Syriac Christians and Muslims in late antiquity

As attacks against Christians in the Middle East continue, Christianity and Islam peacefully converged at the Seventh North American Syriac Symposium June 21-24 at Catholic University in Washington. Scholars explored everything from the portrayals of the Virgin Mary in the Quran to Christian law in medieval Iraq, with an emphasis on late antiquity.

In his presentation entitled, "Shaping Christian Law in Abbasid Iraq," Catholic U. Professor Lev Weitz, said, "Family structure and social laws were similar for Christians, Jews and Muslims. … There was an integration of Christians into the Muslim world."

"Civil law was rooted in regional (not religious) patterns," he said. "There is this false assumption that Christian law in the Middle East stemmed from Roman law."

In medieval Iraq, Christians were legally defined not as individuals but by their "relationships of dependence"- their household, their sex and their claim to patrimony. At that time, Christians and Jews used Muslim courts, and interfaith marriage was not uncommon.

During his presentation, "Translation as Tampering," Coleman Connelly, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., discussed what he described as Muslim "accusations" against early Christian Greco-Arabic translators for performing "textual trickery." The Arabic word for this falsification is tahrif, meaning "corruption," and implies what Connelly said is an "obliteration of the past." During antiquity alone, Jesus' presumably Hebrew words were translated into Aramaic, Greek, Syriac and Arabic.

"(Muslims) believed that translators may have sought political gain in mistranslation and corrupted Jesus' message in a desire to deceive and conceal," he said.

The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch has existed since the first century and remains popular in the Middle East, Asia Minor and southern India. According to Syriac Orthodox Resources, an online web library founded at the University of California, Los Angeles, and now run by Catholic U., "The church justifiably prides itself as being one of the earliest established apostolic churches."

Since 1991, the North American Syriac Symposium has united Syriac Christian scholars from across the world to discuss history, language and literature. Support comes from Catholic U.'s Center for the Study of Early Christianity, the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures, the School of Theology and Religious Studies and other programs.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015