Twenty Great Developments in Syriac Studies in the Last Twenty Years

I recently wrote a series of twenty Facebook posts that highlighted twenty great developments in Syriac studies. This is, of course, a personal list. But I thought it worth gathering the posts all together in one place.

1. Gathering

The formation of Syriac studies societies and regular local gatherings of Syriac scholars has helped grow the field in various countries and generated some wonderful books and a new journal over the last twenty years. In Germany, a regular Deutsche Syrologentag (first held in 1998) has generated a number of important collections. The eleventh Deutsche Syrologentag was held at the Martin-Luther-University in Halle-Wittenberg in April 2020. The valuable papers from the annual meetings of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies (founded in 1999) are published in the Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies, many issues of which are available free online.  The Incontro sull’Oriente Cristiano di tradizione siriaca has been held in Milan since 2002, publishing several valuable volumes from their meetings (early volumes described here). The Société d’études syriaques (founded in 2004) has achieved the near impossible by holding an annual conference and publishing its proceedings the next year for seventeen years in a row. By organizing each conference around a tight theme, the resulting series, Études Syriaques, offers an invaluable collection of up-to-date introductions to key areas of Syriac studies.

2. New Editions

When I began researching the Joseph story in the Syriac tradition, it seemed impossible that Jacob’s ten memre cycle would ever be edited—the manuscripts were just too hard to access. Yet, here it is, along with 150 other unpublished memre by Jacob of Serugh, thanks to the fine work of Roger Akhrass and Imad Syryany (read review here). New editions change the landscape of the field. That, I think, is why Sebastian Brock was once heard to say the Corpus (CSCO) is our life! Twenty new editions have appeared in the CSCO in the last twenty years, and many other editions have been published in other series, such as TeCLA. This work is vital, difficult, and deserves greater recognition than it normally receives (very few editions are reviewed, for example).

3. Digital humanities projects

Syriac studies benefits enormously from the broad array of digital humanities projects that have sprung up in the last twenty years. We have a state of the art gazetteer, prosopography, and clavis of hagiographical works thanks to syriaca.org; we have a collection of splendid annotated and linked bibliographies that serve as an essential introduction to the field and its various sub-disciplines thanks to syri.ac; we have the framework for a global catalogue of Syriac manuscripts thanks to e-ktobe; and we have millions of words of searchable Syriac thanks to syriaccorpus.org and Simtho. These and other projects provide a framework and resources for future research. In many ways they represent a selfless contribution to the field, because although the work has enormous value, it is not really rewarded in conventional academic terms. So thanks to the many people who have contributed to these and other digital humanities projects!

4. Encyclopedia and Handbook

There can be no doubt of the importance of the 2011 publication of the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (GEDSH) edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George Anton Kiraz, Lucas Van Rompay. The volume contains 622 articles by 76 different authors, and covers the whole Syriac tradition, with special emphasis on the early period. Thanks to the generosity of the publisher, the volume has become even more useful in its online form. Before GEDSH, students and scholars needed to scour dozens of different reference works to find general articles on Syriac authors and themes. Even then, the coverage was limited. The 2019 publication of The Syriac World, edited by Daniel King, offers a splendid companion to GEDSH. The book’s 39 chapters by a who’s who of leading Syriac scholars provides the broader narrative context for the articles found in GEDSH. Again, the focus is on the Syriac tradition in Late Antiquity. A very affordable paperback edition will be published this month, making this handbook accessible to an even wider audience.

5. Reprints and PDF Libraries

Reprints and PDFs have changed the possibilities for Syriac scholarship during the last two decades. Many essential editions and reference works for Syriac studies were published in the early twentieth, nineteenth and even the eighteenth century, and a really good Syriac library was hard to find outside of the British Library, Oxford, CUA or Harvard. Few people could afford the rare original printings of Wright’s British Library catalogue, or Payne Smith’s Thesaurus Syriacus, for example, and, with a very few exceptions (you know how you are!), copies of editions by Bedjan or Mingana could not be found for love nor money. Instead, students and scholars photocopied what they could, making do with the limitations of our Inter-Library loan system. It would have been almost impossible to work at home if the Coronavirus had struck in 1999. Today, thanks to Eisenbrauns, Georg Ohlms Verlag, Gorgias Press, and Lulu, it is possible to have a very nice library of reprints of rare editions and reference works. Perhaps even more importantly, we have seen the growth of a global PDF library for Syriac studies. Almost all the important historical scholarship is freely available via archive.org (see the invaluable linked bibliographies at http://syri.ac/) and the Beth Mardutho Research Library Online, and much contemporary scholarship is available via academia.edu, personal websites, mailing lists and Facebook groups. This proliferation of essential scholarship has been an important development in Syriac studies, enabling great scholarship to be produced almost anywhere in the growing global community of Syriac scholars.

6. Translation

If editions establish a text for scholarly use, it is translation that makes it useable to both specialist and non-specialist alike. Translation is another vital activity that receives little approbation in the academy, and is therefore almost always done as a labor of love by a scholar eager to open up the wonders of Syriac literature for study and pleasure. The last twenty years have seen a flourish of translation activity, encouraged in large part by Gorgias Press, and by established series, such as Cistercian Studies, Fathers of the Church, Sources Chrétiennes, and Translated Texts for Historians. Thanks to this work, it is now possible for the English reader to travel from Bardaisan to Michael the Syrian in translation. Special highlights for the English reader from the past two decades include Aphrahat’s Demonstrations (Valavanolikal, Lehto), Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith (Wickes), the Book of Steps (Kitchen & Parmentier), the works of Cyrillona (Griffin), the Discourses of Philoxenus (Kitchen), the Persian martyrs acts (especially the excellent volumes in the series edited by Adam Becker), numerous anonymous early narrative and dialogue poems (Brock, Treasure-house of Mysteries), dozens of homilies by Jacob of Serugh (Gorgias Press), and lives of Saints, such as the recently published life of Barsauma (Palmer). These are just a few selected items from late antique Syriac literature that could not be read in English before. There is still much work to be done in this area, and it is hoped that the ongoing work of translation will also foster critical reflection, and thoughtful engagement with the field of translation studies.

7. Bibliography

Bibliographies facilitate the discoverability of Syriac scholarship. Without them we are lost—and many works of scholarship would be lost too. It is surprisingly easy for publications to get lost, especially overtime, and especially in a field whose work appears around the world in multiple languages, often in hard to find places. Bibliography is thus a foundational activity in Syriac studies. Bibliographical work in the last two decades has focused on tracking annual bibliography, producing thematic and introductory bibliographies, and on compiling and maintaining an indispensable bibliographical database.

The twentieth century bequeathed us two great bibliographical sources. Cyril Moss’s splendid Catalogue of Syriac Printed Books and Related Literature in the British Library offers a near comprehensive bibliography until the end of 1959 organized by modern author (reprinted by Gorgias Press). Sebastian Brock took up Moss’s mantel, publishing two decennial classified bibliographies covering 1960 to 1980, and then bibliographies every five years until 2000 (all in Parole de l’Orient). The bibliographies from 1960-1990 were gathered into a separate volume (Kaslik, 1996). Brock’s bibliographies continued into the twenty-first century, initially in Parole de l’Orient and then with Hugoye (recently with Grigory Kessel and Sergey Minov). These, now annual bibliographies, have been supplemented by several splendid thematic bibliographies, such as those on Ephrem (den Biesen 2002, 2011), Isaac of Antioch (Mathews 2002), Barhebraeus (Takahashi 2005), Syriac typography (Coakley 2006), the American Mission Press (Malick 2007), Jacob of Edessa (Kruisheer 2008), Syriac books printed at the Dominican Press, Mosul (Coakley and Taylor 2008, 2009), Christian-Muslim relations (Thomas 2009-), Philoxenus (Michelson 2010), Syriac Ascetic and Mystical Literature (Kessel and Pinggéra 2011), and Narsai (Butts, Heal, and Brock 2020).

The standard bibliographic resource in the field of Syriac studies is now Sergey Minov’s Comprehensive Bibliography on Syriac Christianity. This ambitious project was made possible by the support of Prof. Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony, the director of the Center for the Study of Christianity at the time of its creation. Sergey has written a nice introduction to the project, describing the numerous bibliographical resources and sources he incorporated into this online database. When the project was launched in 2010, it included more than 14,000 entries. It now includes over 22,000 entries, each tagged with multiple keywords to facilitate searches. I consider this to be most useful of the many brilliant Syriac digital humanities projects now online. I use it just about every day. And not only for specific searches. It is also a great tool for thinking about the history of scholarship, especially as entries can be limited by author, keyword, or date. With the database it is possible to say, for example, that there were almost as many Syriac studies publications in the last twenty years (10,103 as of today) as there were in the entire twentieth century (11,282). Some simple maths will also suggest just how few Syriac studies publications there were before 1900!

An entry on Syriac bibliography cannot close without mentioning the introductory bibliographies that Sebastian Brock prepared for his MSt and other courses at Oxford. These are now available on Syri.ac, along with other annotated introductory bibliographies prepared by the authors of that site. Together they provide a set of splendid bibliographical jumping off points for exploring Syriac studies.

8. Popularization

If Syriac studies were a Christmas tree, then popularization is the shining star at the top. Its splendor is real, and it shine brighter and further because of the tree that it rests upon! Popularization, whether through teaching, lectures, or publications, is the way that Syriac studies grows its audience, attracts future scholars, gains support, and increases its cultural capital in a world of competing goods. It is essential for the long-term future and flourishing of the field.

The first major work of popularization in the last two decades is The Hidden Pearl, originally published with an accompanying documentary on VHS tapes (now viewable here). This extensive three-volumes work was edited by Sebastian Brock and David Taylor, and authored by Ewa Balicka-Witakowski, Sebastian Brock, David Taylor, and Witold Witakowski. The volumes introduce the history (vol. 2) and contemporary culture (vol. 3) of the Syrian Orthodox Church within the context of the ancient Aramaic tradition (vol. 1). They are nicely illustrated and clearly written, and deserve to be widely used and read. The most recent volume that introduces the Syriac world to a broad audience is the splendid and award-winning Le monde syriaque by Françoise Briquel Chatonnet and Muriel Debié. This beautifully designed and sumptuously illustrated volume introduces the Syriac world from the beginnings to the twenty-first century. It is clearly the product of broad and deep learning, but is written and organized to appeal to a broad audience. It is a model volume and deserves to be read widely, and translated for a world-wide audience.

Other popular introductions focus more on select Syriac authors, such as Syrische Kirchenväter edited by Wassilios Klein (Kohlhammer, 2004), and the sweeping survey of late antique Syriac literature by Sabino Chialà (Edizioni Qiqajon, 2014). Another approach is to treat a particular ecclesiastical tradition. Herman Teule’s Les Assyro-Chaldéens is a broad and compelling introduction that treats the history, doctrine, art, spirituality, sociology and ecclesiastical structure of the Church of the East and Chaldean Catholic churches. Teule also includes a nice anthology of translations from major authors and works (Brepols, 2008). These works by specialists are nicely complemented by the works of non-specialists, such as Philip Jenkins’ widely read The Lost of History of Christianity (HarperOne, 2008), and Christoph Baumer’s gorgeous The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity, now in its second edition (I.B. Taurus, 2016).

Each of these volumes introduces the splendors of the Syriac tradition to a broader audience. They are labors of love which, like translation, serve multiple audiences and facilitate the absorption of the Syriac tradition into broader cultural and historical narratives.

9. Manuscripts and manuscript cultures

If there were an award for the greatest achievement in Syriac studies in the last twenty years surely it would surely go to Columba Stewart OSB for his work in making the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library the largest collection of Syriac manuscripts on the planet. Of course, like most great libraries, HMML is a collection of collections. As such, it is a portal to a world that seemed forever closed to Syriac scholars, the world of carefully guarded, yet often imperiled Middle Eastern manuscript libraries. Before HMML, there were only a handful of successful attempts to access the treasures of these important libraries, such as those of the Peshitta Institute, and Arthur Vööbus, both of whose microfilm collections are currently housed at HMML! Now, thousands of Syriac manuscripts are accessible to researchers around the world as the age old monastic practice of copying manuscripts to preserve their knowledge moves into the digital age. The great project of cataloging these manuscripts is now underway.

European libraries are following the lead of their Middle Eastern counterparts, and also digitizing their collections for public access, though their progress has been considerably slower than the work done by HMML and their partners. The Vatican Library is leading the way, making the bold decision to make all of its manuscript collections available online as soon as there is funding available to do so. The library now has more than twenty thousand manuscripts online, of which four hundred come from the two Syriac fonds (Borgia Syriac and Vatican Syriac). These and many other digitized Syriac manuscripts are usefully tracked on the Digitized Manuscripts page of Syri.ac maintained by Nathan Gibson.

The rise in access to manuscripts has prompted a salutary turn to manuscript cultures. I have argued elsewhere that the well-produced catalog is foundational to understanding manuscript cultures. That article engaged with Sebastian Brock and Lucas Van Rompay’s Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts and Fragments in the Library of Deir al-Surian, which I consider the most important catalogue published in the last two decades (Peeters, 2014). But it is not the only catalogue that has been published recently. Other catalogues include Chip Coakley’s catalogue of the additions to Cambridge University’s Library’s Syriac holdings since Wright’s catalogue, Paul Géhin’s Les manuscrits syriaques de parchemin du Sinaï et leurs membra disjecta (Peeters 2017), based on an important series of articles, Amir Harrak’s Catalogue of Syriac and Garshuni Manuscripts Owned by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and Heritage (Peeters, 2011), Philothée du Sinaï’s Nouveaux manuscrits syriaques du Sinaï (2008), Vincenzo Ruggieri’s The Syriac Manuscripts of Tur ‘Abdin in the Fondo Grünwald (Rome, 2017), and Behnam Sony’s catalogues of three Middle Eastern libraries (2005, 2010, 2015).

Such foundational work is meant to be built upon, and it has been. Notable contributions to our understanding of Syriac manuscript cultures from the last two decades include Heleen Murre-van den Berg’s impressive Scribes and Scriptures (Peeters, 2015), the valuable collection Manuscripta Syriaca: Des sources de première main, edited by Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet and Muriel Debié, the articles by Pier Giorgio Borbone and Emanuela Braida based on their valuable work on the Florence collections, the articles by Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet, especially her valuable survey article in King’s The Syriac World, a score of articles by Sebastian Brock, especially his “Without Mushê of Nisibis, Where Would We Be? Some Reflections on the Transmission of Syriac Literature,” Ayda Kaplan’s valuable work on Syriac paleography, the articles and reviews by Grigory Kessel, and Michael Penns articles on erasure and his valuable digital humanities project. Three articles from the past decade that gesture towards the possibilities in studing Syriac manuscript cultures are Dina Boero, “The Context of Production of the Vatican Manuscript of the Syriac Life of Symeon the Stylite.” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 18:2 (2015): 319-359; Aaron M. Butts, “Manuscript Transmission as Reception History: The Case of Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373).” Journal of Early Christian Studies 25:2 (2017): 281-306; and Philip M. Forness, “Narrating History Through the Bible in Late Antiquity: A Reading Community for the Syriac Peshitta Old Testament Manuscript in Milan (Ambrosian Library, B. 21 inf.).” Le Muséon 127:1-2 (2014): 41-76. Syriac manuscript cultures also feature in the valuable Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies: An Introduction.

This is an exciting time to be working with Syriac manuscripts. Important work has been done. Foundations have been set in place. We have more manuscripts available to us today than any previous generation of Syriac scholars. What will we do with this largesse?

10. Growth and Inclusivity

Syriac studies in the twentieth century was a male dominated field, with a few notable exceptions (such as Agnes and Margaret Smith and Jessie Payne Smith in the early part of the century), and largely centered in Europe. This situation is changing, and the field is better for it. Syriac scholarship is flourishing on every continent, and the gender balance is improving. Over the last two decades, positions largely or partly devoted to Syriac studies have been renewed or created at Chicago, Duke, Halle-Wittenberg, Notre Dame, Oxford, Paris, Princeton, Toronto, and Yale. Just as importantly, however, are the many Syriac scholars who have successfully competed for open positions in biblical studies, Jewish studies, early Christian studies, late antiquity, Semitics, history, religion, and medieval studies, to name just a few fields that I am aware of. The growth of the field of Syriac studies over the last two decades is due, in large part, to these brilliant scholars who have won places by demonstrating the dynamic and compelling nature of their Syriac studies scholarship. Such scholars maintain broad teaching profiles, with perhaps only occasional lectures or classes devoted to things Syriac. Prominent among the scholars in established and new are a growing number of female scholars whose publications and work in the field of Syriac studies are not only significant, but are changing the way we do scholarship with Syriac sources. There is much more work to do if we are to achieve gender parity and diversity in the field. The recent autobiography by Elaine Pagels (Why Religion?) reminds us that women have often suffered abuse and harassment in the process of finding a place in the contemporary academy (see also the valuable recent article by Blossom Stefaniw). The work to create an inclusive and welcoming field is often difficult and uncomfortable. But I am convinced that this work is vital if the field is to retain its vitality.

11. Syriac authors and works

According to Sergey’s brilliant bibliography, Ephrem the Syrian is the subject of 627 books and articles published in the last twenty years. And Ephrem is the not the only Syriac author to have garnered great attention in the past two decades. In fact, many of the major authors of Late Antiquity, from Bardaisan to Isaac of Nineveh, from Aphrahat to Jacob of Edessa have received greater attention in the last two decades than they have in the previous century. The ground-breaking collections on the Book of Steps, Narsai, Jacob of Serugh, Jacob of Edessa are signs of this growing interest on Syriac authors and their works, as are the recent monographs on authors such as Cyrillona (Griffin) Philoxenus (Michelson), Jacob of Serugh (Forness), Isaac of Nineveh (Hagman, Scully), and Timothy I (Berti). Particular genres are receiving greater and more sophisticated attention, such as hagiographical texts, as can be seen is recent studies of the Martydom of Mar Qardagh (Walker), the acts of Mar Mari (Jullien & Jullien) and the life of Barsauma (Hahn & Menze).

12. History of Scholarship

The great flourishing of Syriac studies in the last two decades builds on the foundation of centuries of labor. History of scholarship is the work of remembering, studying and reassessing that labor in order to understand the contributions of the past and our own place with respect to these contributions. It is an act of epistemic humility, and good, clean fun! Recent book-length contributions to the history of scholarship include the publications of the letters of William Wright, and biographies of Wallis Budge, J. Rendel Harris, and Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson. There have also been valuable article-length treatments of the life and work of Patriarch Aphrem I. Barṣaum (Gorgis), Paul Bedjan (Murre-van den Berg), Antonio Ceriani (Pasini, Vergani), René Graffin (Mariès), Chorbishop Gabriel Khouri-Sarkis (Amar), Alphonse Mingana (Baarda, Heal, Kautt), Mar Addai Scher (Becker, Hunter, Tamcke), Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson (Brock, Jefferson), and Arthur Vööbus (Annus, Kasemaa). The Gorgias Encyclopedia of the Syriac Heritage has a particularly rich collection of articles on important figures in the history of Syriac studies. Valuable work has also been done on the contributions of certain institutions to Syriac studies, such as the University of Cambridge (Coakley), the Dominican Press in Mosul (Coakley & Taylor), SEERI (Brock, Lane, Panicker, Thekeparampil), the University of Toronto (Harrak). There have been useful histories of Syriac studies in particular countries such as Japan (Takahashi) and Poland (Potoczny). Certain subfields have also received attention, such as Syriac computing and digital humanities (Heal, Kiraz), grammar (Debié), typography (Coakley), the history of printing (Coakley, Gabriel, Wilkinson), lexicography (Salvesen, Taylor), and text criticism (Mengozzi). And there have been valuable retrospectives by Sebastian Brock, Riccardo Contini, and Herman Teule. An important part of the history of scholarship is marking lives of deceased colleagues (see Brock, “The Contribution of Departed Syriacists, 1997–2006”). Over the past two decades we have remembered Luise Abramowski (Hainthaler), Robert Beulay (Hansbury), Mor Julius Yeshu Cicek (Brock), Irénée-Henri Dalmais (Metzger), Michel van Esbroeck (Khalil), Fr. Joseph Habbi (Yousif), Irénée Hausherr (Pampaloni), Taeke Jansma (Van Rompay), J.P.M. van der Ploeg (Van Rompay), Emmanuel Thelly (Koonammakkel), Ephrem-Isa Yousif (Debié), and Mgr. Petros Yousif (Desreumaux).

13. Dictionaries

The first edition of Carl Brockelmann’s Lexicon Syriacum was published in 1895 when he was only 27. This dictionary was based on his broad and deep reading of the Syriac editions that were accumulating at this time, thanks in large part of the British Library acquisitions from Deir es-Surian. And it is clear that Brockelmann kept reading everything that was published, not only from the addenda added to the first edition, but also from the considerably enlarged second edition, which appeared just over thirty years later (1928). By that time, Brockelmann had competition in the form of Jessie Payne Smith’s brilliant Compendious Syriac Dictionary (1903). Despite the advantages of Brockelmann’s Lexicon, Payne Smith became the preferred, and then the only dictionary used by English speakers who did not have a command of Latin. That is until Michael Sokoloff’s corrected, expanded and updated translation of Brockelmann’s Lexicon appeared in 2009. This marked a massive advance in the lexicographical knowledge available to English speaking readers of classical Syriac texts.

Two other publications deserve special attention. The first is Claudia Ciancaglini 2008 publication of Iranian Load Words in Syriac. This important volume discusses and demonstrates the significant impact of Iranian languages on Syriac from the earliest period. The second is Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz’s Concise Syriac-English, English-Syriac dictionary, with its successor, the Gorgias Illustrated Learner’s Syriac-English, English-Syriac Dictionary. The concise dictionary draws upon centuries of lexicographical work, and also offers the first bi-lingual dictionary for English readers (Brockelmann’s first edition had a Latin-Syriac appendix, while the second dictionary only had a Latin index).

14. Languages, religions, and cultures in contact

One of the most exciting developments in the past two decades is the growth in the study of languages, religions, and cultures in contact. The relationship between Jews and Syriac Christians has received renewed and sophisticated attention, for example, especially in the treatments of anti-Judaism in the fourth century sources, and in the relationship between the Talmud and Syriac literature. These and other trajectories are the subject of an extensive new collection edited by Aaron Butts and Simcha Gross (2020). Language contact is another intriguing area of research with broad historical implications, as seen in the groundbreaking article by David Taylor (2002) and the recent book by Aaron Butts (2016). There have also been some great advances in contextualizing Syriac Christians within Zoroastrian culture and the Iranian linguistic world. Of especially interest in this respect is the relationship between Syriac Christianity and Islam, seeing the rise of Islam through Christian sources (Penn), crafting new historical narratives (Griffith, Tannous), and exploring the Quran in its late antique context (Neuwirth, El-Badawi). Great introductions to cultural contact are found in the Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage, and its extremely interesting series of articles on Syriac contacts with Armenian Christianity, Coptic Christianity, Ethiopic Christianity, Georgian Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. My colleague Hidemi Takahashi reminded me “of the recent proliferation in studies on Syriac Christianity in Central Asia and China, prompted to a large extent by the coming together of Syriacists with Sinologists, Turcologists and others at the series of conferences that began in 2003, held at/organised from Salzburg.” In the last month, we have also seen the announcement of the Eastern Christian Cultures in Contact series, edited by Andy Hilkins, Zaroui Pogossian, and Barbara Roggema, to be published by Brepols.

15. Teaching and Learning Syriac

It is now easier than ever to learn Syriac. Syriac is taught in many universities around the world. Summer courses at The Catholic University of America, the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, Vrije University in Amsterdam, and Beth Mardutho also offer the chance for graduate students, and others, to start and advance in learning Syriac. The standard English language grammar, by Robinson, now fully revised and updated by Chip Coakley, is in its sixth edition (2013). Revised editions of Muraoka’s Classical Syriac (2005) and Classical Syriac for Hebraists (2013) have also appeared. John Healey’s First Studies in Syriac was published in 2005, adding to the established list an inductive grammar that can be gone through in a single semester, and that also has the advantage of recordings of the chrestomathy readings. Finally, George Kiraz has produced a splendidly accessible and effective Syriac Primer, now in a corrected third edition (2013). It is also now easy to supplement these teaching grammars with a copy of Nöldeke’s Compendious Syriac Grammar, thanks to the fine reprint published by Eisenbrauns (2001).

16. Monographs

The monograph is an especially important genre for reassessment and synthesis. When I first started studying Syriac there were few monographs that were essential reading. Among them were de Halleaux’s Philoxène de Mabbog (1963), Vööbus’s History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient (1958, 1960, 1988) and History of the School of Nisibis (1965), Wiessner’s Zur Märtyrerüberlieferung aus der Christenverfolgung Schapurs II (1967), and Murray’s Symbols of Church and Kingdom (1975). Murray’s Symbols of Church and Kingdom continues to have influence, thanks to its reprint in 2004. Surely, though, one of the great developments of the last two decades of Syriac studies is the increase in the numer of monographs published on Syriac topics, notably by University press, especially Oxford University Press, and North American University presses. These augment the increased offerings from venerable venues, such as Brill, Brepols, Mohr Siebeck, and, of course, Peeters, whose CSCO subsidia series is a goldmine of marvelous monographs on Syriac topics. Dozens of recent monographs are reshaping our sense of every period of Syriac studies. Old topics have been reassessed and new frontiers have been explored. Broad synthesis stands alongside deep analysis. The essential reading list for Syriac studies is now considerably longer and richer thanks to the last two decades. Those interested in the early spread of Syriac Christianity now turn to the monographs of Christelle and Florence Jullien’s Apôtres des confins (2002) and Saint-Laurent’s Missionary Stories (2015), those interested in the Persian Martyrs look to Kyle Smith’s Constantine and the Captive Christians (2016), those interested in Christological debates now turn first to Moss’s Incorruptible Bodies (2016), those interested in the school of Nisibis now turn to Becker’s Fear of God (2006), and those interested in Syriac historiography turn first to Debié’s L’écriture de l’histoire en syriaque (2015). Some have feared the death of the monograph is recent times. But it continues to be a vital and compelling genre for advancing scholarship, especially in Syriac studies.

17. Syriac Late Antiquity

One of the most exciting developments in Syriac studies over the past two decades is the shift from the study of Syriac patristics to the study of Syriac Late Antiquity (see Averil Cameron’s 2020 JECS article for a valuable discussion of these two fields). This shift has been fostered by many, but three individuals stand out: Peter Brown (Princeton), Elizabeth Clark (Duke), and Sir Fergus Millar, 1935-2019 (Oxford). All three have supported the inclusion of Syriac sources into the broader understanding of the late ancient world. All three have encouraged and supported doctoral students to pursue Syriac topics, or have actively sought to include Syriac sources in their own research. All three supported the creation or continuation of Syriac studies positions in their home institutions. In order to better control the sources, I believe that Fergus Millar studied Syriac later in his career with David Taylor, and Peter Brown read Syriac with Manolis Papoutsakis at Princeton. Syriac scholarship flourished at Duke, Oxford and Princeton with the support of these three scholars, who used their influence and cultural capital to foster scholarship in the field. Many early and mid-career scholars working in Syriac studies were mentored and supervised by these three scholars. No one would consider them to be Syriac scholars in the strict sense of the designation, but they have done much to raise the profile of Syriac studies and to grow the field in the past two decades.

18. Scholar-practitioners

A vital aspect of the growth of Syriac studies in the past two decades is the increase in the number of scholar-practitioners active in, and leading the field. By scholar-practitioner, I mean, to borrow David Taylor’s words, “scholars from within the churches of Syriac liturgical tradition in the Middle East and India, and from communities that self-define as Aramaic or Assyrian, whether religious or secular.” These are those for whom Syriac studies is not simply a compelling and fascinating field, but an intimate exploration of their own culture and religious tradition, with direct implications and applications for their own communities. There is a long tradition of scholar-practitioners from the churches of the Syriac liturgical tradition. In the modern period this tradition is exemplified by Moses of Mardin in the sixteenth century (see Borbone 2017), the Assemanis in the eighteenth century, and Ignatius Ephrem Rahmani (1848-1929), Toma Audo (1855-1918), Philoxenos Yuḥanon Dolabani (1885–1969), and Ignatius Afram Barsoum (1887-1957) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, the work of scholar-practitioners has greater institutional presence in North America, Europe, the Middle East and India. Four institutions exemplify this work. The St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute in Kottayam has been hosting quadrennial conferences, offering advanced degrees, and publishing a journal and book series for more than two decades. Led by Fr. Roger Akhrass, the Syriac Studies Department of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch was established in 2015, with a new journal, book publications, and online resources. It is also responsible for preparing a new catalogue of the Patriarchal library. Fr. Samer Youhana (https://academics.su.edu.krd/samer.yohanna) of the Chaldean Antonian Order of St Hormizd is leading the building of a new library and research center in Erbil to house the manuscripts from the Monastery of Notre Dame des Sémences near Alqosh. And last but, by no means least is Beth Mardutho in New Jersey, founded and directed by George Kiraz, whose publications, library, digital humanities projects, conferences, and language classes have enriched Syriac studies significantly for the last twenty years.

19. Funded Research projects

Significant advances in Syriac studies have been supported over the last two decades through funded research projects. These projects are often devoted entirely to Syriac sources. The Progetti di Ricerca di Interesse Nazionale funded “Catalogazione aggiornata dei manoscritti siriaci della Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana” led by Pier Giorgio Borbone at the University of Pisa produced important new research on Syriac manuscripts in Florence. The AHRC funded “Syriac Galen Palimpsest project” led by Professor Peter Pormann at the University of Manchester, which has as its primary goal the preparation of a critical edition nd translation of a Syriac Galen text. NOW funded Pionier Project “Identity Formation of the Syriac Orthodox Community” led by Prof. Bas ter Haar Romeny tackled the problem of identity through a variety of Syriac texts and contexts.

Other projects include Syriac studies as an important component, such as the ERC funded “Cult of Saints” project led by Prof. Bryan Ward-Perkins at the University of Oxford, with Syriac material gathered by Sergey Minov. The ERC funded project “Transmission of classical scientific and philosophical literature from Greek into Syriac and Arabic” led by Dr. Grigory Kessel prepared and studies a corpus of scientific texts extant in Greek, Syriac and Arabic. The ERC funded project “Florilegia Syriaca: The Intercultural Dissemination of Greek Christian Thought in Syriac and Arabic in the First Millennium CE” led by Prof. Emiliano Fiori focuses on the transformation of Greek Christian thought in Syriac and Arabic in the first millennium CE. The ERC funded project “Memory and Empire: The Post Imperial Historiography of Late Antiquity” led by Prof. Peter Van Nuffelen at Ghent University supported Marianna Mazzola’s edition, translation and study of the Ecclesiastical History of Bar ‘Ebroyo, and continues the Late antique historiography project that supported the work of Andy Hilkins on the anonymous Syriac Chronicle of 1234 and Michael the Syrian and Maria Conterno on Syriac historiography. The work by Ghent scholars on Late Antique historiography continues with the FWO funded project “Re-assembling the past. Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, early Syriac historiography”. The Leibniz Project “Polyphony of Late Antique Christianity” supported Dr. Philip Forness’ work on the Syriac sermon and the transmission of Syriac sermons in Arabic and Ethiopic.  This work is now being done in conjunction with the BMBF Project “Cultural Exchange from Syria to Ethiopia” led by Dr. Philip Forness (https://www.geschichte.uni-frankfurt.de/60877462/Dr__Philip_Forness). The Hamburg’s Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies network, funded by the European Research Foundation Research Networking programme (2009-2014) supported work on Syriac manuscript cultures.

These and other large-scale, multi-year research projects have not only advanced Syriac studies, but provided early career opportunities for the some of the most promising scholars in the field.

20. Sebastian Brock

According to Sergey’s online bibliography, Sebastian Brock has published nearly 300 books, articles, and book chapters in the last twenty years, and that does not include the scores of encyclopedia articles and reviews that he has also authored. During this time, especially since his retirement from Oxford in 2003, Sebastian has also been teaching and lecturing around the world (several talks have been usefully gathered here). Sebastian has a keen sense of the development of the field and has regularly reflected on its progress, most recently in two 2016 articles that reflect on a half-century of Syriac studies (Sebastian took his DPhil from Oxford and published his first Syriac studies articles in 1966). Sebastian Brock has made the most significant contribution to Syriac studies in the last century, and arguably in any century. He has taught and inspired several generations of scholars and encouraged and mentored countless others. His work has a truly global reach and impact. His contributions to the field in the last two decades have been remarkable, including major contributions to the study of Ephrem, Jacob, Narsai, and Isaac of Nineveh, and to the fields of liturgy, monasticism, hagiography, philology, lexicography, Mariology, manuscripts studies, the history of scholarship, Syriac poetry, especially dialogue and narrative poetry, and Syriac mysticism. Four volumes of the Variorum series have been devoted to his work, and now, fittingly, Gorgias Press have embarked on an ambitious project to collect his work thematically, beginning with major articles on Ephrem.


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