Book on Syriac historiography

Several people have sent me a link to the Bryn Mawr review of Muriel Debié (ed.), L’historiographie syriaque, published in Études syriaques.  This discusses how historical writing went into the Syriac world, how it changed, how it was influenced by Armenian texts, and what the effect of the Moslem conquest was — which was to isolate it from the mediterranean world, ca. 720.  The review (by Daniel King) is very enticing!  A few snippets:

This latest instalment, on Syriac historiography, succeeds in bringing together some of the foremost scholars in the field, often writing on the very texts they themselves have edited or translated. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

The extent to which literature written in Syriac partook of the Hellenic cultural baggage of late antiquity is still only faintly understood, and even less appreciated, by historians of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is the principal achievement of this excellent and useful volume not only to have provided students and specialists alike with an overview of the subject at the current state of research, but also to have highlighted the lines of transmission that carried Greek historiography into Syriac (and thence Arabic). The point is both to indicate how well integrated was the latter within the cultures of the late antique Empire, and moreover to describe the transformation these forms underwent in their ‘Oriental’ afterlives.

We are rightly warned of too easily viewing the Miaphysite (West Syriac) historiography as the expression of a will to ecclesiastical independence – as late as Jacob of Edessa (d.710) the (Greek) universal ecclesia remained the dream of these historians. Yet around 720 a major break seems to have occurred and here, at the moment when Syriac historians cease to note the names of Emperors and Patriarchs and begin to date events according to caliphal years, we can glimpse that self-conscious break from the Hellenic tradition that constitutes the final fracture between East and West. Up to this point, the Fertile Crescent had remained part of a classical (Mediterranean) world.

An example of just this process, the Chronicle of Zuqnin (written in 775), is the subject of the next chapter, again written by the text’s most recent translator. This contributor helpfully surveys the arguments surrounding the authorship and sources of the chronicle, reaffirming his judgment that Joshua the Stylite was its author.

The Syriac and Arabic literature of the Eastern Churches remains one of those disciplines in which ancient and mediaeval texts, sometimes of some importance, are still regularly found in previously unexplored manuscript libraries. The next chronicle to be considered is just such a case. The Muhtasar al-Ahbar al-Bi‘iyya was first identified in Iraq in the 1980s, one of many Arabic manuscripts from the monastery of Notre Dame des Semences (Alqosh) later transferred to the Chaldaean monastery in Baghdad. They are now, since 2008, back in Alqosh for safe keeping. Hermann Teule provides an overview of this as yet little considered work which bares a close resemblance to the better known Chronicle of Seert but which is also an independent witness to the events it describes. Among the sources explicitly mentioned by the writer are a number known from catalogues of Syriac authors but whose work has hitherto been unknown.

The book is rounded off with a bibliography of editions and translations of all Syriac chronicles, organized by type and tradition (East or West), making the whole a handy instrumentum for the student or non-specialist.

All this sounds most interesting, and I would love to read it.  But how does someone like myself ever get to read such a volume?  It is, admittedly, not that expensive by comparison with the predatory pricing from Brill these days — only 35 euros.  But still…

UPDATE: I have just found the website for the French Societe d’etudes Syriaques, which lists the series Études syriaques.  There are 6 volumes, and they all seem to be of wide interest. 

  • vol. 1 : Les inscriptions syriaques (2004)
  • vol. 2 : Les apocryphes syriaques (2005)
  • vol. 3 : Les liturgies syriaques (2006)
  • vol. 4 : Les Pères grecs en syriaque (2007)
  • vol. 5 : L’Ancien Testament syriaque (2008)
  • vol. 6 : L’Historiographie syriaque (2009)
  • I want copies of them all!  Remarkably the volumes are issued annually free if you are a member of the society.

    UPDATE2: OK, I shall try an old-fashioned inter-library loan for the Historiographie volume.  That will loan me it for 2 weeks.  But really I’d rather have a PDF!


    And more from the Chronicle of Zuqnin

    This continues as follows:

    In the year 1057 (745-746), Marwan went out from the Gate of the Turks.

    It is written in the prophet Jeremiah: “Therefore thus says the Lord: See I will put pitfalls before this people: fathers and son will fail together; neighbour and friend will perish.”

    All these things happened to the Arabs, because brothers and nephews fell into pitfalls because of their ambition.

    The supporters of Abbas and those of Hisham, the son of Walid and the supporters of Marwan, who were brothers and nephews, neighbours and friends, threw themselves on one another, perished themselves and perished with them a great many men.

    Jeremiah also spoke about the journey even of Merwan: “See a people comes from the land of the north; a great nation comes out of the confines of the earth; they are armed with bows and spears, they are cruel and merciless; their voice is like the sound of a rough sea; they are mounted on horses and are prepared like brave men for battle. We have learned their design and our hands have grown weak; tribulation and pain have seized us, like a woman who gives birth. Do not go out in the fields and do not walk at all in the road because of the sword of the enemy.” And Isaiah also said, speaking of them: “I have raised him up from the north, he will come from the East, he will call on my name; they will take the judges and treat them like the mud that the potter tramples under his feet,” and again: “From the north the evil will spread over all the inhabitants of the earth.”

    When Marwan had invaded Mesopotamia and subjected it, he established governors in all the cities, and even in Mosul. Then, having assembled a large army, he made it advance rapidly with workers and engineers.

    The supporters of Abbas went to the West. Yazid, who had killed Walid, died after a reign of six months, and [45] his brother Ibrahim took his place.

    The latter, on learning that Marwan had crossed the Euphrates with a large army, and that Mesopotamia had submitted, was seized with fear. “They shook and staggered like drunken men.”

    He first sent Nouaim Ibn Thabit against Marwan, with a considerable army. It is reported of this man that he had seventy sons.

    They then marched against each other and engaged in battle: the whole army of Ibn Thabit was destroyed and cut to pieces in the presence of Marwan.

    The supporters of Ibrahim seeing that Marwan had triumphed in this first battle were afraid, and gathered innumerable forces, bringing even the country people to fight with slingshots.

    Both armies advanced against each other, and having met, encamped at `Ain Gara.
    After numerous engagements, and after many men had fallen continuously on both sides, Marwan finally gained the victory and cut Ibrahim to pieces and his brothers, who had run away, and Soliman, son of Hisham. No similar battle ever happened in the world; never in any place was so much blood as in this place. Even the people of the countryside — more than five thousand men — perished.

    Merwan after his victory besieged Emesa, captured it and threw down its walls. He also removed the corpse of Yazid from its tomb and had it crucified head downwards.

    He also took, from a certain Jew, four hundred thousand [pieces] of gold.


    Back to the Chronicle of Zuqnin

    The plague is raging in the East in the 740’s AD.  We’ve already seen quite enough about it, but the chronicler is not finished.  He ends his description of it as follows:

    Everywhere, those who remained – a very small-number –removed the dead, and all day without pause carried them away, threw them down as one would throw a stone on a mound, then back, take another, and go out again, to throw it down the same way. Many lacked neighbours: they were seen lying on the streets and eaten by dogs, because there was no one to bury them. Each was only sufficient for his own house: several workers were even hired just to carry the corpses from the house or from public places because of their putrefaction. And so was fulfilled the saying: “I have brought up the smell of their rotting to your nostrils,” and another: “The earth wept and lamented.”

    Soon there were no more tears, no sorrow nor pain: because every man was already knocking on the door of the tomb. Gold and silver were despised as dung: so that if on the wives or virgins there was gold, silver or precious ornaments, no-one would stretch out their hand to take anything, not even the parents of their children: because they felt that soon they would come with them into the tomb and their rottenness would mingle with theirs.

    And now, my beloved ones, is it not so reasonable that I weep tears? What sobbing can suffice? What breaking of the heart, what grief, what lamentations, what groans, what pains will be sufficient when I see old men, and men of all ages and sizes, slaughtered and lying down like cedar tree-trunks!

    The great mercy of God appeared even in this scourge: firstly because it fell first on the poor who were lying in the streets of cities: everywhere it was through them that it began, [42] and when they were all dead, then this terrible rod turned against the rich and the lords of the cities.

    These two things happened by the divine mercy, so as to benefit both parties. First for the city-dwellers, because they showed their zeal for justice and gained for their souls great benefit from their care for the poor, while they were taking care of them; they buried them, organised their funerals and buried them with great mourning, with care, with fear and zeal. Then [for the poor], because if the scourge had hit them at the same time as the others, how would it have been possible, because of their stench, for their fleshless bones to be removed from the streets? For they would have lacked those who could deal with them, if it had not first visited them, when everyone was healthy, upright and well: then care was taken to remove them, in order to bury them, those who had no one to bury them. Subsequently, the scourge caused the powerful, who were relying on their tombs and funeral directors, to remain without graves, so that not one of them had a burial service. The scourge, in fact, turned on the great when the poor had been buried, and death overtook them all, from the smallest to the greatest: none of them was left. Even those who escaped this calamity, and did not die, withdrew, as they could, away from the towns. At the end, those who survived were struck with a terrible wound, in the groin: some with one, the others with two. What had happened to the dead took place among the living.  They were suddenly seized with pain [43] in the groin, and soon, by this sign, those who had escaped death acquired the certainty of suffering more severely thus than by the cruel death. Their groins swelled up, became swollen and burst, and it produced large, deep ulcers that produced a flow of blood, pus and water, day and night, like a spring. After that there was a great languor in which they remained, some one month, others two, five, six months to a year, many even two years. Many of them were affected forever.

    Then was fulfilled the prophecy which says: “The water will flow from all the knees,” and: “Every human heart will rot.” and another: “On all their heads will be baldness.”

    It happened so in the present time. Anyone who had survived his family or tribe would fall into this infirmity. It happened that his two legs were left running with water and even blood and pus, until his head became bald, and because of that, those who survived, few in number, were not recognizable, at least they were not recognized and were distinguished by their clothing. We could not discern the priests and monks: all had become bald. As it was in the groin, so it was at the armpit and neck. Most were quickly released from this evil, others were after some time, others will never fully recover their health.

    But, while this calamity was enveloping the region on all sides like the pains of childbirth oppress pregnant women, the Arabs did not cease to fight and injure each other. When Merwan went out from the Gate of the Turks, the whole earth was troubled and agitated. [44]


    The chronicler of Zuqnin continues…

    The next passage of the anonymous 9th century Syriac chronicle is as follows.  After the widespread flooding, which of course polluted the water supply, the inevitable plague struck.  This is happening towards the end of the Ummayad caliphate, in the early 700’s.

    It is interesting to note that, while the Arabs and Jews buried their dead in “innumerable” pits, both were clearly a very small minority.  The population of Syria was mainly Christian, almost a century after the Moslem conquest. 

    Of the great plague which happened in that time.

    Here the prophet Jeremiah comes to  help us, he who knows better than anyone lamenting over the miseries by which we are surrounded on all sides: “Who will give water to my head, and to my eyes a fountain of tears? and I shall weep day and night for the dead of the daughter of my people.” And again: “On the mountains I abandon myself to tears and lamentations, and in the desert to complaints because they are desolate and there is nobody there.  Let our eyes shed tears, let our eyelids flow with water. Therefore, listen, women, to the word of the Lord; let your ears capture the speech of his mouth, teach your daughters lamentations, and let each learn the plaintive chant of his neighbour; because death is come through our windows, it came into our homes to exterminate children in the streets and young men in public places. The bodies of men shall fall like manure upon the face of the earth, like the grass behind the mower, and there is no one who collects them!”

    [36] Let him come now [the Prophet], and let him weep about, not one people, nor only the city of Jerusalem, but over all nations and many cities, that the plague has made like a press, trampling and crushing them underfoot and plucking without mercy their inhabitants like beautiful grapes; — over the whole earth, because the punishment, like the reaper in the middle of the ripe corn on foot, has threatened and cut off all ages, all conditions, all ranks, without distinction of persons;  — over decaying and mangled corpses [which lie] in the streets of the whole world: their fluids flow like water, and there is nobody to bury them; — over houses, large and small, beautiful and pleasant, which have suddenly become the graves of their inhabitants, in which suddenly servants fell with their masters, and no-one escaped to drag the corpses out of the interior; — over the roads, which are desolate; — over many villages, whose inhabitants have all perished at once; — over the palace where each trembles at the other; — over the nuptial chambers decorated for brides, who have there died suddenly; — over young virgins kept in the women’s quarters, awaiting the celebration of their wedding and who suddenly have been carried to the grave; — over many similar things that surpass speech and the narratives of all the rhetoricians; — over these things, I say, the prophet would have reason to weep and say: “Woe is me!” not because of “the defilement of the daughter of my people,” but because of the ruin of all the inhabited earth, and the world that the plague has completely destroyed because of its sins. It would be right to use the prophetic words of his colleagues: “Let him come and tell the rest of those who survived: Weep, mourn, you ministers of the altar; enter, spend the night in the hair shirt, ministers of my God,” not “because the offering has been removed [37] from the house of God,” but because of men, who have been cut off from the world; and again: “Let the earth live in mourning, let all its inhabitants lament. Call the mourners and let the chanters of lamentations all come to celebrate together, not over an only son,” nor a single corpse, but over peoples and kingdoms. “By the tearing the earth will be torn, by the breaking the earth will be broken, by the shaking the earth will be shaken, by the trembling the earth will tremble. It will be delivered to the fire like a terebinth lined with leaves, like an oak tree fallen from its base.”

    All these things have been fulfilled in the present time: great disturbances and violent earthquakes; armies, wars, the enmities of the Arabs between themselves over power; the famine which so raged that in the southern and eastern region the entire population arose and spread themselves all over the countries of the north and west; discord with every misery.

    “I will send after them,” says the prophet, “the sword and captivity, famine and plague too.”

    All these things have happened today without exception. Here is the sword of the Arabs [turned] against themselves; here are depredations so that it was impossible to go out without being pillaged and robbed of one’s property; here is famine which rages within and without. If someone enters his house, there he finds famine and pestilence, if he goes outside, the sword and captivity run to meet him. On all sides there is nothing but cruel oppression and terrible pain, suffering and disturbance.

    “They are drunk, but not on wine, and they stumble, but not from spirits.”

    Men began to wander and to travel from city to city and place to place; they stumbled as if they were drunk; they asked for bread and there was none, just as the prophet said.

    First, a large number of the heads of families began to sicken and die from a corruption of the blood and from ulcers. Things went thus [38] during the whole winter. They could not be buried. Men were lying in the streets, the porticos, towers, temples, in every home, tortured by the violence of the disease and the great strictness of the famine, so that the number of those who perished from starvation was greater than that of those who died from disease.  It was especially those who had eaten bread until they were full who were seized by the disease. When the days became warmer, tumours appeared on the sick, who began to fall dead in public places, like manure in the face of the earth, and there was no one to bury them!

    The plague began to rage among the poor, who were abandoned in the streets. They buried them with honour, singing hymns, and they were buried properly, and when there were no more poor, mortality raged with such violence against the lords of the villages and the towns that, when the priests wanted to do a funeral, there were gathered in the morning at the same place fifty to seventy to eighty or a hundred coffins, in each of which there were two or three dead, or even four children. And so all day, without truce or rest, the corpses of men were buried.

    The Arabs covered the earth with pits, and the Jews likewise. The tombs of the Christians were so full that they themselves were forced to dig holes in the earth. In a single day, over five hundred coffins came out by a single door. Throughout the day the doors were only used for the goings and comings of those who carried the corpses: they went out, deposited them, and returned to take others.

    So, except for a few, there was no {burial} service, because of the swiftness of death, the small number [39] of priests and the innumerable multitude of buryings. In the morning, the priests prescribed that anyone who had a deceased should come to the nearest crossroads and the whole region or district would assemble in this place. The priests divided themselves up in the morning to go in all directions to perform the office of the dead and to put them in the ground in groups. It happened that one group was over a hundred coffins, in which there were more than two hundred or two hundred and fifty dead, because they were piled next to each other without pause throughout the day. Here there was no distinction between servant and master, between serving-girl and mistress, between the hired man and the hirer, but one storm of destruction and fury was prepared for them all: servants and masters were equally struck down without distinction of persons; the man of the people and the leaders fell, and were groaning next to one another.

    Let everyone admire the divine decree and be filled with astonishment and stupour in presence of these judgments of God, unfathomable, incomprehensible, incommensurable for men. Certainly “a deep abyss is the judgments of the Lord!”

    The plague spread its devastating hand over those who hold power, who enjoy opulence, or who revel in grandeur. The houses of many of them were left without an heir, because there remained in them neither servant nor master. Men suddenly abandoned to their companions their possessions, their riches, their crops, even their beautiful homes. How splendid and opulent mansions, how many families perished because there did not remain a single heir!

    The human language is incapable of expressing the prodigious disasters [40] that occurred in the country which stretches from the Euphrates to the west, as well as in the other cities of Palestine, in the North and the South, as far as the Red Sea as well as in the rest of Cilicia, Lycaonia, Asia [Minor], Bithynia, Lysynie [Lydia?] Galatia, even in Cappadocia: because the oppression of this cruel suffering was felt throughout the world. As the rain descends upon the whole earth, or as the sun’s rays are spread equally in all places, the plague spread equally over the whole world. However it was prevalent more in the countries previously designated. In these regions, towns and numerous villages became suddenly deserted, and no-one stayed there or passed that way. They were filled with rotting dead bodies, lying on the ground like dung upon the face of the earth, with no one to bury them: because not one of their inhabitants remained; so that men lay in the middle of them, swollen, full of pus, and rotting. The houses were opened as tombs and their owners putrefied in the middle of them. Their furniture, their gold, their money, their possessions were scattered in the streets and there was nobody to collect them. Gold and silver were despised, and riches were abandoned everywhere and found no master. Old men and old women, adorned with white hair, who had hoped to be buried with honour by their heirs, lay open-mouthed in the streets, in houses, in public places, dying and putrefying. Pretty virgins, beautiful young girls who were waiting for their happy nuptials and the adornment of precious clothing were found lying and decomposing, and became an object of pity for those who saw them. Would to God that this was happening in the tombs! But it is in the houses in the streets [41] that charming and cheerful young people have become livid, deceased, and that their pus was mingled with that of their parents.

    That is what happened in these countries.


    A little light dusting and the Chronicle of Zuqnin

    I have a tendency to have Word documents on my Windows Desktop.  A couple of these have been staring at me for a while now, and I decided that I needed to do something about them.  What, I wondered, was “denys.doc”?

    Well, it related to this post; the opening portion of the fourth part of the Syriac Chronicle of ps.Dionysius of Tell-Mahre, otherwise known as  the Chronicle of Zuqnin from the place where the manuscript was found.  I must have scanned the opening pages — although I don’t seem to have that scan now — and perhaps I worked on them on another PC.  Anyway I have tidied them away.  But the material was certainly interesting, relating to the end of the Roman period and the Moslem invasions.  The French was easy enough, and online.  I may look at this a  bit more this evening.


    English translation of book 15 of John bar Penkaye now online

    If we are going to get a BBC TV series on early Islam which mentions John bar Penkaye, there may be an opportunity to collect some interested people for Syriac studies.  John bar Penkaye is a non-Islamic witness to the first century of Moslem rule in the middle east, you see.  He was a Nestorian monk of that period.

    For this reason (and because it was too hot to sleep last night!) I’ve taken Mingana’s translation into French of book 15 of the his history, the Rish Melle and run it across into English, with the aid of Google translator.  I must say that the latter has improved yet again.  Who would have thought that accurate translation was possible merely by an adaptation of a search engine to find the same words in two different languages?

    Of course the translation has no scholarly value.  The academic will go to Sebastian Brock’s version of about 66% of the book.   But it might be useful to the general reader with no French and no access to Sebastian’s version. Dr Brock has been enormously generous with his time and efforts to promote access to Syriac literature, but his work suffers from the curse of the pre-internet age, that most of it is offline.

    I’ve compared the result to Sebastian Brock’s translation, and it didn’t seem too unsound.  I also smartened it up in a few places or added extra footnotes.  The result is here:

    I’ve also put a link in the Wikipedia article on John bar Penkaye to it.  I’ve also written a preface, aimed at that audience, which is here:

    I’ve tried to presume no knowledge of Syriac studies.  If anyone has suggestions for improvements to either, particularly to the intro that might help promote Syriac studies, do post them in the comments or email them to me.


    Should we blame our sins for plague? Or blame God for not preventing it?

    The Ris melle or Brief world history of the East Syriac (Nestorian) monk John bar Penkaye was written ca. 690 AD.  It contains in memre (=chapter or book) 15 a harrowing description of the famine and plague of 686-7.  It describes the bodies left unburied, people fleeing to the mountains and then being robbed there by bandits, and many other details.

    John attributes all these misfortunes to the sinfulness of the church.  The latter he describes graphically. 

    It is quite tempting to see this as medieval superstition.  God is the ultimate author of all, true; but to say this without qualification is to omit a substantial portion of the truth.  God made the world in which we live; but the process contained many more elements than God snapping his fingers.  The world contains both you and me.  God is responsible for this, in a way; but my parents might have something to do with it also.  Any account of my origins that mentions God but does not mention my parents would be more than a little misleading. 

    Similarly the world contains disease, and no doubt this is a consequence of the Fall.  But that is not to deny that poor sanitation may be a more immediate cause.

    Then John goes on:

    Those who were alive, wandered in the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd. They wanted thereby to avoid the plague, which continued like a harvester, using dogs and wild beasts to gather them like sheaves, and (what was more distressing) they were constantly hounded by thieves to deprive them of everything and keep them away from their hideouts.

    In this way, they were stripped of everything and as naked, and yet they did not think that it was impossible to escape God without repentance and without returning to him, the heart filled with repentance. They beat harshly any that reminded them of this and told him: “Go away from here; for we know that flight is much more beneficial than prayer; we have already repented, but we have not been helped, we can’t even do that any more.”

    Men were reduced to despair because of their many sins; such pain came down upon them, and they did not repent at all…

    My first impression, on reading this passage, was to sympathise with the fugitives.  “We’ve tried repenting, and the plague did not go away, so what’s the point?”  Indeed faced with such a disaster, some superstitious cleric admonishing them that it is all their own fault, and that they should ‘repent’, rather than helping them in practical terms, sounds like the very epitome of priest-craft, of the kind of monkish superstition that we are all taught to abhor.  Would that “repentance” involve money for church funds, we would naturally ask next.

    But then I thought about this some more.  I can’t quite imagine the state of mind that says, “I’m going to try to repent to make the plague go away.”  What is that about?  And “I don’t believe in God, then, because I did repent and the plague did not go away.”  There’s something odd here.

    There is always a temptation for the clergyman in a superstitious age to make Christianity seem like theurgy — a set of rituals designed to invoke a greater power in order to obtain material benefits.  This kind of “religion” is what paganism was, and in a way is more akin to an atomic power plant than a church.  Doing this and that will make the sun come up, reasoned the pagans.  Pray and the Lord — whoever he may be — will bless your lawsuit.

    An clergyman, faced by an ignorant populace that cannot understand any appeal to anything but the most elementary benefit, may find himself preaching thus.  I know nothing about what is called “Prosperity theology”, but it is attacked in terms that suggest its foes believe that it is a superstition of just this kind.

    We can see, from John’s own account, that the tendency to attribute every misfortune to lack of praying was definitely present in the Nestorian clergy.  He more or less writes as if he takes this view himself, although the odd phrase suggests that he is well aware of the limits of such a position.

    Because … this is not the Christian view.  “Go to church and God will make sure nothing bad happens” is not a Christian view.  The life of St. Paul by itself is a refutation of this.  The world is a nasty place.  Bad things happen all the time, mostly to the better sort.  A scumbag Prime Minister triumphs, and marches off, loaded with honours and riches, while a humble gospel preacher is held in a cell for seven hours, fingerprinted and his DNA taken, because an agent provocateur demanded to know whether he endorsed sodomy or not.  This is life.  It has always been thus, and always will.  To the strong the spoils; to the weak… well, the Romans had a saying which epitomised their culture.  Vae victis! or “Stuff the losers”.

    Those who have come to know Christ, however, have discovered that this picture of the world is not all true.  They have discovered that Christ is out there; that there really is someone who can help.  It’s not like discovering you’ve won the lottery.  Misfortunes do not go away, or diminish, but the reverse.  But they find that the Lord is there to help them along the road.  That is the Christian way, and  it is a  million miles away from the kind of complacent journalism — we’ve all seen it — that pretends with a snicker to ask someone accustomed to a life of comfort, who has somehow stubbed their toe, “Has this caused you to lose your faith?” 

    So I find myself much less sympathetic to the victims after this.  To them, “God” was just a tool to get what they wanted.  Repentance they did need.  They did need God, and John — improbable as it seems, on first sight — was right to make this point.

    Of course they also needed medical care.  They needed good sanitation, which good government could provide, and proper law and order, which a good government should provide, and many other things.

    It’s a warning that we must not be led astray by our instincts.  Let’s look carefully, before we condemn.


    Manuscripts of the history of John bar Penkaye

    The seventh century Syriac writer John bar Penkaye wrote various works, according to Ebed-Jesu, most of which have perished or are extant still only in manuscript.  One that has attracted attention is a chronicle in fifteen chapters.  The last of these deals with the rise of Islam, and, since it was written within the century, is nearly contemporaneous.

    Today I had an email from a researcher working for the BBC asking about the manuscripts of the work.  I must say that I don’t know!

    At BYU there is a copy of Mingana’s edition of the last 5 chapters, in Sources Syriaques.  From this I learn that Mingana edited the text with French translation from two manuscripts, one in his own collection, truncated at the end, which he labelled M; and one from the Chaldean Patriarchate in Mosul, written in 1840 but copied from a manuscript written in 1262.  

    Searching for “John bar Penkaye” in vol. 1 of the catalogue of the Mingana collection, I find that his copy is now Mingana Syriac 179, completed 22nd September 1928 and written at Alkosh.  In the catalogue the text is called The beginning of words, but Mingana refers to the Sources Syriaques publication.

    Apparently there is a review of the manuscripts in T. Jansma, “Projet d’edition du ktaba dres melle de Jean bar Penkaye”, OS 8 (1963) p.96-100.  (I would imagine that “OS” is “L’Orient Syrien”!) Sebastian Brock translated the end of book XIV and most of book XV into English.

    Steven Ring has a list of manuscripts here:

    • Baghdad, formerly Moul Chaldean Patriarchate Ms 26 dated 1875 AD from an exemplar dated AG 1573 = 1261 or 1262 AD, [74], p. 13
    • Alqosh Ms 25 dated 1882, [66], p. 489
    • Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican Syr 497
    • Birmingham University Library, Mingana Ms 179 dated 1928
    • Manchester, Rylands 43, a fragment c. 1915, [56], p. 167 f.

    He adds: “See also, Anton Baumstark 1922, pp. 210 – 211 who lists other Mss in note 14 on p. 210.”



    Evoe! Evoe! Let the wine flow tonight! (well, the diet coke anyway)

    It is a time of solemn rejoicing here at Roger Pearse Towers.  The staff have been given the evening off to make merry, and are even now dancing on the lawn wearing masks and wreaths of vine leaves and in their Sunday best.  The maids are carrying candles and one and all are sampling the new wine — or at least, the decaf diet coke laid on copiously from the ancestral cellar.

    The cause of all this merriment is that the last, the very last portion commissioned from someone else of the Eusebius volume  has come in!  Adam McCollum has transcribed all the Syriac text — 21 pages of it — which would be a job all by itself.  But the original editors were weak and cowardly men, and only printed the consonants.  Adam has added the vowels, which the original editors never had the courage to do.  And he did it to a deadline and on time, and in a beautiful Serto font.  Would that everyone I have worked with was so professional. 

    What this means is that the book can now be finished and prepared for the typesetter.  I need await no-one but myself.  I need to spend a day or so on adding some cross-references between the Greek and Syriac text. I ought to build some kind of index.  I think there is a couple of days of editorial work; probably a couple of weekends. 

    Once that is done, I shall approach the people with whom I have discussed typesetting.  They can typeset the Coptic, I think, as a sample.  That will test their nerves and their skill; if they can do that, I shall be confident they can do all of it.

    Thanks be to God, to have got this far after more than 2 years.  My sincere thanks, not just to Adam who has been a tower of strength in all this, but also to David Miller who translated the Greek and Latin; Claudio Zamagni and the people at Sources Chretiennes who supplied me with the Greek text in electronic form;  Tom Schmidt who typed up the new fragments of the Greek and checked all the other fragments over against Mai’s text; to Carol Downer and the UCL Coptic Readers Group who translated the Coptic and came through after I had given up any hope of doing that; to Ambrose Boles who transcribed the Coptic quickly and well into Keft, and by no means least to Adam McCollum who translated and transcribed both the Syriac and the Arabic and whose professionalism cheered me no end during the dark days when I wondered if it would ever all be done. 

    I’m not out of the woods yet.  But now we can move forward.


    An opportunity to translate some of Severus Sebokht

    The Syriac scientist Severus Sebokht lived in the mid-7th century in Syria and was possibly the most learned man of his day.  He lived at the great monastery of Kinnesrin, which was noted for Greek studies.  He is the first western writer to refer to what we today call “arabic numerals”. 

    Two works by him have been translated into French; On the astrolabe and On the constellations.  The French translation of the former was run into English, and I scanned that and placed it online.  I translated part of the latter and also placed that online.

    I also dumped whatever information I had on him online here.

    Most of his works have never been published.  A lot of them are to be found in a manuscript in the French National Library in Paris, ms. Syr. 346.  I obtained a PDF of a microfilm of this years ago.

    I’ve had an offer today by a chap who is fluent in both Syriac and Arabic to translate some of it.  I think I’ll take him up on this!