June 5 – Classmate of the Emperor

June 4, 2018

James of Edessa

A celebrated Syrian writer, b. most likely in A.D. 633; d. 5 June, 708. He was a native of the village of `En-debha, in the district of Gumyah, in the province of Antioch. During several years he studied Greek and Holy Writ at the famous convent of Kennesrhe, on the left bank of the Euphrates, opposite Europus (Carchemish). After his return to Syria he was appointed Bishop of Edessa, about A.D. 684, by the Patriarch Athanasius II, his former fellow-student. Equally unable to enforce canonical rules and to connive at their infringement, he resigned his see after a four years’ episcopate, and withdrew to the convent of Kaisum (near Samosata), while the more lenient Habhibh succeeded him as Bishop of Edessa. Shortly afterwards he accepted the invitation of the monks of Eusebhona (in the Diocese of Antioch) to reside at their convent, and there he commented for eleven years on the Sacred Scriptures in the Greek text, doing his utmost to promote the study of the Greek tongue. Owing to the opposition which he met on the part of some of the monks who did not like the Greeks, he betook himself to the great convent of Tell-‘Adda (the modern Tell-‘Addi), where, for nine years more, he worked at his revision of the Old Testament. Upon Habhibh’s death he took possession again of the episcopal See of Edessa, resided in that city for four months, and then went to Tell-Adda to fetch his library and his pupils, but died there. James of Edessa was a Monophysite, as is proved by the prominent part he took in the synod which the Jacobite patriarch Julian convened in 706, and by one of his letters in which he speaks of the orthodox Fathers of Chalcedon as “the Chalcedonian heretics”. In the literature of his country he holds much the same place as St. Jerome does among the Latins (Wright). For his time, his erudition was extensive. He was not only familiar with Greek and with older Syriac writers, but he also had some knowledge of Hebrew, and willingly availed himself of the aid of Jewish scholars, whose views he often records. His writings, which are not all extant, were very varied and numerous. Among them may be noticed first, his important revision of the Old Testament.

The ancient Roman road connecting between Antioch and Qinnasrin, then called Chalcis. Photo by Bernard Gagnon.

This work was essentially Massoretic. James divided the Sacred Books into chapters, prefixing to each chapter a summary of its contents. He supplied the text with numerous marginal notes, of which one part gives readings from the Greek and the Syrian versions at his disposal, and the other part indicates the exact pronunciation of the words of the text. Some of the notes contain extracts from Severus of Antioch; while, at times, glosses are inserted in the text itself. Unfortunately, only portions of this revision have come down to us. These are: practically the whole Pentateuch and the Book of Daniel, preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris (Syric. nos. 26, 27); the two Books of Samuel with the beginning of Kings, and the prophecy of Isaias, found in the British Museum (Add. 14429, 14441). The other principal writings of James of Edessa on Biblical topics are: (1) his unfinished “Hexameron”, or work on the six days of creation, which is divided into seven treatises, and which opens with a dialogue between the author and Constantine, one of his disciples. James’s “Hexaemeron” is preserved in two MSS., one of which is found in Leyden, and the other in Lyons; (2) commendaries and scholia on the Sacred Writings of both Testments, which are cited by later authors such as Dionysius bar-Salibi, Bar-Hebraeus, and Severus. Some of his scholia have been published in the Roman edition of the works of St. Ephraem, and, at different times, by Phillips, Wright, Schröter, and Nestle; (3) letters treating of questions relative to Holy Writ, and mostly yet unpublished. As a liturgical author, James of Edessa drew up an anaphora, or liturgy, revised the Liturgy of St. James, wrote the celebrated “Book of Treasures”, composed orders of baptism, of the blessing of water on the eve of the Epiphany, and of the celebration of matrimony, to which may be added his translation of Severus’s order of Baptism, etc. He is also the author of numerous canons; of important homilies, a few of which survive in MS; of a valuable “Chronicle” which he composed in 692, and of which a few leaves only are extant; of an “Enchiridion”, or tract on technical philosophical terms; of a translation of the “Homiliae Cathedrales”, written in Greek by Severus of Antioch; and of the “Octoechus” by the same author; of a biography of James of Sarugh, of a translation from the Greek of the apocryphal “History of the Rechabites”, of a Syriac grammer, a few fragments of which are extant in Oxford and London, and in which he advocated and illustrated a novel system of indicating the vocalic element not found in the Syrian alphabet; and, finally, of an extensive correspondence with a large number of persons throughout Syria.

J. S. ASSEMANI, Bibliotheca Orientalis, I (Rome, 1719), II, (Rome 1721); MAI. Script. Vet. Nova collectio (Rome, 1825-38); CERIANI, Monumenta sacra et profana (Milan 1863); BALL, in Dict. Christ. Biog., s. v. Jacobus Edessenus; NESTLE, Syrische Grammatik mit Litteratur (Berlin, 1888); MERX, Historia artis grammatiae apud Syros (Leipzig, 1889); WRIGHT, Catalogue of the Syriac MSS. in the British Museum (London, 1870—); IDEM, A Short History of History of Syriac Literature (London, 1894): BROCKEL-MANN, Syriche Grammatik mit Litteratur (Berlin, 1899), DUVAL, Grammaire Syriaque (Paris, 1881); IDEM, Litterature Syriaque (3rd ed., Paris, 1907).

FRANCIS E. GIGOT (Catholic Encyclopedia)


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