Skip to main content

Syriac Language and Literature


The intellectual and literary activity of Eastern Christendom today offers only a reduced picture of its past. Particularly those Christian communities in which the Syriac language was spoken experienced up to the end of the Middle Ages such an intense life that Syriac literature surpasses, from many angles, the other literatures of the Christian East (Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopian).

Aramaic and Syriac. Syriac emerged as an independent dialect of Aramaic in the early first century a.d. Since the 8th century b.c., aramaic had been the Semitic

language that served as the instrument of communication for the tribes of the Tigris and Euphrates basin. The earliest pagan inscriptions dates from the 1st century a.d. In spite of the competition offered by Greek under the Seleucids, it became the main vehicle of the Gospel in these vast regions. Around the year 150, if not sooner, northern Mesopotamia was reached by Christian evangelization. The eastern Aramaic dialect of Edessa (now Urfa in eastern Turkey), capital of the principality of Osrhoene, already possessed a literary character; as it developed, it became, under the name of Syriac, the liturgical and literary language of churches from the Mediterranean coast to Babylonia, and from the borders of Armenia to those of the Arabian peninsula. The oldest dated Syriac manuscript in our possession is from a.d. 411 (London, British Museum, Add. 12150); it is written in estrangelo, the basic uncial script from which derived the later western (serto) and eastern cursives. Maintained by usage in the schools of Edessa, Nisibis, and Seleucia-Ctesiphon, and by the tradition of monastic centers, the linguistic fixity of Syriac was only superficiall affected by the political upheavals and religious controversies that eventually divided the Syriac-speaking Churches. Thus we go without difficulty from the language of philoxenus of ma bbugh (d. c. 523) to that of bar-hebraeus (d. 1286). The possibilities of a linguistic evolution of Syriac, illustrated by the modern neo-Syriac dialects like Turoyo, were forestalled by the consequences of the Arab conquest. In the 9th century, Syriac began to be supplanted by Arabic in popular speech; its role was gradually reduced to merely that of a liturgical language and scholarly language.

Syriac Studies in the West. Of all the Eastern Christian literatures, Syriac is the best known, Western science having suspected as early as the Renaissance its importance for the textual criticism of the Bible. E. Renaudot (d. 1720) was, it has been said, "the first French scholar to realize the importance of the [Christian] oriental literatures" (Chabot). More than a century before him, however, Andreas Masius, a product of the Collegium Trilinguethe creation of which had been prompted by the genius of Erasmus, prince of humanists, at the University of Louvainpublished in 1571 a Syriac grammar and lexicon; he had translated in 1569, from a manuscript since lost, the De Paradiso of Moses bar Kepha (d. 903), which remains our only source of information about this work. The Bibliotheca Orientalis (1719 to 1728) of J. S. Assemani revealed to the West the historical and doctrinal treasures of the Syriac manuscripts then recently acquired by the Vatican Library.

The real impetus toward Syriac studies, however, dates from the 19th century. It was stimulated in part by descriptive catalogues of the Syriac collections in European libraries. Notable among these is the catalogue in which W. Wright analyzed (1870 to 1872) the invaluable collection of the British Museum. Much of this collection comes from the same Syrian monastery in the Nitrian desert of Egypt that furnished Assemani with the most precious Syriac manuscripts for the Vatican Library. In 1934, J. B. Chabot estimated at 2,000 the number of Syriac manuscripts now in European depositories. They have furnished material for numerous text publications. The two principal collections of Eastern Christian texts, the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium of Louvain and Washington and the Patrologia Orientalis of Paris, which were started simultaneously in 1903, have given priority to Syriac texts. Among the some 260 volumes in the former, more than 110 concern Syriac literature. In 1922, the Geschichte of A. Baumstark provided Syriac studies with an incomparable working tool.

Evolution of Syriac Literature. Since every literature is a particular social phenomenon, Syriac literature cannot be paralleled either with the literatures of Greek and Roman antiquity or with modern literatures. Nor can its literary history be presented in the framework suitable to the others, since the material criterion of its content prevails over the formal one of evolution of literary types. A point of comparison would be better sought in Byzantine literature, the product of a similar medieval society whose thought patterns related in great measure to things religious and ecclesiastical, and in which scholarship was the prerogative of churchmen, especially monks. In inspiration and in content as well as in its authorship, Syriac literature is for the most part religious and churchly. Moreover, it depended closely, in its second period, on the Greek patristic and Byzantine literature.

Syriac literary productions before the 5th century reflect the distinct character of the Christian church in Syrian and Mesopotamian region. The Old Testament books were translated from Hebrew, and the Gospels took a specific form in the diatessaron of Tatian. There were a number of influential movements like that of Tatian, the Encratite (second half of 2d century), of the Gnostic Bar Daysan (d. 222), and of Mani (d. ca. 276). From the side of orthodoxy we should mention Aphrahat, called the Persian Sage (first half of the 4th century), and especially St. ephrem (d. 373) whose literary productivity (Biblical commentaries, hymns for liturgical use, and homilies in verse form) and doctrinal authority have earned him the title of doctor of the Syrian churches.

The 5th century opens a second period, characterized by the growing influence of Byzantine Christianity, which steadily diminishes native Syrian peculiarities. Syriac poetry, however, was least influenced by the hellenization. The notable figures of this period are Jacob of Serug and Narsai. Of a cultural order, the hellenization of the Syriac-speaking churches is impeded neither by the confessional divisions intervening in the 5th and 6th centuries, nor by the diversity of political jurisdictions. Whether Monophysites or Diphysites, whether living in territories of Byzantine allegiance or in the Persian empire, writers in Syriac adopt as their principal role the translation of Greek works; they do so with a zeal witnessed by the rigid fidelity of their versions. The mass of what has been preserved in Syriac of Greek patristic texts gives the impression that few works escaped the translators' attention, and that the work of translating was pursued independently in numerous monastic centers. To give only a few examples, there are surviving fragments of at least five translations of the Historia Lausiaca of Palladius, four of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, two of several chapters from the Historia Religiosa of Theodoret of Cyr, two also of several works by Evagrius of Pontus, two again of the Apophthegmata Patrum, and of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

Syriac literature remained copious until the beginning of the 14th century, at which time the decadence begun in the 10th century became an accomplished fact. The political event that most influenced conditions of literary productivity was the Arab invasion; in 636, Syria and Mesopotamia had fallen into the hands of Mohammed's followers. Arabic became progressively the idiom of the masses and was chosen as their literary medium even by Christian scholars, anxious to secure a Moslem audience. The last brilliance of ancient Syriac literature flares up in the Syrian Orthodox Bar-Hebraeus (d. 1286) and in the East Syrian abdisho bar berĪkĀ (d. 1318); both composed their works either in Arabic or in Syriac. A notable achievement of the Arab period was its systematic completion of the rendering of Greek works on medicine and philosophy into Syriac and then to Arabic (as witnessed by the work of Hunain ibn Ishaq, d. 873). In general, however, literary production seems to have fallen back on its illustrious past. This was the age of commentaries and compilations; these are precious to us for the sources they use, but originality of thought is at a minimum.

Subject Matter. A glance at the catalogues of Syriac manuscripts held in Western depositories informs us best on the content of the Syrian libraries from which these manuscripts came, and on the subjects covered by Syriac writers. The catalogue of the British Museum collection, the richest in Europe, analyzes 1,008 manuscripts. First are Biblical texts (numbers 1 to 167) and liturgical books of all kinds (numbers 168 to 526). The theological section (numbers 527 to 910) contains works of most of the Greek Fathers, writings of numerous Syrian authors, dogmatic catenae of polemic and antiheretical character, and canonical texts. History, hagiography included, takes up numbers 911 to 982. Last, under the title "scientific literature," we find, in much smaller number (numbers 983 to 1,008) works on logic and rhetoric, grammar and lexicography, medicine, agriculture, alchemy, and natural history. Syrian "science" copied, as we can see, the subject matters of the Byzantine encyclopedia cursus; the only manuscript that Wright classified under natural history was the Physiologus, a history of animals comparable to the medieval bestiaries. The literature was thus of an almost exclusively religious and ecclesiastical character.

Historical Importance. In his History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient, A. Vööbus traced from its origins the literary activity of the Syrian monasteries. Out of the huge mass of Syriac copies that came from their scriptoria, very few have reached us. To these few, whether now in Western libraries or still inaccessible in the East, history attaches an exceptional significance. Syriac-speaking churches adopted Christianity at a time very close to its origins, and they lived it in their own fashion for several centuries. They actively influenced their neighbors, the Armenian and Georgian churches, at the time of their birth. They took a preponderant part in the life of the universal Church in times critical to the development of its dogma and institutions. Finally, their geographic situation involved them in the politico-religious and cultural history of Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, and several populations of Central Asia. For these reasons, the general history of the Near East is tributary to the documentation afforded by Syriac literature. To patrology, to the history of dogmas, heresies, and spirituality, the Syriac translations of the Greek Fathers and writers bring indispensable assistance. They have kept for us precious works of which the Greek originals have long since been lost.

But even when we can still read the Greek originals, Syriac translations retain all their value. Done at a very early period and preserved often in very old manuscripts, they are often evidence of the condition of a Greek text anterior by centuries to that found in the oldest surviving Greek manuscripts of the same text. It is impossible to penetrate deeply into Greek patrology without consulting the Syriac tradition. Finally, regarding textual criticism of the New Testament, Syriac takes on a superlative importance. For this, one need only mention the Diatessaron of Tatian and the witnesses of the Old Syriac version, two creations of the earliest period of Syriac Christianity.

Although the monuments of Syriac literature have been exploited with perseverance by scholars of the last 100 years, they are far from having given all their wealth. By recording on microfilm in Sinai (1949 to 1950) the major part of the Syriac collection in the Monastery of St. Catherine, the Library of Congress in Washington has done an eminent favor to scientific research in this realm.

Bibliography: e. aydin, "A Bird's Eye View of the Syriac Language and Literature," Gouden Hoorn 5 (1997). s. brock, "An Introduction to Syriac Studies," in Horizons in Semitic Studies, ed. j. h. eaton (Birmingham 1980). r. duval, La Littérature syriaque 3d ed. (Anciennes littératures chrétiennes 2; Paris 1907). a. baumstark, Geschichte der syrischen Literatur (Bonn 1922; reprint Berlin 1968). j. b. chabot, Littérature syriaque (Paris 1935). a. baumstark and a. rÜcker, Die syrische Literatur (Handbuch der Orientalistik, ed. b. spuler, v. 3.23; Leiden 1954). w. h. p. hatch, An Album of Dated Syriac Manuscripts (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1946). t. nÖldeke, Compendious Syriac Grammar (Winnona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2001; reprint of the 1904 edition). a. vÖÖbus, History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient (Corpus scriptorum Christianorum orientalium 184, 197; 195860) v.1, 2.

[r. draguet/eds.]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syriac Language and Literature." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 26 Mar. 2019 <>.

"Syriac Language and Literature." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (March 26, 2019).

"Syriac Language and Literature." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved March 26, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.