Syriac is the Christian dialect of Aramaic, the common commercial Semitic language across the Near Eastern in both Roman and Persian Empires prior to the rise of Islam, and of Near Eastern Jews under Greek and Roman rule. As the daily language of Palestine at the time of the New Testament, Aramaic functioned in parallel to Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, though lacking the social status associated with Roman and Persian Imperial rule, an advantage in frontier regions and cross-border trade, with its economic hubs in Antioch and Babylon, much of which was conducted by Jewish merchants (for historical introductions, see further, M. Sartre, The Middle East Under Rome, Harvard University Press, 2005, I. Shaid, Rome and the Arabs: a Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs, Dumbarton Oaks, 1984).
Historically, the Syriac language is generally associated with Asia Minor in general, including Antioch, and more specifically several upper Mesopotamian regions known by their Roman provincial names, Syria, Oshrone, Cappadocia, Pontius, and Bithynia and important the educational centers of Nisibis and Edessa. It was the liturgical language of the Patriarchate of Antioch until the suppression of their Rite in favor of an Arabic translation of the Greek Byzantine Rite in the twelfth century by their patriarch Theodoros Balsmon, and remains the liturgical language of the West Syriac non-Chalcedonian Syriac Orthodox Church and of the East Syriac non-Nicaean Mesopotamian-Persian Church of the East, and continues to be spoke as a first language in some of their surviving communities, especially Edessa (for a poignant account of these and related Christian communities, see W. Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain: a Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East, Vintage Books, 1997).
As suggested by references to Christian communities long separated from the Church, a perfusion of confusion exists regarding Syriac Christianity, both scholarly and theological. For general readers interested in making a beginning in learning about Syriac Christianity the following general books are recommended as helpful and reliable: S. Brock et al. eds., Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of Syriac Heritage, Gorgias Press, 2011; Garsoin et al , eds, East of Byzantium: Syria and Armenia in the Formative Period, Dumbarton Oaks, 1982; R. Murry, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study of Early Syriac Tradition, revised edition, T&T Clark, 2006; W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of the Monophysite Movement, , Cambridge University Press, 1972; B.W. Baum and D. Winkler, The Church of the East: a Concise History, RoutledgeCarzan, 2003; for those wishing a closer encounter, the following: S. Brock, Treasury-house of Mysteries: Explorations of the Sacred Text Through Poetry in the Syriac Tradition St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2012; B.E. Colles, This Wisdom of the Pearlers: an Anthology of Syriac Mysticism, Cistercian Publications, 2008; S. H. Griffith, Faith Adoring the Mystery: Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian, Marquette University Press, 1997).
Nevertheless, one overlooks of Syriac Christianity's contribution to the historical development of Christian only at great risk. The Frist Epistle of Peter is addressed precisely to "the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1 Pet 1). While the concern about false teachers in Second Peter, which was addressed to the same audience, is indicative that the seeds later controversies were known to be present already, given the parallelisms between their letters, does the conflict between Peter and Paul over Judaizing in Antioch, with its mixed Gentile-Jewish, explicitly Christian community, suggest different approaches to solving a common problem?
With the earliest identifiably Christian church is Dura-Europos, on the middle the Euphrates River, with its Syriac inscriptions and its strong iconography baptismal-bridegroom iconography (cf. M. Peppard, The World's Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria, Yale University Press, 2016) seems to provide a context for the beautiful Syriac liturgical poems, arguably the oldest Christian hymnal, the Odes of Solomon (cf. J. Charlesworth, The Odes of Solomon, Scholars Press, 1977), at the very least one has predicate for the Holy Week Bridegroom services (cf. S. Brock G. Pagoulatos, Tracing the Bridegroom in Dura: The Bridal Initiation Service of the Dura-Europos Christian Baptistry..., Gorgias Press 2008). The Odes were also known to the earliest major Syriac author clearly associated with Edessa, Bardaisian, whose Dialogue on Fate known as Book of the Laws of Countries, which reflects the early confusion of conversion created by multi-ethnic frameworks struggling with the problems such the relationship of sin to culturally diverse morality and a regional tendency toward eclecticism, even in the Jewish community. Arriving at a range of ideas fundamentally inconsistent with Christian moral and theological understanding, Bardasian was flatly rejected by St. Ephrem the Syrian, also of Edessa (cf. H, Drijver, The Book of the Laws of Countries: Dialogue on Fate of Bardsian of Edessa, Gorgias Press, 2006; Drijvers, Bardaisan of Edessa, Van Gorcum Press, 1966/Georgias Press, 2004).
Though persecuted from all sides, the Syriac Christian community transformed into a people and culture, surely there are lessons for contemporary North Americans (cf. D. Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partitioning of Judaeo-Christianity, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, K. Smith, Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia: Martyrdom and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity, University of California Press, 2016, R. Payne, A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity, University of California Press, 2015).
The Syriacs were the first to witness to Christianity across the rhetorics of empires and nations, and doing facilitated the transmission of both spiritual and material cultures. Their evangelical missionary efforts neither ignored the Arab tribes to the South, nor the Mongolians of Central Asia. It is a history too complex to survey, for those interested in further reading, in addition to works previously mentioned the following may prove works helpful: A. Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse, University of California Press, 1991, A. Becker, Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom: the School of Nisibis and the Development of Scholastic Culture in Late Antique Mesopotamia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, I. Shaid's monumental Byzantium and the Arabs from the Fourth to Sixth Century Dumbarton Oaks, various dates, S. Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Orbis, 1998, C. Korolevsky, Christian Antioch, Eastern Christian Publications, 2003, S. Rassam, Christianity in Iraq, Gracewing, 2005, L. O'Leary, How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs, 1949, Ares Publishers, reprint, Nobel and Treiger, The Orthodox Church in the Arab World 700-1700: an Anthology of Sources, Northern Illinois University Press, 2014, M. Penn, When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings, University of California Press, 2015.
Christianity, Judaism, & Hellenism
Moreover, Orthodox Christianity is deeply entwined with Syriac Christianity as it through it that texts, traditions, and characteristics rooted in Judaism passed. The Dura church was located across the street from the Jewish synagogue, which preserves iconography and artifacts that reflect a Mesopotamian Judaism more eclectic than that of the rabbinic Judaism of the latter Babylonian Talmud. Similarly, the Syriac Old Testament texts, whose first redactor was the Venerable Martyr Lucian in the late Third Century, texts borrowed heavily from Jewish targums (lectionary readings), preserving important readings representing both pre-Masoretic textual traditions and the work of St Jerome. Moreover, early Syriac writers, such as Tatian, a student of St. Justin Martyr and complier of the Syriac lectionary text the Diatasseron, with its unified presentation of Gospels, and latter Aphrahat the Persian Sage in his Demonstrations, who is at pains to draw clear distinctions between Christianity and Judaism, and the author of the Book of Steps describing an ascetic community rooted in the Epistle of James, evidence a knowledge of customs and a concern for purity and piety reflecting a knowledge scarcely removed by more than a generation or two from Judaism itself..
Indeed, the Christian community of Babylonia, with its catholicos in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, was deeply connected with the ancient, conservative elites of the Jewish Exarchate, maintaining the tradition of the first three successors to its apostolic founder, Mar Mari, were from the family of St. Joseph the Betrothed (cf. J. Kollaparambil, The Babylonian Origins of the Southists Among the St. Thomas Christians, Pont. Institututum Studiorum Orientalium, 1992). It is noteworthy that St. Joseph's children in Jerusalem, which by tradition includes St. James the Brother of the Lord and author of both the letter bearing his name and the Protoevangelium, and the Holy Myrrh Bearer St. Salome, the wife of Zebedee and mother of the Apostles John and James. As perhaps one of the more interesting examples of the conservative tendencies, especially among the East Syriacs, is the preservation of a limited role of deacons in the priestly reception of communion, preventing self-administration by the celebrant (cf. R. Taft, Beyond East and West: Problems in Liturgical Understanding, second revised and expanded edition, Pontifical Oriental Institute, 2001), and canonical requirement for community prayer reminiscent of Jewish minyan prayers (cf. R. Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, Liturgical Press, 1993).
The uneasy persistence of the relationship between Judaism and Syriac Christianity is testified by both in Persian Acts of the Martyrs (cf. Butt & Gross, The History of the 'Slave of Christ' from Jewish Child to Christian Martyr, Gorgias Press, 2016) and from in the history of the Babylonia Talmud, which in addition to a sharpening of its anti-Christian rhetoric under the influence of Palestinian refugees following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, appears to include critiques of Christian desert monasticism (cf. M. Sartre, The Middle East Under Rome, Harvard, University Press, 2005; R. Kalmim, Jewish Babylonia Between Persia and Roman Palestine, Oxford University Press, 2006; M. Bar-Asher Siegal, Early Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud, Cambridge University Press, 2013). On the other hand, it was St. Ephrem who was the first to make use of women choirs in Edessa, balancing the liturgical roles between clergy and laity.
In contrast to the Hellenistic paganism of Alexandria and Egyptian churches, the influence of Greek rationalism and rhetorical traditions among the Syriac can be more difficult to discern (cf. U. Possekel, Evidence of Greek Philosophical Concepts in the Writings of Ephrem the Syrian, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1999; H. Drijvers, Bardaisan of Edessa, Van Gorcum Press, 1966/Georgias Press, 2004). Rather, as with the Odes of Solomon, an emphasis was placed on the poetic development of concepts and images. Evident in the flowing prose of Aphrahat, and rooted in the Old Testament prophetic traditions, Syriac Christianity found its clearest voices in poetic homilies, hymns, and biblical commentaries. Beyond St. Ephrem are the astonishing number of metrical homilies (760) were preached by Jacob of Sarug, with nearly half surviving (excellent translations of all surviving homilies the object of Gorgias Press project). Unfortunately, the names of many authors are unknown such as "Song of the Pearlers", while others are known only from a small number of works, such as the Holy Week homilies of Cyrillona. Attracting the least attention is the Persian theologian Narsai, who played an important role at the Persian School of Nisibis, and though known as the "Harp of the Spirit," has rarely been translated into modern languages or had manuscripts subjected to critical study (cf., entry in Perry et al., eds, Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity, Blackwell Publishers, 2001). Many of these, especially the large number on Old Testament topics, offer insights of continuing interest into both Biblical texts, theological disputes, and Patristic era thought processes as they continue the Near Eastern literary tradition of dispute poems and dialogues. (cf. S. Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Cistercian Publications, 1992; S. Brock, Treasure-house of Mysteries: Explorations of the Sacred Text Through Poetry in the Syriac Tradition, SVS Press, 2012; B. Colles, Wisdom of the Pearlers: An Anthology of Syriac Christian Monasticism, Cistercian Publications, 2008; Interactions between Syriac and Greek in Late Antiquity, Ashgate, 1999); Jacob of Sarug: Homilies on Elijah, Gorgias Press, 2009; C. Griffin, Cyriullona: A Critical Study and Commentary, Gorgias Press, 2016, and the Works of Cyrillona, Gorgias Press, 2016; A. Cameron, "Disputations, Polemical Literature, and the Formation of Opinion in the Early Byzantine Period" H. Drijvers "Body and Soul: A Perennial Problem" in Reinink and Vanstiphout, eds., Dispute Poems and Dialogues in the Ancient and Mediaeval Near East, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 1991).
The profusion of Syriac poetic expression created a culture that framed the genius of the Greek-Syriac bilingual St. Romanos the Melodist in his invention of the kontakion and canon forms (cf. S. Brock, collected essays, From Ephrem to Romanos; S. Johnson, Jacob of Sarug's Homily on the Sinful Woman, Gorgias Press, 2013), as well as the great Akathist hymn, while the sobriety evident in the Damascus-born St. Andrew of Crete's "Canon of Repentance" seems much indebted to Syriac Biblical typological sensibilities (cf. W. Petersen, "The Dependence of Romanos the Melodist upon the Syriac Ephrem: its Importance for the Origin of the Kontakion" Vigiliae Chrstianae 39, 1985, and The Diatassaron and Ephrem Syrus as Sources of Romanos the Melodist, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 475, 1985). .
A footnote, perhaps, is the lamp-lighting hymn sung during Vespers, Phos Hilarion. Generally regarded as both the first "hymn" and the oldest non-Biblical element of worship, its actual origins are unclear. Certainly, it has its roots in a natural continuation Jewish and/or pagan lamp-lighting practices, with not particular reason to force a choice between which through speculation (cf. P. Bradshaw, Daily Prayers in the Early Church, Oxford University Press, 1982; R. Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, Liturgical Press, 1993). It is also mentioned in both the Apostolic Constitutions, which appears to be of Antiochian origin, and in St. Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Typho the Jew, and its Greek composition ascribed to St. Athenogenes, though this does not help with dating. More interesting, however, is that it emerges in Cappadocia, where it was part of the rule of St. Macriana's monastery, and quoted in St. Basil's essential treatise On the Holy Spirit, with an interpretation that is clearly resurrectional in nature (cf. P. Vassiliadis, "From the Pauline Collection to Phos Hilaron of Cappadocia," academia.edu; last seen, 9/1/2021). St. Basil's text was subsequently translated into Syriac within twenty-five years of its composition, most likely by Bp. Eusebius of Samosata in Euphratensis, where it is rendered both paraphrastically and with a bold understanding of the Holy Spirit as consubstantial with the Father and the Son, going beyond what St Basil himself might have intended, but placing an emphasis on the God's philanthropy (cf. B. Wayman, "The Syriac Transmission of Basil of Ceaserea's On the Holy Spirit" in Steinhauser and Dermer (eds) The Use of Textual Criticism for the Interpretation of Patristic Texts: Seventeen Case Studies, Edwin Mellen Press, 2013).
Foundations of Asceticism
It is not controversial to say the great Cappadocians - Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Macrina the Younger, and their sainted parents and siblings, along with St. Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian) and his sainted family - are foundational in the life of the Orthodox Church. One might merely add St. John Chrysostom to have touched virtually every characteristic of Orthodox teaching and religious culture. Their Hellenistic rhetorical, poetic, and philosophical education combined with Egyptian monastic and theological currents, were decisive in arriving at Nicaean Christological definitions and preserving Scriptural exegesis from the excesses of Origenism. Less well understood is that they were as much rooted in Syriac Christianity as in Hellenism. While there were extensive both personal relationships and their treatises passed nearly immediately into Syriac, where it remains essential, their homilies, personal asceticism, and even aspects of their careers, shaped by their living in a Syriac-dominated local. The unnamed central figure in the story being the complicated figure of Eusathius of Sebasteia, who may well have occasionally visited the household of St. Basil the Elder and his wife, St. Emelia, when their family, though many of his teachings were rejected at several councils (for an introduction to Cappadocian historiography, see further, R. Van Dam's three studies Kingdom of Snow: Roman Rule and Greek Culture in Cappadocia, Family and Friends in Late Roman Cappadocia, and Becoming Christian: The Conversion of Roam Cappadocia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, 2003, 2003 respectively; and importantly, A. Silvas, Macrina the Younger, Philosopher of God, Brepols, 2008).
Eusathius and Sebastia were associated a number of controversial movements, notably the ascetic Encratitism, which advocated for a radical form of sexual purity that was rejected by the Council of Gangra in its affirmation of the salvific nature of honorable marriage, and Arianism, which advanced an aberrant Alexandrian Christology, which was rejected by the Councils of Nicaea in the assertion of the incarnation of the God-Man. The family of Sts. Macrina and Basil advocated for balanced ascetism and for Nicaean Christology, indeed, in acting in his metropolitan capacity, St. Basil appointed their younger brother, St. Peter, as bishop of Sabastia to carry out reforms, while the married-widowed brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, authored an important treatise On Virginity.
The context for the synthesis that emerged from Cappadocia was the Syriac practice of the love of wisdom being shaped by the Old Testament principle that the people of God acquired holiness by witnessing to covenant relationships by maintaining fidelity. The very early Syriac collection of liturgical poetry known as the Odes of Solomon developed the metaphor for relationship of Christ to the believer as marriage, Christ being the bridegroom. The relationship between Christ and each believer as that of uniquely personal salvation created a focus on singleness (ihidayutha), as either through the renunciation of marriage or renunciation of conjugal relations within marriage, while the stress on being bound by a covenant relationship grounded the community of believers in a life stressing performance of righteousness and of perfection, in both individual and community contexts (cf. K. Valavanolickal, Aphrahat Demonstrations, Gorgias Press, 2011; R. Murray, "The Exhortation to Candidates for Ascetical Vows at Baptism in the Ancient Syriac Church," New Testament Studies, vol. 21, pp. 59-80; Kitchen and Paramentier, The Book of Steps: the Syriac Liber Graduum, Cistercian Publications, 2004; A. Voobus, Syriac and Arabic Documents Regarding Legislation Relative to Syrian Asceticism, Estonian Theological Society in Exile, 1960). As found in the Diatessaron, stress on purity and perfection, grounded in the epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter articulating how, with the abolition of Jewish temple worship, the person, having died to themselves to be resurrected to a new life in Christ, becomes the new Temple in whom God is to dwell eucharistically (cf. S. Skoyles Jarkins, Aphrahat the Persian Sage and the Temple of God: A Study of Early Syriac Theological Anthropology, Gorgias Press, 2008). Though separate from the Egyptian-Hellenic ascetic movement that gave rise to Christian monasticism (single-living) and perhaps best understood as extending late Jewish movements such as the Essenes and the Therapeutae, the well-documented, extensive contacts between Christians from Antioch and Alexandria means that Syriac asceticism is to be understood as part of and not independent from the overall mindset of the Church (cf. S. AbouZayd, Ihidayutha: A Study of the Life of Singleness in the Syrian Orient, From Ignatius of Antioch to Chalcedon 451 AD, ARAM Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies, 1993; D. Chitty, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire, Basil Blackwell and Mott, 1966/St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977).
Salient, as well as unique, aspects of the influence of the Syriac ascetic theological movement beyond the liturgical books of the Odes of Solomon and the Diatessaron, are found in the lives and influence of specific saints, most profoundly that of the female virgin protomartyr, companion of St. Paul, St. Thecla (cf. Acts of Saints of Paul and Thecla, Ante-Nicene Fathers series, vol. 8, Hendrickson Publishers, 1994; S. Davis, The Cult of St. Thecla: A Tradition of Women's Piety in Late Antiquity, Oxford University Press, 2001; S. Elm, Virgins of God: the Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity, Oxford University Press, 1994); St. Alexis, Man of God, who earns his epitaph during his early ascetic struggles in Edessa, home of the original icon of Christ, known as "Made without Hands" (cf. The Life of Saint Alexis, the Man of God, Holy Trinity Monastery, 2006); and the testimony of Theodoret of Cyrrhus in A History of the Monks of Syria, (Cistercian Publications, 1985), as well as the life of St. Daniel the Stylite (E. Dawes, Life of Saint Daniel the Stylite, amended edition, St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery Press, 2019).
As with the disparagement of marriage and childbearing (Encratism) and the quietist disparagement of the role of laboring (Messalianism), the correction of praxis in Syriac asceticism were addressed through combinations of synodical legislation and the emergence synthetic praxis. However, the tendency to an either/or partitioning in theological discourse betrays the foundation of the Christological controversies that defined the subsequent history of the Church.
Poetics & Biblical Interpretation
The Syriac cultural taste for poetic expression for public exposition of theological ideas stands contrasts with the Greek and Latin favoring of a rhetorical culture; in both cultures, plain prose style was reserved largely practical pedagogic discourse. The ostensibly prose form of discourse found in Aphrahat, for example, frequently gives way to diction marked by distinct cadence in speech that presages the development of the memre form of poetic homily, the largest surviving body of which are those of Jacob of Sarug. The poetic cultivation of symbols and metaphors in explicating Christian doctrine, though viewed by some modern scholars, such a Sabastian Brock, as offering a way forward with contemporary controversies, is not without perils (cf. S. Brock, Treasure-house of Mysteries: Exploration of the Sacred Text through Poetry in the Syriac Tradition, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2012; S. Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Cistercian Publications, 1985). Perhaps more salient for Orthodox theology is the interpretive poetic framework created for later authors, such as St Symeon the New Theologian, whose poetic understanding provides a contextual ethical reading of such texts as Genesis that go to the mysteries contained in the texts, rather than material interpretation much as St Ephrem does (cf. A. Golitzin, St Symeon the New TheolgianTheologian: On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses Vol 1: The Church and the Last Things, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995). The peril in imaginative (iconographic) exposition arises when image is alienated from context and text, which became the focus of the methodological dispute over Biblical interpretation between the Alexandrians, featuring Origen following the Jewish Philo's Middle Platonic methods, and the Antiochians, who favored the more text-oriented approach of the Jewish legal traditions. The key difference of the Antiochian approach being historical factualism and linguistic analysis within which the exposition is to be framed, prominent expositions of Scripture broadly following Antiochian and Syriac principle include St Basi's homily "On the Beginning of John's Gospel" (cf. St Basil the Great, On Christian Doctrine and Practice, St Vladimir's Seminar Press, 2012), St. John Chrysostom's Homilies of the Gospel of John (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Frist Series, v. 14, Hendrickson, 1995), Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on the Gospel of John, (InterVarsity Press, 2010), St Ephraim the Syrian, "Hymns of Paradise" and "Commentary on Genesis" (St. Ephraim the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1990), Jacob of Sarug, On Naboth the Jezreelite" (Jacob of Sarug's Homilies on Elijah, Gorgias Press, 2009), by way of comparison, see St. Cyril of Alexandria's Commentary on the John (InterVarsity, 2015), and for something of a more synthetic and highly rhetorical approach, St. Gregory of Nazianzus "On the Nativity of Christ" and "On the Baptism of Christ" (Festal Orations, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2008).
It is, perhaps, notable that it is the Antiochian approach to preserving historical contextual factuality and linguistic analysis, while allowing a certain poetic freedom of expression to illuminate meaning, that provides the intellectual paradigm for St. John of Damascus's defense of icons as well as the canons that regulate them.
While credit is due to Origen for his critical approach to the correction Biblical texts and commentary, he was not without peer. St. Ephraim the Syrian, working from the Diatessaron text, offered both poetic and prose commentaries before the commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuetia on Biblical texts (cf. C. McCarthy, Saint Ephrem's Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron, Journal of Semitic Studies Supplement 2, Oxford University Press, 1993; S. Brock, St Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1990). Moreover, the production of scholarly translations of both Old and New Testament texts constituted some of the most important work of the Persian School at Nisibis, which in addition to preserving Mesopotamian Jewish readings of the Old Testament, through use of "targum" texts in correcting manuscripts of the Syriac Old Testament, but three New Testament translations of the New Testament into Syriac in parallel with the emergence of the Christian Biblical canon. By developing a sustained scholastic enterprise that provided fundamental spiritual formation Syriac and Persian Christianity, Syriac Christianity demonstrated its continuing participation in overall Christian culture (cf. A. Becker, Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom: The School of Nisibis and the Development of Scholastic Culture in Late Antique Mesopotamia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006; A. Voobus, History of the School of Nisibis, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1965). A direct legacy of which was the monastic School in Bet Qatar, that was home to many of the most important East Syriac authors, including St. Isaac the Syrian, at the dawning of Islam (cf. Kozah et al., The Syriac Writers of Qatar in the Seventh Century, Gorgas Press, 2014). The Persian School had its origins in the School of Edessa that had been home to St. Ephrem the Syrian, paralleled monastic educational and liturgical efforts in the Greek and Latin spheres as well. Interestingly, it was a Syrian Christian that established the first Anglo-Saxon school for the production Biblical commentaries, St. Theodor of Tarsus (cf. Bischoff and Lapidge, Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian, Cambridge University Press, 1994).
One striking feature encountered especially in the Syriac expositions is the interpolation of dialogues between characters within an historical context, much in the manner of Classical historiography where confection of entire speeches by a Thucydides or a Livy is representative. This feature of Near Eastern dispute poetry maintains the context for the interpretation, disallowing the use of skeptical questioning, with speculative replies characteristic of the Greek rationalistic dialogues and philosophical texts (cf. A. Rigolio, Christians in Conversation: A Guide to Late Antique Dialogues in Greek and Syriac, Oxford University Press, 2019; A. Cameron, "Disputations, Polemical Literature, and the Formation of Opinion in the Early Byzantine Period" H. Drijvers "Body and Soul: A Perennial Problem" in Reinink and Vanstiphout, eds., Dispute Poems and Dialogues in the Ancient and Mediaeval Near East, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 1991).
For the Syriacs, it was Theodore of Mopsuestia who becomes The Interpreter. Though not necessarily indicative of their actual Christology, it is precisely the sharp distinction between the controversies that were to further split the churches. To simplify frightfully, lacking the deep commitment to historical factualism and a legacy of Middle Platonism, Alexandria became a natural home to Arius and the skeptical demand for definitional clarity that became prelude to four Ecumenical Councils. Rejecting the Arian thesis of Christ as having one human nature similar to God or homoiousios (a term supported by Origen, Eustathius of Sebaste, and Paul of Samosata), the question became the interpretation the neologism homoousios (one essence) as applied to the divine nature, and to maintain the Tora's declaration glossing the first great commandment: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Deut. 6:4-5).
By in large, West Syriacs (and Copts) held a range of views in support of there being one nature formed in the one incarnate Lord, so-call Monophysite or Miaphysite Christology). Among the most beautiful examples of the Monophysite view is found in the small collection of memre by the otherwise unknown Cyrillona, who presents the metaphor of wheat and yeast being two natures that when combined are a new creation, bread (cf. C. Griffin, "On the Institution of the Eucharist," Works of Cyrillona, Gorgias Press, 2016). Representing the mildest of Monophysite sympathies, Jacob of Sarug seemed to be hesitant to embrace Chalcedonian Orthodoxy largely for ethnic political reasons, while developing the deep Syriac metaphor of "clothing" in which Christ as bringing down the "robe of glory" as a restoration of fallen Adam to a new creation (cf. T. Kollamparampil, Salvation in Christ According to Jacob of Serug, Gorgias Press, 2010). For yet further contrast, Philoxenos of Mabbug's one-nature Christology was rooted in the mystical reality of transformational found in Eucharist, which remains beyond human rationalism (cf. D. Michelson, The Practical Christology of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Oxford University Press, 2014). Each of these "Monophysitie" views rejected the formula of the Council of Chalcedon, creating a persistent tension within the Eastern portions of the Roman Empire.
The alternative interpretation was that there were two natures in one person (Dyophysite Christology), as held by St. Athanasius, St John Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and the East Syriacs in Persia. The difficulty in Dyophysite Christology, as in the defense of one God not three, was the development of more technical distinctions, especially by St Basil, of the Greek philosophical notion of hypostasis (being) in distinction from ousia (essence) (for a concise by St Basil, cf. "Homily on Not Three Gods, Against Those Who Calumniate Us, Claiming that We Say that There Are Three Gods" and "Homily Against the Sabellians, Anomonians, and Pneumatomachians" (St Basil the Great, On Christian Doctrine and Practice, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2012).
The Christological difficulty encountered in Theodore of Mopsuestia, and the East Syriacs generally, is understanding how the two natures come to reside in the one person, a view rejected at the Council of Ephesus. As with Monophysite Christology, a range of views can be found. In the case of Theodore, his concern was to maintain complete separation between the two natures as a solution to the question of whether God suffered, which he represented with the metaphor of the sea seeping between grains of sand on a beach. In general, however, diophysite Christologies prior to Chalcedon was often approached skeptically by those aligned with St Cyril of Alexandria, and associated with those of Nestorius, deposed Patriarch of Constantinople, though contemporary scholarship takes a more nuanced view, going so far as to question whether even Nestorius held the views ascribed to him. These "Nestorian" views locate the union of the two hypostases after the Annunciation to the Virgin (for a somewhat later exposition of East Syriac Christology with excellent bibliography cf. Possekel and Coakley, Thomas of Edessa's Explanations of the Nativity and Epiphany, Oxford University Press, 2021, J. Shannon, "Was Nestorius and Nestorian?" Marian Studies: Vol. 6, Article 11, 1955, J. Behr, The Case Against Diodore and Theodore: Texts and Context, Oxford University Press 2011).
Tradition of Mystical Theology
Politico-theological divisions notwithstanding, the Syriac Christianity concern for unity with the Bridegroom through purity of the temple of the soul continued to mature with original early contributions, especially that of John the Solitary, and translations not only of Cappadocians, especially of St. Basil, but collections of the Sayings of the Fathers, the writings of Evagrius and Paladius, in part known through a collection produced at the School of Nisibis known as The Paradise of the Egyptian Fathers, of which that by the Qatari ascetic Dadisho' (cf. M. Hansbury, John the Solitary on the Soul, Gorgias Press, 2013; Kozah et al., Dadisho' Qatraya's Compedius Commentary on the Paradise of the Egyptian Fathers in Garshuni, Gorgias Press, 2016). Of greatest importance, however, are the homilies of St. Isaac of Nineveh, or the Syrian.
Initially partially translated from St. Isaac's East Syriac to West Syriac, the subsequent further partial translation from Greek, where the manuscript tradition became somewhat confused, with yet latter attempts made to translate it into Russian, the Homilies address noetic life of the ascetic (cf. A. Wensinck, Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh, De Akademie, 1923; and D. Miller/Holy Transfiguration Monastery, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984/revised edition 2011). The full breadth and depth of St. Isaac has never been fully or accurately addressed as only recently have East Syriac manuscripts of several missing volumes of his homilies been discovered (cf. S. Brock, Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian): The Second Part, Chapters 4-41, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1995; M. Kozah et al., parts 3 and 5 from East Syriac, part 4 from Garshuni, An Anthology of Syriac Writers from Qatar in the Seventh Century, Gorgias Press, 2015). Nevertheless, the Homilies, especially the first six on the ascetical life, have remained essential to the formation of silence-loving ascetics, such that their importance in Orthodox tradition, much as that of St. John of the Ladder and St. John of Damascus, might be difficult to understate.
It will be noticed immediately, that though a bishop of the Persian Church of the East, Isaac is regarded as a saint of the Church by Chalcedonian Orthodox, and that dogmatically sound argument can be made for his agreement with the Chalcedonian diophysite theology. As with the West Syriacs, the separation of East Syriacs from the Roman Imperial Conciliar Christianity maybe more a matter of cannons than of a true prayer and noetic living. In actuality, there is little to be found in the Eastern Conciliar churches that does not owe a deep debt to the Syriacs, both Western and Eastern.