Syriac Literature 

Introduction --- Aphraates --- Ephraem the Syrian --- Other Syrian writers

Introduction to Syriac Literature

This introduction slightly abbreviated from I have also scanned an old introduction (1863) to Syriac Literature and Language from the Journal of Sacred Literature by B.H.Cowper. 

Origins of Syriac

Syriac is a form of Aramaic, a language whose many dialects have been in continuous use since the 11th century BC. Originally the language of the Aramean people, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Near East by the 6th century BC. It was the native tongue of the ancient Chaldeans, a second language to the Assyro-Babylonians, an official language of the Persian Achaemenians, and a common language of the Jews replacing Hebrew. Jesus and the Apostles spoke and preached in Aramaic.

Syriac is the Aramaic dialect of Edessa (present-day Urfa in southeast Turkey), a center of early intellectual activity. It became an important literary language around the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The earliest dated Syriac inscription is from AD 6, and the earliest parchment, a deed of sale, is from 243. The earliest dated manuscript was produced in November 411, probably the earliest dated manuscript in any language.

The oldest of the Syriac scripts, known as Estrangelo 'rounded', was fully developed by the 5th century. Later, two geographic scripts would derive from it: West Syriac, whose proper name is Serto, and East Syriac. The Syriac writing system lent its vocalization system to Hebrew and Arabic in the 7th century, before which Semitic languages were written using consonants only. At the time of Genghis Khan (12th century), the Mongolian script was derived from Syriac. [Beth Mardutho produced the Meltho fonts of the Syriac scripts]

The spread of Syriac was due to at least two factors: the spread of Christianity in the Semitic-speaking world, and commerce on the Silk Road, both activities sometimes combined. A testimony of this rather remarkable expansion is the bilingual Chinese and Syriac text from Sian in China. Today, a few million Christians in India of various denominations follow the Syriac tradition.

Within a few centuries from its origin, Syriac produced a wealth of literature in all sorts of fields, literary, philosophical, liturgical, scientific, historical, and linguistic, to name but a few.

Early Literature (1st -4th Centuries)

Early Syriac literature was produced in Mesopotamia, especially in and around Edessa, by pagans, agnostics, Jews and Christians. Over sixty inscriptions, mostly pagan, and a few papyrus from the first three centuries have come down to us. The language of these is midway between Official Aramaic (i.e., the Aramaic that we received from official documents) and literary Syriac, and represent the early development of the Syriac language.

The literature of the first three centuries consists mostly of anonymous texts whose date and origin cannot be established. By the year 200, the books of the Old Testament were translated from Hebrew, probably by Syriac-speaking Jews and early Jewish converts. The earliest form of the New Testament, the Diatessaron, a harmony of the Gospels, appeared at the same time. A full translation of the Greek New Testament followed. To this period also belong the Odes of Solomon, 42 short lyrical poems; the story of the 'Aramean Sage' Ahikar, a narrative set in the time of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (740-681 BC); and the Acts of Judas Thomas, a narrative of the Apostle's mission to India.

The fourth century witnessed the first major writings that survived till this day. Of the writings of the 'Persian Sage' Aphrahat, twenty-three Demonstrations survive, twenty-two of which are alphabetic acrostics. Amongst the topics discussed are faith, love, prayer, war, humility, the Sabbath, and food. Another work of this period is the anonymous Book of Steps, dealing with spiritual direction.

The most celebrated writer of this period, however, is Ephrem the Syrian. He is the theologian-poet par excellence, and "perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante". Ephrem produced a wealth of theological works in prose and artistic poetry. His fame resulted in many writings of later centuries to be attributed to him. Of his genuine works, however, we have received many commentaries, expositions, refutations, letters, and above all poetry.

The Golden Age (5th - 9th Centuries)

This period was a major intellectual activity in the Syriac-speaking World. Over 70 important writers are known, not counting numerous anonymous works and the writings of lesser authors. Almost all of the writers wrote across many disciplines, though some names stand out in specific fields.

Amongst the many poets, we received the writings of Narsai (d. ca. 502) and Jacob of Serugh (d. 521). Of the Biblical commentators, Ishodad of Merv and John of Dara (both 9th cent.) stand out. The mathematicians and astronomers include Sergius of Resh Aina (d. 536), Severus Sebokht (d. 666/7), and George of the Arabs (d. 724). Those who wrote on grammar and rhetoric include Jacob of Edessa (d. 708), Anton of Takrit (9th cent.), and Isho Bar Nun (d. 828).

The fifth century witnessed the division of the Christian Church into many factions. It is worth noting that the Syriac tradition is the only tradition that represents the rich diversity resulting from this division, and preserved it till this day. The Christological controversies produced many theological debates. Amongst the most prominent apologists were Philoxenos of Mabbug (d. 523) and Babi the Great (d. 628). Theologians of the period also include Dadisho (7th cent.), Isaac of Nineveh (d. 7th c.), Timothy I (d. 823), Moshe Bar Kepha (d. 903), and Theodore Bar Koni (8th cent.).

One can go on naming famous authors whose works came down to us. Suffice it to say that the Golden Age covered all the fields of study under the sun: philosophy, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, history, theology, linguistics and literature.

A great deal of the scholarly activities were centered in schools and monasteries throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. Of the schools we cannot but mention the School of Edessa and the School of Nisibin, both of which produced many of the best known scholars. It is remarkable that a few of the monastic schools of this period are still in use today, most notably St. Gabriel's in southeast Turkey, and St. Moses the Ethiopian in Syria.

Part of the History of Civilization (9th - 13th centuries)

World civilization passes from one region to another, and from one language to another, by contact. If we are to trace the history of any field of science, we begin with the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians, moving to the Greeks and Romans, then to the Arabs, ending up in Western Europe (not to underestimate the civilizations of Asia and South America). One stop in this journey is almost always forgotten: the Syriac contribution!

From the 4th century onward, the Greek sciences were translated into Syriac, including philosophy, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and alchemy. When the Arabs desired to transmit the Greek sciences into Arabic during the 8th and 9th centuries, they turned to their Syriac subjects to do the task. In most cases, these Syriac scholars translated the works first into their native language then into Arabic. As a result, many of the Arabic scientific terminology, including the names of plants, are rooted in Syriac. Scientific works and terminology from other cultures, such as Persian and Indian, passed to Arabic via Syriac; a noted example is the name of the chemical element Zirconium (via Syriac zargono 'color of gold').

The most celebrated translator of the period is Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (d. 873 or 877), the son of a druggist. In addition to translating and revising the translations of others, many translators graduated at his hands. Another translator is Thabit Ibn Qurra (d. 901). He wrote 15 scientific works in Syriac and 150 in Arabic, translated and revised Archimedes, Euclid, Ptolemy and others. Thabit is also credited with introducing the mathematical theory of "amicable numbers".

Along this translation movement, native Syriac authors continued to flourish. Of this period, Eliah of Anbar (10th cent.) produced an extensive gnomic work, and his namesake Elijah of Nisibin (d. 1046) wrote a chronography and an Arabic-Syriac glossary. Bar Salibi (d. 1171) produced many encyclopedic-type works on various topics, while Michael the Great (d. 1199) composed a world history from the creation till his time.

While Ephrem witnessed the beginning of the greatest period of Syriac literature, Bar Ebroyo marked its end. Along with Ephrem, Bar Ebroyo is the most famous of Syriac writers. A true polymath, he wrote on every subject under the sun. He produced over 20 books in theology, history, liturgy, medicine, philosophy, logic, mathematics, grammar, poetry, and a book of jokes!

Decline of Syriac Literature (14th - 19th centuries)

Traditional historians of Syriac literature mark the 13th century as the end of Syriac literature. While there was indeed a general decline in intellectual activity in the Middle East after the 13th century, Syriac writers continued to produce a considerable amount of works, most of which have not been studied nor published. Writers of this period include Isaiah of Bet Sbirina who produced a contemporary account, in poetic form, of the devastation of Timur Leng (d. 1407). Among the other poets are Nuh the Lebanese (d. 1509) and David the Phoenician.

In the 16th century, the Syriac mathematician Patriarch Ignatius Ni'matallah, who abdicated his office in fear of execution and left to Rome, was invited by Pope Gregory to join the Commission on Calendar Reform. Shortly after, he wrote an extensive criticism of the reform propsal which helped in shaping the Gregorian calendar.

The 17th century witnessed the beginning of writings in the Neo-Aramaic vernacular dialects of Alqosh, an activity that became more popular in the 19th century under the influence of the American Missionary press at Urmiah. Another new phenomenon appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries: the translations of western spiritual works into Syriac.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Maronite Assemani family produced a number of excellent scholars, most notably Joseph Simon Assemani (1687-1768). They played a magnificent role in introducing the Syriac heritage to the West. Joseph produced Bibliotheca Orientalis, the first and best (till this day) encyclopedia of Syriac works. Along with his nephew Stephen, they introduces the works of Ephrem in 6 volumes to the European reader. The Maronite College in Italy continued this tradition.

In addition to the general decline in literature productivity in the Middle East during this period, the Syriac-speaking communities went through many hardships. Persecutions and massacres under Ottoman Turkey left the Syriac people in continuous fear. The persecutions culminated in 1915, what the Syriac people call 'The Year of the Sword' when hundreds of thousands were collectively massacred. The result was the migration the Syriac people to other countries of the Middle East, as well as the Diaspora in the west.

The Modern Syriac Renaissance (20th Century)

The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed a revival of Syriac literature, both secular and religious. The end of World War I, and as a result the turbulent history that ensued, a spirit of ethnic identity swept across some of the Syriac-speaking communities of the Middle East which played a role in shaping Modern Literary Syriac.

Toma Audo, Chaldean metropolitan of Urmia (1853-1917), composed a valuable large-size Syriac-Syriac dictionary. The Syriac Catholic Patriarch Afram Rahmani (1848-1929) and his namesake and Orthodox counterpart Patriarch Afram Barsoum (1887-1969) were among the most distinguished Syriac scholars of the 20th century, each producing a large number of scholarly studies.

Journalism was a new genre of this century. Naum Faiq (1868-1930) founded the earliest Syriac periodical, Star of the East in 1908. Two years earlier, the Neo-Aramaic periodical Kokba 'Star' appeared in Urmia. Today, a few dozen periodicals publish in Syriac and Neo-Aramaic.

A few translations from western books into Syriac also appeared, most notably Bernardin de Saint Pierre's romantic novel Paul et Virginie, translated by Paulos Gabriel (d. 1971) and Ghattas Maqdasi Elyas; and Racine's play Athalie, translated by Abrohom Isu.

During this century, most of the liturgical Syriac works, of the various denominations, were translated from Syriac into Malayalam, the language of the St. Thomas Christians, for purposes of worship. Among the most celebrated translators is Matta Konat.

Along the revival of Syriac literature, the 20th century witnessed an increased interest in the study of the Syriac heritage by western scholars. Today, there is an international conference on Syriac studies almost every year. Beth Mardutho sees itself as part of this Renaissance, bringing Syriac scholarship of western scholars and the Syriac-speaking communities together in order to preserve the Syriac heritage and maintain the Syriac language.

Syriac Today

Syriac today is the liturgical language of a few Christian communities, belonging to various churches. The churches of the Syriac tradition are: The Syriac Orthodox Church, The Assyrian Church of the East, The Maronite Syriac Church, The Chaldean Church, The Syriac Catholic Church, and the various churches of the St. Thomas Christians in India. (See a chronological timeline of these churches.)

Syriac is witnessing an expansion in western universities. In the late 1980s, Oxford University began to offer a Master Degree in Syriac studies. The University of Birmingham is following suit. In most of the major universities, Syriac is taught either in Semitic departments, religious studies, or both. Mhatma Ghandi University in Kerala has recently started a Ph.D. program in Syriac.

During the past few decades, four periodic international conferences dedicated to the Syriac tradition emerged. The international Symposium Syriacum has been convening every four years since 1972. The North America-based Syriac Symposium also meets every four years. In India, SEERI holds an international conference every four years, so do the Maronite institutions in Lebanon.

At the community level, Syriac is being taught to children in a few private community schools in the Middle East, and sometimes in the Diaspora. Magazines are being published in Syriac and Neo-Aramaic, and a few publishing houses have emerged. In 2001, the Beth Mardutho ePress came into existence.

Link:  This introduction abbreviated from
Link:  Hugoye - The Journal of Syriac Studies.  A browse through the contents pages for the existing volumes will indicate just how wide the influence of these writers was.  For instance, that Ephraim circulated in Latin versions I did not know!
Link:  The Catholic Encyclopedia 1912, vol. XIV: Syriac Language and Literature (by J. B. CHABOT).

G. BICKEL, Conspectus rei Syrorum literariae. Mänster, 1871.
W. WRIGHT, A Short History of Syriac Literature. London, 1894.
R. DUVAL, La littérature syriaque, in: Anciennes littératures chrétiennes, vol. II, 3rd edit., Paris, 1907.
A. BAUMSTARK, Geschichte der syrischen Literatur. Bonn, 1922. 
J. B. CHABOT, Littérature syriaque. Paris, 1935. 
W. KUTSCH, Zur Geschichte der syrisch-arabischen Uebersetzungsliteratur : Orientalia 6 (1937) 68-82.
Hugh EVELYN-WHITE, Monasteries of the Wadi Natrun. II: History of the Monasteries of Nitria and Scete (NY:1932, rep. 1973)
Sebastian BROCK, Syriac Studies: A Classified Bibliography (1960-1990) (Kaslik, 1996).
Sebastian BROCK, A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature (Moran 'Etho series 9; Kottayam 1997).  Available from
Sebastian BROCK, From Ephrem to Romanos: Interactions between Syriac and Greek in Late Antiquity (Aldershot: Variorum CSS 664, 1999).
Sebastian Brock, "An Introduction to Syriac Studies." Reproduced from J. H. Eaton, ed., Horizons in Semitic Studies: Articles for the Student (Semitics Study Aids 8; Birmingham: Dept. of Theology, University of Birmingham, 1980), 1-33, and found online at

Additional: Author: Vine, Aubrey Russell, 1900- Title: The Nestorian churches; a concise history of Nestorian Christianity in Asia from the Persian schism to the modern Assyrians,. Place: London, Publisher: Independent press, ltd. Date: [1937]


THE oldest Syrian Church Father Aphraates (or Afrahat), called the Persian sage, was an ascetic and probably also a bishop (in the monastery of St. Matthew near Mosul?). Twenty-three treatises, wrongly called homilies, are extant, which were written in the years 337 (1-10), 344 (11-22) and 345 (23); they give a kind of survey of the whole body of Christian doctrine.

The author writes inter alia on faith (1), charity (2), fasting (3), prayer (4), exhortation to ascetics (6), penance (7), the resurrection of the dead (8), on "Christ, that he is the Son of God" (17). He frequently attacks the Jews and attaches great importance to asceticism. He is as yet hardly influenced by Greek philosophy and Nicene theology. The Gospels are cited according to Tatian's Diatessaron. 

On older Syriac writings v. Altaner § 10, 6 7; 22, 6; 24,5.   [Get hold of this somehow]

Link: Catholic Encyclopedia 1912.  With bibliography.

Edd.: J. Parisot (Patrolog. Syr. 1, 1-2) 1894/1907. Engl. by F. H. Hallock, JSOR 1930, 18/31 (charity), 1932, 43/56 (penitents). Germ, by G. Bert (TU 3, 3-4) 1888. Ital. by G. Ricciotti, Mi 1926. — Treatises: Parisot, DTC 1, 1457/63. —Mgg. : by P. Schwen 1907. I. Ortiz de Urbina, Die Gottheit Christi bei A., R 1933; OCP l, 1935, 102f. (Mariology). L. Haefeli, Stilmittel bei A., 1932. G. Richter, ZNTW 1936,101/14 (anti-Jewish polemics). Hausherr, DS l, 746/52. Maude, ATR 17, 225/33 (Rhythmic Patterns); JTS 1935,13/21 (Sons of the Covenant in Ephraem). N. J. Hommes, Het Testimoniaboek 1935, 256/72. E. J. Duncan, Baptism in the Demonstr. of A., W 1945. O. de Urbina, Stud. Mission. 1947, 87/105 (Jews). Elderenbosch, NTT 1949, 161/7 (Sacramental teaching). Williams, JTS 1949, 71f. (on Peter). Jargy, OCP 1951,304/20 (sons and daughters of the covenant) ; POC 1954, 106/17 (Syr. monastic life in 4th cent.). A. Vööbus, Celibacy as Requirement for Admission to Baptism in the Early Syr. Church, Stockh. 1951. Higgins, BZ 1951, 765/71 (dates of Persian persecution).

EPHRAEM THE SYRIAN (b. ca. 306, d. 373)

EPHRAEM is the great classic writer of the Syrian Church the "lyre of the Holy Spirit". He was born at Nisibis c. 306, very probably of Christian parents, and educated by James, the bishop of his native city.

The story that he accompanied his bishop to the Council of Nicaea and met Basil the Great at Caesarea and the report that he visited the Egyptian monks are probably later legends. Before 338 he became a deacon and remained one throughout his life. After Nisibis had been occupied by the Persians in 363 he left the city, together with many other Christians, and finally settled at Edessa, on Roman territory. The so-called "Persian School" at Edessa is probably connected with his teaching activities there (d. 373). Feast Day: June 18th. Doctor of the Church since 1920.

Ephraem is a brilliant exegete, controversialist, preacher and poet. It is almost impossible to survey the mass of writings he has left, for they have so far been neither critically edited nor have their contents been sufficiently examined and evaluated. The moral and devotional element predominates in them. Very early, many of his writings, which are for the greater part in metrical form were translated into other languages, especially into Armenian and Greek. From these translations other versions were made in Latin and the various oriental languages. Much material bearing his name is spurious, dubious or has been altered.

Link: Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (1909).  With bibliography.

Edd.: J. S. and S. E. Assemani, 6 vols., R 1732/46 (3 vols. Syr.-Lat., 3 vols. Gr.-Lat.). J. J. Overbeck, O 1865 (new writings, only Syr.). G. Bickel, Carmina Nisibena, L 1866. T. J. Lamy, 4 vols. (Hymni et Sermones), 1882/1902. C. W. Mitchell, S. E. Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion and Bardaisan, 2 vols., Lo 1912/21. L. Leloir, CSCO 137 and 145, Comm. de l'évangile concordant (Diatessaron), 1953f. R. M. Tonneau, CSCO 152 153, 1955 (Comm. in Gen. et Ex.). E. Beck, CSCO 154 155 (Hymni de fide), 1955. — Transs.: Armen., 4 vols., Venice 1836. Comm. on Acts, ed. N. Akinian, W 1921. F. Murad, ed. 16 hymns on the town of Nicomedia (Armen.); cf. Essabalian, HA 1933, 216/80. Gr.: S. 7. Mercati, I 1, R 1915. Germ.: P. Zingerle, 6 vols., 1830/8 and 3 vols, in BKV 1870/6; S. Euringer and A. Ruecker (BKV2 37 and 61), 1919/28. S. Ruiz, S. Efrém-Endechas (trans.). Ma 1943. G. Ricciotti, S. Efr. Inni alla Vergine, Tu 1940. — Schiwietz 3, 1938, 93/165 (biography and sources); 166/79 (on Abraham of Kidun). Wilmart, RBn 1938, 222/45 (Old Lat. trans, of Vita Abrahae). Bardy, RML 1946. 297/300 (E. in Lat. MA). Graf I, 421/33. LTK 3, 715/8.

1. Only few of his very numerous Scriptural Commentaries have been preserved in full; but many fragments have survived in catenae. Commentaries on Genesis and Exodus to 32, 26 are extant in Syriac, those on Tatian's Diatessaron, Acts and the Pauline Epistles (here also the so-called Third Epistle to the Corinthians; supra § 11, 1) in Armenian. The O.T. commentaries are rather sober and scholarly, the N.T. expositions are partly cast in the form of homilies. Ephrem is principally concerned to emphasize the historical-grammatical sense of the text.

2. Numerous Treatises, Orations and Hymns, frequently in metrical form. The poetic works of Ephraem, who ranks as the greatest Syrian poet, are in the two forms of memre and madrash, i.e. there is a distinction between metrical speeches and hymns that can be sung. The memre are series (of any length) of lines with the same number of syllables, normally seven; the madrash consist of lines made into strophes of varying length which alternate with a refrain (EP 703/38).

a. Fifty-six madrashes are directed against the heresies of Bardesanes, Marcion and Mani (BKV2 61) ; Ephraem attacks the same opponents also in three prose writings. Other hymns are directed against Gnostics, Arians and Julian the Apostate. There are also many homilies in metrical form on verses and passages from the Bible, e.g. fifteen hymns on Gen. 2, 8 ff. (De paradiso), further many hortatory and penitential sermons and panegyrics on martyrs and feast days, e. g. the hymns on the Nativity and the Epiphany, which are also hymns in praise of the Virgin Mother of the Lord. Fifty-two hymns are collected under the title De virginitate; besides we have hymns for public rogation processions as well as for funerals and mourning. The number of liturgical hymns destined to be sung in church is considerable.

b. The seventy-seven Carmina Nisibena (8, 22-24 are missing) are important for the history of the times. The collection was probably made by Ephraem himself ; the songs are concerned, inter alia, with the distress caused to his native city by the war (338-63) and the fine conduct of the bishops during the repeated sieges to which the city was subjected by the Persians (BKV2 37). Two groups of hymns (15 and 24) are in praise of two hermits personally known to him, Abraham of Kidun and Julian Saba. A Testament of Ephraem the nucleus of which is authentic, contains the master's last greetings and wishes for his disciples.

Mgg. : G. Ricciotti, Tu 1925. J. Schaefers, Ev.-Zitate in E.s Kommentar zu den Paulin. Briefen, 1917. C. Emereau, S.E. le Syrien, son œuvre litt. grecque, 1919; EO 1921, 29/45. J. Molitor, Der Paulustext des hl. E. aus seinem armen. erhalt. Paulinenkomm., 1938. — Treatises: Peradze, OC 1930, 80/5 (Georg.). Polotsky, Or 1933, 269/74 (journey to Egypt). Baumstark, OC 1933, 4/12 (text of Tatian). P. Krueger, OC 1933, 13/62, 144/51 (petitions for rain). Heffenning, OC 1936, 54/79 (against laughter). Doelger, AC 5, 275/81 (against heret. 45, 1). Maude, JTS 1935, 13/21 (Sons of the covenant). Devreesse, RB 1936, 211/3 (fragms. in Gen. and Num.). A. Vööbus, A Letter of E. to the Mountaineers, Pi 1947; Unters. ueb. d. Authentizitaet einiger asket. Traktate, Pi 1947; OC 39, 1955, 48/55 (on the ascet. writings). C. Bravo, S. Efrem Siro exegeta dell' AT, thesis Greg. R 1951 ; Bi 1950, 390/401 (Comm. al Gen. 1-7). A. Levene, The Early Syrian Fathers on Gen. From a Syr. MS on the Pentateuch in the Mingana Coll., Lo 1951. S. G. Mercati, EEBS 1953, 41/4 (the alphabets in the "Greek" Ephr. prob, spurious). Klijn, JTS 1954, 76/8 (on Pauline comm.).

Points of Doctrine

1. On the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology. His eighty hymns on the faith devoted to the struggle against Arianism show how little Ephraem is influenced by the Greek Fathers and their ideas derived from philosophy. Hence no really clear presentation of the philosophical and theological problems of Trinitarian and Christological doctrines is to be expected. Even in theology the Syrian remains a poet using a language rich in images. Ephraem's notions are still vague and his terminology is imperfect. Physis (Kyânâ), e.g., may mean individual, but also approaches the meaning of essence. Naturally the distinction between hypostasis and physis finally established only by the Cappa-docians is as yet non-existent in his theology. There is at the most a beginning to equate the term quomâ with hypostasis = persona. The Holy Spirit is never actually called God, though the baptismal formula and the liturgical doxologies could leave no doubt on his homoousian nature. Ephraem uses the strange expression ignis et spiritus for the Holy Spirit, a phrase also applied to the angels; it is also employed in his Christological statements and his teaching on the Eucharist (Beck 1949, 35ff., 49ff., 81 ff.).

2. He says about Mary: "You alone (Jesus) and your Mother are more beautiful than all, no stain is in you, Lord, and no blemish in your Mother" (Carm. Nisib. 27f., 44f.; EP 719). This statement, however, cannot yet be understood in the sense of the immaculate conception; this is ruled out by Ephraem's view of iustitia originalis and original sin. Cf., however, Ortiz de Urbina (v. infra).

3. In the eucharist "the living and life-giving Body is consumed" (ibid. 3, 77). In another passage Ephraem puts these words into the mouth of the city of Nisibis: "Be reconciled (O God) by the sacrifice on my altar" (1, 24). In his will he makes the following request: "When thirty days have passed after my death, offer the holy sacrifice for me ; for the dead profit by the sacrifices offered by the living" (EP 741).

Mariology: Ginetti, SC 1931, 28/44, 81/90, 177/89. F. S. Mueller, Sch 1934, 165/73. Ortiz de Urbina, OCP 1935, 103/10. De Ceuster, AlgEuchTijd 3, 1931, 160/9 (eucharist). Hausherr, OCR 1933 (30, 3, n. l ; Mary and Martha). I. Armala, Der roem. Primat i. d. syr. Kirche, Beyrouth 1933 (Arab.); cf. OC 1934, 143. S. Euringer, Festg. f. A. Ehrhard 1922, 141/99 (Mt. 16, 18 in E.). Michl, TQ 1937, 474/91 (9 choirs of angels). L. Hammersberger, Die Mariol. der ephrem. Schriften, 1938. Edsman 1940, 93/133. P. Krueger, ZMissWiss. u. RelWiss 1941, 8/15 (missionary ideas); PJB 1942, 45/57 (bapt. in Syr. lit.). De Urbina, OCP 1940, 60f. (immaculate conception). Ducros, Mél. Cavallera 1948, 163/77 (inspiration). C. Schedl, Der Herr der Mysterien. Unters. z. Christusbild E.s auf Grund der Epiphanie-Hymnen, thesis T1947. E. Beck, OCP 1948, 398/405 (on paradise-virgins); Die Theol. des hl. E. i. seinen Hymnen ueb. d. Glauben, R1949; Ephr.s Hymnen ueb. d. Paradies (trans. and comm.), R 1951; E.s Reden ueb. d. Glauben u. d. geschichtl. Rahmen, R 1953; OCP 1953, 5/24 (image of mirror: 1 Cor. 13, 12); OC 38, 1954, 41/67 (doctr. of eucharist). Mariès, RSR 1954, 394/403 (antiphone on Euchar.). De Urbina, EE 1954, 417/22 (Immaculata attested in E.) ; id., OCP 1955, 457/72 (Le Paradis eschatologique). E. Beck, OrSyr 1, 1956, 111/36 (bapt. in E.); id., OC 40, 1956, 22/39 (Mariology in genuine writings).


1. CYRILLONAS, a true poet, left six hymns, among them two on the Last Supper of Christ and a hymn of petition on the occasion of a plague of locusts and a threatening invasion of the Huns (396). Here the sacrificial character of the eucharist and the veneration of saints are also attested.

Syr. text: E. Bickell, ZDtschMorgenlGes 1873, 566/98. Germ. by S. Landersdorfer (BKV2 6) 1913. O. de Urbina, OCP 1935, 110/3 (Mariol.).

2. Balaeus (Syr. Balai), d. c. 460, probably as chorepiscopus of Beroea (Aleppo). He was a prolific poet, most of his poems, generally short, are lost. Several hymns were incorporated in the Divine Office. Cf. supra § 70, 2 : five panegyrics on Bishop Acacius.

Syr. text in J. J. Overbeck, S. Ephraemi. . ., Balaei aliorumque op. sel., O 1865, 251/336. Germ. by S. Landersdorfer (BKV2 6) 1913.

3. Rabbula (d. 436; acc. to Peeters), Bishop of Edessa, became a Christian c. 400 and a bishop c. 412. Shortly after the Council of Ephesus (431) he went over to Cyril of Alexandria and strongly opposed the followers of Nestorius who where numerous at the school of Edessa. Rabbula has recently been denied to be the author of the Syriac translation of the N.T. (Vööbus). In three short treatises he gives rules of life for priests and monks. Only fragments survive of his forty-six Letters written in Greek; there are also hymns of doubtful authenticity and a sermon against Nestorius. He translated Cyril's treatise De recta fide at the author's request. Germ. by G. Bickel (BKV) 1874. On the Vita R. v. supra § 46, 13 b.

Syr. texts in J. J. Overbeck, S. Ephraemi Syri, Rabbulae . . . opera sel., O 1865, 159/238. Ziadé, DTC 13, 1620/6. F. C. Burkitt, The Early Syr. Lectionary System, 1923. Nau, RHR 103, 1931, 97/135. Van Seeims, Hervormde Theol. Studies 4, 1947, 95/117 (Pretoria) (parallel between R. and Augustine). A. Vööbus, Investigations into the Text of NT used by R. of Ed., Pi 1947; Researches on the Circulation of the Peshitta in the Middle 5th Cent., Pi 1948; La Vie d'Alexandre en grec, un témoin d'une biographie méconnue de R. écrite en syriaque, Pi 1948; The Old Syr. Version in a New Light, and Urgent Tasks in Text. Criticism of the N.T., Stockh. 1949; Mu 1950, 191/204 (oldest traces of the Pesh. before 411); CSCO 128, 1951: Stud. in the Hist. of the Gospel-Text in Syr.; OC 38, 1954, 1/10 (age of Pesh.). Black, BJR 33, 1951, 203/10 (R. and the Peshitta); Stud. paul. J. de Zwaan, Haarlem 1953, 20/8 (Pesh. and Diatess.). Pericoli-Ridolfini, RivStudOrient 1953, 153/69 (Letter of Andrew of Samosata to R.). Mounayer, OCP 1954, 406/15) (ed. of Syr. text of thirty-four rules for monks).

4. Ibas (d. 457), Bishop of Edessa and successor of Rabbula. He wrote (433/6) a Christological Letter to the Persian Bishop Maris, on the strength of which he was deposed at Ephesus in 449. A great part of it is extant in a Greek translation. He was reinstituted at Chalcedon in 451, but his treatise was condemned in 553 as one of the Three Chapters. His translations of works of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Aristotle as well as his hymns have perished.

SACO II 1, 3, 32/4 (Christol. letter). Devreesse, RevSR 1931, 543/65. D'Alès, RSR 1932, 5/25.

5. Isaac of Antioch wrote several treatises against the Nestorians and Monophysites and a lament on the destruction of Antioch by an earthquake (459), as is attested by Gennadius (Vir. ill. 66). Nothing of these writings has survived. But P. Bedjan was able to edit sixty-seven metrical homilies which had been preserved under this name and which treat dogmatic and ascetical subjects. Only few of these pieces could so far be assigned to Isaac of Antioch or another Isaac. For Bishop Jacob of Edessa (d. 708) mentions three different teachers of the name of Isaac, but no Isaac of Antioch: these are one supposedly Monophysite presbyter Isaac of Amida, who is thought to have visited Rome c. 404, an Isaac of Edessa, also a Monophysite, who at the time of Peter Fullo (468-88) wrote at Antioch the still extant poem (2137 lines) on the parrot who could say the Trisagion with the addition "who was crucified for us", and an orthodox Isaac of Edessa (c. 522).

Edd.: G. Bickell, 2 vols., Gie 1873/7. P. Bedjan, P 1903. Germ. by S. Landersdorfer (BKV2 6) 1913. C. Moss, ZS 1929, 295/306; 1930, 61/72 (ed. 1 hom.). Furlani, RTr 1923, 257/87 (3 discorsi metrici sulla fede); GiornCritFilosIt 7, no. 4 (psychology). Krueger, OstkStud 1952, 46/54 (trans. of Sermo de fide); ibid. 1953, 270/9 (gehenna and Sheol); ibid. 1952, 123/31 (Mariology).

Link: Edward G. MATHEWS, Jr., A Bibliographical Clavis to the Corpus of Works attributed to Isaac of Antioch.  A bang-up-todate bibliography.  Essential.

6. Narses, one of the most important representatives of Nestorianism. He became head of the School of Edessa in 437 ; after his expulsion (457) he founded the School of Nisibis (v. supra § 51) at the invitation of Bishop Bar Sauma. He died shortly after 503, aged 103; he is important as a poet. Metrical homilies and dialogue songs as well as liturgical hymns are among the works that have been preserved. His O.T. Scripture commentaries are lost.

Edd.: A. Mingana, 2 vols., Mosul 1905 (47 homs, and 10 dialogue songs). Tisserant, DTC 11, 26/30. Leclercq, DAL 12, 884/8. R. H. Connolly, The Liturg. Homilies of Narsai, CUP 1909. Krueger, OstkStud 1952, 283/96 (angelology) ; ibid. 1953, 110/20 (Mariology). Abramowski, ZKG 66, 1954/5, 140/3 (Council of Chalcedon). Guillaumond, OrSyr 1, 1956, 189/207 (poem on baptism).

Additional:  Narsai, ca. 413-503. [McLeod, Frederick G. & Graffin, Francois]. Title: Narsai's metrical homilies on the Nativity, Epiphany, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension : critical edition of Syrica text / English translation by Frederick G. McLeod ; [edited by] F. Graffin. Place: Turnhout, Belgique : Publisher: Brepols, Date: 1979.  (Details from the net)

7. Jacob of Sarug, Bishop of Batnae near Edessa (d. 521). We are informed about his life and work by no less than three different bio-bibliographical accounts. According to the studies of P. Peeters, P. Krueger and C. Vona the letters betraying his Monophysite outlook have wrongly been foisted upon him; but this does not yet seem to have been conclusively proved. Cf. Leon in Grillmeier-Bacht I, 427 A. 6 and C. Moeller, RHE 1953, 270. He wrote many prose letters and sermons, also funeral orations and edifying biographies ; he translated the six Centuria of Evagrius Ponticus. There are further long metrical Homilies (e.g. 3300 lines on the Passion of our Lord), partly of a high poetical standard, and religious hymns, some of which have been incorporated in the liturgy. Several Liturgies or Anaphora as well as an Order of Baptism and Confirmation are also attributed to him.

P. Bedjan, J. S. homiliae selectae, 5 vols., 1905/10. Germ. by S. Landersdorfer (BKV2 6) 1913. Moss, Mu 1935, 87/112 (ed. hom, on spectacles). F. S. Mueller, Sch 1934, 173/83 (Mariol.). P. Sbath, Cairo 1934; cf. TR 1935, 504f. and OC 1933, 135 (H. Kerio). G. Olinder, J. S. Epistolae (CSCO 110, 1952); The Letters of J. of S. Comments on an Edition, Lund 1939. Graf I, 444/52. Mouterde, Mél. de l'Univ. (Beyrouth) 26, 1944/6, 1/36 (2 ined. homs.). Rinaldi, Aev 22, 1948, 85/93 (Saggi poetici dal siriaco). I. Armala, J. of S., Djounié 1946 (Arabic). Peeters, AB 1948, 134/98 (J. not a Monophysite). H. W. Codrington, Anaphorae Syriacae, vol. 2, F. 1, R 1951 (3 anaphorae named after J. of S.). Black, JTS 1951, 57/63 (gospel text). Krueger, OstkStud 1953, 199/208 (Jac. a Catholic); ibid. 1952, 187/207 (Immac. Conc. in J. ?). C. Vona, Omelie Mariologiche di G. di S., R 1953. Van Roey, ETL 1955, 46/62 (on Mariology). Krueger, OstkStud 1956, 158/76, 225/42 (Jacob was Catholic).

8. Philoxenus of Mabbug (Hierapolis), since 485 Metropolitan of M., Monophysite; exiled to Thracia in 518/9, d. in exile at Gangra c. 523, belongs to the classical Syrian theologians. Of his many writings (c. 80) the following have among others so far been printed : thirteen orations on the Christian life, five treatises on the Trinity and Incarnation and several letters. A translation of the Bible into Syriac has been named after him (Philoxeniana).

Edd.: E. A. Wallis Budge, The Discourses of P., 2 vols [Vol.2 is an English translation--RP]., 1894. A. Vaschalde (CSCO 9/10,1907. M. Brière (PO 15, 4) 1927. J. Lebon, Mu 1930, 17/84, 149/220 (3 letters). Tisserant, DTC 12, 1509/32. Lebon, RHE 1911, 413/36 (Version de la Bible). R. Draguet, Julien d'Halicarnasse, 1924, 232/50. Hausherr, RAM 1933, 171/95 (contemplation). Jugie, EO 1934, 185/7 (Papal primacy). G. Olinder, A Letter of P. of M. sent to a Novice (ed.), Goeteborg 1941. Graf I, 452f. Lebon in Grillmeier-Bacht I, 425/580 (Christol. of P., Severus Ant. and Timothy Aelurus). De Vries, OCP 1952, 52/88 (Primacy, communion and Church in the early Syr. Monophysites). Vööbus, Misc. K. Kundzins, Eutin 1953, 169/83 (date of Philoxeniana). E. Bergstraesser, Monophysitismus u. Paulus-Tradition b. P. v. M., thesis Erlangen 1953. Krueger, OCP 1954, 155/65 (Sermo de Annunt. ed. for first time). Bergstraesser, Gedenkschr. W. Elert, 1955. E. Lemoine, SCh 44, 1956 (Homilies).

9. Isaac of Nineveh (also known as Isaac the Syrian), d. end of seventh century, an important Nestorian ascetic and mystic. He resigned his episcopal see of Nineveh after five months (661), became a hermit and eventually a monk in a monastery in the mountains of the Persian Susiana. It is very difficult to sort out his voluminous literary remains on account of his being confused with other authors of the same name (v. supra n. 5). His writings were also widely read by Jacobites and Catholics.

The following excerpt from his works was found online.  I believe it may be an excerpt from Wensinck, Mystical Treatise:

From St. Isaac of Nineveh: serious words for those serious and despairing moments that sometimes occur.  "Let us not be troubled when it befalls us to be plunged into darkness, especially if we are not responsible for it. You must realize that this darkness enshrouding you has been given you by God's providence for reasons known to Him alone. Sometimes indeed our soul is engulfed by the waves and drowned. Whether we give ourselves to the reading of Scripture or to prayer, whatever we do we are increasingly imprisoned in is an hour filled with despair and fear. The soul is utterly deprived of hope in God and the consolation of faith. It is entirely filled with perplexity and anguish. But those who have been tested by the distress of such an hour know that in the end it is followed by a change. God never leaves the soul for a whole day in such a state, for then hope would be destroyed...rather He allows it to emerge very soon from the darkness. Blessed is he who endures such temptations. For, as the Fathers say, great will be the stability and the strength to which he will come after that. However, it is not in one hour or at one stroke that such a combat is concluded. Nor is it at one moment, but gradually, that grace comes to take up indwelling completely in the soul. After grace, the trial returns. There is a time for trial. And there is a time for consolation."

And this (labelled Saint Isaac of Nineveh's "Christmas Sermon": but I have since been told it is more likely from the First Nativity Hymn of Ephrem Syrus; cf. Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, trans. by Kathleen McVey in the Classics of Western Spirituality series, p.73, Hymn 1 on the Nativity, and NPNF 13:226):

This night bestowed peace on the whole world;
so, let no one threaten;
this is the night of the Most Gentle One—
let no one be cruel;
this is the night of the Most Humble One—
let no one be proud.
Now is the day of joy—
let us not revenge;
now is the day of good will—
let us not be mean-spirited.
In this day of peace let us not be conquered by anger'
Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
so, rich one, invite the poor to your table.
Today we received a gift for which we did not ask;
so let us give alms to those who implore us and beg.
This present day cast open the heavenly door to our prayers;
let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.
Now the Divine Being took upon
Himself the seal of humanity,
in order for humanity
to be adorned by the seal of Divinity.

Eighty-two treatises ed. P. Bedjan, I : De perfectione religiosa, P 1909, Engl. by A.J. Wensinck, A 1923. Germ. by G. Bickell (BKV) 1874 (6 treatises). Lat. trans. in MG 86, 811 /86 (here assigned to I. of Antioch). Arab. texts in P. Sbath, Cairo 1934; cf. OC 1935, 272f.; OCP 1936, 511/3.— Mgg.: J. B. Chabot, Lou 1892. L. Petit, DTC 8, 10/2. H. Laman Trip, de Beaufort, Uit de geschriften van I. van N., Bussum 1931. Hausherr, OCP 1940, 221 (on Gr. text). Van der Ploeg, Mu 1943, 115/27 (De perfectione relig.; Lat. trans.).

Additional bibliography: 
-- Link: Catholic Encyclopedia: Isaac of Nineveh.  Very useful biography.
-- Isaac, called the Syrian, Bishop of Nineveh.  Mystic Treatises ... Translated from Bedjan's Syriac text, with an introduction and registers, by Arent Jan Wensinck.  Series: [Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen. Afd. Letterkunde. Nieuwe reeks. Dl. 23. no. 1.] Publisher: Amsterdam, (1923). pp. lvi. 400. ; 8o.  Wensinck died in 1939.  [Reprinted 1969 Wiesbaden: M. Sandig oH. G.]  (Details from COPAC)
-- Isaac, Bishop of Nineveh: The ascetical homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian / translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Boston, Mass : Holy Transfiguration Monastery, (1984). cxv, 568 p : ill ; 27 cm. ISBN: 0913026557.  Translated from the Greek.   (Details from COPAC)
-- Isaac, Bishop of Nineveh, 7th cent. Hansbury, Mary. Title: St. Isaac of Nineveh On ascetical life / St. Isaac of Nineveh. On ascetical life. Place: Crestwood, N.Y. : Publisher: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Date: 1989.  (Details from the net).  Available from AMAZON.
-- Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian), 'the second part', chapters IV-XLI / edited [and translated] by Sebastian Brock. Series: Corpus scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium. Scriptores Syri ; t. 224-225 / Corpus scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium ; v. 554-555. Leuven : Peeters, (1995). 2v ; 24 cm. ISBN: 2877232549 (Peeters, France) 9068317083. Text in Syriac and English; translation and notes in English. (Details from COPAC)

Further authors

These writers have been noted, only because I was able to locate some information on them.  Mostly they fall after the patristic period had ended.

1.  Jacob of Edessa (d. 708) ranks among the most prolific and original writers of the Syriac tradition. Born near Antioch, he studied first with the great Syriac astronomer Severos Sebokht (d. c.667) at the monastery of Qenneshre on the Euphrates, and then in Alexandria. He was a noted translator and reviser of translations, and is particularly noted for his work on the Bible, the homilies of Severus and Aristotle. His original writings include his Scholia on the Old Testament, liturgical writings, letters, a grammar and a commentary on the Hexameron.

Belonging to the first generation of Syrian Christians who grew up under Islamic rule, he has in many respects contributed to the consolidation and further expansion of the Syriac cultural heritage. For these reasons, his writings have had a great impact on later authors. However, many of these writings have not been preserved in their entirety. Others have only reached us through a complicated process of transmission or can only be studied on the basis of later adaptations or reworkings.

Link: Dirk KRUISHEER / Lucas VAN ROMPAY, A Bibliographical Clavis to the Works of Jacob of Edessa

2. Thomas of Marga (fl. 850).

Author: Thomas, Bishop of Marga, fl. 850. Budge, E. A. Wallis (Ernest Alfred Wallis), Sir, 1857-1934. Title: The book of governors: the Historia monastica of Thomas, bishop of Marga, A.D. 840, edited from the Syriac manuscripts in the British museum and other libraries, by E.A. Wallis Budge .. Historia monastica. Place: London, Publisher: K. Paul, Trench, Tr"ubner & co., ltd., Date: 1893.

Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse.

This page has been online since 16th September 2002.

Return to the Oriental Fathers Page            Return to Roger Pearse's Pages