Friday, June 29, 2018

Précis: Peter Williams 2014 "The Syriac Versions of the New Testament"

A Précis of
Chapter six of Ehrman, Bart and Michael Holmes, Editors, 2014 The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, Second Edition, Brill.

This volume is an updating and expansion on the first edition of 1995. The volume contains 28 articles to cover the current status of research on many basic areas in NT TC. The first 16 chapters survey the sources of the NT text available to us. The 12 chapters making up the second main part of the book focus on NTTC Theory and Method.

“Chapter Six: The Syriac Versions of the New Testament.” by Peter J. Williams, pp. 143-166

Syriac, an Eastern Aramaic dialect,  is known from inscriptions dating back to AD 6 and from pagan and secular manuscripts a little later.  “From the mid-second century onward” Christian writings appear. By the fourth century Christianity “dominated literary output.” (143) Syriac language Christianity experienced a wide expansion into “parts of Central Asia and China. Syriac influence can in fact be felt in translations of the Bible in Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic,Georgian, Middle Persian, and Sogdian.” (143)

Bible translation into Syriac dates from the second century, from the OT Hebrew with some Greek influence. “Between the Diatessaron in the second century and the Harclean in the seventh, five significant translations of major parts of the New Testament were produced.”(143)

“[S]cholars have only distinguished Syriac from other forms of Aramaic since the time of Immanuel Tremellius (1510-1580).” Therefore uses of the term Syriac in writings before his time “could well refer to a work in West or Palestinian Aramaic.”(144n2)

Earlier Syriac language translations were less literal than later translations. “Thus, while earlier translations are generally of greater textual significance, their witness is also harder to evaluate in many instances.”(144)

Williams covers the five versions: 1 The Diatessaron, 2 Old Syriac Versions, 3 The Peshitta, 4 Post-Peshitta Versions, and 5 Christian Palestinian Aramaic.

The Diatessaron of Tatian is probably the earliest. Tatian, a student of Justin Martyr, made a harmony of the Gospels (the Diatessaron “through the four”) which was cited by mainly Syriac Church Fathers. Whether Tatian did this work in Greek or Syriac is unknown. No known text of the Diatessaron as a work survives to us. Tatian’s version was in use widely in the East during the fourth century. Theodoret of Cyrrhus (bishop 423-457) worked to replace over two hundred copies of the Diatessaron with books of the individual Gospels. (144) The main source for the Diatessaron is Ephrem’s Commentary on the Diatessaron (Syriac and Armenian). In the West there were other harmonies leaving the influence of the Diatessaron in the West up to debate. Williams argues that the witnesses to the Diatessaron should be handled as Patristic evidence.

The Old Syriac Versions of the Gospels are known from two manuscripts 1) the Curetonian Syriac (syrc) and 2) the Codex Sinaiticus (syrs) or Sinai Syr. 30 (a late-fourth or early-fifth century palimpsest). Both these are earlier than the Peshitta. “Scholars now generally agree that this version arose after the Diatessaron,” though there are a few who believe it was prior to Tatian, and also a theory that these versions arose contemporaneously but independently.(146) Some scholars argue these translations show evidence that they underwent revision. One category of data used in evidence of this revision is the alternation between the name ܺܝܫܽܘܥ Jesus and the title ܡܳܪܰܢ  Our Lord. The Sinaitic Ms ends the Gospel of Mark at 6:8, while the Curetonian lacks all of Mark except 16:17-20! The Old Syriac text does not fit neatly into the categories of witnesses advanced in TC through Wescott and Hort. “Since writers prior to the making of the Peshitta were clearly familiar with Acts and Paul in Syriac, their citations and allusions are often deemed to bear witness to an Old Syriac version of Acts and Paul” (148) Lack of a Syriac text for comparison makes evaluating the quotations of Ephrem (in Armenian) and others difficult. Williams writes against “defining everything that disagrees with the Peshitta and subsequent translations as Old Syriac.”(149f)

The Peshitta translation is believed to have originated in the late-fourth to early-fifth century. This was the Bible for “all branches of Syriac-speaking Christianity.”(150) Contents same as Western Canon but without 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude or Revelation. Previous thought was that Rabbula, bishop of Edessa (411-435) was “responsible for this translation.”(150) A sixth or seventh century Life of Rabbula credits him with “a translation of the New Testament from Greek into Syriac.”(150) More recent scholarship gives evidence that the Peshitta is earlier than Rabbula and that the Old Syriac was used long after the Peshitta was introduced. As a translation the Peshitta “is not completely uniform.” Translations of particular words and phrases are not consistent from one book to another. The current “standard edition of the Gospels is that of Pusey and Gwilliam.” But “their edition … fails to present many variants.” (150) “The edition may therefore give an impression of greater uniformity in the transmission of the Peshitta than is truly justified.” Williams describes the current critical editions and value to NTTC.

Post-Peshitta Versions include the Harclean and the Piloxenian. Of the two, Williams states the Harclean is more valuable to NTTC. Williams outlines the origins of these two versions, one from Piloxenus, bishop of Mabbug, completed in 507/508. The other from Thomas of Harkel bishop of Mabbug, completed in the early-seventh century. “The Harklean version is a revision of the Piloxenian containing all twenty-seven New Testament books and marks the zenith of literalism in Syriac representation of Greek.”(154) This version has been particularly valuable in demonstrating the antiquity of the readings behind some Greek minuscule manuscripts from the eleventh century or later. (155)

The Christian Palestinian Aramaic version, (a.k.a.: Palestinian Syriac, or Syro-Palestinian version) may date from the fifth century. The “earliest extant manuscripts come from the sixth century.” (155) This version was used by the Melkites in Palestine and Transjordan. It is based on a Greek original. Further study of this version is needed with respect to many issues.

After describing these versions, Williams gives two practical examples using the Syriac versions in NTTC.


The author’s first set of example deals with the data of the Old Syriac and the Peshitta. It is critical that “we have adequate knowledge of the text,” and “that we understand its method of translation, consistency of translation, and extent of revision.” Too often textual critics “allow preconceived notions rather than systematic study to establish equivalents between Greek and Syriac.”(156) Williams then gives examples of issues concerning translational equivalents. His first example is brief, the relationship betweenܥܢܐ and ἀποκρίνομαι. William’s second example is more detailed concerning the words for “people” ܥܰܡܳܐ, ἔθνος, λαός, ὄχλος; and the kinds of considerations needed to be able to make claims based on actual data.

Williams concludes with an example relating to the Harclean version. The Harclean version is intentional in its degree of formal correspondence between Greek and Syriac. But no person or group of translators can be completely consistent across such a work with equivalences. This raises the issue of whether the non-consistent variants are inconsistent due to intent or accident. Williams discusses briefly how conclusions might be reached on this type of issue.

The chapter is followed by a six page bibliography.

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