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The consensus within biblical scholarship, though not universal, is that the Old Testament of the Peshitta was translated into Syriac from 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. However, the 1905 United Bible Society Peshitta used new editions prepared by the Irish Syriacist John Gwynn for the missing books.
The name '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.
There is no 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 its 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 Hort maintained this view in his Introduction to New Testament in the Original Greek, following Griesbach and Hug at the beginning of the 19th century, it has gained many adherents. As far as the New Testament writings are concerned, there is evidence, aided and increased by recent discoveries, for the view that the Peshitta represents a revision, 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 "koiné"(κοινἠ) and the Latin "Vulgate" (Vulgata).
The word itself is a feminine form, meaning "simple", as in "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 a critical apparatus. However, 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 surely 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 2 Kings 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.
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 was has not been made known down to our day". 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. 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.
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 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 160–180 AD, the time of that Hebrew Christian writer. One thing is certain, the earliest New Testament of the Syriac church lacked not only the Antilegomena – 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the Apocalypse – but the whole of the Catholic Epistles. These were at a later date translated and received into the Syriac Canon of the New Testament, as the quotations of the early Syrian Fathers take no notice of these New Testament writings.
From the 5th century, however, the Peshitta containing both Old Testament and New Testament has been used in its present form as the national version of the Syriac Scriptures only. 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."
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 texts have been recovered, all showing divergences from the Peshitta, and believed by competent scholars to be older than it, and therefore better translations for use in text criticism. These are, to take them in the order of their recovery, (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 and edited by Canon Cureton of Westminster in 1858. The manuscript from which the fragments have come appears to belong to the 5th century, but scholars believe the text itself may be as old as the 100's CE. In this recension, the gospel according to Matthew has the title "Evangelion da-Mepharreshe", which will be explained in the next section.
The Diatessaron is the work which Eusebius ascribes to Tatian, an early Christian author considered by some to have been a heretic. Eusebius called it that "combination and collection of the Gospels, I know not how, to which he gave the title Diatessaron." (Ecclesiastical History book 4, 29:6) It is the earliest harmony of the four gospels known to us. Its existence is amply attested in the churches of Mesopotamia and 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 Codex Fuldensis of the Vulgate represents the order and contents of the Diatessaron. A translation from the Arabic can now be read in English in 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, i.e. combining all four gospels in one, 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 Syriac, in contradistinction to Tatian's Harmony. Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus in the 5th century CE, 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 third text comprising the four Gospels nearly entire, known as the Sinaitic Syriac, based on the place where it was found, 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 Agnes S. Lewis and her sister 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 may require further discovery and investigation to answer satisfactorily. It is natural to ask what the relation of these three texts is to the Peshitta. There are still scholars who maintain the priority of the Peshitta and insist upon its claim to be the earliest monument of Syrian Christianity, foremost of whom is G. H. Gwilliam, the learned editor of the Oxford Peshito. But, the progress of the investigation into Syriac Christian literature points distinctly the other way. From an exhaustive study of the quotations in the earliest Syriac Fathers and the works of Ephraem Syrus, in particular, 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. 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.
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". The critical edition of the gospels recently issued by 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.
The Peshitta version of the Old Testament is an independent translation based largely on a Hebrew text similar to the Proto-Masoretic Text. It shows a number of linguistic and exegetical similarities to the Targumim but is no longer thought to derive from them. In some passages, the translators have clearly used the Greek Septuagint. The influence of the Septuagint is particularly strong in Isaiah and the Psalms, probably due to their use in the liturgy. Most of the Deuterocanonicals are translated from the Septuagint, and the translation of Sirach was based on a Hebrew text.
The choice of books included in the Old Testament Peshitta changes from one manuscript to another, though most of the Deuterocanonicals are usually present. Biblical apocryphas, as 1 Esdras, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, Psalm 151 can be also found in some manuscripts. The manuscript of Biblioteca Ambrosiana, discovered in 1866, includes also 2 Baruch (Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch).
|UBS Order||Syriac Name||English Name|
|5||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܬܢ̇ܝܢ ܢܡܘܣܐ||Deuteronomy|
|7||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܝܫܘܥ ܒܪ ܢܘܢ||Joshua|
|8||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܕܝܢ̈ܐ ܕܒܢ̈ܝ ܐܝܣܪܐܝܠ||Judges|
|9||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܫܡܘܐܝܠ ܢܒܝܐ ܩܕܡܝܐ||1 Samuel|
|10||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܫܡܘܐܝܠ ܢܒܝܐ ܕܬܪܝܢ||2 Samuel|
|11||ܣܦܪܐ ܩܕܡ ܕܡܠܟ̈ܐ||1 Kings|
|12||ܣܦܪܐ ܬܪܝܢ ܕܡܠ̈ܟܐ||2 Kings|
|13||ܣܦܪܐ ܩܕܡܝܐ ܕܒܪܝܡܝܢ||1 Chronicles|
|14||ܣܦܪܐ ܬܪܝܢ ܕܒܪܝܡܝܢ||2 Chronicles|
|16||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܡ̈ܬܠܐ ܕܫܠܝܡܘܢ||Proverbs|
|18||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܪܥܘܬ ܡܘܐܒܝܬܐ||Ruth|
|19||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܬܫܒܚܬ ܬܫܒ̈ܚܬܐ||Song of Songs|
|21||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܥܙܪܐ ܢܒܝܐ||Ezra|
|23||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܐܫܥܝܐ ܒܪ ܐܡܘܨ||Isaiah|
|24||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܗܘܫܥ ܢܒܝܐ||Hosea|
|25||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܝܘܝܠ ܢܒܝܐ||Joel|
|26||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܥܡܘܣ ܢܒܝܐ||Amos|
|27||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܥܘܒܕܝܐ ܢܒܝܐ||Obadiah|
|28||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܝܘܢܢ ܢܒܝܐ||Jonah|
|29||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܡܝܟܐ ܢܒܝܐ||Micah|
|30||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܢܚܘܡ ܢܒܝܐ||Nahum|
|31||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܚܒܩܘܩ ܢܒܝܐ||Habbakuk|
|32||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܨܦܢܝܐ ܢܒܝܐ||Zephaniah|
|33||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܚܓܝ ܢܒܝܐ||Haggai|
|34||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܙܟܪܝܐ ܢܒܝܐ||Zechariah|
|35||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܡܠܐܟܝ ܢܒܝܐ||Malachi|
|36||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܐܪܡܝܐ ܢܒܝܐ||Jeremiah|
|37||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܐܘ̈ܠܝܬܗ ܪܐܪܡܝܐ ܢܒܝܐ||Lamentations|
|38||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܚܙܩܝܐܠ ܢܒܝܐ||Ezekiel|
|39||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܕܢܝܐܠ ܢܒܝܐ||Daniel|
|UBS Order||Syriac Name||English Name|
|3||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܐܣܬܝܪ||Additions to Esther|
|4||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܚܟܡܬܐ ܪܒܬܐ||Wisdom|
|5||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܝܫܘܥ ܒܪ ܐܣܝܪܐ||Sirach|
|6||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܐܪܡܝܐ||Letter of Jeremiah|
|7||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܒܪܘܟ ܣܦܪܐ||Baruch|
|8||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܬܪܬܝܢ ܕܒܪܘܟ ܣܦܪܐ||2 Baruch|
|9||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܕܢܝܐܝܠ (ܕܫܘܫܢ)||Additions to Daniel|
|10||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܡܩ̈ܒܝܐ: ܐ||1 Maccabees|
|11||ܣܦܪܐ ܕܡܩ̈ܒܝܐ: ܒ||2 Maccabees|
More than 250 manuscripts of the Old Testament Peshitta are known, and the main and older ones are:
The Peshitta version of the New Testament is thought to show a continuation of the tradition of the Diatessaron and Old Syriac versions, displaying some lively 'Western' renderings (particularly clear in the Acts of the Apostles). It combines this with some of the more complex 'Byzantine' readings of the 5th century CE. It contains the unusual feature of the absence of 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation, however, modern Syriac Bibles add 6th- or 7th-century translations of these five books to a revised Peshitta text.
With this understood, almost all Syriac scholars agree that the Peshitta gospels are translations of the Greek originals. However, there is a minority viewpoint in scholarship that the Aramaic New Testament of the Peshitta represents the original New Testament and the Greek is a translation of it. The type of text represented by Peshitta is the Byzantine. In a detailed examination of Matthew 1–14, Gwilliam found that the Peshitta agrees with the Textus Receptus only 108 times and with 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 Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII are summarized as follows:
In the first century CE, Josephus, the Jewish priest, 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.
Note: The following list does not necessarily reflect the historical canonicity or typical order of New Testament books in the Peshitta translation.
|UBS Order||Syriac Name||English Name|
|6||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܪ̈ܗܘܡܝܐ||Romans|
|7||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܩܘܪ̈ܝܢܬܝܐ ܩܕܡܝܬܐ||1 Corinthians|
|8||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܩܘܪ̈ܝܢܬܝܐ ܕܬܪܬܝܢ||2 Corinthians|
|9||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܓܠܛܝ̈ܐ||Galatians|
|10||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܐܦܣܝ̈ܐ||Ephesians|
|11||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܦܝܠܝܦܣܝ̈ܐ||Philippians|
|12||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܩܘܠ̈ܣܝܐ||Colossians|
|13||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܬܣܠ̈ܘܢܝܩܝܐ ܩܕܡܝܬܐ||1 Thessalonians|
|14||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܬܣܠ̈ܘܢܝܩܝܐ ܕܬܪܬܝܢ||2 Thessalonians|
|15||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܛܝܡܬܐܘܣ ܩܕܡܝܬܐ||1 Timothy|
|16||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܛܝܡܬܐܘܣ ܕܬܪܬܝܢ||2 Timothy|
|17||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܛܝܛܘܣ||Titus|
|18||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܘܠܘܣ ܕܠܘܬ ܦܝܠܝܡܘܢ||Philemon|
|19||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܠܘܬ ܥܒܪ̈ܝܐ||Hebrews|
|20||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܝܥܩܘܒ ܫܠܝܚܐ||James|
|21||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܦܛܪܘܣ ܫܠܝܚܐ||1 Peter|
|22||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܬܪܬܝܢ ܕܦܛܪܘܣ||2 Peter|
|23||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܝܘܚܢܢ ܫܠܝܚܐ||1 John|
|24||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܬܪܬܝܢ ܕܝܘܚܢܢ||2 John|
|25||ܐܓܪܬܐ ܕܬܠܬ ܕܝܘܚܢܢ||3 John|
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.
In Spanish exists Biblia Peshitta en Español (Spanish Peshitta Bible) by Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville, TN. U. S. A., published 2007.
The following manuscripts are in the British Archives:
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