Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Old Syriac Gospels and Their Relationship To the Peshitta

The Old Syriac is composed of two ancient versions of the Gospels written in the same Aramaic dialect as the Peshitta (Syriac). The two versions are called the Curetonian Gospels and the Sinaitic Palimpsest. These manuscripts both appear to have originated in the fourth century, while the mainstream scholarly view is that they originated in the 2nd century, predating (in their view) the Peshitta, which is the standard text of the New Testament used by Assyrian Christians in the Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, and Syriac Maronite Church.

The first one to be discovered was the Curetonian text, discovered by William Cureton (after whom the text is named). This text of the Gospels was discovered among many other manuscripts, brought from a Syrian monastery of Egypt in 1842. Currently it is being preserved in the English Library. Cureton noted that the manuscript was extremely different from any known version of the Gospels, and believed it was not a translation from Greek, but Henry Herman later concluded that they were translations from the Greek. Cureton published the manuscript in 1858, calling the book Remains of A Very Ancient Recension of the Gospels in Syriac, Hitherto Unknown in Europe. Francis Crawford Burkitt later published the Aramaic text with an English translation (now known as the standard text of the Curetonian text). The Sinaitic Palimpsest was used in order to replace the missing portions of the Curetonian manuscript. 

The Sinaitic Palimpsest (also called Syriac Sinaiticus) was discovered in the library of Saint Catherine's Monastery during the year 1892 by sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson. They later returned with other scholars to photograph the manuscript and transcribe it. Agnes Smith Lewis published some pages of the original manuscript in her book Some Pages of the Four Gospels Re-transcribed From the Sinaitic Palimpsest With A Translation of the Whole Text. She published the translation alone in A Translation of the Four Gospels From the Syriac of the Sinaitic Palimpsest. A palimpsest is a text that has had another text written over it, in this case, this version of the Gospels was overwritten by a biography of saints and martyrs from the 778 AD. Because of this, the Sinaitic Palimpsest is frequently referred to as "Old Scratch" by Peshitta primacists. Ironically, the Sinaitic Palimpsest is better preserved than the Curetonian Gospels. This text has several notable readings, including one that denies the Virgin Birth by saying that Joseph begat Jesus in Matthew 1:16. This manuscript was also dated to the 4th century AD and is held by many to be the oldest copy of the Gospels in Aramaic.

The Curetonian appears to be a revision of the Sinaitic Palimpsest. It's said by scholar E. Jan Wilson (who published a comparative translation of the Old Syriac Gospels) that the Curetonian Gospels tend to have better grammar than the Sinaitic also. They are also very similar, but also disagree about as much as the Greek manuscripts. Most scholars believe that the Peshitta is a revision of the Old Syriac Gospels, but I, along with other Peshitta enthusiasts, disagree. Both of the Old Syriac versions are referred to as Evangelion de Mapharreshe ("The Separated Gospels"). 

Many people say that the Old Syriac versions appear to be quoted by Assyrian Christians like Ephrem the Syrian instead of the Peshitta, but several Peshitta scholars have analyzed this popular claim and found it to be false. Assyrian scholar Paul Younan has observed that sometimes Ephrem will quote the Peshitta, and sometimes he will paraphrase, and sometimes he appears to quote the Old Syriac. Younan shows that this is the same case with Aphrahat, who quotes the Peshitta quite a bit instead of the Old Syriac. The Arabic version of the Diatessaron (the only surviving complete version of Tatian's 2nd century harmony that is written in a Semitic language and was translated directly from the Aramaic) also agrees with the Peshitta against the Old Syriac. Aramaic scholars James Scott Trimm, Steve Caruso, and George Anton Kiraz follow the mainstream belief that the Old Syriac predates the Peshitta, but Trimm is the only one of the three that believe that the Old Syriac represents an original version of Mark, Luke, and John (holding that Shem-Tob Matthew is the original version of Matthew, written in Hebrew). Peshitta scholars Paul Younan, Andrew Gabriel Roth, Glenn David Bauscher, Janet Magiera, and the late William Norton hold the Peshitta to predate the Old Syriac Versions.

Peshitta primacists hold that 4th century Syriac Orthodox bishop Rabulla created the Old Syriac in order to combat the Diatessaron, which was popular among Aramaic-speaking Christians and appears to use the Peshitta. The most damning evidence for this is a statement from Rabulla himself: "Let the presbyters and deacons give heed that in all the churches there be provided and read a copy of the Distinct Gospel [Aramaic: Evangelion d' Mapharreshe]." The name "Distinct" or "Separated" Gospels was given in order to distinguish it from the Diatessaron, which is referred to as Evangelion d'Amhalte ("Mixed Gospels") in Aramaic. This is the argument that really convinces me that the mainstream opinion is incorrect. 

As stated before, Francis Crawford Burkitt and Agnes Smith Lewis published translations of the Old Syriac Gospels. George Anton Kiraz of Gorgias Press published A Comparative Edition of the Syriac Gospels, which contains the Aramaic text of the Western Peshitto, Harklean, Curetonian, and Sinaitic Palimpsest. Another Gorgias Press affiliate, E. Jan Wilson, published The Old Syriac Gospels: Studies and Comparative Translations in two volumes. Wilson's publication includes the Aramaic text of both the Curetonian and Sinaitic Gospels, with translations of both verse-by-verse in a format perfect for easy comparison.

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