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 19.1: 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.
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.
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