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.



2 thoughts on “A letter of James of Edessa on various issues

  1. I suspect that Clement’s mysterious 5th book of Solomon was actually Ecclesiasticus. One must note, of course, that Ecclesiasticus was clearly written by Jesus ben Sira and not by Solomon, but nevertheless it was commonly described by the adjective “Solomonic”, meaning it was wisdom literature. My guess is that Clement said “of Solomon” as a colloquial and not really correct synonym for “Solomonic”. Note that the acts of the Council of Carthage as recorded by Denzinger make the same error.

  2. Hi! I’m interested in the french original of this letter. Did James of Edessa really use the term “protocanonical”? Was he the first who used it? Cheers!

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