|Bible Research > Ancient Versions > Syriac > Nicol Article|
As in the account of the Latin versions it was convenient to start from Jerome's Vulgate, so the Syriac versions may be usefully approached from the Peshitta, which is the Syriac Vulgate.
Not that we have any such full and clear knowledge of the circumstances under which the Peshitta was produced and came into circulation. Whereas the authorship of the Latin Vulgate has never been in dispute, almost every assertion regarding the authorship of the Peshitta, and the time and place of its origin, is subject to question. The chief ground of analogy between the Vulgate and the Peshitta is that both came into existence as the result of a revision. This, indeed, has been strenuously denied, but since Dr. Hort in his Introduction to Westcott and Hort's New Testament in the Original Greek, following Griesbach and Hug at the beginning of the last century, maintained this view, it has gained many adherents. So far as the Gospels and other New Testament books are concerned, there is evidence in favor of this view which has been added to by recent discoveries; and fresh investigation in the field of Syriac scholarship has raised it to a high degree of probability. The very designation, "Peshito," has given rise to dispute. It has been applied to the Syriac as the version in common use, and regarded as equivalent to the Greek koine and the Latin Vulgate.
The word itself is a feminine form, meaning "simple," "easy to be understood." It seems to have been used to distinguish the version from others which are encumbered with marks and signs in the nature of an apparatus criticus. However this may be, the term as a designation of the version has not been found in any Syriac author earlier than the 9th or 10th century.
As regards the Old Testament, the antiquity of the Version is admitted on all hands. The tradition, however, that part of it was translated from Hebrew into Syriac for the benefit of Hiram in the days of Solomon is a myth. That a translation was made by a priest named Assa, or Ezra, whom the king of Assyria sent to Samaria, to instruct the Assyrian colonists mentioned in 2Ki 17, is equally legendary. That the translation of the Old Testament and New Testament was made in connection with the visit of Thaddaeus to Abgar at Edessa belongs also to unreliable tradition. Mark has even been credited in ancient Syriac tradition with translating his own Gospel (written in Latin, according to this account) and the other books of the New Testament into Syriac
But what Theodore of Mopsuestia says of the Old Testament is true of both: "These Scriptures were translated into the tongue of the Syrians by someone indeed at some time, but who on earth this was has not been made known down to our day" (Nestle in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, IV, 645b). Professor Burkitt has made it probable that the translation of the Old Testament was the work of Jews, of whom there was a colony in Edessa about the commencement of the Christian era (Early Eastern Christianity, 71 ff). 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, Canticles, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah followed by the Twelve Minor Prophets, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Ezekiel, and lastly Daniel. Most of the apocryphal books of the Old Testament are found in the Syriac, and the Book of Sirach is held to have been translated from the Hebrew and not from the Septuagint.
Of the New Testament, attempts at translation must have been made very early, and among the ancient versions of New Testament Scripture the Syriac in all likelihood is the earliest. It was at Antioch, the capital of Syria, that the disciples of Christ were first called Christians, and it seemed natural that the first translation of the Christian Scriptures should have been made there. The tendency of recent research, however, goes to show that Edessa, the literary capital, was more likely the place.
If we could accept the somewhat obscure statement of Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica, IV, xxii) that Hegesippus "made some quotations from the Gospel according to the Hebrews and from the Syriac Gospel," we should have a reference to a Syriac New Testament as early as 160-80 AD, the time of that Hebrew Christian writer. One thing is certain, that the earliest New Testament of the Syriac church lacked not only the Antilegomena--2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation--but the whole of the Catholic Epistles and the Apocalypse. These were at a later date translated and received into the Syriac Canon of the New Testament, but the quotations of the early Syrian Fathers take no notice of these New Testament books.
From the 5th century, however, the Peshitta containing both Old Testament and New Testament has been used in its present form only as the national version of the Syriac Scriptures. 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 for it the title of "Queen of the versions."
It is in the Gospels, however, that the analogy between the Latin Vulgate and the Syriac Vulgate can be established by evidence. If the Peshitta is the result of a revision as the Vulgate was, then we may expect to find Old Syriac texts answering to the Old Latin. Such texts have actually been found. Three such texts have been recovered, all showing divergences from the Peshitta, and believed by competent scholars to be anterior to it. These are, to take them in the order of their recovery in modern times, (1) the Curetonian Syriac, (2) the Syriac of Tatian's Diatessaron, and (3) the Sinaitic Syriac.
The Curetonian consists of fragments of the Gospels brought in 1842 from the Nitrian Desert in Egypt, and now in the British Museum. The fragments were examined by Canon Cureton of Westminster and edited by him in 1858. The manuscript from which the fragments have come appears to belong to the 5th century, but scholars believe the text itself to be as old as the 2nd century. In this recension the Gospel according to Matthew has the title Evangelion da-Mepharreshe, which will be explained in the next section.
The Diatessaron of Tatian is the work which Eusebius ascribes to that heretic, calling it that "combination and collection of the Gospels, I know not how, to which he gave the title Diatessaron." It is the earliest harmony of the Four Gospels known to us. Its existence is amply attested in the church of Syria, but it had disappeared for centuries, and not a single copy of the Syriac work survives.
A commentary upon it by Ephraem the Syrian, surviving in an Armenian translation, was issued by the Mechitarist Fathers at Venice in 1836, and afterward translated into Latin. Since 1876 an Arabic translation of the Diatessaron itself has been discovered; and it has been ascertained that the Cod. Fuldensis of the Vulgate represents the order and contents of the Diatessaron. A translation from the Arabic can now be read in English in Dr. J. Hamlyn Hill's The Earliest Life of Christ Ever Compiled from the Four Gospels.
Although no copy of the Diatessaron has survived, the general features of Tatian's Syriac work can be gathered from these materials. It is still a matter of dispute whether Tatian composed his Harmony out of a Syriac version already made, or composed it first in Greek and then translated it into Syriac. But the existence and widespread use of a Harmony, combining in one all four Gospels, from such an early period (172 AD), enables us to understand the title Evangelion da-Mepharreshe. It means "the Gospel of the Separated," and points to the existence of single Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, in a Syriac translation, in contradistinction to Tatian's Harmony. Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus in the 5th century, tells how he found more than 200 copies of the Diatessaron held in honor in his diocese and how he collected them, and put them out of the way, associated as they were with the name of a heretic, and substituted for them the Gospels of the four evangelists in their separate forms.
In 1892 the discovery of the 3rd text, known, from the place where it was found, as the Sinaitic Syriac, comprising the four Gospels nearly entire, heightened the interest in the subject and increased the available material. It is a palimpsest, and was found in the monastery of Catherine on Mt. Sinai by Mrs. Agnes S. Lewis and her sister Mrs. Margaret D. Gibson. The text has been carefully examined and many scholars regard it as representing the earliest translation into Syriac, and reaching back into the 2nd century. Like the Curetonian, it is an example of the Evangelion da-Mepharreshe as distinguished from the Harmony of Tatian.
The discovery of these texts has raised many questions which it may require further discovery and further investigation to answer satisfactorily. It is natural to ask what is the relation of these three texts to the Peshitta. There are still scholars, foremost of whom is G. H. Gwilliam, the learned editor of the Oxford Peshito (Tetraevangelium sanctum, Clarendon Press, 1901), who maintain the priority of the Peshitta and insist upon its claim to be the earliest monument of Syrian Christianity. But the progress of investigation into Syriac Christian literature points distinctly the other way. From an exhaustive study of the quotations in the earliest Syriac Fathers, and, in particular, of the works of Ephraem Syrus, Professor Burkitt concludes that the Peshitta did not exist in the 4th century. He finds that Ephraem used the Diatessaron in the main as the source of his quotation, although "his voluminous writings contain some clear indications that he was aware of the existence of the separate Gospels, and he seems occasionally to have quoted from them (Evangelion da-Mepharreshe, 186). Such quotations as are found in other extant remains of Syriac literature before the 5th century bear a greater resemblance to the readings of the Curetonian and the Sinaitic than to the readings of the Peshitta. Internal and external evidence alike point to the later and revised character of the Peshitta
How and where and by whom was the revision carried out? Dr. Hort, as we have seen, believed that the "revised" character of the Syriac Vulgate was a matter of certainty, and Dr. Westcott and he connected the authoritative revision which resulted in the Peshitta with their own theory, now widely adopted by textual critics, of a revision of the Greek text made at Antioch in the latter part of the 3rd century, or early in the 4th. The recent investigations of Professor Burkitt and other scholars have made it probable that the Peshitta was the work of Rabbula, bishop of Edessa, at the beginning of the 5th century. Of this revision, as of the revision which plays such an important part in the textual theory of Westcott and Hort, direct evidence is very scanty, in the former case altogether wanting. Dr. Burkitt, however, is able to quote words of Rabbula's biographer to the effect that "by the wisdom of God that was in him he translated the New Testament from Greek into Syriac because of its variations, exactly as it was." This may well be an account of the first publication of the Syriac Vulgate, the Old Syriac texts then available having been brought by this revision into greater conformity with the Greek text current at Antioch in the beginning of the 5th century. And Rabbula was not content with the publication of his revision; he gave orders to the priests and the deacons to see that "in all the churches a copy of the Evangelion da-Mepharreshe shall be kept and read" (ib 161 ff, 177 f). It is very remarkable that before the time of Rabbula, who ruled over the Syriac-speaking churches from 411 to 435, there is no trace of the Peshitta, and that after his time there is scarcely a vestige of any other text. He very likely acted in the manner of Theodoret somewhat later, pushing the newly made revision, which we have reason to suppose the Peshitta to have been, into prominence, and making short work of other texts, of which only the Curetonian and the Sinaitic are known to have survived to modern times.
The Peshitta had from the 5th century onward a wide circulation in the East, and was accepted and honored by all the numerous sects of the greatly divided Syriac Christianity. It had a great missionary influence, and 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 Sing-an-fu witnesses to the presence of the Syriac Scriptures in the heart of China in the 7th century. It was first brought to the West by Moses of Mindin, a noted Syrian ecclesiastic, who sought a patron for the work of printing it in vain in Rome and Venice, but found one in the Imperial Chancellor 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. The critical edition of the Gospels recently issued by Mr. G. H. Gwilliam at the Clarendon Press is based upon some 50 manuscripts. Considering the revival of Syriac scholarship, and the large company of workers engaged in this field, we may expect further contributions of a similar character to a new and complete critical edition of the Peshitta
Besides the Peshitta there are other translations which may briefly be mentioned. One of these is the Philoxenian, made by Philoxenus, bishop of Mabug (485-519) on the Euphrates, from the Greek, with the help of his Chorepiscopus Polycarp. The Psalms and portions of Isaiah are also found in this version; and it is interesting as having contained the Antilegomena--2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude.
Another is the Harclean, which is a revision of the Philoxenian, undertaken by Thomas of Harkel in Mesopotamia, and carried out by him at Alexandria about 616, with the help of Greek manuscripts exhibiting western reading. The Old Testament was undertaken at the same time by Paul of Tella. The New Testament contains the whole of the books, except Revelation. It is very literal in its renderings, and is supplied with an elaborate system of asterisks and daggers to indicate the variants found in the manuscripts.
Mention may also be made of a Syriac version of the New Testament known as the Jerusalem or Palestinian Syriac, believed to be independent, and not derived genealogically from those already mentioned. It exists in a Lectionary of the Gospels in the Vatican, but two fresh manuscripts of the Lectionary have been found on Mt. Sinai by Dr. Rendel Harris and Mrs. Lewis, with fragments of Acts and the Pauline Epistles. The dialect employed deviates considerably from the ordinary Syriac, and the Greek text underlying it has many peculiarities. It alone of Syriac manuscripts has the pericope adulterae. In Mt 27:17 the robber is called Jesus Barabbas. Gregory describes 10 manuscripts (Textkritik, 523 f).
Nestle, Syrische Uebersetzungen, PRE3, "Syriac Versions," Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, and Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament, 95-106; G. H. Gwilliam, Studia Biblica, II, 1890, III, 1891, V, 1903, and Tetraevangelium sanctum Syriacum; Scrivener, Intro4, 6-40; Burkitt, "Early Eastern Christianity," Texts and Studies, VII. 2 1-91, Evangelion da-Mepharreshe, I, II, and "Syriac Versions," Encyclopaedia Biblica; Gregory, Textkritik, 479-528.
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