Georgian Christianity, Syriac contacts with

The modern state of Georgia covers two distinct regions in antiquity, Lazika to the west, and Iberia (Kartli) to the east, with its capital at Mtskheta. Archaeological evidence indicates that there were Christians living in Mtskheta by the 3rd cent., but not until the first half of the 4th cent. did Christianity have a significant presence in Iberia. According to tradition the Christianization of Iberia was due to the influence of St. Nino, a captive slave woman who converted King Mirian III in the 330s (related, but without any names, also in Michael Rabo, Chronicle VII.3). By the 5th cent. Christianity was the dominant faith in Iberia. The most primitive Georgian literary strata display the influence of Syriac roots, mediated largely through Armenian channels. Prior to the 7th cent. the Georgian Church was miaphysite. The geographical proximity and doctrinal affinities with miaphysite Syriac and Armenian communities ensured that those Churches would have a great impact on early Georgian literature, theology, religious practices, and ecclesiastical politics. In the early 7th cent. the Georgian Church broke with the Armenian Church and became Chalcedonian, thereby aligning itself with Byzantium. From that time Greek influence became more prominent in Georgian literary culture and religious practices. The spread of monasticism in Georgia is largely traced back to the arrival in the 6th cent. of the ‘Thirteen Syrian Fathers’, one of whom, Iovane (John), is said to have been from ‘the the borders of Antioch in the land of Mesopotamia’. None of them can be identified with otherwise known figures, though one (Abibos) does have a Syriac name, but with a Greek ending; it seems likely that they were miaphysite. The biographies connected with these Syrian saints underwent development over the course of time (Martin-Hisard), and now an older recension has recently turned up among the ‘New Finds’ of Georgian mss. at Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai (Aleksidze).

There are a number of disparate connections between Syriac and Georgian Christianity, some direct, others indirect.

1. The indirect influence (via Armenian) of early Syriac versions and/or the Diatessaron on some early mss. of the Georgian Gospels and Acts has been claimed by some scholars, but this is a topic where great caution needs to be exercised before firm conclusions can be drawn, especially regarding the proposed influence of the Diatessaron (Birdsall).

2. The prince Peter the Iberian, who had been a political hostage in Constantinople, eventually became a prominent miaphysite monk in Palestine in the late 5th cent. and was known to Severus. Of the two Greek biographies of him, one (perhaps by John Rufus) survives in Syriac translation, while the other, by Zacharias Rhetor, is lost apart from a minute Syriac fragment. The relationship of these to the Georgian Life, where Peter has become Chalcedonian, is not entirely clear. The theory that Peter is the author behind the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite has only found limited acceptance.

3. Georgian and Syriac speakers came into contact with one another in several different localities:

A. From the 10th–13th cent. the Black Mountain, to the northwest of Antioch, was home to monasteries of many different Churches, including both Syriac (Melkite) and Georgian; a number of extant 11th-cent. mss. were written there (see Djobadze, 108–11 for Georgian, and Brock 1990 for Syriac). Although it was there that several Georgian translations of Syriac writers were made, these were not direct from Syriac, but by way of Greek.

B. Jerusalem and the monasteries of the Judaean desert. The Georgian presence in Jerusalem goes back to the 5th cent., and early Georgian liturgical mss., along with some Armenian and Christian Palestinian Aramaic mss., constitute an important witness to the early form of the Jerusalem liturgy. In the Middle Ages the Monastery of the Holy Cross (now Greek) was in Georgian hands. The presence of both Syriac and Georgian monks at various monasteries, notably Mar Saba, is attested especially for the 9th–10th cent.

C. Sinai. From at least the 9th–13th cent. Syriac- and Georgian-speaking monks must have lived side by side on Sinai, and many mss. in these languages were copied there (table of early dated mss. in Brock 2003, 112–3; this can now be supplemented from the ‘New Finds’). Especially in the late 10th cent. there were close connections between Mar Saba Monastery and St. Catherine’s Monastery. The Georgian monk Iovane Zosime (active between 949 and 987; Tarchnishvili, 109–14) moved from Mar Saba to St. Catherine’s some time before 973. For some of his manuscripts this famous scribe re-used older Christian Palestinian Aramaic manuscripts; one of these is the ‘Codex Zosimi Rescriptus’ of 979, now in the Schøyen Collection (formerly Sinai, Georgian ms. 81); the undertext, containing a variety of different works, has been reconstructed in Desreumaux 1997. Other mss. copied by Iovane with Christian Palestinian Aramaic undertexts are Sinai New Finds, Georgian mss. 19 (dated 980) and 20 (dated 986), the latter being part of ms. 93+92 of the Old Collection (now divided between Princeton, Birmingham, and Göttingen). It was probably in the 10th cent. that some quire numbers in Georgian were added to Sinai Syr. 30 (see Old Syriac Version).

4. Georgian translations of Syriac authors may be either made from Syriac, or through the intermediary of Greek, Armenian, or Arabic. Translations by way of Armenian or directly from Syriac will be the earliest; amongst those that have been published are: Aphrahaṭ, ‘Discourse’ 6 (under the name of Hippolytus; ed. with LT, G. Garitte, in LM 77 [1964], 301–66), the Life of Ephrem and the Life of Shemʿun the Stylite (ed. with LT G. Garitte, in CSCO 171–2, 1957); the Cave of Treasures (ed. with FT, J.-P. Mahé, in CSCO 526–7, 1992–3), and Sahdona, ‘Book of Perfection’, II, 7–12 (ed. with LT, G. Garitte, in LM 69 [1956], 243–312). The homily on the Nativity attributed to Yaʿqub of Serugh which features in a late 10th-cent. early Homiliary (Van Esbroeck, 193–94) appears not to correspond with any of his published works. Translations were made by way of Greek of a number of works attributed to Ephrem (few if any are genuine Ephrem apart from the ‘Repentance of Nineveh’, ed. with LT, Garitte, in LM 80 [1967], 75–119) and of Discourses from the First Part of the works by Isḥaq of Nineveh. These were the work of the prolific translator Euthymius of the Holy Mountain (d. 1028; Tarchnishvili, 126–54), according to his Life (ET by T. Grdzelidze, Georgian Monks on Mount Athos [2009], 69–70), though a few texts under Ephrem’s name already feature in a Homiliary dated 925 (Garitte, Catalogue, no. 36). Further works from the Greek Ephrem corpus were translated by another famous translator, Epʿrem Mtsire (‘the Less’), working on the Black Mountain in the late 11th cent. (Tarchnishvili, 182–98, esp.189). A few hagiographical texts are said to have been translated directly from Syriac, such as that on the martyrs Aqebshma, Yausep, and Aitalaha (Tarchnishvili, 467); the Life of Porphyry of Gaza came into Georgian by way of a lost Syriac translation from the Greek (Childers). In the case of others, such as the Life of Abraham and his niece Mary, the precise source, Greek, Syriac, or Arabic, remains to be determined. It is noticeable that most of the Syriac saints commemorated in the 10th-cent. Calendar of Palestinian provenance (ed. Garitte, Le calendrier palestino-géorgien, 1958) are martyrs of the Persian Empire.

5. Some more general influences in the form of theological phraseology (Winkler) and of historical ideology (Rapp, 125–9) have also been discerned.


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How to Cite This Entry

Sebastian P. Brock and Jeff W. Childers, “Georgian 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,

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Sebastian P. Brock and Jeff W. Childers, “Georgian 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),

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Brock, Sebastian P. and Jeff W. Childers. “Georgian 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.

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