The Syrian Christ was last published in North America in 1937. The reason for its republication in 2003 is the same one that compelled the author to write it in the first place . In his own foreword to the book, Rihbany said that he desired to “throw fresh light on the life and teachings of Christ and facilitate for the general public the understanding of the Bible.” The fact that we need such an “old” book to shed “new” light is, in itself, indicative of the times we live in.
We are living at the edge of a dangerous divide between East and West. Although neither domain follows the teachings of one religion in particular, the perception, albeit untrue, is growingly as such. On both sides of the divide, extreme political positions are taken, many of which stem from extreme religious views based on literal interpretations of religious texts. They are manifested in racism, hatred, occupation, terrorism and bloody conflicts worldwide.
“The Oriental”—meaning the Middle-Easterner—wrote Rihbany, “considered his personal enemies to be the enemies of God.” He added that “Piety and hatred uttered so naively and in good faith” is another Oriental trait. This seems to be no longer the exclusive domain of the Middle-Easterner; it is the hallmark of our times. “Piety and hatred” are mixed together in many parts of the world nowadays to whip up emotions into frenzy in order to defend “our God,” regardless of what religion we choose to bestow upon the Almighty.
“As a literature, the Bible is an imported article into the Western world,” wrote Rihbany. “This causes the gold of the gospel to carry with it the sand and dust of its original home.” Rihbany believed that this “sand and dust” clouded the Western reader’s understanding of the Bible and made some passages open to misinterpretation. He wrote The Syrian Christ to demonstrate “how simple it is for a humble fellow countryman of Christ to understand those social phases of the Scriptural passages which so greatly puzzle the August minds of the West.”
The title, The Syrian Christ, requires many points of clarification, which the author handles in a most competent way. One clarification, however, postdates the author and needs our own explanation. When The Syrian Christ was written, Syria comprised that part of the Ottoman Empire extending from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates . By the time of Rihbany’s death in 1944, it was divided into a number of states including Lebanon , Syria , Palestine , Trans-Jordan and Iraq .
This book represents what could be one of the last authentic photographic pictures of the cultural milieu in which Jesus lived. Rihbany was right when he asserted in 1916 that “the conditions of life in Syria of to-day are essentially as they were in the time of Christ…whenever I open my Bible it reads like a letter from Home.” Life conditions in Syria have changed a great deal in the past hundred years, but the deep rooted traditions of which Rihbany spoke are are still alive, and even in some villages, Jesus’ milieu can yet be more clearly seen.
Today, literal out-of-context interpretations of the Bible are used to justify narrow political ends at the cost of human lives. Voices of moderation are in high demand but such voices, alas, are in short supply. Rihbany’s is one such voice. His belief that people should strive to “make their religious faith ever free and more intelligent,” is most needed.
We hope that this new edition of The Syrian Christ will afford the reader a better understanding of the Scriptures and a more informed belief. We also hope that it will help in generating peace and goodwill to people everywhere.
Canada , October 31, 2003
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