Thursday, October 14, 2021

Peshiṭta Old Testament: Part I

The Peshitṭa (Pšiṭtā or ܦܫܝܼܛܬܵܐ) Bible is the received tradition of Sacred Scripture in the Syriac Tradition, both Church of the East and Syriac Orthodox Church. Although Peshiṭta's versions of various biblical books have been well studied and employed in biblical studies, the textual tradition itself, the canon of the Peshitta, has gotten scant if any attention in the academic discourse. The Peshiṭta's Old Testament includes the full contents of the Septuagint but with additional titles making it Christianity's largest Old Testament canon. Before exploring the history that leads to the development of the Peshiṭta, or even explaining whence I derive its canon, let me present its table of contents in comparison to the received Protestant and Byzantine Orthodox traditions. This list follows the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament list in the SBL Handbook of Style, which presents the most common order in English language Bibles. Books not found in the 39 volume protestant canon are in red, and some of these are also found in the Latin or the Greek canon. The books in the Peshiṭta but not in the Protestant canon are placed thematically as they best seemed to fit.
The Books of the Peshiṭta Scriptures
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, 3 Ezra, 4 Ezra, Ester (16 Chapters), Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Qohelet), Song of Songs, Ecclesiasticus (Bar Sira), Wisdom of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeramiah, Lamentations, Letter of Jeramiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Prayer of Azariah, Song of Three Holy Children, Bel, Dragon, Judith, Susana, , Young Daniel, 1 Baruch, 2 Baruch (Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch with Letter to 9 1/2 Tribes), Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, 1-4 Maccabees, Book 6 of Josephus' Jewish War, Joseph and Aseneth, and Tobit.
This list does not follow any Syriac manuscript, but the order we are used to in English Bibles. Moving from the assumptions of modern Western Christianity, often adopted unawares by Eastern Christians as well, to the assumptions of ancient Christians, several points of disjuncture need to be addressed. In the church fathers, the word scripture chiefly refers to the Old Testament, to which is added the New Testament, which is why the phrase the Scriptures, Gospels, and Epistles is not uncommon. When Paul wrote "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness," he could not have meant anything other than Old Testament because the New Testament did not yet exist (2 Tim 3.16). Necessarily, the early Christian mindset conceived of the Old Testament as the Scriptures before adding the New Testament titles and thus expanding Scripture. An understanding of an open canon of the Bible is implied by including New Testament works in the Bible. The New Testament conceives of scripture as the Old Testament, and the project of forming the bible canon is not concluded by any one final act, but as the result of several traditions coming to a lasting and permanent resolution.
Origins of the Peshiṭta
The two greatest examples of an Old Testament or Bible of the Hebrews--the Bible that those Jews we read about in the New Testament considered the Scriptures--are the Septuagint and the Peshiṭta. The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek dates to about the mid-200s BCE, although some books may have been translated as late as 132 BCE. This translation was begun by an imperial request, and so representative scholars of the Alexandrian and Palestinian Jewish religious authorities oversaw and completed the work of compiling the Hebrew and translating it into Koine Greek. The books included are those books that the Second Temple Jewish, likely rabbinical-pharisaical, establishment considered scriptural. Form-wise, the Septuagint is the Hebrew Bible of the Mediterranean Jewish Community a century before Christ's birth.

While the Mediterranean world of Alexandria and Palestine had a growing Jewish community under Hellenistic and then Roman rule, further East, in Mesopotamia, the larger and generally more educated Jews of Babylon also continued to practice the faith, culture, and cultivate intellectual life. Babylonian Jews such as Hillel traveled West to re-introduce Jewish law and learning to Jerusalem as a generation prior two Assyrian royals--Shmaya and Avtlayon--had likewise traveled from Mesopotamia to Palestine to establish the School of the Pharisees. When Hillel was driven out, the head of the Jewish School in Nisibis, Judah ben Bethera, likewise moved to Jerusalem with the same goal of keeping the tradition of Rabbinical Judaism alive. Although not dwelt on in the Talmudic sources, it seems that the Rabbinical tradition was a graft from Babylon brought over to purposefully overtake the wild weeds of Sadducees and Hellenizers overgrowing the temple and its people until they be chocked by Hellenism and infidelity to the law.

Mesopotamian Judaism also translated the Hebrew scriptures, but into the Aramaic of Edessa, Syriac, instead of into Greek. This pre-Christian translation would remain an authority from its origins during the century or so on either side of Jesus of Nazareth's nativity until our current day. While any malpānā of the Church of the East had to know Greek, and the Greek Septuagint was translated into Syriac, it could never replace the Peshiṭta. The Peshiṭta is, like the Septuagint, a self-referential incarnation of God's word, and this is an unwritten doctrine very palpable in the past and present mentality of the Assyrian Christian. Rather than a xenophobic prejudice, this instinct is based on an implied but not always well understood respect for ancient authority: the Peshiṭta was prepared by the very institution that prepared the final edition of the Scriptures itself: the Babylonian rabbinical authority. Assyrians will not articulate it that way, but they articulate a maxim that survives though its supporting premises have faded, but can still be teased out. We know, somehow, that this version does not submit to correction to the Greek or the Masoretic. It came to us in this way, somehow. A product of the Mesopotamian Jewish community before the time of Christ, the Peshiṭta comes from the pre-Messianic period of the faith and continues into the Messianic period as a New Testament is added to it. However, the major event that concludes the scriptures, as viewed through Babylonian lenses, is the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Mār ʿAḇdišo dṢuḇā's Bible Contents
Fortunately for the history of the Peshiṭta, we have an excellent list of the books of the Bible from Mār ʿAḇdišo dṢuḇā (d. 1318), who was Metropolitan of Nisibis (Ṣuḇā) and Armenia. As the Metropolitan of Nisibis, he had access and knowledge of the best Church of the East library, which was that of the Academy of Nisibis, and, in addition, he was a prolific philosophical, dogmatic, and canonical author. He is the best resource possible for a Church of the East conception of the Peshitta, and he wrote a list of theological books, beginning with the scriptures. Thus, we have a table of contents for the Bible written by the very best last medieval Church of the East father possible. Here is his list, in a purposefully wooden translation:
Orāytā, the five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; then the Book of Joshua, Son of Nun; after this Judges, and Samuel and the Book of Kings and the Book of Chronicles and Ruth. The Psalms of David the King and the Proverbs of Solomon and Qohelet and the Song of Songs and Ben Sira and the Great Wisdom of Solomon and Job. And Isaiah, Hosea, and Joel; Amos, Obadiah, and Jonah; and Micah, Nahum, together with Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Zachariah. Malachi with Jeramiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and Judith, and Ester, and Susana, and Ezra, and Lesser Daniel. And the Letter of Baruch and the Book of the Tradition of the Elders, and of Josephus the Historian [maḵtḇānā], and the History of the Sons of Šmoni. And again the Book of Maccabees, and the History of Herod the King, and the Book of the Latter Destruction of Jerusalem at the Hands of Titus. And the Book of Joseph and Aseneth [Book of Asyaṯ the Wife of Joseph the Just Son of Jacob], and the Book of Tobit [Book of Ṭubyā and Ṭobiṭ], righteous Israelites. Now the Old [Testament] is complete and we begin the New that begins with Matthew...
This list is great. It is invaluable, but it leaves us many questions. We need a table of contents for our bible, so it does not help us to simply list Samuel and Kings, much less have Jeramiah without Lamentations or the likely implied Letter of Jeramiah. Careful but creative historical thinking will be required to go from Ma̱r ʿAḇdišo's list to a recovered Old Testament Peshitta canon as preserved in the Assyrian Church of the East. In my next post, I will delve into how I went from Mar ʿAḇdišo's list to the contents described above, and then to arranging the books of the Old Testament as they would appear in a yet unpublished Assyrian Church of the East Old Testament (in my own humble opinion, of course).

ܡܪܝ ܥܒܕܝܫܘܥ ܡܝܛܬܦܘܠܝܛܐ ܕܨܘܒܐ ܘܕܐܪܡܢܝܐ. ܟܬܒܐ ܕܡܬܩܪܐ ܡܪܓܢܝܬܐ ܕܥܠ ܫܪܪܐ ܕܟܪܣܛܝܢܘܬ. ܐܨܚܬܐ ܬܪܝܢܝܬܐ ܕܩܫ܊ ܝܘܣܦ ܕܒܝܬ ܩܠܝܬܐ. ܡܘܨܠ: ܡܛܒܥܬܐ ܐܬܘܪܝܬܐ، ܐ݇ܨܟܕ.

Talmud Bavli: Shimoff Edition: Introduction to the Talmud. Danziger, Yehezkel, and Avrohom Biderman, eds. (Rahway: Mesorah, 2019), 471-473.


  1. Very interesting, much is made of the comparatively expanded Ethiopic canon, but I hadn't realized that the Peshitta had it's own list.

    So what books exactly are meant by 2/3/4 Ezra? Also very interested to understand how Josephus is dealt with as scripture.

  2. It does surprise me that the standard works on the Peshitta don't really deal with the canon. The list I'm following is wonderful to have, but any textual tradition of the scriptures self-suggests a canon.

    Sorry about the Ezra books mix-up. Ezra (1Esdras), Nehemiah (2 Esdras), 3 Esdras/Greek Ezra (a kind of recap of Ezra-Nehemiah), and 4 Ezra (only found in Syriac). The Masoretic, English, Vulgate, and Septuagint numeration of these books is all mixed-up. I guess I need to re-edit and add a footnote. Thank you!

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