BMCR 2020.08.23

Griechische Philosophie und Wissenschaft bei den Ostsyrern

, , Griechische Philosophie und Wissenschaft bei den Ostsyrern: Zum Gedenken an Mār Addai Scher (1867–1915). Transmissions, 3. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. ix, 214 p. . ISBN 9783110658903. €79,95.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The volume is dedicated to the memory of Mar Addai Scher and publishes the papers of a conference held in Jena (11th to 12th June 2015) on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death. Three additional contributions (Heimgartner, Possekel, Schilling) are included. Attached is a general bibliography (177-208) and an index (209-214).

In the introduction, Perkams, one of the two editors, indicates that Scher’s work was devoted to East Syriac manuscripts (6), stored at that time in monasteries and churches, in private households in the Southeast of Turkey, the Northwest of Iran, and Northern Iraq. An extensive list of Scher’s publication is found in Fiey’s article, which focusses on Scher’s contribution to hagiography.[1] The volume seeks to point out the legacy of Greek sciences among East Syrians, especially in their educational movement with its center Nisibis, in the church hierarchy with Timothy I, and in the monastic-mystical tradition; besides, the reception of East Syriac findings by West Syrians is demonstrated. As a whole, the role of Oriental Christians in mediating Greek influences into the Persian and Islamic cultures of knowledge (“Wissenskulturen”) should be recognized. Perkams identifies the investigation of East Syriac medicine, astronomy, grammar, and historiography as a desideratum (11).

Adam H. Becker in his valuable and well composed contribution informs about the life and work of Addai Scher, and especially about the causa literature, “one particular genre of East Syrian school literature” (14). Addai Scher came from a Chaldean family of priests and was educated since his age of 12 in the Dominican seminary in Mossul opened up a year before. Ordained to the priesthood with 22 and then secretary to two bishops of Kirkuk, he became archbishop of Siirt in 1902 with 35 years and was in office till his violent death in 1915. On a trip to Europe in 1908/9 via Beirut, Constantinople, Rome and Paris in order to get subsidies for his diocese, he was able to catalogue the Syriac mss in Rome and to lecture in Paris. Fiey underlined the historical critical mind of Scher, a very learned and educated scholar, open to Western scholarship, in contrast to other Oriental colleagues of his time. Scher was able to distinguish between excessive use of these tools and a balanced critic of hagiographic triumphalism. Becker speaks of “historicism” (16) concerning Scher’s ordering of the lives of saints according to chronology and not according to the liturgical calendar. The history of Chaldea and Assyria in three volumes (vol. III is lost), is denoted as “Chaldo-Assyrian nationalism” by Becker. He also speaks of “Catholic humanism” (16) with regard to Scher and Manna, a second generation of Chaldean scholars. The openness of Paul Bedjan with regard to other Syrian Churches not withstanding their confessional identity is referred to as “Catholic ecumenism” (17f). Becker catches sight of “distinctly scholastic” interests on Scher’s part (18), and analyzed especially the literary genre of the causae, which he sees as texts representative of the scholastic culture (18). Concentrating on the prooemium of these causae, Becker discerns a difference between Narsai and the causae: “a shift away from the rhetoric of inspired experience” to “an emphasis on subjection to tradition” (24); thus, the author of a causa would subordinate himself to the person who requested the work and locate himself with respect to the institution (25). Becker discusses whether Scher was interested in this special genre because he saw some kind of scholastic culture in this literary genre. – However, in this regard, I don’t see an indication that Scher felt a connection to Catholic scholasticism. At that time, there was an edition activity on such tests (Mingana and Chabot); probably, Scher reacted to it because he could provide manuscripts of this literary genre and edited it.

Possekel offers a fine analysis of the school of Nisibis in a historical sketch. She examines its institutional independence in comparison with other centers of higher education such as the philosophical schools in the Roman Empire or Rabbinic schools in Sassanid time. This essay demonstrates how much work has been done in the last decades (compared to the 90s of the last century). Her thesis is that the school of Nisibis was an autonomous institution under a director, always an exegete, elected for lifetime. He selected and trained one of his close followers as successor, who finally needed the approval of the community. Probably a similar custom was practiced in the Neoplatonist academy in Athens or in the Jewish patriarchal school in Palestine (39). The school of Nisibis was a highly complex, autonomous institution with a corporate identity, an institution sui generis.

Perkams wants to show that there was creative philosophical work in causa literature; here, philosophy was not only used for theological questions and out of devotional concern (50), for which an example would be the causa of Barḥadbeshabba of Arbaia. The school of Nisibis had fully inherited the legacy of ancient Greece and now represented it in the Persian Empire (65). While the earlier causae of Thomas of Edessa and Cyrus of Edessa in the 6th century give preference to a theological model, the later Barḥadbeshabba develops the idea of a “doppelter Seinsbegriff” for God and creature, based on Porphyry’s eisagoge. The absolute and eternal being (“das schlechthinnige und ewige Sein”) basically produces itself. In Barḥadbeshabba, now, the idea is expressed that God’s being is different from the created being, and this precisely because God’s being has no cause, while all other being is caused (70-71). The result (72-73): Cyrus and Thomas of Edessa conceived the history of salvation as a history of education, an idea probably going back to Theodore of Mopsuestia through some unknown intermediate stages. Barḥadbeshabba seems to express his own philosophic and systematic thinking with the help of Greek models, but differing from them, especially in terms of ontology. The article gives very helpful insights into the sources of this literary genre, among them Sergius of Reshayna’s commentary on Aristoteles’ categories.

Fiori considers the ascetical-mystical literature of the East Syrians which flourished in the 6th to the 8th century. Fiori analyzed whether there is a dependence of Isaac the Syrian and Joseph Ḥazzāyā (whose work can be understood as systematic summary of the previous ascetical East Syriac literature) on Dionysius the Areopagite. His conclusion: even on points where they have something in common with Dionysius, such as on angels or on higher knowledge, Isaac and Joseph do not follow specific Dionysian thoughts or wording. Fiori’s hypothesis is that the two only read Dionysius in small fragments in florilegia. In any case, they have not assimilated Dionysius’ thinking, eventually because Dionysius was seen as a West Syrian author who wrote in Greek (97).

Heimgartner, the editor of letters of Timothy I (who lived from 741 to 823), provides an interesting contribution with regard to the philosophical knowledge of this patriarch who was in office for nearly 43 years. Timothy was outstanding as a Christian theologian in his debate with Islam, and the best-known Aristotelian in his time (99). Syllogistics provided the basic model of theological reasoning within his writings. Therefore, calif al-Mahdi wanted to bring the Aristotle expert Timothy to Baghdad, and he commissioned him to translate Aristotle’s Topics (cf. ep. 43).

Kavvadas studies the vocabulary of logic and its use in the conflicts of the East Syriac elite. Why did the East Syriac elite families strive for Greek rhetorical-philosophical education for their sons in schools of a very high level? Because this education had a high prestige and could be used in conflict situations. This jargon was criticized by monastic and anachoretic circles, like Isaac of Ninive (132f) or Dadisho Qatraya (134); in the Christological disputes after Chalcedon such vocabulary was needed. Timothy’s ep. 8 uses, certainly, some kind of artificial rhetoric of exaggeration. The translation “Übervorteiler” (122f.) sounds strange in German for Syriac glwz’ (Payne Smith: a spoiler, an unjust person); the editor Braun, CSCO Syr. II 67 V, p. 57,12 (often), translated into Latin with “fraudator”; eventually “Betrüger” or “Hochstapler” might be a better choice.

In a philological study and comparison of the Koran surahs commented on by Timothy I and Dionysius Bar Salibi, Schilling (135-156) investigates the question: Which Koran did Timothy consult? The analysis and comparison of 10 or 11 verses of the Koran reveals that Timothy’s Koran version closely coincides with the Koran known to Bar Salibi, but not with the Koran Florilegium (which Bar Salibi reproduced). This means that Timothy owes the Koran quotations to a forerunner of the source, which was also used and commented on by Bar Salibi, but not to the Koran florilegium.

Schmitt listed East Syriac influences on the West Syrian polymath Barhebraeus of the 13th century who was without prejudice against the Church of the East and their works. Barhebraeus made use of East Syriac authors in his historical, canonical, theological works (direct use of mystics like Isaac, John of Dalyatha, Joseph Hazzaya, or Timothy and Ishobarnun as canonical authorities; Elias bar Shinaya in studies on grammar). Even Theodore of Mopsuestia’s psalm commentary is among the sources of Barhebraeus (162). However, in his philosophical works no direct excerpt from East Syriac sources is to be found. Probably, there were no suitable philosophical texts after Avicenna, because Barhebraeus does the same with regard to West Syrians. – Further research could go beyond philological observations also taking into account historical context.

In the bibliography, the titles of sources are given throughout in German and English, which sometimes appears rather strange or confusing. It is unusual to indicate the well-known “Synodicon orientale” as “Orientalisches Synodicon” by “Auctores Varii”, or to write “Akten der ökumenischen Konzilien” (123, n. 9; 178) instead of “ACO”. Critical editions and translations are listed under the same name, like the three translations of Barḥadbeshabba’s causa (Syriac edition with French version, English and Italian version without Syriac original). Such a rigid scheme seems not fitting for this kind of literature. Brock 1983 (49, n. 2; 51, n.11) is missing (or should it be: Brock 1982a?); the meaning of Brock 1982 (52, n.13) is not clear. The title “Theodor von Mopsuestia, Fragmente” (188) is given twice for different texts. 58: Schulgründungen (instead of: Schulgründen).

In summary: The volume documents advanced research on the matter of the contribution of Oriental Christians in late antiquity and medieval times in the transmission of ancient Greek philosophy, a topic, which is often neglected and largely unknown. A rich field is opened up for further investigation.

Authors and titles

Matthias Perkams, Einleitung: Eine christliche Wissenstradition zwischen Griechen, Persern und Muslimen. Zur Bedeutung, Überlieferung und Erforschung des ostsyrischen Schrifttums ein Jahrhundert nach Addai Scher
Adam H. Becker, Mār Addai Scher and the Recovery of East Syrian Scholastic Culture
Ute Possekel, “Go and Set Up for Yourselves Beautiful Laws…”. The School of Nisibis and Institutional Autonomy in Late Antique Education
Matthias Perkams, Ostsyrische Philosophie. Die Rezeption und Ausarbeitung griechischen Denkens in der Schule von Nisibis bis Barḥadbšabbā
Emiliano Fiori, Dionysius the Areopagite and the East Syrian Mystics: The Phantom of a Greek Heritage
Martin Heimgartner, Griechisches Wissen und Philosophie beim ostsyrischen Patriarchen Timotheos (780-823)
Nestor Kavvadas, Verdächtiges Prestige: Die griechische Bildung, der Jargon der Logik und die Konflikte der ostsyrischen Eliten
Alexander M. Schilling, Der Koran des Katholikos-Patriarchen. Eine synoptische Analysse der sowohl in Timotheos‘ I. Dialog mit al-Mahdī als auch in Dionysios bar Ṣalībī’s „Disput gegen die Nation der Araber“ zitierten Koranverse
Jens Ole Schmitt, Some Remarks on East Syrian Influences Found in Barhebraeus’s Works

[1] J. M. Fiey, L’apport de Mgr Addaï Scher († 1915) à l’hagiographie orientale, AnBoll 83 (1965), 121-145.