Syriac at the 2018 SBL/AAR Annual Meeting (Denver)

sbl/aar annual meeting banner

For anyone interested in Syriac and attending the SBL/AAR annual meeting this year in Denver, I have compiled a list of all the presentations that deal with Syriac (from what I can tell from the titles).

If anyone has a paper that deals with Syriac that’s not on this list, I’d be happy to add it. Just contact me on Twitter (@jedwardwalters) or email me at: jwalters [at] rc [dot] edu.

List of papers with session info:

SBL Sessions (and Supplementary Groups)

S17-109 – Aramaic Studies  11/17: 9:00-11:30 AM – 708 (Street Level) Convention Center (CC)

  • Cody Strecker, Baylor University: “Ephrem the Syrian’s Acrostic Theology”
  • Ethan Laster, Abilene Christian University: “Toward a Pre-Chalcedonian Dating of John the Solitary”

S17-116 – Christian Apocrypha  11/17: 9:00-11:30 am – 111 (Street Level) Convention Center (CC)

  • James E. Walters (yours truly), Rochester College, “The (Syriac) Exhortation of Peter: A New Addition to the Petrine Apocryphal Tradition”

P17-135a – Linguistic, Literary, and Thematic Perspectives on the Qur’anic Corpus (IQSA) 11/17: 9:00-11:30 am – 709 (Street Level) Convention Center (CC)

  • Marijn van Putten, Leiden University, “The Absence of Syriac Borrowings in the Qurʾān

S17-142 Pseudepigrapha 11/17: 9:00-11:30 am – 703 (Street Level) – Convention Center (CC)

  • Eric Crégheur, Université d’Ottawa – University of Ottawa, “The Pseudo-Ephrem: A Status Quæstionis”

S17-242 – Religious World of Late Antiquity 11/17: 1:00-3:30 pm – Centennial Ballroom H (Third Level) Hyatt Regency

  • Erin Galgay Walsh, “Vanishing Women, Lingering Voices: Wrestling with Representations of Gendered Speech in Greek and Syriac Poetry”

S17-334 Pseudepigrapha 11/17: 4:00-6:30 pm – 303 (Street Level) – Convention Center (CC)

  • Liv Ingeborg Lied, MF Norwegian School of Theology, “Reading 2 Baruch on Easter Sunday: Imagining a Multi-medial Encounter with 2 Bar 72:1–73:2 and Challenging the Scholarly Narrative of Ancient Jewish Writings”
  • Daniel M. Gurtner, Southern Seminary “Second Baruch from Greek into Syriac: An Examination of Translational Features and Their (Potential) Implications”

S1-124 – Ethiopic Bible and Literature 11/18: 9:00am-12:00pm – Mineral Hall C (Third Level) – Hyatt Regency (HR)

  • Gavin McDowell, Université Laval, “Jubilees in Syriac: The Evidence of the Dictionary of Bar Bahlul”

S18-136 – Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew 11/18: 9:00-11:30am – Mile High Ballroom 2A (Lower Level) – Convention Center (CC)

  • Johan M. V. Lundberg, University of Cambridge, “Accents, Prosody, and Syntax: A Comparison of Biblical Hebrew and Syriac Masoretic Traditions”
    Srecko Koralija, University of Cambridge, “Object Marker(s) in Hebrew-Syriac Language Contact”

S18-213a – Digital Humanities in Biblical, Early Jewish, and Christian Studies

Joint Meeting with A18-238 – Traditions of Eastern Late Antiquity

11/18: 1:00-3:30pm – 106 (Street Level) – Convention Center (CC)

  • James E. Walters, “The Digital Syriac Corpus: A New Digital Resource for the Study of Syriac Literature”

S18-221 – History and Literature of Early Rabbinic Judaism 11/18: 1:00-3:30 pm – Capital Ballroom 2 (Fourth Level) – Hyatt Regency (HR)

  • Daniel Picus, Brown University and Rebecca Stephens Falcasantos, Florida State University, ““Your Brother’s Blood Drips from Your Hand”: The Punishment of Cain in Rabbinic and Syriac Christian Interpretation”
  • Miriam-Simma Walfish, Harvard University and Maria E. Doerfler, Yale University, “The Wisdom of Jepthah’s Daughter”
  • Krista Dalton, Kenyon College and Erin Galgay Walsh, Duke University
    “The Afterlives of Isaiah 58:7 in Early Christian and Rabbinic Literature”
  • Ophir Münz-Manor, Open University of Israel and Jeffrey Wickes, Saint Louis University, “Jacob of Sarug and Yannai on the Tower of Babel”

P1-233 – International Syriac Language Project 11/18: 1:00-3:30pm – Directors Row E (Plaza Building-Lobby Level) Sheraton Downtown (SD)

  • Ignacio Carbajosa, Universidad San Dámaso, “Two Ancient Syriac Peshitta Versions of 1 Maccabees: Which One Is the True Peshitta? What Is the Other One?”
  • Philip Forness, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, “The Books of Maccabees in Syriac: A Context for Their Translation”
  • Eric J. Tully, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, “Peshitta Ruth: Insights from Translating the Mosul Text for the Antioch Bible”
  • Binyamin Goldstein, Yeshiva University and Abraham J. Berkovitz, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, “Translating 4 Ezra: Problems and Prospects”
  • Bradley J. Marsh, Jr., University of Oxford, “Jacob of Edessa’s Witness to the Book of Daniel in Greek: A Survey”

S18-311 – Book History and Biblical Literatures – 11/18: 4:00-6:30pm – Centennial Ballroom A (Third Level) – Hyatt Regency (HR)

  • Adam Bremer-McCollum, University of Notre Dame, “Two Languages, Two Scripts, and Three Combinations Thereof: A Personal Prayer-Book in Syriac and Old Uyghur from Turfan (U 338)”

S19-132 – New Testament Textual Criticism 11/19: 9:00-11:30am – Capital Ballroom 4 (Fourth Level) Hyatt Regency (HR)

  • Ian N Mills, Duke University, “‘Unripe Figs’: Isho’dad’s Diatessaron and the Original Language of Tatian’s Gospel”

S19-138 – Religious Competition in Late Antiquity / Christian Apocrypha 11/19: 9:00-11:30am – Mile High Ballroom 4F (Lower Level) Convention Center (CC)

  • Jacob A. Lollar, Florida State University, “What Has Ephesus to Do with Edessa?: The Syriac History of John, the Cult of the Dea Syria, and Religious Competition in Fourth-Century Syria”

P19-225 – International Syriac Language Project 11/19: 1:00-3:30pm – Granite C (Third Level) Hyatt Regency (HR)

  • Jeff Childers, Abilene Christian University, “”The Word Will Not Wait:” Specialized Vocabulary in Syriac Divinatory Texts (Hermeneia)”
  • David J.A. Clines, University of Sheffield, “Denominative Verbs in Classical Hebrew”
  • Cynthia L. Miller-Naudé, University of the Free State and Jacobus A. Naudé, University of the Free State, “The Syriac Contribution to Understanding Rare Lexemes in the Greek of Ben Sira”
  • Jonathan Loopstra, Northwestern College – St. Paul, “Reading Basil’s Hexaemeron in Grecized Syriac: Athanasius II of Baladh and Early Syriac Lexicography?”
  • Srecko Koralija, University of Cambridge, “Historical and Methodological Considerations in Making Syriac Lexica”

AAR Sessions

A17-434 – Study of Islam Unit 11/17: 5:30-7:00pm, Convention Center 507

  • Reyhan Durmaz, Brown University, “Stories, Saints, and Sanctity between Christianity and Islam”

A17-438 – Traditions of Eastern Late Antiquity 11/17: 5:30-7:00pm, Hyatt Regency Capitol 7

  • Laura Locke Estes, Saint Louis University, “‘Babes Who Need Milk’: Portraying Muslims as “Jews” in Eastern Christian Polemic”

A18-119 – Middle Eastern Christianity 11/18 9:00-11:30am, Convention Center Mile High 1F

  • Jessica Mutter, University of Chicago, “By the Book: Religious Conversion in Early Islamic Syria and Iraq”
  • Henry Clements, Yale University, “Protestant Foxes and Catholic Wolves in the Late-Ottoman Syriac Heartland”
  • Basil Bas, Marmara University, “From Benjamin David to Abdulahad Davud: the Story of a Chaldean Christian’s Conversion to Islam in the Early 20th Century”

A18-424 – Qur’an Unit and Traditions of Eastern Late Antiquity 11/18: 5:30-7:00pm, Convention Center 403

  • Nathan Hershberger, Duke University, “Patient Apocalypticism and the Syriac Tradition: Political Theology in Ephrem the Syrian, Mar Qardagh, and Giwargis Warda”

Introducing the Oxford-BYU Syriac Corpus – A Presentation at the #msuglobaldh Symposium

Today I’ll be giving a lightning talk presentation on the Oxford-BYU Syriac Corpus–a new digital archive for Syriac texts–at Michigan State University for the MSU Global Digital Humanities Symposium. The full schedule for the event can be found here.

The presentation will be live-streamed, which can be viewed here. My talk is scheduled for 1:30 pm (EST).

Here is the abstract for my presentation:

Introducing the Oxford-BYU Syriac Corpus: An Archive for the Preservation of Syriac Texts

The Syriac language is an ancient dialect of Aramaic, spoken widely throughout the Middle East in the 4th-7th centuries CE. Following this period, Syriac continued to be spoken primarily by Christian communities along the Silk Road, from the Mediterranean Sea to India and China. Moreover, Syriac survives today as a liturgical language for multiple ecclesiological bodies, and there are modern dialects spoken in Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq and diaspora communities around the world. Given the geographic and temporal range of the Syriac tradition, it is no surprise that there is a rather large corpus of Syriac texts produced between late antiquity and the late modern period; however, most of these texts remain unavailable to heritage communities of the Syriac tradition, either because the manuscripts are held in library collections in Europe or because of lack of access to critical editions available to scholars in research institutions.

The Oxford-BYU Syriac Corpus seeks, in part, to remedy this lack of availability of texts by creating an open access repository of Syriac texts. The current corpus consists of a collection of several hundred texts, which have been transcribed either from print editions or manuscripts by scholars and students at Oxford University and Brigham Young University, and these transcribed texts are in the process of being converted to TEI for use in the corpus. In the next stage of the project, we envision people from anywhere in the world being able to contribute to this corpus by transcribing texts and encoding them using training materials and templates that we will create. We hope that this corpus will serve as an enduring archive of the Syriac language, which will aide in the preservation of the Syriac heritage among global diaspora communities.

Paratext Material in Sinai Syriac 19–Christian Palestinian Aramaic

Recently I was perusing through the newly available digitized Syriac manuscripts from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai on the Library of Congress website.

While looking through, my attention was caught by Sinai Syriac 19, which is listed is an anonymous set of homilies on the Song of Songs. Upon brief examination, this  appears to be a Syriac translation of Gregory of Nyssa’s Homilies on the Song of Songs. There are some publications about Gregory’s Homilies in Syriac, but there is not yet an edition. [For more info, see Allison Salveson’s article “Song of Songs in the Syrian Tradition” in Perspectives on the Song of Songs, ed. Anselm C. Hagedorn (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005).]

Nyssa’s homilies on the Song of Songs are also attested in Vatican Syr. 106. There may be other manuscript witnesses as well. But with these two important manuscripts available already in digitized form, someone really needs to create an edition.

However, while I was initially intrigued by the textual content of this manuscript, as I skimmed through an interesting paratextual element caught my eye. Namely, on folios 28b-29a, there is an interesting addition across the bottom of the page:

Although the text of the manuscript is Syriac (Estrangela script), the inscription here appears to be in Christian Palestinian Aramaic (CPA). [Compare with the two CPA folios at the end of Sinai Syriac 7 and especially with the text of Vatican Syr. 19.

In Syriac, the inscription would read:

ܫܘܒܚܐ ܠܟ ܐܠܗܐ ܚܝܐ ܠܥܠܡ ܥܠܡܝܢ ܐܡܝܢ

“Glory/praise to you, living God, forever and ever, amen.”

The text itself is not noteworthy. But the fact that this CPA inscription appears in this manuscript tells us something about the use and life of this manuscript. And, furthermore, it adds more orthographic data to the very small corpus of surviving Christian Palestinian Aramaic texts.

End of Summer / Back to School

Classes start here at Rochester College next week (in fact, one of my online classes starts tomorrow!).

With summer drawing to a close, it’s hard not to feel a bit exasperated at all that I wanted to accomplish, but didn’t get around to. But, rather than wallow in the list of things I didn’t get to, I’m making a list of all the things I *did* manage to accomplish.

Between early May and the end of August, I did the following:

  • Taught three separate online courses (two of them were graduate level)
  • Wrote and submitted three book reviews
  • Wrote two conference papers and delivered those papers at the respective conferences (NAPS in May and the BYU Narsai Workshop in June)
  • Translated one memra by Narsai in preparation for writing that paper
  • Edited and re-wrote the Narsai paper for its inclusion in an edited volume (I’m actually still working on this…deadline looming in the immediate future)
  • Attended and participated in a Digital Humanities workshop at Marquette University
  • Added a bunch of texts to a forthcoming DH corpus project
  • Translated three short apocryphal texts in Syriac and wrote introductions to them (to be included in the second volume of the New Testament Apocrypha, edited by Tony Burke and Brent Landau (putting the finishing touches on these this week)
  • Wrote a proposal for an edited volume (invited by a publisher)
  • Made a small amount of progress on a longer translation project that I will wrap up this fall.

And somehow, during all of that, I spent a lot of time on the road with the family on various “trips” (they aren’t really vacations when you travel with little kids!).

I made this list to try to turn around how I was feeling about my reflection on summer productivity, and I think it worked. Viewing it through the lens of how much I actually did (vs. what I didn’t do) is a helpful shift in perspective.

Narsai Workshop at BYU

For the next few days I’ll be in Utah, attending a workshop on Narsai, a 5th-century Syriac poet, exegete, and preacher. The workshop is hosted by the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART) at Brigham Young University.

I’m very much looking forward to this workshop, primarily because I think Narsai is a very understudied figure, particularly for someone with a surviving corpus of over 80 metrical homilies.

My paper for this workshop stems out of my previous research on Aphrahat’s conception of the body-soul relationship and the idea of the “sleep of the soul” after death. Narsai is frequently said to support the theory of the sleep of the soul, so I set out to do a comparative analysis of the ways that Narsai and Aphrahat talk about the soul and its properties, the relationship between the soul and body, and what happens to the soul at death and at the resurrection.

In preparation for this presentation, I translated Narsai’s memra “On the Soul”, which was a lot of fun, though quite difficult at times. Translating poetry is always difficult, but it is made all the more difficult when you are trying to tie down the way a poet is using technical vocabulary like that employed in late antique christological debates. So, I look forward to hearing the other papers at this workshop to hear how others have made sense of Narsai’s vocabulary and style.

The short answer to the research question I set out to answer is: Aphrahat and Narsai do not share much in common, and Narsai doesn’t really support the concept of the sleep of the soul.  The long answer to this question is the topic of my paper, and it will eventually be published in a volume containing the conference proceedings.

Nautical Navigation: A Soul/Body Metaphor in Narsai

I’m currently translating a memra by Narsai, a 5th-century Syriac author known as one of the earliest and most significant proponents of “Nestorian” dyophysite Christology in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon (for more info, see also here). I’m doing the translation in preparation for a presentation at a workshop dedicated to Narsai that’s coming up soon.

The specific memra that I’m translating, # 66 according to the calvis of Narsai’s memre prepared by Kristian Heal at BYU, is known by the title “On the Soul.” Throughout this memra, Narsai frequently relies on extended metaphors to illustrate his teaching about the soul’s relationship to the body. As I was translating, one particular metaphor caught my attention: the metaphor of a captain of a ship. Here are the lines in question along with a (rough draft!) translation.

ܒܩܲܠܝܼܠܘܼܬܼܵܗ̇ ܥܵܒܲ̇ܪ ܝܲܡܵܐ ܐܲܝܟ ܕܲܒܼܝܲܒܼܫܵܐ:

ܘܠܵܐ ܡܸܬܿܛܲܒܲܥ ܝܘܼܩܪܵܐ ܕܦܲܓܼܪܹܗ ܒܹܝܬܼ ܡܲܚܫܘܼܠܹ̈ܐ ܀

ܐܲܝܟ ܐܹܘܩܝܼܢܵܐ ܬܲܠܝܵܐ ܒܐܸܠܦܵܐ ܕܦܲܓܼܪܵܢܘܼܬܹܗ:

ܘܲܡܢܲܛܪܵܐ ܠܹܗ ܡ̣ܢ ܢܸܟܼܝܵܢܹ̈ܐ ܕܠܵܐ ܢܸܬܼܚܲܒܲܠ ܀

ܠܘܲܥܕܵܗ̇ ܪܵܕܹܐ ܐܲܝܟ ܡܲܠܵܚܵܐ ܒܟܼܵܘܟܿܒܼ ܢܘܼܗܪܵܐ:

ܘܗ̤ܝ ܬܵܪܨܵܐ ܠܹܗ ܫܒܼܝܼܠ ܡܲܪܕܲܝܼܬܵܐ ܠܲܠܡܹܐܝܢ ܫܲܝܢܵܐ ܀

“By her speed it crosses the sea as if upon land,

and the weight of its body does not cause her to sink in the floods.

Like an anchor she clings, the captain of its corporeality,

keeping it from injuries, so that it is not harmed.

Following her direction, it travels like a sailor in the starlight,

and she navigates the path of [its] journey to a safe harbor.”


There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the metaphor itself, but the beauty of Narsai’s poetic imagery is striking. I was especially drawn to the final two lines because of how evocative–and yet elusive–the precise metaphor is. What exactly is the soul in this metaphor? Is it the light? Is it the sailor? Is it the ship’s navigational system? Is it somehow all of the above?

In other words, what makes this metaphor so interesting to me is its playfulness; Narsai refuses, even in metaphor, to commit to a single image to illustrate the soul-body relationship. Instead, he provides a panoply of related images, allowing the hearer/reader to be immersed in a sea (pun intended) of symbols.

In fact, the translator may feel like they are drowning in Narsai’s dense metaphors at times, but ultimately the payoff is worth it.

Classical Languages as Euphemism

When working on a translation recently, I came across an interesting gloss in A Compendious Syriac Dictionary, edited by J. Payne Smith (Margoliouth). Under the entry for ܩܢܝܐ (qanyā), we see the following:


The gloss that drew my attention was the final one: virga virilis. Or, in plain English: “a penis”. What drew my attention was the retention of the Latin phrase in a Syriac-English dictionary (for those unaware, this dictionary is an abbreviated version of a Syriac-Latin Dictionary, the magnificent two-volume Thesaurus Syriacus edited by R. Payne Smith).

Unsurprisingly, virga virilis is one of the definitions that shows up under the entry for ܩܢܝܐ in the Thesaurus Syriacus (Vol. 2, col. 3654, gloss #6). The Compendious Syriac Dictionary translates all the other definitions into English, so the only apparent reason for this “euphemistic” translation is that the editor apparently wanted to avoid the embarrassment of using a “vulgar” word like penis in the dictionary entry. Thus, the Latin translation stood in as a substitute.

Apparently this was a somewhat practice for the late Victorian era, as this phenomenon also appeared in both Greek and Latin dictionaries, and in English translations of various works. E.A. Wallis Budge’s translation of Bar Hebraeus’ “Laughable Stories”, for example, frequently translates the more vulgar “stories” into Latin, which leaves Latin paragraphs interspersed throughout an otherwise completely English translation.

Primarily I think this practice is humorous because of what it suggests: that somehow it’s less vulgar to only render something in Latin rather than in English. Then again, considering the etymology of vulgar as “common” or “ordinary usage,” technically it is less vulgar to use Latin instead of English since Latin would be less commonly used/understood.

On the other hand, though, given the likely audiences of these works–people who are likely to know multiple languages, including Latin–what purpose is this really serving? It’s not like the Compendious Syriac Dictionary was ever going to be a NYT Bestseller or end up in the hands of impressionable youths searching for dirty words in Syriac.

NAPS 2017 Paper

I recently delivered a paper at #NAPS2017 (the annual meeting of the North American Patristics Society). My paper was part of a two-session panel that I helped co-organize with Kyle Smith and Philip Forness.

The topic of the paper was the use of the Syriac word taḥwitha (ܬܚܘܝܬܐ) as a title of a work in late antiquity, particularly with respect to the Demonstrations of Aphrahat, the Persian Sage. More specifically, I argued that it is likely that this “title” was added later by an editor, and thus they are not original to the corpus. The full abstract is below.


“Collecting Writings and Constructing a Genre: The Demonstrations of Aphrahat as an Edited Anthology”

The fourth-century Syriac corpus known as the Demonstrations and attributed to Aphrahat is difficult to classify with respect to genre. In fact, it is often taken for granted within scholarship on the Demonstrations that “demonstration” (Syr = ܬܚܘܝܬܐ) is a genre itself. After all, each of the twenty-three individual Demonstrations begins with a heading that includes this word. However, this classification fails on two grounds: 1) it is an otherwise unknown genre; no other work in Syriac literature claims to be a “Demonstration.” And 2) more importantly, the assumption that “Demonstration” is a genre masks the diversity of writings with the corpus of the Demonstrations and even ignores data within the corpus that might help us classify the individual Demonstrations more specifically and accurately.

I have argued elsewhere that the Demonstrations as they are preserved in the Syriac tradition are an edited corpus of previously existing writings. In this paper, I will expand on this argument by examining evidence for smaller collections of writings that make up the Demonstrations based on various terminology for genre found within the corpus. Additionally, I will argue that the “genre” of Demonstration was the creation of the literary editor who compiled the writings into their final form. In so doing, I will reflect on the broader question of what we know about early Syriac literary production and the ways that ancient editorial practices have affected our understanding of genre in Syriac literature.


And here’s a tweet from a friend who was present to document it: