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Language Studies

Aramaic Thoughts

The Peshitta - Part 10

There is currently a project underway to produce an English translation of the Peshitta. Some readers will recognize that there is already an English version of the Peshitta available, that is, the version produced by George Lamsa under the title Holy Bible: From the Ancient Eastern Text. The advantage of the former is that it is complete. The advantage of the latter is that it appears to be a group project, and will probably be more reliable than Lamsa’s. Any reader will note that there are differences between, for example, the Lamsa version, and standard English translations of the Old Testament. That, of course, is due in part to the fact that Lamsa is offering a translation of the Syriac, not a translation of the Hebrew.

Most committees responsible for translating the Old Testament into English follow an approach something like the following. The various books are divided up among individuals or small subcommittees for an initial translation. These individuals or subcommittees are usually people who have established a reputation as a specialist in the area of the book, or books, being translated. For example, Tremper Longman III, who has published extensively on the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, might be assigned (either by himself or as part of a committee) the initial translation of Proverbs. In making this initial translation, the committee will look first to the Hebrew text. But if the Hebrew text is difficult, they will also look at the versions—that is, the Septuagint, the Peshitta, and the Vulgate, as well as other resources. If those other versions affect the translation, that will usually be indicated in a footnote. For example, Proverbs 13:15 reads as follows in the ESV: Good sense wins favor, but the way of the treacherous is their ruin. This verse then has the following footnote: Probable reading [commenting on “is their ruin”] (compare Septuagint, Syriac, Vulgate); Hebrew is rugged, or is an enduring rut.

The point of all this is to say that the versions—Greek, Latin, Syriac, and others—are considered secondary resources by translators. The assumption is, in other words, that these versions are more or less translations from a Hebrew original. There is also that consideration that some of the later versions may well have been influenced by earlier ones. For example, the Vulgate often seems to reflect a reading found in the Septuagint, rather than in the Hebrew text that we have. The question this raises is whether the Vulgate got its reading from a Hebrew text that reads like the Septuagint, or did it get its reading from the Septuagint directly? Regarding the Peshitta, its appearance is late enough that in some books it seems to have been seriously affected by the Septuagint. According to Emmanuel Tov, in Proverbs the Peshitta may have been based on the Septuagint, rather than of the Hebrew text (Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed., p. 152.)

Next Week: regarding claims made for the Peshitta, or Syriac Versions in general.

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