The Syriac Peshitta—A Window on the World of Early Bible Translations

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Agnes Smith Lewis and St. Catherine’s Monastery

Agnes Smith Lewis and St. Catherine’s Monastery

For nine days in 1892, the twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson journeyed by camel through the desert to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. Why would these two women in their late 40’s undertake such a journey at a time when travel in what was called the Orient was so dangerous? The answer may help strengthen your belief in the accuracy of the Bible.

JUST before returning to heaven, Jesus commissioned his disciples to bear witness about him “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the most distant part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This the disciples did with zeal and courage. Their ministry in Jerusalem, however, soon stirred up strong opposition, resulting in the martyrdom of Stephen. Many of Jesus’ disciples found refuge in Antioch, Syria, one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire, some 350 miles (550 km) north of Jerusalem.—Acts 11:19.

In Antioch, the disciples continued to preach “the good news” about Jesus, and many non-Jews became believers. (Acts 11:20, 21) Though Greek was the common language within the walls of Antioch, outside its gates and in the province, the language of the people was Syriac.

THE GOOD NEWS TRANSLATED INTO SYRIAC

As the number of Syriac-speaking Christians increased in the second century, there arose a need for the good news to be translated into their tongue. Thus, it appears that Syriac, not Latin, was the first vernacular into which parts of the Christian Greek Scriptures were translated.

By about 170 C.E., the Syrian writer Tatian (c. 120-173 C.E.) combined the four canonical Gospels and produced, in Greek or Syriac, the work commonly called the Diatessaron, a Greek word meaning “through [the] four [Gospels].” Later, Ephraem the Syrian (c. 310-373 C.E.) produced a commentary on the Diatessaron, thus confirming that it was in general use among Syrian Christians.

The Diatessaron is of great interest to us today. Why? In the 19th century, some scholars argued that the Gospels were written as late as the second century, between 130 C.E. and 170 C.E., and thus could not be authentic accounts of Jesus’ life. However, ancient manuscripts of the Diatessaron that have come to light since then have proved that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were already in wide circulation by the middle of the second century. They must therefore have been written earlier. In addition, since Tatian, when compiling the Diatessaron, did not make use of any of the so-called apocryphal gospels in the way he did the four accepted Gospels, it is evident that the apocryphal gospels were not viewed as reliable or canonical.

Syriac Peshitta of the Pentateuch, 464 C.E.,  the second-oldest dated manuscript of Bible text

Syriac Peshitta of the Pentateuch, 464 C.E., the second-oldest dated manuscript of Bible text

By the start of the fifth century, a translation of the Bible into Syriac came into general use in northern Mesopotamia. Likely made during the second or third century C.E., this translation included all the books of the Bible except 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. It is known as the Peshitta, meaning “Simple” or “Clear.” The Peshitta is one of the oldest and most important witnesses to the early transmission of the Bible text.

Interestingly, one manuscript of the Peshitta has a written date corresponding to 459/460 C.E., making it the oldest Bible manuscript with a definite date. In about 508 C.E., a revision of the Peshitta was made that included the five missing books. It came to be known as the Philoxenian Version.

MORE SYRIAC MANUSCRIPTS DISCOVERED

Until the 19th century, almost all the known Greek copies of the Christian Greek Scriptures were from the fifth century or much later. For this reason, Bible scholars were especially interested in such early versions as the Latin Vulgate and the Syriac Peshitta. At the time, some believed that the Peshitta was the result of a revision of an older Syriac version. But no such text was known. Since the roots of the Syriac Bible go back to the second century, such a version would provide a window on the Bible text at an early stage, and it would surely be invaluable to Bible scholars! Was there really an old Syriac version? Would it be found?

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

Yes, indeed! In fact, two such precious Syriac manuscripts were found. The first is a manuscript dating from the fifth century. It was among a large number of Syriac manuscripts acquired by the British Museum in 1842 from a monastery in the Nitrian Desert in Egypt. It was called the Curetonian Syriac because it was discovered and published by William Cureton, the museum’s assistant keeper of manuscripts. This precious document contains the four Gospels in the order of Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke.

The second manuscript that has survived to our day is the Sinaitic Syriac. Its discovery is linked with the adventurous twin sisters mentioned at the start of this article. Although Agnes did not have a university degree, she learned eight foreign languages, one of them Syriac. In 1892, Agnes made a remarkable discovery in the monastery of St. Catherine in Egypt.

There, in a dark closet, she found a Syriac manuscript. According to her own account, “it had a forbidding look, for it was very dirty, and its leaves were nearly all stuck together through their having remained unturned” for centuries. It was a palimpsest manuscript of which the original text had been erased and the pages rewritten with a Syriac text about female saints. However, Agnes spotted some of the writing underneath and the words “of Matthew,” “of Mark,” or “of Luke” at the top. What she had in her hands was an almost complete Syriac codex of the four Gospels! Scholars now believe that this codex was written in the late fourth century.

The Sinaitic Syriac is considered one of the most important Biblical manuscripts discovered, right along with such Greek manuscripts as the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus. It is now generally believed that both the Curetonian and Sinaitic manuscripts are extant copies of the old Syriac Gospels dating from the late second or early third century.

“THE WORD OF OUR GOD ENDURES FOREVER”

Can these manuscripts be useful to Bible students today? Undoubtedly! Take as an example the so-called long conclusion of the Gospel of Mark, which in some Bibles follows Mark 16:8. It appears in the Greek Codex Alexandrinus of the fifth century, the Latin Vulgate,and elsewhere. However, the two authoritative fourth-century Greek manuscripts—Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus—both end withMark 16:8. The Sinaitic Syriac does not have this long conclusion either, adding further evidence that the long conclusion is a later addition and was not originally part of Mark’s Gospel.

Consider another example. In the 19th century, almost all Bible translations had a spurious Trinitarian addition at 1 John 5:7However, this addition does not appear in the oldest Greek manuscripts. Neither does it appear in the Peshitta, thus proving that the addition at 1 John 5:7 is indeed a corruption of the Bible text.

Clearly, as promised, Jehovah God has preserved his Holy Word. In it we are given this assurance: “The green grass dries up, the blossom withers, but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isaiah 40:8;1 Peter 1:25) The version known as the Peshitta plays a humble but important role in the accurate transmission of the Bible’s message to all of humanity.

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What Is Syriac?

Syriac is one of the dialects of Aramaic, an official language of the Persian Empire. It was spoken in northern Mesopotamia and around ancient Antioch, where many became believers of the good news in the first century C.E. As a written language, Syriac came into wide use in the second or third century C.E.

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