Antioch of Syria

Syria was a region with the Mesopotamia to its East, with the Lebanon Mountains on the West, the Taurus Mountains to its North, and Palestine and the Arabian Desert to its south. Syria played a very prominent role in the early growth of Christianity. The city of Antioch in Syria was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. Luke tells us of “those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen [shortly after Pentecost, yet just before the conversion of Paul in 34 or 35 C.E.] made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch [of Syria] and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.” (Ac 11:19-20, bold mine) Because of the thriving interest of the Gospel manifested in Antioch, where many Greek-speaking people were becoming believers, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas, who then called Paul in from Tarsus to help. (Ac 11:21-26) Both Barnabas and Paul remained there for a year, teaching the people. Antioch became the center for the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys. Moreover, “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” (Ac 11:26) While the New Testament letters were written in Koine Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire, Latin being the official language, it was thought best to make a translation of the New Testament books into Syriac in mid-second century C.E. as Christianity spread throughout the rest of Syria. This is why the Syriac versions are so highly prized by textual scholars.[1] Five different Syriac versions have been differentiated: The Old Syriac, the Peshitta, the Philoxenian Syriac, the Harkleian Syriac, and the Palestinian Syriac.

Early Christianity_Reading an Apostolic Letter_Acts 15

The Diatessaron (c. 170 C.E.) is the most well-known of the early Gospel harmonies and was produced by the Syrian writer Tatian (c. 120-173 C.E.), an early Christian Assyrian apologist, who had also been a pupil of Justin Martyr in Rome. Early in Christianity, critics made the claim that the Gospels contradicted each other and as a result, their accounts could not be trusted. Tatian came to the defense of the Gospels. As an apologist, he concluded that if he could harmonize and blend the four accounts into one narrative, the critics could no longer make the claim that there were discrepancies. Therefore, Tatian went about preparing what would become known as the Diatessaron (dia tessarrōn, meaning, “Through [the] four”).[2] It is not known whether his original was in Greek or in Syriac. Regardless, he completed his work, and the rest is history as the saying goes. The Diatessaron is the earliest translation of the gospels into Syriac. Syriac is a Greek word for the language spoken by the Syrians, a form of Aramaic used between the third and thirteenth centuries.


Syriac Sinaiticus, folio 82b, Gospel of Matthew 1:1-17. Superimposed, life of Saint Euphrosyne.

In the nineteenth-century, some scholars were making the argument that none of the four Gospels were written before the second century but rather between 130 C.E. and 170 C.E., which would mean that they could not be authentic accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. Of course, this argument, if true, would have decreased their value to Christianity a thousand fold. The discovery of translations of the Diatessaron in Armenian and Arabic manuscripts in the twentieth century has given modern day Christian apologist decisive evidence that the four Gospels, and the four Gospels alone, were already well-known by mid-second century C.E., so much so, they were in collections.[3] More evidence of the authenticity of the Gospels was Ephraem the Syrian (c. 310-373 C.E.) who produced a commentary on the Diatessaron, the Syriac original, which was rediscovered in 1957. This unique fifth/sixth-century commentary contains long excerpts from Tatian’s original work. Saying it more plainly, Tatian did not make use of any of the so-called apocryphal gospels, as he had done with the four authentic, authoritative Gospels. Therefore, the apocryphal gospels were not viewed as reliable or canonical.


Syriac Sinaiticus, Matthew 15:12–27.

The Old Syriac (180–220 C.E.) came shortly after Titian’s Diatessaron in Syriac. The four gospels of the New Testament are contained in two manuscripts in Old Syriac, one being discovered in Egypt in 1842 and the other by Agnes Smith Lewis at Mount Sinai in 1892. The former, which dates to the fifth-century, is known as the Syriac Curetonianus (syrc) from being edited and published by William Cureton in 1858. The latter is known as the Syriac Sinaiticus (syrs) or Sinaitic Palimpsest, which dates to the late fourth century containing 358 pages. We recall that a palimpsest is a manuscript written over a partly erased older manuscript in such a way that the old words can be read beneath the new. The Syriac Sinaiticus, four canonical gospels of the New Testament, is beneath a biography of female saints and martyrs, which date to 778 C.E. Metzger writes, “Though these manuscripts were copied in about the fifth and fourth centuries … the form of the text that they preserve dates from the close of the second or beginning of the third century. When the two manuscripts are compared, it is seen that the Sinaitic Syriac represents a slightly earlier form of text than does the Curetonian, even though in some places it may have corruptions that the Curetonian has escaped.” (Metzger and Ehrman 1964, 1968, 1992, 2005, p. 96-97)

The Syriac Curetonianus (syrc) and the Syriac Sinaiticus (syrs) texts are representatives of the Western text. A few significant variant readings would include:

Matthew 12:47: [“And someone said to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to you.’”] This verse is omitted in early MSS (א* B L itk Syc,s copsa), as well as WH, while it is present in the TR and the NU Committee enclosed the words within square brackets, suggesting uncertainty. Many believe it is likely the verse was omitted accidently because of h homoeoteleuton (λαλῆσαι … λαλῆσαι). They also argue that the following verses seem to suggest the necessity of verse 47. However, the weight of the witnesses supporting the omission is significant; making it highly unlikely that homoeoteleuton could have taken place in so many witnesses.

Mark 10:2: “And Pharisees came up, testing him, began questioning him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife.” Some witnesses omit “Pharisees.” (D it syrs) This would mean that Matthew failed to name Jesus’ critics. Hurtado has commented, “It is highly likely, but not absolutely certain that the original text contained this reference to Pharisees.” (Hurtado 1989, 166) The majority of the committee for the Greek New Testament felt the assimilation to the parallel passage in Matthew 19:3 were weak because it is not absolutely parallel and the widespread support for the longer reading moved them to retain the longer reading. However, the minority of the committee added, “Inasmuch as the impersonal plural is a feature of Markan style, the words προσελθόντες Φαρισαῖοι are probably an intrusion from Matthew; if retained at all, they should be enclosed within square brackets. B.M.M. and A.W.” (B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 1994, 88)

Luke 23:43: “[But Jesus was saying, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’] And they cast lots, dividing up his garments among themselves.” Some important early and diverse manuscripts omit 34a, such as P75 א1 B D* W Θ 070 ita syrs copsa bo, which removes any argument for a scribal error. If Jesus’ words were original, he would have been forgiving the Romans who were executing him, as verse 33 says, “And when they [the Romans] came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him.” (UASV) Therefore, when Jesus says in verse 34, “forgive them,” it was a reference to the Roman executioners. Thus, the argument that the later scribes removed the original reading for anti-Semitic purposes, as Jesus supposedly forgave the Jews does not hold. WH argued that the words came from an oral tradition. They wrote, “They can only be a fragment from the traditions, written or oral, which were, for a while at least, locally current beside the canonical


Syriac Sinaiticus, John 5:46–6:11.

Gospels, and which doubtless included matter of every degree of authenticity and intrinsic value. These verses and the first sentence of 23:34 may be safely called the most precious among the remains of this evangelic tradition which were rescued from oblivion by the scribes of the second century.” (Westcott and Hort 1882, 67) Comfort argues that they were “added to make Jesus the model for Christian martyrs—of offering forgiveness to one’s executioners.” (Comfort 2008, 240) We know why the words are found in the TR, but WH and the NU go against excellent external and good internal evidence and retain the reading in double brackets, signifying their strong doubts about its presence in the original. Metzger writes, “though probably not a part of the original Gospel of Luke, bears self-evident tokens of its dominical origin, and was retained, within double square brackets, in its traditional place where it had been incorporated by unknown copyists relatively early in the transmission of the Third Gospel.” (B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 1994, 154)

John 9:35: “Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and having found him he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’” WH NU has “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” P66 P75 א B D W itd syrs cop. The TR has “Do you believe in the Son of God?” A L Θ Ψ 070 0250 f1,13 Maj syrp,h. The external support for “man” Is extremely weighty. It is far more likely that “man” was changed to “God” as opposed to “God” being altered to “man.” The internal evidence also points to “man” as opposed to “God.”[4]

The publication of the Syriac Curetonianus (syrc) and the Syriac Sinaiticus (syrs) has allowed scholars to examine how the gospel text in Syriac changed over the first few centuries of Christianity, made up of multiple Churches of Eastern Christianity.

2014645_univ_lsr_lg_Syriac Peshitta

The Syriac Peshitta (Syrp) dates to the late fourth to early fifth-century C.E. and is the standard version of the Bible for churches both Eastern and Western branches of the Syrian Church. Syriac is one of the dialects of Aramaic, which was an official language of the Persian Empire. It was spoken in ancient Antioch (where believers were first called Christian and Paul began his missionary journeys), and in northern Mesopotamia in the first century C.E. It came into wide use in the second and third century C.E., as a written language, meaning a translation would have been needed for the continued spreading of God’s Word. It would appear that Syriac, not Latin, was the first vernacular into which parts of the Greek New Testament was translated.

2014645_univ_cnt_4_sm_The palimpsest called the Sinaitic Syriac. Visible in the margin is the underwriting of the Gospels

The palimpsest called the Sinaitic Syriac. Visible in the margin is the underwriting of the Gospels

Rabbula was the bishop of Edessa from 411 to 431 C.E. and was long wrongly credited with making the Peshitta translation. However, Metzger suggests, “it is more likely that his revision marked an intermediate between the Old Syriac text and the final form of the Peshitta.”[5] We must remember that the Syrian church split in 431 C.E. and the Peshitta was the standard text for both the Western and Easter Syrian Christianity, meaning that it had to have time to gain that stature.

Peshitta means “simple” or “common.” The Peshitta contained every book of the New Testament except 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. The Syrian church did not recognize these books as canonical at the time. However, these books were later translated and added into the Syrian canon of the New Testament. Still, the early Syrian Church Father never referred to these books. More than 250 manuscripts of the Old Testament Peshitta are known.

More than 350 manuscripts of the New Testament Peshitta are known today, a number of them dating to the fifth and sixth centuries C.E. The following manuscripts are found in the British Archives: Rabbula Gospels, Khaboris Codex, Codex Phillipps 1388, British Library, Add. 12140, 14470 (complete text of 22 books), 14479, 14455, 14466, 14467, and 14669.[6] The text of the Peshitta was transmitted with extraordinary faithfulness, resulting in very few significant variants. Metzger tells us that the Gospels of the Peshitta is akin to the Byzantine type of text, while Acts it agrees more with the Western text. (Metzger and Ehrman, 98)

The Philoxenian Syriac (Syrph) dates to 508 C.E. when the New Testament was completed by the chorepiscopus (bishop) Polycarp, which had been commissioned by Philoxenus of Mabbug. This revision also included the books that had been omitted by the Peshitta. There are but two known manuscripts, one of which contains 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John and Jude, while the other contains the book of Revelation. Referring to its character, Sir Frederic Kenyon, the famous archaeologist, and librarian of the British Museum explained, “the Philoxenian version was written in free and idiomatic Syriac, being the most literary in form of all the translations of the New Testament into this language. The Greek text underlying it was that of the great mass of later MSS., which (as is abundantly clear from other evidence also) was firmly established as the standard type of text in the Greek-speaking Church at the time when Polycarp prepared this version of the Scriptures for Philoxenus.”[7]

The Harkleian Syriac (Syrh) dates to 616 C.E. when Thomas of Harkel completed an Aramaic language translation, which has become known as the Harkleian version. Some argue that Thomas simply added an extensive set of alternate readings in the margins, while others say that Thomas did a complete revision of the Philoxenian Syriac (Syrph), adding readings in the margin that he felt were unworthy of being in the text itself. If we go with the first view; then, there is only Philoxenian Syriac text with marginal notes, while the second view would hold that there are two separate versions. Metzger observes that the Harkleian Syriac (Syrh) “apparatus of Acts is the second most important witness to the Western text, being surpassed in this respect only by Codec Bezae.” (Metzger and Ehrman, 99)

The Palestinian Syriac (Syrpal) dates to the eleventh and twelfth centuries C.E. The origin of the Palestinian Syriac Version is likely the fifth century. It is primarily known from three lectionary manuscripts of the Gospels. However, there are fragments of the Gospels in continuous text extant, as well as scraps of the book of Acts and several of Paul’s letters. Metzger says that it is based on “the Caesarean type and is quite independent of the other Syriac versions.” (Metzger and Ehrman, 100) Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926), a Semitic scholar, discovered the manuscript of the Palestinian Syriac, a complete Gospel lectionary, in the library of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in 1892, which were published by Mrs. Lewis and her sister, Mrs. Gibson, in 1899.[8]

Bible Scribe_Copyist_03


[1] Bruce M. Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament (Oxford, England, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1977), 4-5.

[2] Alex Ramos, “Bible, Ancient Versions of The,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[3] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 480.

[4] See (P. W. Comfort 2008, 293) and (B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 1994, 195)

[5] (Metzger and Ehrman 1964, 1968, 1992, 2005, p. 98)


[7] Frederic G. Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London; New York: Macmillan and Co., 1901), 142.

[8] The Palestinian Syriac Lectionary, re-edited by A. S. Lewis and M. D. Gibson (1899).