Which it the Oldest Aramaic
By James Trimm
I was recently asked why I disagree with the Peshitta Primacy theory
which Andrew Gabriel Roth maintains.
Among Greek Primacists there is an ongoing debate as to which type of
Greek text is the closest to the original. One school of thought hold
that the Byzantine type of text is the most original because this is the
“Received Text” which was passed down by the Church. The other school of
thought in Greek Primacy hold that the best most original text is arrived
at by examining all of the manuscripts which have come down to us with a
set of objective rules of criticism producing a “Critical Text”. This
Critical Text is composed by bringing together those readings which are
most likely to be the most original from the various manuscripts,
especially the oldest copies.
The same basic conflict exists in Aramaic Primacy. Roth holds to the
Peshitta as the “Received Text” which was passed down by the Church of the
East and thus maintains that the Peshitta is the most original Aramaic
Version. On the other hand I advocate a “Critical Text” approach that
examines all of the Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts. This Critical Text is
composed by bringing together those readings which are most likely to be
the most original from the various manuscripts.
THREE TYPES OF NT TEXTS
In New testament Textual Criticism scholars almost universally recognize
three major text types:
Alexandrian – Wescott and Hort called this the “neutral text”, Chase
called it the “true text”. Many Greek NT scholars today see this as the
oldest most original text. Some of its chief exemplars are Codex Greek
Sinaiticus (Codex )); Codex Codex Alexandrinus (Codex A) and Codex
Vaticanus (Codex B). It is characterized by shorter readings and more
idiomatic Greek language than the Western Text. These are among the most
ancient of witnesses although they are only a small minority of Greek
Byzantine – Also identified with the “Majority Text”. This it the text
type of the “Textus Receptus”. It is also characterized by a smoother
Greek idiom but is less abbreviated. Many textual critics see this as a
sort of “Greek Vulgate” or a standardized Greek text. It is witnessed t by
the vast majority of Greek manuscripts, however they tend to be the later
witnesses. The Byzantine type text eventually eclipsed all other types.
Western – One of the most striking features of this text type is the
Semitic idiom in which it is written. The primary witness to this text
type is Codex Bezae (Codex D) however there are others. Like the
Alexandrian texts the Western texts tend to be ancient.
Some scholars have theorized other text types such as a proposed Caesarean
text type (which is a sort of Alexandrian/Western half-breed). However
these are not universally recognized. Greek Text Types as Alternate
Those Greek Primacists which hold to the “Received Text” favor the
Byzantine Type text. Most Greek Primacists which hold to a “Critical
Text” favor the Alexandrian Text, though some favor the Western Text.
The Old Syriac is generally regarded as a Western type of text while the
Peshitta is generally classed as a Byzantine type of text.
THE OLD SYRIAC AND THE PESHITTA
Some Peshitta Primacists have claimed that the Old Syriac and Peshitta
Aramaic versions are unrelated to each other. They maintain that the
Peshitta is the original Aramaic while the Old Syriac is simply a
translation from the Greek.
That the Old Syriac and Peshitta share a common origin is easily
demonstrated. There are several passages where the Old Syriac and
Peshitta agree with each other against the Greek in such unusual ways as
to make it clear that both versions are related directly to each other
apart from the Greek textual tradition.
“For to you is born today, in the city of David, the Savior, who is *YHWH*
Both the Old Syriac and the Peshitta have MARYA here. MARYA is a
surprising word to find here. If one were simply looking at the Greek
text and translating into Aramaic one would almost certainly translate
this passage with MAR or MARON (which the Old Syriac and Peshitta use for
“Lord”) and not MARYA (which they use for YHWH).
“my eyes have seen *your mercy*”
The Old Syriac and Peshitta agree in the reading CHET-NUN-NUN-KAF (your
mercy) which the Greek translator seems to have misread as
CHET-YUD-YUD-KAF (your salvation/life).
“in the plain”
(Luke 3:4-6 = Is. 40:3-6)
The Old Syriac and Peshitta agree in including the phrase “in the plain”
which agrees with the reading of this verse of Isaiah as it appears in the
Masoretic Text “in the desert”. However the Greek of Luke 3:4-6 omits the
phrase and agrees with the reading and quotes this verse of Isaiah as it
appears in the Greek Septuagint.
“And Yeshua cried out with a *high* voice”
The Greek reads literally “with a loud voice” but the Old Syriac and the
Peshitta agree against the Greek with the unusual reading “a high voice”.
“and these words seemed *in their eyes* as foolish”
The Greek has “before them” but the Old Syriac and Peshitta agree with the
unusual reading “words… in their eyes”
“Yeshua *came and he reached them*”
The Greek has “having come near”. The Old Syriac and Peshitta agree in
using this peculiar phrase here.
“What are these words *that you are speaking*”
The Old Syriac and Peshitta both have this reading “that you are speaking”
but the Greek reads here “which you are exchanging”.
“were not our hearts *heavy*”
The Old Syriac and the Peshitta agree in reading “heavy”. The Greek
translator must have misread the Aramaic word YUD-KUF-YUD-RESH (heavy) as
YUD-KUF-YUD-DALET (burning) (the letters DALET and RESH appear almost
identical in Hebrew/Aramaic). To have a “heavy” heart is an Aramaic idiom
meaning to have a sluggish mind (see verse 25).
From these examples we can Cleary see that the Old Syriac and Peshitta are
directly related to each other apart from the Greek textual tradition.
The Old Syriac and Peshitta are part of the same Aramaic scribal textual
tradition and neither was translated directly from the Greek.
THE PESHITTA AS A REVISION OF THE OLD SYRIAC
Now having established that the Old Syriac and Peshitta are part of the
same Aramaic textual scribal tradition, we shall now demonstrate the
direction of this revision. There are a number of readings in this
Aramaic tradition that, when compared, make it clear that the Peshitta is
the revision of the Old Syriac
OS “every word that comes out of the mouth of YHWH (MARYA)”
GK “every word that comes out of the mouth of God (THEOS)”
P “every word that comes out of the mouth of God (ALAHA)”
This passage is quoting Deut. 8:3. The Hebrew of Deut. 8:3 has “YHWH”
here but the Greek Septuagint of Deut. 8:3 has “THEOS” (God). The Greek
of Matthew 4:4 quotes this passage as it appears in the Greek Septuagint.
However the Old Syriac in Matthew 4:4 agrees with the Hebrew of Deut. 8:3
(as well as Hebrew Matthew and the Peshitta Aramaic of Deut. 8:3). Now
the fourth century “Church Father” Jerome wrote:
Matthew, who is also Levi, and from a tax collector came to be
an emissary first of all evangelists composed a Gospel of
Messiah in Judea in the Hebrew language and letters, for the
benefit of those of the circumcision who had believed, who
translated it into Greek is not sufficiently ascertained.
Furthermore, the Hebrew itself is preserved to this day in the
library at Caesarea, which the martyr Pamphilus so diligently
collected. I also was allowed by the Nazarenes who use this
volume in the Syrian city of Borea to copy it. In which is to be
remarked that, wherever the evangelist... makes use of the
testimonies of the Old Scripture, he does not follow the
authority of the seventy translators [the Greek Septuagint],
but that of the Hebrew.
(Jerome; Of Illustrious Men 3)
Thus Jerome states that unlike Greek Matthew, the original Hebrew of
Matthew agreed with the Hebrew Tanak against the Septuagint in its
citations from the Tanak. But the Aramaic Peshitta follows Greek Matthew
in following the Greek Septuagint here. Clearly the Peshitta was revised
to agree with Greek Matthew here because we know that the true and
original reading is reflected by the Old Syriac.
OS: …with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Gk: …with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
P: …with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your
strength, and with all your mind.
Again we can be fairly certain that the Old Syriac has the original
reading here since Deut. 6:5 is being quoted and since the Peshitta
clearly conflates the readings of the Old Syriac and the Greek. The Old
Syriac has “your strength” in agreement with the Hebrew Tanak, Aramaic
Peshitta Tanak, and Hebrew Matthew. Greek Matthew appears to have misread
CHET-YUD-LAMED-KUF ”your strength” as HEY-VAV-NUN-KUF (dianoia sou) “your
mind” (CHET and HEY look alike in Hebrew; YUD and VAV also look alike).
Then the Peshitta scribe in revising the Aramaic to agree with the
traditional Greek text, conflated the reading by including both “your
strength” and “your mind” but translating dianoia sou (your mind) with
OS: …had decreed all the Land that they should be enrolled.
Gk: … all the world…
P: …all the people of his dominion…
In Jewish Aramaic the word ERA has the same usage as the Hebrew cognate
ERETZ. It can mean “world, earth or land” and is often used as a euphemism
for the Land of Israel as it is here. The Greek has misunderstood the
meaning of he word as “world” or “dominion” and the Peshitta was revised
to agree with the Greek.
OS: and cast out your evil name
Gk: and cast out your name as evil
P: and cast out your name as evil
We can be fairly certain that the Old Syriac preserves the original
reading because the phrase “evil name” is a Jewish idiom meaning “to give
have a bad reputation”, which also appears in the Tanak (Deut. 22:14, 16).
The Greek translator attempted to render this with “your name as evil” and
the Peshitta revises the Aramaic to agree with the Greek here.
Lk. 2:22 … days of her purification
The Peshitta Aramaic has “of their purification” in agreement with the
Greek. The Old Syriac is more accurate in reading “of her purification”.
It was Miriam (Mary) only who needed a purification ritual after forty
days as described in the Torah (Lev. 12:1-8). The Old Syriac displays a
knowledge of Judaism which is absent in the Peshitta and the Greek.
There are also many places where the Peshitta has been revised to a more
Syrian dialect so as to purge elements of Jewish Aramaic found in the Old
OS(s): and honey of the open country
P & OS(c): and honey of the wilderness (agrees with Greek)
OS(c) the grass of the open country that today is in the open country
OS(s) the grass of that today is in the open country
P: the grass that today is in the field (agrees with Greek)
In Syriac Aramaic the word TURA can only refer to hills or mountains, but
in the Judean dialect the word could also refer to the “open country” as
it is used here. The Peshitta has been revised to better fit a less
Judaic, more Syriac dialect.
OS:…and went-up quickly to a mountain, to a city of Judea.
P: …and went quickly to a mountain, to a city of Judea. (agreeing with
Here the Old Syriac makes use of a common idiom in Hebrew and in Jewish
Aramaic whereby any approach to Jerusalem or Judea is usually describe as
“going up” but the Jewish idiom is lost here in the Greek and in the
OS: peace on earth, and *good-will* (Strong’s 7470) to the sons of men
P: … and a *good hope* to the sons of men
The Aramaic word R’OT (Strong’s 7470) is used in Western and Jewish
Aramaic for example in the Aramaic portion of Ezra we read:
And let the king send his *good-will* (Strong’s 7470) to us concerning
…do you after the *good-will* (Strong’s 7470) of your God.
But this word does not exist at all in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic. So
intolerable is the word in Syriac Aramaic that the Peshitta text for these
passages of Ezra renders the word with TZ’VA (Strong’s 6634) instead. The
Old Syriac retains the original Judaic Aramaic word here and the Peshitta
has been revised into better Syriac Aramaic by substituting the phrase “a
good hope” for the non-Syriac Jewish Aramaic word R’OT (Strong’s 7470).
and whoever knocks it will be opened to him
and knock on the door
In the Old Syriac the word for “knock” is in the APHEL verb form but in
the Peshitta it appears in the PEAL verb form. In Syriac Aramaic this
word usually appears in the Peal form and in fact nowhere else in Syriac
(besides these two instances in the Old Syriac) does this verb appear in
the Aphel form . The Aphel form is, however, common in the Jewish dialects
of Aramaic. The Peshitta has revised this Jewish Aramaic into a form more
common to the Syriac dialect.
OS: no one can do these *miracles* (NISA)
P: no one can do these *signs* (ATUTA)
OS: if *miracles* and signs you see not… (NISA)
P: if signs and wonders you see not… (ATUTA)
The word NISA is rare in Syriac and never appears in the Peshitta NT.
However this word is commonly used in the Judean dialect. The Peshitta
has revised this Jewish Aramaic into a word more common to the Syriac
Scholars widely agree that the Peshitta is a revision of the Old Syriac,
as Voobus states:
The Peshitta is not a new translation, but a revision
of the Old Syriac version. … As the result of this revision,
digressions were eliminated, additions removed, omissions
supplemented and peculiarities retouched. Through this process
the Peshitta lost its former singularities and variants which were
much cherished and so deeply rooted in Syriac textual traditions.
After this process, the text assumed a wholly new complexion,
conforming more or less to the Greek… This distinguishes the
Peshitta from the Old Syriac. Its back is turned on the ancient
and endeared traditions, and its face is decidedly turned toward
the Greek form. …many idiomatic expressions found in the
Old Syriac, particularly the conjunctive construction over against
the use of the infinitive, and the predilection towards the nominal
sentence, have been modified and adapted more to the Greek.
But… much of the idiomatic phraseology… was still retained.
(Early Versions of the New Testament; Manuscript Studies;
Arthur Voobus; 1954 pp. 97-98 )
And Kenyon says of this revision:
…he [the Peshitta redactor] must have used Greek MSS.
of a different family from that which is represented by the
Old Syriac. This [Old Syriac], as we have seen, belongs to
the d-type [Western Type], agreeing mainly with [Codex] D
and the Old Latin, and often also with [Codecies] ) [and] B;
while the Peshitto ranges itself rather with the authorities
of the a-type [Byzantine Type].
(Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament;
Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, K.C.B., F.B.A.; 1951 p. 164)
GENERAL ANTIQUITY OF THE OLD SYIAC
As we discussed earlier the Old Syriac is of the Western type of text
while the the Peshitta is of the Byzantine text type.
Scholars generally recognize the Western text type as one of the oldest
text types (some argue it is the oldest). At the same time the Byzantine
type of text is generally regarded as much later that the Western and
Alexandrian text types. Metzger writes:
“The Byzantine text… is, on the whole, the latest of several
distinctive types of the text of the New Testament.”
(A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament; 2nd Ed.;
Bruce Metzger p.7*)
The Western text type may well be the oldest Greek text type. Its claim to
antiquity seems solid. The quotations of the “New Testament” books by many
of the second century “Church Fathers” generally support the Western type
of text. Moreover it was clearly the Western type of text, which served as
the basis for the earliest versions including the Old Latin (a point which
will be further discussed in the Chapter on Latin Versions). Many of the
oldest Papyri fragments of the New Testament agree with the Western text
Type. Among these are:
P29 - This is a 3rd century fragment in the Oxford Bodl. Library
containing Acts 26:7-8, 20
P38 - This is a 3rd century fragment at the University of Michigan
containing Acts 18:27-19:6, 12-16
P45 - This is the well known 3rd century “Chester Beatty I” Papyri
containing several fragments from the Four Gospels and Acts.
P48 - This 3rd century fragment contains Acts 23:11-17, 25-29.
P69 – A 3rd century fragment containing Luke 22:41, 45-48; 58-61
P52 - This is the famous “John Rylands’ Fragment” containing John
18:31-33, 37-38. This fragment dates to about 130 C.E. and is the oldest
known fragment of any portion of the New Testament. This fragment follows
the Western Text against the traditional Greek text as shown below:
P52 follows the word order:
“entered then again into the praetorium Pilate”
In agreement with the Western type text of Codex D, the Old Latin and the
However the Alexandrian and Byzantine types (such as Codex ), Codex A, and
the Majority Text) read with the word order:
“entered then into the praetorium again Pilate”
- ), A, C2, Mj.
Thus the oldest fragment of any New Testament book is of the Western Text
Not only is the Western text type of the Old Syriac older than the
Byzantine text type of the Peshitta but much of the earliest Aramaic
Church Literature cites readings as they appear in the Old Syriac rather
than the Peshitta, though later manuscripts of these same writings have
often been revised to agree with the readings in the Peshitta.
As Voobus writes:
While older liturgical manuscripts show the influence of the Old Syriac,
the revised manuscripts contain the text according to the Peshitta.
(Early Versions of the New Testament; Manuscript Studies;
Arthur Voobus; 1954 p. 103 )
One of the most ancient documents circulated in the early Church of the
East was the apocryphal “Acts of Thomas”. The acts themselves may well be
a first century production. They recount the story of how Thomas brought
the Messianic movement to the East. Within this ancient document the
Lord’s Prayer is quoted verbatim as it appears in the Old Syriac rather
than the Peshitta version.
Another foundational document in the ancient Church of the East is “The
Doctrine of ‘Addai”. According to the tradition of the Church of the East
this book was delivered to them in the first century by the Apostle ‘Addai
(Thaddeus). There are a number of places in which ‘Addai quotes or cites
the Gospels in agreement with the Old Syriac against the Peshitta (and the
Another ancient Aramaic “Church Father” of the “Church of the East” was
Aphraates whoh wrote his Homilies in the years 337, 344, and 345 CE. In
his Homilies, Aphraates often quotes the Aramaic of the Gospels in
agreement with the Old Syriac against the Peshitta.
Among the best known and highly revered Aramaic “Church Fathers” of the
“Church of the East” was the fourth century “Church Father” Ephraim Syrus.
Ephraim often quoted and cited the Gospels in his works, often agreeing
with the Old Syriac against the Peshitta.
Many of these citations in the Doctrine of ‘Addai, Aphraates and Ephraim
Syrus. May be seen in my book The Hebrew and Aramaic Origin of the New Testament http://www.lulu.com/nazarene
(TO BE CONTINUED)