Exegesis, New Testament

Syriac-speaking Christians, like Christians and Jews of every generation, have employed various exegetical strategies for interpreting their biblical canon. Their exegetical literature includes not only prose commentaries but also hymns, verse homilies, dialogue poems, treatises, commentaries on the lectionary cycle of biblical readings, and the Syriac versions of the NT. The astute biblical insights of early writers, such as Ephrem and Yaʿqub of Serugh, were extolled by subsequent authors who recycled their ideas in later prose commentaries. Since most Syriac authors were rarely explicit about their hermeneutical approach, their methods for interpreting the Bible are uncovered by studying their works.

The history of the reception of the NT in the Syriac-speaking world begins with the Syriac translations of the Greek text of the Gospels. These translations introduced (or perhaps preserved) interpretations of the Gospels that are no longer found (or were never found) in the Greek text. For example, Tatian’s Diatessaron (2nd cent.) reports that John the Baptist (Mark 1:6) consumed milk and honey (not locusts and wild honey), which links his diet to the foods of the Promised Land (Deut. 6:3). The Old Syriac Gospels (Ewangelion da-mparrše), also known as the Vetus Syra, report that Barabbas was imprisoned for murder and heresy (Luke 23:25 [Curetonian]), a reading that may allude to the theological controversies at the time of this translation. Much of early Christian Syriac literature, though not explicitly exegetical, is in dialogue with the NT. The elusive Odes of Solomon (2nd cent.), a group of 42 liturgical poems (a few of which are also known in Greek and Coptic), show traces of early interpretations of the NT, such as the extended meditation on the virgin birth of Jesus in Ode 19. In the ‘Acts of Thomas’ (3rd cent.), the apostle Thomas sprinkles his farewell discourse with phrases from the NT allowing scholars to observe how these NT verses were interpreted in early Syriac Christianity. Particularly important for the author of the ‘Acts of Thomas’ were passages that promoted an encratic lifestyle such as Matt. 5:3 and 5 (ch. 94), 6:34 (ch. 28), and 11:29 (ch. 28 and 86).

Aphrahaṭ, who called himself a ‘student of Holy Scriptures’ (Dem.22, §26), composed twenty-three ‘Demonstrations’ (337–45) that rely heavily on the Bible (he cites the NT approximately 700 times). Reading the Bible as an integral book, he illustrates its integrity through numerous ‘exemplary sequences’ (Murray 1977) in which characters from the NT find their precursors in the OT. He can focus on particular passages, as in the Fifth Demonstration (‘On Wars’), which is an exegesis of Dan. 2, 7, and 8. His exegesis is driven by a concern for practical questions of Christian life, such as prayer, fasting, humility, and the relations between Jews and Christians. For this reason, he exhorts his audience to put biblical precepts into practice: ‘My friends, it is not sufficient that we learn to read the books of God [i.e., the Bible], rather, we must do them!’ (Dem. 14, §32).

The first running Syriac commentary is Ephrem’s ‘Commentary on the Diatessaron’ (4th cent.), most of which survives in Syriac. He also wrote commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters (surviving in Armenian). Like most Syriac commentators, Ephrem does not remark on every verse, rather, employing a close reading of the text, he explains difficult verses and unravels conundrums. He distinguishes between the factual (or historical) and spiritual interpretations. The former focuses on the details in the biblical passage, the persons involved, and their historical circumstances, while the latter seeks to uncover the eternal truths within the text (Brock 2006). Aphrahaṭ (Dem. 5, §25 and Dem. 22, §26) and Ephrem (Comm. Diat.,ch 1,18–9) would agree that while the factual interpretation of the Bible is essential, the sacred text permits innumerable spiritual interpretations. Ephrem can use his exegesis to engage in polemics against his adversaries such as the Marcionites, the followers of Mani, and those he calls Arians in order to defend Nicene orthodoxy (Shepardson).

Like Aphrahaṭ, Ephrem interprets the Bible as an integral text: comparing and contrasting different scenes of the Bible, especially between the Old and New Testaments. Events in the OT prefigure (*ṣwr and *rmz) NT events and terms such as rāzā ‘symbol’ or ‘mystery’, and ṭupsā ‘type’ are used to penetrate the meaning of such events. These rāze, or ‘mysteries’, are not enigmas or inscrutable quandaries; the term rāzā is already found in Dan. 2:17–9 which reports that Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, along with its meaning, was a rāzā, the significance of which could only be revealed by God. The rāze drawn from nature prompt the believer to contemplate the divine. Thus, Ephrem teaches his audience how the natural characteristics of the olive tree illuminate the mystery of Christ (rāz mšiḥā; Comm. Diat., ch. 21,11).

Also in the 4th cent. dramatic dialogue poems, many of which are anonymous (though they are sometimes ascribed to Narsai), pictured imaginary exchanges between two biblical characters. One such poem extends the conversation between Mary and the angel Gabriel in order to draw out the theological implications of the annunciation and Mary’s role in the economy of salvation.

By the mid-5th cent., the works of the Antiochene exegete, Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), had been translated into Syriac. Theodore opposed the allegorical interpretation of the Alexandrian school in favor of a literal sense that takes into account the historicity of the passage and places less emphasis on the Christological interpretation of the OT (his ‘Commentary on the Gospel of John’ survives in Syriac). When emperor Zeno closed the School of Edessa for its adherence to Theodore’s theology (489), the school was reestablished at Nisibis, just inside the Persian border, under the direction of Narsai (d. ca. 500). The establishment of this school would lead to distinct E.- and W.-Syr. exegetical traditions. Narsai wrote over three hundred verse homilies (memre) in many of which he recast particular biblical passages, including several Gospel parables, with dramatic style. His exegesis has much in common with Theodore’s: events in the OT must be seen in their context before they are considered as types for NT events.

Yaʿqub of Serugh (d. 521), though schooled in Edessa in the dyophysite Christology with Narsai, resisted Antiochene exegesis and the Chalcedonian formula. Like Narsai, he composed verse homilies (memre) in metered couplets of 7 + 7 or 12 + 12 on biblical topics. He engaged the Bible with a close reading in which he explored the meaning of a single verse or word in relationship to other passages from the entire biblical canon (similar to Ephrem). Thus, when David selects rocks to sling at Goliath (1 Sam. 17:40), Yaʿqub sees the rock as Christ, a reference to 1 Cor. 10:4 in which Paul alludes to Ex. 17:6 and Num. 20:7–13 (David and Goliath; Memrā 34). This complex interrelationship among four biblical verses illustrates how, for Yaʿqub, the Bible, an integral text, is best interpreted through an intertextual, typological approach.

Adhering to the E.-Syr. tradition of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Narsai, Theodoros bar Koni (8th cent.), a teacher at the school in Kashkar, wrote the ‘Book of the Scholion’ (792) which comprises 11 memre, four of which treat the NT. This work consists of questions and answers (a format well-known in E.-Syr. exegesis; Griffith 1982, 59) on individual or collections of biblical books. The NT chapters discuss the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and difficult passages in Paul’s Letters. His hermeneutical approach is explicitly typological: words and events in the OT are types and allegories for Christ’s salvific role in the NT. His exegesis seeks to defend the doctrines that were of interest to Theodore of Mopsuestia and the E.-Syr. exegetical tradition, though he also quotes John Chrysostom and Origen.

In the mid-9th cent., Ishoʿdad of Merv wrote commentaries on most of the NT, integrating the works of previous authors including Ephrem, Basil of Caesarea and the Cappadocians, John Chrysostom, and several unknown sources. He adhered to the exegetical approach of Theodore of Mopsuestia. The Gannat Bussāme is an anonymous, lengthy commentary that compiles E.-Syr. exegetical traditions according to the cycle of biblical texts in the liturgical year. Its date is disputed; it may be as early as the 10th cent. It includes texts from Ephrem, Gregory of Nazianzus, and especially Ishoʿdad of Merv. The writings of several E.-Syr. exegetes are only known through quotations in the Gannat Bussāme. This repository of exegetical traditions influenced successive generations of Syriac authors.

The W.-Syr. tradition steered closer to the exegetical approach of Alexandrian exegetes, the Cappadocians, and John Chrysostom. A contemporary of Yaʿqub of Serugh, Philoxenos of Mabbug (d. 523) wrote Gospel commentaries (surviving in fragments). Because he viewed the Peshitta as unsatisfactory for theological argumentation, he initiated a new translation of the Greek NT into Syriac (known as the Philoxenian version of which only fragments survive) that included the Minor Catholic Epistles and Revelation. His commentaries, in which he focuses on the plain sense and context of a passage, are closer to polemical homilies than to a verse-by-verse exegesis (McCullough, 19–21). Much of the works of Mushe bar Kipho (d. 903), who commented on the entire Bible, have been lost, though his commentaries on John, Luke and Acts along with part of the commentary on Matthew survive. He stands at the crossroads of W.-Syr. exegesis: as a compiler who brought together earlier exegetical traditions and as one who would influence later Syriac authors. Dionysios bar Ṣalibi (d. 1171), who knew Mushe bar Kipho’s works, wrote commentaries on the entire NT. His aim was to summarize the exegetical insights of previous authors, though his main source may have been Ishoʿdad of Merv (McCullough, 83). Finally, in 1277 the polymath Bar ʿEbroyo (d. 1286) completed his ‘Storehouse of Mysteries’, a collection of exegetical remarks on the entire Bible that reaches back into Syriac exegetical tradition to quote Ephrem, Yaʿqub of Serugh, Philoxenos, and even the E.-Syr. writer Ishoʿdad of Merv, though he was largely dependent on Dionysios bar Ṣalibi.

The Bible has held a central place in Syriac literature as this brief history of the reception of the NT demonstrates. Early Syriac writers such as Aphrahaṭ, Ephrem, and Yaʿqub of Serugh knew the Bible well, having committed much of it to memory, and their writings witness to a close reading of it. They focused on the factual or historical sense of a passage and then perceived the rāze ‘mysteries’ within it that could give rise to spiritual interpretations. Syriac exegesis came under the increasing influence of the Greek Fathers. A century and a half after Ephrem, Philoxenos of Mabbug insisted on a new translation of the NT that was closer to the Greek. A century after that Tumo of Harqel revised the Philoxenian version (AD 616) mirroring the Greek text in Syriac at the expense of good Syriac idiom. But even as more Greek authors were translated into Syriac, later Syriac writers continued to revere the works of their cultural ancestors, such as Ephrem and Yaʿqub of Serugh, reprising their exegetical insights for successive generations including our own.


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  • B. M.  Boulos Sony, ‘La méthode exégétique de Jacques de Saroug’, ParOr 9 (1979–1980), 67–103.
  • S. P.  Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (Cistercian Studies Series 124; 1992).
  • S. P.  Brock, Bride of Light. Hymns on Mary from the Syriac Churches (Moran Etho 6; 1994).
  • S. P.  Brock, The Bible in the Syriac tradition (Gorgias Handbooks 7; 2006).
  • J.  Frishman, ‘Type and reality in the exegetical homilies of Mar Narsai’, in StPatr , vol. 20, ed. E. A. Livingstone (1989), 169–75.
  • S. H.  Griffith, ‘Theodore bar Koni’s Scholion: a Nestorian Summa contra gentiles from the first Abbasid century’, in East of Byzantium, ed. Garsoian et al., 53–72.
  • S. H.  Griffith, ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’: Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian (The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology; 1997).
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  • L.  Van  Rompay, ‘La littérature exégètique syriaque et le rapprochement des traditions syrienne-orientale et syrienne-occidentale’, ParOr 20 (1995), 221–35.
  • L.  Van  Rompay, ‘The Christian Syriac Tradition of Interpretation’, in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation, ed. M. Sæbø et al., I.1 (1996), 612–41.
  • L.  Van  Rompay, ‘Development of Biblical Interpretation in the Syrian Churches of the Middle Ages’, in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation, ed. M. Sæbø et al., I.2 (2000), 559–77.

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