We recently featured Steven Hallam’s basic Syriac grammar as our Book of the Week for its ease of use, helpful translation exercises, and answer key provided by Zondervan. We wanted to learn more about Syriac, his textbook, and next steps beyond it, and Dr. Hallam graciously obliged.
Since you wrote a textbook on classical Syriac, you must think it’s pretty important to learn. Who would you encourage to learn Syriac, and for what reasons?
There are definitely many reasons to learn Syriac from a Biblical Studies perspective, and I would encourage anyone interested in deepening their understanding of both the Bible and Church History to dive right in. Also, I think anyone with a background in Semitic languages (such as Biblical Hebrew or Biblical Aramaic) will find the language very interesting and easy to pick up. Many Biblical scholars (especially in the Biblical studies realm) are really strong in their knowledge of Hebrew, but have never spread their wings into any other early Semitic languages. Syriac is a natural step, being an Aramaic dialect, for such a venture. Also, the language itself is not as complex as Hebrew (in my opinion), and I find it more direct and specific, while at the same time being simpler in terms of form and structure.
Since Syriac is an Eastern dialect of Aramaic, learning the language will increase an individual’s understanding of Aramaic outside of the passages in the Old Testament. This opens up many doors for research and some interesting research questions – especially relating to the New Testament and things like the Aramaic Sub-Stratum of the Gospels. Along those lines, one of the interesting things that has emerged in my personal studies has been an increasingly Semitic picture of Jesus. I tend to picture Jesus in the language in which I read the Gospels – before Seminary I read only English, and therefore saw a very “American” picture of Jesus in my own mind. Then I started reading Greek, and had a very “Greek” picture of Jesus start to form. Reading the Gospels in Syriac opened my eyes to a Semitic Jesus, which was a breath of fresh air in many ways.
In relation to Biblical exegesis, knowing Syriac is another tool in one’s toolbox that can be used to formulate a proper interpretation. This goes beyond just textual criticism, although this is probably one of the main uses of Syriac in Biblical studies. Syriac was one of the first cognate languages of the New Testament, and gives an Eastern textual witness to the text. Additionally, the Peshitta Old Testament is a very early translation from the Hebrew, and the similar language families make discrepancies easy to identify. In particular to New Testament Textual Criticism, Peter Williams’ work Early Syriac Translation Technique and the Textual Criticism of the Greek Gospels has shown that it is extremely valuable to be able to examine the Syriac witnesses instead of basing judgement solely on the critical apparatus.
Outside of this there is a very large body of literature that remains untouched by many Evangelical scholars. The Eastern church has only started to be examined – due largely from works like Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. There is a lot out there that is waiting to be discovered, translated, and utilized in aiding our understanding of Scripture.
How have you used Syriac in your own studies and scholarship?
I decided to learn Syriac because I was interested in textual criticism; Diatessaron and early Gospel studies in particular. Therefore, a good majority of my own studies have moved in that direction. For those not familiar with it, the Diatessaron is a very early Gospel harmony that was (likely) used as the Gospel for many of the churches in the East. There are no copies of it left today, but we do have access to it from other sources. There is a Syriac copy of a commentary on the Diatessaron that is attributed to Ephrem, and I have done some work trying to recover the text from a few key sections of the text.
Outside of the more formal research, I use Syriac to cross check the NA-28 a lot (more just out of curiosity than anything) and when I am studying on my own, I use Syriac to give me a more complete semantic domain of what an author might possibly be saying. Since Greek typically has a very narrow semantic domain, looking at how a translator picks and chooses certain words can lend incredible insight into how the word was understood in a particular context. This has led to some really neat “Ah Ha!” kind of moments in my own personal Bible study.
You say that this grammar simplifies many matters for pedagogical purposes. What would be the ‘next step’ beyond this textbook? Which grammars or books would take us to the next level with Syriac, and are there any primary texts aside from the Peshitta that you would suggest reading for practice?
As far as “next steps” in the language, it would somewhat depend on which direction you wanted to go. Syriac has three distinct scripts – Estrangela (no vowel pointing), Eastern (dots for vowels) and Western (characters for vowels). I would recommend picking one of those depending on what specifically it is you want to study and then get a good grammar book that will familiarize you with the particular script. In the Basics of Classical Syriac grammar I give a few suggestions of follow-up boos for each (Robinson-Coakley, Thackston, Muraoka are all very good). If you are looking for the standard research grammar, it is Noldeke’s Compendious Syriac Grammar, 2nd edition, translated by James A. Crichton. This would be a great companion to have alongside my book if you have questions that require further study.
For those just starting out, I would recommend staying close to the Peshitta, namely because of familiarity to the text and passages. However, if you are looking to step into non-pointed texts, the Old Syriac Gospels would be a great challenge. Once these are mastered, then the world is your oyster – you could begin looking into Syriac church fathers to dig for textual clues or exegetical insight,
Do you have any tips for learning Syriac that are specific to the language?
Nothing specific comes to mind in relation to Syriac. Like any language, it just comes down to hard work and utilizing the language on a day to day basis. I try to translate at least one verse per day in order to stay sharp. For memorization, I am a big fan of buying a white board and some dry erase markers, saying words and paradigms out loud, and flash cards; lots and lots of flash cards.
I’m really thankful you produced this textbook, since I’ve wanted to learn the basics of the language for years but wanted a very user-friendly textbook. What can we look forward to seeing you produce in the next 5-10 years?
There are a few resources that will be coming out very soon from Zondervan – in particular we are recording a lecture series to accompany the textbook. I would highly recommend this for students who (like me) need to hear the language spoken as we learn it. There will be one lecture accompanying each chapter of the book, and will use completely new examples so that the material will be looking at the same topics, but from different angels.
In terms of future books, I mentioned above that there is not much in terms of the Eastern script for anyone seeking to learn that particular alphabet and phonetics, and so at some point I would love to make a supplement to Basics of Classical Syriac to include these scripts to anyone wanting to learn them.
I would also love to produce a text that introduces the Early Syriac Church Fathers and Literature to an Evangelical audience. After Chalcedon, many of the early Eastern Church Fathers writings were discarded, and thus remain unfamiliar to the Western world. One of the keynotes of early Syriac Christianity is that it preserved a Semitic form of Christianity for centuries, and this is interesting to study. If nothing else, many Christians today think that the Church went from Jerusalem, to Rome, to America, without even giving thought to (what once was) the largest Church on earth. I think that a brief introduction to the topic would be pretty helpful. However, right now this remains only scattered in lecture notes and fragments from past courses.
Outside of this, I am hoping to continue writing further Syriac grammars (perhaps introducing an intermediate grammar that has a focus on syntax and more nuanced translations). I have also started on a project examining pleonastic datives in Greek translations from Semitic sources to try and gain some insight on why some of the Greek of the New Testament is so weird – especially in the area of unnecessary pronouns.
Thanks to Dr. Hallam for taking his time to talk to us about the importance of Syriac and how to learn it.