The Peshitta – Part 5

The Peshitta and Textual Criticism, Part 1

The Peshitta is generally considered to be of secondary importance in matters of textual criticism. This is due in large part to the fact that the Peshitta as it currently exists appears not to be a simple, straightforward translation of the Hebrew original into a related Semitic language. Rather, there are indications not only of influence from the Septuagint, but influence from early Targums as well. In that it is much like some modern English version in which the footnotes tell the reader that here the Septuagint (LXX) reads thus and such; or there the Targums (Tg) say this and that. The primary difference is, of course, that the Peshitta doesn’t have footnotes, but shows the sources of its influences in more subtly ways. That being the case, the Peshitta ordinarily serves by giving secondary support to a reading initially suggested by the Septuagint or the Targums against what the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) has. Over the next few weeks, we will examine some passages in which the Peshitta serves in this secondary witness role, as well as a few cases in which the Peshitta may well have preserved an original reading, not only against the MT, but against the Septuagint and Targums as well.

The first passage for consideration is Genesis 2:2. Most English versions do not, by means of textual footnotes, indicate that there is a variant reading in this verse. The MT reads, “and God completed on the seventh day the work he had done.” The LXX, the Targums, and the Peshitta read, “and God completed on the sixth day.” The variation in reading here serves to illustrate a number of issues relative to the discipline of textual criticism. First, it illustrates that the majority reading is not always considered the right reading, because here we have three witnesses that say “sixth” and only one that says “seventh.” But most textual scholars and translators are so certain that the MT is correct that most English versions, as noted, do not even indicate a variant.

Second, it illustrates the principle of textual criticism that the more difficult reading is generally original. The assumption behind this is that the translator, or copyist, will have been less likely to have introduced a difficulty into the text than to have attempted to smooth one out. As an illustration, consider Psalm 2:12. The ESV reads, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry.” The New Living Translation (NLT) reads, “Submit to God’s royal son, or he will become angry,” with a footnote that says, “The meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.” The footnote is not entirely correct. The Hebrew is clear, except for the fact that the word “son” is not the usual Hebrew word ben, but rather the Aramaic word bar. The issue is also clouded by the fact that there is a Hebrew word bar that means “pure.” Hence the NLT and several other recent translations have sought to make a different sense of the verse by trying to make sense of it using “pure” rather than “son.” In addition, the NLT has inserted the explanatory word “royal” which has no counterpart in the Hebrew text (or in the versions, for that matter). In other words, the NLT has smoothed out what appears to be a difficulty in the text.

The third principle illustrated here is that the reading which best explains the others is most likely the original. Genesis 2:2 (MT) may give readers the impression that God had not quite finished his work on the sixth day, so he saved some of it over until the seventh day, on which the work of creation then reached its conclusion. In the view of virtually all scholars, the versions (LXX, Tg, and Peshitta), in order to avoid this possible misunderstanding, have simply changed “seventh” to “sixth.” Thus, with the weighing of these considerations, the reading “seventh” has been retained as most likely the original reading.

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