"The Peshitta Bible |
of the Church of the East"
. . . . Is the Lamsa version reliable?
I'm often asked about our Aramaic version of the Bible called the "Peshitta,"
and the English version by George Lamsa that popularized it in the West. In
fact, I first came to know of the existence of the Church of the East through
Lamsa's work which was given to me in 1972. Therefore I owe a personal debt to
this work, but in all honesty I cannot recommend it as a translation or even as a
comparative text for Bible study. The reasons for this will become evident
from the scholarly review by Richard M. Frank, below.
The name "Peshitta," means straight, simple, or sincere, and
distinguishes it from other Bible revisions and translations in the Aramaic dialect
known as Syriac. Aramaic is one of the world's most ancient languages and became
the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent from the seventh century B.C. till
about the sixth century A.D. when Arabic entered the scene. Aramaic is a
language of the Semitic family to which belong Canaanite-Hebrew, Akkadian, Arabic as
well as a few others. The language spoken by Jesus, as recorded in the
Gospels, was Western or Galilean Aramaic. A different dialect of Aramaic was spoken
to the north, in modern day Syria. That dialect became known as "Syriac"and
has served as the official language of the Church of the East since its
inception. With minor variants, this is the dialect of the Peshitta.
As mentioned above, Jesus and his disciples spoke the Galilean dialect of
Aramaic. Mark tells us that St Peter was exposed in Caiphas' house when his
Galilean dialect gave him away. (Mark 14:70). St Paul also Paul defended himself in
his own tongue, the Galilean dialect, as he was from Tarsus. (Acts 22:2) It
is natural and to be expected that the Aramaic speaking believers in the
Messiah would have the Gospels and other apostolic writings in their own language,
both those in the Roman Empire and those from the Parthian Empire to the east,
who are first to be listed in the Pentecost narrative, "Parthians, Medes,
Elamites and those that dwell in Mesopotamia..." (Acts 2:9).
There many direct quotes by Jesus in the Greek Gospels that are
transliterated Aramaic; "Eli, Eli lama sabachthani" is probably the best known (Matt 27:46
KJV). St Paul too uses Aramaic in his epistles that were written in Greek;
"Abba" meaning "Father" (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6) and "Kepa" or transliterated in Greek
as "Cephas" meaning the same as "Petros" - Peter. (1Cor 1:12, 3:22, 15:5, Gal
2:9). And lastly one Aramaic term all Christians know (although few know it
is Aramaic) is found in St Paul's final salutation to the largely Greek
speaking Church in Corinth, "Marana-tha" "Our Lord -Come!" (1Cor 16:22).
Aramaic is also found in the Old Testament; in fact the Rabbis said not to
despise Aramaic for God himself chose to include it in Moses (Genesis 31:47),
the Prophets (Jeremiah 10:11) and the writings (Ezra 4 and 7). The longest
section of Aramaic in the Old Testament is found in Daniel 2:4b-7:28. Abraham and
Lot's original language was Aramaic, as is evident from the Genesis narrative
mentioned above where Laban, dwelling in Haran (27:43; 29:4), the city of
Nachor (29:10), in Mesopotamia of Syria (28:2, 5) where Nachor, his grandfather,
remained when Abraham and Lot migrated to Canaan (11:31; 12:4).
The Peshitta is the authoritative biblical text for the Assyrian Church, the
Catholic Church of the East. In a slightly modified form it is known as the
Peshito, which is the authoritative biblical text for the Syrian Orthodox and
Maronite churches. The official New Testament canon includes 22 of the books in
the Roman Catholic and Protestant canons but lacks 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John,
Jude, and the Book of Revelation. In addition, the Peshitta New Testament does not
include Luke 22:17-18 and John 7:53-8:11. This is not due to a rejection of
these books and texts, but rather the conservative nature of the canon and the
early closing of such before these works were universally accepted.
First published in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Vol 20 (pgs 384-389), I
reproduce here Richard Frank's review complete and with expansion of the
original abbreviations. Transliteration of the Syriac and other languages used has
been altered for format. Although the Peshitta is the official authorized Bible
of the Catholic Church of the East, our Church has never endorsed nor granted
the imprimatur to Lamsa's work, nor do we use his "translation" in our
The Holy Bible from
Ancient Eastern Manuscripts,
Old and New Testaments,
translated from the Peshitta,
the Authorized Bible
of the Church of the East,
by GEORGE M. LAMSA
(Philadelphia: A. J. Holman, 1957).
A Review by RICHARD M. FRANK
Initium verborum ejus stultitia, et novissimum oris illius error pessimus.
Were it not for the fact that a number of people have recently been trying to
collect well over a million dollars for a the New Testament Peshitta
manuscript (see "Catholic Biblical Quarterly 18 , pp. 151 sqq.) there would be
little need to say more of this "translation" than is contained in the above
citation from Qoheleth. However, in view of the circumstances, it might be well
to illustrate, by means of this book, the quality of some of the "scholarship"
of those who are presently trying to popularize the Peshitta as the original,
verbatim tradition of the apostles in their own language.
In the translator's introduction Lamsa outlines all the myths and fantasies
for which he and the Aramaic Bible Foundation gained recent notoriety in the
public press. All this the review will pass over. How shall one begin to show
the error of one for whom biblical Hebrew and "Aramaic" were, if not really one
and the same language, mutually comprehensible: "how could the people of
Nineveh have understood Jonah, a Hebrew prophet, had the biblical Hebrew tongue
been different from Aramaic," (introduction, vi) and who states that "while in
Egypt, living by themselves, they [the Jews] continued to use names of
Aramaic-derivation such as Manasseh, Ephraim, Bar-Nun [sic! for Bin-Nun, Nm. 27:18 et
al.] . . . (ibid.)" and goes on to prove that Aramaic "has been in constant use
from early times to the present day" on the basis of the discovery of the
Habacuc scroll at Qumran (ibid.)?
As for Lamsa's work, it cannot by any standards be considered a translation
of any version of the Bible. The publisher remarks in his preface (p. i) that
it is appropriate that, alongside of those of LXX and the Vulgate there should
be a complete translation of the Peshitta; this is true. However, this work of
Lamsa is not a translation of the Peshitta but rather a slavish paraphrase of
the Authorized Version which, in some of the cases of their disagreement, has
been emended (and not always correctly) in an attempt to bring it into some
kind of conformity with the Syriac version.
A few examples will suffice to show this. Rather than take a large number of
scattered texts, I shall review only a small number of short, connected
passages; thus the thoroughness with which the "translator's" hopeless incompetence
has permeated the text will be the more apparent. From the Old Testament, one
example will serve:
78:1 Lamsa's rendering, following verbatim the Authorized Version, drops
wett'pis of the Peshitta.
78:2-3 follow the Authorized Version with a single change in the wording and
the alteration of "parable" to "parables" according to the vocalization of the
78:4 following the the Authorized Version ("we will not hide . . showing .
.") the "translator" ignores both the d'la and ella of the Syriac which reads:
"that we should not hide ... but should relate..."
78:5 here again the "translator" follows the Authorized Version against the
Peshitta and reads"a testimony," "a law" where the Syriac text has sahduteh and
namuseh (his witness, his law).
78:6 follows the Authorized Version verbatim.
78:7 follows the Authorized Version "that they might set their hope" against
Syriac d'nehwe sabr'hon (that their hope might be).
78:8 follows the Authorized Version verbatim.
78:9 here the "translator" departs from the Authorized Version and manages to
render Syriac wasraw b'qesta (and they shot [arrows] with the bow) by
"throwing forth bows."
78:10 follows the Authorized Version verbatim.
78:11 here Lamsa follows the Peshitta against the Authorized Version.
78:12 again he prefers to follow the Authorized Version, "marvelous things
did he . . ." than to render Syriac da`'bad tedm'rata (that he did wonders).
78:13 he departs from the Authorized Version to change "as a heap" to "as in
skins" following Syriac ak b'zeqqe.
78:15 follow the Authorized Version with the single change of "clave" to
78:16 Lamsa follows the Authorized Version "and caused waters to run down"
against Syriac war'daw mayya (and the waters ran forth).
78:17 follows Syriac against the Authorized Version.
78:19 Lamsa modernizes the wording of the Authorized Version.
78:20 again follows the Authorized Version against the Syriac as in v.16
above and then continues to do so by ignoring Syriac lan in lemettal lan in favor
of the Authorized Version "to give also . . ." but at the same time manages to
change the Authorized Version "flesh" to "food" with the Peshitta.
From the New testament I shall cite several more examples of Lamsa's work.
Generally, as in the Old Testament, he follows the Authorized Version only to
depart from it when he feels that it is not a correct rendering of the
"Aramaic" or to modernize the language. In the Gospels, it must be said, he at least
has consulted the Peshitta somewhat more frequently than in the rest of the
book. Thus in Jn 1:3 we read that "Everything came to be by his hand" (Syriac
bideh) which is certainly a literal rendering of the Syriac, but hardly correct.
In Jn 1:14 (et passim) Lamsa translates Syriac ihidayya by "first born." Jn
1:15 he renders by ". . . He is coming after me, and yet he is ahead of me,
because he was before me," which (ignoring the problem of the sense) fails
completely to render the time sequence of the Syriac wahwa leh q'damay metul
d'qadmay hu men, while failing to make any real attempt to show the distinction
between the meaning of the two phrases. He likewise gets the time wrong in Jn 1:9,
rendering, "he was the true light which lighted . . ." (Syriac d'manhar, Greek
ho photizei). Jn 2:4, following, no doubt, some "Aramaic idiom" he renders:
"Jesus said to her, What is it to me and to you, woman? My turn has not yet
Now in Acts, where the text is not so simple as it is in the Gospels, we find
typically the following: Acts 4:13: "Now when they had heard the speech of
Simon Peter [this last word is not in the text] and John . . . and perceived . .
. they marveled." The Peshitta, however, phrases "When they had heard the
speech of Simon and .John, they perceived . . . and marveled." (the Authorized
Version: ". . . and perceived . . ., they marveled."). Again in the same verse
the Syriac methapp'kin 'am . . . would seem to me stronger than simply "they
had been with (Jesus)" which Lamsa has with the Authorized Version and the
Greek. It is noteworthy that in the epistles Lamsa is able generally to recognize
many subordinations and distinctions which are apparent enough in the Greek
texts (and the Authorized Version) but which cannot be made in Syriac, as his
rendering (Acts 4:14) "And because they saw . . . " for Syriac w'hazen hwaw. This
is perhaps more evident in the following verse which he renders, "But when
they had commanded them to be taken aside out of the council, they conferred
among themselves saying ...." The Syriac simply reads "Thereupon they ordered
that they lead them out of their council, while saying to one another ..." The
passive "to be taken" is a justifiable rendering of Syriac d'napp'qon 'enndn men
kens'hon; however, one wonders just how, from this Syriac verb (especially
when Lamsa denies that the book is a translation from Greek!) that Lamsa can
find all the connotations of the Greek exo apelthein. Further he drops the
pronominal suffix from kens'hon and at the same time reconstructs (according to the
understanding of the translators of the Authorized Version) the Greek
synéballon, which is paraphrased out of the Syriac text. (For this verse the
Authorized Version reads "But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the
council, they conferred among themselves, saying ...").
In Rom 7:8 we find him translating Syriac gemrat by "provoked" and at Rom
7:10, west'kah li purqana by "I found [the commandment]," the former wrong and
the latter inadequate at best. Rom 7:11, paraphrasing the Authorized Version he
translates, "for sin finding occasion by the commandment" against the Peshitta
which reads "for sin, by means of the occasion which it found . . ."
1 Cor 1:21 Lamsa either could not understand or simply decided to paraphrase,
and so attempts to translate (the Syriac?, which follows the Greek
literally), "Because all the wisdom which God had given was not sufficient for the world
to know God, it pleased God to save those who believe by the simple Gospel."
After this he gives an equally inept paraphrase of 1:30 omitting the mineh
(Greek ex autou) .
Such examples of unadulterated incompetence could be multiplied for anyone
who will take the trouble to compare Lamsa's so-called translation with the text
of the Peshitta; these cited here were chosen purely at random. Against such
simple failures, either to follow the Syriac text or to understand it, there
are a large number of fanciful and fantastic interpretations of the "Aramaic";
e.g., I'mana s'baqtan ( Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34) he renders "for this was I
spared!" and then, as if this were not bad enough, compounds it, by glossing in a
note (ad Mt 27:46): "This was my destiny." He never informs the reader just how
he could possibly justify this sense from these words, but only says
(introduction, xi) that this is the reading of the Peshitta. The very same words in Ps
22:2 he translates, "why hast thou let me live."!
Finally, to round things out, I shall cite a few of Lamsa's footnotes; they
show the same hopeless ineptitude and ignorance as does the rest of the book
and no comment is needed. Concerning the words of our Lord to Nicodemus (John
3:3), "if a man is not born again . . ." he notes: "Born again in northern
Aramaic means to change one's thoughts and habits. Nicodemus spoke southern Aramaic
and hence did not understand Jesus." At Jn 6:70, "Did I not choose you, the
twelve, and yet one of you is Satan?" Lamsa notes: "The Aramaic satana (Satan)
is derived from sta [s'ta-Hebrew sata, to turn aside, etc.-reviewer] which
means to slide, slip, or miss the mark, and applies to one who causes these
results." Again, at Mt 18:8 "If your hand or foot offends you, cut it off and cast
it away from you," Lamsa notes: Aramaic idioms: foot offends, stop
trespassing; cast away: stop it" [italics are those of Lamsa]. Finally, to Mk 5:15 "And
they came to Jesus and saw the lunatic," he notes: "Mark here refers to one
lunatic who conversed with Jesus and then he mentions lunatics in verse 12. There
were doubtless many."
If the publisher speaks honestly in saying that he hopes "that this
translation will be of aid to Bible readers and students in obtaining a more thorough
and complete understanding of the Scriptures" (Publisher's Preface, ii), it is
certainly our hope that he will take cognizance of the nature of Lamsa's work
and remove the book from the market, for in circulating this book, he is doing
a distinct disservice to any uninformed person who should be so unfortunate
as to acquire a copy.
RICHARD M. FRANK
Richard M. Frank is Professor Emeritus
of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and
Literatures at the Catholic University