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Some ancient versions of the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures (the Greek Septuagint, Aramaic Targums, the Syriac Peshitta, and the Latin Vulgate) were produced right from the Hebrew and not through some other version, such as Greek or some other language.
What Is Syriac? Syriac is one of the dialects of Aramaic, which was the official language of the Persian Empire. It was the language of ancient Syria, spoken in northern Mesopotamia and around ancient Antioch, a western dialect of Aramaic in which many important early Christian texts are preserved, and which is still used by Syrian Christians. When it comes to the Old Testament Scriptures, Syriac came into broad use in the second or third century C.E. and the New Testament became a standard by the early fifth century C.E. The Peshitta is one of the earliest and most valuable witnesses to the early transmission of the Bible text.
The Peshitto (Classical Syriac: ܦܫܺܝܛܬܳܐ or ܦܫܝܼܛܬܵܐ pšīṭto) is the standard version of the Bible for churches in the Syriac tradition, including the Maronite Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Malabar Independent Syrian Church (Thozhiyoor Church), the Syro Malankara Catholic Church, the Malankara Marthoma Syrian Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Syro Malabar Catholic Church.
Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843–1920), nées Agnes and Margaret Smith (sometimes referred to as the Westminster Sisters), were Arabic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, and Syriac language scholars. Born the twin daughters of John Smith of Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, they learned more than 12 languages between them and became acclaimed scholars in their academic fields, and benefactors to the Presbyterian Church of England, especially to Westminster College, Cambridge.
Agnes Lewis’s discovery of the Syriac Sinaiticus (Old Syriac Gospels), on her first journey to Sinai (1892), was one of the most important palimpsest manuscript find since that of the Codex Sinaiticus in 1859 by Constantin von Tischendorf next to the Syriac Curetonian Gospels, today British Library. Her second most valuable attribution to the field of Aramaic (Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Syriac) studies and New and Old Testament text critique was the purchase of another unique palimpsest manuscript the Codex Climaci Rescriptus in Egypt (Cairo 1895; Port Tewfik 1906) and the largest batch from an unknown Berlin (Germany) scholar (1905), containing underneath several individual manuscripts in Christian Palestinian Aramaic of various lectionaries with Gospels, Epistles and Old Testament pericopes, an early apocryphal text Dormition of Mary with the hagiographic story of Peter and Paul (6th century), and Greek with Gospels (7th/8th centuries), overwritten by the Syriac translation of scala paradisi and liber ad pastorem by the monk John Climacus of Sinai, of which now surfaced the missing quire at Saint Catherine’s Monastery.
The consensus within biblical scholarship, although not universal, is that the Old Testament of the Peshitto was translated into Syriac from Biblical Hebrew, probably in the 2nd century AD, and that the New Testament of the Peshitta was translated from the Greek. This New Testament, originally excluding certain disputed books (2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation), had become a standard by the early 5th century. The five excluded books were added in the Harklean Version (616 AD) of Thomas of Harqel.
The Peshitta of Syriac-speaking people confessing Christianity was in widespread use from the fifth century C.E. onward. The word “Peshitta” means “simple.” The Hebrew Old Testament Scripture part was essentially a translation from the Hebrew, likely made during the second or third century C.E. However, a later revision involved comparing with the Septuagint.
|Full name||ܡܦܩܬܐ ܦܫܝܛܬܐ mappaqtâ pšîṭtâ|
|Other names||Peshitta, Peshittâ, Pshitto, Pšittâ, Pshitto, Fshitto|
|2nd century AD|
|Translation type||Syriac language|
|Religious affiliation||Syriac Christianity|
ܒܪܵܫܝܼܬܼ ܒܪ݂ܵܐ ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ ܝܵܬܼ ܫܡܲܝܵܐ ܘܝܵܬܼ ܐܲܪܥܵܐ ܘܐܲܪܥܵܐ ܗܘ̣ܵܬܼ ܬܘܿܗ ܘܒ݂ܘܿܗ ܘܚܸܫܘܿܟ݂ܵܐ ܥܲܠ ܐܲܦܲܝ̈ ܬܗܘܿܡܵܐ ܘܪܘܼܚܹܗ ܕܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ ܡܪܲܚܦܵܐ ܥܲܠ ܐܲܦܲܝ̈ ܡܲܝ̈ܵܐ ܘܐܸܡܲܪ݂ ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ: ܢܸܗܘܸܐ ܢܘܼܗܪܵܐ ܘܲܗ̤ܘܵܐ ܢܘܼܗܪܵܐ
Genesis 1:1 in other translations
ܘܣܲܓܝܼܐܹ̈ܐ ܡܸܢ ܒܢܲܝ̈ ܝܼܣܪܵܝܹܠ ܢܲܦܢܹܐ ܠܘܵܬ݂ ܡܵܪܝܵܐ ܐܲܠܵܗܗܘܿܢ
John 3:16 in other translations
Peshitta is derived from the Syriac mappaqtâ pšîṭtâ (ܡܦܩܬܐ ܦܫܝܛܬܐ), literally meaning “simple version”. However, it is also possible to translate pšîṭtâ as “common” (that is, for all people), or “straight”, as well as the usual translation as “simple”. Syriac is a dialect, or group of dialects, of Eastern Aramaic, originating around Edessa. It is written in the Syriac alphabet and is transliterated into the Latin script in a number of ways, generating different spellings of the name: Peshitta, Peshittâ, Pshitta, Pšittâ, Pshitto, Fshitto. All of these are acceptable, but Peshitta is the most conventional spelling in English.
The Peshitta had from the 5th century onward a wide circulation in the East and was accepted and honored by the whole diversity of sects of Syriac Christianity. It had a great missionary influence: the Armenian and Georgian versions, as well as the Arabic and the Persian, owe not a little to the Syriac. The famous Nestorian tablet of Chang’an witnesses to the presence of the Syriac scriptures in the heart of China in the 8th century. The Peshitta was first brought to the West by Moses of Mindin, a noted Syrian ecclesiastic who unsuccessfully sought a patron for the work of printing it in Rome and Venice. However, he was successful in finding such a patron in the Imperial Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire at Vienna in 1555—Albert Widmanstadt. He undertook the printing of the New Testament, and the emperor bore the cost of the special types which had to be cast for its issue in Syriac. Immanuel Tremellius, the converted Jew whose scholarship was so valuable to the English reformers and divines, made use of it, and in 1569 issued a Syriac New Testament in Hebrew letters. In 1645, the editio princeps of the Old Testament was prepared by Gabriel Sionita for the Paris Polyglot, and in 1657 the whole Peshitta found a place in Walton’s London Polyglot. For long the best edition of the Peshitta was that of John Leusden and Karl Schaaf, and it is still quoted under the symbol “Syrschaaf”, or “SyrSch.”
In a detailed examination of Matthew 1–14, Gwilliam found that the Peshitta agrees with the Textus Receptus only 108 times and with the Codex Vaticanus 65 times. Meanwhile, in 137 instances it differs from both, usually with the support of the Old Syriac and the Old Latin, and in 31 instances it stands alone.
To this end, and in reference to the originality of the Peshitta, the words of Patriarch Shimun XXI Eshai are summarized as follows:
- “With reference to … the originality of the Peshitta text, as the Patriarch and Head of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East, we wish to state, that the Church of the East received the scriptures from the hands of the blessed Apostles themselves in the Aramaic original, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and that the Peshitta is the text of the Church of the East which has come down from the Biblical times without any change or revision.”
In the first century CE, Josephus, the Jewish historian, testified that Aramaic was widely spoken and understood accurately by Parthians, Babylonians, the remotest Arabians, and those of his nation beyond Euphrates with Adiabeni. He says:
“I have proposed to myself, for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, ‘to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our country, and sent to the Upper Barbarians’. Joseph, the son of Matthias, by birth a Hebrew, a priest also, and one who at first fought against the Romans myself, and was forced to be present at what was done afterwards, [am the author of this work]”,
Jewish Wars (Book 1, Preface, Paragraph 1)(1:3)
“I thought it therefore an absurd thing to see the truth falsified in affairs of such great consequence, and to take no notice of it; but to suffer those Greeks and Romans that were not in the wars to be ignorant of these things, and to read either flatteries or fictions, ‘while the Parthians, and the Babylonians, and the remotest Arabians, and those of our nation beyond Euphrates, with the Adiabeni, by my means, knew accurately both whence the war begun, what miseries it brought upon us, and after what manner it ended’.”
Jewish Wars (Book 1 Preface, Paragraph 2) (1:6)
Yigael Yadin, an archeologist working on the Qumran find, also agrees with Josephus’ testimony, pointing out that Aramaic was the lingua franca of this time period. Josephus’ testimony on Aramaic is also supported by the gospel accounts of the New Testament (specifically in Matthew 4:24-25, Mark 3:7-8, and Luke 6:17), in which people from Galilee, Judaea, Jerusalem, Idumaea, Tyre, Sidon, Syria, Decapolis, and “from beyond Jordan” came to see Jesus for healing and to hear his discourse.
A statement by Eusebius that Hegesippus “made some quotations from the Gospel according to the Hebrews and from the Syriac Gospel,” means we should have a reference to a Syriac New Testament as early as 160–180 AD, the time of that Hebrew Christian writer. The translation of the New Testament is careful, faithful, and literal, and the simplicity, directness, and transparency of the style are admired by all Syriac scholars and have earned it the title of “Queen of the versions.”
Critical Edition of the New Testament
The standard United Bible Societies 1905 edition of the New Testament of the Peshitta was based on editions prepared by Syriacists Philip E. Pusey (d. 1880), George Gwilliam (d. 1914), and John Gwyn. These editions comprised Gwilliam & Pusey’s 1901 critical edition of the gospels, Gwilliam’s critical edition of Acts, Gwilliam & Pinkerton’s critical edition of Paul’s Epistles, and John Gwynn’s critical edition of the General Epistles and later Revelation. This critical Peshitta text is based on a collation of more than seventy Peshitta and a few other Aramaic manuscripts. All 27 books of the common Western Canon of the New Testament are included in this British & Foreign Bible Society’s 1905 Peshitta edition, as is the adultery pericope (John 7:53–8:11). The 1979 Syriac Bible, United Bible Society, uses the same text for its New Testament. The Online Bible reproduces the 1905 Syriac Peshitta NT in Hebrew characters.
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. Five different Syriac versions have been differentiated: The Old Syriac, the Peshitta, the Philoxenian Syriac, the Harkleian Syriac, and the Palestinian Syriac.
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”). 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.
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 thousandfold. The discovery of translations of the Diatessaron in Armenian and Arabic manuscripts in the twentieth century has given modern-day Christian apologists 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. 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.
- James Murdock – The New Testament, Or, The Book of the Holy Gospel of Our Lord and God, Jesus the Messiah (1851).
- John Wesley Etheridge – A Literal Translation of the Four Gospels From the Peschito, or Ancient Syriac and The Apostolical Acts and Epistles From the Peschito, or Ancient Syriac: To Which Are Added, the Remaining Epistles and The Book of Revelation, After a Later Syriac Text (1849).
- George M. Lamsa – The Holy Bible From the Ancient Eastern Text (1933)- Contains both the Old and New Testaments according to the Peshitta text. This translation is better known as the Lamsa Bible. He also wrote several other books on the Peshitta and Aramaic primacy such as Gospel Light, New Testament Origin, and Idioms of the Bible, along with a New Testament commentary. To this end, several well-known Evangelical Protestant preachers have used or endorsed the Lamsa Bible, such as Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, and William M. Branham.
- Andumalil Mani Kathanar – Vishudha Grantham. New Testament translation in Malayalam.
- Mathew Uppani C. M. I – Peshitta Bible. Translation (including Old and New Testaments) in Malayalam (1997).
- Arch-corepiscopos Curien Kaniamparambil- Vishudhagrandham. Translation (including Old and New Testaments) in Malayalam.
- Janet Magiera- Aramaic Peshitta New Testament Translation, Aramaic Peshitta New Testament Translation- Messianic Version, and Aramaic Peshitta New Testament Vertical Interlinear (in three volumes)(2006). Magiera is connected to George Lamsa.
- The Way International – Aramaic-English Interlinear New Testament
- William Norton- A Translation, in English Daily Used, of the Peshito-Syriac Text, and of the Received Greek Text, of Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, and 1 John: With An Introduction On the Peshito-Syriac Text, and the Received Greek Text of 1881 and A Translation in English Daily Used: of the Seventeen Letters Forming Part of the Peshito-Syriac Books. William Norton was a Peshitta primacist, as shown in the introduction to his translation of Hebrews, James, I Peter, and I John.
- Gorgias Press – Antioch Bible, a Peshitta text and translation of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Apocrypha.
Although physical evidence has yet to be found, J.S. Assemane in his Bibliotheca stated that a Syriac Gospel dated 78 A.D. was found in Mesopotamia.
The following manuscripts are in the British Archives:
- British Library, Add. 14470 – complete text of 22 books, from the 5th/6th century
- Rabbula Gospels
- Khaboris Codex
- Codex Phillipps 1388
- British Library, Add. 12140
- British Library, Add. 14479
- British Library, Add. 14455
- British Library, Add. 14466
- British Library, Add. 14467
- British Library, Add. 14669
- Attribution: This article incorporates text from the public domain: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia