Thinking about Sbath’s “twenty philosophical and theological treatises”

A few weeks ago I had a gentleman write to me offering his services to translate some Arabic stuff, for money.  His CV on the face of it seemed good, and I was wondering  what I could offer him to do. So I enquired in the North American Society for Arabic Christian Studies group whether anyone knew of any short but interesting Arabic Christian texts that might usefully be translated.

A reply popped up a couple of days ago, from Sasha Trieger, suggesting some of the treatises published by Paul Sbath in Cairo in 1929 as Vingt traités philosophiques et theologiques (Cairo, 1929). There is a French introduction and notes, but apparently few have been translated into any other language. 

Of course the first problem is simply to get hold of the book.  There are three copies in the UK, so I learn from COPAC.  One is in Cambridge.  Well, I could go there.  Unfortunately they have closed their car park next week for resurfacing, which makes it difficult; other car parks charge meanly high prices, out of an elitist anti-car ideology.  The book is 200 pages, which might take a bit of copying.  Still, maybe the car park will be open tomorrow.  A quick check reveals that it will, at least to 5pm.  It will cost me around $30 in petrol to get there, plus photocopying charges.  Hmm.

I can’t help noticing how inefficient this pre-internet way of publishing was!  Just to work on a text involves unnecessary awkwardness.  But back to the contents.

Dr. T. listed the contents, by author. Unfortunately I’m pretty ignorant of Arabic Christian authors.  So I thought it might be fun to expand the list.  I grabbed Graf’s majestic handbook, pulled down the index, and let’s see just what’s what.

  • Ibn Zur`a (Nos. 1-4).  Graf 2, pp. 252-254. 

This chap was born in 943 in Baghdad, died 16 April 1008.   He was a Jacobite.  Sbath pp. 6-19 is a letter to a Moslem friend on the attributes of God.   pp.19-52 is a letter to a Jew in 4 chapters.  pp. 52-68 is an apologetic treatise against Islam. pp. 68-75 is another apologetic work, “On the Trinity. 

Ibn Zur`a also wrote treatises in response to questions about biblical contradictions; another with 12 answers to further questions such as the historical existence of Christ; a treatise on the single nature of Christ; two more on monophysite theology; and finally one on why Christians can make use of logic and philosophy.  All the treatises are short, and many sound as if they could use attention. The only ones published are the first four, the rest being still in manuscript.

  • Elias of Nisibis (No. 5), Graf II 177-189.

Clearly an important chap, from the length of his entry!  So what does Dr. Graf have to say about him?  Born 975, died after 1049. He was a Nestorian monk, then bishop, in Mosul.  He wrote a big Chronicle in Syriac, which we have in his own hand, with a parallel Arabic translation, also in his own hand for the most part.  He composed a Syriac-Arabic dictionary.  He wrote lots, apparently.  Sbath pp.75-103 is a theological treatise on the creation and the trinity.

  • Sam’an ibn Kalil (No. 6),

 I couldn’t find this author in Graf.

  • Ibn `Assal (Nos. 7-8),

Nor this one.

  • `Abdallah ibn al-Fadl (No. 9), Graf II. 52-64.

This one was a Melchite, and sometime Metropolitan of Antioch, ca. 1052 AD.  He was also a translator from Greek, translating the commentary on the Six Days of Creation by Basil the Great, and sermons of Chrysostom.  Unfortunately Graf does not indicate which of his works is edited here by Sbath.

  • Daniyal ibn al-Khattab (No. 10), Graf II 281-284, as “Daniel ibn al-Hattab”.

Born 1327, died sometime after 1382.  A Jacobite from Mardin, but lived in Egypt.  Sbath pp. 148-151 contain five chapters of his “Dogmatic compendium”, which has also been translated into French by Sbath on Revue de l’Or. chret. 22 (1920-21), p. 203.  The first 14 chapters of the work are intended as a reply to Elias of Nisibis.

  • Ishoyab ibn Malkun (Nos.  11-14),

I can’t find him in Graf.

  • Yahya ibn `Adi (Nos. 15-17), Graf II 233-249.

Another Jacobite, born in 893 at Tikrit, went to Baghdad and studied in the philosophical school there.  Died 13 August 974.  A voluminous writer.  Sbath  pp. 168-171 contain a treatise on the truth of the Gospel, using syllogisms. p. 171f is another similar treatise;  p. 172-175 on the credal statement, “He became flesh by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary.”

  • Abu al-Khayr ibn al-Tayyib (No.  18), Graf II 344-348

A Copt, writing between 1204 and 1245.  Sbath p. 176-178 prints an extract only of his book “The medicine of understanding”, 24 chapters against the attacks of Moslem polemicists.

  • Abu al-Faraj ibn al-Tayyib (No. 19), Graf II 160-176.

An Iraqi Nestorian, philosopher, physician, monk and priest in the first half of the 11th century.  Another voluminous writer, including massive biblical commentaries on the Psalms and Gospels.  Sbath prints p.179f, a work on miracles and philosophy.

  • Hunayn ibn Ishaq, with a commentary by Yuhanna ibn Mina (No. 20).   Graf II p.122 f.
Of course we all know Hunain, as the translator of so many Greek scientific works at the court of the Abbassid caliphs, especially Galen.  Sbath p.181-185 includes a work, with commentary on 186-200, but with my dodgy German I can’t quite work out the subject!

So there we have it.  Does it make your blood tingle?  Because it certainly doesn’t mine!  Yes, we ought to have all this in English.  But I have to say that all this Trinitarian and Christological noodling seems dull to me.

5 thoughts on “Thinking about Sbath’s “twenty philosophical and theological treatises”

  1. I will be happy to translate anything for you, Paul, and I don’t charge anything. I will do what I can.

    In Christ,

    Ibrahim Arafat “Timothy”

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