Mar Jacob of Edessa (d. 708)

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Mar Jacob of Edessa
(d. 708)

A man unique in the extent of his knowledge and chief among the doctors of the church, Jacob had a brilliant mind, critical temperament, sharp wit and sound judgment. He was a grammarian, a man of letters, a poet, a translator, an historian, a commentator, a legislator and a philosopher-theologian. He was prominent in each one of the sciences which he had acquired, showing great capability and skill in writing. In the earlier periods he had no equal, and among the scholars of later periods, his extensive knowledge was rivalled only by that of Bar Hebraeus. By his vocalization of the Books of the two Testaments, he preserved the Holy Bible from distortion and misspelling; his revision of translations of some works of the doctors of the church, show that he was highly proficient in philology. His philosophical and theological books prove that he was the most distinguished and the finest scholar of his time; his interesting letters contain knowledge and wisdom; his legal opinions and juristic ideas prove that he had a sound mind, a guiltless heart and perceptive individual judgment. Consequently he shows himself judge of creative as well as traditional knowledge within both of which lies the final decision. This is due to the fact that he used opinions of the Christian authorities and blended them with his own intelligent opinions. Finally his ritual books leave no doubt that he is the greatest doctor of the church and the bearer of the banner of its glory. His books are the end beyond which there is no further quest for a researcher. It is no surprise that he is considered unequaled in all the East and the most prominent of all the Syrian scholars in the ancient world as well as in the Middle Ages.

Jacob was born at the village of Ayndiba in the province of Antioch, most probably about 633. The name of his father is thought to be Isaac. Under Father Cyriacus, the periodeutes (visiting cleric) of his province he studied the principles of the sciences, the books of the two Testaments and the books of the doctors of the church. Then he went to the Monastery of Qinnesrin where he became a monk and studied the literature of the Greek language under Severus Sabukht. Together with his companion Athanasius of Balad, who was older than he, he completed his studies and became well-versed in philology, philosophy and theology. Also he became well-trained in the ascetic and virtuous life. Then he journeyed to Alexandria to penetrate more deeply into the minutiae and incomprehensibilities of philosophy. He returned to al-Sham, became a monastic at Edessa and studied Hebrew. At Edessa, he achieved wide fame. He was sought by scholars and lovers of learning, who corresponded with him about problems which he competently answered. In 672 he was ordained a deacon and then a priest. In 684, he was chosen and was ordained by his friend Athanasius II, a metropolitan of Edessa, from which he received his generic name. He remained in Edessa four years, during which he became very strict with the monks and clergy concerning the observation of laws that had been neglected. He expelled those who disobeyed him. In the meantime, the patriarch John III and the bishops advised him to temporize and treat the clergy as tolerantly as conditions would permit. This suggestion made him more furious and, thereupon, he openly burned a copy of the neglected canonical rules, resigned his post and left the diocese, taking with him his pupils Daniel and Constantine to the Monastery of St. Jacob in Kaysum. He wrote two treatises, or two poems, in one of which he criticized one of the pastors; in the second he rebuked those who violate the canonical rules.360 After a short period, he was appointed a teacher of the Greek language at the Monastery of Eusebuna in the province of Antioch, where he remained for eleven years, revitalizing the study of this language. He also commented on the Holy Scriptures according to the Greek version. And when some of the monks who hated the Greeks showed disagreement, he left for the Monastery of Talada accompanied by seven pupils. He remained at Talada about nine years, devoting his time to the revision of the translation of the Old Testament. The Book of Kings which he had translated in 705 is preserved at the library of Paris.361 When at the end of 707, Metropolitan Habib, who was ordained in place of Mar Jacob, passed away, the congregation of Edessa requested Jacob to return to them, recognizing his excellence. He returned to Edessa at the end of January, 708. Four months later he went to the Monastery of Talada to collect his books, and he died on the fifth of June, which is also the day of his commemoration. He was nicknamed “the man who preferred toil” or “the militant” as well as “the translator of books.”
Jacob was zealous and saintly high-minded. He was also hot-tempered, of great determination and no leniency; thus, he was unable to administer the affairs of his congregation amicably. In this regard he shares similar characteristics with the very learned Gregory Nazianzen. Nevertheless, his resignation provided him the opportunity to spend the ripest years of his life in the service of knowledge. Therefore, he benefited the Church of God in ways he would have been unable to had he remained in his diocese.
Following is a list of his writings in the Syriac language:
1) Revision of the Pshitto translation of the Old Testament which is, to the Syrians, the first legal work of vocalizing the Holy Bible. Jacob divided the Holy Scriptures into chapters with a preface containing a short summary of the content of each one of them. He also wrote numerous commentaries and marginal notes showing the differences between the Greek and Syriac translations, or explaining the pronunciation of the vocalized words. Of this revision, the Pentateuch, I Samuel, II Samuel and the two prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel have come down to us, but they are slightly wanting. As to the rest of the books of the Holy Bible, we have only portions of them. The Orientalists were able to publish whatever they could find of the annotations of this book in the Catena Patrum of Severus the Monk,362 or in the annotations of other commentators.
2) The Book of Kings which he vocalized in 705 according to the two Greek and Syriac translations.

3) The book of vocalizing the terms of the Old and New Testaments is considered one of his most magnificent works. This book is a significant thick volume, containing the text of verses which required the vocalization of proper names and peculiar phrases. These he perfectly vocalized, appending to them the vocalized writings of ancient Christian leading authorities like Basilius, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and Severus of Antioch. This work became a model for other scholars.363
4) A commentary on the Book of Genesis and the Four Books which follow it, together with other books of the Old Testament. The title of this book is Scholia, as mentioned by the Catena Patrum of Severus. The library of the British Museum contains chapters of the Books of Genesis, Exodus and the four Books of Kings from this Scholia. 364 There is also part of this Scholia at our library in Hims and at the Vatican library. Part of this Scholia was published by Dr. Phillips in 1864.
5) A treatise on theology mentioned by Bar Hebraeus in his Hudoyo,365 and also cited by Moses bar Kipha in his two books Personal Authority and The Creation of Angels chapter 48, which I think is no other than the eighth treatise titled The Divinity and Incarnation of his book The Six Days.366
6) A treatise on The First Cause, the Creator, the Eternal and Almighty God, the Preserver of all created beings. This treatise was mentioned by George, bishop of the Arabs. This treatise has been lost.367
7) A treatise on The Six Days which he wrote at the end of his life at the suggestion of his pupil Constantine, metropolitan of Aleppo, and later of Edessa. In this treatise he discussed the creation of beings (seven chapters), following the method of Basilius and other Fathers who wrote on this subject. This treatise contains interesting physical subjects which indicate the competence of the author in treating diverse sciences and show he is completely at home with eloquent composition contrary to the opinion of contemporary writers. This treatise comprises 356 pages. It was probably written after the author finished his treatise on the First Cause, both of which would form a theological encyclopedia. Death came to him when he had almost finished this treatise; its completion was left to his friend George, bishop of the Arabs who added ten pages to it. This treatise was published by Chabot and Wacheldt, using a manuscript in Lyons transcribed in 839.368 This manuscript has two old copies, one of which was made in 822 for Theodosius, metropolitan of Edessa. It belonged first to the Monastery of Mar Matta and was later possessed by the Chaldean library at Amid, from whence it was moved to the Chaldean patriarchal residency in Mosul.369 The second one is at Leiden, and was transcribed in 1183.370
8) Questions and replies on the essence of Christianity, followed by examples derived from some Biblical passages concerning the training of pupils.371
9) Prose homilies on the sacrifice in the Holy Eucharist, against the use of unleavened bread, against an Armenian denomination which believed in two natures in Christ, against those who violate the canons of the Church and on the consecration of the Chrism.372 He has also a treatise on the rapture of the Apostle Paul to the third heaven.373
10) A short commentary in two pages on the celebration of the Eucharist, which he wrote for George the stylite ascetic in Saruj.374
11) A treatise on the reason the monks wear wool.375
12) The organization of the regular weekday service book known as the Ishhim.376
13) The organization of the church service books (fanqiths) for Sundays and for festivals. Regarding church rituals his excellent services surpassed those composed by all of the church Fathers all over the countries of the Syrians except in the lands of the East, as has been previously mentioned.377

14) The Book of Treasures, which contains the orders of Baptism and the solemnization of Matrimony (including the legal contract of marriage and the solemnization of the marriage of widowed spouses), and the consecration of 378 water on the Epiphany.378
15) The orders of funerals of priests, bishops, laymen, laywomen and children.379
16) Touching and passionate madrashes to be chanted on the eve of Good Friday (based on the melody of “Rise Paul,”), others to be chanted on the eve of Monday of Passion Week and metrical lines specifically for Passion Week.380
17) A revision of the liturgy of St. James, according to the Greek version.381
18) A liturgy beginning thus, “O Lord the Father of all and the Host of Hosts,” in sixteen pages. It was translated and published by Renaudot.382 Also a very lengthy Husoyo on the congregation of the Jews and on the Church beginning thus, “Blessed art thou, Cluster of the grapes of life.”383
19) A calendar of feasts for the cycle of the year, which has been ascribed to him in many copies of manuscripts.
20) A translation of the homilies of Severus of Antioch into Syriac. This translation was preceded by the translation of the same homilies made by Paul, metropolitan of Callinicus. Jacob completed his translation in 701. According to the complete copy dated 708, these homilies numbered one hundred and twenty-five homilies. These are the best of his translations.384
21) Revision of the hymns of Severus of Antioch, which had been translated by the abbot Paul. The oldest copy of this translation which has come down to us was probably transcribed in his own handwriting and was completed in 675.
22) In his book Semhe (book 5, chapter 4, of the first treatise), Bar Hebraeus stated that “The Edessan (Jacob of Edessa) revised the poems of Gregory the Theologian, which have already been translated by the formerly mentioned Paul.” However, some Orientalist doubt whether Jacob undertook the revision of these poems.
23) Translation of Aristotle’s Categories into Syriac; the Isagoge followed by the Categories and the five predicates of the Isagoge. This translation comprises 128 pages.385
24) A translation into Syriac of the Chronicles of Eusebius of Caesaria at the end of the seventh century, as is related by Michael the Great.386
25) A translation of the books of the second canons ascribed to Clement of Rome, the first of which is the apocryphal book of the Covenant of Our Lord written in the fifth century.
26) A translation of the canons of the first council of Carthage in the time of St. Cyprian, and the canons of the three Ecumenical Councils in 687.387
27) A translation of the apocryphal history of the children of Jehonadab (the Rechabites) of Jewish origin. It was translated from the Greek and published by Nau.388
28) The book of Enchiridon (Compendium) which is a collection of scientific and philosophical phrases. In this book the author particularly explains the terms employed by the theologians such as essence, hypostasis, nature, person and individual.389
29) A book of history on the same method of the Chronicle by Eusebius, to which he added information until 692. In this history he included historical canons prefixed by chapters in which he revised the Chronicle of Eusebius and corrected his mistakes in the computation of years. This history, which is a short one, was completed by an anonymous historian until the year 710.390 Most of this history has been lost, except for forty-six pages which were translated into Latin and published by Brooks in 1903.

30) A grammar of the Syriac language (the language of Mesopotamia) of which only fragments have come down to us and have been published.391 On the basis of this book, Eastern and Western grammarians wrote their grammars. Also they considered this the first book written on the grammar of this language. Jacob also discussed several grammatical questions in his letters.
31) His numerous canons, which cover forty pages in the ancient copy which we possess, transcribed in 1204.392 Some of these canons have been abridged from the original, which covers about seventy pages. These canons are:
l) canons addressed to Thomas the recluse ascetic of Tal Rumnin on the Consecration of the Chalice;
2) canons on whether the holy Chalice should be left from day to day without drinking its contents;
3) canons on the Order of Baptism;
4) canons on the order of the Consecration of Water;
5) canons in the form of replies to twenty-seven questions asked by John the Stylite of Atharib. These canons are prefixed by a four-page letter from Jacob to John;
6) canons in the form of replies to seventeen questions asked by John;
7) canons in the form of replies to three questions asked by Ibrahim the recluse ascetic. They cover two pages;393
8) canons in the form of replies to three questions asked by Thomas the recluse ascetic;
9) canons addressed to Addai, the priest from the vicinity of Mardin, in reply to fifty-one questions, of which two pages are wanting. The number of these questions contained in the ancient and lengthy copy of the Zafaran’s Monastery, which is undoubtedly the original copy on which more recent copies are based, is seventy-three;
10) thirty-one canons which he issued himself;
11) canons in the form of replies to seven questions addressed to him by the priest Addai, which brings the number of questions to one hundred and eleven;
12) canons in the form of replies to questions asked by the priest Thomas of which one question and its reply were found in this copy. The canons in the form of replies from number ten to twelve inclusive, covering about nine pages. The manuscript of Basekhra contains twenty-three canons issued by Mar Jacob, but the author has abridged these canons and questions.
The total number of the canons of this doctor is one hundred and sixty-six from which the church chose what it desired and added them to the book of the Hudoyo.

32) When Jacob of Edessa attained the quintessence of knowledge, he was sought by distinguished learned clergy and laymen, who brought to him questions and problems to solve. He dictated his letters on these questions and problems with the result that most of his knowledge came to be recorded in the form of letters. We do not set here the exact number of his letters, although we may obviously judge that they were numerous. In London British Museum we found a manuscript containing twenty-three of these letters in 138 pages. We also read in the collection of Basibrina Canons eleven letters in thirty large size pages and written in fine script.394 We have a photographic copy of most of the contents of the British Museum’s manuscript. However, a small portion of these letters has been published; five letters were published by Revue de l’Orient Chretien. The total which we were able to obtain is forty-six letters. They are as follows with their contents:
1) a letter to George bishop of Saruj, on Syriac orthography, in which Jacob asked the copyists to be accurate in their copying and to be exact in the vocalization of terms and their diacritical points. Also he mentioned the excellence of the skill of orthography and its
importance.395 This letter was published by Phillips and then by Martin in 1869;396
2) a letter on the diacritical points which should be placed over or beneath the words to signify their exact meaning and to distinguish between the synonyms. He divided this letter into five chapters. Both of these letters (this letter and the preceding one) comprise six pages;397
3) a letter addressed to Paul, the presbyter of Antioch on the Syriac alphabet and the improvement of Syriac writing;
4) a lengthy letter to the ascetic priest Thomas who became a worshipping recluse at Tal Rumnin, on the order of celebrating the Eucharist (in six large size pages);398
5) a letter to the same Paul on whether we should leave the holy Chalice from day to day without drinking its contents;
6) a three-page letter to the priest Addai on the Order of Baptism;
7) a letter to the deacon Bar Hadhbshabba from the Monastery of Talitha on the worshipping of the Christians towards the east;399
8) a letter to the same against the Council of Chalcedon. He wrote this letter when he was still a deacon;400
9) a letter to his friend, the dignitary Eustathius of Dara also named Cyrus which means master in Greek, in reply to his question: “Which path we should follow, the heavenly or the earthly?”;
10) a second letter to Eustathius apologizing for not being able to accept his invitation to go to Dara. He wrote this letter at forty-two years of age when he was still a deacon;
11-12) a third and a fourth letter to the same, expounding the contents of his metrical discourse which will be mentioned later;
13) a fifth letter to the same begins by discussing some of the letters of the Greek alphabet;
14) a sixth letter in which he began by discussing the Jebeonites who tricked Joshua bar Nun for fear of the children of Israel;401
15) a seventh letter to the same in which he praised the lands of the East, including Dara. In fact, he meant to praise his correspondent and friend Eustathius by alluding to him through knowledge and spiritual wisdom, concluding that he was indispensable;
16) a letter to the priest Ibrahim on the wine and vine husbandry into which he incorporated a very high spiritual meaning;
17) a second letter to the priest Ibrahim the ascetic recluse at Kafr Uzil on diverse matters in one and a half pages;402

18) twenty-two letters to the stylite ascetic Priest John of Atharib, one of the best learned men, the first of which states, “A recent author and an intruder on the tables of literature, has fabricated two poems on the Six Days and ascribed them to Mar Jacob of Saruj. One of these poems is in the seven-syllabic meter, whereas Jacob of Saruj composed poetry only in the twelve-syllabic meter. The second poem is in the twelve-syllabic meter, but the stamp of both poems is remote from the eloquence of Jacob of Saruj let alone his meaning;”
19) a second letter which he opened by stating, “I do not know what to say regarding what you have written to me. I find myself between two problems: firstly, I do not know how to speak, and secondly, you have decided to choose for yourself the medical profession while you have no instruments nor knowledge of mixing of liquids. Furthermore, your dispensary is empty of drugs and medicines;”
20) a third letter to the same in which he mentioned Noah the Righteous and the book Glaphyra by Cyril of Alexandria;
21) a fourth letter to the same in which he states that he neither knows who established the festival of the Finding of the Cross which occurs on the fourteenth of September nor the time and the reason for this festival. He continues that he has not found such information in a history or any book; all that he knew was that the Church has from olden time observed this festival according to the ancient tradition;403
22) a fifth letter on the genealogy of the Lord Christ in which he states, “I know that we have stories made up by zealous men without Biblical testimonies, stating that the holy Virgin Mary is the daughter of Hanna (Joanna) and the righteous Jehoiakin the son of Phantir, who was the brother of Malke the son of Yani, and that he was living in Galilee in the same spot on which the city of Tiberias was built.” He concludes by mentioning the prophecy of Daniel concerning Christ;
23) a sixth letter to the same on the history of the world, which according to some writers, begins at the year 5180 B.C., but according to Eusebius, at 4888 B.C. In this letter he alluded to the historians Africanus, Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria of whom we found no information in any other source, Hippolites, Metrodores, Eunixanus the Alexandrian monk and Andronicus. He also mentioned the reason he considered the birth of Christ to have taken place in the year 309
of the Greeks whereas Eusebius fixed the date at 312 of the Greeks, telling how Severus Sabukht followed Eusebius in this regard and how he corrected Eusebius;

24) a seventh letter stating that Clement of Rome, the disciple of the Apostle Peter, mentioned in the eighth Diatexis that the books of Solomon the Sage (Ecclesiastes) are five, but he did not list them, and that the church authorities mentioned only three books by Solomon. Further, he mentioned why the Books of Ecclesiastes, Bar Sirach, Tobit, Esther, Judith and the three Books of the Maccabees, are not considered canonical books, and that the Book of Wisdom, or Ecclesiastes as it is called by the Greeks, is not the writing of Solomon;
25) an eighth letter holding that pious Christians, who had erred or sinned do benefit from the prayers, offerings and alms offered on their behalf, unlike the hypocrites, on whose behalf, none of these things should be offered;404
26) a ninth letter on whether the life of man is limited and that man dies at a time chosen by God;405
27) a tenth letter claiming that man neither dies before his time nor without the order and permission of God his creator and ruler. He supported this point by the testimonies of Christian authorities and the philosophers;
28) an eleventh letter ruling that the secret words are not to be uttered before every one;
29) a twelfth letter on the children who receive Baptism;406
30) a thirteenth letter on God’s care of His created beings and the refutation of the doctrine of Fate and Predestination;
31) a fourteenth letter on the observers of the Sabbath and their female leader Camso in Edessa, who had become their bishop (they were mentioned by St. Ephraim); on the heretical Quqaye; on Mar Phalut, bishop of Edessa; on the reason God told Abraham that “thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs and that they shall be afflicted for four hundred years;”407 the reason Abraham left his homeland Ur of the Chaldees; on whether it is true, as it is said, that in the time preceding Moses there was no book or Bible; on who was the Ethiopian woman in whose behalf Miriam and Aaron spoke;408 on the pride of Satan and the Lord’s saying to him concerning Job, “Behold, he is in thy hand, but save his life;”409 on the Behemoth mentioned in the Book of Job;410 on which Zachariah was slain between the temple and the altar;411 on whether the son of the widow of Zarepath was the prophet Jonah bar Amittai;412 on whether Tiglath-Pileser, King of the Assyrians,

was the King of Nineveh (in the time of Jonah), and which is more correct: “Nineveh shall be overthrown in forty days” or “in three days;”413 on what is the wild gourd which was picked by one of the sons of the prophets;414 On the Prophet Obediah, on the Tabernacle, on Zeruiah the mother of Joab, and Abigail the mother of Amasa; that not all of the Psalms are the composition of David, and whether it is true that the Jews were called Hebrews after Eber; what are the three thousand proverbs ascribed to Solomon, the sixty valiant men who guarded his chamber, and on Saul and the ten righteous men in Sodom;
32) a fifteenth letter in reply to eighteen Biblical problems mainly from the Old Testament. He mentioned in this letter tales ascribed to Epiphanius of Cyprus;
33) a sixteenth letter in reply to thirteen problems such as that the composer of the quqaye was Simon, the potter of Gishir, and not Jacob of Saruj or another person, that the closet in which our Lord ate the Passover belonged to Lazarus not Nicodemus, that the thorn which tormented the Apostle Paul was a gangrenous sore in his heel, that Philip who converted the Ethiopian eunuch and the people of Samaria to Christianity was Philip the Deacon not the Apostle Philip, that Kush is the country of Yemen not Abyssinia. They also included replies to problems such as: who were the Marys who witnessed the crucifixion, on Peter the Fuller and Timothy of Alexandria nicknamed the “Weasel,” on the Doctors of the Church whose names are Isaac, that the numbers of the Magians was twelve, on the reason the Jews worship facing the South, on the bones which Ezekiel saw in the wilderness, on the difference between the mind and the soul, on the prayer for the dead and on the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed “to judge the quick and the dead!”415
34-38) five letter beginning from the seventeenth to the twenty-first on solving Biblical problems (we do not know the subject of the twentieth letter). The twenty-first letter in which the author mentions Daniel, Joachim and Susanna is wanting;
39) a twenty-second letter in four pages on the consecration of the Chrism in Maunday Thursday, and on the difference between the Chrism and the Unction. It begins thus: “Verily I say unto thee;”416
40) a letter to the deacon George regarding the exposition of the twenty-fifth madrash on the Nativity of Christ as well as a madrash on
refutation of critics. Both of these madrashes are the composition of St. Ephraim;
41) a letter to Moses of Tur Abdin, who is the chronicler Moses of Inhil, mentioned by Bar Salibi at the beginning of his commentary on the Gospels;
42) a letter to Jacob the stylite on canonical questions;
43) a letter to Simon the stylite;
44) a letter to a man named Stephen;
45) a letter to Thomas the sculptor on the solution of problems sent to a certain Nestorian;
46) a letter to Lazarus the Ascetic.417

33) Except the formerly mentioned madrashes, what has come down to us from the poetry of Jacob of Edessa, is a metrical discourse in the dodecasyllabic meter, which he composed while still a deacon, for Cyrius or Eustathius of Dara, and heptasyllabic metrical discourses, unaddressed and imperfect in which he discussed God, nature and mind. It begins thus, “God creates by His power, but nature yields forth what it has been ordered to do. The mind looks to nature and it also generates according to its capability.” Then he turns to censure the mind by saying, “Were not the natures of created beings enough for thy investigation that thou has even ventured to search for thy creator?” To him, Baumstark ascribed four metrical discourses on God, nature and wisdom which have also been ascribed by some manuscript to Jacob of Saruj, on the grounds that they resemble the poetry of Jacob of Edessa more.
34) Replies to twenty-eight theological questions as well as commentaries on the Bible suggested by his disciple Constantine.420
35) An explanation of the degrees of spiritual relationship which forbid marriage.421
36) A fourteen page tract containing commentaries on Hebrew as well as other terms mentioned in the Books of the Prophets according to the version of the Septuagint by Jacob of Edessa. A copy of this tract is at our library.422
To him is also ascribed a letter on the acts of Christ followed by the lives of the Doctors (of the church), which in fact, is not his.
Anton Baumstark said,
The Bible has found in Jacob of Edessa the greatest theologian in the Syriac language as evidenced by the contents of his diverse writings. The different types of sciences (such as grammar, philosophy and natural sciences contained in his writings, which reached the maximum of precision and quality), as well as this diverse treatise appears in the opportunity to decide that, in these fields, the Syrians were more efficient than the Westerners.424
Furthermore, for his creative ability, originality and significance of his
philological writings concerning the Holy Scriptures, Baumstark likened him unto Hieronyrmus (Jerome) the translator of the Vulgate. He also thought that the correction of the Latin version of Eusebius’ Chronicle provided Jacob with a most significant document is arranged what is accepted of that Chronicle. A group of late Roman Catholic writers attempted to associate this great erudite with their faith; but, later most of them corrected their opinion.425