The Old Testament of the Peshitta was translated from the Hebrew, probably in the 2nd century. The New Testament of the Peshitta, which originally excluded certain disputed books, had become the standard by the early 5th century.
The name 'Peshitta'
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. It is written in the Syriac alphabet, and is transliterated into the Roman alphabet in a number of ways: Peshitta, Peshittâ, Pshitta, Pšittâ, Pshitto, Fshitto. All of these are acceptable, but 'Peshitta' is the most conventional spelling in English.
Its Arabic counterpart is البسيطة "Al-Basîṭah", also meaning "The simple [one]".
History of the Syriac versions
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The name 'Peshitta' was first applied to the standard, common Syriac Bible in the ninth century, when it is called such by Moshe bar Kepha. However, it is clear that the Peshitta had a long and complex history before receiving its name. In fact the Peshitta Old Testament and New Testament are two completely separate works of translation.
The Peshitta Old Testament is the earliest piece of Syriac literature of any length, probably originating in the second century. Whereas the majority of the Early Church relied on the Greek Septuagint as their translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Syriac-speaking church used the Peshitta, which was translated from the Hebrew independently of the Septuagint. The Hebrew text that served as a master copy for the translation must have been relatively similar to the Masoretic Text of mediaeval and modern Hebrew Bibles. Although previous studies had suggested that it was translated from Aramaic Targumim, this is now rejected. However, some isolated targumic influences can be seen in the text (especially in the Pentateuch and Books of Chronicles), with the addition of little interpretive asides. The style and quality of translation in the Peshitta Old Testament varies quite widely. Some parts may have been translated by Syriac-speaking Jews before being taken over by the church, while other parts may have been worked on by early Jewish converts to Christianity. As Syriac is the language of Edessa, it is likely that the translation took place in that region. However, Arbela and Adiabene, with its large and influential second-century Jewish population, has also been suggested as the place of origin. A few scholars have pointed to a few supposedly Western Aramaic features in the text, which may suggest that the original translation took place in Palestine or Syria. However, the interpretation of these features is extremely difficult.
The origin of the Peshitta New Testament is complicated by the existence of two other Syriac gospel traditions: the Diatessaron and the Old Syriac. It is however unarguably the earliest instance we have of the Pauline epistles, James, 1 John and 1 Peter in Syriac (Aramaic). The earliest Gospel translation into Syriac was probably Tatian's Diatessaron ('one through four'). The no longer extant Diatessaron, was a continuous harmony of the four gospels into a single narrative. It, rather than the four separate gospels, became the official Syriac Gospel for a time, and received a beautiful prose commentary by Ephrem the Syrian, which remains the chief witness to its content. However, the Syriac-speaking church was urged to follow the practice of other churches and use the four separate gospels. Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus on the Euphrates in upper Syria in 423, sought out and found more than two hundred copies of the Diatessaron, which he 'collected and put away, and introduced instead of them the Gospels of the four evangelists'.
The early Syriac versions of both Old and New Testament with the four gospels, excluding the Diatessaron, is called the Old Syriac (Vetus Syra) version. There are two fifth-century manuscripts of the Old Syriac separate gospels (the Sinaitic Palimpsest and Curetonian Gospels). These are a comparatively free translation of the Greek text, the so-called 'Western' recension of it, and apparently making use of the Diatessaron text for phrasing. The Old Syriac Gospels were probably produced in the third century (although some date it to the early fourth century). The Old Syriac uses the Peshitta Old Testament for Old Testament quotes (and thus is the earliest witness to its existence) in the gospels, even in places where the quote is quite different in the Greek.
The Peshitta version of the four gospels and Acts is thought to be a reworking of Old Syriac material to form a unified version of the scriptures for the Syriac-speaking churches. The name of Rabbula, bishop of Edessa (d. 435) is popularly connected with the production of the Peshitta. However, it is extremely unlikely that he was involved with its production. By the early fifth century, the Peshitta was the standard Bible of the Syriac-speaking churches. Unlike the Greek canon, the Peshitta did not contain the Second Epistle of Peter, the Second Epistle of John, the Third Epistle of John, the Epistle of Jude and the Book of Revelation. However, examination of the earliest extant Peshitta manuscripts shows some variation, including Diatessaric and Old-Syriac features existing long after their supposed replacement. The subsequent divisions of the Syriac-speaking church did not displace the Peshitta as the common scriptures of all groups.
In the West-Syriac Church, theological dispute within the Byzantine Empire necessitated the production of a Syriac Bible that was closer to the Greek text. Philoxenus of Mabbog (died 523) produced a New Testament text along these lines, the Philoxenian Version, but it appears that this may have just covered a few key passages and text for those books in the Greek canon that were not in the Peshitta. In the seventh century, a complete Syriac Bible based on the standard Greek was produced. The Syro-Hexapla is a version of the Old Testament based on the fifth column of Origen's Hexapla (to which it is now the most important witnesses). The Harklean Version, under the supervision of Thomas of Harkel, is a fairly close Syriac translation of the Greek New Testament, but oddly containing a few Old-Syriac features. In spite of the existence of these translations, the Peshitta remained the common Bible of the Syriac-speaking churches, and these more technical (called 'spiritual' in their time) translations were mostly confined to the desks of Syriac theologians.
Old Testament 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 Aramaic Targums but is now 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 an other. Usually most of the Deuterocanonicals are present. Other Biblical apocryphas, as 1 Esdras, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, Psalm 151 can be found in some manuscripts. The manuscript of Biblioteca Ambrosiana, discovered in 1866, includes also 2 Baruch (Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch).
More than 250 manuscripts of the Old Testament Peshitta are known, and the main and older ones are:
- London, British Library, Add. 14,425 (also referred to as "5b1" in Leiden numeration): dated in the second half of fifth century AD, it includes only Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The text is more similar to the Masoretic Text than the text of the most other manuscripts, even if somewhere it has relevant differences.
- Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, B. 21 inf (also referred to as "7a1"): it was discovered by Antonio Ceriani in 1866 and published in 1876-1883. This manuscript dates the sixth or the seventh century, in 1006/7 became part of the library of the Syrian Monastery in Egypt and in the 17th century was moved to Milan. The text is used as base text in the critical edition of Peshitta Institute of Leiden. It includes all the books of the Hebrew Bible and Wisdom (of Solomon), Letter of Jeremiah, Baruch, Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, Judith, Sirach, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, 2 Baruch (the only extant manuscript in Syriac) with the Letter of Baruch, 2 Esdras, and the second book of the The Jewish War
- Paris, Bibliothèque National, Syr. 341 (also referred to as "8a1"): it dates the eight century or even before and has many corrections. It includes all the books of the Hebrew Bible and Wisdom (of Solomon), Letter of Jeremiah, Baruch, Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, Judith, Sirach, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, Odes, Prayer of Manasseh, Letter of Baruch
- Florence, Laurentian Library, Or. 58 (also referred to as "9a1"): this manuscript has a text more similar to the Masoretic Text as "5b1" has, and scholars don't know if this is due to a more original text, or to later corrections. It includes all the books of the Hebrew Bible and Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, Judith, Prayer of Manasseh
- Cambridge, University Library, Oo.I.1,2 (also referred to as "12a1" or as "Buchanan Bible"): it is a 12th-century manuscript that probably originated in Tur Abdin area, and was later moved to India and later to Cambridge by Claudius Buchanan in the early 19th century. It is the best testimony of an important textual family. It includes all the books of the Hebrew Bible and Wisdom (of Solomon), Letter of Jeremiah, Baruch, Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, Judith, Sirach, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Tobit, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, Letter of Baruch
- Baghdad, Library of Chaldean Patriarchate, 211 (Mosul cod. 4): 12th century manuscript used often as base text for Psalms 152–155
Early Print Editions
- Paris Polyglot, 1645, edited by Gabriel Sionita and probably based on manuscript "17a5", considered today a recent and not reliable manuscript.
- London Polyglot, 1657, based on the Paris Polyglot text with an appendix of the some collations from other manuscripts kept in Oxford ranging form the 12th to the 17th century.
- Samuel Lee edition, first printed in London in 1823 by the British and Foreign Bible Society and reprinted in 1826. The text is almost like the London Polyglot's one. In the 1826 the British and Foreign Bible Society decided to cut from each printed copy of this Bible the page containing the Psalm 151 because this Psalm is not in the Protestant canon.
- Urmia Bible, published in 1852 by Justin Perkins, that included also a parallel translation in the Urmian dialect of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic language.
- Mosul edition, published in 1888-1892 by Clement Joseph David  and by Mar Georges Ebed-Iesu Khayyath for the Dominican mission. This edition, differently from previously editions, includes also some books not in the Hebrew Bible but found in many Peshitta manuscripts: these books included are: Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther, Wisdom (of Solomon), Sirach, Letter of Jeremiah, Baruch, Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 2 Baruch with the Letter of Baruch.
New Testament Peshitta
The Peshitta version of the New Testament shows 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 with this some of the more complex 'Byzantine' readings of the fifth century. One peculiar feature of the Peshitta is the absence of 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude and Revelation. Modern Syriac Bibles add sixth or seventh century translations of these five books to a revised Peshitta text.
Almost all Syriac scholars agree that the Peshitta gospels are translations of the Greek originals. A minority viewpoint is that the Peshitta represent 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, while in 137 istances it differs from both, usually with the support of the Old Syriac and the Old Latin, in 31 instances is stands alone.
In reference to the originality of the Peshitta, the words of Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII 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."
For more information, see Peshitta primacy.
The Peshitta, lightly revised and with missing books added, is the standard Syriac Bible for churches in the Syriac tradition: the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Indian Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, the Mar Thoma Church, the Syro-Malabar Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The Syrian Christians in India have mostly replaced Syriac with the Dravidian language, Malayalam. The Arabic language is becoming more common, if not for liturgical readings, for sermons and personal study of the Bible among Syriac Christians in the Middle East.
Translations and Modern developments
A 1933 translation of the Peshitta into English, edited by George M. Lamsa, is known as the Lamsa Bible.
From 1961, the Peshitta Institute of Leiden has published the most comprehensive critical edition of the Peshitta as a series of facsimiles.
In 1994, Dr. Curien Corepiscopa Kaniamparambil translated Peshitta into Malayalam, which is popularly known as Vishudhagrandham, published by The Syrian Orthodox Bible Society of India, Kerala, India.
New Testament Translations
Both John Wesley Etheridge (1846–1849) and James Murdock (1852) produced translations of the New Testament Peshitta in the 19th century.
In 1901, P. E. Pusey and G. H. Gwilliam published a critical text of the Peshitta with a Latin translation. Then, in 1905, the British and Foreign Bible Society produced a clear, non-critical version of the Peshitta gospels. In 1920, this version was expanded to a complete New Testament.
In 1996, the first edition of George Anton Kiraz's Comparative Edition of the Syriac Gospels: Aligning the Old Syriac Sinaiticus, Curetonianus, Peshitta and Harklean Versions (abbr. CESG; the Harklean text was prepared by Andreas Juckel) was published by Brill. The subsequent second (2002) and third (2004) editions were printed by Gorgias Press LLC.
- Syriac language
- Syriac versions of the Bible
- Syro-hexaplar version
- Rabbula Gospels
- Khaboris Codex
- Codex Phillipps 1388
- British Library, Add. 12140
- British Library, Add. 14479
- British Library, Add. 14455
- for the order of the books in the manuscripts see S. Brock The Bible in the Syriac Tradition ISBN 1593333005 pag 116
- A. S. van der Woude In Quest of the Past ISBN 9004091920 (1988), pag 70
- Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Damascus, born 1829
- Bruce M. Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission and Limitations (Oxford University Press 1977), p. 50.
- His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun, Catholicos Patriarch of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East. April 5, 1957
- The New Testament of the Book of the Holy Gospel of our Lord and our God Jesus the Messiah a Literal Translation from the Syriac Peshito Version.
- Brock, Sebastian P. (2006) The Bible in the Syriac Tradition: English Version Gorgias Press LLC, ISBN 1593333005
- Dirksen, P. B. (1993). La Peshitta dell'Antico Testamento, Brescia, ISBN 8839404945
- Flesher, P. V. M. (ed.) (1998). Targum Studies Volume Two: Targum and Peshitta. Atlanta.
- Kiraz, George Anton (1996). Comparative Edition of the Syriac Gospels: Aligning the Old Syriac Sinaiticus, Curetonianus, Peshitta and Harklean Versions. Brill: Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2002 [2nd ed.], 2004 [3rd ed.].
- Lamsa, George M. (1933). The Holy Bible from Ancient Eastern Manuscripts. ISBN 0-06-064923-2.
- Pinkerton, J. and R. Kilgour (1920). The New Testament in Syriac. London: British and Foreign Bible Society, Oxford University Press.
- Pusey, Philip E. and G. H. Gwilliam (1901). Tetraevangelium Sanctum iuxta simplicem Syrorum versionem. Oxford University Press.
- Weitzman, M. P. (1999). The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: An Introduction. ISBN 0-521-63288-9.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Peshitto.|
- Syriac Peshitta on archive.org.
- Peschitto on wikisyr.com.
- The Peshitta Institute Leiden.
- The Development of the Canon of the New Testament.
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Bible Translations.
- Youngest known Masoretic manuscript.
- Aramaic Peshitta Bible Repository
- Interlinear Aramaic/English text
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