The Syriac Old Testament

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What Is Syriac?

antioch-of-syria-02Syriac is the language of ancient Syria and one of the dialects of Aramaic, which was an official language of the Persian Empire. It was spoken in northern Mesopotamia and around ancient Antioch. In the second or third century C.E., as a written language, Syriac came into wide use. Within this Western dialect of Aramaic, many important early Christian texts are preserved, and which is still used by Syrian Christians as a liturgical language. “And in Antioch [Syria], the disciples were first called Christians.” (Ac 11:26)

Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 100 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

The Masoretic Hebrew text is the foundational text for all modern English translations of the Hebrew Scripture: the Codex Leningrad B 19A (of the National Library of Russia), as presented in R. Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica (BHK), seventh, eighth and ninth editions (1951-55). An update of this work known as Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), 1977 edition. Codex Leningrad B 19A is the earliest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Scriptures (c. 1008 C.E.), which serves as a primary source for the recovery of details in the missing parts of the Aleppo Codex. The Aleppo Codex is an important Hebrew Masoretic manuscript from about 930 C.E. Codex Leningrad and the Aleppo Codex are the two most important Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts. These two Hebrew texts are the most significant manuscripts of the Old Testament to be discovered so far and as far as usefulness and significance, they could be compared to the counterpart Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus of the New Testament.

The Targums or the Vulgate have their own fair share of textual variants but the Peshitta has even more textual variants like the one we find above in Genesis 1:26.

Syriac Christianity is the form of Eastern Christianity whose formative theological writings and traditional liturgy are expressed in the Syriac language. See The Syriac Versions for the Syriac New Testament.

Antioch of Syria

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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.

Syriac Peshitta

History/ Origin

Syriac is a late dialect of Aramaic used in ancient Edessa (in modern southeast Turkey) and the surrounding area. Edessa was a significant city on the trade routes, populated with a mixture of Greeks, Persians, Jews, and other minorities in addition to locals. The majority of the population was pagan, and about 10 percent was Jewish. It was so cosmopolitan that it was called the Athens of the East.[2] Perhaps because of its location, Edessa became a major center of the early Eastern church. It was most likely there that the Bible, both OT, and NT, was translated into Syriac and called the Peshitta, meaning “simple” or “obvious.”[3] This name distinguished it from other Syriac versions such as the Syro-Hexapla, which had a very idiosyncratic and literal style.

We do not know the exact date or circumstances of the translation. The OT must have been translated before the fourth century, when the Syriac church fathers Aphrahat and Ephrem quote from it. Most scholars place it in the first or second century CE. Internal evidence suggests that the translators were somehow connected to both Judaism and Christianity. The translation was made from Hebrew and sometimes reflects Jewish exegetical traditions.[4] This suggests that the translators were Jewish since it would be very unusual for non-Jews to know Hebrew. On the other hand, the Peshitta was used and transmitted in the Christian church, and it appears to be uninterested in rabbinic dietary laws and other Jewish theological emphases. Therefore, Michael Weitzman has argued that it was created by nonrabbinic Jews who converted to Christianity.[5]

The Peshitta was rejected by Jews because, like the Septuagint, it had become the Bible of the church. In addition, its particular renderings did not support dominant rabbinic interpretations.[6] But by the fifth and sixth centuries, new Syriac versions were being created (especially of the NT) because the Peshitta was not considered to be sufficiently “Christian” or sufficiently reflective of the Greek text traditions.

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Character

In our discussion above, we mentioned that the Greek Septuagint is more literal or formally correspondent to its Hebrew source text(s), whereas the Aramaic Targums are sometimes more expository and contain interpretive expansions. The Peshitta is more similar to the Septuagint in this regard in that it is essentially a literal translation, rendering each Hebrew word or phrase into Syriac without much additional comment. This approach suggests that the Peshitta was intended to serve as a replacement for the Hebrew OT rather than as a kind of commentary.

It is likely that, like the Septuagint, the Peshitta was created by a number of different translators. They often add or omit conjunctions or prepositions in order to help the text flow smoothly. They simplify complex syntax, remove linguistic oddities, and choose Syriac words that seem appropriate in the context rather than attempting complete consistency. A few books in the Peshitta demonstrate some interest in supporting a particular theological agenda.[7]

We have a number of Peshitta manuscripts from the fifth century CE. One of the oldest, containing most of the Pentateuch, is from 464 CE and was written in a monastery in Lower Egypt. Our earliest manuscript containing the entire OT is Codex Ambrosianus (abbreviated in the Leiden edition as 7a1) from the sixth to seventh centuries CE.[8]

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Evaluation of Usefulness

Although the Peshitta is fairly literal in character, it is not as significant as the Septuagint for textual criticism because its Hebrew source text is quite similar to the MT. Because it was created in the first centuries of the Common Era, the Hebrew text was already becoming quite standardized at that time. Therefore, Tov groups the MT, Targums, Syriac Peshitta, and Vulgate in what he calls the “MT +” group.[9] However, the Peshitta does reflect more textual variants than the Targums or the Vulgate. In addition, the Peshitta, like the Septuagint, frequently reflects a different vocalization tradition than the MT. It also frequently agrees with the Septuagint and targums against the MT. Sometimes these agreements are simply “polygenesis,” which means that the three versions were translated in the same way by coincidence, but in other cases agreements against the MT may be evidence that the versions are witnessing to an actual textual variant.

Editions

International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament: Peshitta Institute, ed. The Old Testament in Syriac according to the Peshitta Version. Leiden: Brill, 1972–.

The first critical edition of the Peshitta is currently underway by the Peshitta Institute at the University of Leiden, Netherlands. This is essentially a diplomatic edition based on Codex Ambrosianus. 79 Fourteen volumes have appeared in the series thus far. For portions of the OT not yet completed in the Leiden edition, the following noncritical editions are helpful: David, Clemens Joseph, ed. The Syriac Bible according to the Mosul Edition. 3 vols. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2010. Syriac Bible: Reprint of the 1826 Edition of the Peshitta by S. Lee. [London]: United Bible Societies, 1979.[10]

Syriac Peshitta of the Pentateuch
Syriac Peshitta of the Pentateuch

What Theodore of Mopsuestia says of the Old Testament is true of both: “These Scriptures were translated into the tongue of the Syriacs by someone indeed at some time, but who on earth this has not been made known down to our day”.[11] F. Crawford Burkitt concluded that the translation of the Old Testament was probably the work of Jews, of whom there was a colony in Edessa about the commencement of the Christian era.[12] The older view was that the translators were Christians and that the work was done late in the 1st century or early in the 2nd. The Old Testament known to the early Syrian church was substantially that of the Palestinian Jews. It contained the same number of books, but it arranged them in a different order. First, there was the Pentateuch, then Job, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, the Song of Songs, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah followed by the Twelve Minor Prophets, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Most of the Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament are found in the Syriac, and the Wisdom of Sirach is held to have been translated from the Hebrew and not from the Septuagint.[13]

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

[2] Han J. W. Drijvers, “Edessa und das jüdische Christentum,” in East of Antioch: Studies in Early Syriac Christianity (London: Variorum Reprints, 1984), 4.

[3] Another theory is that the Peshitta was translated further east in Adiabene when its king (Izates) converted to Christianity in the middle of the first century. See Michael P. Weitzman, The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1.

[4] Yeshayahu Maori has argued in his dissertation and in several articles that the Peshitta Pentateuch contains influences from rabbinic exegesis. See Maori, “Methodological Criteria for Distinguishing between Variant Vorlage and Exegesis in the Peshitta Pentateuch,” in The Peshitta as a Translation, ed. P. B. Dirksen and Arie van der Kooij (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 103– 20. The Peshitta also reflects particular exegetical traditions found in the Aramaic targums. See Eric J. Tully, The Translation and the Translator of the Peshitta of Hosea (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 305– 9.

[5] Weitzman, Syriac Version, 258– 62.

[6] IBID., 261.

[7] For example, Weitzman demonstrates that the translator of Chronicles identifies with the shame and grief of Israel in exile and reinterprets the instructions for Jewish feasts. Other books emphasize prayer (ibid., 208– 26).

[8] Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 138.

[9] Tov, Textual Criticism, 33.

[10] Brotzman, Ellis R.; Tully, Eric J. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction (p. 82-85). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[11] Eberhard Nestle in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, IV, 645b.

[12] Francis Crawford Burkitt, Early Eastern Christianity, 71 ff. 1904.

[13]  Syriac Versions of the Bible by Thomas Nicol

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