BMCR 2023.05.05

Invitation to Syriac Christianity: an anthology

, , , , Invitation to Syriac Christianity: an anthology. Oakland: University of California Press, 2022. Pp. xxi, 431. ISBN 9780520299191.



The Syriac language, a literary dialect of late Aramaic, arose in the 1st century C.E., probably in the city of Edessa-Urhoy (mod. Urfa, southeastern Turkey). Although it first appears in “pagan,” pre-Christian inscriptions, by the 3rd century Syriac had become closely associated with the spread of Christianity in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire and in the Sasanian Persian Empire. During its heyday in late antiquity (3rd-8th cen.), Syriac served as a lingua franca for multiple churches across Afro Eurasia, and was used by missionary clergy and Christian diaspora communities from the Horn of Africa to western China and India. Syriac writers made many original and significant contributions to Christian theology, hagiography, liturgical poetry, and mystical and ascetic literature, among other genres. Syriac translation from Greek, especially of biblical, patristic and philosophical literature, was also a prominent feature of late ancient Syriac literary culture, and represents for modern scholars an important source both for lost Greek texts and for early versions of texts otherwise preserved only in much later Greek manuscripts. During the Greco-Arabic translation movement in the early ʿAbbāsid period (8th-9th cen.), Syriac played an essential role as an intermediary between Greek and Arabic for ancient philosophical, scientific and medical literature. Despite its eventual decline in favor of Arabic and other languages in the Islamic period, Syriac experienced an important scholarly renaissance in the 12th and 13th centuries, and continues to function as a liturgical language for “eastern Christian” communities across the world.

Readers will perhaps be aware that the field of Syriac studies has experienced considerable growth in the past several decades, undergoing something of a transformation from an ancillary specialization allied to biblical, patristic and (as it used to be called) oriental studies to become now much more fully integrated into the mainstream of the increasingly interdisciplinary world of late antique studies—to say nothing of increasing interest in Syriac among specialists in the medieval and early modern periods. These developments are well represented by the recent contribution to the Routledge Worlds series edited by Daniel King, which is to be recommended to any scholar looking to familiarize themselves with the current state of the field.[1] In spite of such trends, however, those looking for a convenient and accessible sourcebook of Syriac texts in English translation were obliged, until now, to content themselves with Sebastian Brock’s seminal but now somewhat outdated A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature, or with several other concise and more topically-restricted collections.[2] With Invitation to Syriac Christianity: An Anthology, therefore, the four editors have met a longstanding need, and have done so with a work of excellent quality. This volume represents a broad and accessible introduction to the material of Syriac studies, suitable for scholars of classics and the ancient world looking to familiarize themselves with this important late ancient language and its literary tradition. At the same time, it is also well suited for use as a sourcebook for undergraduate teaching, for instance for courses on ancient Mediterranean religion, early Christianity, or the premodern Middle East.

The volume is organized in four parts (“Foundations,” “Practices,” “Texts and Textual Transmission” and “Interreligious Encounters”), each divided into three chapters focused on important themes or generic clusters (“Origin Stories,” “Poetry,” “Doctrine and Disputation”; “Liturgy,” “Asceticism,” “Mysticism and Prayer”; “Biblical Interpretation,” “Hagiography,” “Books, Knowledge, and Translation”; “Judaism,” “Islam,” “Religions of the Silk Road”). Under these headings, the editors provide a diverse set of selections representative of the spectrum of surviving Syriac-language material from its origins in the early centuries of the common era through the “Syriac Renaissance” (12th-early 14th cen.). Major authors—such as Ephrem, Jacob of Serug, John of Ephesus, Katholikos Timothy I, and Michael the Great—are well represented, as are important early anonymous texts such as the Odes of Solomon and the Acts of Thomas. Key genres, both poetic (madrasha, memra, sogita) and prose (saints’ vitae, disputation literature, apocalyptic) appear alongside rarer instances, such as a secular ʿonita poem by Khamis bar Qardaḥe (13th cen.). Non-literary texts are also well represented by entries for, for instance, the Syro-Roman Lawbook, monastic regulations, manuscript colophons and a well-chosen assortment of liturgical material. Particularly deserving of praise, in the eyes of this reviewer, is the chapter on “Mysticism and Prayer,” which offers an excellent introduction to a particularly opaque aspect of the Syriac tradition organized around three distinct but interrelated thematic lenses: the heresiological category of Messalianism, the important but fraught reception of the Greek works of Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399), and East Syrian mystical theologies of prayer.

Equal weight is given to both the West and East Syrian traditions (associated, respectively, with the modern Syriac Orthodox Church and the Church of the East); the Maronite and “Melkite” Chalcedonian churches are also satisfactorily represented. A number of selections translated from other languages—largely Greek, alongside Georgian (Stephen Manṣūr’s Passion of Romanos the Neomartyr), Arabic (Theodore Abū Qurra’s On the Existence of God and the True Religion, Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq’s Risāla), Latin (Egeria’s Pilgrimage Journal, the Mission of Friar William of Rubruck), Chinese (the Jingjiao Stele inscription and the Dunhuang Discourse on the One God)—fill out the volume by representing other important aspects of the Syriac world. A small but well considered selection of black-and-white illustrations provide a window onto Syrophone and Syriac Christian material culture, from a 3rd-cen. Greek-Syriac bilingual slave contract from Dura-Europos to the early 13th-cen. Last Judgement fresco from Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi (al-Nabek, Syria) to the multilingual Kollam Plate inscription (Kerala, c. 849).

Following the frontmatter, which includes three high-quality maps, the volume opens with a chapter-length introduction that provides a cogent overview of Syriac history, with a natural focus on the history of literature, through the 14th century. This introduction concludes with an up-to-date bibliographic survey under the heading of “Additional Resources.” Each chapter also begins with its own brief, thematic introductory section followed by a brief bibliographic note, and each selection is introduced by a short framing paragraph. These strike a happy balance between redundancy and variation; a cover-to-cover readthrough of the volume is in no way tedious, but individual selections might be assigned in the classroom without confusion. Also included are three appendices, covering a) bibliographic details on translations and editions for each selection; b) brief biographies of each named author represented in the volume; and c) a glossary of select technical terminology. A thorough index concludes the volume.

The volume’s selections draw from standard editions, and from recently published translations whenever possible—happily quite often. Older translations have been updated and modified such that old-fashioned language has been avoided. A considerable amount of new translation work has also gone into the volume. This reviewer did wonder why Adam Bremer-McCollum, who according to the endnotes contributed to a dozen new translations, is only mentioned in the acknowledgements, and not credited as a contributor alongside the editors on the title page. There are a small number of typos, particularly in “Appendix B”; many of these are of termini technici and appear to be casualties of the editorial process. They do not substantially interfere with the effective use of the volume.

These last are naturally minor criticisms, and in no way detract from the accomplishment, and the service to the scholarly community, represented by Invitation to Syriac Christianity. The hardback edition reviewed here is handsomely laid out and sturdily bound; the publishers, however, are to be commended for making a paperback version already available at a very reasonable price, given the volume’s potential value as a textbook. In light of ongoing conversations about decolonial approaches to classics as a discipline, and to comparable conversations about the legacies of Eurocentrism and orientalism in medieval studies, where the “Global Middle Ages” is an increasingly popular lens through which to decenter approaches to teaching and research on premodern Afro-Eurasia, it is to be hoped that many scholars will turn to this volume to familiarize themselves with this important body of source material.[3] In this connection it is worth emphasizing that Syriac Christianity and its literary products represent a millennium-long subaltern tradition, caught between the centralized states of the Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent, even as, in the wake of 20th– and 21st-century colonial crimes such as the Sayfo and the Iraq War, modern Syriac Christian communities continue to eke out a tenuous survival in an increasingly global diaspora.



[1] Daniel King, ed., The Syriac World (New York: Routledge, 2019).

[2] Sebastian Brock, A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature (1997; rev. ed. Kottayam: St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, 2008); ibid., Treasure-House of Mysteries: Explorations of the Sacred Text through Poetry in the Syriac Tradition (Yonkers, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012); ibid., The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1987); Brian Colless, The Wisdom of the Pearlers: An Anthology of Syriac Christian Mysticism (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 2008); Michael Penn, When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam (Oakland, Calif.: University of California Press, 2015).

[3] Geraldine Heng, The Global Middle Ages: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021); Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen, The Global Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).