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24.02.02 Penn et al. (eds.), Invitation to Syriac Christianity

24.02.02 Penn et al. (eds.), Invitation to Syriac Christianity


In the Christianity of the Middle East, the dialect of Aramaic known as Syriac and originating in Northern Mesopotamia has played essentially the same role that Latin has played in Catholic Europe. Expressing a vibrant religious culture, though one often deeply divided theologically, the language and script of Syriac were spread by missionaries as far as western China and southern India. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in particular, many early Syriac manuscripts were brought to European libraries, and the study of Syriac enjoyed a certain cachet. Yet even forty years ago, there were few general and accessible descriptions of the world of Syriac literature. After the four-volume work in Latin with extracts in Syriac published by the Maronite J. S. Assemani (Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana, 1719-28), the main European introductions were those of Rubens Duval, Anciennes littératures chrétiennes. II. La littérature syriaque (1899), William Wright, A Short History of Syriac Literature (1894), and Anton Baumstark,Geschichte der syrischen Literatur (1922).

For much of the twentieth century, it was also hard to find translations of key texts into modern European languages (Latin being the more common medium). However, the splendid editions by Edmund Beck of St Ephrem’s myriad poetic works began to appear from 1955, accompanied by German translations. Starting with his The Harp of the Spirit (1975), Sebastian Brock’s beautiful English translations have been influential in both academic and church milieus, exciting much interest in the “classical” period of Syriac poetry in the fourth and fifth centuries and beyond. Other editions and translations of key texts have followed in various languages.

Since the turn of the millennium in particular, there has been a veritable explosion of interest in Syriac studies, particularly in North America, but also in Europe, Israel, and Australia. This has been driven by a number of different trends: interest in non-western Christian traditions and a questioning of the Eusebian limits of the Christian realm, the development of the field of Late Antiquity and Byzantine Studies, and a recognition of the relevance of Syriac for the study of early Islam and its history. Sadly and ironically, this interest has increased at the same time as Syriac Christian communities in the Middle East have declined even more sharply in number. Their emigration westwards has been largely due to situations of conflict and persecution in their native lands. Some key members of these communities are currently active in promoting the study of Syriac language and heritage more widely.

Yet despite all this progress, it has remained difficult for a novice outsider to form a more general impression of Syriac literary and religious culture, especially one on which to base a decision to explore a particular area in greater depth. In filling the gap in the availability of translated texts (3), the editors of this compendium in English have provided a valuable resource to students, scholars, and interested lay readers. The range of genres included covers examples of “foundation myths,” theological poetry, doctrine, liturgy, asceticism, mysticism and prayer, biblical interpretation (both in prose commentary and poetic form), hagiography, translations from Greek, and interactions with other religions. While the “classical” period of Syriac culture of the fourth to sixth centuries has been the traditional focus of scholarship, in fact there are important texts from the early and later medieval periods. This anthology therefore casts its net wide, including examples of writings such as the second-centuryOdes of Solomon and a mid-third-century secular legal contract, all the way to a travelogue and a catalogue of authors that were both written in the fourteenth century. Each section begins with an informative introduction and suggestions for further reading on the topic. Since Syriac authors were often masters of more than one genre and several works may fall into more than a single category, there is some necessary overlap in the information given in the different introductions, but this does help each section to stand alone to some extent. The English translations are based largely on those of existing publications, with acknowledgement and often some modification or updating in the case of older renderings. The chosen extracts are sufficiently long to provide an indication of the nature of each individual work as a whole.

While almost all the texts included are Syriac in origin, there are also others that relate to Syriac Christianity in various ways: one from Georgian that preserves a martyr act originally written in Syriac; one in Latin, describing the mission of a Catholic friar to the Mongols; two from Arabic, consisting of a disputation on the true faith and a letter concerning translation; and a rendering of the Chinese text of the famous Jingjiao Stele of 781 CE, explaining the nature of the Christian religion in Buddhist and Taoist terms. There are three helpful maps and a dozen photos of relevant manuscripts and artefacts. The end of the volume provides details of prior publications, brief biographies of the Syriac authors cited, and glossaries of terms, as well as an index.

At over four hundred pages, the book is sizeable but not unwieldy in its in soft cover version, though many readers will no doubt consult it in eBook form. It will be a worthwhile addition to university and theological libraries, and the price will make this particularly attractive to students and interested members of the general public.