Christianity’s Middle Eastern Heritage

From Gary M. Burge at Christianity Today:

We are used to thinking that the Middle East is made up of Jews and Muslims. But today there are over 10 million Arabic-speaking Christians who trace their history to the Day of Pentecost—where, as they remind us, Arabs were present (Acts 2:11). They anchor their legacy to an old culture that preceded Islam and Arabic by centuries. Until the arrival of Islam (7th century), Syriac—a sister language to Aramaic—was the mother tongue of the Middle Eastern church from Iraq to Palestine. In Egypt, it was Coptic. In fact, Syriac and Coptic continued to be spoken for centuries alongside Arabic as Islam slowly tried to replace them with its own language from Arabia. Soon Christians were speaking Arabic freely, and yet they retained their distinctive cultural traditions that were deeply rooted in Syriac ways.

These eastern Semitic-speaking Christians enjoyed a rich, flourishing world that is now invisible to us. (A quick read of William Dalrymple’s magnificent travel drama, From the Holy Mountain, will take you there if you are inclined. Dalrymple follows the faint trail of a 6th century pilgrim monk named John Moschos who wandered eastern Christendom.) By the 5th century—think Chalcedon—the West simply lost any interest in these churches. Few today have heard of Ephrem the Syrian, a prolific Syrian theologian and hymn writer born in AD 306 and venerated as a saint among Orthodox Christians. Or Ibn al-Tayyib, the towering New Testament scholar of 10th century Baghdad.

Thus Latin and Greek were not the only primary languages of emerging Christianity. Syriac was the third and soon became the chief form of communication among the churches of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. These believers bequeathed to us three ancient translations: the Old Syriac, the Peshitta, and the Harclean. Each represents the work of Christians who shared instinctively the culture of Jesus. Translation is always interpretation. And when an ancient Middle Eastern Christian brings a Greek gospel into his native Syriac, he will often lend insight by mere nuance and word choice. From the 9th century on, many versions appeared, and they remain goldmines of Middle Eastern Christian exegesis.

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