Mike Aquilina

But Syriously, Folks

Thursday April 20th 2006, 9:43 am

I’m pleased to see, from comments and email, that folks are interested in — or at least curious about — the Fathers of the Syriac tradition. There’s been renewed interest in these men in recent years, and it’s long overdue. The old patristics manuals tended to divide the Fathers into Greek and Latin (meaning east and west) and then lump the Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian Fathers in, almost as an afterthought, with the Greeks. But they don’t quite fit there.

The Syriac Fathers were the founders of a different Christian culture with its own literary and theological style. They used neither Greek nor Latin, but rather Syriac, which is the dialect of Aramaic used in Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey). They spoke the language of Jesus, and their earliest writers were in close conversation with the rabbis of Babylonian Judaism. Indeed, they engaged in controversy with the rabbis. The brilliant and prolific modern rabbi Jacob Neusner finds in St. Aphrahat, for example, a model — “remarkable and exemplary” — for Jewish-Christian dialogue. Aphrahat is, says Rabbi Neusner, “an enduring voice of civility and rationality amid the cacaphony of mutual disesteem.” The Syriac Fathers preserved a semitic style of Christianity that likely was similar in many ways to the Church’s founding generation.

With the Nestorian schism in the fifth century, many disaffected Christians took refuge in the Persian East, which was beyond the political influence of Byzantium. For centuries, the East Syrians went their way, having little contact with the West, but sending missions to China and India. Along the centuries, some of these churches returned to communion with the west. And, as if to prove my recurring point that “the Fathers are news”: Rome’s ecumenical dialogue with the Syriac churches has borne more fruit than any other. In 1994, Pope John Paul II signed a “Common Christological Declaration” with Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, essentially resolving “the main dogmatic problem between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church” — in other words, clearing up the Nestorian troubles, once and for all. In 2001, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity went a step further and approved the sharing of Communion between the (Catholic) Chaldean Church and the (so-called Nestorian) Assyrian Church of the East.

It’s good to be breathing with both lungs again. For a couple of millennia, the churches of the far east have kept a lively devotion for the Syriac Fathers. It’s great that we in the west are beginning to recover this part of the Church’s common heritage. In fact, Hubertus Drobner’s massive manual of patrology — which is due out in English any day now — includes a respectable section on the Syriac Fathers. You’ll find well-stocked online libraries at The Syriac Studies Electronic Library and Saint Ephrem the Syrian Library.

If you’re even mildly interested in an encounter with these Fathers, please dig deep and read the superlative introduction to the field by Jesuit Father Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition. It’s frightfully expensive, but worth every penny, and just out in a new, updated edition (2004). An affordable and accessible introduction is Sebastian Brock’s Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life.

If you want to learn about the plight of the Christian remnant in the lands of Aphrahat and Ephrem, read William Dalrymple’s chilling From the Holy Mountain : A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East.