Histories of Syriac Literature
At the root of all studies of the history of Syriac literature is the Catalog 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.
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.
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.
Two lesser-known works by German masters, they are still worth having a look at, and can give useful overviews, but they have definitely been superceded by Baumstark 1922.
P. Bettiolo, "Lineamenti di patrologia siriaca", in Complementi interdisciplinari di patrologia, ed. A. Quacquarelli, 503–603 (Rome, 1989).
P. Bettiolo, "Syriac Literature", in Patrology V: The Eastern Fathers from the Council of Chalcedon (451) to John of Damascus (†750), ed. A. Berardino, 407–490 (Cambridge, 2006).
These are two 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.
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.
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. Here is a short account of Assemani's life, in Arabic. Here is the same, in Latin.
This history of Syriac literature is not as well known, but is nevertheless useful and concise.
In Latin. Organized topically and extremely useful once one has figured out how to use it, even though it is now dated.
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.
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.
- 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. (Volumes 1–2; Volume 2 alone).
- 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.
- Sebastian P. Brock, "Introduction to Syriac Studies" (and other articles), in Horizons in Semitic Studies. (also here)
- Eberhard Nestle’s bibliography 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.
- 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) .