Literature that tells the stories of saints. Hagiography was not biography, even though often including such material. Rather, its purpose was to present its subjects in terms that made clear their holiness. Hence it employed literary conventions, motifs, and themes that identified its men or women with biblical models, and above all with gospel models of Christ. The saint was always presented as one who imitated Christ, whether by works of healing, teaching, or ministry in life, or by a holy death. It could be written about historical persons or legendary figures, but always it presented and conformed the holy person’s life and works to familiar models that emerged over the late antique period: the holy bishop, abbot, or monk; the holy nun, widow, or penitent harlot; the holy layman or laywoman who lived an exceptional life of good works and asceticism. Syriac hagiography emerged as a sophisticated literary genre during the 5th cent. and took various forms: individual lives (vitae) of saints, resembling biographical narratives and deeply influenced by Greek biographical traditions, such as those about Rabbula of Edessa or Shemʿun the Stylite; collections of saints’ stories, often short vignettes, including personal encounters, such as Yuḥanon of Ephesus’s ‘Lives of the Eastern Saints’ (W. Syr., written 560s) or Toma of Marga’s ‘Book of Governors’ (E. Syr., 9th cent.); personal memoirs, such as Sahdona’s of the 7th- cent. holy woman Shirin (E. Syr.). Saints’ stories traveled freely across linguistic, geographical, and political boundaries in the ancient Christian world. Thus hagiography appeared in literary forms that mutually interacted across languages. Hagiographical writings about Syr. saints were written in Greek (e.g., by Theodoret of Cyrrhus) as well as Syriac, and both kinds might be translated into Latin and further into other languages. The Edessan Martyrs, Shemʿun the Stylite, St. Febronia of Nisibis, the anonymous Man of God (later named Alexius), and St. Pelagia the harlot, are figures both historical and legendary whose stories, originating in Syriac, are found in every major calendar of Christian saints. In turn, there is a large body of hagiography translated into Syriac from other languages, already during the 5th and 6th cent., beginning with Athanasius’s ‘Life of Antony’, ‘the Sayings of the Desert Fathers’, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus’s ‘History of the Monks of Syria’.


  • P. Bedjan, Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum (7 vols.; 1890–97).
  • S. P.  Brock, ‘Saints in Syriac: A little-tapped resource,’ JECS 16.2 (2008), 181–96.
  • S. P.  Brock, ‘Syriac hagiography’, in Companion to Byzantine hagiography, ed. S. Efthymiadis (forthcoming).
  • S. P.  Brock and S. A.  Harvey, Holy women of the Syrian Orient (1987; new ed. 1998).
  • R.  Doran, The Lives of Simeon Stylites (1992).
  • S. P.  Brock and S. A.  Harvey, Stewards of the poor: The Man of God, Rabbula, and Hiba in fifth-century Edessa (2006).
  • Fiey, Saints syriaques (2004).
  • Harvey, Asceticism and society in crisis.
  • P.  Peeters, Bibliotheca Hagiographica Orientalis (Subsidia hagiographica 10; 1910, 1954).
  • J.  Walker, The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian heroism in Late Antique Iraq (2006). (incl. further references)

How to Cite This Entry

Susan Ashbrook Harvey , “Hagiography,” 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/Hagiography.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Susan Ashbrook Harvey , “Hagiography,” 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/Hagiography.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. “Hagiography.” 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/Hagiography.

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