Greek, Syriac translations from
Over the course of some 500 years, from the late 4th to the late 9th cent. an enormous number of Greek texts were translated into Syriac. These translations fall into three main categories: biblical texts in Greek; patristic texts (by far the largest surviving category); secular texts (medicine, philosophy, uplifting literature). With the exception of an 8th-cent. translation of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ (surviving only in some short excerpts), no Classical Greek poetry was ever translated, an indication that the motivation for undertaking translations was essentially utilitarian in character. Syriac scholars played a significant role in the ‘translation movement’ of the late 8th and 9th centuries under Abbasid patronage, which provided the Arabic-speaking world with the Greek intellectual heritage of Late Antiquity; their contribution was especially important during the earlier years of this movement, seeing that there was a long tradition of translation from Greek into Syriac, but none yet from Greek into Arabic; for this reason many translators (including the most famous of them all, Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq) first translated from Greek into Syriac, and then from Syriac into Arabic.
In quite a number of cases, the Greek original of a work has been lost, and only the Syriac translation survives. This applies above all to patristic authors whose works were subsequently suppressed in the Greek Church, such as those of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Evagrius of Pontus, and Severus of Antioch. But even with prestigious Greek authors, Syriac may preserve a work lost in Greek; examples of this include Eusebius of Caesarea’s ‘Theophania’ and Cyril of Alexandria’s ‘Homilies on Luke’. A number of secular writings whose Greek original is lost are preserved in Syriac translation, such as Themistius’s ‘On Virtue’ and Alexander of Aphrodisias’s ‘On the Universe (kosmos)’. Even where the Greek original survives the Syriac translation may often be of considerable importance for editors of the Greek, since the Syriac translations were not only made at a date much earlier than that of the earliest Greek mss., but also they are not infrequently preserved in mss. that date from the 6th and even 5th centuries. On the other hand, sometimes the earliest Syriac translations are so free that they are difficult to use for text-critical purposes, whereas it is the later translations, of the 6th and 7th centuries, which are the most useful, in view of their much more literal character.
During this half millennium of translation activity a marked shift in translation style can be observed, moving away from free and reader-oriented translations to literal and text-oriented ones; the culmination of this process occurred in the 7th cent., whereas during the ‘translation movement’ there was a return to a more reader-oriented approach. These changes in translation fashion led to many revisions being made of earlier translations.
1. Biblical: The earliest biblical translations from Greek were of Tatian’s Diatessaron (unless this was originally written in Syriac) and the Old Syriac Version (3rd cent.?). A revision of the Old Syriac, incorporating the rest of the Syriac canon of the New Testament, was made ca. 400, and this became the standard text of the Syriac Churches, eventually known as the Peshitta. Subsequent revisions, confined to the Syr. Orth. tradition, were made in 508 (the lost ‘Philoxenian’, commissioned by Philoxenos of Mabbug), and ca. 615 (the Ḥarqlean, made by Tumo of Ḥarqel); this last provided a mirror rendering of the Greek original.
Translations from the Greek Old Testament are confined to the Syr. Orth. tradition. Philoxenos may also have commissioned a translation of certain books of the Septuagint (fragments survive), but much more important is the Syro-Hexapla, made by Pawlos of Tella ca. 615, from Origen’s revised Septuagint text. This covered the whole of the Septuagint, but does not survive complete. In the early 8th cent. Yaʿqub of Edessa produced his own version of certain books, combining the Peshitta (made from Hebrew) with materials he had himself translated from Greek mss. of the Septuagint.
2. Patristic: The vast majority of surviving Syriac translations are of post-Nicene Greek Fathers, especially those of the 4th to 6th centuries. The Cappadocians, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, are especially well represented, and even Gregory of Nazianzus’s poems got translated. In the Ch. of E. Theodore of Mopsuestia was regarded as the ‘Exegete’ par excellence, while among the Syr. Orth. it was Cyril of Alexandria and Severus who were held in particular honor. Since most 5th-cent. translations were free in character (and are sometimes paraphrases, rather than translations), a need was felt in the 6th and 7th cent. for either a revision of the earlier translation, or an entirely new one, keeping much closer to the Greek original. Thus the Homily collections of both Gregory of Nazianzus and Severus underwent thorough revisions in the 7th cent., the former undertaken by Pawla of Edessa ca. 624, and the latter by Yaʿqub of Edessa towards the end of the century. The motivation for these revisions was sometimes the need for greater exactitude in the rendering of key theological terms, something which often resulted in the creation of neologisms in Syriac (an aspect commented upon by Yaʿqub of Edessa himself in his ‘Letter on Orthography’).
3. Secular: The earliest Syriac translations of Greek secular literature were in the area of popular philosophy with an ethical content, and were mostly made in the 5th cent. Surviving texts include works by Plutarch, Lucian, and Themistius. Porphyry’s influential ‘Eisagoge’, or Introduction to Aristotle’s logical works, known as the Organon, or ‘(intellectual) Tool’, along with much of the Organon itself, and several of Galen’s medical writings were first translated in the early 6th cent.; in this connection an important figure was the Archiatros Sergios of Reshʿayna, the translator of the Dionysian corpus. By the end of the 6th cent. many of these translations had also become known to scholars of the Ch. of E. in the Persian Empire. The 7th cent. witnessed further translations in these fields, as well as revisions of 6th-cent. translations; these were mostly the work of Syr. Orth. scholars such as Severos Sebokht, the Patriarch Athanasios II, Yaʿqub of Edessa, and (in the early 8th cent.) Giwargi bp. of the Arab tribes.
The program of translating Greek philosophical, scientific, and medical literature, sponsored by the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad in the late 8th and the 9th cent., involved scholars from all the Syr. Churches. Unfortunately, apart from that of Hippocrates’s Aphorisms, very little of these Syriac translations survives, though quotations from them can be found in subsequent Syriac encyclopedic literature (notably Bar ʿEbroyo) and in Arabic sources. Several of Patr. Timotheos I’s Letters include references to these translations. Although works by Aristotle feature prominently amongst those translated into Syriac, Plato’s writings are conspicuously absent.
In the course of the 9th–11th cent., when the Melkite Church replaced the Antiochian rite by the Constantinopolitan, a large number of liturgical (and a few hagiographical) texts were translated; amongst these, several poetic texts were subsequently taken over by the Syr. Orth.
- S. P. Brock, From Ephrem to Romanos. Interactions between Syriac and Greek in Late Antiquity (1999). (with several articles of relevance)
- S. P. Brock, ‘Syriac translations of Greek popular philosophy’, in Von Athen nach Bagdad, ed. P. Bruns (2003), 9–28.
- S. P. Brock, ‘Changing fashions in Syriac translation technique: the background to Syriac translations under the Abbasids’, JCSSS 4 (2004), 3–14.
- S. P. Brock, ‘Translation, Greek and Syriac’, in A History of the Greek Language, ed. A.-F. Christidis (2007), 935–46, 957–59 (bibliography); also 873–76, 947–50. (for translation in Antiquity in general)
- H. Hugonnard-Roche, La logique d’Aristote du grec au syriaque (2004).
- A. Schmidt and D. Gonnet (ed.), Les Pères grecs dans la tradition syriaque (ÉtSyr 4; 2007).
- Les Syriaques: transmetteurs des civilisations (Patrimoine syriaque, Actes du Colloque IX; 2005).
- E. I. Yousif, Les philosophes et les traducteurs syriaques (1997).
How to Cite This Entry
Footnote Style Citation with Date:
Sebastian P. Brock , “Greek, Syriac translations from,” 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/Greek-Syriac-translations-from.
Bibliography Entry Citation:
Brock, Sebastian P. “Greek, Syriac translations from.” 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/Greek-Syriac-translations-from.
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