Bible (General)

Ever since the 2nd cent., when the first Syriac Bible translations were produced, the Bible has played an important role in Syriac Christianity. It is not just that many terms specific to the spirituality of the Syriac Churches have their origin in these versions, they have also contributed to the spread of the dialect of Edessa as a standard language for a large group of Christians. For today’s Syriac churches, they remain important, either in the original tongue or in translations into English or Malayalam. They have, however, also attracted the interest of scholars outside the Syriac communities. This has to do with the fact that the Syriac versions are very ancient and have also come down to us in relatively ancient mss. (see Bible, OT manuscripts and Bible, NT manuscripts). They give us a picture of the original Hebrew and Greek texts at the moment the translations into Syriac were made.

The first Syriac version of the OT must have been made in the second half of the 2nd cent. At least since the 9th cent., it has been known under the name Peshitta. In contrast to other early Christian translations of the OT, it was based on the Hebrew Bible rather than the Greek Septuagint. This fact gives it a special place among the witnesses to the Hebrew Bible, the pronunciation of which was codified only from the 7th cent. onwards.

When Greek OT commentaries started to be translated into Syriac in the 4th and 5th cent., their translators used the Peshitta for the biblical quotations. Soon they found out that this text did not always agree with the Greek text of the commentaries, which sometimes made it hard to understand what the exegete in question was referring to. For this reason, E.-Syr. translators started to add ad hoc translations of the biblical text as quoted in the Greek commentary to the verse taken from the Peshitta. They would mark these ad hoc renderings specifically as ‘the Greek’. At least since Mushe of Aggel early in the 6th cent., W.-Syr. translators started simply to render the biblical text of the commentary, no longer referring to the Peshitta. Such ad hoc renderings have often been mistaken for quotations from a version made by the chorepiscopus Polykarpos in 507/508, which may have extended to the OT: there is evidence at least for Genesis, Exodus, and Isaiah (the so-called Syro-Lucianic fragments edited by Ceriani may belong to it). This version is indicative of the high status accorded to the Greek language and Greek Bible by the person who commissioned it, Philoxenos of Mabbug. Philoxenos was afraid that loose renderings might give rise to Dyophysite interpretations.

A century later, in 613–17, the status of Greek among the W. Syr. was such that Pawlos of Tella felt the need to make an extremely literal ‘mirror translation’ of the Septuagint, known as the Syro-Hexapla. Here the unit of translation is the single word or even part of it. The name refers to Origen’s Hexapla, as it claims to be based on a version of the fifth, Septuagint, column supplied with text-critical signs indicating where material has been added or omitted, as well as notes referring to the three revisions: Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion.

At a time when the Greek language was losing its status, Yaʿqub of Edessa produced his revision of the Peshitta with the help of one or more Greek mss.; there is no evidence that he used the Syro-Hexapla, as has been assumed by some. It may be seen as a last effort to make the Greek Bible acceptable to Syriac readers. Yaʿqub’s version was a compromise between the two positions defended in Syriac Christianity: the position of Philoxenos, who would have liked to replace the Peshitta with a very literal rendering of the Septuagint, and that of Eusebius of Emesa, who thought that the Peshitta was reliable because the Syriac language was related to the Hebrew. In addition, Yaʿqub wanted to clarify the text to his readers.

Syriac exegetes of the OT (see Exegesis, Old Testament) were well aware of the existence of alternative readings. In his ‘Commentary on Genesis’ Ephrem already quotes two different renderings, without mentioning the source (ad Gen. 49:10 and 49:23). These alternative readings happen to agree with Targum Onqelos. In the 5th cent., translations of Antiochene commentaries of such authors as Eusebius of Emesa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and John Chrysostom showed to Syriac exegetes the practice of quoting ‘the Hebrew’ as well as the revisions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. Eusebius and Theodore were read by the E. Syr.; John Chrysostom was studied by W. Syr. as well. The latter of course also became familiar with this practice through the notes in the margins of the Syro-Hexapla.

Even though the E. Syr. adopted Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was rather negative about the authority of the Peshitta, as their exegete par excellence, and even though the W.-Syr. tradition was influenced by the opinion of Philoxenos that favored the Greek text, the Peshitta remained the standard version for all: ‘it is in the hands of the Syrians everywhere’ as Bar ʿEbroyo had to conclude in the introduction to his scholia on the Bible, the Awṣar roze. Only occasionally passages from the Syro-Hexapla found their way into W.-Syr. lectionary mss. used in the liturgy.

Problems of orthography and pronunciation in the Syriac language were dealt with in the mss. of the ‘Masora’, which flourished in the two centuries after Yaʿqub of Edessa. The W.-Syr. ‘Masora’, which is associated with the Monastery of Qarqaphto, gives samples from the OT and NT (Peshitta and Ḥarqlean), as well as patristic sources, in order to illustrate the correct use of the language in writing and reading; the E.-Syr. ‘Masora’ is exclusively biblical.

The Syriac versions of the NT are all based on Greek texts. Though they are the oldest translations in a Semitic language, there is no reason to assume any direct connection between these Syriac (i.e., Eastern Aramaic) texts and Jesus’ original words in Western Aramaic. Some unusual forms of vocabulary and grammar found in the so-called Old Syriac translation can easily be explained as archaic forms of the Syriac language. They should not necessarily be seen as Western, Palestinian Aramaic forms. For biblical scholars, the importance of the Syriac versions lies primarily in the fact that they are essential witnesses to the text history of the Greek NT, as they contain demonstrably archaic variants. Many of these must have originated in Greek mss. that are no longer available to us, but even where this is not the case, they may still give us insight into the theology and mindset of early Christians.

The oldest Syriac version of the Gospels is the Diatessaron (also ewangeliyon da-mḥallṭe ‘Gospel of the mixed’), written in the early 170s. This version, probably produced by Tatian and probably in Syriac rather than Greek, was quoted by such authors as Aphrahaṭ and Ephrem; the latter even composed a commentary on it. It remained in liturgical use until at least the early 5th cent., when it lost its canonical status and was replaced by the four separate Gospels (ewangeliyon da-mparrše ‘Gospel of the separated’). Although it was suppressed by force to such an extent that we are left only with quotations, there are reasons to believe that it influenced all later versions. Quotations in Ephrem indicate that the Acts and Epistles had also been translated by the 4th cent. It has been tentatively suggested that these translations, or forerunners of them, might also go back to Tatian’s efforts (Petersen).

The Vetus Syra or Old Syriac Version is the oldest version of the four separate Gospels. The two surviving mss., the Curetonianus and the Sinaiticus, both date back to the 5th cent., but they may be seen as two representatives of a translation probably made in the middle of the 3rd cent. The NT Peshitta is the result of a thorough revision of Old Syriac material, using slightly different Greek mss. The differences between the Old Syriac and the Peshitta can be explained on the basis of the different Greek texts used and the development in the ideas on translation technique: the Peshitta is more literal. In the time of Rabbula this version quickly gained currency as the standard version of the Syriac NT, replacing the Diatessaron and other early translations. The NT Peshitta also covers the Acts and Epistles, apart from 2 Peter, 2–3 John, and Jude; it also omitted Revelation.

As stated above, for theological reasons Philoxenos of Mabbug preferred a more precise rendering of the Greek, which Polykarpos made for him in 507/8. This Philoxenian Version was a revision of the Peshitta. There has been considerable confusion between this version and the Ḥarqlean version , made in 615/16 by Tumo of Ḥarqel. On the basis of Philoxenos’s Gospel commentaries, Brock has demonstrated that the Philoxenian is lost, apart from Philoxenos’s own quotations and perhaps a 6th-cent. translation of the Minor Catholic Epistles and Revelation. The Ḥarqlean, which covers all 27 NT books, shares many characteristics with the Syro-Hexapla, which was made in the same place, the Enaton outside Alexandria, and at the same time: it is a revision of the Philoxenian with the aim of producing a mirror translation of the Greek. Tuma strove to achieve a formal equivalence between Greek and Syriac which extended sometimes even below word level.

Syriac biblical mss. usually contain no more than one book or a small group of books, for instance the Pentateuch, the ‘Book of the Women’ (Ruth, Susanna, Esther, and Judith), or the Beth Mawtbe ‘the Book of Sessions’ (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Proverbs, Qohelet, Ruth, Song of Songs, Bar Sira, and Job; especially in the E.-Syr. tradition). Differences between the very few early pandects containing the whole OT show that neither the Syriac canon of the OT nor the order of books had been defined in the first millenium. Though there are reasons to believe that Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Job, and Song of Songs did not form part of the canon in earlier centuries (Haelewyck), the books of the Hebrew Bible are all present in these pandects. The situation with regard to the so-called Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical works, on the other hand, still differs from pandect to pandect. The Milan ms. (7a1) even contains part of Flavius Josephus’s ‘Jewish War’. The order of books is often chronological, in which Job, identified with Jobab of Gen. 10:29, is placed directly after the Pentateuch.

With regard to the NT, the Teaching of Addai states that members of the church are to read the Gospel, the Epistles of Paul, and the Book of Acts. During the first centuries, ‘the Gospel’ referred to the Diatessaron. As stated above, Ephrem already knew the four separate Gospels in the Old Syriac Version; he referred to them as ‘the Greek’. Only in the time of Rabbula the Peshitta with its four-Gospel canon replaced the Diatessaron. It contained a total of 22 books, as it did not include 2 Peter, 2–3 John, Jude, and Revelation (cf. also Apocalypses). This canon, also known from Antiochene authors, no longer included the additional (3rd) epistle to the Corinthians which is quoted in Ephrem’s Commentary on the Pauline Epistles (Armenian). It may also have ‘promoted’ 1 Peter and 1 John, which were known to Ephrem but probably not considered canonical by him. 2 Peter, 2–3 John, Jude, and Revelation were translated for the first time in the 6th cent. (possibly as part of the version made by Polykarpos for Philoxenos) and are also present in the Ḥarqlean Version.


See the literature quoted in the articles on the various Syriac versions, as well as:

  • F.  Briquel Chatonnet and Ph. Le Moigne (ed.), L’Ancien Testament en syriaque (ÉtSyr 5; 2008).
  • S. P.  Brock, The Bible in the Syriac tradition (Gorgias Handbooks 7; 2006).
  • W. L.  Petersen, ‘Problems in the Syriac New Testament and how Syriac exegetes solved them’, in The Peshitta: Its use in literature and liturgy, ed. R. B. ter Haar Romeny (MPIL 15; 2006), 53–74.
  • R. B.  ter Haar Romeny, ‘The Peshitta and its rivals. On the assessment of the Peshitta and other versions of the Old Testament in Syriac exegetical literature’, Harp 11–12 (1998–99), 21–31.
  • On the OT canon: J.-C. Haelewyck, ‘Le canon de l’Ancien Testament dans la tradition syriaque (manuscrits bibliques, listes canoniques, auteurs)’, in L’Ancien Testament en syriaque, ed. Briquel Chatonnet and Le Moigne (ÉtSyr 5; 2008), 141–71.

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