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Aramaic Thoughts

The Peshitta - Part 12

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As with almost any subject these days, there are several websites devoted to the Peshitta. Some of these are connected with the Peshitta Institute of the University of Leyden. Some are connected in some way with the translation of the Peshitta done by George Lamsa. Others are independent of either. Of the latter two sorts, there is a tendency to make claims for the Peshitta that cannot stand up to close scrutiny.

One such claim is that all or part of the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic, rather than Greek. I have discussed this in previous columns. Suffice it to say here that while there is much early evidence for the existence of the New Testament in Greek, there is no early evidence for the existence of the New Testament in Aramaic. That is, the earliest manuscripts representing the Old Syriac text date to the fifth century, though they represent a form of text that goes back to the late second to early third century. The oldest full Greek manuscripts are of about the same age, but there are many fragmentary texts of the Greek New Testament that date back as early as the late first to early second century. The dates for the Peshitta are even later, since it is likely that it was not even done until the early fifth century. In addition, there are several characteristics of the Syriac of the Peshitta that show it to be “translation Syriac” rather than “composition Syriac.”

Another common claim is that the Peshitta is preferable because it is written in the language that Jesus and the disciples spoke. It is true that Jesus and the disciples probably spoke Aramaic. They probably also spoke Greek and Hebrew. It is also true that Syriac is a late variety of Aramaic. But note that it is a late variety of Aramaic. In other words there were uncountable changes that took place in Aramaic between the time of Jesus and the time of the Peshitta translation. It should also be noted that the Aramaic spoken by Jesus would have been Palestinian, while the Syriac is, of course, Syrian. Thus, there is not only a difference in time between the Aramaic of Jesus and that of the Peshitta, there is also a difference of place. Someone may say, “True, but it is the same language.” Try telling that to an American, an Englishman, and an Australian. Or even better, try telling that to a Welshman, and Englishman, and a Scot. They all speak English, but they are separated by space, and idioms and colloquialisms differ. Consider also the difference between Chaucer and the King James Bible. That is about the same time difference as that between the time of Jesus and the Peshitta. Languages, even in culturally conservative times and places, change over time. Even while the King James Bible remained the primary English Bible for approximately three hundred years (1650 to 1950), the English language was going through radical changes, and the language of the King James was not the language of the street. In a similar fashion, even though the Peshitta remained the standard version for Syriac Christianity, the Syriac language has continued to undergo changes since the time of the origin of the Peshitta. The language of the Peshitta is not the language of Jesus, nor is it the language of modern speakers of Syriac.

Next Week: More claims for the Peshitta


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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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