The Syriac scholar bishop James of Edessa, who continued the Chronicle of Eusebius and introduced Greek vowels into West Syriac, has left us a number of letters in a 10th century manuscript in the British Library, ms. Additional 12172. Several of these were published by Francois Nau in the Revue de l’Orient Chretien between 1900 and 1903, together with a French translation. One of these is the letter to John the Stylite on the genealogy of the Virgin Mary.
A correspondant wrote to me about this. Since a lot of people seem not to know French, I have run Nau’s translation across into English and uploaded the result here. The output makes no claim to scholarship. It’s only merit is that it exists, and so makes James’ thought accessible to the 2bn people for whom English is a first or second language.
I’m not sure that many people care about patristic statements about the genealogy of the Virgin Mary. These are usually based on material obtained from the apocrypha, of no historical value. In fact James is too good a scholar to do this. He attacks the practice, and advises his correspondent instead to use logic and reason.
But the real interest of the text is elsewhere. James died in 708 AD, which means that he lived in the first century of Moslem rule. His statements about what early Moslems thought about the Virgin Mary, and about Christ, are therefore of considerable interest to those attempting to look behind the statements of Moslem writers, which tend to rely on sources which are themselves later than this.
My correspondent was assembling a collection of early non-Moslem sources on the history of Islam. He came across mention of the text in a revisionist history by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism, Cambridge, 1977. The book itself is now very hard to find and very expensive to buy, but thankfully someone has created a PDF which I found on the web.
On page 11 it makes the following statement:
The most interesting attestation of this recognition occurs in a letter of Jacob of Edessa (d.c. 708) on the genealogy of the Virgin: 17
“That the messiah is of Davidic descent, everyone professes, the Jews, the Mahgraye and the Christians … That the messiah is, in the flesh, of Davidic descent … is thus professed by all of them, Jews, Mahgraye and Christians, and regarded by them as something fundamental … The Mahgraye too … all confess firmly that he [Jesus] is the true messiah who was to come and who was foretold by the prophets; on this subject they have no dispute with us, but rather with the Jews. They reproachfully maintain against them … that the messiah was to be born of David, and further that this messiah who has come was born of Mary. This is firmly professed by the Mahgraye, and not one of them will dispute it, for they say always and to everyone that Jesus son of Mary is in truth the messiah.”
Nau’s translation confirms all this, although Crone and Cook translated directly from the Syriac, as their preface makes plain.
Regular readers will know that I am not in favour of revisionism as a general rule, as it often seems to be contrived for non-scholarly purposes. On the other hand we have to ask whether Cambridge University Press would dare to publish such a book today. Somehow I have my doubts; and this may provoke some to adopt the ideas contained in it, merely to push back against the censors. But let’s keep a balance. Let’s not fall into the pitfall of endorsing nonsense, merely because the object of the attack is one that we are instructed may not be discussed except in terms of warmest approval. Rubbish is rubbish, even when condemned by a censor.
I hope the translation of James will be of use, either way, to others.