CPART: Wrestling with Biblical difficulties—perspectives from 1014 A.D.

10.14.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

CPART’s mission includes the preservation and dissemination of priceless ancient religious texts using digital technology. This week, 122 Syriac and Christian Arabic manuscripts dating from 1014 A.D. to the nineteenth century were published online for the first time (see the collection here). These manuscripts are from the library of St. Thomas Syrian Catholic church in Mosul, Iraq. We thank Father Pius Alfaz, the church’s librarian, who took the initiative to image this important collection of manuscripts, and to Professor Herman Teule of the University of Nijmegen, who helped coordinate the project.

Like CPART’s other digital humanities projects, this one seek to conserve incredible documents and to facilitate access to scholarly and lay communities worldwide. The following guest post is from Dr. Jonathan Loopstra of Capital University, who studies manuscripts like these to investigate the history and theology of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Christian communities.—Kristian Heal, CPART director

What if one could peel back a thousand years of history and see for oneself how Syriac-speaking students would have studied the Bible using something akin to a codex of “crib-sheets”? It is now possible to peruse online one such learning book found in a manuscript from the Mar Toma Church in Mosul. Written in 1014 in the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs, ((Image 215.)) also known as Dayr ibn Jājī, Mosul MS 16 is the oldest manuscript in the trove of 122 digital reproductions recently released by Brigham Young University. ((STC 16/41. For information about this Mosul, St. Thomas Church MS, see Leiden Peshiṭta Institute, List of Old Testament Peshiṭta Manuscripts (Leiden: Brill, 1961), 31. An extended discussion of this MS can be found in Jules Leroy, Les manuscrits syriaques à peintures conservés dans les bibliothèques d’Europe et d’Orient (Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1964), 1:219-24.)) A thousand years ago, this region of what is today Northern Syria and Southern Turkey was experiencing tremendous change, including rising tensions between Byzantine and West Syrian communities, and Mosul MS 16 is an excellent example of a type of innovative West-Syrian “reader” which, we believe, developed out of this dynamic environment. ((“This book was completed in the year of the Greeks 1325 (= 1014 CE), the 16th of the month of Ab” (Image 215). For more on this monastery, see J.B. Abbeloos and T.J. Lamy (eds. and trans.), Gregorii Barhebraei Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, (Louvain: Peeters, 1877), 1:407; J.B. Chabot (ed. and trans.), Chronique de Michel le Syrien (Paris: Éditions Ernest Leroux, 1924), 3:120; I. Barsoum, The Scattered Pearls: A History of Syriac Literature and Sciences, trans. M. Moosa (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2003), 561.))


Although known to Western scholars as the Syriac “Masora,” the original title given to Mosul MS 16 and similar manuscripts is “a booklet of (vocalized) words and readings.” (Image 5). In the upper margin of this folio, a later hand has attributed this collection to Jacob of Edessa, and a nineteenth-century scribe afterwards incorporated this gloss into the title of Borgia syr. MS 119 (fol. 1r, 4) when he made this copy of Mosul MS 16. For more on the Syriac “Masora,” see A. Juckel, “Masora,” GEDSH, 276-279. Also, J. Loopstra, An East Syrian Manuscript of the Syriac “Masora” Dated to 899 CE. Volume 2: Introduction, List of Sample Texts, and Indices to Marginal Notes in British Library, Add. MS 12138 (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2014).)) As this title hints, most of the manuscript consists of only vocalized and diacritically-marked individual “words” or “phrases.” Consequently, Mosul MS 16 brings together, in a single codex, sample texts illustrating the proper reading of selections from three major works: the Peshiṭta Bible, the Harklean New Testament, and the writings of the so-called “Orthodox Fathers.” In addition, a series of smaller grammatical and lexicographical tracts are included towards the back of this manuscript, including well-known tracts by Jacob of Edessa, Thomas the Deacon, Epiphanius, and others. Why exactly certain “sample texts” were selected and others were not, is still unclear; although, it appears that many of these readings may have reflected exegetical, philological, or phonological difficulties.

Most of these “masoretic” manuscripts can be connected with places and persons associated with the brief blossoming of philological studies among the West Syrians in the region of Melitene between the tenth and eleventh centuries after the Byzantine reconquest, and Mosul MS 16 is no exception. ((G. Dagron, “Minorités ethniques et religieuses dans l’Orient byzantin à la fin du Xe au XIe siècle: l’immigration syrienne” T&MByz 6 (1976): 177-216.)) In fact, two of the sixteen surviving masoretic manuscripts were written in the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs within a span of ten years: Mosul MS 16 (1014) and Dam. Syr. MS 7/16 (1004). ((Unfortunately this manuscript is not yet digitized. See, Dolabani, et al., “Catalogue des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque du Patriarcat Syrien Orthodoxe à Ḥomṣ,” ParOr 19 (1994), 592. Photocopies of this earlier Damascus manuscript were taken by the University of Chicago in the Patriarchate in 1929 and brought back to the United States, but their whereabouts are presently unknown. J. Dean, “The Old Syriac Calendar” JAOS 54.2 (1934): 129-142; J. Clemons, “A Checklist of Syriac MSS in the United States and Canada (continued)” OCP 32 (1966): 509.))

The West-Syrian patriarch mentioned in the colophon, Yuḥannon VII bar ʿAbdun (1004-1030), followed the quite active tenure of his predecessor Athanasius V (987-1002/3) and was fêted by Bar ʿEbroyo for his steadfastness during the persecution by the Byzantines in 1029. ((Abbeloos and Lamy, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, 1:421-432.)) Interestingly, the colophon also mentions by name Zacharias the Coptic Pope of Alexandria, (1004-1032), ((B. Evetts (trans.), The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighboring Countries attributed to Abu Salih the Armenian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895), 290.)) as well as a certain Mar Isaac, Bishop of ʿArqa, and another Isaac, the head of the Monastery of ʿArqa. It is worth noting that Patriarch Yuḥannon and Bishop Isaac are mentioned together in this colophon, for Bar ʿEbroyo in his Chronicle singles out a certain Bishop Isaac of ʿArqa as one of three church leaders who converted to Chalcedonianism under torture and thus “betrayed” (ܟܦܪ) Patriarch Yuḥannon. ((Abbeloos and Lamy, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, 1:429.)) In Mosul MS 16, it would appear that we have both patriarch and bishop mentioned fifteen years before the persecution and subsequent fallout between them.

Unique Features

Although Mosul MS 16 includes the three main collections of sample texts and shorter tracts common to most manuscripts of the West-Syrian “Masora,” it also has many features that make it an exemplary, if not unique, sample of this genre of “reader.” For instance, several of the tracts in Mosul MS 16 are rarely found in other masoretic texts. In particular, the Mosul manuscript contains a short collection of sample texts from the Revelation of John, ((Image 198.)) found elsewhere only in St. Mark’s Church MS 42, ((A manuscript also digitized by BYU (SMC 1-5).)) and another on the “Composition of Humankind,” ((Image 212.)) occurring also in Vat. sir. MS 152. ((Vat. sir. MS 152, fol. 204v.)) Other noteworthy texts particular to Mosul MS 16 include a list of the names of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (the namesakes of the monastery) ((Image 198.)), a tract on the “Ten Categories of Aristotle,” ((Image 205. Compare with Daniel King, The Earliest Syriac Translation of Aristotle’s Categories: Text, Translation, and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 96 ff.)) and another attributed to Cyril. ((Image 212.))

In addition to the inclusion of these small tracts, Mosul MS 16 also stands out for its extraordinary number of notes and marginal glosses. ((The only other masoretic manuscript that may rival Mosul MS 16 in number of exegetical glosses is the much later Lund, Medeltidshandskrift MS 58 (1204-5 CE), available online at the Lund University library website.)) Whereas most Syriac “Masora” compilations have little in the way of introductions for each biblical book, Mosul MS 16 includes at times extensive observations on the author and historical context; often these remarks are taken directly from the so-called “Lives of the Prophets” attributed to Epiphanius. ((See, for example, the introduction to Obadiah (Image 80). Compare with S. Brock, “The Lives of the Prophets in Syriac: some soundings,” in Biblical Traditions in Transmission, eds. C. Hempel and J.M. Lieu (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 27.)) These introductions and extended marginal glosses include references to many different interpreters, including Ephrem ((Image 33.)) and Jacob of Edessa. ((Image 38.)) Although most of these glosses are unique to Mosul MS 16, the notes attributed to specific punctuators such as “Ṭubono,” “Sobo,” and the “Qarqphoyē” monks are generally identical to those in other masoretic compilations. ((E.g., Acts 1:6 (Image 120). Also in Vat. sir. MS 152, Paris syr. MS 64, BL Add. MS 7183, BL Add. MS 12178, and Barb. sir. MS 118. Similarly, the Mosul manuscript contains notes attributed to Philoxenus in multiple masoretic texts: Image 128, Image 132.)) However, there is one conspicuous omission: for some reason Mosul MS 16 has curiously left out glosses attributed to a certain punctuator known as “Teodosi,” a punctuator of some importance to the compilers of other masoretic texts. ((See note in Dayr al-Suryān Syr. MS 14, fol. 148r. For an overview of all these punctuators, see J. Loopstra, “Patristic Selections in the “Masoretic” Handbooks of the Qarqaptā Tradition” (PhD diss., The Catholic University of America, 2009), 312-320.))

Scholars such as Jules Leroy have singled out this Mosul manuscript for another unique feature: its notable artistry. ((Leroy, Peintures, 1:219-224; 236-318; in Album, 2:49, 50, 55.)) Not only does Mosul MS 16 contain a combination of slender Greek vowels and robust rubricated points, it also includes several remarkable images. Two of these miniatures feature Moses and Cyril, ((Image 3.)) and a third is a colorful recreation of Ezekiel’s vision (complete with cherubim, the four creatures, and Christ enthroned in the middle). ((Image 94.)) These figures are beautifully decorated in blue, purple, burgundy, gold, and brown. Leroy writes:

It is rather strange to find illustrations such as those in the Mosul manuscript … in books not meant for public reading, but for private study [Orig.: Il est assez étrange de trouver de telles peintures, comme dans le manuscrit de Mossoul . . . dans des livres destinés non à la lecture au choeur, mais à l’étude privée]. ((Leroy, Peintures, 1:237.))

Perhaps it is better to see these illustrations in Mosul MS 16 as not so much something meant for private study, but as a way of decorating and celebrating a manuscript designed to help preserve traditional ways of reading and interpreting texts that were of profound value for West-Syrian heritage and identity.

An Anniversary Release

Before this release by BYU, portions of Mosul MS 16 have been accessible to scholars through Borgia sir. MS 117, a copy prepared by a local scribe in 1868 for Europeans, and through a microfilm at the Leiden Peshiṭta Institute. ((Siehe P. Cersoy, “Les manuscrits orientaux de Monseigneur David, au Musée Borgia, de Rome” ZA 9 (1894): 381-3; W. Macomber, “New Finds of Syriac Manuscripts in the Middle East,” ZDMG 2, supp. 1.2, (1969): 478. Unfortunately, the Leiden microfilm contains only the Hebrew Bible portions.)) Unfortunately, both of these copies omit substantial portions of the original manuscript. Students of Syriac, therefore, owe a debt of gratitude to BYU for making the original text of Mosul MS 16 available at long last – especially upon the celebration of its millennium anniversary (1014-2014).


Dr. Jonathan Loopstra is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Through his teaching and research, Dr. Loopstra continues to shed light on the history and theology of various Christian communities in the Mediterranean and Middle East. His most recent monograph is An East Syrian Manuscript of the Syriac ‘Masora’ Dated to 899 CE (Gorgias Press, 2014), a two-volume introduction and reproduction of a ninth-century guide to the recitation of the Bible in Syriac. He is a frequent guest speaker in the Columbus area.