Early Syriac Translation Technique and the Textual Criticism of the Greek Gospels

P.J. Williams Gorgias Press LLC, Piscataway, NJ May 11, 2004
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For centuries biblical scholarship has acknowledged that the ancient versions have a significant role in the textual criticism of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Even a glance at a standard critical apparatus, such as that found in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia or the Nestle–Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, reveals multiple citations of the primary ancient versions. What many biblical scholars may not realize, however, is that far too often such citations are problematic from a methodological standpoint. Ancient translators, like their modern counterparts, were often faced with questions of how best to represent a Hebrew or Greek text. A strictly word-for-word translation often violates standards of idiom and style for the target language, rightly leading translators to accommodate the text they are translating to the linguistic norms of the receptor language. As a result, many of the differences one might notice in comparing a translation with its source text are due to factors other than textual differences between the two texts. And herein lies a difficulty: some of the features of an ancient version are due to textual distinctives found in its underlying textual base, while other features are due to techniques adopted by the translators and are therefore lacking in text-critical significance. To discern between these two possibilities in specific instances is sometimes very difficult.

In this work Williams, lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, tackles the proper text-critical use of the early Syriac versions of the New Testament. His thesis is simple yet profound: New Testament text critics have often failed to grasp the significance of distinctive readings in the Syriac versions, understanding them to reflect variation in the translators’ Greek text, when in reality they are due to linguistic and stylistic requirements of the Syriac language. In particular Williams faults the critical apparatus of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament for frequently citing the ancient Syriac versions in a misleading way. His work is a plea for a more rigorous use of the versions and a more accurate presentation of their witness. Every New Testament scholar who makes occasional forays into text criticism should heed this book’s cautions.

Following a brief introduction that describes the Syriac versions and their use by New Testament scholars over the past century, chapter two deals with Syriac proper nouns, common nouns, and pronouns. In numerous examples Williams shows the importance of proper linguistic analysis as a corrective to faulty text-critical assumptions. One example must suffice here. In their use of the name “Jesus” neither the Old Syriac gospels nor the Peshitta consistently imitates the use or nonuse of this name in their Greek Vorlage. While the Peshitta shows a tendency to add the name, the Old Syriac gospels sometimes add the name and other times omit it, depending on the requirements of Syriac idiom. Consequently to cite these versions as supporting the presence or absence of this name in the Greek text is misleading, since the translators on occasion may have used the name or avoided it regardless of whether it was present in their Greek Vorlage.

Chapter three considers articles and particles. Williams demonstrates that differences in stylistic requirements of Syriac as compared to Greek often led the translator to add or delete such words regardless of whether they were present in the Greek text. Words so affected include articles, conjunctions, many prepositions, and various adverbs. Perhaps the most obvious example has to do with differences in usage between Greek and Syriac conjunctions. Variations in the use of “and” are often due to stylistic features rather than textual variation. To cite such variation in a critical apparatus as though it were necessarily due to textual causes is misleading. Nonetheless it is not uncommon for this to happen in standard scholarly tools.

In chapter four Williams deals with alterations in grammatical number (singular versus plural), interchange of the active and passive voice, alteration in grammatical person, and divergence in the use of tenses. Again his point is that Syriac often handles such matters differently than Greek does. In such cases it is misleading to include this variation in a critical apparatus, as though it were necessarily because of textual variation in the Greek texts. For example in the Peshitta the word for “bread” (ljma) is consistently singular, regardless of whether the corresponding Greek word (a[rto") is singular or plural. However, in the case of the word for “fruit” (Para ) Syriac prefers the plural regardless of whether the corresponding Greek word (karpov") is singular or plural. Such grammatical preferences must be taken into account before assuming that variations in these grammatical features are due to textual causes.

Chapter five considers features of Syriac word order that differ from those of Greek. The most striking of these features is a tendency in the Syriac Peshitta to reverse the order of paired items, a matter to which this reviewer has elsewhere called attention. Another variation has to do with the tendency in the Old Syriac gospels for a name to precede its function or attribute, regardless of the order of the Greek text. Still another variation has to do with the Syriac tendency to add proper names whenever the translator thought that ambiguity might otherwise arise. Such variations have nothing to do with textual corruption. Rather, they are due to stylistic preferences on the part of the Syriac translator.

In chapter six Williams takes up words for speech, focusing particularly on verbs for “asking” and the pleonastic expression “answering and saying.” Here again the requirements of Syriac idiom often led to departure from the corresponding Greek structures because of linguistic rather than textual causes.

In chapter seven Williams treats miscellaneous matters that do not easily fit in the earlier discussions, such as the absence of a single Syriac word corresponding to Greek ajkolouqevw (“to follow”). A final chapter provides general conclusions that are based on the thorough collection of evidence found elsewhere in the book. In the first of three appendixes Williams suggests twenty-one rules that in his view should govern the use of the Syriac versions in New Testament text criticism. His points commend themselves as consistent with patterns of usage established for the Syriac versions. In the second appendix he lists more than two hundred suggested emendations to the apparatus of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament with regard to the citation of Syriac versional evidence. One may hope that some of these suggestions will be taken into account in future editions of this widely used edition of the Greek text. Appendix three lists numerous agreements between Syriac witnesses and the Greek Codex Bezae for which a nongenetic explanation (i.e., independent convergence of witnesses) is possible. A bibliography and various indexes conclude the book.

New Testament scholars who cite readings of the ancient versions only on the authority of a critical apparatus for the Greek text, but who are unable to analyze such citations in light of translation techniques that characterize the ancient version in question, are accepting a great deal of risk. Williams has demonstrated that in many places the apparatus of the Nestle-Aland edition cites versional readings without sufficient attention to linguistic or stylistic features. These features lead to translational differences that on the surface may seem to be due to textual variation but in reality are not. Caveat emptor!

—Richard A. Taylor

April 1, 2007
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2007 vol. 164 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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