Bread and the Peshitta in Matthew 16:11-12 and 12:4




P. J. Williams



     Matthew 16:11-12 and 12:4 contain textual variants related to the word a1rtoj “bread,” for which Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed., which for the purposes of this article is identical to the 26th ed.) appeals to the Peshitta as a witness. In Matt. 16:11 and 16:12 NA27 prints in its main text the plural of a1rtoj, but gives the Peshitta as one of the witnesses to a singular. NA27 has stated its aim in versional citation as follows: “The versions are cited only where their underlying Greek text can be determined with confidence” (p. 63*). Given this policy we should hope that the Peshitta would only be cited where there was a high degree of certainty about its Vorlage. Unfortunately this is not the case. The Syriac word )MXL “bread” has an overwhelming tendency to occur in the singular. Thus, for instance, when Satan says in Matt. 4:3, “Speak so that these stones may become loaves [a1rtoi],” the Peshitta has the singular )MXL. In fact, in common with a tendency for its cognates to occur in the singular in other languages,[1] )MXL is not attested in the plural in the emphatic state in the NT Peshitta, and only occurs in the absolute plural form oYM8XL after a numeral (11 times), or the interrogative particle )MK “how many” (3 times). The lack of use of the plural means that on twenty-two occasions a plural of a1rtoj in the text of NA27, marked without variants, is represented by a singular in the Peshitta. Though the emphatic plural )M8XL is not consonantally distinguished from the emphatic singular )MXL the Syriac vocalisation tradition is clearly old and thus the tendency to use a singular in Syriac to represent a Greek plural must go back to the original translators/revisers of the Peshitta. Corroboration of this is that in some instances elements other than vocalisation (such as the addition of a demonstrative in Mark 6:52) confirm the correct vocalisation as singular, even though the Greek witnesses unite in attesting a plural. The tendency to translate a Greek plural by a Syriac singular necessitates removal of the partitive construction from John 6:26 where e0φάγετε e0k tw~n a1rtwn is rendered )MXL nwtLK) “you ate [the] bread.” Given this tendency to render a Greek plural by a Syriac singular it is to be recommended that the Peshitta should not be cited as a witness to the singular of a1rtoj in either Matt. 16:11, or 16:12, and that the apparatus of NA27 (and the corresponding note in UBS4 of Matt. 16:12) be amended accordingly.[2]

     This mistake in NA27 is comparatively easy to identify by a simple concordance check. A more complicated variant is that in Matt. 12:4, where Jesus, talking to the Pharisees about how David had taken the bread of the Presence, says: pw~j ei0sh~lqen ei0j to\n oi]kon tou= qeou= kai\ tou\j a1rtouj th=j προθέσεως e1fagon o4 ou0k e0co\n h]n au0tw~| fagei=n ou0de\ toi=j met )au0tou= ei0 mh\ toi=j i9ereu=sin μόνοις. NA27 notes the variant of the masculine plural relative ou3j for the neuter singular o3, which may easily be explained by influence from the parallel passages Mark 2:26 and Luke 6:4. The neuter is not overwhelmingly attested in the Greek witnesses of Matthew, though it receives wide support only in that gospel (P70 BDW f13 788). However, in its witnesses for an original o3, NA27 includes the Peshitta. A superficial reading of the Peshitta might support the neuter singular since the Peshitta has d wh[, i.e. “that which,” the singular demonstrative wh[ “that,” defining the relative d as singular. However, the Peshitta does not so decide the variant, since for the Greek plural tou\j a1rtouj it has the singular )MXL, in line with the translation tendency described above. Hence in Matt. 12:4, with “bread” in the singular, the bread can be the antecedent of d wh[. It is thus possible that Peshitta read the plural ou3j, and rendered the whole expression by a singular. In fact the transformation of the bread from plural to singular demands that the relative be singular if it refers to bread. Therefore the Peshitta bears no testimony about the variant.[3] In support of this verdict it should be noted that the Peshitta also translates similarly the parallel passages containing the plural ou3j. Mark 2:26 and Luke 6:4 have the masculine plural relative and neither NA27 nor Swanson[4] record a neuter singular as a variant in either location. Both passages mention a1rtoi in the plural as the antecedent to the relative. However, in both of these locations too the Peshitta reads the singular )MXL and follows it with d wh[. To summarise, the Peshitta in all three locations that refer to David’s taking the bread of the Presence has very similar phrasing, and uses a singular throughout. In one of these three places NA27 cites it as supporting a variant. However, given the tendency of the Peshitta to make the construction singular in the other two locations it is simply wiser to be agnostic about the Peshitta’s Vorlage in Matthew. Thus Matt. 12:4, like 16:11 and 16:12, represents a location where the apparatus in NA27 needs to be amended by deletion of reference to the Peshitta.

[1] For instance, Biblical Hebrew Mxl is never in the plural.

[2] I am grateful to the reviewer who pointed out that the mistake of supposing the Peshitta supports a singular for a1rtoj in Matt. 16:12 is also reflected in Adalbert Merx, Das Evangelium Matthaeus nach der Syrischen im Sinaikloster gefundenen Palimpsesthandschrift (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1902) 253.

[3] Unless, ironically, one were to argue that the singular relative in Syriac supports the plural relative in Greek since like it, the Syriac singular relative is directly linked with the preceding bread, whereas the looser connection of the Greek neuter singular relative with what precedes it is certainly not paralleled in the Syriac. It seems safer, however, simply to delete reference to the Peshitta.

[4] Reuben J. Swanson, New Testament Greek Manuscripts, Mark (Sheffield: Academic Press, 1995) 35; New Testament Greek Manuscripts, Luke (Sheffield: Academic Press, 1995) 93.