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Aramaic Thoughts

The Peshitta - Part 1

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The Peshitta is a translation of the Bible (Old and New Testaments) into Syriac, which is a late dialect of Aramaic. It is to be distinguished from the Syro-Hexaplar version. The latter version was a Syriac translation based on the Septuagint text of Origen’s work known as the Hexapla. Origen was one of the early church fathers. He lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and his dates were AD 185-254 (though there is some discussion about those dates). Among his many works was a huge parallel-text Bible project. The first column was the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. The second column was that same text transliterated into Greek characters. The third through sixth columns were various Greek versions. The Septuagint constituted the fifth column. The Syro-Hexapla copied the distinctive marking of the text that Origen had made in the Hexapla. One of the best surviving manuscripts of the Syro-Hexapla is the Codex Ambrosianus Syrohexaplaris, which contains the Prophets and the Writings.

Peshitta is a Syriac word that means "simple." However, it is not clear what the significance of the term is in reference to the Syriac translation known by that name. It may be that it was intended to indicate that this was the common, or vulgar, version in the language of the people. It may mean that the version is intended to be literal (which it is) rather than a paraphrase. Or it may be intended to distinguish this version from that of the Syro-Hexapla which had the distinctive markings inherited from Origen.

There is a great deal of uncertainty about the origins of the Peshitta. According to P. B. Dirksen, who is a member of the Peshitta Institute in London, "There is no certain answer to the question where and when this translation came into being, whether originally it was a Jewish or a Christian translation, what the relation is between the text of the Peshitta and the Targumic tradition, and even what was the exact meaning of the name." In short, the origins and history of the version are shrouded in mystery.

Regardless of that mystery (which we will look at in more detail in coming weeks) the Peshitta became the standard Biblical text of the Syrian Church. The text is fairly readily available in the academic marketplace, but the quality of the print is not that great. A careful critical text is in the process of production, but is sufficiently expensive that only researchers who specialize in the field, or research libraries, will likely purchase copies. An English version is readily available in George Lamsa’s translation, Holy Bible: From the Ancient Eastern Text.

As noted above, there is a great deal of debate about the origins of the Peshitta. For example, a number of places seem clearly to be influenced by the Septuagint, while other places, particularly in the Pentateuch, seem to be heavily influenced by early Targums. Targums originated in Jewish circles in the late centuries BC, when Hebrew was being lost as the daily language of the people, and Aramaic was taking over. They had their origins in synagogue readings. The practice was to read the text in Hebrew, then for the reader to give an oral translation/paraphrase in Aramaic. Only later did it become the practice to start writing down and preserving these early Aramaic versions. Some of the texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls are early Targums.


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Meet the Author
Dr. Shaw was born and raised in New Mexico. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico in 1977, the M. Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1980, and the Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1981, with an emphasis in biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament and Targumic Aramaic, as well as Ugaritic).

He did two year of doctoral-level course work in Semitic languages (Akkadian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Middle Egyptian, and Syriac) at Duke University. He received the Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University in 2005.

Since 1991, he has taught Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a school which serves primarily the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he holds the rank of Associate Professor.

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