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Syriac Versions of The Bible

There are three OT and five NT versions:

(1) Old Testament. (a) Peshitta: whether the Peshitta was originally a Jewish or a Christian translation is still a matter of debate. Some scholars stress the West Aramaic Targumic elements in the Pentateuch and argue that it must have originated among Jews who had a close connection with Palestine; later it will have been taken over by Christians. Kahle associated the translation of the Pentateuch with the province of Adiabene where the royal house embraced Judaism in the first century a.d. The Targumic influence has also been explained as the result of consultation of Jewish sources by Christian translators, probably converts from Judaism. Irrespective of its place of origin, the Peshitta was in use among Christians by the beginning of the third century. No uniform translation technique exists for other OT books: some are literal, some tend toward paraphrase; the degree of influence of the Septuagint and Targums varies greatly. As revision of the Peshitta proceeded, many Targumic features were eliminated and the text brought into greater conformity with the Septuagint.

(b) Some fragments of a Palestinian Syriac text of the OT have been preserved; the translation was made from the Septuagint sometime in the fifth century a.d. (see Palestinian Syriac Text of the New Testament).

(c) Syro-Hexaplar: a Syriac translation of the fifth column of Origen’s Hexapla made by Paul, bishop of Tella, in a.d. 616-17. It is an important witness to Origen’s text of the Septuagint and reproduces the Hexaplaric signs; many readings from the minor Greek versions are noted. Reconstruction of the Septuagint vorlage is greatly helped by the slavishly literal nature of the translation.

(2) New Testament. (a) Diatessaron: a harmony of the four gospels composed by Tatian about a.d. 170 during his stay in the West; whether the original composition was in Greek or Syriac is uncertain. The version enjoyed immense popularity in the East for over two centuries and was often quoted by Syriac-speaking commentators; Ephraim Syrus wrote a commentary on it (see also Diatessaron).

(b) Old Syriac: see separate entry.

(c) Peshitta version of the NT: The preparation of the standard text of the New Testament was completed sometime in the fifth century. By then the Diatessaron was in disfavor and the Old Syriac in obvious need of revision. The translation gives evidence of multiple authorship, but the name of Rabbula* is closely associated with the final phase of the standardization. The revision was made according to the regnant Byzantine Greek text and was sufficiently advanced to be retained by both sections of the Syrian Church after the division of 431. Manuscripts of the Peshitta go back to the fifth century.

(d) Philoxenian and Harklean Versions: in 508 Philoxenus, bishop of Mabbog, commissioned a new translation of the NT in which the Antilegomena were rendered for the first time. The version of Thomas of Harkel published in 616 was either a revision of the Philoxenian text or simply a reissue with marginalia added. The Harklean marginal readings for Acts are an important witness to the Western Text.

(e) Palestinian Syriac Version of the NT: see separate entry.

Bibliography: B.J. Roberts, The Old Testament Text and Versions (1951); F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (3rd ed., 1963); B.M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (2nd ed., 1968).