The Syriac Church Fathers produced no less than six different versions of the New Testament and at least two major versions of the Old Testament. This is a noteworthy testimony to their critical study of the Holy Scriptures. In his brief article on the Syriac Versions of the Bible, the German New Testament scholar Eberhard Nestle notes: “No branch of the Early Church has done more for the translation of the Bible into their vernacular than the Syriac-speaking. In our European libraries we have Syriac Bible manuscripts from Lebanon, Egypt, Sinai, Mesopotamia, Armenia, India (Malabar), even from China” (‘Syriac Versions,’ in Hastings’s Dictionary of the Bible, iv, 1902).
The first major translation from the original Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament into Syriac was the Peshitto. It was accomplished by many different translators over a considerable period of time in the first two centuries of the Christian Era. The second major translation of the Old Testament was done from the Greek Septuagint (which in turn was translated from the original Hebrew and Aramaic). This translation is known in Syriac as dshab`in or ‘translation of the seventy’, a reference to the seventy translators of the Septuagint, according to tradition.
As for the New Testament, the earliest form used in the early Syriac Church is known in Syriac as Evangelion Damhalte which means ‘Gospels of the Mixed’. It is known in Western sources as the Diatessaron, a Greek word meaning ‘through [the] four [Gospels]’. As its name implies, this Gospel was made up by ‘combining’ the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) into one text. The Diatessaron was very popular in the early Syriac Church, but later was replaced by the four separate Gospels. Alas, the text of the Syriac Diatessaron is lost, but some verses can be found as citations in the writings of the Church Fathers.
The Syriac Church produced another version of the Gospels in the 2nd-5th century. This translation was unknown to the Syriac Church or to Biblical scholars until its discovery in the nineteenth century. Since it is older than the text of the Syriac Bible which is current, it was called by scholars the Old Syriac. However, the ancient Syriac church which used this translation named it in Syriac Evangelion Dampharshe which means ‘Gospels of the Separated’ in order to distinguish it from ‘Gospel of the Mixed’. The Old Syriac is a ‘free’ translation from the Greek text; it is ‘free’ in the sense that the translators paraphrased the text in order to make it as clear as possible to the native Syriac reader. They had in mind the reader rather than the original text. After the Old Syriac was replaced by the Peshitto (see below), it was forgotten by the Syriac Church until two manuscripts containing portions of its texts were discovered in the nineteenth century.
Since the Old Syriac was a free translation, it went through a series of revisions to make it closer to the original Greek text. These revisions were done by a number of translators during a long period of time. The end result was what we now know as the Peshitto version, completed sometime around the 4th or 5th century. It became the authoritative translation of all Syriac-speaking Churches till this day (Syriac Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Maronite, Chaldean and Syrian Catholic). Unlike the Old Syriac, the Peshitto includes all the books of the New Testament, apart from the Minor Catholic Epistles (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude) and Revelation. These books were not popular in the Syriac Church till much later. (In fact, to this day, Revelation is never read in the Syriac Orthodox Church.)
In A.D. 507/8, at the peak of the christological controversies, Mor Philoxenos, Bishop of Mabug, felt that a new translation which is much closer to the original Greek was needed in order to help Syriac theologians argue their christological position. He commissioned Chorepiscopos Polycarp to do this task. The new version was named the Philoxenian (after Mor Philoxenos), but its usage was limited amongst the scholars and theologians of the time. This version did not become popular and as a result not a single manuscript survives.
The final version of the New Testament in Syriac came in the year 616 when Thomas of Harqel felt that a new literal translation was needed. Unlike the case of the Philoxenian, the motivation here was a linguistic one. Thomas aimed at a word-for-word translation of the Greek into Syriac, even if that meant unintelligible Syriac, a style of ‘mirror translation’ which was popular in the seventh century. This Harklean version was a revision of the lost Philoxenian. It was used by the Church and many manuscripts of it survive. However, its obscure Syriac made it unpopular in later times.
The multiplicity of these translations and revisions is a noteworthy testimony to the scholarship of the Syriac Church Fathers. In the words of the Estonian New Testament scholar Arthur Vööbus: “No Church can submit to claim to have studied the sacred texts more carefully and to have used and applied all the scientific resources, known to early Christianity, to biblical criticism more intensely than the Syrian Church” (Studies in the History of the Gospel Text in Syriac, 1951). This critical way of looking at the words of God is, in fact, rooted in the Syriac tradition. St. Ephrem, writing in the fourth century, says:
If there only existed a single sense for the words of Scripture, then the first commentator who came along would discover it, and other hearers would experience neither the labor of searching, nor the joy of discovery. Rather, each word of our Lord has its own form, and each form has its own members, and each member has its own character. And each individual person understands according to his capacity, and he interprets the passages as is granted to him (Commentary on the Diatessaron 7:22).
The Syriac Bible is of scholarly and historical significance for several reasons. First, and most importantly, even though all of the versions as received are translations from Greek (in the case of the New Testament) and Hebrew and Aramaic (in the case of the Old Testament), Syriac presents us with the text of the Holy Scriptures and the life and words of Jesus Christ in a language which is akin to that of Christ.
Second, Syriac presents us with the oldest and the earliest translation of the Bible into any language. This makes Syriac crucial for inferring the earliest forms of the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew. Commenting on the New Testament, the biblical scholar Harris notes: “any person who expects to solve the problem of the diversity of the New Testament text in the second century, without employing in the solution the Old Syriac and associated versions and the closely connected Diatessaron of Tatian, is, no doubt, victim of a delusion” (The Expository Time, vol. 25).
Third, the early translations of the Bible into Syriac (i.e., the Diatessaron, Old Syriac and Peshitto) provide the Western world with the Mesopotamian and Semitic perception of the Biblical texts, free from any form of Hellenization.