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The Syriac Translation Movement: Shaping Greek Education for a Christian Society

Alberto Rigolio, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, Summer Fellow 2010/11

As a Summer Fellow in Byzantine Studies in Dumbarton Oaks, I had the chance to work on my doctoral dissertation in this highly stimulating academic environment. The main topic of my research is the Classical heritage in early Christian communities. While the impact of Christianity on the Roman Empire and its neighboring societies has always attracted interest, far less attention has been paid to the continuity of the pagan legacy among Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities. Paganism is itself, of course, a vague term, since it encloses the most wide-ranging variety of rituals, cults and philosophical stances, which the revealed religions often failed to acknowledge explicitly. Nonetheless, Judaism, Christianity and Islam were deeply influenced by the cultural context in which they grew, as shown firstly by their endorsement of pagan educational practices.

The section of my thesis I am working on at the moment concentrates on the endurance of the non-Christian culture among the West Syrians, as shown by the translations of Greek pagan texts into Syriac, which were produced between the fourth and sixth centuries AD. The translation into Syriac of orations and treatises with moral contents, mainly by Ps.-Isocrates, Plutarch, Lucian and Themistius, is an argument in support of a substantial continuity of pagan educational practices among West Syrian communities in the first centuries AD, as the reason for translation may have been the actual use of such texts in a scholastic environment. Indeed, the translations have been deliberately modified in view of their use and of their Christian audience. During my stay in Dumbarton Oaks I have worked on the English translation of the Plutarch's treatises which survive in Syriac, and I had the chance to analyse comprehensively the modifications of the Syriac translations in contrast with the Greek texts, taking into account the relevant Greek and Syriac manuscripts.

My overarching aim is to contextualize the environment in which pagan translations were carried out to shed light on their agency, their use and the cultural and intellectual traditions that produced them. An appealing achievement would be, for instance, to suggest a grouping for Syriac translations according to their environment of production, as has successfully been shown as for a number of translations into Arabic.

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