, purity, smoothness and powerful style. The poetry of the latter two, however, is more fluent and natural, except for the few instances in which Nuh the Lebanese employed a forced rhyme. The later poets, as well as the scribblers of verse have produced both good and bad poetry. The composition of their poetry is a technical rather than artistic process. This is why they sometimes succeeded in presenting their art and sometimes failed. They were followed by another type of scribblers of verse, whose poetic compositions were marked by primitiveness, inferiority and monotony, and showed little excellence.

We may now classify these poets into four categories.1 The first includes St. Ephraim (d. 373), Asuna and Cyrillona (d. 400), Isaac of Amid, Rabula (d. 435), Isaac of Edessa and Simon the Potter (d. 514) and his group (the potters), Jacob of Saruj (d. 521), Jacob of Edessa (d. 708), George, bishop of the Arabs (d. 725), Bar Subto (d. 829), Bar Qiqi (d. 1016), Bar Sabuni (d. 1095), the Karkary (d. 1143), Bar Andrew (d. 1156), Bar Madani (d. 1263) and Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286).
The second includes Samuel the disciple of Mar Barsoum, David bar Paul (800),2 Anton of Takrit (840), Denha, Ezekiel of Melitene (905), Abu Nasr al-Bartulli (1290), Isaiah of Basibrina (d. 1425), Behnam of Hidl (d. 1454), Malke Saqu (1490), Nuh the Lebanese (d. 1509) and Maphrian Shimun (Simon) (d. 1740).
In the third category are Bar Wahbun (d. 1193), Michael the Great (d. 1199), Hananya al-Gharib (the stranger) (d. 1220), Jacob of Bartulli (in his versified grammar only) (d. 1241), Gabriel of Bartulli (d. 1300), Yeshu bar Khayrun (d. 1335), Saliba bar Khayrun (d. 1340), Bar Shay Allah (d. 1493), David of Hims (d. 1500), Masud of Zaz (d. 1512), Nimat Allah Nur al-Din (d. 1587) Yuhanna (John) of Khudayda (d. 1719), the Qutrubulli (d. 1783), John al-Bustani (d. 1825), Zaytun al-Nahli (d. 1855), Naum Faiq (d. 1930) and Jacob Saka (d. 1931).
The fourth class includes Bar Ghalib (d. 1177), Hasan Abu Zurqa and Yeshu of Basibrina (d. 1490), Isa al-Jazri (d. 1495), Abdo of Hah (d. 1504), the priest of Habsnas (d. 1505), Sergius of Hah (d. 1508), Joseph the Iberian (d. 1537), Bar Ghurayr (d. 1685), Hidayat Allah of Khudayda (d. 1693), Yuhanna of Basibrina (d. 1729), Bar Mirijan (d. 1804), Gurgis (George) of Azekh (d. 1847).
Some of these poets, like St. Ephraim and Jacob of Saruj, were so prolific that the poetry they composed during their lifetime would fill many volumes. Slightly less prolific poets, like Isaac, filled voluminous anthologies. Bar Hebraeus and Bar Paul, as well as the composer of pieces of poetry,3 were moderate. Cyrillona and those like him were much less productive. We have even found poets who wrote only one poem or even few lines of poetry.
The poets whose anthologies have been collected and preserved are: St. Ephraim, Isaac (of Amid), Jacob of Saruj, David bar Paul, Anton of Takrit, Bar Andrew, Bar Madani, Bar Hebraeus, Nuh the Lebanese, Simon of Tur Abdin and Jacob Saka. On the other hand, the poets whose poems we can neither describe nor criticize because they are unavailable are Wafa the Aramaean, Bar Daysan (d. 222), Shimun (Simon) bar Sabbae (d. 344), Aba, Absmayya (d. 400), Dada of Amid and Marutha of Miyafarqin (d. 420), the patriarch George I, (d. 790), Simon Bar Amraya (d. 815), Joseph of Melitene (d. 1055), Bar Shushan (d. 1072), and Bar Salibi (d. 1171).

Also, we have some anonymous poems, among which is an ode about Uriah the Hittite; these were in the five-, seven-, and twelve-syllable meters, and were composed before the eleventh century.4 We have also read a poem in the same style by later poets. Another magnificent poem in the heptasyllabic meter concerns the Feast of the Ears of Corn and the praise of the Virgin; it opens with “O Christ, the bread of heaven, who descendeth from the heights to earth.” It was probably composed by Bar Shushan. Another eloquent poem in praise of Jacob of Saruj is also attributed to Bar Shushan,6 as well as a twelve-syllable meter poem on St. Cyriacus the Martyr,7 two poems and a Sughith (song) about the two martyrs Bar Sabbae and Bar Bashmim,8 a poem on Shallita the hermit,9 and a splendid rhymed heptasyllabic Sughith, alphabetically arranged, usually recited at meals and during the drinking of wine.10 This latter begins with: “Thee I praise O Lord,”11 and twenty-two edifying, gnomic, alphabetically arranged poems the first of which contains one Olaph (A), the second one Beth (B), and so forth.12


The Old Testament has two versions in Syriac. The simple version, the Pshitto, is called thus because its translation is plain and simple. The date of its translation, however, is subject of controversy among scholars. Some of these scholars claim that its introductory chapters were translated from the Hebrew into Syriac in the time of Solomon, son of David, and Hiram, King of Tyre. Others are of the opinion that it was translated by Asa the priest. However, both of these views are poor and refutable. Still others hold that it was translated in Jerusalem by order of King Abgar of Edessa and St. Addai the Apostle. More correctly, the Pshitto was translated by a group of christianized Jews in the first century.
The second version, the Septuagint, was rendered by St. Paul of Tal Mauzalt, 615-617, by order of Athanasius I, patriarch of Antioch after the Hexapla of Origen, i.e., the Greek translation based on six sources.1 The Septuagint translation became the scholars’ foundation for interpreting the Holy Scriptures. Bar Hebraeus often refers to it in his commentary Ausar Roze (Storehouse of Secrets) under its name in the Greek translation. He also devotes a chapter to it in his large book of grammar Semhe (The Book of Lights)2 in which he cited twelve testimonies from the books of both Testaments proving the precision of the Septuagint rather than the Pshitto in order to show the correctness of the first and also to close the gate of dispute and controversy in this matter.
Later on the reader will come across a special translation of the Psalms rendered by Simon, abbot of the Monastery of Liqin, in the first quarter of the seventh century.3
The New Testament had three translations. The first is the simple translation made at the close of the first and the beginning of the second centuries. This version contained all the books of the New Testament except the second and the third epistles of St. John, the second epistle of St. Peter, and the epistle of St. Jude. The second is the Philoxenian translation rendered by Chorepiscopus Polycarp in the care of Mar Philoxenus, metropolitan of Mabug in the year 505. The third is the Harqlensian translation from the Greek by Tuma of Harqal (Thomas of Harclea), bishop of Mabug in 616.
The two Testaments also had another translation made according to the dialect of Palestine. It is the newest of all the formerly mentioned translations of which only a few portions survive.

The Diatessaron, i.e., “through the Four”, is the Greek word for the unified Gospels containing the life and divine teachings of Christ. According to Eusebius of Caesarea and a group of our Syrian scholars until the thirteenth century, it was compiled in fifty-five chapters (around 172/173 A.D.) by Tatian, of Adiabene by birth, who was also called the Assyrian.
Contemporary scholars sharply disagree about the Diatessaron. Some of them think that Tatian compiled it in Greek and then he or others translated it into Syriac. Others think he compiled it in Syriac. These scholars also have different opinions regarding the text of the Syriac translation which he used. A group of them conjecture that he used the Pshitto before it was revised,2 others think that he used an old translation other than the Pshitto such as the Syrian Antiochian translation known today as the Sinai Version, so-called because its copy was found in Mount Sinai Monastery in 1892, in the MS. 30 transcribed by John the Stylite at the Monastery of St. Canon in the Maarrat of Egypt in the year 698 or 789. This version was published by Mrs. Lewis in 1910. Still others think that he used the translation discovered by Cureton in the British Museum MS. 14450, which was transcribed in the fifth century and published in 1858 and is called the Curetonian Gospels. It was republished by Burkitt in 1901, but this and the former edition are incomplete. Contemporary scholars also disagree about the date of these two translations. The reason probably is the scarce information given by ancient scholars about Tatian and his compilation.
The Diatessaron was highly received by the Syrians in Edessa, and the two provinces of the Euphrates and Mesopotamia for its smooth style, excellent composition and historical arrangement. They called it “The Mixed Gospel”. They used it in their churches and re-published it extensively. Aphrahat quoted it; Ephraim commented upon it; and his commentary today survives in an Armenian manuscript transcribed in 1195 and translated into Latin and published by Ancher in 1876.

The Diatessaron was in use until the first quarter of the fifth century when it was suspended by Rabula, metropolitan of Edessa, to protect the integrity of the Revealed Book (the Holy Bible). At that time, he introduced the separate Gospels, which it is said he had revised according to the Greek origin, in its place. He was followed by Theodoret of Cyrus who eliminated more than two hundred copies in his diocese. Subsequently, its circulation in the church was stopped and the copies that remained were used only for general reading.3 A copy of the Diatessaron was, however, found in the middle of the ninth century in the handwriting of Isa ibn Ali, the physician and disciple of Hunayn ibn Ishaq whose translation into Arabic was ascribed to the priest-monk Abu al-Faraj Abd Allah ibn al-Tayyib in the middle of the eleventh century. This Arabic version was translated into Latin and published by the priest Augustine Ciasca in 1888. Also, it was twice translated into English – and into German in 1896 and 1926. The idea, however, of compiling the four Gospels in one had occurred to more than one Christian scholar. The oldest among these were Theophilus, patriarch of Antioch (d. 180), according to Hieronymus (Jerome)4, Ammonius of Alexandria, who is thought to have died around 226, and Elijah the Syrian, while he was bishop of Salamya, in the beginning of the ninth century. But when, in the middle of the ninth century, the monk Daniel of Beth Batin assigned Biblical lessons for the Week of Passion, he restored the use of the Diatessaron and in some chapters sought the assistance of the Harclensian version.5 Further, a few Coptic scholars around the thirteenth century intended to make an Arabic compilation of the Diatessaron following the method of Ibn al-Tayyib, to which they appended two tracts on the genealogy of Christ our Lord and his resurrection. These tracts had not been included in the Diatessaron of Tatian which opened only with the five verses of the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John. A transcribed copy of this Arabic version in the fourteenth century is preserved at the Vatican library.
As for Tatian, he was born a heathen around the year 110 and studied literature, oration, history and philosophy in Greek and journeyed throughout Greece. His journey led him to Rome where he read the Old Testament, liked it, and preferred it to the writings of the philosophers. He embraced Christianity and was associated with Justin of Neapolis, the philosopher, saint, and martyr.6 He established or followed the principles of that sect of Anchorites called “The extremely Chaste”. Because of this, he was excommunicated from the Church. To some critics the reason for his excommunication was some erroneous and dangerous phrases which he used in his writings. He returned to his country, or most likely to Edessa where he died around 180 or shortly after it. He was a vessel of knowledge and a philosopher too. He composed many works in Greek, all of which are lost except his harsh and censuring letter to the Greeks. No writing of his is known in Syriac except the Diatessaron which most of the scholars think was either compiled or translated by him.7


Syrian philologists knew orthographic rules only by tradition. Teachers of the Holy Bible, according to the Pshitto version starting with the Psalms, usually directed their pupils to read and vocalize correctly. They taught them the forming of letters, intonation, the marking of vowel signs and the fixing of diacritical points over words. This methodology began in the school of Edessa at the beginning of the fifth century from whence it was transmitted into the school of Nisibin. It was usually divided into three parts. The first, contained vocalized and accentuated copies of the Old Testament; the second, included tracts on diacritical and vowel points; and the third, contained tracts on vague and strange terminology. Master Sabroy, the founder of the school of Beth Shahaq, is accredited with introducing this methodology into the Orthodox schools of the East.
In 705 St. Jacob of Edessa revised the vocalizing of the Old Testament text at the Monastery of Tal Ada and elaborated on the system of vowel-signs, thus completing the system which we have today. He divided the Holy Scriptures into chapters, wrote an introduction about the contents of each, and made many marginal notes on the text, together with the correct pronunciation of words, containing studies of the Greek as well as the Syriac versions of the Bible. A group of these Biblical books survive in ancient manuscripts written between 719 and 720.
Eminent philological scholars among the monks of Qarqafta (the Skull), a monastery in Magdal, a village on the Khabur river not far from present day Ras al-Ayn and al-Hasaka, followed the steps of Jacob of Edessa. Their work led to what became commonly known as the Qarqaftian Tradition. In Ras al-Ayn two prominent scholars flourished, Santa Tubana who lived in a monastery in that district and Deacon Saba of Ras al-Ayn. Saba had a vast knowledge of the science of philology and a great mastery of the orthographic rules of the Holy Scriptures. He was a man of piety too.
According to Bar Bahlul in his dictionary (columns No. 1363 and 1364), whenever Tubana and Saba finished the vocalizing of a chapter they fixed their initials at the end. Books, which had been transcribed by Saba in 724 and 726, have also reached us – indicating the progress in this art in that period. Among the scholars who worked in this art were Brother Ibrahim of the monastery of Quba between 724-7261, Simon of the village of Tal Kummathri, abbot of the Monastery of Euspholis, and Theodosius of Talla, the organizer,2 Bishop Gurgis (George) in 736,3 Ibrahim of Hah and his disciple the deacon Rubeil in 817,4 and Basil, Samuel, Simon and Guriyya (Gabriel) in the monastery of Murayba in 841.5
MS. 168 of the British Museum contains the Book of Psalms vocalized by the two monks Samuel and Matta of the Monastery of the Eastern Syrians in 600. Another, MS. 171 in the same library, contains an old copy of the Gospels compared, and vocalized by the priest of the village of Nahra and his two disciples Yuhanna bar Daniel al-Arabi and deacon Yuhanna the Arab from Unamra.

These traditional books do not furnish the entire text of the Holy Scriptures. They are confined only to the verses whose pronunciation needs adjustment or to those that differ in both the Greek and Syriac translations. The reader will find that the pronunciation of these verses has been accurately accentuated despite the difference in the copying of these texts. Some of these philologists added to the Scriptures selected pieces from the works of our doctors Dionysius the Areopagite, Basilius, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa and Severus of Antioch. Some of these were engaged in vocalizing the works of St. Ephraim, Jacob of Edessa, Antonius of Takrit and the lives and histories of the saints.
We have found twelve old copies of these traditional books, which are dated between 980 and 1205. One copy of these books at the Zafaran monastery MS. 241, is dated 1000 A.D., and another more recent copy at St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem, MS. 42, was written at the end of the fifteenth century. The British Museum has a unique Nestorian copy finished in 899. Another British Museum MS. 163, contains the last volume of St. Severus vocalized by the two monks Samuel and Tuma (Thomas) of the Monastery of John of Atharib in 563. The library of St. Mark in Jerusalem also contains the book of Patriarch Cyriacus vocalized by the priest Theodorus of Takrit of the Pillar monastery in 806 who, it appears, became metropolitan of Marash (Germanicia) between 825 and 834.



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.