Friday, February 12, 2016

Early Syriac Versions of the Gospels

       The early history of the Syriac versions of the Gospels is as important as it is tenuous.  Theoretically the Syriac version developed like this:  Syria was evangelized in the first century, and for a while, the Christians there were content to use the Greek text of the Gospels.  In the 170’s, Tatian, who had been a student of Justin Martyr in Rome, produced the Diatessaron, a narrative consisting of the contents of the four Gospels blended into one non-repeating narrative.  The Diatessaron was very popular in Syriac-speaking churches.  Tatian’s doctrine, however, was considered by some church-leaders to be overly ascetic, to the point that he dogmatically opposed marriage and meat-eating.  As the scent of heresy from his teachings was detected – rightly or wrongly – in his Gospel-harmony, a new Syriac translation of the four Gospels was made.  This work exists today primarily in two manuscripts (and also in a lectionary, Syriac Gr.Pat. 1 at the Jerusalem Library of the Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark):  the Curetonian Syriac and the Sinaitic Syriac.
Luke 21:12b-26a in the
Curetonian Syriac manuscript.
                 The texts displayed in the Curetonian Syriac manuscript and in the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript are closely related, but they are far from uniform.  Both manuscripts are heavily damaged, and therefore one cannot compare their contents throughout the Gospels (in the Curetonian manuscript, for example, nothing remains of the Gospel of Mark except Mark 16:17-20).  Where the same passage is extant in both manuscripts, however, it is obvious that they share some readings which are almost or entirely unique to these two witnesses.  The following 14 agreements are samples:
            Mt. 1:22 – the prophet’s names is supplied, so as to read, “by the mouth of Isaiah the prophet.”
           Mt. 3:10 – “the axe has arrived” rather than “the axe has been laid.”
           ● Mt. 4:17 – The words “Repent” and “for” are absent.
           ● Mt. 13:33 – Both manuscripts have simply “Another parable:” with no additional phrase (such as “He spoke to them” or “He spoke” or “He gave, saying”).
           Mt. 15:27 – The Canaanite woman’s response ends with the words, “and live.”
           ● Mt. 20:11 – The verse begins with “And when they saw,” instead of “And when they had received.”
           ● Mt. 20:17 – The text says that Jesus took “his twelve,” without the word “disciples.”
           ● Lk. 2:48 – In the Old Syriac text, Mary’s statement ends, “anxiously and with much grief.”
           ● Lk. 8:24 – The words “and they ceased” are not in either manuscript.
           ● Lk. 20:46 – Instead of stating that the scribes desire to walk around in long robes, both Old Syriac manuscripts say that the scribes desire to walk around “in porches.”  Apparently the text of Luke in both the Curetonian and Sinaitic manuscripts descends from an ancestor-manuscript in which, due to a mistake by either the reader or the writer, the Greek word for “robes” (στολαις) was misconstrued as the similar word for “porches” (στοαις).
           ● Jn. 4:31 – This verse is thoroughly paraphrased:  “And His disciples were insisting that He should eat bread with them.”
           ● Jn. 5:21 – At the end of the verse, instead of stating that the Son gives life to whom He will, the Curetonian and Sinaitic manuscripts say, “to those who believe in Him.”
           ● Jn. 6:47 – Both Old Syriac manuscripts say, “He who believes in God” instead of “in Me” (and instead of “He who believes” with no specific object supplied – the Alexandrian reading).
           ● Jn. 7:21 – Both manuscripts add the phrase, “in your sight.”
            (For many more unusual readings shared by these two manuscripts, see Agnes Smith Lewis’ A Translation of the Four Gospels from the Syriac of the Sinai Palimpsest , published in 1894.)

Matthew 1:1-17 is on this damaged
page of the Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest,
under the larger and clearer text.
 The distinct agreements between the Curetonian and Sinaitic manuscripts practically compel the conclusion that was reached in the early 1900s by researcher Frederick Burkitt:  “The Sinai palimpsest and Cureton’s manuscript are clearly representatives of one and the same translation.”  This translation, however, seems to have never been very popular among the Syriac-speaking churches; the Old Syriac Gospels never caught up with the Diatessaron’s head start. 
            Even the two copies that we possess have barely survived:  the Sinaitic Syriac is a palimpsest; it has survived, not because anyone valued it as a copy of the Gospels, but because a copyist in the year 778 erased its Gospels-text and recycled the pages as material on which to write part of a later composition (a collection of stories about female saints and martyrs).  Its faded Gospels-text was recovered, following its discovery at St. Catherine’s monastery in the 1890’s, by the gentle application of ammonium hydrosulfide to the parchment.  Part of the Curetonian Syriac manuscript, likewise, was recycled as the fly-sheets, or binding-pages, of another Syriac manuscript.  (William Cureton published the main portion in 1858; the additional pages were published by William Wright in 1872, and were described by Henry M. Harman in the Journal of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis in 1885.)   Meanwhile, a dozen Peshitta manuscripts exist that were made in the 400s-600s.
          Although the agreements of the Sinaitic Syriac and Curetonian Syriac imply that they share a common source, these manuscripts also disagree in important ways.  For example, in the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, the text of Mark ends at the end of 16:8; in the Curetonian Syriac, the entire text of Mark has been lost due to damage except Mark 16:17-20 (with “in their hands” in verse 18), implying the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20.  And in the Gospel of Luke, the Sinaitic Syriac does not contain Luke 22:43-44 or Luke 23:34a, but the Curetonian Syriac includes both passages.  (Again, Agnes Smith Lewis helpfully identifies their disagreements, as well as their disagreements with the Textus Receptus.) 
Romans 7, in a Peshitta manuscript
which has some unusual readings,
Sinai Syriac MS 3 (Schoyen MS
2530), from the 500s.
            In the early 400s, a different Syriac translation, known as the Peshitta, (a designation first used for it in the Middle Ages, meaning plain, as opposed to the later Harklean Version, which featured many textual notes)  rapidly replaced both the Diatessaron and the Old Syriac.  Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393-457; his bishopric began in 423, more or less) recorded that in more than 200 churches, copies of the Diatessaron – rather than manuscripts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – were being used.  He arranged for the removal of these copies of the Diatessaron, and replaced them with copies of the four Gospels.  The textual character of these freshly introduced 200 copies is not known.  If they were copies of the Old Syriac, resembling the Curetonian and Sinaitic Syriac manuscripts, then they must have been like a wave that washed away the Diatessaron only to be washed away itself by a rapid increase in the popularity of the Peshitta. 
            The production-date of the Peshitta is not entirely resolved.  In the late 1700s, Johann David Michaelis made a detailed case for the position that the Peshitta’s text of the Gospels was translated directly from Greek manuscripts in the early 100s.  His main reasons for this view are as follows:
            Melito, c. 170, refers to a Syriac version when commenting on Genesis 22:13. 
            ● Manichaeus (or, Mani), the founder of Manichaeism in the mid-200s in Mesopotamia, quoted from the New Testament, without knowledge of Greek.
            ● The Peshitta is used by various Syriac denominations which adhered to diverse Christological schools of thought that emerged in the early-mid 400s; it must have been produced prior to these divisions, inasmuch as the members of one sect would not embrace a version produced by another one.
            ● The text of Hebrews in the Peshitta has some characteristics which indicate that it was translated separately from the other Pauline epistles, as if the other epistles were part of a collection that lacked Hebrews.  This suggests an old line of descent.
            ● The Peshitta does not include the book of Revelation and five of the General Epistles (Second Peter, Second John, Third John, and Jude); this indicates an origin prior to the councils in the 300s which decreed their inclusion.
            ● The Peshitta was quoted by Ephrem Syrus, who wrote in the mid-300s. 

            Inasmuch as the Peshitta and the Byzantine text of the Gospels agree far more often than they disagree, the premise that the Peshitta was made in the 100s was used as a defense of the genuineness of the Byzantine Text in the late 1800s.  In the 1897 Oxford Debate on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, one of the advocates of the Westcott-Hort text referred to the Peshitta as the “sheet-anchor” of the pro-Byzantine position, meaning that it was seldom used, and was only a last resort.  In 1904, Frederick Burkitt systematically deconstructed the case for such an early origin for the Peshitta, arguing, first – with the benefit of the prior discoveries of the Curetonian and Sinaitic Syriac manuscripts – that although an early Syriac translation existed, it was not necessarily the Peshitta, and, second, that when compositions which have been falsely attributed to Ephrem Syrus are set aside, there are no clear utilizations of the Peshitta in his genuine works. 
          Burkitt proposed that the Peshitta was a revision undertaken by the Syriac bishop Rabbula (d. 425) in the city of Edessa.  (This individual should not be confused with the identically named copyist who made the Rabbula Gospels, an illustrated copy of the Peshitta Gospels made in 586.)  As evidence of this, Burkitt emphasized a statement found in the biography of Rabbula, which was written later in the 400s:  “He translated by the wisdom of God that was in him the New Testament from Greek into Syriac, because of its variations, exactly as it was.” 

           Burkitt’s theory became very popular very quickly, and it accelerated the general acceptance of the Westcott-Hort revision by removing what had previously been a major objection against it.  However, Burkitt’s theory was not the last word on the production-date of the Peshitta.  At least one other scenario is feasible:  that the Curetonian and Sinatic manuscripts are the remains of the translation undertaken by Rabbula and that this revision was popularized, temporarily, by Theodoret.  In support of this theory, it may be observed that title of Matthew in the Curetonian Syriac appears to call it the distinct (“Mepharreshe”) Gospel of Matthew (as opposed to the blended Gospel, the Diatessaron).  Following the end of the Gospel of John, a colophon in the Sinaitic Syriac begins, “Here ends the Evangelion da-Mepharreshe, four books.”  This is the same term that was used by Rabbula in a decree:  “Let the elders and deacons diligently ensure that ever church shall possess and use a copy of the distinct Gospels.” 
            A Syriac writer named Bar-Bahlul, writing in the 900s, made the following pertinent comment on the text of Matthew 27:16;17, referring to the name of the criminal who was released at Jesus’ trial:  “His name was Jesus, for so it is written in the Evangelion da-Mepharreshe.”  The Peshitta does not have this reading, but the Sinaitic Syriac does.   (Matthew 27 is not extant in the Curetonian Syriac.) 
            It is also possible that Rabbula inherited not only the Syriac Diatessaron and a form of the Old Syriac Gospels represented by the Curetonian and Sinaitic manuscripts, but also the Peshitta Gospels, and he used whichever he preferred.  It would be strange for the creator and advocate of the Peshitta to utilize the text of its rivals – but when one examines Rabbula’s Syriac translation of De Recta Fide, a composition by his contemporary Cyril of Alexandria, that is exactly what he does when rendering a quotation of John 3:34:  Rabbula, instead of reproducing Cyril’s quotation, or replacing it with the Peshitta’s rendering, replaces it with the rendering that appears in the Curetonian Syriac, verbatim.
            The scholar Matthew Black has proposed that this phenomenon is best accounted for by the theory that although Rabbula was largely responsible for the Peshitta (in roughly the same way that William Tyndale was responsible for the English New Testament), it continued to undergo tweaking in the 400s, and John 3:34 was one passage in which such tweaking occurred.  Against this theory, the erudite Estonian researcher Arthur Vööbus argued that in addition to the Curetonian/Sinaitic Syriac text, there was a third Syriac transmission-stream which may be considered a “Pre-Peshitta” (in which case Rabbula’s work may be more comparable to that of Coverdale, rather than Tyndale).   
            The evidence pertaining to the early Syriac text of the Gospels has complex implications.  Mixture is everywhere.  The textual character of the text of the Sinaitic Syriac is somewhat Western, resembling the text of Codex D, but it often disagrees with D and aligns with B – sometimes almost uniquely, as in Luke 9:2 (where both witnesses do not have the words “the sickat the end of the verse).  Similarly, the text of the Peshitta is mainly Byzantine, but far from fully Byzantine.  (Among the most significant disagreements between the Peshitta and the Byzantine Text is the Peshitta’s non-inclusion of John 7:53-8:11; none of the early Syriac versions have this passage.)
            Because of the complexity of the evidence, it is difficult to conclusively posit a simple chain of events in which the Peshitta is the offspring of the Old Syriac.  For example:  in John 16:21, the Peshitta and the Sinaitic Syriac (the Curetonian Syriac is not extant here) both refer to “the day of her deliverance,” rather than the hour.  It would be easy to conclude that the Peshitta inherited this reading from the Old Syriac, and that it is the result of loose translation-work.  However, this is also the reading found in John 16:21 in Codex Bezae and in Papyrus 66, the earliest Greek manuscript of this verse; nothing precludes the idea that it entered the Peshitta from a Greek exemplar. 
Text from Mark 15 in Vatican Syriac MS 12,
a Peshitta Gospels-manuscript
produced in 548
            Likewise consider the rival Syriac readings in Luke 4:29:  the Sinaitic Syriac says that the citizens of Nazareth intended to hang Jesus, but the Peshitta states that they intended to throw Jesus over the cliff.  This reading in the Peshitta could be the result of a fresh consultation of Greek manuscripts in the early 400s in which such errors were weeded out of the Syriac text, but it could just as easily descend from a Syriac transmission-line that existed side-by-side with that of the Curetonian and Sinaitic Syriac texts – a transmission-line in which the Syriac text was not improved, but was simply better than its rivals.  There is some evidence that such a text (alongside the Diatessaron) was used by Aphrahat in the 330’s – about the same time when Codex Vaticanus was made – but this idea awaits new research to be confirmed or dissolved. 
            The question of the origin of the Peshitta is more complicated today than it was when Burkitt wrote.  Burkitt treated the Peshitta as one monolithic revision, whereas subsequent studies of early Peshitta manuscripts, as well as analyses of Syriac writers (such as Rabbula) have shown that its development was more complex.  In 1897 at the Oxford Debate on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, A. C. Headlam proposed that the uniformity of the text of Peshitta-manuscripts from the 400s-600s “shows almost conclusively that the texts must have been derived from one source, which could not have been very remote.”  In 1904, Burkitt, likewise, submitted that “a long and complicated history” of the Old Syriac version “is proved by the extensive variation” between the Sinaitic and Curetonian manuscripts. 
            The study of manuscripts such as Codex Phillips 11388, Dawkins 3 (see the meticulous work of Andreas Juckel for details), and Vatican Syriac MS 12 (made in 548) proves that extensive variations exist in some of the earliest copies of the Peshitta – and thus, if disagreements validly indicate “a long and complicated history” for the Syriac transmission-stream represented by the Curetonian and Sinaitic manuscripts, then the same is true for the Peshitta.  If tight agreements among manuscripts show that their source “could not have been very remote,” then disagreements in Peshitta-manuscripts (such as Sinai Syriac MS #3, which contains part of the Epistles of Paul) show the opposite.     
            All things considered, Burkitt’s theory that the Peshitta was produced by Rabbula in the early 400s – a theory which was treated as fact for over 50 years, in the service of the mainly Alexandrian compilations of Westcott-Hort, Nestle, et al – should be rejected.  Although the Gospels-text of the Peshitta was not altogether standardized until later, it was essentially extant in the mid-300s (and possibly even in the early 300s), the same period in which Codex Sinaiticus was made.     


JD said...

Is there an English translation of the curetonian and sinaitic scriptures combined ?.

The Knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade said...

Apparantly. W. Cureton's 1858 book "Remains".