Histories of Syriac Literature
A Note to Readers
On this page we have attempted to collect all the major histories of Syriac literature. The most comprehensive history is without a doubt Anton Baumstark's Geschichte der Syrischen Literatur. Baumstark, however, can be quite forbidding to use: his German is difficult and obscure, even for native speakers, and his system of abbreviations will seem arcane and confusing at first. However, Baumstark's exhaustive knowledge of primary sources and manuscript collections in both Europe and the Middle East has been matched by very few scholars in the history of Syriac scholarship. At some point, any serious research on a Syriac topic will lead to Baumstark's Geschichte.
'Abdisho' bar Brikha
At the root of all studies of the history of Syriac literature is the Catalogue of Books of the East Syrian 'Abdisho' bar Brikha (d. 1318). His work is analogous to Photios' Bibliotheca or the Suda for the history of Greek literature and to Ibn al-Nadim for Arabic. He lists many works that are now lost or fragmentary. His Catalog was first published by Assemani in the Bibliotheca Orientalis (see below). An English translation can be found here, and this is an overview of the work.
Abuna, Adab al-lugha al-aramiyya
This is little-known history of Syriac literature contains much valuable material and deserves to be wider-known and used. It is the most recently published major history of Syriac literature and Abuna gives good discussions of scholarship on a variety of issues, providing generous bibliographic and manuscript information. Especially important is the information Abuna gives on the history of more recently Syriac scholarship in the Middle East, information not easily found anywhere else.
Albert, "Langue et littérature"
An extremely useful and well-organized introduction to Syriac bibliography, literature, and instrumenta. In general, the volume from which it is taken, Christianismes orientaux, is a wonderful resource, one which covers all the languages of the Christian Orient. It should be on the bookshelf of any student interested in doing serious study of this subject.
Assemani, Bibliotheca Orientalis
J.S. Assemani, Bibliotheca Orientalis, 4 vols. in 3. (Rome, 1719–1728). (or, separately, vol. 1., vol. 2, vol. 3.1, vol. 3.2)
The BO was and is a landmark in the history of Syriac scholarship in the West. If all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, as has been said, then at some level, all Syriac scholarship is a footnote to (and expansion of) the amazing scholarship of Assemani. Hundreds of years after its publication, there is still nothing quite like it. Some of the texts Assemani published (e.g., 'Abdisho's Catalogue of Syriac Books, mentioned above) have never been superseded. A short account of Assemani's life was written in both Arabic and Latin.
Ninety years after its publication, this is still the standard history of Syriac literature. Baumstark’s mastery of information in Syriac manuscript catalogs and his ability to piece together historical information from a variety of different sources was phenomenal. This book represents a storehouse of knowledge. When investigating an author, however, one should be aware that catalogs had not yet appeared of Mingana’s very important collection in Birmingham; therefore, Mingana’s indices should always be consulted, in addition to Baumstark. Baumstark also made use of catalogs by Scher of MSS collections in the Middle East which were destroyed or moved in the context of the widespread massacres of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This means that MSS he cites from these collections may not be there or may unfortunately no longer even exist. Desreumaux’s Repertoire should be consulted when trying to track down the present location of these manuscripts. HMML’s work cataloging the manuscript riches of Middle Eastern collections also offers the potential for updating some entries in Baumstark (and perhaps adding a few more). The New Finds at St Catherine’s, both fragments and full manuscripts, also are not reflected in Baumstark’s learned footnotes. New finds at Dayr al-Suryan also promise to add to our knowledge of Syriac literature. When he died, Baumstark left behind a copy of his Geschichte that was rich in marginal notes for a new edition; his handwriting, however, was so difficult to decipher that no scholar has been able to read these notes and publish them. Six years after he died, a brief history of Syriac literature, which supplements and updates his immortal Geschichte was published.
Baumstark, Die christlichen literaturen
Barsoum, Scattered Pearls
Barsoum had an extremely thorough knowledge of Syrian Orthodox manuscript collections in the Middle East, which is one of the strong suits of this particular history of Syriac literature. And because of the digitization efforts of HMML, it is now possible to track down specific MSS which Barsoum refers to. The Arabic text can be found here.
Bettiolo, "Syriac Literature"
These latter two are lesser known, yet still very useful overviews of Syriac language and literature. Bettiolo's article from 2006 is a translation of an article he published in Italian in 2000 and represents the most recent bibliographic overview of Syriac literature that we are aware of.
Brock, Brief Outline
For newcomers to the history of Syriac literature, this hard-to-find and now out-of-print volume is a very helpful touchstone. It represents an expert simplification of the major scholarly literary histories listed below. We have now linked to a version which has the entire Brief Outline. We originally linked to a smaller version which did not have the chrestomathy of texts at the back of the volume; that version can still be found here.
Though surpassed by later work, this is worth having a look at, and can give useful overviews.
Chabot, Littérature syriaque
This history of Syriac literature is not as well known, but is nevertheless useful and concise.
Duval, Littérature syriaque
Ortiz de Urbina, Patrologia Syriaca
In Latin. Organized topically and extremely useful once one has figured out how to use it, even though it is now dated.
Wright, Short History
Based on Wright's Encyclopedia Britannica article. The information on biblical versions is now dated and should not be relied upon, but Wright is still very useful for later material. Strangely, Wright displays a dismissive and even hostile attitude to Syriac literature, describing it as mediocre, at the beginning of this volume, even though he spent years of his life working with Syriac materials. An obituary of William Wright. A long notice on his life, here.
- The publication of the BO in Rome in the 18th century, as monumental as it was, proved to be only one piece of long and deep heritage of Middle Eastern scholars working on Syriac subjects in the modern world. Figures such as Paul Bedjan, Alphonse Mingana, and Philoxenos Dolabani are just three examples of the continuing study of Syriac literature on the ground in the region. For obvious reasons, Western scholars are today often unaware of Middle Eastern publications on Syriac topics or, even if they are aware, they are probably unable to access the books. Only a few collections in the US (such as the libraries of Harvard and Princeton universities) will collect such rare Middle Eastern publications. Indeed, the most important collection of Middle Eastern scholarship outside the Middle East (and which rivals and surpasses most collections in the Middle East itself) is the personal library of Dr. George Kiraz, which is held at the Beth Mardutho Research Library in New Jersey, now part of the Rutgers University library system. To give just one example, the Beth Mardutho Research Library has a nearly complete run of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchal Journal, published in Damascus, which contains many valuable articles by leading Middle Eastern scholars such as Dolabani and Barsoum. In these articles they often made use of manuscripts unknown or inaccessible to Western academics. In addition, the Beth Mardutho Research Library contains much of the personal library of Abrohom Nuro, one of the great figures of twentieth-century Syriac, and now also houses the wonderfully rich personal collection of Edward Matthews. The latter boasts a number of rare Armenian works that Matthews bought in Jerusalem from old Armenian families. To learn more about Middle Eastern scholarship on Syriac sources, one should consult Barsoum's Scattered Pearls, which we have linked to above (in Arabic and English). Similarly, Albert Abuna's History of Aramaic Literature is also a valuable resource and contains a great deal of information about Syriac scholarship in the Middle East up until the 20th century.
- See also the important overview of S.P. Brock, "Introduction to Syriac Studies" (and other articles), in Horizons in Semitic Studies. (also available here)
- Eberhard Nestle’s bibliography (German Edition) is the best available listing of early Syriac printed materials. Digitization efforts at major libraries have now made it possible to see many of these items.
- Ibn al-Nadim’s Kitab al-Fihrist is a very important source for the history of Arabic and Arabic literature. It also contains a great deal of information about Syriac and Syriac translations into Arabic as well as those who did the translating. (Ed. Gustav Flügel, 2 vols. Leipzig, 1871–1872.)
- Ibn Abī ‘Uṣaybi‘a’s ‘Uyūn al-anbā’ fī ṭabaqāt al-aṭibbā’ contains much important information about Aramaic-speaking Christian doctors in the medieval Muslim world. Roger Pearse recently discovered an English translation of this work which was executed in the middle part of the 20th century by an Israeli orientalist. He has now placed the translation online. For the Arabic version, go here: Volume 1; Volume 2.
- Ibn al-Qifti is another important medieval Arabic source which contains much useful information about Syriac authors, especially ones involved in medicine and the translation of Greek works into Syriac and Arabic. The standard critical edition of Ibn al-Qifti’s Tarikh al-Hukama was published in 1903 by Julius Lippert and can be found here.
- Abu al-Barakat's (d. 1324) Catalog of Christian (Arabic) literature is also of interest to Syriacists. Here is Reidel's edition and here is Adam McCollum's English translation.
- Though surpassed by their later monumental histories, Graf's Die Christlich-arabische Literatur (Freiburg, 1905) contains useful material, as does Baumstark's Die christlichen literaturen des Orients (Leipzig, 1911) (volume 1, volume 2).
- The Dictionary of Christian Biography, though well over a century old, is in someways still unsurpassed in English and contains extremely valuable entries on a number of Syriac and Syriac-related topics that have information not easily found elsewhere in handbooks available in English. It is a reference worth consulting on a regular basis. Of similar great value is the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities (volume 1, volume 2), which, though dated, is still a goldmine of priceless information.