Exegesis, Old Testament

The Bible and its interpretation have always played a major role in the world-view of Syriac-speaking Christians. A great number of texts are preserved in which the Bible is retold or explained. Biblical interpretation is found not only in commentaries, but also in many other genres.

The OT was translated into Syriac at a very early stage, probably even before the New Testament: though the Book of the Laws of Countries (see under Bardaiṣan) quotes Gen. 9:6 in a form that stands closer to Targum Onqelos, the Peshitta OT is already cited in Tatian’s Diatessaron (written in the 170s; Joosten). Neither these works, nor any of the other texts written before the 4th cent. that have come down to us, is dedicated to the exegesis of the OT, though such compositions as the Odes of Solomon and the Hymn of the Pearl (see Acts of Thomas) may certainly have been influenced by it, for instance in the way they describe Paradise.

Aphrahaṭ’s twenty-three Demonstrations (between 337 and 345) are treatises based to a large extent on biblical quotations. Aphrahaṭ discusses issues that must have been important to his community, which lived in the Persian Empire. In addition to subjects such as faith, love, fasting, prayer, wars, conversion, humility, and death, he also wrote on themes which suggest that his community had to defend its position vis-à-vis Jewish groups or rather Judaizing tendencies within Christianity. Thus he discusses, among others, circumcision, Pesach, Sabbath, food laws, virginity, and sanctity. Although he wrote against the Jews, especially in his historical interpretation he used Jewish traditions. His spiritual interpretation is mainly typological.

Ephrem (d. 373) wrote a Commentary on Genesis and an Explanation of Exodus (he may have written commentaries on other books of the OT as well, as the monk Severos and ʿAbdishoʿ bar Brikha claim, but this can no longer be ascertained). He retells the biblical narrative, while filling the gaps and trying to establish what happened and why. Method and content show a clear affinity with Jewish biblical interpretation; still, no Jewish sources known today are quoted. Although he himself would call most of his exegesis in these commentaries ‘factual’, he did aim at a refutation of Manichean and Marcionite interpretations. He seems less interested here in spiritual exegesis, though there are a number of passing references to Christ. By way of exception, he adds a spiritual interpretation to his factual (historical) exegesis of Gen. 49. In marked contrast to these commentaries, his memre (homilies, mostly in verse) and madrāše (often translated as ‘hymns’) show a wealth of symbols. In the Hymns on Paradise (11.6–7) he explains that in addition to the factual meaning one should try to find the ‘hidden power’ of the plain terms, or ‘pale colors’, which God uses in order to communicate with human beings. In these hymns the horizon is not the end of the OT period, but the eschaton. Still, the commentaries and the poetic works remain connected through a common basis, formed by Ephrem’s factual interpretation as well as his theological interests.

The particular genre of Ephrem’s commentaries (close to that of the ‘rewritten Bible’) was not commonly followed by later Syriac exegetes, but his poetry became a great source of inspiration. In the 5th and 6th cent., and even later, many memre and madrāše were written (see Poetry), of which some were attributed to Ephrem. Most of these memre are sermons in verse, but some are rather narrative poems in which a biblical story is retold. A special form of madrāšā is formed by the genre of the dialogue poem, in which two biblical characters speak in alternating verses. The oldest Syriac representatives of this ancient genre were indeed written by Ephrem himself, but many others are anonymous. In Greek numerous works survive under the name of Ephrem, but most of these are not authentic.

Not long after Ephrem, the anonymous author of the Book of Steps uses biblical interpretation to teach about a perfect, ascetic way of life. The author has a number of ideas in common with Aphrahaṭ and Ephrem, but in contrast to them he does not incorporate Jewish traditions in his work. The Cave of Treasures recounts biblical history from the Creation to Pentecost. Its use of apocryphal traditions (e.g., on Adam and Eve) has led some scholars to assume an early date for this composition, but in its present state it certainly does not antedate the 5th cent. (Leonhard 2004). Though the author clearly used Jewish traditions, his reconstruction of history omits parts which are important for Judaism, such as the time of Moses.

Commentaries on Qohelet and Job are attributed to Yoḥannan Iḥidaya. The latter is, however, a text translated from Greek (Van Rompay 2006b). The Qohelet commentary, however, which was quoted by both East and West Syrians, could have well been written by Yoḥannan Iḥidaya in the first half of the 5th cent. He paraphrases the text and discusses its historical setting and purpose; at the same time, he does not shun allegorical interpretation.

The School of Edessa played a pivotal role in the further development of the Syr. exegetical tradition. It was probably here that the works of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) were translated into Syriac. This Greek Antiochene theologian and exegete was one of the main sources of inspiration for the Dyophysites. Even during his lifetime his works were already studied in the School and his hermeneutic principles and terminology were taken over, together with his Christology and his view on history as a manifestation of God’s pedagogic interaction with humankind. A loyal follower of Theodore was Narsai (d. ca. 500), the author of many memre discussing OT passages. He was head of the School of Edessa until he had to flee to Nisibis, probably around 471, where he became head of the newly founded School of Nisibis. Narsai knew Theodore’s works very well, and almost totally and exclusively adhered to his views. Theodore was considered the Interpreter par excellence by him as well as in the later E.-Syr. tradition.

The adoption of Theodore’s Christology and anthropology also met with resistance, however. The early miaphysite exegete and poet Yaʿqub of Serugh (d. 521), for example, felt more at home with Ephrem’s views and those of moderate Alexandrians. Like Narsai, he mainly wrote memre, many of which interpret the OT. Yet Yaʿqub and Narsai had more in common. First of all, they shared a common Edessene tradition. In addition, it seems that the miaphysite opposition to Theodore did not necessarily lead to the acceptance of the radical allegorizing trend of some Alexandrians, who were ready to abandon the plain sense of Scripture altogether. Though Yaʿqub and other Miaphysites protested against certain parts of Theodore’s thought, through their connections with the School of Edessa they were influenced by his exegetical method and sought to achieve a balance between the Antiochene ‘historical’ approach and spiritual exegesis. Early translations of the Antiochene exegete John Chrysostom were also widely read by Miaphysites and Dyophysites alike.

From the 6th- and 7th-cent. E.-Syr. tradition we know names such as Aḥob Qaṭraya, Nathniel of Sirzor, and Ḥenana of Adiabene, but we have no more than fragments of their exegesis. We do know that there was a crisis connected to the latter, who directed the School of Nisibis from 572 to 610. Much of the background to this crisis is no longer clear to us. His Christological views were condemned at a meeting of bps. in 612. His views may also have been more accommodating toward allegorical interpretations of the OT. However, as Reinink (2010) has indicated, the popular statement that Ḥenana rejected Theodore’s exegesis in favor of that of John Chrysostom is an oversimplification. The main problem seems to have been that Ḥenana showed some openness toward sources other than Theodore of Mopsuestia.

The mid-6th-cent. Commentary on the Psalms by Daniel of Ṣalaḥ gives us insight into the developing miaphysite tradition. Its interest in the historical setting and purpose of each Psalm reminds one of the Antiochene approach of Theodore of Mopsuestia. On the other hand, his exegesis often leads to an allegorical interpretation, which becomes quite prominent in his commentary. As the Psalms were read daily in the monasteries, it was important to control their interpretation. Daniel supplied the miaphysite leadership with a commentary in the form of 150 coherent, self-contained homilies, which were ideally suited to this purpose. They helped shape his community’s doctrine but also addressed larger political issues. It is here that we find the first serious attacks on the position of the emperor (Taylor 2010).

As an alternative to the dyophysite use of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the Miaphysites used a wider selection of Greek Fathers. Long and short versions of commentaries by authors such as Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nyssa have come down to us. It appears that the shorter ones constitute abbreviations of the longer ones, which date back to the 5th and 6th cent. Terminus ad quem for the abbreviated versions of the three authors just mentioned is the so-called London Collection (ms. Brit. Libr. Add. 12,168), which was composed probably in the second quarter of the 7th  cent. The London Collection consists of extracts from various, primarily Greek, authors in Syriac translation, forming a commentary on most of the OT and NT. It is a work of encyclopedic scope. It would seem that the compiler is offering miaphysite readers a digest of Greek material in a form that is meant to replace earlier Syriac material. He often quotes Athanasius, Cyril, Severus of Antioch, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom; Ephrem and John bar Aphtonia are the only Syriac authors mentioned. The compiler took as the basis for his commentary the Syriac translation of the Greek biblical text of his sources as well as the Syro-Hexapla.

Even though Theodore of Mopsuestia was known as the Interpreter among the East Syrians, only fragments of the original 5th-cent. translations have come down to us. It seems that he was soon deemed too difficult to read. The simplification, explication, and defense of Theodore of Mopsuestia therefore formed a large part of the E.-Syr. exegetical efforts in the 8th and 9th cent. The witnesses to this process of simplification include some unedited question-and-answer collections attributed to Theodore himself, the Psalter commentaries of Denḥa-Grigor and of ms. Sachau 215, and the works to be discussed presently.

Theodoros bar Koni’s Book of the Scholion (Ktābā d-eskoliyon), written ca. 792, explains problems in the form of questions and answers. It is in fact a systematic introduction to the entire E.-Syr. intellectual tradition. The author presents his work as an aid to understanding the commentaries of the Blessed Interpreter for those who have only just embarked on the study of his works. Theodoros bar Koni was indeed a very loyal follower of Theodore of Mopsuestia. One of his main sources must have been a collection of traditional material representing the common stock of E.-Syr. exegesis, in which problems in Theodore’s exegesis were dealt with, as well as objections against him.

Around the same time as Bar Koni, Ishoʿ bar Nun wrote his Selected Questions on the entire Bible. This collection follows the biblical text without adding the kind of non-exegetical material that Bar Koni supplies. If these two authors used the same or a comparable collection of traditional exegesis at all, we must conclude that Ishoʿ bar Nun reworked this collection more thoroughly than Bar Koni did. The number of literal agreements between the two authors is very small. Another characteristic that sets Ishoʿ bar Nun apart from Bar Koni and Theodore of Mopsuestia is the use of the concept of theoria in a way that most Antiochenes would denounce as allegory.

Perhaps the closest we can get to the exegetical collection that may have been used at least by Bar Koni is the anonymous Commentary on Genesis–Exodus 9:32 of the ms. (olim) Diyarbakır 22. Like Ishoʿ bar Nun’s Selected Questions, this work does not have the encyclopedic character of the commentaries by Bar Koni and Ishoʿdad. It presents itself as an independent, original commentary, though it is clear that its core goes back to Theodore of Mopsuestia. As the Diyarbakır Commentary is not reworked in the form of questions and answers, we are often — but not always — closer to the original words of Theodore.

In its present form the Diyarbakır Commentary covers only a very small part of the Bible (Gen.–Ex. 9:32), but Van Rompay (1977) has been able to show that this work formed the core of Ishoʿdad of Merv’s commentaries on these parts of the Bible (9th-cent.). Ishoʿdad added other material to this and also used Ishoʿ bar Nun. Even though Ishoʿdad may occasionally have had access to the original Syriac translations of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s works, his knowledge of the Interpreter was often mediated by the Diyarbakır Commentary and other sources. A unique feature of Ishoʿdad’s work is its use of authors that did not commonly belong to the E.-Syr. tradition, among whom are even the Miaphysites Severus of Antioch and Cyril of Alexandria.

The Diyarbakır Commentary also formed the basis of the so-called Anonymous Commentary on the Pentateuch. In ms. (olim) Diyarbakır 22 we find a version of the latter work which includes the rest of the OT as well. For the sections where the Diyarbakır Commentary is extant, the Anonymous Commentary summarizes Diyarbakır while adding a limited amount of material from other sources, including Ishoʿdad. One source almost identical to the Diyarbakır Commentary and another close to Ishoʿdad and the Anonymous Commentary were employed in the OT sections of the Gannat Bussāme (‘Garden of Delights’), together with fragments of the exegetical memre of Aba II of Kashkar (d. 751). The Gannat Bussāme is probably a 10th-cent. commentary on the pericopes read in the liturgy, arranged according to the liturgical year.

Ishoʿdad was probably also the main source for the Paradise of Christianity by Ibn al-Ṭayyib (d. 1043), a commentary on a large part of the Bible. This E.-Syr. author wrote in Arabic and became the intermediary of the Theodorian tradition not only to other Christian-Arabic authors, but also to Ethiopic Christianity. A different voice is heard in Eliya of al-Anbār’s Book of Instruction (Ktābā d-durrāšā; 10th cent.), in which a number of OT passages receive allegorical interpretations. In contrast to him, his contemporary Emmanuel bar Shahhare’s Hexaemeron is inspired by Narsai, even in the form of the work, which consists of 28 memre.

The last two E.-Syr. works to be mentioned, Shlemon of Baṣra’s Book of the Bee (13th cent.) and Isḥaq Shbadnaya’s Poem on the Divine Economy (15th cent.), discuss the entire history of salvation in prose. These works contain much exegetical material, while the latter author also adds a prose commentary with quotations from the earlier exegetical tradition.

As we have seen above, in the 7th cent. W.-Syr. exegesis was very much dominated by a number of Greek authors who were read in Syriac translation. The great polymath Yaʿqub of Edessa (d. 708) and his followers adopted many of their interpretations. He is not only the author of a revision of the Peshitta, but he also wrote a Commentary in short on the Octateuch (Kruisheer), a large number of Scholia, a Commentary on the Hexaemeron, and a number of letters of exegetical content. The works of Athanasius, Cyril, and Gregory of Nyssa were thus ‘Syriacized’ in three stages: after the full translation, an abbreviated version was produced; finally later Syriac authors such as Yaʿqub wrote their own commentaries using either the shorter or the full version, and appropriating interpretations often without indicating their sources. Though the 7th cent. was the heyday of the very precise and literal mirror translations, at the same time a movement began that aimed to make the main exegetical texts more accessible and especially more compact.

The OT part of the Commentary by the monk Severos (written in 861) likewise represents the movement just mentioned. Severos’s work consists, as he himself states, of a commentary on difficult words of the OT, based mainly on Ephrem and Yaʿqub of Edessa, and a commentary on the NT, based mainly on John Chrysostom. There are a number of longer additions in this text, and in addition Shemʿun, the scribe of ms. Vat. Syr. 103, added a number of marginal comments. The biblical text quoted is that of the Peshitta, and for the OT, the number of explicit references to Greek exegetes (most of which were added by Shemʿun rather than Severos) is low. All in all, the work seems to be the opposite of the London Collection: this is the best of Syriac exegesis on the authentic Syriac Bible, with rather limited use of Greek sources. This fits very well with the atmosphere among the Syr. Orth. in the 8th and 9th cent., when Greek learning had become less popular and even suspect.

From the period of Severos, one should also mention the work of Mushe bar Kipho (d. 903), which also builds on predecessors, including Yaʿqub of Edessa. He must have written a commentary on most of the Bible, but on the OT mainly a Commentary on the Hexaemeron and a Commentary on Psalms have survived. Interestingly, he also quotes ‘Theodore the Nestorian’.

The 10th and 11th cent. show little activity in the field of W.-Syr. exegesis. It was not until the period of the Syriac Renaissance in the 12th and 13th cent. that Dionysios bar Ṣalibi and Bar ʿEbroyo compiled new exegetical collections. These works lean on earlier collections, but also show evidence of further ‘cultivation’ and ‘pruning’ of the tradition. A notable feature, for instance, is Bar ʿEbroyo’s openness toward the E.-Syr. tradition. After the 13th cent., hardly any new material was added to the W.-Syr. exegetical tradition.

Syriac biblical interpretation shows a unique richness of metaphors and depth of spirituality. At the same time, its typological and symbolic interpretations are usually based on an explanation of the plain sense, answering the simple questions of what happened and why. Based on a long literary tradition Syriac-speaking Christians developed their own genres, both in prose and poetry. Yet from its very beginning Syriac exegesis has also shown openness to other traditions. Ephrem already knew about different versions of the biblical text, and the use of alternative readings would remain a feature of many later Syriac commentaries. He and his contemporaries also used Jewish exegetical traditions. In the 5th cent. Greek interpretations were taken over that may have appeared more precise and systematic than the earlier Syriac tradition, but they were actually quite similar in terms of their general approach to the biblical text. Greek sources became so popular that the exegetes of the 6th and 7th cent. even seem to have lost sight of the earlier Syriac tradition.

The balance was redressed, however, after the 7th  cent., paradoxically when Arab rule gradually began to weaken the position of the Syr. Churches. In this period, their members started editing anthologies and summaries of earlier exegetical literature. In the process of sifting, selecting, and summarizing, choices were made and new elements were added. Thus they built authoritative interpretative traditions that helped to give answers to questions posed by the political and religious circumstances of the period. Though the translation of Greek texts in the 5th cent. can be associated with the split between the Syr. Churches, later exegetes would also recognize the common ground formed by the teaching of Ephrem and the Cappadocians, by the Antiochene interpretation and method of John Chrysostom, and by philological comments, even if they originated with their doctrinal opponents. Some of the existing collections have assumed canonical status themselves, and are fostered and studied to the present day.


  • Becker, Fear of God.
  • S. P.  Brock, The Bible in the Syriac tradition (Gorgias Handbooks 7; 2006).
  • J.  Joosten, ‘The Old Testament in the New: The Syriac versions of the New Testament as a witness to the text of the Old Testament Peshitta’, in The Peshitta. Its use in literature and liturgy. Papers read at the Third Peshitta Symposium, ed. R. B.  ter Haar Romeny (MPIL 15; 2006), 99–106.
  • D.  Kruisheer, ‘Ephrem, Jacob of Edessa, and the Monk Severus. An analysis of Ms. Vat. Syr. 103, ff. 1–72’, in SymSyr VII, 599–605.
  • C.  Leonhard, Ishodad of Merw’s exegesis of the Psalms 119 and 139–147. A study of his interpretation in the light of the Syriac translation of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Commentary (CSCO 585, Subs. 107; 2001).
  • C.  Leonhard, ‘Die Beschneidung Christi in der syrischen Schatzhöhle. Beobachtungen zu Datierung und Überlieferung des Werks’, in Syriaca II. Beiträge zum 3. deutschen Syrologen-Symposium, ed. M. Tamcke (SOK 33; 2004), 11–28.
  • G. J.  Reinink, ‘Tradition and the formation of the “Nestorian” identity in sixth- to seventh-century Iraq’, in Religious origins of nations? The Christian communities of the Middle East, ed. R. B. ter Haar Romeny (2010), 217–50.
  • R. B.  ter  Haar  Romeny, ‘Question-and-answer collections in Syriac literature’, in Erotapokriseis: Early Christian Question-and-Answer literature in context, ed. A.  Volgers and C.  Zamagni (2004), 145–63.
  • R. B.  ter  Haar  Romeny, ‘The Greek vs. the Peshitta in a West Syrian exegetical collection (BL Add. 12168)’, in The Peshitta. Its use in literature and liturgy. Papers read at the Third Peshitta Symposium, ed. R. B. ter Haar Romeny (MPIL 15; 2006), 297–310.
  • R. B.  ter  Haar  Romeny, ‘Greek or Syriac? Chapters in the establishment of a Syrian Orthodox exegetical tradition’, in StPatr , vol. 41, ed. F. Young et al. (2006), 89–95.
  • R. B.  ter  Haar  Romeny, ‘Les Pères grecs dans les florilèges exégétiques syriaques’, in Les Pères grecs dans la tradition syriaque, ed. A. Schmidt and D. Gonnet, SJ (ÉtSyr 4; 2007), 63–76.
  • R. B.  ter  Haar  Romeny, ‘Ephrem and Jacob of Edessa in the Commentary of the Monk Severus’, in Malphono w-Rabo d-Malphone, ed. Kiraz, 535–57.
  • S. D.  Ryan, Dionysius bar Salibi’s factual and spiritual Commentary on Psalms 73–82 (Cahiers de la Revue Biblique 57; 2004).
  • D. G. K.  Taylor, ‘The manuscript tradition of Daniel of Ṣalaḥ’s Psalm Commentary’, in SymSyr VII, 61–9.
  • D. G. K.  Taylor, ‘The Psalm Commentary of Daniel of Salah and the formation of sixth-century Syrian Orthodox identity’, in Religious origins of nations? The Christian communities of the Middle East, ed. R. B. ter Haar Romeny (2010), 65–92.
  • L.  Van Rompay, ‘Išoʿ bar Nun and Išoʿdad of Merv. New data for the study of the interdependence of their exegetical works’, OLP 8 (1977), 229–49.
  • 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.
  • L.  Van Rompay, ‘Past and present perceptions of Syriac literary tradition’, Hugoye 3.1 (2000).
  • L.  Van Rompay, ‘Between the school and the monk’s cell: The Syriac Old Testament commentary tradition’, in The Peshitta. Its use in literature and liturgy. Papers read at the Third Peshitta Symposium, ed. R. B. ter Haar Romeny (MPIL 15; 2006), 27–51.
  • L.  Van Rompay, ‘An ascetic reading of the Book of Job. Fragments from a Syriac commentary attributed to John the Solitary (Ms. London, British Library, Add. 18814, f. 91r–95r)’, LM 119 (2006), 1–24.

How to Cite This Entry

Bas ter Haar Romeny, “Exegesis, Old Testament,” 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/Exegesis-Old-Testament.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Bas ter Haar Romeny, “Exegesis, Old Testament,” 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/Exegesis-Old-Testament.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

ter Haar Romeny, Bas. “Exegesis, Old Testament.” 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/Exegesis-Old-Testament.

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