More on the letters of James of Edessa

As reported in my last post, British Library Additional manuscript 12172 contains a bunch of letters by the Syriac scholar-bishop James of Edessa.  Nearly all are unedited and untranslated. 

Vellum, about 9.5 in. by 6  3/8, consisting of 71 leaves (Add. 12,172, foll. 65-135), a few of which are much soiled and slightly torn. The quires, eight in number, are signed with letters. Leaves are missing at the beginning, as well as after foll. 67, 71, 74, and 78. There are from 31 to 37 lines in each page. This manuscript is written by two hands (foll. 65-78 and foil. 79-135), both apparently of the IXth cent.

1. The first portion, foll. 65-78, contains a collection of letters of Jacob of Edessa;

These are the letters:

  • 1.  (ff.65a-69b).  — Part of a long letter in heptasyllabic metre, imperfect both at the beginning and end.  At the start Jacob speaks of the three creative agencies, God, Nature and Mind.  He then addresses the mind, warning it against too great presumption.   He speaks of the opportunity afforded him of showing his skill as a poet (creator, maker, poihth/j) ; and quotes a part of a letter which he had received, in which the writer says that he regards every wise man, whether residing far or near, whether personally known to him or not, as a friend, and consequently claims Jacob as such.  Jacob in return praises the writer’s philanthropy and eagerness in searching after wisdom; enlarges on the worthlessness of human judgments, citing passages from an unnamed author and from a Greek poet, and finally exhorts him to seek after wisdom, not merely in words, but also in deeds.
  • 2.  (70a-72b). — Letter to Eustathius of Dara.     It replies to the question, whether Jacob followed the heavenly path or the earthly one (that is to say, lived as an ascete or as a man of the world).  The letter is imperfect at the end.
  • 3. (72b). — Letter, imperfect at the beginning, in reply to an invitation to visit a certain person (probably Eustathius of Dara).
  • 4. (73a). — To the same, chiefly occupied with explanations regarding a former letter, which was composed with much art in dodecasyllabic metre.
  • 5. (73b). — To the same, regarding the place of the letters iota and kappa in the Greek alphabet.
  • 6. (74b). — To the same.  Only a few lines of this letter remain.
  • 7. (75a). — To the same, regarding the relative merits and demerits of the East and the West. It is imperfect at the beginning, and commences with a quotation from a letter of Eustathius, in which he charges Jacob with having unduly disparaged the West.  See fol. 75 b, where the name of Eustathius is explained.
  • 8. (77a). — To the priest Abraham, on the vine and its cultivators, but with a hidden meaning.
  • 9. (77b). — To the sculptor Thomas, containing notes of questions to be put to certain Nestorians.  At the end of this letter there is a subscription, stating that this part of the manuscript was written by one John of Hisn Kifa, from the convent of Maryaba, for a monk named Habib, belonging to the convent of the Occidentals.
  • 10. (78a). –  Then follows, apparently in a different hand, a letter of Jacob of Edessa, addressed to one ???? of Dara.  It is composed in dodecasyllabic metre.

Then Wright continues:

The second portion of this manuscript, foll. 79-134, contains seventeen letters of Jacob of Edessa, addressed, with one exception, to John the Stylite.

  • 1. (79a). — Letter to John the Stylite.   Jacob invites John to lay before him any difficulties that may occur in his studies, and treats of some passages in two homilies ascribed to Jacob (of Batnae), but in reality neither by him nor by Ephraim, but the composition of some petty rhetorician.  To enable others to identify these homilies the first words of each are quoted.  This letter has heen edited, with a translation and notes, by Dr. R. Schroter, in the Zeitschrift der D. M. G., Bd. xxiv., p. 261.
  • 2. (81a). — To the same.
  • 3. (81b). — To the same.  It is devoted chiefly to the reconciliation of 2 Peter, ch. ii. 6, where Noah is called ὄγδοος δικαιοσύνης κῆρυξ, with those passages of the Bible which make him the eleventh from Adam. The Glaphyra of Cyril is cited.
  • 4. (83a). — To the deacon George.  It solves questions raised by him in regard to a passage in the 25th madrasha of Ephraim on the Nativity of our Lord.
  • 5. (85a). — To John the Stylite.  In this letter Jacob replies, first, to the question, why the feast of the Invention of the Cross is celebrated on the 14th of Ilul, and what is the tradition of the Church regarding it.  He mentions his having consulted the ecclesiastical history of Socrates to no purpose.  The remainder of the letter is occupied with the explanation of a passage in the 44th madrasha of Ephraim on faith, Opera, t. iii., p. 79.
  • 6. (87b). — To the same.   It treats of difficulties raised about passages in the Gospels, especially regarding the descent of Christ from David, it being nowhere stated in Scripture that the Virgin Mary was of the line of David. On fol. 89 a Jacob alludes to apocryphal writings.  After citing various passages from the prophets to show that the Messiah was the son of David, he proceeds to argue from the book of Daniel, ch. ix. 20 27, that the Messiah is really come, and that therefore the expectation of the Jews is vain.
  •  7. (91a). — To the same.   Jacob replies to only two questions out of a number that had been put to him by John. a) Why, in calculating the Jewish passover, the years of the world are generally fixed at 5180, to which are added the years of the Seleucian era, whereas Eusebius reckoned the years of the world at 4888?  In the course
    of the discussion Jacob mentions the following chronographers, fol. 92 a : Africanus, the predecessor of Eusebius ; Clemens Stromateus; Andreas and Magnus his brother; Hippolytus, the bishop and martyr ; Metrodorus; Anianus, a monk of Alexandria ; and Andronicus.  b) Why, in one of his letters, Jacob placed the birth of Christ in the year of the Greeks 309, whereas Eusebius gives 312, in which he is followed by Severus (Sabocht)
  • 8. (94b). — To the same.   In this letter Jacob considers the following questions. a) Why Clement, the disciple of Peter, speaks of five books of Solomon, whereas Athanasius, Basil, Gregory (Nazianzen), Amphilochius, Eusebius, and others, mention only three?  Why the books of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Esther, and Judith, as well as the three books of the Maccabees, are not included among the canonical books ?  c) About the additional year in the calculation of the Alexandrians, 5181 instead of 5180.  As an appendix to this letter, we find a scholion on the book of Wisdom.
  • 9. (97b). — To the same.  Jacob argues that prayers, offerings, and alms, in behalf of the souls of the impious after their death, are of no avail, but not so in behalf of the souls of sinful believers.  In support of his views he cites Theophilus of Alexandria.
  • 10. (99a). — To the same.  John had asked him whether, as many asserted, the Fathers of the Church held that the precise duration and limit of the life of every man was fixed by God the Creator at the moment of his creation and birth ; and desired proofs either in the affirmative or negative from the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers.  Jacob says that, to answer this difficult question satisfactorily, he would require to have at hand all the writings of the principal Fathers, such as Athanasius, Basil, the Gregories, John (Chrysostom), Cyril (of Alexandria), Severus (of Antioch), Ephraim, Xenaias (of Mabug), and Jacob (of Batnae), fol. 100 a. At present he argues the question chiefly from Scripture, and answers it in the negative.
  • 11. (104a). — To the same.  In the letter immediately preceding this, Jacob had written that, though the day of a man’s death was not fixed by God on the very day of his birth, yet no man died before his time and without its being so ordered by God.  He now repeats his statement in distinct terms, fol. 104 b, and explains and defends it at great length, showing that his views are in accordance not only with the words of Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, but also with the sentiments of the heathen philosophers, of whom he cites Porphyry (f.107b), ὁ πρὸς Νημέρτιον λόγος (a lost work To Nemertios, quoted by Cyril of Alexandria in Contra Julianum, in which Porphyry addresses the question of evil and providence).
  • 12. (110a). — To the same.   In this letter Jacob explains some passages of Ephraim in the 2nd madrasha against false doctrines (Opera, t. ii., p. 440), showing: a) who was the woman that founded the sect of the Shabbethaye, and who these were; b) who were Kuk and the Kukaye ; and c) who was the Palut mentioned by Ephraim.  This letter has been published in the Journal of Sacred Literature, 4th Series, vol. x., p. 430. See also the Zeitschrift der D. M. G., Bd. xxiv., p. 296.
  • 13. (111b). — To the same.   In this letter:
    a) The reason of the Divine utterance in Gen. xv. 13.
    b) Whether it is true, as they say, that there was no writing and no letters before Moses? This was affirmed by Athanasius, for the purpose of ridding the Church of apocryphal books, even though that of Enoch had to be sacrificed with them; but Jacob answers in the negative. We might as well say, with Basil, that there was no wine before the flood. The genuineness of the book of Enoch is proved by its being cited by the apostle Jude; and we have Jewish traditions to the effect that Amram taught Moses the Hebrew as well as the Egyptian letters in Pharaoh’s house.
    c) Who was the Ethiopian woman mentioned in Num. xii. 1? Not Zipporah, but the daughter of an Ethiopian king, whose city Moses besieged and captured, when he was in Pharaoh’s service, as is narrated in Egyptian history, fol. 115 a.
    d) What was the pride of Satan, on account of which he fell from his brightness and became dark ? What was the envy wherewith he envied? and if the time be known when he suffered thus?
    e) How we should understand Job, ch. ii. 6? and whether Moses wrote the book of Job?
    f) What are Behemoth, the bird called XXX (Job xxxix. 13), and Leviathan?  The Behemoth are locusts Leviathan is kh~toj and applicable metaphorically to Satan.  The bird is Indian and called the “elephant-bird,” because it carries off and devours young elephants.
    g) Who was the Zacharias mentioned in Matth. xxiii. 35, Luke xi. 51 ? and why was he put to death ?  According to Jacob, he was Zacharias the father of John the Baptist.
    h) Whether the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings xvii. 17 24) was Jonah the prophet? whether Tiglath-pileser, the king of the Assyrians, was king of Nineveh in the time of Jonah ? and which is the correct reading in Jonah iii. 4, 40 days or 3 days ? The first question is answered in the negative, the only authority for the statement being the ” Lives of the Prophets,” falsely ascribed to Epiphanius, the second Jacob leaves undecided, though he thinks it probable ; as to the third, he prefers the reading of the LXX.  
    i) What are the wild gourds mentioned in 2 Kings iv. 39 ?
    j) Obadiah the prophet was probably the third captain of fifty, 2 Kings i. 13, and the husband of the widow, 2 Kings iv. 1.  
    k) The articles carried away from the temple by the Babylonians, as narrated in 2 Kings, were those made by Solomon. The ark, altar, golden table, etc., made by Moses, which had been carefully stored up since the time of Solomon, were conveyed away secretly by Jeremiah during the siege, and deposited in the cave on mount Nebo, where Moses was buried, the site of which is unknown. This is what is meant in the epistle of Baruch by the words XXX. 
    l) Of the rock that emitted water, Jacob declines to speak; but answers John’s question regarding Zeruiah the mother of Joab, Abishai and Asahel, and Abigail the mother of Amasa, the son of Jether.
    m) The Psalms were not all written by David ; some were composed by the sons of Korah, viz. Asaph,  Ethan and Heman ; others by Moses, Jeremiah, Solomon, Jeduthun, etc.
    n) Whether the Jews were called Hebrews from Eber? and whether Hebrew is the primeval language ? Both questions are answered in the affirmative.  As to the antiquity of Hebrew, as compared with Syriac or Aramaic, he cites the opinion of Clement, the disciple of S. Peter, and of Eusebius of Emesa. One of his principal arguments is derived from Gen. ii. 23. Regarding 1 Kings iv. 32, 33.  
    o) On the Song of Songs, iii. 7, 8. Gregory Nyssen is cited.   p) On 1 Sam. xvii. 55. 47?) On Gen. xviii. 32. Lot had only two daughters and two sons-in-law, and no one else akin to him in Sodom save his wife.
    This letter has been published in the Journal of Sacred Literature, 4th Series, vol. x., p. 430. See also the Zeitschrift der D.M.G., Bd. xxiv., pp. 286, 290.
  • 14. (121b). — To the same.  In this letter Jacob replies to 13 questions.
    a) Who was the Jacob who composed the Kukite hymns and whether he was Jacob (Baradaeus) of Pesilta? The answer is, that the said hymns were not composed by any person of the name of Jacob, but by the deacon Simeon, a potter by trade, of the village of Gashir, in the time of Xenaias of Mabug.  
    b) The man in whose house our Lord celebrated the passover with his disciples was not Nicodemus, as some have thought, but Lazarus of Bethany; to whom also belonged the ass on which our Lord rode into Jerusalem.
    c) On 2 Corinth, xii. 7. 8  
    d) Philip, who baptized the eunuch of Candace and converted the Samaritans, was not Philip the apostle, but a deacon of the Church. Having spoken of Candace as “queen of Sheba” instead of “queen of the Ethiopians”,  Jacob explains his reason for so doing. 
    e) On S. John’s Gospel, ch. xix. 25. The Virgin Mary had no sister according to the flesh.
    f)  Who was Peter, patriarch of Antioch, whom the heretics called κναφεύς? (Peter the Fuller) and why he got this name ?
    g) Why Timotheus, patriarch of Alexandria, was named Aelurus?
    h) Mar Isaac — whether there was only one writer of the name, or two, or three? Three, two orthodox and one a heretic, who all wrote in the Syriac or Aramaic tongue. The first: Isaac of Amid, a disciple of Ephraim, who went to Rome in the reign of Arcadius to see the Capitol, and on his way back stopped some time at Byzantium, where he suffered imprisonment. After his return, he became a priest of the church of Amid. The second : Isaac, a priest of the church of Edessa, in the
    time of the emperor Zeno. He went up to Antioch when Peter the Fuller was patriarch, during the Nestorian disputes, and preached against that sect, taking his text from a parrot: The third : Isaac, also of Edessa, who at first, in the time of the bishop Paul, was orthodox, but afterwards, in the time of the bishop Asclepius, joined the Nestorians.
    i) Of the Magi, who came from Persia at the birth of our Saviour. They were not three in number, but twelve.
    j) Some one had asked John, why the Jews worshipped towards the south. This question is ridiculous, says Jacob, for both the Jews and the Moslems worship, not towards any particular quarter of the heavens, but towards Jerusalem and the Ka`ba. The man should have asked, towards what direction the Jews
    worshipped in the tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon, viz. towards the west. So also did our Saviour.
    k) On Ezekiel, ch. xxxvii. 1 14.
    l)  On the distinction between two Syriac words.
    m) On the clause in the Creed, “to judge the living and the dead,”  and on Philipp. ii. 10.
  • 15. (126b). — To the same.  On Acts, X. 34, 35, and Rom. ii. 10, 11.
  • 16. (129b). –  To the same.  On 1 Sam. xviii. 10 ; xv. 35 and xix. 23, 24; xxviii. 7, seqq. ; xvi. 22, 23, and xvii. 55.
  • 17. (134a). — To the same.  On Daniel, Joachim and Susanna. This letter has been left unfinished by the scribe.

Wright adds:

On fol. 135 b there is a note, stating that the manuscript belonged to the convent of S. Mary Deipara.

That is a large number of unedited letters.  Some of them should be of historical interest, I would have thought.  It would be interesting to know whether the material quoted from Porphyry is otherwise preserved, or whether it is evidence of the circulation of the lost work To Nemertios as late as 700 AD.

4 Responses to “More on the letters of James of Edessa”


  1. Maureen

    Wow. James of Edessa sounds like he’s got about a year’s worth of newspaper answer columns, just in those few letters.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Yes it does! I imagine that sort of thing is what people like him did for a living.

    It’s remarkable that no-one has even printed these.

  3. TurretinFan

    Letter 6 of the second series appears to be that same (or to include that same) letter that Nau translated and you Englished.

  4. Roger Pearse

    I ought to cross-refer the stuff from the previous post. Just ran out of time. :-(



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