By Elysia McColley
Last week, we looked at evidence that the Old Testament has been passed down reliably at least since 250BCE via the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. This week, we are going to look at the New Testament, particularly at a version of it that may be even older than the Greek manuscripts that most scholars use: the Peshitta, or Aramaic (Syriac) New Testament.
The primary language of the Mediterranean during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the early church was Greek. As such, many of the earliest New Testament texts that we have are in Greek. However, living in Galilee and traveling throughout the surrounding areas, Jesus probably spoke Aramaic as His mother tongue, as did His disciples. He likely understood Greek but communicated mostly in Aramaic. We know that when He spoke from the cross, crying, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”, His words were in Aramaic.
There is evidence to suggest that the Peshitta, which is based on Aramaic manuscripts rather than Greek ones, was the earliest version of some books in the New Testament. In fact, much of the early church in areas like Syria used the Peshitta rather than translations from Greek. I don’t point this out to show that the Greek-based New Testament is corrupted but rather to show that the New Testament may have actually been preserved in two languages rather than one.
The Aramaic New Testament
Why does the language matter? Because Aramaic is a Semitic language that uses different wordplays, idioms, and grammar (including the use of gendered nouns), while Greek is a Western language that uses different wordplays and mostly gender-neutral nouns.
For example, in Matthew 19:24, Jesus said that a camel going through the eye of a needle is easier than a rich man entering the Kingdom of God. The Peshitta renders the translation of “camel” as “rope,” so the verse reads that a rope going through the eye of a needle is easier than a rich man entering the Kingdom of God. This nuance has a clear effect on the meaning of the passage: A camel cannot go through the eye of a needle; the task is impossible. However, a rope can go through the eye of a needle, albeit with great difficulty.
We can read the New Testament as translated from Greek manuscripts and still get the same general meaning. In both the Greek and Aramaic versions of Matthew 19:24, we see that for a rich man, entering the Kingdom of God is extremely difficult. The difference is that in the Greek version the task is impossible (until we consider that Jesus often used hyperboles), whereas in the Aramaic, it is possible but very hard. Either way, we plainly see that people who have great wealth tend to face particular challenges regarding their relationship with God.
“Peshitta primacy,” the belief that the Peshitta is the purest version of the New Testament, is not without its problems. One reason why is because most scholarship of the New Testament is from the Greek manuscripts rather than the Peshitta; scholarship on the Peshitta, in areas such as its origins and how it was used by the early church, is severely lacking. However, because the Peshitta is growing in popularity, we may soon begin finding more scholarship on it.
If modern scholarship shows that the Peshitta is historically reliable as an ancient version of the New Testament that predates the Greek manuscripts, we would not be able to say that the Greek version is corrupted. What we would be able to say is that the Greek-based translations are so extremely similar to the Aramaic Peshitta, minus the wordplays and some slight errors in translation, that the two texts are virtually identical. However, reading and studying the Peshitta, with its language nuances, would provide a deeper and richer meaning of the Greek-based translations that we usually read.