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Aramaic Thoughts

The Peshitta - Part 2

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The relation of the Peshitta to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and to the Aramaic Targums is a disputed point. In part, this is due to the fact that different manuscripts of the Peshitta give evidence of slightly different origins, or at least sources of influence. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the Peshitta developed in the following fashion: It began as a Jewish translation of the Hebrew text into Syriac in the last centuries BC, or perhaps as late as the first century AD. Early in its history it came under the influence of some of the early Targums, particularly in the Pentateuch. At some later point, perhaps in the second century AD, it came under the influence of the Septuagint, since at least the Book of Isaiah shows considerable familiarity with the Septuagint.

For several centuries, the manuscripts of the Peshitta reflect a certain laxness in the manner in which they were copied, in contrast with the almost obsessively careful manner in which the Hebrew text seems to have been copied. During this period there seems to have been further movement away from a careful adherence to the Hebrew text. In addition, there does not appear to have been any movement toward the standardization of the text until as late as the ninth century. Manuscripts after the ninth century, on the other hand, show a remarkable consistency.

Apparently in the ninth and tenth centuries a great many manuscripts were gathered up and taken to a monastery in Egypt by Syrian Christians. There are two interesting results from this transfer. First, those manuscripts sent to Egypt, which were all early manuscripts, eventually ended up in Rome and London (as a result of the work of the Catholic Church and 18th and 19th century adventurers). The original moving of these manuscripts to Egypt left a severe shortage of manuscripts in Syria itself. As a result, the post-ninth century manuscripts from Syria seem all to have originated from one original, and thus show the family characteristics that would be expected from such a situation. Since all of these later Syrian manuscripts come from one original, however, they are less significant in helping to explain the development of the text of the Peshitta, with all its oddities, than are those which ended up in Rome and London.

To further complicate matters, the Syrian church became divided in the fifth century between Nestorian (Eastern Syriac) and Jacobite (Western Syriac) sects. These Nestorian and Jacobite sects, though sharing the same language, had different scripts, hence the texts originating in the different areas are distinctive in their written form. Unlike the Hebrew Masoretic text (the Hebrew text as it was supplied with vowels and standardized in the period from the sixth to the tenth centuries) and the Septuagint, the Peshitta has not until recently been as carefully studied by textual scholars. Thus, there is a sense in which the study of the Peshitta is at the point now that the study of the Hebrew and Greek texts was at the beginning of the twentieth century. The next several decades promise to be very fruitful for study of the Syriac text of the Bible. A new careful scholarly translation of the Peshitta into English is even now under way.


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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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