ETHNONYMS: East Syrians, Nestorians, Suryâné, Suryâyé, Syrian Jacobites

"Syriac" is both a lingual and a group designation. It applies to East Syrians or Nestorians, who are known also as "Suryâyé," and to Syrian Jacobites, or "Suryâné." The term "Syrian Christians" refers not to residents of the land of Syria, but rather to those Christians who employ the Syriac language in their church liturgies or speak it in its vernacular form. Broadly speaking, those who had recourse to Syriac historically are the Jacobites of Mesopotamia and Turkey, the Nestorians of Mesopotamia and Iran, the Maronites of Lebanon, and the Chaldean Uniates, as well as the converts of Saint Thomas in the Malabar region of southwestern India today.

Syriac is a branch of the Aramaic family of languages and was the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire at the beginning of the Christian era. It is also spoken extensively in the regions farther east. It became the language of liturgies and patristic literature after serving for over a millennium as the vernacular at Edessa (present-day Urfa, in southern Turkey) with very slight variation from the Aramaic or "Chaldee," as it was once called. Syriac eventually gave way vernacularly and, to some extent, liturgically, to Arabic, following the absorption of these communities into the Arabo-Islamic Empire from the eighth century onward.

Aramaic, from which Syriac derived, was the spoken language of peoples who came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, in the same manner that Arabic, which displaced it, molded together peoples inhabiting the land in which Aramaic was popularly spoken. After being Christianized, Aramaeans called themselves "Syrians," which explains why the churches they constituted were referred to by others as the "Syrian" churches. The early constituents were Jews and Gentiles of all ethnic origins. The original Aramaic is still spoken today by the much-diminished community of Mac lūla near Damascus.

Bardesanes of Edessa is credited with founding Syriac literature in the third century and of referring to the church it molded as a "universal church." This designation reportedly gave rise to a "new race" of Christians without reference to geographical boundaries, from Gaul eastward to Parthia, Mesopotamia, and India. The term also referred to any group that made use of the language, without distinction as to race or location (original sources cited in Joseph 1961, 19).

The Syriac spoken in the various rites of the Syrian church was a vernacular form that differed from village to village. The highest and most renowned form was the dialect of Edessa, which eventually was adopted as the language of the church, even though it was not well understood by Christians in next-door Iraq and Persia. The Edessan and the locally spoken dialects existed side by side for centuries, with the former constituting the classical standard of measure from which the vernacular borrowed.

Syriac became a "new language" when evangelical Protestant missionaries from the United States and orientalists combined efforts in the early nineteenth century to study the language scientifically and to reduce it to a comprehensible and standardized written form. Once they had completed their scientific study and had remolded the language into its modern form, missionaries H. O. Dwight and Eli Smith proceeded to translate the Bible into Syriac. Until then, there was no complete Bible in the language, only the Psalter, Gospels, and Epistles, which were in the possession of the Nestorian church. The only books in the vernacular that were discovered by the missionaries in 1831 were some translations of a Catholic catechism and a few prayers. To teach the "new Syriac," missionaries produced primers, grammars, textbooks, philological treatises, and dictionaries. By the end of the nineteenth century, modern Syriac had become a literary medium among Nestorians in the Urmia region of northwestern Persia. Indeed, the popularization of Syriac literature at this time served to reinforce the spirituality of its churches.

The popular forms of the vernacular are still spoken by those termed East Syrians (i.e., the Nestorians and Uniate Chaldeans in the Mosul region of Iraq and the Jacobites around Jabal Tūr. The rest of the Syrian Christians, including the Maronites, use Arabic for their vernacular. All of them, however, still use Syriac as their liturgical language. Maronites use the Syriac script to record their Arabic prayers in what is known as "Karshūni," a form of writing that is not intelligible to the common people. Bishops are ordained in Syriac, and they conduct services in Syriac only. All Syrian Christians were expected at one time or another to read, write, and understand classical Syriac.

Historically, Syriac was first and foremost a literary term, the language of the Eastern churches. There was considerable activity in Syriac during the early Christian centuries. The Gospels at first were written in Syriac, before the doctrinal controversies of the fifth century split the Christian community. The Four "Gospels Separate," known as the "old Syriac," were discovered in Egypt in 1842 (Cureton 1858). The so-called Sinaitic palimpsest, discovered in 1893 in the holdings of the Monastery of Saint Catherine, at the foot of Mount Sinai, is housed today in the British Museum. Both of these manuscripts probably date from the fourth century.

The second-century Diatessaron of Tatian, also known as the "Mixed Gospels," is a "harmony" of the Four Gospels Separate handed down through a commentary by Ephraim in an Armenian translation, by quotations in Aphraates, and by an eleventh-century Arabic translation of the Harmony by the Nestorian monk Ibn al-Tayyib. The Pshîttâ or "simple" version is the one still used by Syrian Christians. That version, also called the "Syriac Vulgate," contains the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, plus the Old Testament Apochryphal less 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. There are also the recensions of the Pshîttâ made by Philoxenus, bishop of Mabug (Hierapolis) near the Euphrates in 508 and by Thomas of Harqel in 614. Both writers were Monophysites (Jacobites), who, more than the Nestorians, were dissatisfied with the Pshîttâ.

Other noted pre-fifth-century Syriac works include the third-century Disputation with Manes, by Archelaus, bishop of Kashkar in Mesopotamia, which survives only in Greek fragments and in a Latin translation; the Doctrine of Addai (Phillips 1876), written around the beginning of the fourth century; the voluminous works of Ephraim, which include commentaries, homilies, letters, and hymns (for details, see Burkitt 1904b, 113); On the Holy Spirit, which was translated into Greek before Jerome's time; the Homilies of Aphraates, the Persian martyr and sage, written c. 337-345; and the Syriac Doctrine Apostolorum, known also as the Edessene Canons, written c. 350 and constituting some form of "church order." The Canons are important because they reveal a great deal about the customs of the Edessa church of that time, including the extent of its activity—a strong missionary proclivity is indicated. Addai emerges in them as the apostle of Edessa, Aggai, a "maker of silks" known in Persia, Assyria, Armenia, Media, and in the countries around Babylon, to the Huzites and the Gelae, and all the way to the border of India and the land of Gog and Magog. Syriac Martyrology was probably written in the middle of the fourth century. A commentary on the Gospels by Abba, a disciple of Ephraim, survives in a few fragments. The poems of Syrillona were composed around 396. Also among pre-fifth-century literature are the Martyrdom of Barsamya and the Martyrdom of Habbîb; Acts or Hypomnemata of Sharbil (the Maronite saint), accounts of the deaths of three Edessene heroes; de Fato of Bardaisân; the early-fifth-century Book of Martyrs of Mârûtha, which commemorates those who suffered under the Persian king Shapur II; the Life of Rabbul â, written after his death in 435; and the Acts of Judas Thomas (the apostle), a highly interesting religious novel, probably written by an unorthodox third-century pioneer missionary in eastern Mesopotamia. The popular Hymn of the Soul (translated in Burkitt 1904a, 218ff.) is contained in the Acts. The Clementine Homilies and Recognitions of around the third century may also have been written in Syriac.


Baumstark, Anton (1922). Geschichte der Syrischen Literatur. Bonn.

Burkitt, Francis C. (1904a). Early Eastern Christianity. London.

Burkitt, Francis C. (1904b). Evangelion da-Mepharreshe. Vol. 2. Cambridge.

Cureton, William, ed. (1858). The Four Gospels Separate. London.

Hastings, James (n.d.) . Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. 9. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Joseph, John (1961). The Nestorians and Their Muslim Neigh bors. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

al-Khūri, Tūma (1963). "Dawr al-Lughah al-Suryânîyah fi al-Adab wa 'l-Falsafah, wa 'l-Dîn." al-Majallah al-Batriyarkîyah 1:458-462.

Phillips, George, ed. (1876). Doctrine of Addai. London.


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