The Jewish Origin of the Peshitta Tanak

10/01/2016 12:23

The Jewish Origin of the Peshitta Tanak


By James Scott Trimm

The Aramaic Peshitta Tanak is an important, and under-recognized witness to the text of the Tanak. The exact origin of the Peshitta Tanak is unknown. The “Syriac” version of the Tanak, is mentioned by Melito of Sardis as early as the second century C.E. One tradition has it that Hiram, King of Tyre in the days of Solomon, commissioned this Aramaic translation of the Tanak. Another tradition assigns the Peshitta translation as having been commissioned by the King of Assyria, who dispatched Assa the Priest to Samarir (see 2Kn. 17:27-28). According to the Aramaic “Church Father” Bar Hebraeus, the Peshitta Tanak originated when Abgar, king of Edessa, Syria, dispatched scholars to Israel to produce an Aramaic translation of the Tanak (Bar Hebraeus; Comm. To Ps. 10). Wichelshaus suggested that this king was the same as King Izates II of Adiabene. This king, along with his family, converted to Judaism as recorded by Josephus (Ant. 20:69-71). This king had dispatched his five sons to Israel in order for them to study Hebrew and Judaism. Burkitt maintained that the Peshitta Tanak originated not long after the first century C.E., as the product of the Jewish community of Edessa, in Syria.   (Early Eastern Christianity; Burkitt; p. 71ff)

There is certainly a good deal of evidence, to support the Jewish origin of the Peshitta Tanak. The Babylonian Talmud alludes to the Aramaic text of the Peshitta with the phrase “WE translate”:
‘A greeting of ‘Peace’ is not permissible there’. This supports the following dictum of R. Haninuna on ‘Ulla's authority: A man may not extend a greeting of ‘Peace’ to his neighbour in the baths, because it is said, And he called it, The Lord is peace. (Judges 6:24) If so, let it also be forbidden to mention, By faith! in a privy, for it is written, the faithful God? (Deut. 7:9) And should you answer, that indeed is so: but R. Hama b. Goria said in Rab's name, By faith! may be mentioned in a privy?-There the Name itself is not so designated, as we translate it, God is faithful (Quoting the Peshitta); but here the Name itself is designated ‘Peace,’ as it is written, and he called it, The Lord is Peace.
(b.Shabbat 10b)


THE LENGTH OF THE TERU'AH IS EQUAL TO THE LENGTH OF THREE YEBABOTH. But it has been taught, ‘The length of the teru'ah is equal to three shebarim’? — Abaye said: Here there is really a difference of opinion. It is written, It shall be a day of teru'ah unto you, (Num. 29:1) and we translate, a day of yebaba (quoting the Peshitta), and it is written of the mother of Sisera, Through the window she looked forth, (Judges 5:28) [wa-teyabab]. One authority thought that this means drawing a long sigh, and the other that it means uttering short piercing cries.
(b.Rosh Hashanna 33b)


R. Samuel b. Nahmani introduced his discourse on this section with the following text: Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle: (Is. 55:13) ‘Instead of the thorn’: instead of the wicked Haman who put himself up as an object of worship, as it is written, and upon all thorns and upon all brambles (Is. 7:19) ‘shall come up the cypress’: this is Mordecai who was called the chief of all spices, as it is said, And do thou take to thee the chief spices, flowing myrrh, (Ex. 30:23) which [last words] we translate [in Aramaic], mar deki. (quoting the Peshitta) ‘Instead of the brier’: instead of the wicked Vashti, the daughter of the wicked Nebuchadnezzar who burnt the ceiling of the house of the Lord; as it is written, its top was gold, (Song 3:10) ‘the myrtle shall come up’: this is the virtuous Esther who is called Hadassah, as it is said, And he brought up Hadassah. (Esther 11:7) ‘And it shall be to the Lord for a name’: this is the reading of the Megillah; ‘and for an everlasting sign which shall not be cut off’: these are the days of Purim.
(b.Megilah 10b)

The books of Ezekiel and Proverbs in the Aramaic Peshitta, read very similarly to the Aramaic Targums of those same books.  The Peshitta Tanak has many Jewish liturgical divisions. For example, the Psalms are divided into five sections as in Jewish copies, and the Torah is divided according to the triennial Torah reading cycle, and festival readings are also indicated (for example Lev. 23:1; see b. Meg. 30b). Moreover the Peshitta Torah also contains many headings which are likely of Jewish origin. For example the ten commandments have the heading עםרא פתגם “The Ten Commandments” just above Ex. 20:1 and just above Leviticus 17, the Peshitta has the heading ומוסא דקורבנא ודדבחא “The Torah of Offerings and Sacrifices”, (compare with the Talmud b. Meg. 30b).

The text of the Aramaic Peshitta was originally written in Hebrew letters, until this was forbidden by Ephraim Syrus in the fourth century C.E., and contains many Judeo-Aramaisms. (Encylopedia Judaica; Article “Bible”)  Finally, many readings in the Peshitta Aramaic Tanak read Jewish halacha into the text. Many of these are noted in the footnotes of the HRV translation

The Aramaic Peshitta translation is a literal Aramaic translation, made directly from a Hebrew text which closely resembled the current Masoretic Text.

For example we read in Exodus 22:30 (31):

And you shall be set-apart men unto Me. Therefore,
you shall not eat any flesh that is torn of beasts
in the field: you shall cast it to the dogs.
(Ex. 22:30 (22:31) HRV)

Where we read “flesh that is torn of beasts in the field” the Hebrew reads ובשר בשדה טרפה  The Aramaic Peshitta has for this phrase ובסרא דנתיש מן חיותא חיתא  “And flesh which is torn from a living beast”. The Peshitta here alludes to the concept also found in the Talmud which applies the meaning of this text to eating flesh torn from an animal while it is still alive:

R. Johanan said: The verse: Thou salt not eat the life with the flesh,(Deut. 12:23) refers to a limb [severed] from a living creature; and the verse: Ye shall not eat any flesh in the field, that is trefah [torn of beasts],(Ex. 22:30) refers to flesh [severed] from a living creature and also to flesh of a trefah animal.
(b.Hullin 102b)

Another example is found in Leviticus where we read:

And he shall take the two goats,
and set them before YHWH at the
door of the tent of meeting.
(Lev. 16:7)

The Peshitta Aramaic has here “set them alive before YHWH” in agreement with the tradition recorded in the Talmud that the goats are both alike, and therefore both alive at the time they are presented together at the altar:

R. Aha b. Jacob said: It is derived from the case of the Scapegoat. The Divine Law says. And he shall take the two goats, which implies that the two shall be alike in all respects,
(b.Hullin 11a)

Another example in Leviticus reads:

21 And you shall not let any of your seed pass to Molekh,
neither shall you profane the Name of your Elohim: I am YHWH.
(Lev. 18:21)
Where the Hebrew gas “Molekh” the Peshitta Aramaic has “alien” (נוכריתא). This follows the tradition recorded in the Talmud that the use of “Molekh” in this passage is a euphemism for a “heathen” (b.Meg. 25a; m.Meg. 4:9).  According to the Mishna this passage is a euphemism meaning "you shall not let any of your seed pass to an Arameaness (בארמיותא)" (m.Meg. 4:9) the Gemara to this Mishna passage relates a tradition from the school of Rabbi Yishma’el which understands this to refer to “an Yisra’elite who has intercourse with a Cutheaness (הכותית) and begets from her a son to idolatry (בן לעבודה)” (b.Meg. 25a).

Again in Leviticus we read:

8 Shabbat Day by Shabbat Day he shall set
it in order before YHWH continually: it is
from the children of Yisra’el; an everlasting
(Lev. 24:8)

Where we read “Shabbat day by Shabbat day” the Hebrew has: ביום השבת ביום השבת The Aramaic Peshitta has instead ביומא דשתא “on the sixth day”. And the Greek LXX has “on the Shabbat”. The Peshitta may reflect a tradition recorded in the Talmud (b.Men. 97a) that while the work was done “Shabbat by Shabbat” it was actually done on the evening of the sixth day just before the Shabbat began.  However it may also be possible that the Aramaic reading  “of דשתא six” is a scribal error for דשבתא “of the Shabbat”.

The Peshitta Tanak is clearly of Jewish rather than Christian origin.  This is evident from the parallels with many Jewish Targums, the use of Jewish literary divisions, the various citations of the Peshitta as a Jewish translation in the Talmud and the influence of the Talmudic traditions on passages in the Peshitta Tanak.  Because the Jewish origin of the Peshitta has been largely overlooked, a valuable and important resource to Tanak understanding and textual criticism has been greatly under utilized.