Saint Isaac the Syrian: Works

I am now the very happy owner of a copy of The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in 1984. It’s long been out of print and the price for a copy is now generally outrageously high. But several years of patience paid off, and I obtained a copy for a relative bargain. Even though I’ve read most of it before, now that I have my own copy I feel like sequestering myself for however long it takes to get through all of it.

Since my mind has been on St Isaac’s writings, I thought I’d take a post up with a quick bibliography of available editions of translations of the known, surviving works of Saint Isaac the Syrian, as much to straighten things out in my own head as to provide help for others seeking translations of his writings or the Syriac texts.

There are three known collections of discourses written by Saint Isaac. Only the First Series was translated from the original Syriac in ancient times into Western languages (first into Greek, and then other tertiary translations were made from the Greek), which led to a love of Saint Isaac’s writings throughout the Christian world from the late first millennium onward, most especially in monastic circles.

The First Series
This set of 77 discourses is currently available in a two-volume spiral-bound photocopied version from Holy Transfiguration Monastery. It is a photocopy of the homilies from their out-of-print The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian which I mentioned above. Most of the introductory material and the appendices and other material outside of the series of homilies themselves are not included. They include the table of contents, an Encomium for St Isaac written by Photios Kontoglou, and the subject and Scripture indices. I have heard of a future second edition to be produced by the monastery, but this remains unconfirmed. Although this translation is primarily from the Greek version of St Isaac’s writings, the translator referred continually throughout to the Syriac, providing notes where the Greek differs from the Syriac text, and translating the materials in the appendices all directly from Syriac. He indicates in the introduction that he also was able to consult with Professor Sebastian Brock during the translation process, in more than a token manner. It is truly not only the best, but indeed the only usable full translation of the First Series in English. Avoid the Wensinck translation–it is so poorly done as to be illiterate. The Syriac text was published by Paul Bedjan as Mar Isaacus Ninivita: de Perfectione Religiosa (Paris/Leipzig, 1909). The Greek text which was the basis for the HTM translation by D. Miller was established by himself through the use of microform copies of various manuscripts, and with reference to Bedjan’s Syriac text and others; there is currently no critical text of the Greek version of St Isaac’s writings.

The Second Series
The Second Series was never anciently translated, so was not known to Western Christians until just a few years ago. This series consists of 41 discourses, the third of which is actually comprised of four “centuries” (a work with 100 sections; in this case the Four Centuries include 100, 105, 100, 100 chapters respectively, ranging in length from a sentence to several pages). It was thought that the only manuscript was disastrously lost during the First World War, but Professor Sebastian Brock discovered an almost entirely complete manuscript in 1983 in Oxford. Thus this collection is lacking the very beginning of the First Discourse (though likely not too much), and there are lacunae elsewhere that a manuscript from another line of descent would be useful to have (all other partial surviving manuscripts appear to be copies of the lengthiest surviving one on which the text is based). Overall, however, it’s quite a good manuscript. Sebastian Brock has translated all but the Third Discourse (the Four Centuries). An English translation (and perhaps the Syriac; I haven’t seen this article yet) of Discourses One and Two were published in “St Isaac the Syrian: two unpublished texts” (Sobornost 19[1997].1: 7-33). This article may be purchased in electronic format from Sobornost. Brock’s translation of Discourses Four through Forty-One was published in the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium series, volume 555 (Scriptores Syri Tomus 225), which is available here and elsewhere. He published the corresponding Syriac text in volume 554, with a more detailed introduction on textual matters.

There are two translations currently available of the Four Centuries, though not in English. There is Dom André Louf’s Isaac le Syrien: Oevres Spirituelles – II: 41 Discourses récemments découverts published by the Abbaye de Bellefontaine, and available here and elsewhere. This is a French translation of the entire Second Series, with a very helpful introduction. A second translation of only the Four Centuries and several other selections from the Second Series is that into Italian by Paolo Bettiolo, Isacco di Ninive: Discorsi spirituali e altri opuscoli, available here. Bettiolo will also be publishing the Syriac text for the first three discourses of the Second Series in the CSCO series, hopefully soon, so that others may take a crack at translating them without having to resort to a photocopy of a manuscript as Dom Louf did.

Third Series
The Third Series, also unknown in the West until recently, is the shortest of the three collections, comprising 17 discourses, of which three are also found in the earlier collections, so it is essentially the source of 14 new discourses. The text and translation for this will apparently be published by Br Sabino Chialà, as our friend Sr Macrina relates from a talk he gave recently. On the Monastero di Bose site, however, I did find this listing for Br Chialà’s Isacco di Ninive: Discorsi ascetici: Terza collezione. The description states that this is his translation of the fourteen “new” discourses in the Third Series. As Sr Macrina notes, Sebastian Brock will be translating this Third Series into English, as well.

Br Sabino Chialà also mentions several other (unpublished?) discourses attributed to St Isaac which require further study. It has been the case in the past that various works of St Isaac were misattributed to others, and vice versa. Perhaps a few more stray discourses will appear, and other works, but not likely any larger collections, though it would certainly be a pleasant surprise to have more of those!

There are various books which contain numerous excerpts of St Isaac’s writings in English translation, of which I am familiar with three good ones which are all currently available and affordable. St Isaac of Nineveh: On Ascetical Life is part of the Popular Patristics Series of St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. This translation is by Mary Hansbury of the first six discourses in the First Series. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev included numerous quotations from both the First and Second Series in his The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian. And lastly, the indefatigable Sebastian Brock published a neat little bilingual Syriac-English volume of selections from the First and Second Series, entitled The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian. I’m sure there are any number of other such books which include selections of St Isaac’s writings, as well. These are good for a start.

From the depth of wisdom and godliness,
thou didst draw forth wisdom
springing up to eternal life.
Nurtured by this fountain
found in thy sacred writings,
O lofty-minded Isaac,
we taste of Christ God’s grace.

Megalynarion for St Isaac

8 Replies to “Saint Isaac the Syrian: Works”

  1. Great post. Had this been done before I started work on my dissertation, I had saved some time. Just a few minor additions.

    I’m not as big a fan of the Transfiguration Monastery translation as you are.. No it is good, but certainly for scholarly work the fact that it is translated from the greek text is a major problem. The greek translation goes back to a manipulated syriac text (called the west syrian text) where especially names of Isaac’s sources have been altered. Fathers deemed “unorthodox” to the West Syrian copyists are exchanged, so that quotations from Theodore of Mopsuestia are attributed to John Chrysostom for example. There are quite a few of these. While a find the foreword (that you quote in another post) quite offensive, the rest of the introductions and remarks are excellent, so if one want to study Isaac, the translation is a good investment. But I’d still use Wensinck, although it is a horrible horrible translation, but it is the only one that is made on the Syriac text. Appart from the Hansbury translation, and the little booklet by Brock, Brock has translated further parts from both the first part and from the centuries in two volumes named “The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and Spiritual life” and “Spirituality in the Syriac Tradition”. Neither contains substantial parts of the volume, but when you try to work with Wensinck, you have to appreciate what you get.

    Finally, there is a Finnish translation of everything that is available in English, in one huge volume called “Pyhä Iisak Niniveläinen”, translated from the Syriac by Serafim Seppälä.

    BTW, a critical edition of the greek text is on the way, made by Grigory Kessel. It should be out soon. I critical edition of the Syriac would be great though, for the same reasons. Bedjan’s text is not a critical edition, it is basically a “good” manuscript with some variants in the footnotes.

    Regarding the second series, the Syriac of the first two homilies have not been published. Brock’s article in hte Sobornost is the translation only. Bettiolo has been working on the Syriac edition of the centuries for over twenty years. Personally I doubt he will finish it. Hopefully he will hand over the work to Chialá or someone else.

    The third part i would still treat with some caution. I haven’t studied the Syriac at all, but based on Chialá’s italian translation I would have to say that I doubt that all of the homilies are genuine. At least two of them seem too different from Isaac’s usual style. I give the details on this in my disseration. Chialá thinks they are genuine (although he too had his doubts at some stage, his arguments for changing his mind did not convince me), and obviously he has worked much closer with these texts than I. But until the Syriac is available, I think we should be cautious.

    (My dissertation, called “Understanding Asceticism. Body and Society in the Asceticism of St Isaac of Nineveh” is finished (i Will defend it of friday), but I do not know when and where it will be published yet.)

  2. Thank you for your helpful comments, Patrik. You have my best wishes for your defense! That’s exciting! I’m sure I’ll enjoy your dissertation once it’s published. Please keep me in mind and let me know when it becomes available.

    I too remember reading some time ago that the third part was a compilation of previously known homilies from the other two parts, and thus wasn’t all that interesting except as a curiosity, not even textually helpful. Thanks for the reinforcement of the skepticism. I’m pretty sure it must’ve been something either Brock or Alfeyev wrote.

    It really would be nice to have the Syriac for II/1-3 available, so that others could start work on it, and a critical text of Part One. I’ll keep an eye out for the Greek edition; that’s exciting. It’ll be nice to have that in tandem with the HTM text.

    Poor Wensinck had his hands full, as he didn’t know English very well, or the ascetic tradition. Such a mess! It’s understandable, but still, it’s a strikingly awful translation. I hardly think it really qualifies as translation at all. But, as you say, we have to take what we can get.

    The main goal of the HTM edition is, of course, the edification of the faithful. In that it succeeds in presenting the text that was so useful to particularly the Greek Orthodox through the centuries. Though it is certainly very well-done (Dana R. Miller was the translator and author of the Introduction and Epilogue; the Foreword is perhaps from the abbot?), it isn’t intended as a scholarly work per se. But the objections you mention (the alteration of names, etc) are all well-annotated, so there’s no point a careful reader would be confused. I recall hearing once (a rumor?) of a possibility for the HTM to do a full edition from the Syriac of both the First and Second Parts. It would certainly be appreciated! Their volumes are always so beautiful and so well-constructed.

    Thanks again, Patrik, and good luck on Friday!

  3. Of course, if one wants to get to work on the first three chapters of the third part, the manuscript is actually pretty readable, and a copy can be obtained from the bodleian library in Oxford. I managed pretty well with that and Bettiolo’s italian translation of the centuries. But, and this is a problem with Alfeyev’s otherwise commendable book, too simply ignore these is to do Isaac injustice. There is a lot of stuff in the centuries that is important, especially regarding Isaac’s “mysticism”.

    The third part has some interesting stuff in it. There is a nice collection of prayers. One of the homilies I am suspicious of is a long description of the Eucharistic service, that is it is genuine would be very important. But, of course for this very reason I am doubting it – in the rest of the work Isaac just does not pay the Eucharistic service much mind. Actually, and this is one of my more important “finds”, for Isaac ascetic life itself takes the place of the Eucharist. Like the Eucharist, the ascetic is a tangible glimpse of the future world in this world.

  4. All you who feel attracted to the great Saint Isaac the Syrian should be aware that the second, third and fourth part are n o t works of him, but of an unknown nestorian-origenist heretic, commonly called Pseudo-Isaac. These recently found writings put under the name of St. Isaac do him actually great harm. They are of poor quality, testifiy to a person who has none of the spiritual stature of the Saint and promote the heretic christology of Nestorius as well as the heretical Origenist teachings of the finality of hell and the salvation of all, even unrepentant sinners and the demons. All these false teachings have been condemned by the Holy Ecumenical Councils and by all the Holy Fathers of the Church. They are however promoted today by the Ecumenists. Beware of the wolves in sheep skin!!!!!

    1. Nun Eirinea, thank you for your comment. I have read through the entirety of the second part and have not found any of the anathematized Nestorianism or the apokatastasis that you warn of. The third and fourth parts may very well be as you say, though I have not read them. But the second is almost certainly authentic, and is unobjectionable. Perhaps there is some confusion?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *