This traditional distinction, albeit roughly, between ‘Easterners’ and ‘Westerners’ has remained until the present day. Accordingly, the Syriac people can be classified as follows:2
- West-Syriacs: Syriac-Orthodox and Syriac-Catholics, Melkites and Maronites.
- East-Syriacs: ‘Nestorians’ (or ‘Assyrians’)3 and Chaldeans.
The rich history of the heirs of the ancient Aramaic heritage has superbly been portrayed by Prof. Sebastian P. Brock (Professor Emeritus at Oxford University) et al. in The Hidden Pearl. This highly recommendable project follows the distant past of the Aramaic churches until the year 2001.
Theodor Nöldeke, one of the greatest Orientalists ever, commenced his illustrious Syriac Grammar from 1880 with these words: “From the time the Greeks came to have a more intimate acquaintance with Asia, they designated by the name of ‘Syrians’ the people who called themselves ‘Aramaeans’.4
The first-century historian Flavius Josephus, for example, confirms that “Aram,” the son of Sem, the son of the Biblical Noah (Genesis 10:22), “had the Arameans, whom the Greeks called Syrians.”5
In fact, there are numerous references in the early works of eminent Syriac writers, from both traditions, who explicitly affirmed their ancient Aramean ancestry.6 We can illustrate this by means of two quotations taken at random from the wealthy Syriac/Aramaic literary corpus.
- West-Syriac: Michael, a 12th century Syriac-Orthodox Patriarch (d. 1199 A.D.), wrote in his voluminous Chronicle about “the kingdoms which have been established in Antiquity by our race, (that of) the Aramaeans [Oromoye], namely the descendants of Aram, who were called Syrians [Suryoye].”7
- East-Syriac: The lexicographer Bar Bahlul from Baghdad (fl. 963 A.D.) recorded in his lexicon under the lemma ‘Syria’ that “the Syriacs [Suryoye] were formerly called Arameans [Oromoye].”8
Regarding the right name, Prof. Nöldeke9 appealed already in 1871 that, from an academic point of view, the only (!) proper name for the Syriac people and their language is ‘Aramean’ and ‘Aramaic.’ This fact can be corroborated by virtually all modern students of Syriac/Aramaic Studies.
The originally Greek calque ‘Syrian’ entered the Aramaic vocabulary somewhere between 390 and 430 A.D. as ‘Suryāyā’ (Suryoyo in the originally Tur ‘Abdin Aramaic pronunciation). At present, many Syriacs (especially the younger generation) prefer to avoid this name as a result of the inevitable association or confusion with the chiefly Muslim citizens of the “Syrian Arab Republic.”
For that reason, in 1983 the World Council of Arameans (formerly Syriac Universal Alliance, SUA) started to use the word ‘Syriac’ for its ‘Syrian’ people and a Syriac Orthodox synod officially followed suit in April 2000. Until fairly recently, this term was restricted to the language or the culture of the people and many scholars continue to follow this tradition.
‘Syriac’, in other words, is an artificial name when applied to the people. Until now it has not proven to be satisfying either, since it still leads to a confusion of the predominantly Christian Arameans with Muslim Arabs. It is mainly under such circumstances, therefore, that WCA and its members all over the world increasingly employ and promote the former indigenous appellations of ‘Arameans’ and ‘Aramaic’ when referring to the Syriac people and language respectively.
To be sure, WCA still cherishes both these blessed names without discrimination as an essential part of the ancient-old history and identity of the Aramean (Syriac) people.
- Cf. (e.g.) W.S. McCullough, A short History of Syriac Christianity to the rise of Islam (Scholars Press, 1982) and S.P. Brock, “Christians in the Sassanian Empire: A case of divided loyalties,” in Studies in Church History 18 (1982), pp. 1-19.
- We have left out the relatively small and essentially protestant converts among these religious communities from the end of the 19th century onwards.
- The religious name ‘Nestorians’ is, in the words of Prof. Sebastian Brock, “a lamentable misnomer.” See his “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: A Lamentable Misnomer,” in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of Manchester 78:3 (1996), pp. 23-36. Regarding the politically motivated adoption of the pre-Christian name ‘Assyrians’ after the first World War by members of this community, note the excellent discussion by J. Joseph, The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East: Encounters with Western Christian missions, archaeologists, and colonial powers (Studies in Christian Mission, 26; Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 1-32.
- Th. Nöldeke, Compendious Syriac Grammar (translated from the second and improved German edition by J.A. Crichton) (London, 1904), p. XXXI. Th. Nöldeke, Kurzgefasste Syrische Grammatik (Leipzig, 1880), p. XXIX: “Mit dem Namen ‘Syrer’ bezeichneten die Griechen, seit sie Asien näher hatten kennen lernen, die Nation, welche sich selbst ‘Aramäer’ nannte.”
- Jewish Antiquities (93 A.D.), Book I, chapter 6 and §144, p. 20, of the English translation by William Whiston et al. (1895); for the English rendition of the Greek word ‘Aramaious’ one must read ‘Arameans’ instead of ‘Aramites’. See also Book I.143 of the Greek source, edited by B. Niese (1892).
- Cf. J. Messo, “The Arameans of Aram-naharaim or The Ancient Syrians of Mesopotamia,” in Bahro Suryoyo 25/2 (2004), p. 22: “A self-awareness of their Aramean descent is even clearly present in the early writings of famous writers like Ephrem the Syrian (†373), Jacob of Serugh (†521), Jacob of Edessa (†708), Yeshudad from Haditha (†853), Bar Bahlul from Baghdad (fl. 963), Dionysius Bar Salibi (†1171), Bar ‘Ebroyo (†1286), Michael the Great/Elder (†1199) and many others. This Aramean self-reflection also continued in the writings of the early 20th century nationalists like Naoum Fayeq (†1930), and the late Patriarchs of the Syriac-Orthodox of Antioch Aphrem I Barsaum (1887-1933-1957) and Ya‘qub III (1912-1957-1980) until even the current Patriarch Zakka I Iwas (1932-1980-present).”
- Cited and translated by L. Van Rompay, “Jacob of Edessa and the early history of Edessa,” in G.J. Reinink & A.C Klugkist (eds.), After Bardaisan: Studies on Continuity and Change in Syriac Christianity in Honour of Professor Han J.W. Drijvers (Groningen, 1999), p. 277.
- R. Duval (ed.), Lexicon Syriacum (Paris, 1888-1901). About this early writer one recalls the words of the French scholar J.B. Chabot in the Catholic Encyclopedia under the ‘S’ of “Syriac Language and Literature”: “Abu' l' Hassan, known as Bar Bahlul, compiled his famous ‘Lexicon’, a small encyclopedia in which he collected, together with the lexicographical works of his predecessors, numerous notices on the natural sciences, philosophy, theology, and Biblical exegesis.”
- Th. Nöldeke, “Die Namen der aramäischen Nation und Sprache,” in Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 25 (1871), p. 131: “Von den Namen dieser Nation und ihrer Sprache ist im Grunde der ursprüngliche ‘aramäisch’ auch der einzige, der noch für den Gebrauch der heutigen Wissenschaft streng passt.”English translation: “Regarding the name of this nation and its language is the original ‘Aramean’ in essence also the only one [sic], that for the employment of the present-day scholarship as yet strongly fits.”