Our original intention was to translate the Theotokis Greek text and present the St. Isaac known to the Saints of the Church, countless generations of Orthodox Christians, and in fact anyone who had ever read him in anything except Syriac or Arabic.
Because of the many textual problems that remained even once we had examined older Greek MSS, we turned to the Syriac, and the end result has been to correct and supplement the Greek text according to Bedjan’s Syriac printed text. The ordering of the Homilies in our edition conforms most closely to Bedjan’s, all homilies and significant passages in Bedjan that are not in the Greek or Western Syriac MSS have been included, and where the Greek and Syriac differ, we have often found the readings in Bedjan’s Syriac text to be preferable; and somewhat more so in this second edition than the first. Indeed it is inconceivable that St. Paisius Velichkovsky, the Elders of Optina, or St. Euthymius of Iveron would have ignored the Syriac text in preparing their own editions, had they had access to it.
All the same, having the Greek translation of St. Isaac’s Homilies, and one made within a century of his death, by monks of the Monastery of Mar Sabbas living the life described in his works, was an invaluable help.
St. Isaac is not always easy to read, and he is harder to translate. While the Syriac text cleared up many obscurities in the Greek and corrected many mistakes, the Greek also illuminated the Syriac, and a translation made from the Syriac alone would have been far more difficult. We believe that the result is a text that is more spiritually profitable than a translation made from only the Greek or Syriac would have been.
Two criticisms typically made of the Greek text are that it includes works not by St. Isaac, and that it falsifies the names of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Evagrius, replacing them with e.g. St. John Chrysostom or Abba Martinian.
The works not by St. Isaac are by John Dalyatha (AKA John Saba) and the Monophysite leader Philoxenus of Hierapolis (or Mabbug).
We have retained Homilies 15, 16, 17, and 31, the works of John Dalyatha, because they are sound, and form a small part of the corpus of St. Isaac’s works known to the Saints. He is quoted by St. Gregory Palamas and St. Cyril of Philea among others, and to omit his writings would be to deprive the reader of part of the spiritual heritage of our Fathers.
We have noted the true authorship of these Homilies in our Introduction (p. 89), and footnote 2 to Homily 18 notes that it continues a thought from the end of Homily 14, which would be otherwise obscured since Homilies 15, 16, and 17 by John Dalyatha intervene.
The Greek texts combine an epistle by Philoxenus with St. Isaac’s Homily 76 (see p. 89 of Introduction). This we have removed, and presented St. Isaac’s Homily without addition. In the first edition we provided the text of this epistle in Appendix B. We omitted it from the second edition, but provide it as a PDF here.
As for the concealment of the names of Theodore and Evagrius under those of Saints not implicated in the errors of Nestorius or Origen, we have also explained this in the Introduction (pp. 79–80), and whenever these names occurred in passages from Bedjan that were not in the Greek, we rendered them without change.
In justice to Abbas Patrick and Abramius, the Greek translators from Mar Sabbas Monastery, the changes of the names were made in the Western Syriac text; they simply translated what they received.
In Syriac, Theodore of Mopsuestia is often called “The Blessed Interpreter,” as in the passage below from Bedjan’s text:
In the hundreds of pages taken up by St. Isaac’s Homilies, we found such interpolated names to occur a dozen times, maybe a score. Whatever limitations the Greek text inherited from its Western Syriac parent, whatever variant readings may exist between the Greek and Syriac, all in all the mind and heart of St. Isaac have not been misrepresented. If we offer the second edition as fuller and more accurate than the first, that is not to suggest that the first edition was untrustworthy or spiritually unsound.
Furthermore, the passages in the Greek that vary from the Syriac cannot be universally dismissed as wrong, nor can the Syriac be infallibly taken at every point to be the actual product of St. Isaac’s pen rather than the Greek. The Greek has passages that are not in the extant Syriac editions; but we cannot with certainty dismiss them all as scribal additions, and deny that any of them are passages by St. Isaac lost in the Syriac. The Syriac has passages that are not in the Greek; we cannot say none of them are mere scribal additions. There are passages in the extant Syriac whose stubborn obscurity defies all efforts to make clear sense of them, but are more intelligible in the Greek; even here, we cannot definitively say that they are more intelligible in the Greek only because the Greek translators simplified what is obscure in the Syriac – and not because the Syriac text that they used was, at this or that passage, of greater integrity than the extant Syriac MSS.
A critical edition of the Greek MSS is due out shortly, and one of the Syriac is projected. What questions these will resolve remains to be seen. It does seem highly probable that the Ascetical Homilies will still pose questions beyond final resolution. This is not a great problem. So much in the Homilies – by far the majority of the text – is not problematic, and is so remarkable and spiritually profitable, that the unresolved textual questions, insignificant by comparison, will never overshadow the indisputable value of St. Isaac’s writings.
In Vatican Syriac 124, made by Jacobite Syrians, and representing the manuscript tradition to which belonged the Syriac copy of the Homilies used by the Greek translators, “Abba Martinian” (see p. 191 of the Ascetical Homilies) is substituted for “The Blessed Interpreter” in this passage, as shown below:
The above image from Vatican Syriac 124 is © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, and is used by permission of Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, with all rights reserved.