Brief Reviews

Armando Elkhoury and Rodrigue Constantin – Lives of Syriac Saints [Review]

Lives of Syriac SaintsExpressions of Gods Love Via Syriac Saints

A Review of

Lives of Syriac Saints
Armando Elkhoury and
Rodrigue Constantin, Eds.

Paperback: The Hidden Pearl Press, 2023
Buy Now: [ Hidden Pearl Press ]

Reviewed by David Kiger

This book highlights two areas of the Christian tradition that are often forgotten in Protestantism: hagiography and the Syriac tradition. Hagiography is a genre of Christian literature that focuses on the lives and martyrdoms of the saints throughout history. The impetus for this theology stems from the theological truth that all Christians are saints, or holy, set-apart people. In Syriac history, hagiographies consisted of stories, songs, and poems about the Christian faithful, many of whom suffered bodily for their faith in, and devotion to, Christ. From its inception, Christianity spread to the east of Roman Empire. Syriac Christianity represents this all-too-often-forgotten trajectory of the Christian faith. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic and has served as the primary liturgical and theological language of many forms of Christianity as it traveled east from the holy land.

This volume contains five accounts of Syriac saints in new or fresh translations. This book series (Syriac Treasures) shows the beauty of the Syriac heritage in accessible translations that highlight the valuable contributions to the Christian life these saints made. The accounts of these Syriac Saints include brief introductions from the translators, as well as the original Syriac text beside the English text. This presentation allows for the scholar and lay person alike to gain insight and to reflect on the incredible ways that God has expressed love to the faithful throughout history. Four of the metrical accounts were composed by fifth-century West Syriac poet and theologian Jacob of Serugh (d.521). In these homilies Jacob highlights the importance of the crown of martyrdom, the struggle of living faithfully to God, and the power of a holy and righteous life.

The account of Simeon the Stylite may seem strange to modern readers in the Western hemisphere. Simeon devoted himself to God by abandoning day-to-day life and instead chose to live atop a pillar to pray and preach. Standing atop his pillar, Simeon battled with Satan. Much like Christ’s confrontation with the Accuser in the gospels (Mt 4), Simeon refutes Satan with quotations from Scripture and confidence in God’s powerful presence. Though victorious, Simeon suffered a wound to his foot leading to the need for it to be amputated. After Simeon amputates his foot, he bids it farewell as it falls to the earth and he cries, “farewell until the resurrection.” Simeon’s ascetic life of faithfulness serves as a model for belief in the physicality of the Christian faith and in the power of remaining faithful to God even amidst suffering.

In the record of Mor Zokhe we discover an account of how martyrs serve as exemplars of holy and pious living. This homily is similar to a eulogy in that it speaks highly of Mor Zokhe, who is known in the Greek tradition as Nicholas of Myra. No specific instances of Zokhe’s life are given in a biographical manner, but his mighty acts for God are detailed in the style of a litany.

The good works that Zokhe did included feeding the hungry and defending the orthodox faith against its detractors. Zokhe’s life ended in martyrdom, and so being crowned with this end, Zokhe’s piety becomes an example for bishops and lay people alike as a model for how to live a holy life in this world.

The account of Julian Saba records the deeds of a pious monk. Julian’s deeds mimic those of the biblical figures of Daniel, Moses, and Elisha and highlight the fact that the story of the Christian scriptures continues in the lives of the faithful. While the details may be fantastical and, at times, beyond credulity, the purpose of these stories is to highlight the fact that God is working in God’s people at this time. The God of Christian scripture is the same God of today and is working and moving in the world. Julian’s might deeds include slaying a dragon through prayer, raising a child from the dead, and praying for the end of the unjust rule of Emperor Julian the Apostate. Julian Saba’s life was solitary and apart from the world, and this serves to emphasize the importance of God’s transcendence over daily life.

Jacob of Serugh records the story of Shmuno and Guryo who were martyred for not worshipping pagan idols. Their martyrdom was unique in that they were beaten and physically punished to the point that they could not physically speak, and so, when asked to worship idols, they refused by shaking their head. Even though tortured, these saints refused the worship of idols. In addition, Jacob notes that their refusal to worship idols must have been empowered through the virtue of silent prayer. Thus, the record of this martyrdom displays the value of all forms of prayer.

The Acts of Sharbel the Martyr emphasize the importance of faithfulness to Christ even during torture. Sharbel was the chief pagan priest during the reign of Trajan in the region of Edessa whose conversion to Christianity shocked his government. As chief of the pagan priests, Sharbel’s conversion to Christianity and persistence in the Christian faith during torture and suffering have served as an example of continued faithfulness for Syriac Christians for centuries.

In this second volume of the Syriac Treasures series, the Hidden Pearl press has provided a concise and beautiful introduction to hagiography in the Syriac tradition. The texts included inspire followers of Christ to endure unjust suffering for the sake of the Lord so that God’s power and faithfulness might be made known.



David Kiger

David Kiger is the Director of Libraries and the Theological Librarian for Milligan University. He loves reading historical theology, cooking, and hanging out with his wife and their dog.

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