Severus Sebokht, “Letter to Basil of Cyprus” (ca. 662) on ‘Arabic’ numerals

The first reference to what we today call “Arabic” numerals comes in a letter by the Syriac scholar, Severus Sebokht, in about 662 AD.  The letter is often referenced in the literature, but has never been translated into English.  A German text and translation has been published fairly recently.  The letter itself is preserved in a unique manuscript witness, Paris BNF Syr. 346, which contains a collection of works by Severus Sebokht.  (Elsewhere on this site readers may find translations of Severus “On the Astrolabe” and “On the Constellations”).

A few months ago Daniel Knister wrote to me of his intention to make such an English translation.  He has very kindly made this available to us all, and it may be circulated freely and placed on websites etc.  It’s here:

I’ve also uploaded it to here.

This is a wonderful thing to have at last!  Thank you so much!


4 thoughts on “Severus Sebokht, “Letter to Basil of Cyprus” (ca. 662) on ‘Arabic’ numerals

  1. It is good someone has made an attempt at this important text, but it needs some more work before it should be published, as there are numerous inaccuracies. I have spotted a number of mistakes at a first quick glance. For example:
    1) “knowledge of mathematics and astronomy” should read “the mathematical science of astronomy” ;
    2) “define philosophy not as name and word and lexis, that is to say word and Greek speech” should be “define philosophy not as nouns and verbs, i.e. words and expressions and the Greek language.”;
    3) “philosophy is the knowledge of things which are ” should be “philosophy is the knowledge of things that are insofar as they are / that exist insofar as they exist [this last is quite a significant error of translation, and renders the text meaningless and inaccurate to the Aristotelian thought that lies behind it].
    4) The subscription does not say “Holy Severus Sebokht,” it says “Thanks to Severus Sebokht” (hasa, not hasya), and probably implies that Severus is not the author of this letter.

    The authorship of this letter has been in dispute lately, and it is at very least highly misleading to entitle it as it is in this translation, since the identification of both author and addressee depend of ascriptions in the manuscript and not on the text itself.

  2. Thank you for these comments which are very welcome. Let’s by all means improve it in any way we can.

    The issue of authenticity is one that I’d not heard, but then I’ve not read the literature. It’s interesting to hear about! The objective here is to translate the work, of course.

    Am I right in thinking there is no equivalent to the Clavis Patrum Graecorum for Syriac texts? I would have preferred to include a reference number.

  3. Hmm, this is an interesting look at how Syrians and Greeks saw each other during the ‘Byzantine’/Christian Roman period. They clearly still identified with their pre-Christian ancestors at least to some extent. Neat post!

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