Brief Book Review: Invitation to Syriac Liturgy

Invitation to Syriac Christianity: An Anthology
Edited by Michael Philip Penn, Scott Fitzgerald Johnson,
Christine Shepardson, and Charles M. Stang

Who’s it for? This book is for anyone who wants to learn about the ancient Christian faith of people who largely spoke and wrote in the language Jesus knew: Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. Anyone who is fed by seeking out important spheres of Christian witness could relish much in this volume, particularly if your primary historical sources for church history have been based in the Mediterranean. If you appreciate learning from a range of literary forms, you will find poetry, narrative, memoir, biblical commentary, and doctrinal treatises in this book.

Why is this book useful? The organization of the material is comprehensive and approachable, divided into four parts.

  • Part I: Foundations includes stories that explain the origins of Syriac Christianity, poetry, and writings on doctrine.
  • Part II: Practices offers three sections focused on liturgical texts, asceticism, and mysticism and prayer.
  • Part III: Texts and Textual Transmission includes biblical interpretation, hagiography, and selections from books, letters, and other like documents.
  • Part IV: Interreligious Encounters deals with Judaism, Islam, and “Religions of the Silk Road.”

The editors have chosen to include—within each section in each of the four parts—representative works from a variety of centuries to give the reader a vast overview.

The Introduction ends with recommended books that will extend the reader’s exploration of Syriac Christianity and a listing of readings available in digital form.

Appendix A names the sources for writings in each chapter. Appendix B lists the named authors with brief but fascinating biographical information. Appendix C is a glossary of significant terms. And finally, the book is indexed.

What’s the main point? The editors lay out the book’s importance with these words in their Introduction: “When people think of premodern Christianity, they most often think of Christianity as a European religion or—at the very least—as a religion of the Mediterranean. That is, they picture Christianity’s early spread corresponding roughly to that of the ancient Roman Empire. . . . [The] most geographically expansive church. . . reached from modern-day Turkey, throughout the Middle East, across Afghanistan, down to India, up to Tibet, and into China.”

This volume brings together excerpts from sources dated in the first through the fourteenth centuries, including familiar names (such as Egeria, Addai and Mari, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Evagrius, the Didascalia, and more) and many names unfamiliar to those of us who have not spent enough time reading the works of this part of our Christian heritage (f.ex., John of Mardin, Jacob of Serug, Barhebraeus, Philoxenus of Mabbug, Solom of Basra, and many others).

Why does it matter? This book is the first anthology of Syriac literature translated in English. Because the writings are so carefully indexed and attributed, readers will be encouraged to use this volume as a jumping-off point toward further study.

What will get you thinking? One gift of Christian faith is its embrace by people from a wide range of cultural experiences and times. Even reading a few selections each day from this book impresses the reader with the diversity and commonality of faith expressed by the body of Christ. We do, indeed, constitute a “great cloud of witnesses” who worked out the puzzles of a mystery (the appearance of Jesus after his burial) with obvious sincerity and compassion. Reading the monastic rules for men and women from the fifth century, for instance, compels a comparison with the Rule of Benedict written later, in 516, and raises up images of the different circumstances faced by people who sought a life of deep prayer.

What will most inspire you? The cumulative effect of these writings—added to those that are more familiar to the Western world—is the robust nature of the experience of the Risen One. The selection from Rabban Sauma (d. 1294), offers the writings of “an East Syrian monk of Turkic ethnicity born in China.” He traveled in 1281 to Constantinople, Paris, Gascony, and Rome where the book’s section on Interreligious Encounters describes his disputation with the Roman cardinals regarding the relationship of the “persons” of the Trinity (this long after the Councils that dealt with the nature of God and the Second Person centuries earlier). Afterwards he received permission from the pope to celebrate the Eucharist. He kept a journal that was eventually translated into Syriac by an anonymous writer and incorporated into that writer’s travelogue. About the Eucharist, this eyewitness wrote, “On that day a very large number of people were gathered together in order to see how the ambassador of the Mongols celebrated the Eucharist and when they had seen, they had rejoiced and said, ‘The language is different, but the use is the same.’”

Kudos. Given the vast literature that these editors waded into (thousands of texts composed over a thousand years) in order to choose the ca. 100 pieces that would be included in the book, the accomplishment deserves both gratitude and attention. The aim of the editors was, admittedly, not to arrive at a comprehensive offering of texts but to create an invitation they reveal as the question they continually asked themselves: “What parts of what documents could entice the widest range of readers to further investigate the richness and diversity of this essential Christian tradition?” They succeeded.

Penn, Michael Philip, Scott Fitzgerald Johnson, Christine Shepardson, and Charles M. Stang, eds. Invitation to Syriac Christianity: An Anthology. Oakland: University of California Press, 2022. 462 pages, 3 maps, 16 b/w illustrations. $39.95. ISBN: 9780520299207.

REVIEWER: The Rev. Melinda A. Quivik, PhD
Melinda Quivik is ordained to word and sacrament ministry
in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
A former president of the North American Academy of Liturgy,
she is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Liturgy, the journal of the Liturgical Conference,
and a Mentor with Backstory Preaching.

One comment

  1. Thank you Melinda for this review. I have pre-ordered a copy, and am looking forward to working my way around 462 pages. I expect to encounter a little I am familiar with and far, far, more that I am not.

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