“Scriptor Syrus”, the scholiast on Dionysius bar Salibi: oft-quoted, but from where?

Something that comes around every year at this time is a quotation from a certain “Scriptor Syrus,” supposedly about the origins of Christmas.  Often it is supposed to be 4th century. This is the usual wording.

It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same Dec. 25 the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity …Accordingly, when the church authorities perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.

There is an excellent post at Andrew McGowan’s blog here about this “quote”, and the many errors and falsehoods involved, and a mention by Tom Holland.  It is, in fact, a marginal note by an unknown Syrian writer (= “scriptor syrus”) in a manuscript of the works of Dionysius bar Salibi, a 12th century Syriac author.

There is a somewhat fuller translation by Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Yale (1997), p.155:

A twelfth-century Syrian bishop explained,

“The reason, then, why the fathers of the church moved the January 6th celebration [of Epiphany] to December 25th was this, they say: it was the custom of the pagans to celebrate on this same December 25th the birthday of the Sun, and they lit lights then to exalt the day, and invited and admitted the Christians to these rites. When, therefore, the teachers of the church saw that Christians inclined to this custom, figuring out a strategy, they set the celebration of the true Sunrise on this day, and ordered Epiphany to be celebrated on January 6th; and this usage they maintain to the present day along with the lighting of lights.”[8]

p.244, 8.  Dionysius Bar-Salibi, bishop of Amida, whom I quote from the Latin of G. S. Assemani, Bibliotheca orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae 2 (Rome 1721) 164; and compare such other festivals as that of the Natale Petri of February, particularly in Fevrier (1977) 515, who protests against apologetic arguments to insulate the choice of date from any pagan antecedents or competition.

The overt polemical purpose of the modern author needs no discussion. But the reference is a useful entry-point to try to find the actual source.

What work are we talking about?  What manuscript?

Assemani was an Eastern Christian who published a whole series of extracts from eastern authors, in the original language, in his Bibliotheca orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae, with commentary and translation in Latin.  These are now online, and volume 2, page 164 may be found at Google books here.  The text is in two columns.  The original language is given, a text in italics is the translation, and Assemani’s own words are in normal text.

Page 164 from Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae, vol. 2 (1721)

Assemani introduces our scholiast thus (Google translate follows):

Hunc tamen Armenorum ritum, quem hic rejicit Bar-Salibaeus, anonymus nescio quis Syrus probare contendit in margine apud eundem Bar-Salibaeum fol. 43. a tergo, his verbis:

However an anonymous Syrian, I don’t know who, tries to prove this Armenian rite, which Bar-Salibaeus here rejects, in the margin in the same Bar-Salibaeus fol. 43. on the back, in these words:

Then follows the Syriac text, and then the Latin translation prepared by Assemani:

Mense Januario natus est Dominus eodem die quo Epiphaniam celebramus, quia veteres uno eodemque die festum Nativitatis & Epiphaniae peragebaret, quoniam eadem die natus & baptizatus est. Quare hodie etiam ab Armenis uno dic ambae festivitates celebrantur. Quibus adstipulantur Doctores, qui de utroque festo simul loquuntur. Causam porro, cur a Patribus praedicta solemnitas a die 6. Januarii ad 25. Decembris translata fuit, hanc fuisse ferunt. Solemne erat ethnicis hac ipsa die 25. Decembris festum ortus solis celebrare; ad augendam porro diei celebritatem, ignes accendere solebant: ad quos ritus populum etiam Christianum invitare & admittere consueverant. Quum ergo animadverterent Doctores ad eum morem Christianos propendere, excogitato consilio eo die festum veri Ortus constituerunt; die vero 6. Januarii Epiphaniam celebrari jussere. Hunc itaque morem ad hodiernum usque diem cum ritu accendendi ignis retinuerunt. Et quoniam sol duodecim gradus ascendit Dominus natus est hac die tertiadecima, & sicut S. Ephram docet, Solis justitiae & duodecim Apostolorum ejus mysteria repraesentat. Numerus, inquit S. Doctor, denarius perfectus est. Die decima Martii uterum intravit. Numerus item senarius perfectus est. Die 6. Januarii utramque partem nativitas ejus reconciliavit.

In the month of January, the Lord was born on the same day on which we celebrate the Epiphany, because in the olden days the festival of Nativity and Epiphany was held on the same day, since he was born and baptized on the same day. Therefore, even today, both festivals are celebrated by the Armenians. The Doctors [of the Church] support this, who speak of both festivals at the same time. Furthermore, the reason why the aforesaid solemnity was transferred by the Fathers from the 6th of January to the 25th of December, they say was this. It was traditional for the pagans to celebrate the birth of the sun on this very day, the 25th of December; to further enhance the celebration of the day, they used to light fires: to which rites they were accustomed to invite and admit even Christian people. When, therefore, the Doctors noticed that the Christians were inclined to that custom, they devised a plan and established on that day the feast of the true Resurrection; but on the 6th of January they ordered that the Epiphany be celebrated. So they have kept this custom to this day with the ritual of lighting fires. And since the sun has risen twelve degrees, the Lord was born on this thirteenth day, and as St. Ephraim teaches, he represents the mysteries of the sun of justice and his twelve apostles. The number, says the Holy Doctor, is a perfect denarius. On the tenth of March he entered the womb. The same number is perfect. On the 6th of January his birth reconciled both parties.

I don’t understand the bit about “denarius”; is it a typo for “senarius,” which seems to mean “a multiple of six”?  But it doesn’t matter for our purposes.  Assemani then continues his work by introducing a different extract from fol. 125 concerning Caiaphas, of no relevance here.

So these words, by the anonymous “syrian writer”, are on folio 43v of the manuscript used by Assemani.

But what is this a manuscript *of*?  What text?

Looking up to page 161, I see that Assemani is quoting material from folio 37v of this manuscript of a work by Dionysius bar Salibi, about the “progenitores” of Christ, from Luke’s gospel:

Quos Lucas refert Christi progenitores, eos ex Africano, Eusebio, Nazianzeno,Sarugensi, Graecisque & Syriacis Codicibus sic enumerat fol.37. a tergo:

He enumerates those whom Luke gives as progenitors of Christ, from Africanus, Eusebius, Nazianzen, [Jacob of] Sarug, from Greek and Syriac manuscripts, on fol. 37v:

He then continues with a passage from folio 161, on the nativity of Christ, before adding the material above from the scholiast.  It’s odd that this jumps about like this.

On pp.157-8, it all becomes clear.  Assemani is giving extracts from the Commentary on the Four Gospels by Dionysius bar Salibi, and he is extracting this material from a Vatican manuscript:

Commentaria in Testamentum Vetus & Novum. Et quidem expositio in quatuor Evangelia exstat in Cod. Syr. Vatic. 11. & in Cod. Syr. Clem. Vat. 16. a fol. 27. usque ad fol. 263. ejusque duo exemplaria in Bibliotheca Colbertina haberi testatur Renaudotius tom. 2. Liturg. Orient. pag. 454.

Commentaries on the Old and New Testaments. And a certain exposition on the four Gospels exists in Cod. Syr. Vatic 11. And in Cod. Syr. Clem. Vat. 16, from fol. 27. up to fol. 263. Renaudius testifies, Liturg. Orient. vol. 2, page 454 that two copies of this are held in the Bibliotheca Colbertina [i.e. now in the French National Library].

So… let’s take it further.  A lot of Vatican manuscripts are online.  But when I use the excellent Wiglaf guide to Vatican mss, and look at Vatican. Syr. 11, and Vaticanus Syr. 16, – I don’t think there is a “Clementine” subdivision of Syriac manuscripts – I find that neither has scholia on fol. 43v.  Someone has messed up the numbering of the manuscripts since!  It turns out that Assemani and his son did so, later in life, in the 1750s.  The marvellous Syri.ac website tells me of a concordance by Hyvernat, “Vatican Syriac Mss Old And New Press Marks” (1903), online here.

But this too is useless.  The old “Vat. Syr. 1” became Vat. Syr. 19, online here, but there is still no marginal note on folio 43v.  Hyvernat does not explain the “Clem.” collection at all.

Thankfully Hyvernat tells us about a catalogue composed by Assemani and son, and Syri.ac gives links to text-searchable PDF’s!

Looking at these, if we do a text search for “Salib”, we find that manuscript 156 contains Dionysius bar Salibi.  But… no scholion on fol. 43v.  In fact the manuscript has been divided into two parts, and part 2 is also online here.

The catalogue for Vat. Syr 156 says the Luke portion begins on fol. 188, which doesn’t sound right.  But at the end it says “see ms 155, fol. 161v”  And when I look at the catalogue entry for Vat. Syr. 155 – it too contains Dionysius bar Salibi!  The text search had missed it.   Are these two, perhaps, the two manuscripts that Assemani used, now placed side by side?  Hyvernat says look at the start of the catalogue entry, there may be the old shelfmark there.  And…

CLV. Codex in fol. bombycinus, foliis constans 294. Syriacis recentioribus literis exaratus, inter Syriacos Codices, a nobis in Vaticanam Bibliothecam inlatos, olim Decimus sextus: quo continentur:

150.  Folio manuscript on cotton-paper, consisting of 294 leaves, written in modern Syriac letters, one of the Syriac manuscripts brought by us into the Vatican Library, once the Sixteenth: which contains:

So this is indeed the one-time manuscript Vat. Syr. 16!   Hyvernat expresses himself bitterly toward the authors of the catalogue – “of no practical use” -, and, after more than two hours working on this, I too am less than chuffed with them.  The manuscript was never simply “Vat. Syr. 16”; prior to the reorganisation it was, in fact, Vat. Syr. Assemani 16; and the other manuscript, 156, was Vat Syr. Assemani 46.  Aaargh!

But … viewing Vat. Syr. 155 on folio 43v – there is a long scholion!  We’re there!  It matches!

Vatican Syr. 155, folio 43v – the scholion on Dionysius bar Salibi, Commentary on Luke, discussing the date of Christmas

One last wrinkle.  The catalogue (part 3, p.297) tells us that Luke is on fol.160v onwards.  That’s is item 23 in this manuscript, which contains various texts.  So what is fol. 43v part of?  Well, item 21 is the commentary on Matthew, starting on folio 32, and continuing to fol. 148v.  Not Luke, as anyone would infer from the original in the Bibliotheca Orientalis, unless they were very careful.

So this passage by “Scriptor Syrus” is, in fact, a scholion by some unknown person, on a passage in the Vatican Syr. 155 copy of Dionysius bar Salibi’s Commentary on Matthew.

It would be most useful to know exactly which passage of Dionysius bar Salibi is so annotated.  But there we must leave this.

Update: 24 Dec. 2023.  A useful comment from Syriacist Grigory Kessel is that Dionysius bar Salibi’s commentary on the gospels was printed in the CSCO series, with a Latin translation; and that the annotation above is against Dionysius’ comments on Matthew 2:1 (“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,…”), and the relevant passage is here.  I imagine it relates to the paragraph on p.67, l.12 onwards, where 25 December is specified.  Thank you!


16 page lost section of ancient “Julian Romance” text discovered in Vatican manuscript

A pair of researchers have discovered and published a lost ancient text in the Vatican library.  It’s the long-lost opening portion of a text usually dated to the early 6th century, and known as the “Julian Romance.” This is a novelisation of the reign of Julian the Apostate, who reigned ca. 362 AD, and his persecution of the church.  The work was composed in Syriac, but widely translated in antiquity into other nearby languages including Greek.

The publication is Marianna Mazzola & Peter Van Nuffelen, “The Julian Romance: A Full Text and a New Date”, in: Journal of Late Antiquity 16 (2023) pp.324-377. (Paywalled here; first page here).  This prints the Syriac text, with an English translation, and a thorough study.

Here’s the abstract:

The Syriac Julian Romance, a tripartite fictional account of the reign of the Emperor Julian, was hitherto only partially known from two manuscripts. This article publishes the missing first section from Vat. Sir. 37, a section that narrates the death of Constantius II. The complete text allows us to demonstrate that the narrative was composed by a single author and that the tripartite structure does not reflect three older, separate texts. Further, we identify the Miscellaneous Chronicle of 640 as the source for most of the historical information in the Romance. This implies a new date in the first half of the seventh century, which is supported by other chronological indications in the Romance.

The majority of the text of the Julian Romance was already known, and can be found in British Library Additional MS 14,641.  But this copy was obviously missing a large chunk at the start.  A small part of the beginning was later found in Paris BNF Syr. 378.  But there was still, obviously, a large amount missing.

Marianna Mazzola was one of the scholars:

I was checking the historiographical excerpts contained in Syriac doctrinal florilegia for a project I have been collaborating with at Ghent University and stumbled on this text mistakenly cataloged by J. Assemani as an excerpt from Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle on the Death of Constantius II.

I did not remember such a passage in Michael’s Chronicle so I started to translate it and realised that the style was not at all the plain, dry style of Syriac chroniclers. Gradually, I realised that it could be the Romance of Julian and finally when on the last page my text overlapped with that of MS Add. 14641, I no longer had any doubts.

The article is written with Peter van Nuffelen in which we also propose a new date on the basis of the new textual evidences. Looking forward to hear any remarks! We are aware this is a much debated text that has always sparkled much scholarly discussion.

In response to a query, she added:

I worked on the on-line manuscript. Sadly, it was still COVID time when I worked on it, and it was impossible to travel to the Vatican Library. Certainly further study of the manuscript would be an important addition.

The manuscript is indeed online, and may be found at the Vatican site here.  The article lists the contents of the manuscript.  The new text is on folio 168v-173r.  Here’s the opening:

ܐܝܟܙ ܐܟܠܡ ܣܘܢܝܛܢܛܣܘܩ ܪܒ ܣܝܛܢܛܣܘܩܕ ܗܢܩܦܡ ܠܥܕ ܐܬܝܥܫܬ ܒܘܬ
.ܝܗ̈ܘܗܒܐ ܠܥ ܦܣܘܬܬܐܘ ܗܡܥ ܬܘܠ ܫܢܟܬܐܘ ܐܒܪ ܣܘܢܝܛܢܛܣܘܩܕ ܗܬ̈ܡܘܝ ܘܡܠܫ ܕܟ ܠܥܒ ܝܗܘܬܝܐܕ ܗܪܟܘܒ ܢܝܕ ܣܘܢܝܛܢܛܣܘܩ .ܝܗ̈ܘܢܒ ܐܬܠܬ ܗܪܬܒ ܢܡ ܐܬܘܟܠܡ ܘܕܚܐܘ ܐܬܘܝܘܐ ܐܕܚܒ ܢܘܗܬܢܝܒ ܐܘܗ ܬܝܐ ܐܡܠܫܘ .ܣܘܛܣܘܩܘ .ܣܝܛܢܛܣܘܩܘ .ܗܡܫ ܬܝܡ ܆ܬܠ̈ܬ ܢܝ̈ܢܫ ܟܝܐ ܐܬܘܟܠܡ ܘܪܲܒܕ ܕܟܘ .ܢܘܗܬܘܢܪܒܕܡܒ ̇ܗܣܟܛܒ ܐܝܕܪܕ .ܐܬܢܝܫܡ ܣܘܛܣܘܩ ܒܘܬ ܕܟܘ .ܝܗ̈ܘܚܐ ܕܝܨ ܐܬܘܟܠܡ ̇ܬܟܪܲܫܘ ܉ܐܫܝܫܩ ܢܘܗܘܚܐ ܣܘܢܝܛܢܛܣܘܩ ܐܬܘܟܠܡ ̇ܗܠܟܒ ܪܚܬܫܐܘ .ܐܡܠܥ ܢܡ ܕܼܢܥ ܘܼ ܗ ܦܐ ܆ܢܝܬܪ̈ܬ ܢܝ̈ܢܫ ܐܬܘܟܠܡܒ ܕܼܒܥ ܛܠܲܬܫܐܘ ܐܝܡܘܪ̈ܕ ̇ܗܠܟ ܐܬܘܟܠܡܠ ܕܼܚܐܘ .ܢܘܗܘܚܐ ܣܝܛܢܛܣܘܩ ܼ ܘܗ ܐܬܘܢܪܒܕܡܘ .ܐܝܢ̈ܘܝܕ ܐܢܝܢܡܒ ܥܒܪ̈ܐܘ ܢܝܫܡܚܘ ܐܐ̈ܡܬܫ ܬܢܫܒ .ܐܬܘܟܠܡ ܝܗܘ̈ܕܝܐܒ ̇ܬܢܩܬܘ .ܢܘܗܝܠܥ

[168v] History of the death of Constantius, son of Constantine the victorious king.

(1) When the days of Constantine the Great ended, he was gathered to his people and joined his fathers, and his three sons reigned after him: Constantine, his first-born who was named after him, Constantius, and Constans, and there was peace with one pacific consent between them, current in their government. After they had ruled for around three years, Constantine the oldest brother died, and the rule remained with his brothers. After Constans had reigned for two years, he also died, and Constantius, their brother, was left [in control of] the entire realm and the governance. He took the entire realm of the Romans and ruled over them. The realm was established under his control in the year 654 of the era of the Greeks…. (etc)

The new material is 16 pages in translation, so not a small discovery.  It renders obsolete much of the existing scholarship.  The authors discuss the date of the Julian Romance.  They make clear a word-for-word connection with the Miscellaneous Chronicle of 640, which therefore kicks the date of composition back from the early 6th century well into the 7th, and locates events around the reign of Heraclius.

It’s a fine article, and a wonderful discovery for 2023.  It goes to show that there is still stuff out there!  Never assume that even a well-studied and major collection has any idea about what is on their shelves.  The age of discovery is not over.  It just requires effort, and a bit of luck.

The discovery also shows the huge value of digitisation of manuscripts.  The Vatican have the best programme for mass digitisation known to me.  But isn’t it time that some other major manuscript libraries did the same?


Some memories of Steven Ring, Syriacist Extraordinaire

Yesterday I learned by accident of the death of Steven Ring, one of the first enthusiasts online to promote Syriac studies.  He died on March 28th 2021 of cancer.  He had been ill for the previous four years, during which time he undertook and completed a PhD at SOAS.

I’m not sure when I first met Steven online, for it was very long ago.  My email box tells me that we were already well-known to each other in 2006, when I was working on the works of Severus Sebokht and trying to get microfilms from the Bibliothèque Nationale Francais. We swapped war-stories of archives; of who would allow this, or would obstruct that.  We wrote hopefully of how user photography might become something other than a pipe-dream.

But we had come across each other earlier, possibly as early as 2000.  In those days his website “Scholar’s corner: Syriac and Aramaic New Testament studies” – now vanished – was at http://www.srr.axbridge.org.uk/syriac_home.html and this is archived in the Wayback Machine at Archive.org.  A 2006 snapshot is here.

In those days he was an electrical engineer, working for the IEEE, and using his work email address to swap information about Syriac manuscripts.  They were fun, and always to the point.  He was very interested in original language Syriac and Aramaic original material.  One of his emails tells me that he had no interest in the English translations, although this was a bit of an overstatement.

Naturally he made a wide circle of friends and contacts, both among the scholars of our time, and also in the native Syriac community, from Syria out as far as India.  I remember when we first met, in December 2006.  Erica C. D. Hunter ran a short but intensive course on Syriac language at SOAS in London on 4 Saturdays, once a month.  A fair number of people with jobs turned up.  (I must have had lots more energy in those days, to do it after a week in a hotel!)  We stayed in regular touch thereafter.  I helped him to get a reader’s card for the Bodleian in Oxford, which was nearer to his base in Bristol.

He could be somewhat eccentric.  He was an autodidact, and some of his views were distinctly out of the mainstream.  He believed, for instance, that the gospels were originally written in Aramaic.  It was likewise perhaps inevitable that he would adopt Covid-scepticism.  But these quirks did not mar him, or distract from his genuine interest in every area of Syriac studies.  He was a Christian.

Steven Ring, visiting Oxford in 2010.

The last time that I met him in person was on Saturday 10th August, 2013.  We met in the reader admissions at the British Library in London – both of our cards were out of date – and we went up to the Oriental manuscripts room to look at BL Additional 12150.  This is one of the manuscripts from the Nitrian desert, and was written in 411 AD (!)  It had a modern binding, and the librarian handed this 16-century-old item over with barely a glance.  I’d asked him along to help with reading the Syriac.  I was mainly interested in chapter titles and running headers and the like.

It was impossible to mistake his genuine enthusiasm and determination to do scholarship.  He was very much a layman, as I am, but the kind of supporter that every discipline needs.  I was pained to hear from him, while we sat in the cafe having lunch, that some nameless academic at a conference had told him “Remember that you’re only here on sufferance”.  I can  imagine that his enthusiasm could draw such a response from someone for whom academia had become just a job.  This set-down seemed to discourage him, and it gave him a distaste for what he was doing.  I noticed that his pace of work palled for two or three years.  He had also left the IEEE in this time, and attempted to start his own business, although I’m not sure that it was very successful.  Fortunately his 2013 encounter with the British Library manuscripts seems to have reinvigorated him, and he decided that he would do a doctorate.   His long-term enthusiasm for the Diatessaron was poured into his thesis.

Steven Ring – Facebook portrait photo

A few years later I learned that he was unwell, but it did not seem likely to be fatal.  He proceeded with his PhD.  He was still posting about Covid on Facebook in February.

On April 3 2021 this notice appeared on Steven’s facebook page:

To all Steven Ring’s friends, colleagues and associates

It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of his recent passing on the 29th of March.

He had battled cancer for over four years, but had deteriorated rapidly in recent months. He’s now at rest and with the Lord.

Amazingly, in his last few weeks he was able to not only finish his PhD studies, pass his Viva, and be awarded his degree. He also managed to publish much of the last 23 years of his research online (via ResearchGate), so that others might carry on from where he left-off.

We will provide details of his funeral arrangements in due course for those wishing to attend his memorial service remotely.

Lesley Ring

Sadly I only saw this a few days ago.  I was shocked, for I had no idea that his life was in danger.  I suspect that he was in his late 50s, but I don’t know his exact age.

On the hugoye-list here on March 31 Erica Hunter posted this obituary:

Dear Hugoye members,

it is with great sadness that I announce the recent death (on March 28th) of Steven Ring who often contributed to this group under the pseudonym: Estephanos Anglishiya.

Steven was a doctoral student in the Dept. of History, Religions and Philosophies, but had originally completed an M.A. in Electronics and Communications Engineering at the University of Birmingham in 1981.

Syriac Christianity was a life-long passion and after initial studies in Syriac, in 2016 he embarked on a doctoral programme at SOAS under the supervision of Dr. Erica C. D. Hunter.

His thesis, “The post fifth-century use and dissemination of the Syriac Diatessaron with new perspectives on its origins”, created important new understanding re its transmission which he showed continued up to the ninth century, particularly in the East Syriac tradition.

Examined by Emeritus Prof. Nicholas Sims-Williams FBA and Emeritus Prof. John Healey FBA, the thesis was awarded the degree of PhD, just a couple of days before he died.

Steven was a prodigious scholar who had already authored several articles and was planning to write volumes more. He will be sorely missed.

Dr. Erica C D Hunter
Senior Lecturer in Eastern Christianity, Emerita

Rest in peace, old friend, and rise in glory.


The “hugoye-list” for Syriac Studies -now at groups.io

Syriac Studies online has long relied on the Hugoye-list, at Yahoo Groups, formerly at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/hugoye-list/.  But this closed in 2018.  This evening I was looking for the new location, and Google really was not that helpful.

In fact the new location was announced on Twitter by @bethmardutho here:

Important announcement: for 20 years, we have hosted an email listserv on Yahoo Groups. As of this month, we are transitioning to a new listserv format. You can find our new home at: https://groups.io/g/hugoye-list

We’ve made this decision because the Yahoo groups format has become increasingly unreliable. Some messages aren’t getting through to the list at all, and we’ve always had some difficulty with some email addresses not being added.

The groups.io format allowed us to automatically transfer our whole member list and the database of messages (over 4600+ threads!).

If you aren’t already a member of the listserv, and you’d like to join, just send an email to: hugoye-list+subscribe@groups.io.

Note: as a transition period, we will keep the old Yahoo group open through the end of 2018, but all messages will be automatically moderated. Then, at the end of the year, we will shut down the yahoo group completely.

So that’s that.  Find the new group here:



A Nestorian Syriac account of the life of Nestorius – translated by Anthony Alcock

In the late 19th century the Nestorians were still holed up in the mountains of what is today northern Iraq, and preserved a considerable amount of literature in Syriac giving their side of the dispute with Cyril of Alexandria that culminated in the Council of Ephesus in 433.

Anthony Alcock has kindly translated an abbreviated account of this, from that perspective.  I think most of us find Cyril difficult to like, and tend to be sympathetic to Nestorius.  So these texts are valuable.  Here it is:

Thank you so much!


A collection of sayings attributed to Ammonius/Amun

Dr Anthony Alcock has translated for us all a collection of sayings, some Syriac, some Greek, which are attributed to St Ammonius, or Amun, a disciple of the desert father St Anthony.  These take the form of short anecdotes.

It’s lovely to have these in English!  The PDF is here:


A short Syriac legend on the Emperor Maurice – in English

Anthony Alcock has emailed in an English translation of another Syriac text.  This one is a hagiographical text, perhaps of Nestorian origin, on the Emperor Maurice.  It’s here:

Thank you!


A useful list of Syriac and Arabic chroniclers

French blogger Albocicade writes to say that he has compiled a list of Syriac and Arabic chronicles on his blog.  I found this rather useful, to see it in a condensed form.  Better still, he has linked the entries to online versions of the text or translation.  Very useful, I think!

It’s here.


Eznik of Kolb: the Avesta was not transmitted in writing but orally

A tweet by @BLAsia_Africa led me to a neglected passage in Eznik of Kolb, the 5th century Armenian writer, and a quotation from Paul the Persian!  From it I learned that:

…the Avesta was transmitted orally and not written down!

The author drew this conclusion after reading some remarks by R. C. Zaehner in 1955[1]:

However, whatever our view on the evidence of Paulus Persa, we have two other testimonies which can leave us in little doubt as to the fluidity of Zoroastrian dogma in Sassanian times. These are supplied by the Armenians Eznik of Kolb and Elise Vardapet. Eznik, like the nameless heretic of the Denkart, was struck by their inconsistency. ‘Their foolishness’, he says, ‘is enough to refute them from their own words which are mutually exclusive and self-contradictory’;[7] and again, repeating the oft-made charge that they had no books, he says: ‘Since their laws are not in books, sometimes they say one thing with which they deceive, and sometimes another with which they seduce, the ignorant.’[1]

[7] Ed. Venice, 1926, bk. ii, §2, p.128; Langlois, ii, p.375; Schmid, p.94.
[1] Venice, 1926, ii, 9, p.156; Langlois, ii, p.381; Schmid, pp. 111-12.

(Langlois = V. Langlois, Collection des historiens anciens et modernes de l’Arménie, 2 vols, 1867: p.179-251; Schmid = J.M. Schmid, Wardapet Eznik von Kolb: Wider die Sekten. Aus den Armenischen ubersetzt…, Vienna, 1900. Online here.)

There is actually a complete English translation, and I used to have a copy but it was mislaid.  So let’s use Langlois, and just check the context of that quote.  It appears in column 1 on p.381, in about the middle of the page:

En second lieu, pour cacher cette honteuse action, [Zoroastre] publie que pour le besoin des jugements [Ormizt et Arhmèn] ont créé [le soleil].  Aussi comme les dogmes religieux ne sont pas écrits, tantôt ils disent une chose, et se trompent, tantôt ils en disent une autre, et ils trompent les ignorants. Cependant si Ormizt était Dieu, il pouvait tirer les autres du néant, comme il avait créé les cieux et la terre, et non pas au moyen d’un commerce infame, ou bieu en raison de l’absence d’un juge.

Secondly, in order to conceal this shameful act, [Zoroaster] set forth that [Ormazd and Ahriman] created [the sun] to perform judgements.  Also as the religious teachings are not written down, sometimes they say one thing, and are deceived, sometimes they say another about this, and deceive the ignorant.  However if Ormazd was god, he could brings the others out from nothing, like he created the heavens and the earth, and not by means of an infamous commerce, or because there was no judge.

That does seem like a pretty clear statement that the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scriptures, did not exist in written form at this date as far as Eznik knew; and that in consequence Zoroastrian teaching was pretty fluid.  I have seen popular claims that Christianity borrowed from Zoroastrian sources; but if there really are similarities, chronology would suggest that the borrowing is in the other direction.

  1. [1]Robert Charles Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, 1955; 128-9.  Google Books preview here.

Upcoming: translation (offline) of Bar Hebraeus’ “Chronicon Ecclesiasticum”

The 13th century Syriac writer Bar Hebraeus wrote before the Mongol invasions that devastated the Near East and reduced it to the backward condition in which it has languished ever since.  The same events also brought an end to the production of Syriac literature, and caused the loss of vast amounts of what already existed.

Among his works are two histories.  The second is the Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, an encyclopedia of Syriac people, both Syrian Orthodox and Church of the East, with details of their lives and works.  This was printed with a Latin translation, but has never been translated into English.  Until now.

David Wilmshurst writes to tell me that he has translated it, and has now received the proof copy from Gorgias Press, who are issuing it.  I would imagine that it is an essential purchase.  Here’s the blurb:

The Ecclesiastical Chronicle of the Jacobite polymath Bar Hebraeus (†1286), an important Syriac text written in the last quarter of the 13th century, has long been recognised as a key source for the history of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Church of the East.  Bar Hebraeus describes the eventful history of the Jacobite and Nestorian Churches, as they were then called, from their earliest beginnings down to his own time, against the background of christological controversies, Roman‒Persian wars, the Arab Conquest, the Crusades and the 13th-century Mongol invasions.  Two continuators bring the story down to the end of the 15th century, shedding valuable light on a relatively obscure period in the history of both Churches.  The Ecclesiastical Chronicle was translated into Latin between 1872 and 1877, but has never before been fully translated into English.  Gorgias Press is proud to publish the first complete English translation of this influential text, by respected Syriac scholar David Wilmshurst.

This elegant translation of the Ecclesiastical Chronicle, six years in the making, captures the distinctive flavour of Bar Hebraeus’s style, and is complemented by a facing Syriac text.  Wilmshurst also provides a detailed introduction, setting the chronicle in its historical and literary context.  His translation is accompanied by five maps, showing the dioceses of the Jacobite and Nestorian Churches and the towns, villages and monasteries of Tur ‘Abdin and the Mosul Plain.  A helpful bibliography and index are also provided.

David Wilmshurst was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, where he took a D Phil degree in Oriental Studies (1998).  He has spent much of his life in Hong Kong, and is one of the few modern scholars of the Church of the East who can read Syriac, Arabic and Chinese.  He is the author of The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East, 1318–1913 (Louvain, 2000), a study of the Christian topography of Iraq and Iran, and The Martyred Church (London, 2011), a general history of the Church of the East. Both books have been warmly praised by leading scholars.

I hope that the price is reasonable.