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date: 22 September 2019

Syriac language

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Sebastian BrockSebastian Brock

Syriac language and literature 


Syriac is the dialect of Edessene Aramaic. By the early centuries ad Aramaic, which had been the koine of the Near East since about the 7th century bc, had developed into many different local dialects. Some of these dialects, like that of Edessa, were used for writing, each with its own distinctive script (notably Jewish Aramaic, Nabataean, Palmyrene, Hatran).

Syriac is first attested in pagan inscriptions of the 1st century from the Edessa region, and by the mid-2nd century it had become the literary language of Aramaic-speaking Christianity. Besides the early inscriptions, three legal documents from Mesopotamia, dated 240, 242, and 243, are of particular importance. The earliest literary text is the Old Testament Peshitta, translated from Hebrew (2nd cent.), and the earliest known author Bardaisan of Edessa (154–222). Edessa was also where the earliest dated Christian literary manuscript (in any language) was copied (ad 411).

Syriac inscriptions from west of the Euphrates are rare before the late 5th and 6th century. It is likely that many people in Late Roman Syria will have been bilingual in Syriac and Greek, though only a few authors (including Rabbula, Bishop of Edessa, d. 435) wrote in both languages. Though Syriac has continued as a literary language vestigially until the present day, it had probably been replaced as a spoken language by vernacular dialects by the time of the Arab conquest, and eventually by Arabic; thus Jacob of Edessa (d. 708) felt the need to aid readers by indicating vowels in the consonantal script.


Syriac literature is the heir to three main traditions, ancient Mesopotamia, early Judaism, and Hellenistic Greek culture. The first two are more significant in early writers, but from the 5th century onwards the Greek element is predominant, reaching its height in the 7th century: this can be seen, not only from the increasing number of Greek loanwords in common use, but also from the adoption of Greek genres and thought patterns. It so happens that the earliest surviving literary text, the Book of the Laws of the Countries, attributed to Bardaisan (actually by his disciple Philip), goes against this general pattern, being in the form of a Greek philosophical dialogue. By contrast, the three most important 4th-century authors, Aphrahat, Ephrem, and the unknown author of the Liber Graduum (Book of Steps), are far less Hellenized than those of the following centuries, in the course of which Syriac culture becomes more and more influenced by the Greek-speaking world. Both Aphrahat and the author of the Book of Steps were writing within the Persian Empire, the former during the second quarter and the latter towards the end of the 4th century. From the 5th century onwards Christian authors living under the Sasanians sometimes wrote in Middle Persian, rather than in Syriac, though nothing of the former survives directly.

Syriac literature of Late Antiquity covers many areas, only a few of which can be dealt with here.


Eusebius of Caesarea claimed to have derived the correspondence between King Abgar of Edessa and Christ from the archives of Edessa, but the absence of any mention of the Abgar legend in the 6th-century Chronicle of Edessa calls this into question. Of slightly earlier Edessene provenance is the vivid historical narrative covering the years 494 to 506, conventionally attributed to ‘Joshua the Stylite’ (ET by J. Watt and F. Trombley, 2000). In the late 6th century John of Ephesus produced a continuation of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, though only the third (and last) book survives. A century later Jacob of Edessa did the same for Eusebius’ Chronicle, but unfortunately this is almost entirely lost.


This can take various forms. Important martyr passions from Roman territory include those of the Edessene martyrs Shmona, Guria, and Habbib. There are also passions of martyrs in the Persian Empire: those concerning the many martyrs under Shapur II are of very varied historical value, some being much later compositions of an epic character (e.g. Qardag, ET by J. T. Walker, 2006). Of particular interest are the accounts of 6th- and 7th-century martyrs (for a guide to editions and translations, S. P. Brock, ed., The History of the Holy Mar Maʿin (2008), 77–125). Among the many saints’ lives, those of Symeon the Stylite (ET by R. Doran, 1992), and the collection of 6th-century lives by John of Ephesus, the Lives of the Eastern Saints, might be singled out. There are also a few hostile Lives, notably of Nestorius and of Maximus the Confessor.

Theology, Exegesis and Spirituality:

Two major theological writers are Philoxenus (d. 523, Syriac Orthodox) and Babai (d. 628, Church of the East). Only in Syriac is there surviving polemical writing from all sides of the three-way split in Eastern Christianity over the Council of Chalcedon. Though exegetical literature is usually categorized as being either Antiochene or Alexandrian in tendency, this polarization does not apply to earlier authors such as Ephrem, or indeed to several later commentators; commentaries on the Bible are normally on single books. The 7th and 8th centuries witnessed a flowering of East Syriac monastic literature, notable authors being Sahdona (Martyrius), Isaac of Nineveh (the Syrian), John of Dalyatha (the Elder), and Joseph Hazzaya (the Seer). These writers drew especially on the spirituality of Evagrius Ponticus (translated from Greek) and John of Apamea (early 5th cent.). In the same period the main Syriac Orthodox authors, such as Severus Sebokht and Jacob of Edessa, primarily had scholarly concerns, including astronomy and Aristotelian philosophy; Jacob’s Hexaemeron commentary draws on the scientific knowledge of his day. In both east and west Syriac traditions there are some important writings in the area of canon law; for the east, some of these feature in the Synodicon Orientale (ed. Chabot, 1902).


Syriac metre is syllabic, and two main verse forms are found, stanzaic (madrasha) and couplets (memra), the outstanding exponent of the former being Ephrem. A distinctive Syriac genre is the verse sermon, for which the two main authors were Narsai (d. c.500), who ended up as head of the famous theological School of Nisibis, and the Miaphysite Jacob of Sarug. There is also a considerable amount of imaginative narrative poetry on biblical topics, such as the epic on Joseph (probably by Balai, rather than Ephrem). Another distinctive genre is the verse dialogue, in alternating stanzas, usually with biblical characters.

Sebastian Brock


GEDSH s.v. Syriac Language, 390–1 (Butts).

M. Atallah, ed., Nos sources: arts et littératures syriaques (2005).Find this resource:

M. Albert, ‘Langue et littérature syriaques’, in M. Albert et al., eds., Christianismes orientaux (1993), 297–375.Find this resource:

I. A. Barsoum, The Scattered Pearls: A History of Syriac Literature and Sciences (ET, 22003).Find this resource:

Baumstark, Geschichte.Find this resource:

S. P. Brock, An Introduction to Syriac Studies (2006).Find this resource:

S. P. Brock, An Outline of Syriac Literature (22009).Find this resource:

S. P. Brock, ‘Edessene Syriac Inscriptions in Late Antique Syria’, in H. M. Cotton, R. G. Hoyland, J. J. Price, and D. J. Wasserstein, eds., From Hellenism to Islam (2009), 289–302.Find this resource:

M. Debié, ed., L’Historiographie syriaque (2009).Find this resource:

H. J. W. Drijvers and J. F. Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions of Edessa and Osrhoene (1999).Find this resource:

J. M. Fiey, Saints syriaques (2004).Find this resource:

Kessel, Bibliography (2011).Find this resource:

D. G. K. Taylor, ‘Bilingualism and Diglossia in Late Antique Syria and Mesopotamia’, in J. N. Adams, M. Janse, and S. Swain eds., Bilingualism in Ancient Society (2002), 298–331.Find this resource: