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John bar Penkaye, Summary of World History (Rish melle) (2010). Preface to the online edition.


Few people today are aware that Christianity spread east from Palestine, as well as west.  There were Jewish communities in Babylonia, as well as in the Greek lands, and translations of the Old Testament exist into Aramaic, the common language of Syria, Iraq and Persia at that period, just as they do in Greek.

The dialect of Aramaic used in the centuries after Christ is known as Syriac, and originated at Edessa (modern Urfa) in northern Syria.  Christianity soon spread into the Persian empire, large parts of which used Syriac.  The Persians of that period were pagans, fire-worshippers, following the teachings of Zoroastrianism.  The fire-priests or Magians were supported by the Persian monarchs of the Sassanid dynasty, and they resisted conversions to Christianity by violence.  The conversion of the Roman emperor to Christianity in the fourth century only intensified attacks on Christians, now suspected of looking to Caesar as their lord rather than the Sassanid king.  It was not until the 5th century that Marutha of Maiperqat was able to persuade the king to allow a synod to be held which ratified the decrees of Nicaea (325 AD).

Once Christianity was the state religion in the west, it became the victim of dissentions arising from political and personal causes.  The Eastern Roman Empire was an absolute monarchy.  No political dissent was permitted.  But a certain amount of theological argument was permitted, and the convocation of councils of representatives to decide the issues was normal.  As may be imagined, every personal and political problem of the period tended to dress itself in theological garb.  Since a knowledge of Greek philosophy and theology was required in order to participate, a vast quantity of Greek literature was translated into Syriac during this period, for use by the Syriac-speaking bishops in the east.

These divisions that affected the church in the 5th century paradoxically improved the position of Christians in Persia.  Most of the eastern Christians supported Nestorius, who was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 433 AD, and so found themselves on the receiving end of official violence.  The existence of the border meant that safety lay in the Persian realm.  Similarly the Great King was not at all averse to the Christians of his land being of a different creed to the Roman empire.  Under these conditions a Nestorian church, using the East Syriac dialect and based in Persia, spread and grew in importance for several centuries.

The Arab conquest of Persia happened more or less by chance.  The early Moslems launched their raids at precisely the point when the Persians had no troops left after their decades-long war with the Romans, and swiftly overran the empire.  As a small minority interested only in plunder, they initially left the inhabitants alone as long as they paid tribute.  The Arab conquest, therefore, did not affect the Syriac world substantially for a century.  Indeed the absence of Roman officials demanding to know whether a priest subscribed to this creed or that -- with violence as the penalty for the wrong answer -- was felt as a positive blessing.

John bar Penkaye was a monk of the East Syriac church.  His epithet tells us that his family was from Fenek on the river Tigris in Iraq --  indeed his name means John of Fenek.  We learn from Nestorian hagiographies that he first belonged to the monastery of Mar John of Kamul, then that Mar Bassima.  He must have been born early in the 7th century, as he recalls the last great Persian monarch, Chosroes II; and he must have died before 693 as he shows no knowledge of the patriarch then elected.

Most of his works have never been printed.  Many are lost.  Of those that remain, most slumber in hand-written copies made during the middle ages.  These are preserved either in obscure eastern monasteries, or in the great western collections of oriental manuscripts such as those in the Vatican library or the British Library.  Too often no photographic copies have been made, and even scholars find access to the text difficult.

The most important of his works is a summary history of the world, which he gave the curious title of "ktaba d-rish melle".  This has been preserved in a handful of hand-written copies, none very old.  The Syriac world largely perished in the 13th century during the Mongol invasions, and most Syriac texts exist in copies made no longer ago than 1900.  This work was written in 15 short books or long chapters -- the Syriac term is "memra" -- and the last is an eye-witness account of conditions in the late 7th century, within the first century of Islamic rule.  John bar Penkaye thus becomes a valuable non-Islamic witness to the events of the period.

John's history has never been properly printed.  In 1908 Alphonse Mingana printed the Syriac text of books 10-15, with a French translation of book 15, as one item in a curious volume named "Sources Syriaques", at the press of the Dominican friars in Mosul.  This became a rare book, but is now accessible online.  He used two hand-written copies for the history.  The first was manuscript number 28 of the Chaldean Patriarchate in Mosul (now in Baghdad).  This was written in 1875, but copied from a manuscript written in AG 1573, which is 1261-2 AD.  The other he claimed was his own.  A copy exists in the Mingana collection in Birmingham, but as this was written in 1928, it can hardly be the one used.

Just as the text of the whole work has never been printed, likewise no translation has been made of most of it.  Mingana only translated book 15, into French.  The great Syriac scholar Sebastian Brock published a translation into English of the passages relating to the rise of Islam.  This consisted of the end of book 14 and most of book 15.  However he omitted about a third of book 15, because this consisted of reasons why the plague and famine then affecting the Christian community was a punishment from God.  There is also a German translation of the end of book 14 and start of book 15, according to Brock.

I believe that a BBC television series is contemplated which will describe the early history of Islam.  A researcher has already written to me, and enquired about manuscripts of John bar Penkaye.  It seems likely that this will stir interest in this author, and potentially in the Syriac world, and its precious cargo of ancient literature.

For the benefit of the general reader I have ventured to turn the French translation by Alphonse Mingana of book 15 into English, and place the result online and in the public domain.  This translation of a translation is what follows.  I have also compared the result with Sebastian Brock's translation, and amended it in a number of places, including one or two where Brock's version makes better sense.  In the interest of the reader, I have also included the short paragraph on Islam from book 14, published by Brock, and added the substance of a selection of footnotes from both Mingana and Brock.

This translation has no scholarly value.  Its only merit is that it exists, that it is free, and that it is accessible to the 2bn people in the world who have some knowledge of English.  I would like to think that John bar Penkaye would approve.

Roger Pearse
Ipswich
10th July 2010



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This text was written by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2010. This file and all material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.


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