Do Syriac historians care about getting their dates right?

A correspondent points out some very different attitudes towards chronological accuracy between Greek and Syriac historians.

In his monster-sized world chronicle, Michael the Syrian (12th c.) quoted frequently from earlier historians.  I will let my correspondent describe what he found.

“One of the sources Michael used was Ignatius of Melitene, whose preface he reproduced in full (iii. 115).

“Ignatius of Melitene was charmingly offhand about dates and their importance:

If anyone finds that some of the dates in my chronicle are either slightly high or slightly low, he should not blame me. Sometimes, when a king died, his successor had to wait around six months or a year before he ascended the throne. Similarly, when a patriarch died, a year or thereabouts might elapse before his successor was ordained. As a result, some events have become confused with others. As a matter of fact, this kind of thing does no great harm, as all scholars will readily admit.

“Ignatius demonstrates his insouciance later in Michael’s narrative by giving a date for the accession of one of the Syrian Orthodox patriarchs that is six or seven years out.

“Michael himself, though I think he did his best, knew that some of his dates would be questioned, and wisely covered his back in his own preface (i. 2):

In my opinion, scholars should not waste their energy in trying to calculate dates with a greater or lesser degree of accuracy. As the Saviour truly said, ‘The Father has kept for himself the knowledge of times and dates.’ For example, there are many divergences between the Septuagint and the translation possessed by the Syrians, which was first made by King Abgar and was later revised by Ya‘qob of Edessa, who pretended to convert to Judaism so that the Jews would not hide the truth from him.

“When one thinks of how much care Thucydides took to get his dates right, and the stress that he rightly laid on accuracy (akribeia), the sloppiness of the Syriac writers is all the more remarkable.”

Interesting indeed.

Leave a Reply