Ethiopic Christianity, Syriac contacts with

Christianity reached the Kingdom of Aksum, on the northern edge of the great Ethiopian plateau, by the reign of ʿĒzānā in the middle of the 4th cent. According to Rufinus (4th cent.), the introduction of Christianity was facilitated by a certain Frumentius from Tyre (later known in the Ethiopic tradition as Salāmā Kaśātē Berhān), who was ordained bp. of ‘India’ (i.e., Ethiopia) by Athanasius of Alexandria. In the 6th cent., the traveler Cosmas Indicopleustes reported that there were a large number of churches in Ethiopia as well as numerous bishops, martyrs, and monks. In time, Ethiopic Christianity became associated with the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which include the Coptic, Armenian, Syriac Orthodox, and Malankara Syriac Orthodox Churches, all of which accept the Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus, but reject the Council of Chalcedon (see Ecumenical dialogue). Throughout its history, Ethiopic Christianity has had various contacts with Syriac Christianity. In general, the influence of Ethiopic Christianity on Syriac Christianity seems to have been rather limited, though it was certainly not non-existent. The influence of Syriac Christianity on Ethiopic Christianity, on the other hand, was more substantial. This influence can be divided into two basic time periods: the Aksumite Period (4th cent. – ca. 900) and the Solomonic Period (1270–1770).

In the scholarly literature, a great deal of attention has been focused on possible Syriac influences on Ethiopic Christianity in the Aksumite period. Although Christianity reached Ethiopia in the 4th cent., the spread of Christianity throughout Ethiopia is traditionally attributed to the efforts of a group of foreign missionaries active in the late 5th to early 6th cent. These missionaries include the Ṣādeqān, Maṭāʿ, and especially the so-called Nine Saints (see A. Brita, in EAe , vol. 3, 1188–91). A number of scholars, including I. Guidi (1888, 33–4 with n. 1; 1932, 13–5) and especially C. Conti Rossini (1928, esp. 155–65), have argued that these foreign missionaries originated from Syriac-speaking areas. Based on this connection, a theory was developed that attributed a great deal of Syriac influence to the development of Christianity in Ethiopia, including the introduction of monasticism as well as the translation of the Bible into Geʿez, the classical language of Ethiopic Christianity. The association of these missionaries with Syriac-speaking areas was based on three principal arguments, all of which have been seriously challenged in more recent scholarship.

First, it was argued that the personal names of the missionaries and the geographical names from which they are said to originate are of Syriac origin (Guidi 1888, 33–4 n. 1; Conti Rossini 1928, 161). More recently, however, Marrassini (1990, 35–8; 1999, 326–8) has shown that few, if any, of these names are actually of Syriac origin.

Second, it was proposed that the transcription of Greek names in Geʿez, especially in translations of the Bible, was based on the pattern of Aramaic (Guidi 1888, 33–34 n. 1; Conti Rossini 1928, 156). Marrassini (1990, 39–41; 1999, 329–30) has, however, pointed out that this pattern is not restricted to Aramaic, but rather it is the typical way in which Greek is transcribed in Semitic languages.

The third argument adduced in favor of Syriac influence on Ethiopic Christianity in the Aksumite period involves Syriac loanwords in Geʿez. More than a century ago, Th. Nöldeke drew attention to a number of Aramaic loanwords in Geʿez. Guidi (1932, 14) and especially Conti Rossini (1928, 155) argued that some of these Aramaic loanwords in Geʿez are more specifically of Syriac origin, e.g., Geʿez hāymānot ‘faith’ (often translating Greek pístis) from Syriac haymānutā. In an influential study, however, Polotsky showed that several of these Aramaic loanwords were not borrowed from Syriac, but rather from Jewish Aramaic, e.g., Geʿez meṣwāt ‘alms, charity’ (no such word exists in Syriac) and Geʿez ṭāʿot ‘idol’ (Syriac has ṭāʿyutā, which not only preserves the third root consonant y, but means ‘error, mistake’). Further research by Ullendorff (1967, 120–5), Witakowski (1989–90, 191–2; forthcoming), and Marrassini (1990, 38–9; 1999, 328–9) has raised additional questions about some of the purported Syriac loanwords in Geʿez while at the same time suggested several new possible examples. In the current state of research, it can only be conclusively stated that Geʿez contains a number of Aramaic loanwords, some of which are certainly not Syriac, but others of which may potentially be Syriac. Before any meaningful historical conclusions can be drawn, an updated analysis of all the Aramaic loanwords in Geʿez is needed, taking into account recent developments in Aramaic dialectology as well as the increasingly robust methodology of contact linguistics.

In the end, the evidence for significant Syriac influence on Ethiopic Christianity in the Aksumite period is rather slim. Nevertheless, it does seem all but certain that there were contacts between Ethiopic Christianity and Syriac Christianity at this time, especially given that the Aksumite kingdom was involved in various power struggles with South Arabian kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula, a place where Syriac-speaking Christians are known to have resided. In one instance of particular importance to contacts between Syriac and Ethiopic Christianity, the Aksumite neguś Kālēb (fl. first half of the 6th cent.) intervened against the king of Ḥimyar on behalf of miaphysite Christians who where being persecuted in Nagran (see recently Nebes).

Setting aside the problematic evidence of the Aksumite period, Syriac influence on Ethiopic Christianity can be firmly established for Geʿez literature from the Solomonic period. In this case, however, Syriac influence was almost always mediated by Arabic Christianity, which inherited a great deal from the Syriac heritage.

Alongside original compositions, Geʿez literature contains a significant body of translations which were made from Greek in the Aksumite period and from Arabic in the Solomonic period; there is little evidence for literary activity in the intervening time of the Zāgwē dynasty (900–1270). In many cases, the Arabic literature was itself translated from Greek, Coptic, and Syriac. While there may be a few rare cases in which Syriac literature in Geʿez was translated directly from Syriac, in most cases Arabic was the bridge by which Syriac literature reached Ethiopic Christianity.

The Bible is the earliest piece of literature associated with Ethiopic Christianity. At least part of the Bible was already translated into Geʿez by the end of the 4th to the early 5th cent. as can be deduced from biblical quotations in the Aksumite inscriptions (Knibb, 46–54). Though there is now general consensus that the Geʿez OT and NT were both translated from Greek, a number of different Vorlagen, including Syriac, have been proposed throughout the history of scholarship. A. Vööbus, for instance, argued that the Geʿez Gospels were translated from Syriac and then revised against the Greek text. It is now clear, however, that Syriac influence on the Geʿez Bible occurred at a later stage (probably in the 14th cent.) when the Geʿez biblical text was revised against a Syriac biblical text or, more likely, an Arabic version of a Syriac biblical text (see Knibb, in EAe , vol. 1, 565 and more extensively Knibb 1999). Evidence of interest in the comparison of Syriac and Ethiopic biblical texts (along with Coptic, Arabic, and Armenian) is found in ms. Vat. Barberini Or. 2, a 15th-cent. polyglot Psalter in five languages, which was owned by a Syr. Orth. priest named Ṣalib (see S. P. Brock, The Bible in the Syriac tradition [2nd ed. 2006], 145).

Moving beyond the Bible, a number of Syriac-speaking authors appear in Geʿez literature. Two demonstrations by Aphrahaṭ (fl. 336–45) are found in the Ethiopic tradition (see W. Witakowski, in EAe , vol. 1, 287). In 1906, F. M. Esteves Pereira published a Geʿez version of Dem. 5. In this text, the author is (incorrectly) identified as Yaʿqub of Nisibis, an attribution which is also found in the earliest Syriac ms. of Aphrahaṭ (London, Brit. Libr. Add. 17,182; dated 474), as well as in the Armenian translation. In 1964, E. Cerulli published a text on the resurrection of the dead, which was subsequently identified as a portion of Aphrahaṭ’s Dem. 8 by T. Baarda.

A number of Geʿez texts are attributed to Ephrem (d. 373), including both homilies and prayers (a list is provided by Weninger, in EAe , vol. 1, 331–2); it is, however, unclear whether any of these are among Ephrem’s genuine writings. Several homilies attributed to Ephrem are extracted in the Hāymānota ābaw ‘Faith of the Fathers’, which is a large compendium of patristic writings, synodical statements, and canons (unedited; see A.  Wion and E.  Fritsch, in EAe , vol. 2, 1073–5 and Graf). In addition, Ephrem is said to have composed the Weddāsē Māryām ‘Praise of Mary’ (ed. with FT Velat), a collection of hymns to Mary for each day of the week, which is found in Ethiopic Psalter mss. as well as in the Meʿerāf, a liturgical text which forms part of the Divine Office. Due to his association with the Weddāsē Māryām, Ephrem is usually depicted in Ethiopic iconography standing at the feet of an enthroned Mary (see Hammerschmidt and Jäger, 101–8). Ephrem also sometimes bears the sobriquet labḥāwi ‘the potter’ in the Ethiopic tradition, likely due to a conflation with Shemʿun Quqoyo.

The legend of Abgar V Ukkama (see Abgarids), which is found in Syriac in the Teaching of Addai, exists in at least four Geʿez versions, two of which are associated with the Taʾāmmera Iyasus ‘The miracles of Jesus’ (see Weninger, in EAe , vol. 1, 40–41 and especially Haile). Most of the Taʾāmmera Iyasus consists of a translation of the Arabic Apocryphal Gospel of John (ed. with LT I. Galbiati, Iohannis evangelium apocryphum arabice [1957]), which is itself based on a variety of sources, including the Cave of Treasures and the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius (see Witakowski 1995).

No less than twenty texts are attributed to Yaʿqub of Serugh (d. 521) in the Ethiopic tradition (inventories are provided in W. Witakowski, in EAe , vol. 2, 263 and Uhlig 1999, 13–16). A majority of these belong to the genre of dersān ‘homily’, the Geʿez equivalent of Syriac memrā. While only one of these homilies has thus far been edited (Uhlig 1999), it seems that many of them were translated from Arabic, and at least some may go back to Syriac originals. Others, however, were only ascribed to Yaʿqub in the Geʿez ms. tradition, e.g., the Dersāna sanbat ‘Homily on the Sabbath’ (see Wurmbrand 1963). Interestingly, Yaʿqub’s ‘Homily on the death of Aaron’ formed the basis for the Mota Āron ‘Death of Aaron’, a Geʿez text that is found not only in the literary tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but also in that of the Bēta Esrāʾēl (or Falāšā) (see Wurmbrand 1961). In addition to homilies, an anaphora, incipit ‘Stand up in the fear of the Lord’, is also attributed to Yaʿqub (ed. with GT Euringer), but again it is probably pseudonymous (see Hammerschmidt, 47–8).

A Profession of Faith attributed to Yaʿqub Burdʿoyo (d. 578) is preserved in Geʿez in the Hāymānota ābaw (ed. with GT Cornill; see J. Tubach, in EAe , vol. 3, 261–2). This text is not extant in Syriac, but is found in Arabic (ed. with DT H. G. Kleyn, Jacobus Baradaeüs. De stichter der syrische monophysietische kerk [1882], 121–63), from which the Geʿez was translated.

Geʿez preserves the ‘Conflict of Severus’ by Athanasios I Gamolo (d. 631) (ed. Goodspeed and Crum), which deals with the life of Severus of Antioch (d. 538). Though not extant in Syriac, this text is found in Arabic as well as in Coptic fragments. Several texts attributed to Severus also exist in Geʿez, some of which may ultimately derive from Syriac originals (see Witakowski 2004).

Several Syriac authors feature prominently in the Maṣḥafa manakosāt ‘Book of monks’, which is one of the central collections of Ethiopic monasticism (see A. Bausi, in EAe , vol. 2, 997–9). This collection consists of three distinct texts, each of which is directly associated with at least one Syriac-speaking author. Included in the Maṣḥafa manakosāt is the Āragāwi manfasāwi ‘Spiritual Elder’, which is the name by which the Ch. of E. mystical writer Yoḥannan of Dalyatha (8th cent.), or Yoḥannan Saba (‘Elder’), is known in Geʿez. The Āragāwi manfasāwi was translated from an Arabic version of Yoḥannan’s original Syriac composition (see E.  Lucchesi, in EAe , vol.  1, 309–10). Another text found in the Maṣḥafa manakosāt is the Filkesyos (see Witakowski 2006; idem, in EAe , vol. 2, 541–2). Though attributed to the Syr. Orth. theologian Philoxenos of Mabbug (d. 523), the Filkesyos is actually a Geʿez version (via Arabic) of the commentary of Dadishoʿ Qaṭraya (late 7th cent.) on the ‘Paradise of the Fathers’ by ʿEnanishoʿ (7th cent.). ʿEnanishoʿ’s work is in turn a large compilation of monastic texts, which includes Palladius’s ‘Lausiac history’, the ‘History of the monks in Egypt’, and various apophthegmata. The final book that makes up the Maṣḥafa manakosāt is the Maṣḥafa Mār Yesḥaq ‘The book of Mar Isaac’ (ed. with GT Berhanu; see S. Weninger, in EAe , vol. 2, 193–4). As the title suggests, this text is attributed to the famous Ch. of E. monastic author Isḥaq of Nineveh (late 7th cent.). More specifically, the Maṣḥafa Mār Yesḥaq is a Geʿez translation of the Arabic collection attributed to Isḥaq. The Arabic version is in turn a translation from a Greek version of writings attributed to Isḥaq, which consists of most of the ‘First Part’ of the original Syriac writings of Isḥaq as well as four homilies by Yoḥannan of Dalyatha and an abbreviated version of the ‘Letter to Patricius’ by Philoxenos of Mabbug. Thus, although the Filkesyos is incorrectly ascribed to Philoxenos, the Maṣḥafa manakosāt does still contain a text by this Syr. Orth. theologian. Outside of the Maṣḥafa manakosāt, Geʿez monastic literature preserves a number of sayings attributed to Syriac-speaking authors, including Ephrem, Yoḥannan of Dalyatha, and Isḥaq of Nineveh, in various collections of apophthegmata (ed. with LT Arras 1963, 1967, 1984, 1986, 1988).

Geʿez biblical exegesis has also been influenced by Syriac-speaking authors, especially those belonging to the Ch. of E., such as Aḥob Qaṭraya (late 6th cent.?), Theodoros bar Koni (fl. end of the 8th cent.), Ishoʿ bar Nun (d.  828), and Ishoʿdad of Merv (fl. ca. 850). This contact was mediated by the Christian Arabic tradition, in particular the exegetical works of Ibn al-Ṭayyib (d. 1043), especially his Firdaws al-naṣrāniyya ‘The Paradise of Christianity’. In its Geʿez version, E.-Syr. biblical exegesis was transmitted to the Andemta commentary tradition (Cowley 1983, 1988). The Andemta commentaries contain a translation of the Geʿez biblical text into Amharic, the official language of present-day Ethiopia, as well as a wealth of traditional exegetical material (Psalms ed. with ET Stoffregen Pedersen; Hosea ed. with IT Andeberhan). Several anonymous Syriac exegetical homilies are also extant in Geʿez. The Syriac verse homily on Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (ed. with ET S. P. Brock and S. Hopkins, ‘A verse homily on Abraham and Sarah in Egypt: Syriac original with early Arabic translation’, LM 105 [1992], 87–146), for instance, found its way via Arabic into Geʿez (ed. with FT Caquot), where it is attributed to Ephrem. Similarly, the Geʿez Zenāhu la-Yosef ‘History of Joseph’ (ET Isaac; an edition of the Geʿez is in preparation by the current author) ultimately derives (via Arabic) from a Syriac version, which is attributed to Basil of Caesarea (see Heal; ed. M. Weinberg, Die Geschichte Josefs angeblich verfasst von Basilius dem Grossen aus Caesarea [1893]; S. W. Link, Die Geschichte Josefs angeblich verfasst von Basilius dem Grossen aus Cäsarea [1895]; K.  Heal, ‘A Missing leaf from the Syriac History of Joseph’, forthcoming).

Finally, a number of Syriac individuals appear in Geʿez hagiographic literature. The Senkessar ‘Synaxary’, for instance, commemorates, among others, Abgar V Ukkama, Barṣawmo, Ephrem (cf. Pérès), Marutha of Maypherqaṭ, Shemʿun the Stylite, and Yaʿqub of Nisibis (ed. with FT by various authors in PO; for full references, see Colin; ET Budge 1928). More developed hagiographic works, such as the Life of Barṣawmo (ed. with FT Grébaut), are also extant in Geʿez.

Among the many interesting aspects of this large body of Geʿez literature that is attributed to Syriac-speaking authors is the fact that several E.-Syr. authors are represented in the Ethiopic tradition, especially in texts related to biblical exegesis and monasticism. The appearance of these E.-Syr. authors is intriguing given that Ethiopic Christianity has throughout its history been dogmatically aligned with the Syr. Orth. Church, not with the Ch. of E. In some cases, a work by a Ch. of E. author seems to have been stripped of its distinctive E.-Syr. features before it passed into Geʿez. This is, for instance, the case with Ibn al-Ṭayyib’s ‘Commentary on the Gospels’, which is extant both in an original form as well as in an adapted, miaphysite version (ed. Y. Manquriyūs, Tafsīr al-mašriqī [1908–10]; see Faultless), which served as the textual basis for the Geʿez translation. In other cases, however, it is less clear how Syriac-speaking authors belonging to the Ch. of E. found their way into Geʿez.

In addition to the Geʿez literature that is attributed to Syriac-speaking authors, there are a number of originally Greek works that passed through Syriac on their way to the Ethiopic tradition, again almost always with Arabic standing in between. This is, for instance, likely the case with the Didascalia Apostolorum (ed. with ET Platt; ed. with ET Horner), the Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ (ed. with FT Beylot 1984), and several texts related to the Alexander cycle (ed. with ET Budge 1896; see G. Lusini, in EAe , vol. 1, 195). Likewise, the Sayings of Aḥiqar seem to have traveled through Syriac (and then Arabic) on their way to the Ethiopic tradition, where they are transmitted in late mss. of the Maṣḥafa falāsfa ṭabibān ‘Book of the wise philosophers’ (see U. Pietruschka, in EAe , vol. 2, 485–6). A similar trajectory is likely for the related narrative about Aḥiqar that is preserved in Geʿez (ed. with FT Schneider).

It is clear then that Geʿez literature from the Solomonic period, which includes a number of texts that are attributed to Syriac-speaking authors as well as texts that passed through Syriac on their way to Geʿez, provides an example of Syriac influence on Ethiopic Christianity. It must be stressed, however, that this Syriac influence was in most, if not all, cases mediated by Arabic Christianity.

The Syriac influence on Ethiopic Christianity in the Solomonic period can be explained by various points of contact. During the reign of Yekunno Amlāk (1270–85) at the beginning of the Solomonic period, it appears that a ‘Syrian’ became head of the Ethiopian Church, a position normally restricted to Coptic monks (see Tamrat, 69–72). Though this seems to have been short lived, it clearly demonstrates a Syriac presence in Ethiopia at this time. Outside of Ethiopia, contacts between Ethiopic and Syriac Christianity occurred at various locations. Ethiopic monks are known to have lived in several monastic communities in Egypt alongside Syriac monks (in general, see O. Meinardus, in EAe , vol. 2, 243–5). Both Syriac and Ethiopic monks also resided at the Monastery of St. Catherine (Cerulli, 1943–7, vol. 1, 148 and 151). In addition, contacts between Syriac and Ethiopic monks took place in Jerusalem, where the various Christian communities were represented (Cerulli 1943–7). Finally, moving closer to the Syriac homeland, Ethiopic monks were present from the 13th cent. onwards in Lebanon and Syria, and some may have possibly played a role in the renaming of Dayr Mār Mūsā al-Ḥabashī (‘Monastery of St. Moses the Ethiopian’) (Cerulli 1943–7, vol. 1, 325–33; Cruikshank Dodd, 19–25; Kaufhold, 54–9).

See Fig. 48 and 49c.

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    • A. Vööbus  ‘Taʾāmera Iyasus. Zeuge eines älteren äthiopischen Evangelientypus’, OCP 17 (1951), 462–67.
    • A. Vööbus  Early versions of the New Testament (PETSE 6; 1954), 243–69.
    • W.  Witakowski, ‘Syrian influences in Ethiopian culture’, Orientalia Suecana 38–39 (1989–90), 191–202.
    • W.  Witakowski  ‘The Miracles of Jesus: An Ethiopian apocryphal Gospel’, Apocrypha 6 (1995), 279–98.
    • W.  Witakowski, ‘Severus of Antioch in Ethiopian tradition’, in Studia Aethiopica in honour of Siegbert Uhlig, ed. V.  Böll et al. (2004), 115–25.
    • W.  Witakowski, ‘Filekseyus, the Ethiopic version of the Syriac Dadisho Qatraya’s Commentary on the Paradise of the Fathers’, Rocznik Orientalistycny 59 (2006), 281–96.
    • W.  Witakowski, ‘Syrian influences in Ethiopia’, in EAe , vol. 4. Forthcoming.
    • M.  Wurmbrand, ‘Homélie de Jacques de Saroug sur la mort d’Aaron’, OS 6 (1961), 255–78.


How to Cite This Entry

Aaron M. Butts, “Ethiopic Christianity, Syriac contacts with,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Ethiopic-Christianity-Syriac-contacts-with.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Aaron M. Butts, “Ethiopic Christianity, Syriac contacts with,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Ethiopic-Christianity-Syriac-contacts-with.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Butts, Aaron M. “Ethiopic Christianity, Syriac contacts with.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Ethiopic-Christianity-Syriac-contacts-with.

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