Reproduced with the kind permission of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Page numbers are added in double square brackets.



The Syriac version of the Old Testament: An Introduction. By M. P. Weitzman. (University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 56). pp. xvi, 357. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Set to be a classic, this is by far the most comprehensive description to date of the Syriac Peshitta version of the Old Testament (hereafter P). The foreword by Professor R. P. Gordon pays tribute to the author who died as the book was in its proof stages. Though it was supposed to be the first of two volumes this book is a self-contained unit and readers will miss nothing except the continuation of Weitzman’s brilliant contribution to the field of P research.

            The introduction presents a brief outline of P, of research on P, and of the author’s own investigation. Chapter two deals with the relationship between the extant Hebrew and Syriac texts. The author argues cogently for a “maximalist” approach to ascribing differences between the Hebrew and Syriac texts to the translators’ technique of representing the original in the target [[86]] language, though each instance needs to be taken individually. The translators did not possess knowledge of a continuous reading tradition as they translated the consonantal text, though clearly they had contact with a tradition of pronunciation of some parts of the Bible. In their analysis of the text the translators generally seek to represent accurately the sense of each phrase and in some respects P is characterised as “literal” (p. 23), though there is little evidence of a consistent policy to imitate the actual form of the Hebrew. The translators did not avoid anthropomorphisms as rigorously as the Targumists, nor were they averse to emendation or guesswork when their Vorlage was unintelligible. When the Vorlage was at its most obscure they were prepared to follow the original so slavishly as to produce meaningless Syriac, or to compose freely to produce something meaningful. “… unlike some other translators — notably Theodotion — P does not use transliteration to represent elements not understood” (p. 46). P is of little use in reconstructing the original text of the Hebrew Bible, following the Masoretic text (MT) closely and being unlikely to preserve any original reading against the agreement of MT and the Septuagint (LXX). The chapter ends with an excursus on P’s frequent rendering of Hebrew “Aram” by Syriac “Edom”, which is ascribed to the translators themselves who exploited the graphic ambiguity of their Vorlage.

            The third chapter investigates the relationship between P and other ancient versions, particularly the LXX and Targums. Weitzman demonstrates LXX influence on the translators of P, though P used LXX only sporadically and not at all in Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. Where P and LXX agree against MT in books containing little other evidence of the use of LXX, P and LXX may often be deemed to have had the same Vorlage.

Theories of common origin of P and the Targums are examined. Though there are numerous parallels between P and the Targums, particularly Targum Onkelos, there is invariably a better explanation than to posit literary dependence of P on the Targums. Coincidence of the wording of P and Targums may sometimes be explained as the result of a combination of exegetical and translational traditions common to them and to P. P Chronicles should not be described as a Targum. The vast majority of the looser renderings in P Chronicles do not show affinity to rabbinic sources, but are a form of free composition caused by the severely damaged state of the translator’s Vorlage at least from 1 Chronicles 2 onwards.

            P shows little evidence of West Aramaic origin. The first appendix to this chapter looks at patristic biblical citations. o( Su/rov is essentially P, and patristic citations may occasionally preserve the text of P which has been lost in the manuscript tradition. Appendix II shows parallels between P and rabbinic sources, though most need not imply a common origin, and “there is no sound evidence that the translators knew exegetical interpretations in rabbinic Hebrew” (p. 160). More briefly Appendix III shows that until the Middle Ages P was unknown to rabbinic Judaism, and Appendix IV disputes Beyer’s theory that P depends on a translation of the whole Hebrew Bible made into Imperial Aramaic in the fourth century B.C.

            Chapter four, which deals with unity and diversity in P, is perhaps the most innovative part of the book. The author identifies key items of Hebrew vocabulary, uniform in meaning across the Bible, which have two renderings into Syriac, one of which can be shown to be “conservative” and the other “modern”. By these words, called “discriminators”, he arranges the books of P on a graded scale. The level of a translator’s receptivity to modern items of vocabulary can be shown to parallel the level of their willingness to use the LXX. From these considerations Weitzman concludes that the “modern” Leviticus to Deuteronomy were probably by a single translator, and the “conservative” Genesis was by another. Judges to 2 Kings seem to have some unity in their conservatism as translations, though different usages show that at least in 2 Samuel 6 the translator of P changed. Other translation units include Ezekiel and the Twelve Prophets, Jeremiah and Daniel, Song of Songs and Qohelet, and Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles, possibly along with Esther. Common unusual [[87]] renderings exclusive to P show an overall unity in P. Especially in Job the translator seems to have consulted the work of colleagues to help him in translation. Weitzman investigates parallel passages such as 2 Samuel 22 // Psalm 18, 2 Kings 18-20 // Isaiah 36-39, and 2 Kings 25 // Jeremiah 52. In the last two cases he disputes the conclusions of D. M. Walter,[1] proposing that it is P Kings that has influenced P Isaiah and Jeremiah rather than vice versa. Weitzman guesses that the number of translators of P was around fifteen (p. 203), though they would have considered themselves a single school. To explain common elements throughout the translation we need to suppose that the translating community spent some time before translating building up its understanding of the Hebrew text.

            Chapter five investigates the historical background of the Peshitta. The theology of the translators is seen as coming out most clearly in the free composition of P Chronicles. Weitzman concludes that the level of empathy with the Jewish people shown in some passages indicates that the translators were Jews. Throughout P we have signs of the value the translators attached to prayer and indications of their indifference to cult. Thus P seems not to have originated within rabbinic Judaism. Furthermore, all the passages in P which have been claimed as signs of Christian influence are given alternative explanations. If the latest books of P such as Chronicles were translated by a Jewish community then a fortiori so were the earlier ones. The best explanation for P is that it arose in non-rabbinic Jewish circles, most likely in Edessa, or at least in Osrhoene. Various factors that help date P are considered, including native traditions as to its origin. The use of P in the Old Syriac Gospels and Tatian’s Diatessaron indicates that it antedates them, though P Chronicles is argued to be no earlier than A.D. 200 on the basis of its relation with rabbinic sources. Most of P was probably translated around A.D. 150. Weitzman reconstructs a situation in which between the translation of the earliest books of the OT and the translation of Chronicles significant numbers of the translation community converted to Christianity. Jewish despair at this may be reflected in P Ezra and Chronicles.

            The sixth and final chapter deals with establishing the original text of P. There is a lucid exposition of the canons of textual criticism, and these are applied to P working from first principles. Determinate passages are sought that begin to show the relative value of textual witnesses. Weitzman contests the view that regular agreement between MT and a single P manuscript can be ascribed to revision towards MT. In fact in several books original readings are to be found regularly in a single manuscript such as 5b1 for Genesis and Exodus, 8h5 for Ezra and Nehemiah, 9a1 for Joshua-Kings, Isaiah-Ezekiel, Hosea, Psalms, Lamentations and Chronicles, and 10f1 for Esther. Sometimes no manuscript preserves the original text. The following synthesis of the textual history is proposed. Originally there was an Urtext of P. New readings originated during the third century in the East and spread gradually but incompletely to the West, so that unique bearers of original readings are often western manuscripts. The new readings were widely spread by the sixth century, and the ninth century witnessed some standardisation of the Syriac text, which achieved greater uniformity in the East. Because LXX had more prestige in the West there was less of a tendency to have a unified text of P. Appendices III and IV discuss the best way of visually representing the relationship between textual witnesses and, in connection with this, one is given a small taste of Weitzman’s considerable mathematical ability.

            The tome is authoritative and judicious throughout. Nevertheless, there are points at which one may dispute the author’s judgement. In Job 40:2, dealt with on p. 47, it is unlikely that the “the sense of rsy is extended from ‘chastise’ to ‘counsel’”, but rather that Hebrew rwsy was somehow read as dws (cf. Job 19:19). It is also improbable (contra p. 72) that the translators of the Old Syriac Gospels [[88]] understood a)sw&&twv, used in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:13) as prh9)yt  (m  znyt) “dissolutely with prostitutes”, when in fact “with prostitutes” is simply a gloss from Luke 15:30, which also contains the root prh9. In Numbers 21:14 it is at least as probable that the reference to a “flame” in P is derived from reading Hebrew hbw as bhwl as it is that it is a rendering borrowed from the LXX, as said on p. 75.

This magnificent introduction will appeal to those with a wide variety of scholarly interests, though since Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac are not always translated, the book will not be so accessible to those with less grounding in the relevant languages.

P.J. Williams

[1] D. M. Walter, "The Use of Sources in the Peshit@ta of Kings", in P. B. Dirksen and A. van der Kooij (ed.), The Peshitta as a Translation: Papers Read at the II Peshitta Symposium Held at Leiden 19-21 August 1993, Monographs of the Peshitta Institute, Leiden 8 (Leiden, New York, Köln, E. J. Brill, 1995), 187-204.