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Aramaic Thoughts

The Septuagint and the Peshitta - Part 6

The topic of the origin and development of the Septuagint is a complex one. For the reader who wants a thorough introduction, I would suggest that they take the time to work through the first part of Invitation to the Septuagint, by Karen Jobes and Moisés Silva. Quoting from their statement (p. 31), “The books of the Hebrew Bible were originally translated independently into Greek by different translators over several centuries.” The Greek manuscripts that contain all, or nearly all, of the Old Testament, date back only to the fourth and fifth centuries AD, though some of the Greek fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls clearly go back to the period 200-100 BC. Thus, while we can be fairly confident that that process of translating the Old Testament into Greek had begun no later than 250 BC, we have no certainty about when the process was completed. It does seem likely, though, that the Jews of the first century had access to most of the Old Testament in Greek by the beginning of the first century AD. However, the process of turning the Hebrew Bible into Greek did not stop with that amalgamated entity known today as the Septuagint. After the beginning of the Christian era, the Septuagint quickly became the Bible of the first-century Gentile Christians. For this reason, other Jewish translations of the Old Testament into Greek began to appear. Three renderings in particular appeared in the second century: Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. Complete copies of these no longer exist, and they are known only from some fragments and from citations in the early church fathers.

As murky as the origins of the Septuagint and other Greek versions of the Old Testament are, the origins of the Syriac versions, including the Peshitta, are even murkier. There is considerable doubt, for example, that even the Syriac version known as the Old Syriac originated before the Chritian era. Some scholars hold that this version originated among Syrian Jews, but most scholars are of the opinion that it originated among Christianized Jews. That is, it was developed after the rise of Christianity in Syria, well after the Septuagint had become well-established throughout the Mediterranean world. As with Theodotion and other Greek versions, the Old Syriac is known primarily through fragments and citations in other sources. The earliest manuscript s that reflect the Old Syriac of the Gospels (hence, obviously done by Syrian Christians) date to the early fifth century AD, approximately the same time as the earliest full manuscripts of the Septuagint. Following the Old Syriac is the Peshitta. The word “peshitta” means “ordinary” or “simple,” contrasting this version with more complex later versions. The oldest manuscripts of the Peshitta date back to the mid-fifth century and others to the sixth and seventh centuries. A scholarly critical edition of the Syriac text, and an English translation is in process, having been undertaken by the Peshitta Institute of the University of Leiden. Some information on this project is available on-line at http://syrcom.cua.edu/Hugoye/Vol2No2/HV2N2CRJenner.html and at www.leidenuniv.nl/gg/vakgroepen/peshitta/pil_menu.html .

Next week: Continuing with 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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