For those of you who are not familiar with Peshitta Primacy, it is the belief that the Syriac Peshitta (the Syriac Bible) is the original text of the New Testament. 1 It is a movement that first gained traction with the works of the late George Lamsa, and is primarily a position popularized by individuals within the growing Messianic Judaism movement in North America as well as the official position of the Assyrian Church of the East.
On its face, there are some rather compelling arguments to the layman that have to do with places where the Syriac text displays some interesting quirks of idiom (such as wordplay, puns, or ambiguous meanings) that the Greek text of the New Testament, as we have it today, misses or potentially mistranslates. In truth, many of these phenomena are due to the fact that the tradition they represent dates back to an Aramaic source that was translated and incorporated to the New Testament some time during its transmission, and since the Peshitta is in a dialect of Aramaic they come across more clearly; however, this does not necessarily point to the Peshitta being the original.
When we look at the New Testament in light of Jesus’ own dialect (early Galilean Aramaic, a dialect quite different from Syriac), we can find places where such phenomena (wordplay, puns, mistranslations, etc.) exist that are not present in the Peshitta.
This article will grow, over time, to house an annotated list of such possibilities.
He Who Lives By The Sword
In Matthew 26:52 we have a scene where Jesus rebukes Peter for being rash:
Then said Jesus to him, Put up again your sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
In the Greek New Testament, the bolded part above reads thus:
παντες γαρ οι λαβοντες μαχαιραν εν μαχαιρη απολουνται
pantes gar hoi labontes mahairan en mahairê apolountai
For all who did take a sword, by a sword they shall die.
And in the Peshitta it reads thus:
kulhun ger hanun da-nsab saife, b-saife n’muthun
For all of they who take up swords, with swords they shall die.
Note how the Peshitta renders “swords” (in the plural) rather than “sword.” This is very curious, because a plain retro-translation back into Galilean Aramaic reads:
bagin kal d-nsab saiyp, b-saiyp 2 yimuthun
For everyone who took up a sword, by a sword (OR “in the end”) they shall die.
In Western Aramaic dialects the word saiyp can mean either “sword” or “end.” Given the context, this wordplay is undoubtedly intentional, and the use of b-saiyp as “in the end” is well attested in Rabbinic literature. 3
The Greek, of course, misses this right off the bat. Furthermore, this double meaning does not occur in Syriac, or other Eastern dialects 4 from the era, so the Peshitta misses it completely, instead choosing to render both instances of saipa in the plural (which makes the pun impossible). This wordplay also does not occur in Hebrew.
As such, the “original” version of Matthew cannot be from the Syriac Peshitta.
The Problem With “Rabbouli”
In John 20:16, Jesus and Mary Magdalene have the following exchange:
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned, and said to him, “Rabboni”; which is to say, “Teacher.”
In every Greek tradition we find something similar to:
λέγει αὐτῇ ὃ Ἰησοῦς Μαρία στραφεῖσα ἐκείνη λέγει αὐτῷ Ἑβραϊστί Ῥαββουνι ὁ λέγεται Διδάσκαλε
legei autê ho Iêsous Maria strafeisa ekeinê legei autô Hebra’isti Rabbouni ho legetai Didaskale
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni” which means “Teacher.”
However in every manuscript of the Syriac Peshitta we puzzlingly find:
amar lah Yeshua Maryam w’ethpanayath w’amra’ leh `ebra’ith Rabuli d’methe’mar Malpana
Jesus said to her, “Mary” and she turned and said to him in Hebrew “Rabuli!” which is to say “Teacher.”
There is a discrepancy between the precise word that Mary spoke, as well as an odd accusation of its etymological origins. The Greek tradition says “Rabbouni” where the Peshitta tradition says “Rabbouli”. “Rabbouni” could easily come from rabuni which means “my teacher” or “my master” in Jewish dialects of Aramaic; however, “Rabouli” is not a common word at all. The only possibility is that it is a later Syriac word that means “head shepherd,” but the form “Rabouli” is not attested in any contemporary dialects to Jesus. It is not attested in Hebrew, either.
Second, they both claim that this word is “Hebrew,” rather than Aramaic. This is not so much of a problem in the Greek, as Ἑβραϊστί is commonly used to describe words of both Hebrew and Aramaic origins (in a sense it’s used as “the Jewish language”); however, in the Syriac Peshitta, it is only really used to describe Hebrew words, as Syriac itself is an Aramaic language. But, as we touched upon earlier, this is not a Hebrew word.
- In contrast, most scholars conclude that the Peshitta is a ~4th century translation from the Greek. ↩
- Or /b-sof/, same root. ↩
- For both /b-saiyp/ and /b-sop/: The Palestinian Talmud, Targum Neophyti, and others. ↩
- Both “Eastern” and “Western” Syriac are actually Eastern Aramaic dialects. Eastern and Western in their case are relative to each other rather than the Aramaic language family as a whole. ↩