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Florilegia Syriaca. The Intercultural Dissemination of Greek Christian Thought in Syriac and Arabic in the First Millennium CE

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - FLOS (Florilegia Syriaca. The Intercultural Dissemination of Greek Christian Thought in Syriac and Arabic in the First Millennium CE)

Reporting period: 2021-03-01 to 2022-08-31

Syriac is a variety of Aramaic, an age-old language that has manifested itself through its many varieties from the Achaemenid Empire up until today. Syriac started to spread in northern Mesopotamia in the first century CE, and along the centuries it produced one of the most significant literatures in Aramaic. Today many varieties of Syriac-related Aramaic are still spoken and written, mostly in diaspora, especially in America and Europe. FLOS focuses on the transformation of Greek Christian thought in Syriac and Arabic in the first millennium CE. The aim is to analyze the interaction between Greek Christian culture and the various forms assumed by Syriac Christianity under Islamic rule. From the middle of the 7th century, Syriac Christians found themselves facing the political and religious power of Islam and they increasingly had to justify their beliefs in order to valorize and preserve their cultural heritage. One of the main systems to which they resorted was to look to the past. In the first centuries CE, Greek Christian authors had developed an articulated theological reflection, and over time they were called "Church fathers", to emphasize their role as founding theological authorities. Between the 4th and 5th centuries, Syrians began to translate this literature into Syriac and also started producing anthologies of it: they initially translated entire works of the 'fathers', but then began to select extracts, and to reassemble them into collections. These were the "florilegia", which included the 'flowers' of ancient Greek literature. Under Muslim rule, Syriac Christians used these montages of ancient Greek Christian literature to outline their theological identity, using them as a kind of intellectual first aid kit against the threats that their religious identity was undergoing. It is on this issue that the project concentrates. These anthologies of " Church fathers" are preserved in parchment manuscripts produced between 700 and 1000 CE, copied in the same years in which the anthologies were set up, and currently preserved in London and Birmingham. The aim of the research is twofold: firstly, we are reading and analyzing florilegia to see what was selected and what were the problems that led to this selection, and we are producing digital editions of them. This is absolutely new, because these florilegia have never been studied as "creative" collections, the result of a precise intellectual project. The second purpose of the project is to understand how the religious education that Christians of that day gained from these florilegia was translated into the actual cultural debate. Between the 8th and the 11th centuries many Syriac Christian authors wrote theological works, often for the purpose of controversy with other Christian competitors or with Muslims; they wrote in Syriac, but also more and more often in Arabic, quoting the florilegia or constructing their arguments with themes drawn from florilegia. In early centuries Christianity and Islam in the Middle East were two distinct religious cultures but also strongly interpenetrated, living side by side and talking the same language. The major contribution that a research like ours can bring to the understanding of our present is a remarkable increase in historical awareness. Studying the intellectual history of a Christian culture that was the first to face Islam and had to equip itself for this confrontation, is tantamount to realizing how the Middle East has been the place of a cultural and religious plurality that today is little perceived and threatened.
In this reporting period we proceeded to investigate those florilegia that recur identical in numerous manuscripts. Our investigation made clear that their compilers did not consult all the patristic works from which the excerpts are drawn, but extracted most of them from already existing florilegia, which were appended to the writings of major Greek authors of the 6th century. The works of these authors were translated shortly after the redaction of the originals, so that also the florilegia appended to them were early available to Syriac-speaking Christians. We started preparing digital critical editions of the relevant florilegia, and we identified the Greek original of almost all excerpts they contain, also discovering previously unidentified excerpts from important sources, e.g. large sections of a so far neglected Syriac translation of the proceedings of the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE).
We started to map the use of patristic sources in Syriac and Christian Arabic authors of the 8th-11th century. We observed that these authors used the florilegia studied by FLOS: they either quoted entire blocks of patristic excerpts in the same order as in the florilegia (Cyriacus of Tagrit, d. 817, Abu Ra’ita, d. ca. 830, and Moses bar Kepha, d. 903), or did not quote them but modelled their language and arguments on the florilegia (Nonnus of Nisibis, d. ca. 862). Cyriacus and Moses used the patristic authorities to address themes discussed in contemporary Islamic theology: they resorted to old theological authorities as a tool to tackle new challenges. Nonnus and Abu Ra’ita, on the contrary, used the “Fathers” to confront rival strains in Mesopotamian Christianity. Moreover, the fact that Abu Ra’ita, an Arabic writer, used the patristic sources in much the same way as his Syriac contemporaries attests that linguistic diversity was not an obstacle to the circulation of patristic knowledge in the early ‘Abbasid world.
Thanks to our understanding of the compilers’ work method we have been able to understand the thematic structure of the florilegia, which had never been investigated so far. We must now proceed to asking why the compilers of our florilegia felt the need to further elaborate on previous collections of excerpts, by selecting and rearranging them. What was the aim of this re-organization? One of the main expected outputs of our project is an articulated answer to this question. The digital critical edition of the florilegia is the second expected output. It will valorize florilegia as coherent texts which express a precise line of thought, and not as jumbles of fragments as has been done so far, making them available in their entirety for the first time and enabling scholars in the fields of Syriac studies, Christian Arabic studies, and Islamic studies to appreciate the intellectual purport of these collections. Studying the use of patristic authorities in Syriac authors of the 8th-10th centuries, we have understood to what extent patristic florilegia structured the thought and language of Syriac authors, showing for the first time that, on the one hand, the patristic sources helped these authors to affirm the superiority of their own Christian confession in the eyes of the Caliphs over against rival denominations. On the other hand, our research shows that the transformation of patristic sources under Islamic rule was not only relevant to the internal intellectual life of the Syriac Churches, but also to the interreligious confrontation with Islam. The results of this reporting period are then already outlining what this project aims to achieve: a major advancement in our appreciation of how and why patristic knowledge was transferred from Greek to Eastern Christianity, and thus the first significant step towards a comprehension of patristic Christianity ‘beyond east and west’, and even beyond Christianity itself.