A letter of James of Edessa on various issues

Here is a translation (from the French of Francois Nau in ROC) of a letter of James of Edessa, to John the Stylite.  The headings in italics are by Nau.


To our spiritual and beloved brother, to the religious and pious priest Mar John, (from) James the humble, peace in the Lord.

1. Exordium.  

I would like your pious Fraternity to judge the feelings of my Humility as you would judge a woman who has given birth and nourishes (her child) and as you would judge a merciful mother: although she complains a little against her son and prevents him  suckling, she does not, however, repulse him for long; similarly, if my Humility sometimes complains a little because of the insults and bitterness that have come upon me for my sins, I will not accept and will not support, however, repulsing your Fraternity, or another of the disciples of the Messiah, who submits his difficulties on a passage from the sacred books or on any other topic relevant to the soul. And I’m not doing this solely because of the order of the Master who commands me to do so, but also because I find it easy and enjoyable, as it has also been said that I should make seeds grow and increase, and that I should bring to the table, along with the talents that make up the principal, the interest commensurate with my abilities [1]. Do not be afraid to ask me the things that bother you, because, even though I may complain a little verbally at the time, thereafter at least I shall force myself, and give myself the trouble of sending and accomplishing what has been asked and requested of me by the charity of the brethren. 

2. The number of books attributed to Solomon

Your Fraternity has asked me one thing that bothers me as well as you. So what can I say, and how can I answer your fraternity who asks me about a variety of the words of this Holy, Apostolic and Learned Spirit, who is all-knowing and sees even the deep things of God, except that I hesitate just as you do, and I admire the hidden wisdom of the Spirit. It is indeed true that St. Clement, a disciple of the Apostle Peter, wrote in the Eighth Constitution (διάταξις) regarding the canons [2], as your Fraternity has written, that there are five books of Solomon, but he does not distinguish and name clearly which those books are; while there are only three according to the holy doctors that you have mentioned: Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, Amphilochius, and, before them, Eusebius of Caesarea, with many others who followed them. Your Fraternity has done well to hesitate, and to study this subject, which is extremely good and very commendable, however, we should not be surprised by variations by analogy in the words of the Spirit because the Spirit has spoken them in His wisdom through the mouths of men and for men, and as he saw fit. 

These words embarrassed and surprised you, so you now ask me — although I am as embarrassed and as surprised as you — why Clement said five, while the Doctors said three, a fact which is true and absolutely true, but which I do not understand and do not promise to explain. I only write what I think is correct, which at least has a semblance of truth.  So I hasten to say that Clement counted five books of Solomon because he assigned to him also the Wisdom, that admirable book, and because he divided the book of Proverbs into two books, because some also share the idea that these are two books that were collected and placed together, starting at the place [3] where are mentioned the Proverbs written by “friends” [4] of Hezekiah, until the end. That’s what I think that I can say about the text of Clement. As to the text of the doctors who mentions only three books (of Solomon), I say they do have three, because they speak only of the books defined canonically by the Church as proto-canonical books, and because they make only one book and not two of the whole book of Proverbs. All these ideas derive from my limited and humble opinion; as for the real truth, we leave that to be learned from the Spirit, the writer of the (holy) books; however, for your Fraternity’s tranquillity and comfort, I thought that I would send you with this a copy of a small treatise that I wrote about the Wisdom, this book so admirable that many attribute it to Solomon, from the time when I was applying myself with love of work to revise this book with the others [5]. That’s all for the first question in your Fraternity’s letter.

3. The deuterocanonical books

Let’s look at the second question: Why are these books not counted among the canonical books of the Church? I speak of the great Wisdom and of Jesus son of Sirach, and of many others which are rejected, like Tobit and those of the  women Esther and Judith, and the three (books) on the Maccabees [6]. I will answer again, that the truth is exactly known to the prophetic, apostolic and learned Spirit. I also would like to tell you the opinion of my feeble intelligence: it is that they are not entirely composed of words revealed by the (Holy) Spirit or of prophecies from God, but that they contain either words of human wisdom written by pious men, or stories about holy and pious men themselves, which is why  they were separated from the number of the canonical books of the Church, and were placed for special reading outside of the (books) for regular use in the correction and correcting of morals, actions and deeds, for those who are of a very teachable spirit, and want to hear some useful and loving advice for word and deed and for the knowledge of good conduct.

4. On the computus of the Alexandrians

 As for your third question, on the year, which the Alexandrians count higher than us, as I have told you already [7], it would require many words to resolve it so as to satisfy you. Listen at least to the few words I can give you from the strength and time (available) to me. Know that the year of the revolution of the sun on the circle of the sky is made up of three hundred sixty-five days, so we get fifty-two weeks plus one day left over. It is therefore obvious that every year, there will be one fixed and pre-determined day which will be the start and end day of the year. It follows that, if the first year begins and ends with a Sunday — and that day will be fixed and determined to mark the beginning and the end — the second year will begin and end on a Monday, the third on a Tuesday, the fourth will begin with a Wednesday, and — because of the extra day which is added during the year (the leap year; every four years — we find that it ends on a Thursday. So it is obvious, from what I have just said, that the fifth year will be a Friday, i.e. the fifth day, fixed, particular and pre-determined. 

What I have just told you about these five years will show you that all those who are engaging in these calculations are trying to find out which day of the week ends the year; i.e. that which neighbours (which follows) it in the next year, in this period of seven days, which is the crown of all the time in this world, and which you usually call the “foundation” of the following year [8]. This “foundation” of which you speak is worked out from what the current year used, not from that which the year which is going to start will use. It follows therefore that you should take the Alexandrian year, counting one more than you do, when you want to calculate the beginning of your year and learn which day of the week belonged to the current year and not to the coming year, which has not yet begun and therefore is not ‘neighbouring’. You won’t calculate it correctly using the years as they unroll.  Because, when you first put aside this year, and only count 5,180 instead of 5,181, you are accustomed to calculate, instead from this (foundation), that from the coming year which is not yet under way, because you do not know the reason for this term “foundation”.

Learn from this and work out in your mind as much as you can, until you have got what you are asking; knowing that the number 5180 that you give is not the truth, any more than that of the Alexandrians, because the number of years of the world is not known and cannot be known by anyone. These are some suggestions; let everyone begin by forming their ideas based on reason, to be used as (a starting point) to calculate then whatever he wants. 

That’s what I have found out to answer the questions and requests in the letter of your Fraternity.

5. Personal question.

As for the request that ends your letter, I will tell your Fraternity that it is not about the fault committed against me by this man and because of which he believes that I am avenging myself; but he has sinned against himself and against God’s law. He has sinned more gravely because he was warned and exhorted before his fault. Many have shouted at him, and I also have said to him: “Take care not to throw yourself into this pit and die there”. — He did not listen and did not obey. And now what should I do for him? He asked no less of me than to violate the divine law for him, to make me as guilty as he is, to make acceptance of no-one and to break the law of God. He believes that it is I who have cut him off from the Church, but he cut himself off, and it was not I (who did it). Tell him to weep over what he did, and to think that it is better for him to be removed from the church than to violate its rule. When he comes here, I’ll deal with him to the degree that he repents. 

Farewell in the Lord, and pray also for my Humility.

(1) See Mt. 25:26-30.
(2) This is the Octateuch of Clement whose eighth book consists of the Apostolic Canons. In the edition of Lagarde, Reliquiae juris ant. syr., Leipzig, 1836, p.60, line 2, we find indeed, “of Solomon, five books: while the Greek text of the last canon of the apostles only assigns three books to Solomon, cf. Mansi. Concilia, I. 17. 
(3) Prov. xxv.
(4) The Greek and Peschito have oi( fi/loi, the Hebrew and the Vulgate: viri.
(5) In 701-705 AD.
(6) Most of Esther is protocanonical: the third book of Maccabees, although referred to as canonical in the last of the apostolic canons, is apocryphal; the Catholic Church attributes to the deuterocanonical books the same authority as to the others. 
(7) Cf. ROC, 1900, p. 290 and p.10 of reprint. Lettres de Jacques d’Edessa, Paris, 1906.
(8) The “foundation of the year” is the last day of the Syrian year, i.e. the day of the week on which September 30 falls. Also 5180 and 5181 represent, according to the Alexandrian era from the creation, the year of the birth of Christ. James seems to mean that the author of a paschal computation, for example for 1910, seeks, not the day of the week which corresponds to September 30, 1910 (in which case he would use 5180), but for one which corresponds to September 30, 1909 which is the “foundation” for the following year, and so in this case, in order to calculate 1910, he would use the number 5181.


From my diary

All this work with James of Edessa has reminded me that I never got his preface to his Chronicle online.  It’s quite interesting, being a discussion of whether Eusebius’ calculation of years is correct.  I’ve emailed someone who might do it, offering the usual, and I’ll stick it on the web when it’s done.

I also found myself wondering about Arabic translations of James’ letters.  Vol. 1 of Graf does indeed have a short section on this, although there doesn’t seem to be much.  But there might well be more in existence than is listed here.

Meanwhile Eusebius grinds forward.  I think we probably have a final cover design.  It was down to two sets of choices yesterday, and I gave my thoughts.

I’ve also read much of Aaron Shepard’s “POD for Profit”, which really is a necessary purchase if you want to use Lightning Source.  In particular he discusses why assigning a margin of more than 20% is a great mistake.  I won’t reproduce that here — wouldn’t be fair to him — but you do need to read it if you’re going to use Lightning Source.  He also answers a number of questions that you’re going to have.  All of which will make the upload process much easier for me. 

Apparently it takes about a month from when you upload the book to when it is available to buy.  I hope to upload later this week.

UPDATE: I goofed on James’ intro — it’s 28 pages, and would cost about $500.  Just at the moment, that’s not a sum I want to spend.

Clavis to the letters of James of Edessa

This is J. J. van Ginkel’s list of all the extant letters of James of Edessa.  Since he has drawn it up, and it is visible online in toto, I hope he will not mind if I post it here.  My purpose in doing so, of course, is to bring this numbering into general use.  The numbering as far as #17 is ancient; beyond that is modern.

I need to go back and retrofit the Ginkel letter number to material from the letters which I have online.  Note that there are certainly some scanner artefacts in this, so use with care.

1. To John of Litarba: on two homilies of Jacob of Serug, which are not by Jacob nor Ephrem (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 79a 81a).
2. To John of Litarba: on medicine and its spiritual interpretation (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 81a-81b).
3. To John of Litarba: on 2 Pet. 2:5 referring to Noah as the eighth person (BL Add. 12172(b). fols. 81b-83a).
4. To George the deacon: on Ephrem’s Madrasha 25 on the Nativity of our Lord (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 83a-85a).
5. To John of Litarba: on the feast of the Invention of the Cross and on Ephrein s Madrasha 44 on Faith (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 85a-87b).
6. To John of Litarba: on problematic passages in the Gospels, e.g. descent of Christ from David (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 87b-91a).
7. To John of Litarba: on calculating the age of the world (discrepancy between Eusebius and the calculation of Jewish Passover) and on why Jacob dated Christ’s birth in A.Gr. 309 (against Eusebius A.Gr. 312: BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 91a-91b).
8. To John of Litarba: on the number of books by Solomon (five or three): why the books of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Esther, Judith, and (1-3) Maccabees are not canonical: on the additional year in the calculation of the Alexandrians (AM 5181 or 5180); chronological, theological, and exegetical topics: on earlier authors (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 94b-96b: followed by: Scholion on the book of Wisdom (fols. 96b-97b)).
9. To John of Litarba: on prayers, offerings, and alms on behalf of impious and sinful believers (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 97b-99a).
10. To John of Litarba: on Predestination (BL Add. 12172(b). fols. 99a-104a).
11. To John of Litarba: on Predestination (addition to previous letter; BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 104a-110a).
12. To John of Litarba: on Ephrem’s Madrasha 2 against false doctrines (Shabblaye, Quqaye. Palut) (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 110a-111b).
13. To John of Litarba. reply to eighteen questions: on Gen. 15:13, on literacy before Moses, on the Nubian woman in Num. 12:1, on the cause of Satan’s fall, on Job 2:6, on Behemoth, the bird in Job 30:13 and Leviathan, on Zachariah in Matt. 23:35/Luke 11:51, on Jonah, Tiglath-Pileser and Jonah 3:4 (40 or 3 days), on the wild gourds (2 Kgs. 4:39), on Obadiah. on the articles carried away from the temple by the Babylonians, on the rock spouting water, on the authors of the Psalms, on the Hebrews and the antiquity of their language, on 1 Kgs. 4:32-33. on Song of Songs 3:7-8, on 1 Sam. 17:55. on Gen. 18:32 (BL. Add. 12172(b), fols. 111b-121b).
14. To John of Litarba. reply to thirteen questions: on the composer of the Quqite hymns (Simeon the Potter): on the man in whose house our Lord celebrated the Passover: on 2 Cor. 12:7: on Philip, who baptised the eunuch of Candace: on John 19:25: on Peter the Fuller: on Timothy Ailouros; on the three people called Mar Isaac: on the Magi from Persia at the birth of Christ: on the direction of worship of Jews and Muslims: on Ezek. 37:1 14: on the distinction between XXX, XXX and XXX: and on the clause ‘to judge the living and the dead’ and Phil. 2:10 (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 121b-120b).
15. To John of Litarba: on Acts 10:34 35 and Rom. 2:10-11 (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 126b-129b).
16. To John of Litarba: on 1 Sam. 18:10; 15:35; 19:22-24: 28:3-20: 16:1-1-23; and 17:55 (BL Add. 12172(b), fols. 129b-134a).
17. To John of Litarba: on chronological, theological, and exegetical topics; on earlier authors (BL. Add. 12172(b): also Mingana 4: on the sinner and wicked: Mingana 9: Moses bar Kepa (quotations)).
18. To John of Litarba: introductory letter to a collection of canons (BL. Add. 14493: Harvard Syr. 93: Mardin Orth. 322: Damascus Patr. 8/11).
19. To George of Serug on Syriac orthography (BL. Add. 7183. Add. 12178, Add. 17134; Mingana 101: Berlin 174 (Sachau 70): Vat.sir. 118).
20. To an anonymous person: poetic exhortation to seek wisdom, not only in words, but also in deeds after reflecting on the three creative agencies: God. Nature, and Mind, and Jacob as a poet (seven-syllabic metre: fragment: BL Add. 12172(a), fols. 65a-70a).
21. To Eustatius of Dara: on Jacob as an ascetic or a man of the world (fragment: BL Add. 12172(a), fols. 70a-72b).
22. To Eustatius of Dara: reply to an invitation to visit (fragment: BL. Add. 12172(a), fols. 72b-73a).
23 To Eustatius of Dara: explanations to a previous poetic (twelve-syllable metre) letter (fragment: BL. Add. 12172(a), fols. 73a-73b).
24. To Eustatius of Dara: on two letters of the Greek alphabet (i and k: fragment: BL Add. 12172(a), fols. 73b-74b).
25. To Eustatius of Dara: on Gibeonites and Joshua bar Nun (fragment: BL Add. 12172(a), fol. 74b).
26. To Eustatius of Dara: on the pros and cons of ‘East’ and ‘West’ (i.e. Byzantine Empire) (fragment (?): twelve-syllable metre: BL Add. 12172(a). fols. 74b 77a).
27. To the priest Abraham: allegory on viticulture (BL Add. 12172(a), fols. 77a 77b).
28. To the sculptor Thomas: questions to be put to Nestorians (BL Add. 12172(a), fols. 77b-78a).
29. To Kyrisuna of Dara: (fragment, in twelve-syllable metre; BL Add. 12172(a), fol. 78a).
30. To Kyrisuna of Dara: contains references to philosophy (Aristotelian ὅρος) and contains Greek sayings (fragment: referred to in a letter by George of the Arabs).
31. To the priest Simeon the Stylite: on he who has doubts about his profession (BL Add. 17168).
32. To the deacon Barhadbshabba: on Chalcedonians (BL Add. 14631: compare George of the Arabs to Barhadbshahba).
33. To the priest Addai: baptism and blessing of water in the Night of Epiphany (BL Add. 14715).
34. To an anonymous person: brief sketch of history (BL Or. 2307).
35. To the priest Thomas: Syriac liturgy (BL Add. 14525. Vat. sir. 581. Mingana 3: also used by Dionysius bar Salibi (H. Labourt, Dionysius bar Salibi. Expositio Liturgiae (CSCO 13-14, Syr. 13 14; Paris 1903), ed. 6-12. trans. 36-40).
36. To Daniel (fragment: possibly a pupil of Jacob of Edessa and later (after Constantine) bishop of Emesa; Michael the Syrian. Chronicle 11.15, ed. Chabot, 2:472: 11.17. ed. Chabot, 2:480).
37. To Moses (fragment): Paul reaching the third heaven (possibly Moses of Tur Abdin: Assemani, Bibliotheca Orientalis 1, 607: also quotation in Mingana 4).
38. On the day of Nativity of Jesus (to Moses of Tur Abdin according to Dionysius bar Salibi. Expositio Liturgiae, ed. Labourt. 49, trans. 67).
39. To Bar Hadad, Bishop of Tella (BL Add. 14731: quotation by Moses bar Kepa).
40. Addressee unknown (ending of a letter: Berlin 201 (Sachau 165)).
41. To Constantine (quoted by Moses bar Kepa: cf. the Hexaemeron which is dedicated to Constantine; possibly a pupil of Jacob of Edessa and later bishop of Bithynia, Emesa. later Edessa: cf. Michael the Syrian. Chronicle 1 1.15, ed. Chabot, 2:472: 11.17, ed. Chabot. 2:480: 11.20. ed. Chabot, 2:496: Oxford Syr. 142 (Marsh 101)).
42. To George the Stylite (although possibly spurious: Jacob third person) (Berlin 188 (Sachau 218). Mingana 317).
43-5. Three letters to Stephen (Seert 81; now lost (?)).
46. To Lazarus: on the mysterium of the Incarnation (fragment: Mingana 4: Charfet Patr. 79. fol. 27a).
47. To Isho`yahb (fragment: BL Add. 7190).
48. To Harran (‘Malakites’) (Berlin 116 (Sachau 12). Cambridge Add. 2889).
49. On the Divine Economy (Oxford Syr. 142 (Marsh 101): Mingana 105. Mingana 152. Mingana 480 (1-13). Mingana 522: Vatican Borg. 147 and 108 (possibly related to Damascus Patr. 8/11).
50. To Paul of Antioch (fragment: Assemani. Bibliotheca Orientalis I. 477-478).

Collecting information about the letters of James of Edessa

On Friday I started hunting around the web for more information about the letters of James of Edessa.  I knew that there was a collection in a single British Library manuscript, consisting of a bunch of letters (numbered) to John the Stylite, plus a bunch of letters to other people.  But that was about it.

It seems that J. J. Van Ginkel has been working on the letters.  A very useful article by him on the subject, J van Ginkel, “Greetings to a virtuous man: the correspondence of Jacob of Edessa” in “Jacob of Edessa and the Syriac culture of his day” is here in Google Books preview, and fortunately visible complete.  It includes a list of all 50 extant letters here

I will OCR this list and put it online shortly, because it must be indispensable to everyone interested in the subject.

I’ve also written to Dr van Ginkel and asked about his edition and translation, but with no response so far.

James of Edessa on the Old Testament apocrypha

Ca. 700, the Syriac writer James of Edessa had this to say in response to a question:

Let’s look at the second question: Why are these books not counted among the canonical books of the Church? I speak of the great Wisdom and of Jesus son of Sirach, and of many others which are rejected, like Tobit and those of the  women Esther and Judith, and the three (books) on the Maccabees.

I will answer again, that the truth is exactly known to the prophetic, apostolic and learned Spirit. I also would like to tell you the opinion of my feeble intelligence: it is that they are not entirely composed of words revealed by the (Holy) Spirit or of prophecies from God, but that they contain either words of human wisdom written by pious men, or stories about holy and pious men themselves, which is why  they were separated from the number of the canonical books of the Church, and were placed for special reading outside of the (books) for regular use in the correction and correcting of morals, actions and deeds, for those who are of a very teachable spirit, and want to hear some useful and loving advice for word and deed and for the knowledge of good conduct.

I hope to place the whole of this letter online soon.

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.

Letters of James of Edessa

When I was looking last week at the letter on the genealogy of the Virgin Mary, by the 7th century Syriac scholar-bishop James of Edessa, I noticed that the Revue de l’orient chretien contained texts and translations of several other letters by James.  The list of contents here indicates that Nau edited several:

The last but one item caught my eye.  I know that the first three are all from a single 10th century manuscript in the British Library, ms. Additional 12172.  But if Nau is assigning numbers like “letter 12” and “letter 13”, then we must ask whether there are unpublished letters in the collection, in the same manuscript.  For that lot only makes ten letters in total.

Hunting around I find that those two were published but not translated earlier:

  • W. Wright (ed.), Two Epistles of Mar Jacob, Bishop of Edessa (lettres 12 et 13), texte syriaque, Journal of Sacred Literature and Biblical Record, janv. 1867.

There is also another letter for which I hunted in vain many years ago:

  • G. Phillips (éd.), A Letter by Mar Jacob, Bishop of Edessa, on Syriac Orthography, texte syriaque et traduction anglaise, Williams and Norgate, Londres, 1867.  Online here.

I wonder what a look at Wright’s catalogue would show?

UPDATE: Well, you have to download all three volumes.  At the back of vol. 3 is a cross-reference index of manuscript numbers and entries.  12172 is ‘dccvii’, (p.1223 of the PDF of vol. 3) which is in vol. 2, pdf page 592.  And … there are more letters of James of Edessa there.


James of Edessa (d.708) – letter on the genealogy of the Virgin Mary now online

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.

James of Edessa, Chronicle now online

I’ve placed online an English translation of the table of years and events in the Chronicle of the Syriac writer James of Edessa. This continues the table in the Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea from where that ends, in 325 AD, down to the early Islamic period ca. 700 AD. Naturally it focuses on eastern events, and includes one of the earliest mentions of Mohammed.

The material is here:


The original publication of this material was frankly a mess. I’ve written a preface explaining a bit more clearly what we’re looking at. I’ve also uploaded the translator’s preface, and also translated the Latin preface by the same editor to his publication of a Latin translation some years later. In addition I’ve added fragments from Elias of Nisibis scattered across the publications.

All this material is public domain, so please help yourselves, do whatever you like with it, place copies online and so on.

Other free material by the fathers can be found in the same collection:


If you want to support the work of the site, a CDROM is available for $37:


Funds from sales are currently going to pay translators to do the homilies on Ezechiel of Origen, the Gospel problems and solutions of Eusebius, and a 13th century catalogue of Arabic Christian literature by Abu’l Barakat which should help us see what patristic material got into that language. None of these have been translated before.

UPDATE: I have also placed a PDF of the ZDMG article online at Archive.org:


Michael the Syrian quotes Theodosius of Edessa on James of Edessa

I’m looking at Michael the Syrian, and in the first volume of the French translation, I find the following:

Note by Theodosius of Edessa. — You should know that Eusebius, in the Chronography he wrote, began with Abraham the Canon of years and continued until the year 20 of Constantine. But James, of the city of Edessa, who transcribed the book from Greek into Syriac, added the dates and coordinated the  events not only from Adam to Abraham, but also from Constantine until his time, when there reigned over the Romans, Justinian, and over the Arabs, `Abdallah. He carefully reviewed all the Chronicle, both about the empires which Eusebius ignored, and because of other things that this venerable [Jacques] commemorates. And when he starts to dispose them by year, he ties the year 20 of Constantine to the year 21. — As for us, so that the computation is not disturbed after the Canons of Eusebius we put those that Jacques himself has made.

Like so much of what Michael quotes, the history of Theodosius is not extant.

Comparing the introduction to James, printed by Brooks in the CSCO text, with Michael’s quotes, it is clear that Brooks has more of James’ words than Michael the Syrian does.  There are a dozen pages of introduction, all interesting, but probably beyond me to translate at this time.