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Probe Ministries > Founder's Corner > "Is It True That Some NT Documents were First Written in Aramaic/Syriac and THEN in Greek?"


"Is It True That Some NT Documents were First Written in Aramaic/Syriac and THEN in Greek?" Print E-mail

I have been asked what is wrong with this bible by George Lamsa which is a translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta. It claims greater accuracy than KJV since it is based on the eastern texts, which they claim are older than the OT Hebrew texts and that the NT texts were written originally in Aramaic since the common language of that area was and is in some areas still Aramaic. The differences that this bible translation points out between KJV and Aramaic have no major change in doctrine. How reliable are the eastern texts? And why are they not mentioned or discounted in textual criticism works?

Thank you for your e-mail requesting information on your question about the Bible translation of George Lamsa based on ancient Syriac Texts, and in particular, the Syriac Peshitta.

While I am not personally familiar with this work, or what it claims for itself, I am somewhat knowledgeable in textual criticism. So I will give you a quick response to your questions.

Syriac is the language which was spoken in the general area of modern Syria and Iraq, extending on the west (just east of the coastal area then known as Phoenicia--modern Lebanon) to the Euphrates River on the east. The two major cities were Antioch and Damascus. As you know, early on the first Christian expansion from Jerusalem was into this area with the Church at Antioch where Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and others ministered and at which the name "Christians" was first used historically (to our knowledge-Acts 11:26).

It was because of this growth of the Christian Church that there developed a need for a translation of the Bible into the Syriac language, an Aramaic dialect. It, along with Hebrew and Arabic, are all related Semitic languages. Merrill Unger notes that the Peshitta is the product of many hands, and the exact date of its origin is unknown. He also says that it came into existence after 150 A.D., an accepted date when the Syriac Church became a visible presence in the region. It is generally accepted that most of its Old Testament Books were translated from the Hebrew by around 200 A.D. Most scholars believe that the origin of this tradition came from the hands of Christian Jews.

The Peshitta's Pentateuch follows very closely the Massoretic Text (tenth century A.D.) of our Old Testament while other portions are clearly translated from the Greek Septuagint, the accepted translation of the Old Testament for Greek-speaking Jews and Christians of the time.

I would have to see your sources which claim the Syriac translations are earlier, and therefore have greater accuracy than the texts underwriting the King James Bible, before I feel I can fully answer your question. What are the sources? All of my sources clearly point to the fact that the Peshitta, in the form we have come to know it, developed (at least for the New Testament) a good bit later than their Greek originals. That is not to say that there is no manuscript evidence prior to the Massoretic era.

Further, both the Syriac Peshitta and the KJV are based most strongly upon the Eastern Family of (Greek-speaking) texts (Textus Receptus). The KJV is based primarily on this text Family because the bulk of manuscript evidence available in 1607 in England and Holland for scholars to work with was constituted mainly of this Eastern body of texts.

Additional, more recent manuscript evidence, such as Siniaticus (Aleph) and Codex Vaticanus (B), along with other Western Texts, have brought additional light to textual criticism of the N.T., and convinced most scholars (Westcott, Hort, Nestle, and most others) that the Nestle's (critical) text is based on earlier and a more accurate rendering of the text than the Textus Receptus (though, as you point out, none of the variables--be it Textus Receptus, Nestle's Text, or the Peshitta--affect any major doctrinal teaching of the eastern text.

Now apart from Matthew, which some scholars believe was originally translated into Aramaic and only second into our Greek version, I know of no higher critical scholarship which can substantiate that all of the New Testament Texts were written in Aramaic first. It would not make sense for the Epistles to first have been written into Syriac because Paul was not writing any of his letters to people who spoke Syriac (Aramaic).

It might make sense for the four gospels, but I am not aware of any textual critical sources which try to document Aramaic origins for them, with the exception of a persistent tradition spoken of by two early church fathers, Papias and Irenaeus, that Matthew did in fact write something in Aramaic first which may be embodied within his Greek gospel. There is little doubt that prior to the writing of the four Gospels, there was an oral or spoken tradition circulating as the Apostles fanned out and began to speak of Jesus. Most scholars point to this oral tradition as the best explanation for the overlapping of material in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

The two primary languages spoken in Palestine during Jesus' time were Aramaic and Greek, and, with the coming of the Romans to that area, some Latin. Formal Hebrew was still read in the synagogues, but everyday communication was expressed in Aramaic. It is not likely that Jesus taught or conversed in Greek (though He and the Apostles appear to be familiar with the Greek Septuagint). Therefore, there is an Aramaic base to the Gospel material, since this was the language of Jesus and the Apostles.

How reliable are the eastern texts? If by "Eastern" we mean the Greek Texts and the Syriac Texts (but we could also add Coptic and Armenian, though they come later), we find that they all flow from common sources: either the Hebrew (and the little bit of Aramaic we find in the Old Testament), or the Koine Greek of the New Testament world (which produced both the (1)Greek Translation [Septuagint] of the Old Testament, (2) the original New Testament Documents themselves, and (3) those writings of the earliest Church Fathers (who all wrote in either Greek (Eastern) or Latin (Western). We find precedent for this in the New Testament writers themselves who, with the possible exception of Luke, most assuredly all spoke Aramaic but wrote their letters in Greek. Another factor pointing to an original Greek text is the presence throughout the Gospels of explanations for Aramaic words/expressions. These would not be necessary if the original text had be rendered in Aramaic.

And so we could say that the Eastern Family corpus is highly reliable and true to the text 95% of the time. But the same could be said of the Latin Texts. AND the King James Bible. The KJV is a very good translation, but we have gleaned additional, earlier textual evidence since 1607 which has made us reconsider how the KJV translators rendered certain portions of the text. Its framers could only translate from the manuscript evidence available to them.

Textually speaking, there is little manuscript evidence to substantiate an Aramaic precedent over the Greek. There are however, ten different Syriac manuscript sources which have survived, dating from the fifth to the tenth centuries A.D. The earliest, a palimpsest written in the 4th or 5th century, is the oldest extant manuscript which is a representative of the Old Syriac translation (which probably originated around 200 A.D). All of these manuscripts give evidence of having borrowed from pre-existing sources--the Hebrew, the Greek Septuagint, or the Massoretic tradition.

By far the best Aramaic specimen of the Syriac Peshitta is found in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, and dates from the sixth or seventh century A.D. Close behind is one in the British Museum in London which dates from the ninth or tenth century A.D. I have looked at this codex and taken pictures of it.

Finally, in answer to your question about the silence of "Eastern" texts, this is not a good designation, since "Eastern" includes both Syriac and Greek manuscript traditions. They are essentially the same. You are mistaken in stating that the eastern texts are not mentioned, or they are discounted in textual critical apparatus. As you can see from my summary above, they are there. All extant manuscript sources relating to the Syriac family of texts are noted. Thus, to my knowledge, the Syriac family of texts are not ignored in the literature.

My recommendation is that you should find in your area a good theological seminary (with a strong commitment and high regard for the scriptures themselves), and check out the section of the library which deals with Old and New Testament Criticism, and sources which refer to the Syriac Peshitta.

I hope this gives a satisfactory response to your questions.

Jimmy Williams, Founder
Probe Ministries


About the Author

Jimmy WilliamsJames F. Williams is the founder and past president of Probe Ministries International, and currently serves as Minister at Large. He holds degrees from Southern Methodist University (B.A.) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.). He also has pursued inter-disciplinary doctoral studies (a.b.d.) in the humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. Over a thirty-five year period, he visited, lectured, and counseled on more than 180 university campuses in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the former Soviet Union. He also served on the faculties of the American, Latin American, and European Institutes of Biblical Studies.

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Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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