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The name 'Peshitta'
The name 'Peshitta' is derived from the Syriac mappaqtâ pî?tâ literally meaning 'simple version'. However, it is also possible to translate pî?tâ as 'common' (that is, for all people), or 'straight', as well as the usual translation as 'simple'. Syriac is a dialect, or group of dialects, of Eastern Aramaic. It is written in the Syriac alphabet, and is transliterated into the Roman alphabet in a number of ways: Peshitta, Peshittâ, Pshitta, Pittâ, Pshitto, Fshitto. All of these are acceptable, but 'Peshitta' is the most convenient spelling in English.
History of the Syriac versions
Peshitta text of Exodus 13:14-16 produced in Amida in the year 464.The name 'Peshitta' was first applied to the standard, common Syriac Bible in the ninth century, when it is called such by Moshe bar Kepha. However, it is clear that the Peshitta had a long and complex history before receiving its name. In fact the Peshitta Old Testament and New Testament are two completely separate works of translation.
The Peshitta Old Testament is the earliest piece of Syriac literature of any length, probably originating in the second century. Whereas the majority of the Early Church relied on the Greek Septuagint, or translations from it, for their Old Testament, the Syriac-speaking church had its text translated directly from the Hebrew. The Hebrew text that served as a master copy for the translation must have been relatively similar to the Masoretic Text of mediaeval and modern Hebrew Bibles. Although previous studies had suggested that it was translated from Aramaic Targumim, this is now rejected. However, some isolated targumic influences can be seen in the text (especially in the Pentateuch and Books of Chronicles), with the addition of little interpretive asides. The style and quality of translation in the Peshitta Old Testament varies quite widely. Some parts may have been translated by Syriac-speaking Jews before being taken over by the church, while other parts may have been worked on by early Jewish converts to Christianity. As Syriac is the language of Edessa, it is likely that the translation took place in that region. However, Arbela and Adiabene, with its large and influential second-century Jewish population, has also been suggested as the place of origin. A few scholars have pointed to a few supposedly Western Aramaic features in the text, which may suggest that the original translation took place in Palestine or Syria. However, the interpretation of these features is extremely difficult.
The origin of the Peshitta New Testament is complicated by the existence of two other Syriac gospel traditions: the Diatessaron and the Old Syriac. The earliest New Testament translation into Syriac was probably Tatian's Diatessaron ('one through four'). The no longer extant Diatessaron, written about AD 175, was a continuous harmony of the four gospels into a single narrative. It, rather than the four separate gospels, became the official Syriac Gospel for a time, and received a beautiful prose commentary by Ephrem the Syrian, which remains the chief witness to its content. However, the Syriac-speaking church was urged to follow the practice of other churches and use the four separate gospels. Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus on the Euphrates in upper Syria in 423, sought out and found more than two hundred copies of the Diatessaron, which he 'collected and put away, and introduced instead of them the Gospels of the four evangelists'.
The early Syriac versions of both Old and New Testament with the four gospels, excluding the Diatessaron, is called the Old Syriac (Vetus Syra) version. There are two fifth-century manuscripts of the Old Syriac separate gospels (the Sinaitic Palimpsest and Curetonian Gospels). These are a comparatively free translation of the Greek text, the so-called 'Western' recension of it, and apparently making use of the Diatessaron text for phrasing. The Old Syriac Gospels were probably produced in the third century (although some date it to the early fourth century). The Old Syriac uses the Peshitta Old Testament for Old Testament quotes (and thus is the earliest witness to its existence) in the gospels, even in places where the quote is quite different in the Greek. There is also evidence that translations of the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles also existed in the Old Syriac version, though according to Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History 4.29.5, Tatian himself rejected them.
The Peshitta is a reworking of Old Syriac material to form a unified version of the scriptures for the Syriac-speaking churches. The name of Rabbula, bishop of Edessa (d. 435) is popularly connected with the production of the Peshitta. However, it is extremely unlikely that he was involved with its production. By the early fifth century, the Peshitta was the standard Bible of the Syriac-speaking churches. Unlike the Greek canon, the Peshitta did not contain the Second Epistle of Peter, the Second Epistle of John, the Third Epistle of John, the Epistle of Jude and the Book of Revelation. However, examination of the earliest extant Peshitta manuscripts shows some variation, including Diatessaric and Old-Syriac features existing long after their supposed replacement. The subsequent divisions of the Syriac-speaking church did not displace the Peshitta as the common scriptures of all groups.
In the West-Syriac Church, theological dispute within the Byzantine Empire necessitated the production of a Syriac Bible that was closer to the Greek text. Philoxenus of Mabbog (died 523) produced a New Testament text along these lines, the Philoxenian Version, but it appears that this may have just covered a few key passages and text for those books in the Greek canon that were not in the Peshitta. In the seventh century, a complete Syriac Bible based on the standard Greek was produced. The Syro-Hexapla is a version of the Old Testament based on the fifth column of Origen's Hexapla (to which it is now the most important witnesses). The Harklean Version, under the supervision of Thomas of Harkel, is a fairly close Syriac translation of the Greek New Testament, but oddly containing a few Old-Syriac features. In spite of the existence of these translations, the Peshitta remained the common Bible of the Syriac-speaking churches, and these more technical (called 'spiritual' in their time) translations were mostly confined to the desks of Syriac theologians.
In the East-Syriac Church, and the earlier common tradition, Syriac translators of Greek exegetical literature (especially the works of Theodore of Mopsuestia) often had to provide a precise, literal translation of the Greek text under discussion to accompany the Peshitta text so that the argument of the exegete might still be understood.
Content and style of the Peshitta
The sixth beatitude (Matthew 5:8) from an East Syriac Peshitta.
?û?ayhôn l'aylên da?kên b-lebbhôn: d-henôn ne?zôn l'alahâ.
'Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.'The Peshitta version of the Old Testament is an independent translation based largely on a Hebrew text similar to the Proto-Masoretic Text. It shows a number of linguistic and exegetical similarities to the Aramaic Targums but is now no longer thought to derive from them. In some passages the translators have clearly used the Greek Septuagint. The influence of the Septuagint is particularly strong in Isaiah and the Psalms, probably due to their use in the liturgy. Most of the Apocrypha is translated from the Septuagint, except that Tobit did not exist in early versions of the Peshitta, and the translation of Sirach was based on a Hebrew text. It also includes 2 Baruch (The Apocalypse of Baruch).
The Peshitta version of the New Testament shows a continuation of the tradition of the Diatessaron and Old Syriac versions, displaying some lively 'Western' renderings (particularly clear in the Acts of the Apostles). It combines with this some of the more complex 'Byzantine' readings of the fifth century. One peculiar feature of the Peshitta is the absence of 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude and Revelation. Modern Syriac Bibles add sixth or seventh century translations of these five books to a revised Peshitta text.
The Peshitta, lightly revised and with missing books added, is the standard Syriac Bible for churches in the Syriac tradition: the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Indian Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, the Mar Thoma Church, the Syro-Malabar Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The Syrian Christians in India have mostly replaced Syriac with the Dravidian language, Malayalam. The Arabic language is becoming more common, if not for liturgical readings, for sermons and personal study of the Bible among Syriac Christians in the Middle East.
Almost all Syriac scholars agree that the Peshitta gospels are translations of the Greek originals. A minority viewpoint is that the Peshitta represent the original New Testament and the Greek is a translation of it. For more information, see Peshitta primacy.
In 1901, P. E. Pusey and G. H. Gwilliam published a critical text of the Peshitta with a Latin translation. Then, in 1905, the British and Foreign Bible Society produced a clear, non-critical version of the Peshitta gospels. In 1920, this version was expanded to a complete New Testament. From 1961, the Peshitta Institute of Leiden has published the most comprehensive critical edition of the Peshitta as a series of fascicles.
A 1933 translation of the Peshitta into English, edited by George M. Lamsa, is known as the Lamsa Bible.
In 1996, the first edition of George Anton Kiraz's Comparative Edition of the Syriac Gospels: Aligning the Old Syriac Sinaiticus, Curetonianus, Peshitta and Harklean Versions (abbr. CESG; the Harklean text was prepared by Andreas Juckel) was published by Brill. The subsequent second (2002) and third (2004) editions were printed by Gorgias Press LLC.
Lamsa, George M. (1933). The Holy Bible from Ancient Eastern Manuscripts. ISBN 0-06-064923-2.
Pinkerton, J. and R. Kilgour (1920). The New Testament in Syriac. London: British and Foreign Bible Society, Oxford University Press.
Pusey, Philip E. and G. H. Gwilliam (1901). Tetraevangelium Sanctum iuxta simplicem Syrorum versionem. Oxford University Press.
Kiraz, George Anton (1996). Comparative Edition of the Syriac Gospels: Aligning the Old Syriac Sinaiticus, Curetonianus, Peshitta and Harklean Versions. Brill: Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2002 [2nd ed.], 2004 [3rd ed.].
Weitzman, M. P. (1999). The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: An Introduction. ISBN 0-521-63288-9.
Flesher, P. V. M. (ed.) (1998). Targum Studies Volume Two: Targum and Peshitta. Atlanta.
Dirksen, P. B. (1993). La Peshitta dell'Antico Testamento. Brescia.
Information is from the Encyclopedia.