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Aramaic Thoughts

The Peshitta of the Old Testament - Part 1

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The Peshitta has little direct influence on modern English versions of the Old Testament. In part, this is due to the primary reliance upon the Hebrew text, as being the original text for the composition of the Old Testament. It is also due to the fact that the Peshitta (as far as the Old Testament is concerned) is considered a secondary version. In other words, while the Peshitta may have originated as a direct translation from the Hebrew, there are a number of places where it seems clear that the Septuagint and/or the Aramaic Targums have influenced the Syriac rendering. Thus, even in difficult Hebrew passages, it is rare that the Peshitta alone is considered to have retained an original reading against the standard Hebrew text.

One exception to this general rule occurs in Gen 1:26. There, the Hebrew text reads, “And let them rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” The reference to “over all the earth” seems out of place to most scholars, since the text seems to be listing the creatures that populate the heavens and the earth. At this point, the Peshitta adds one word that makes it read, “Over the cattle, and over all the animals of the earth.” This reading is not found in the Septuagint. Nor is it found in the Samaritan Pentateuch, nor in the Targum Onkelos. All of these follow the Hebrew text. Should, then, the Syriac reading be preferred? On this point, the scholars are divided. John Skinner says, “the earth occurs where we should expect the wild beast of the earth. Chayath should undoubtedly be restored to the text on the authority of [the Syriac Peshitta].” In other words, Skinner considered that the word was originally in the text, somehow dropped out, and was retained by the Peshitta.

The Keil and Delitzsch commentary comes to a completely different conclusion. They say, “There is something striking in the introduction of the expression ‘and over all the earth,’ after the different races of animals have been mentioned, especially as the list of races appears to be proceeded with afterwards. If this appearance were actually the fact, it would be impossible to escape the conclusion that the text is faulty, and that chayath has fallen out; so that the reading should be, ‘and over all the wild beasts of the earth,’ as the Syriac has it. But as the identity of ‘every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth’ (ha’arets) with ‘everything that creepeth upon the ground’ (ha’adamah) in v. 25 is not absolutely certain; on the contrary, the change in expression indicates a difference of meaning; and as the Masoretic text is supported by the oldest critical authorities (LXX, Sam., Onk.), the Syriac rendering must be dismissed as nothing more than a conjecture.”

The same uncertainty is reflected in modern English versions. The New Revised Standard Version has put the Syriac reading in the text, with a footnote as to the reading of the Hebrew text. The Holman Christian Standard Bible has put the Hebrew reading in the text, with the Syriac reading in a footnote. The English Standard Version has put the Hebrew reading in the text, and has no footnote.


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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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