Sunday, March 30, 2014


André Binggeli (ed.), L' hagiographie syriaque. Études syriaques, 9. Paris: Geuthner, 2012. Pp. 304; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9782705338718. €45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Edward G. Mathews, Jr., Independent Scholar (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]
[The reviewer apologizes for the tardiness of this review.]

The series, Études syriaques, published by the Société d'études syriaques has, in the less than ten years of its brief existence, already established itself as one of the most essential reference series in the field of Syriac studies. With its emphasis on thematic studies, resulting from round table discussions between leading scholars in the field, the volumes in this series have a coherence and homogeneity not usually found in such collections. Each of the previous volumes can for all intents and purposes be considered a vade mecum for the particular theme treated in the volume. The present ninth volume, on Syriac hagiography, is no exception. Previous volumes have treated Syriac Inscriptions, Old Testament, Apocrypha, Liturgy, Greek Fathers in Syriac Tradition, Historiography, Monasticism, and Mysticism.

Syriac hagiography is, it must be admitted, still in its very early stages. Scholars have had available a considerable number of texts of saints' lives since the eighteenth century,1 as well as a number of handbooks, among which Peeters, Bibliotheca Hagiographica Orientalis (Brussels, 1910), and Fiey, Saints syriaques (Princeton, 2004) must be considered the foremost. The first, however useful it has been since its publication, is woefully out of date (at least two attempts at updating it have already been abandoned),2 and the second, while much fuller and of great usefulness, does not have the critical scholarly apparatus needed for such a work. But, apart from a few short articles or treatments in more general handbooks, a serious, comprehensive overview of Syriac hagiography has yet to be undertaken. Thus the volume under review here, while not the critical updated catalogue so badly needed, nonetheless fills a very pressing need by laying down the necessary foundation, as well as by setting out the necessary parameters both for future editions and studies of the lives of Syrian saints and martyrs.

This volume consists of eleven articles, seven of which were originally submitted in French (though two by non-native French speakers required amelioration) while the remaining four were translated by the editor and/or colleagues. The focus of these articles is not on the cult of the saints, so popular in contemporary study, but on describing the various forms and styles of the texts that tell us about the lives of these saints; scattered throughout are also glimpses into relationships between certain texts and their historical usefulness. Utilizing methods and categories set out for Byzantine hagiography during the last century, the articles in this volume address certain fundamental questions such as just what sort of texts are actually to be included under the label hagiography. No definitive answer is explicitly supplied but general consensus is that it includes almost any text that contains substantial witness of the saint in question; thus, not only the obvious things such as formal lives (individual or in collections) or substantial notices in historical texts –nearly all of which can be found in either prose or poetry– but in certain liturgical texts, most notably the Synaxaria, as well as calendars, etc., and even in pictorial representations.

The issue gets a bit more complex when one opens up the question of language. Clearly, the preponderant number of texts are in Syriac, but other nearby languages need be consulted as they are either the source for the Syriac text, contain translations whose Syriac originals have been lost, or even preserve independent witnesses. The Life of Ephrem, for example, exists in several versions in Greek, Armenian and Georgian, in addition to its various Syriac recensions. The collections of the Lives of the Syrian Fathers (curiously, never mentioned in this volume) survive only in Georgian. Armenian literature preserves a number of texts that offer significantly different, if not contradictory, data to what the Syriac sources tell us. To collect all the relevant data on these texts is clearly one monumental task; the next step of evaluating the relationships, historical value, etc., of all these data will be even more so.

Muriel Debié opens the volume with a nice overview of the state of hagiographical studies in Syriac, addressing these issues just enumerated along with other pertinent matters. Her article is followed by several more that focus on particular questions that she has introduced in a more general fashion. André Binggeli provides a premier sondage of the various collections of saints' lives as they are found in various manuscript catalogues, examining the various types of collections (monastic, women or of a particular region) by a detailed description of a relevant manuscript of each collection. David Taylor then assesses the important witnesses of the liturgical calendars of the various Syrian confessional groups (East Syrian, West Syrian, Melkite, Maronite, etc.), demonstrating their interdependence and common Greek roots. Sebastian Brock then provides a succinct discussion of those hagiographical texts that survive specifically in verse format sorting them according to their Syriac style, mêmrê or madrašê, as well as form: narrative, homily or panegyric. Many more have survived than just the well-known hymns on Ephrem and on Simon the Stylite composed by Jacob of Sarug. Christelle Jullien re-examines the large and fairly well-known collection of Persian martyrs,3 classifying them and noting that they become more romantic the farther they are from the actual events, yet still retain much accurate geographical and political detail. Valentina Calzolari looks at the important Syrian figures Šalîtâ and Jacob of Nisibis, especially as they were remembered in the fifth century Armenian Epic Histories, once attributed to Faustus of Byzantium, and Marutha of Maipherqat, whose lost Syriac life now survives in Armenian and Greek, and demonstrates their importance for recovering the close relationship between early Syria and Armenia.

Lutz Greisinger then looks at the surviving texts concerning those saints from the foundational and early period of Christian Edessa, particularly Alexis, the man of God, Euphemia, Shmona and Guria, demonstrating the importance of their cults particularly for encouraging the lower classes to assert themselves in public affairs. Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent offers an examination of the surviving texts concerning female saints and martyrs, whose memories have been preserved for posterity. She sketches out a typology of their representation in the surviving texts and how they were intended to be models for subsequent readers. Jack Tannous then assembles and provides a succinct overview of the large collection of materials, hagiographical and liturgical, dealing with the saints and martyrs during the early period of the rise of Islam, specifically those preserved in the West Syrian church traditions. The last two articles in this volume make an important contribution by looking at the non-textual materials, that is those representations still evident on church walls as well as – the relatively rare in Syriac – illuminations found in manuscripts. Rima Smine addresses the surviving artistic traditions of the West Syrian Church and how they represent the apostles, monks, martyrs and the great doctors of the church, while Bas Snelders looks specifically at those to do with Mar Behnam as preserved in the monastery of his name. The twenty-two plates at the end of the volume accompany these last two articles. The volume is concluded with a general bibliography of texts and translations of Syrian saints lives (pp. 287-293) and an index of all the saints referred to in the various articles (pp. 295-302).

While no single volume could ever be considered a complete treatment of any such widely ranging field, the eleven articles contained in this volume indeed provide a very succinct yet broad panorama of Syriac hagiography. While one might suggest that the editors might have commissioned an additional article specifically to address the witness of the eastern Syrian tradition, this should not detract from the importance of this collection of studies. It provides a nice overview for the specialist as well as an abundance of information for the scholar of related fields. It is also to be hoped - at least by this reviewer - that with such a foundation now in place, some young scholar or better, a small team of scholars in the field, will be spurred on to produce the necessary comprehensive catalogue. A solid foundation has now been laid; it is time to build.

Authors and Titles

Muriel Debié, «Marcher dans leurs traces»: les discours de l'hagiographie et de l'histoire 9-48
André Binggeli, Les collections de Vies de saints dans les manuscrits syriaques 49-75
David Taylor, Hagiographie et liturgie syriaque 77-112
Sebastian P. Brock, L'hagiographie versifiée 113-126
Christelle Jullien, Les Actes des martyrs perses: transmettre l'histoire 127-140
Valentina Calzolari, Figures de l'hagiographie syriaque dans la tradition arménienne ancienne (Sałita, Jacques de Nisibe, Maruta de Mayperqaṭ) 141-170
Lutz Greisiger, Saints populaires d'Édesse 171-199
Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent, Images de femmes dans l'hagiographie syriaque 201-224
Jack Tannous, L'hagiographie syro-occidentale à la période islamique 225-245
Rima Smine, L'art au service de l'hagiographie: la représentation des saints dans la tradition syro-occidentale 247-270
Bas Snelders, Art et hagiographie: la construction d'une communauté à Mar Behnam 271-286


1.   The two primary, and still indispensable, collections are S.E. Assemani, ed., Acta Martyrium Orientalium et Occidentalium, 2 vols.; Rome, 1748, and P. Bedjan, ed., Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, 7 vols.; Leipzig, 1890-1897 [repr., Hildesheim, 1968]. These can be supplemented by more modern editions and/or translations found scattered in various journals and in the two main series for oriental Christian texts: Corpus Scriptorium Christianorum Orientalium published by Peeters in Louvain and Patrologia Orientalis published by Brepols in Turnhout. Gorgias Press in Piscataway, NJ, USA has also begun publishing nice bi-lingual texts of the lives of Persian Martyrs and Syriac saints.
2.   As the title indicates, this volume covers the entire field of oriental Christian hagiography (Armenian, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, etc.), not just Syriac. In his article in this volume under review, Tannous counts nearly one third of the 1300 entries to do with Syrian saints.
3.   In an appendix, Sebastian P. Brock, The History of the Holy Mar Ma'in (Persian Martyr Acts in Syriac: Text and Translation, 1; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2008), pp. 77-125, provides a nice, up-to-date catalogue of these Acts.

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