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Aramaic Thoughts

The Peshitta - Part 9

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"Englishing" the Peshitta

The English word "prevent" presents us with an interesting case study as we begin to consider the idea of turning a text from another language into English. Etymologically, the English word "prevent" means "to go before," as it is constructed from two Latin parts; pre meaning "before," and venire meaning "to go." In the King James Bible, the word prevent has exactly that meaning. Thus Matthew 17:25 says, "And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying." Since the time of the translation of the KJB, the English word "prevent" has changed its meaning. Now it commonly has to meaning "to stop," "to hinder," "to prohibit." As a result, most modern English readers would conclude that in Matthew 17:25, Jesus stopped Peter from going into the house. However, that would be an incorrect understanding of the statement, and modern English versions recognize it. So the ESV, as an example, translates that same passage, "And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying."

In addition, different dialects of English can mean very different things by the same word. For example, in American English the word "vest" refers to an outer, sleeveless garment usually worn over a shirt and under a jacket. In English English the word "vest" means a undergarment worn under a shirt, or what Americans would call an undershirt. What Americans call suspenders, Englishmen would call braces; and to an Englishman suspenders would refer to what Americans call garters. In English English the phrase "to knock up" means simply to contact or to visit, whereas in American English it is a colloquialism for "to impregnate."

We find similar issues when dealing with translating the Peshitta, which is Syriac, into English. Syriac, Aramaic, and Hebrew are all Semitic languages. Syriac and Aramaic are closely related, the former being a late, Eastern dialect of the former. Syriac as a distinct dialect of Aramaic does not appear until the 3or 4th century AD, while various forms of Aramaic go back as far a 1000 BC. Hebrew is related to Aramaic, and hence also to Syriac, and it shares with them not only the general structure of the language (words largely based on three-letter roots, for example) but often vocabulary as well. However, the fact that a word occurs in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac does not mean that the word actually means the same thing in all three languages. To use an example from another Semitic language, Arabic, the word salaam has the basic idea of "submission." The related word in Hebrew is shalom." But the basic idea of shalom is wholeness, or well-being. In fact, no occurrence of shalom in the Old Testament has any overtone of "submission." Conceivably, an Arab, hearing or reading shalom might attach to it the idea of submission, but he would be wrong in doing so, and would misunderstand the passage in which the word occurred.

In a manner similar to "prevent," Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac words sometimes change meaning over time. Thus a modern speaker of Hebrew might misunderstand Old Testament passages where a modern Hebrew word is the same as the Biblical Hebrew word, not realizing that the meaning has changed in the intervening centuries.

Any translator of any text, but particularly translators of the Bible have to be acutely aware of all these kinds of possibilities before they sit down to the task of translating and ancient Syriac text into modern English.


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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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