Invitation to Syriac Christianity
- ISBN: 9780520299207
- Published By: University of California Press
- Published: February 2022
Introducing a wide audience to the world of Syriac Christianity is always a challenging task. First of all, scholars have to face a cultural prejudice: when people think of the classics of Christian literature, they usually consider only texts originally composed in Greek and Latin, thus ignoring the paramount role played by the Eastern Churches in the first centuries CE. Secondly, even a reader who recognizes the importance of Syriac Christianity would easily feel overwhelmed by the quantity and the richness of literature produced in its milieu.
Therefore, Invitation to Syriac Christianity: An Anthology, edited by Michael Philip Penn, Scott Fitzgerald Johnson, Christine Shepardson, and Charles M. Stang, is a courageous work. The obscurity of the topic is overcome thanks to a detailed introduction, aimed at briefly reconstructing the history of premodern Syriac literature. The editors here draw a distinction between four different periods (1st–4th century, 5th–6th century, 7th–9th century, and 10th–14th century) and devote particular attention to the evolution of Syriac religious culture and to the birth of new religious movements (some of which are still active and influential today). To complete the introduction, a final paragraph lists additional resources for the study of Syriac Christianity, with special focus on digital tools.
After this opening section comes the core of the volume. The translated texts are grouped into four main categories (“Foundations,” “Practices,” “Texts,” “Textual Transmission,” and “Interreligious Encounters”) and twelve chapters, each of which is preceded by a brief and clear introduction. The choice of the topics is intriguing and meant to suit all tastes: this rich anthology includes apocryphal gospels, poems, and theological treatises, as well as historical sources concerning liturgy, mysticism, and the relationship between Syriac Christianity and other religions. When reaching the end of the book, a non-expert reader cannot but be impressed by the great variety of premodern Syriac literature—and by its substantial absence from the syllabuses of many courses on Christian culture.
Thus, the volume proves to be completely faithful to its title. Its readers are invited to deepen their knowledge of the Syriac cultural milieu by using the suggested learning resources at the end of each chapter introduction and—why not?—by beginning to study the fascinating language in which the volume’s texts were originally written. Even though Syriac characters are not reproduced in the book, the translations allow the reader to grasp the atmospheres of Eastern Christianity and to develop a sincere interest in an Edessene dialect that has defied the centuries and delivered to us a wide array of sources on history, theology, and religion.
The volume is principally aimed at making a large number of texts accessible to people who could not easily read them directly in Syriac and at inviting non-expert readers to broaden their horizons on Christianity. The book also has the merit of encouraging future research on the Syriac world by providing the translation of some previously untranslated writings, reviewing the outdated versions of others, and, consequently, offering a reliable interpretation of many difficult passages. In these respects, the book bridges the gap between scholars and the general public and shows clearly how scientific accuracy and readability can be combined, thus producing an anthology which can be appreciated on several levels. At any rate, regardless of the reader’s familiarity with Syriac Christianity, this Invitation is undoubtedly a great reference tool: both specialists and non-specialists can rely on it for detailed introductions, a large variety of sources, and a rich bibliography listing editions and translations of Syriac writings (Appendix A, 375–387).
Invitation to Syriac Christianity fulfills the need for an anthology that provides “unique access to one of the most intriguing, but least known, branches of the Christian tradition” (as the back cover puts it). From this perspective, it is meant to become a useful point of departure for teaching, learning, and further research on the numerous facets of Syriac literature. I have no doubt that the volume will serve this function in the best way.
Fabrizio Petorella is a postdoctoral fellow at the Istituto Italiano per la Storia Antica (Rome).Fabrizio PetorellaDate Of Review:February 27, 2023