Thursday, July 1, 2021

Scrivener: Principles of Comparative Criticism: Part 4

[continued from Part 3]

     How is this divergency of the Peshito version from the text of Codex B explained by Tregelles?  He feels of course the pressure of the argument against him, and meets it, if not successfully, with even more than his wonted boldness. The translation degenerates in his hands into “the version commonly printed as the Peshito” (p. 170).  Now let us mark the precise nature of the demand here made on our faith by Dr. Tregelles.  He would persuade us that the whole Eastern Church, distracted as it has been and split into hostile sections for the space of 1400 years, Orthodox and Jacobite, Nestorian and Maronite alike, those that could agree about nothing else, have laid aside their bitter jealousies in order to substitute in their monastic libraries and liturgical services another and a spurious version in the room of the Peshito, that sole surviving monument of the first ages of the Gospel in Syria!  Nay more, that this wretched forgery has deceived Orientalists profound as Michaelis and Lowth, has passed without suspicion through the ordeal of searching criticism, to which every branch of sacred literature has been subjected during the last half-century!  We will require solid reasons indeed before we surrender ourselves to an hypothesis as novel as it appears violently improbable.

And what is the foundation on which our opponent rests his startling conjecture?  The reader is aware that besides the Peshito, several other Syriac versions, some grounded upon it, and therefore implying its previous existence and popularity (e.g. the Philoxenian, executed A.D. 508, and Cardinal Wiseman’s Karkaphensian), others seemingly independent of it (e.g. Adler’s Jerusalem Syriac, and a palimpsest fragment lately discovered by Tischendorf) have been more or less applied to the criticism of the New Testament.  About the year 1847 Canon Cureton, in his most fruitful researches among the MSS purchased for the British Museum from the Nitrian monasteries, met with extensive fragments of the Gospels, which Tregelles has collated, and found to contain “altogether ancient readings,” and thus to be “an important witness to the ancient text” (p. 161).  As this MS, assigned to the fifth century, is still unpublished, we can only say at present that it affords us “AN HITHERTO UNKNOWN VERSION;” certainly not “the version commonly printed as the Peshito” with mere various readings.1  [1 – As this sheet is going to press (July 1858) Dr. Cureton’s “ Remains of a Very Antient Recension of the Four Gospels in Syriac, Hitherto Unknown in Europe,” has at length appeared. The Syriac text had been printed in 1848, but was doubtless withheld by the learned editor in the hope of finding leisure to write Prolegomena more full, and possibly containing more definite conclusions, than those with which he has favored us.  It would ill become me to express a hasty judgment respecting theories on which so eminent a scholar has bestowed thought and time and much labor. He will naturally expect Biblical critics to hesitate before they implicitly admit, for instance, the persuasion which he hardly likes to embody in words, that we have in these precious Syriac fragments, at least to a great extent (Preface, p. xciii), the very Hebrew original of St. Matthew’s Gospel, so long supposed to have been lost, that even its existence has been questioned.  But topics like this are sure to be warmly debated by abler pens than mine; I will confine myself to those points that concern my argument, the relation these fragments bear to the Peshito.  And here I would say in all humble deference (for my knowledge of Syriac, though of long standing, is not extensive) that my own hurried comparison of the Curetonian and Peshito texts would have led me to take them so far for quite separate versions.  Even Dr. Tregelles, who, through the editor’s kindness, has been enabled to use the text for years, and whose bias is very strong, can only venture to say “the differences are great; and yet it happens not infrequently that such coincidences of words and renderings are found (and that too, at times, through a great part of a passage) as to show that they can hardly be wholly independent” (Tregelles, Horne’s Introd. p. 268).  To the same effect also Dr. Cureton speaks:  “It seems to be scarcely possible that the Syriac text published by Widmanstad, which, throughout these pages, I have called the Peshito, could be altogether a different version from this.  It would take up too much space to institute here a comparison of passages to establish this fact, which, indeed, any one may easily do for himself” (Preface, p. lxx).  I heartily wish that Dr. Cureton had fully investigated the subject; he might have removed the difficulties at least of those who love truth, and are ready to embrace it wherever they shall find it.  As it is, we can but say with Tregelles, “Such a point as this can only be properly investigated after the publication of this version shall have given sufficient time to scholars to pursue a thorough investigation” (Tregelles, ubi supra).  In the meanwhile neither he nor I are at liberty to assume the truth of that hypothesis which may happen to harmonize best with our preconceived opinions.]

     To this version has been given the appellation of the Curetonian Syriac, and long may it bear that honored name: but for regarding it as the true Peshito, in the room of that commonly so known, I perceive at present no cause whatever except the strong exigency of Dr. Tregelles’ case.

     Yet has not the Peshito Syriac been suspected by previous writers of exhibiting a corrupt or modernized text?  Undoubtedly the reconciliation of the Maronites with the see of Rome, and the channels through which its earlier editions were conveyed to us, induced certain critics to hazard a conjecture that this version, like the Armenian, had been tampered with, in order to bring it into closer conformity with the Latin Vulgate.  This, however, is a change in precisely the opposite direction to that which Tregelles’ hypothesis demands:  his complaint against the Peshito is not its accordance with the Latin, but its consent with Codex A and the junior MSS against it.

I vouch not for the correctness of this surmise as regards the Armenian; its injustice towards the Peshito is demonstrated by the evidence of that old MS Rich 7157 in the British Museum, of the eighth century, a period long anterior to that when a “fÅ“dus cum Syris” was possible on the part of the admirers of the Vulgate.  This precious document has been collated throughout by Tregelles; together with several others of high antiquity in the Museum, it has been carefully examined by Dr. Cureton, by Mr. Ellis, and two German scholars (Bloomfield, Preface to N. T., ninth edition, p. viii, note).  The reports of all concur to the same effect: these venerable MSS exhibit a text, singularly resembling that of the printed editions; which last were consequently drawn from purer and more ancient sources than, reasoning from the analogy of the Greek text, the warmest advocates of the Peshito had been led to anticipate.


(6). We have little to say about citations from the Fathers.  That the Latin ecclesiastical writers should accord with the Latin versions is nothing strange; perhaps some of them could not read, none of them used familiarly the Greek original.  As witnesses for the readings of the Italic or Vulgate they are of course valuable: unless in the very rare instances where they expressly appeal to the Greek, their influence upon it is but indirect and precarious.  As regards the Greek Fathers I am bound to state, that no branch of Biblical criticism has been so utterly neglected as the application of their citations to the discussion of various readings; indeed I know almost nothing that has been seriously attempted with respect to it, except Griesbach’s examination of the quotations of Origen in his Symbolae Criticae.  The whole question, however, is so replete with difficulties, that Bishop Fell (N. T. Oxon. 1675) thought the bare allusion to them sufficient to absolve him from entering upon it at all.  The ancient Fathers were better theologians than critics; they often quoted loosely, often from memory; what they actually wrote has been found peculiarly liable to change on the part of copyists.  Their testimony therefore can be implicitly trusted, even as to the MSS which lay before them, only in the comparatively few places where the course of their argument, or the current of their exposition, renders it manifest what reading they support. At present we have many intimations in our critical editions that this or that ecclesiastical author countenances a variation from the Textus Receptus, but few cases, very few indeed, are recorded in which they agree with it: the latter point being confessedly no less essential to our accurate acquaintance with the state of the evidence than the former.

     Any enlarged discussion on this head of our argument must at any rate be postponed till we possess more reliable information on the facts it involves.  Most thankful should I be to any student who has leisure and disposition to enter upon this wide yet almost unoccupied field. Meantime I am constrained to admit that many examples have been established by Griesbach and his successors, wherein Origen agrees with Codices BL against Codex A and the received text, one or both.  I will not dissemble, I strive not to evade, the force of such early testimony where it is unambiguous and express: let such readings be received with “peculiar attention,” let them never be rejected without grave and sufficient reason. Yet the support given to B or L by Origen is very far from being uniform or “habitual.”  While I can well understand the importance of his confirmation where he countenances the readings they exhibit, I fail altogether in apprehending what service he can do them, where he is either silent or positively hostile.1


[1 – e.g. Origen sides with the received text or with A against B, Matthew 21:29 cited by Tregelles (p. 107), and in the course of the next few chapters in 25:17; 25:19; 26:48; 26:53; 27:3; 27:11; 27:54 bis; 28:15; 28:18.  I could multiply references lectoris ad fastidium.  It may tend to show the precariousness of patristic testimony if I add that in five of the above-named passages Origen’s authority may be cited on both sides.]



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