The Peshitta Syriac NT and The TR
The following is from Doug Kutilek’s outstanding monthly digest, As I See It, volume 14, number 10. Mr. Kutilek always has something interesting to consider and it is worth your time receiving his “notes.” Free subscriptions can be obtained by contacting the author at the page linked above.
The Textus Receptus and the King James Version
The most commonly met with assertions in pro “King James Only” literature regarding the Peshitta Syriac translation of the NT are:
1. that the Peshitta is the earliest translation of the Greek NT, dating to the middle of the second century A.D., nearly two centuries before those most-hated-by-them of Greek manuscripts, the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, were written, and therefore much more likely to give the original form of the NT than they; and,
2. that the Peshitta agrees closely (or is even identical) with the “textus receptus” and therefore also with the KJV in the disputes over the precise original form of the text of the NT.
(A third claim, that Syriac often preserves the exact original words spoken by Jesus in Aramaic, rather than translating them as the Greek Gospels do, is readily discredited, but will be left out of this present discussion).
These very claims in part were the motivation behind my taking 9 hours of Syriac (along with 13 hours of the closely related Aramaic language) in graduate school. I wanted to be able to independently verify--or discredit--claims I heard about “the Syriac says this” and “the Syriac reads that.”
I have acquired over the years several different editions of the Peshitta Bible, OT, NT, Gospels, and editions of some other ancient Syriac versions of the Gospels and Revelation. When relevant, I regularly consult the Syriac versions on questions regarding the text or translation of passages in both testaments (as numerous articles in As I See It attest). And, while I have not given the Syriac translations or the Syriac language the attention I have wanted to, I still can sight read a fair amount of it, and can, with lexicon and grammar in hand, work through whatever I cannot immediately read. I say this to note that I have in each case either directly discovered or personally verified every variant reading I mention in the body of this article. Nothing is accepted “second hand” on the basis of the “critical apparatus” --footnotes--of the Nestle or United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testaments (though I will say that I have never yet discovered a place where they erroneously gave the evidence regarding the Peshitta, and I do recommend the critical apparatus of those Greek texts as a good place to glean the readings of the Peshitta, even if you cannot read Syriac).
The Peshitta Syriac translation is indeed among the most important Bible translations ever made (ranking only behind the Latin Vulgate). However, the claims for a mid-second century date for the Peshitta NT, popular in mid-19th century literature, have been wholly discredited. Discoveries in the 19th century compelled this change in view. The oldest form of the Gospels in Syriac historically attested was Tatian’s Diatessaron, a “harmony” of the Gospels, not in parallel columns like the harmonies used today, but with the four texts interwoven into a continuous narrative. Dating to circa 170 A.D., the Diatessaron in Syriac has disappeared, except for some few fragments (due to deliberate suppression by ecclesiastical authorities) and is largely known today through translations into Arabic, Armenian, Dutch and other languages.
In the 1840s, a 5th century manuscript of the “divided” (i.e., un-“Tatianized”) Gospels in an early Syriac translation was discovered and published by William Cureton. The translation in this fragmentary manuscript is clearly earlier than the Peshitta and a lineal predecessor of the Peshitta (that is, the Peshitta is a revision of the version found in the Curetonian manuscript). Then, in the 1890s, a second, earlier manuscript (4th century) containing the old Syriac version of the Gospels in a somewhat different form was discovered at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mount Sinai. Incomplete due to the ravages of time, this Sinaitic Syriac manuscript in conjunction with the Curetonian manuscript contain nearly the complete text of the old Syriac version of the Gospels. (There are references to an old Syriac--i.e. pre-Peshitta--version of the rest of the NT epistles, but no manuscript of these is known to exist today).
The study and comparison of Tatian’s Diatessaron, the two old Syriac Gospel manuscripts, the Peshitta Syriac version and the quotations from the Gospels in the two most important and pre-Peshitta Syrian church fathers, Ephraim and Aphraates, led to the certain conclusion that the Peshitta version of the NT did not exist until around 420 A.D., rather than in the 2nd century (see my review in As I See It 3:4 of S. Ephraim's Quotations from the Gospel collected and arranged by F. Crawford Burkitt. vol. VII, no. 2 of Texts and Studies: Contributions to Biblical and Patristic Literature, ed. by J. Armitage Robinson). The former opinion of the extreme antiquity of the Peshitta NT is abandoned today.
Furthermore, the claim that the Peshitta Syriac NT, regardless of its date of origin, regularly lines up with the textus receptus Greek text and therefore the KJV is a claim that can only be made on the basis of ignorance of the facts. In truth, the Peshitta NT differs from the TR / KJV in hundreds of details, many of them of just the sort where the Alexandrian text of Vaticanus and / or Sinaiticus also differ from the TR / KJV. I have not compiled a complete catalog of these Peshitta differences from the TR / KJV, but among those of particular note are:
Matthew 27:46-- Peshitta omits, “that is, my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Matthew 28:18-- adds, from John 20:21, “As my father sent me, thus I send you.”
Mark 1:2-- reads “Isaiah the prophet” (vs. “the prophets”)
John 1:18--reads “God” (vs. “Son”)
John 7:53-8:11--lacks this famous incident (which is also absent from all known Greek mss. before the 8th century A. D., except “D”)
Acts 8:37--does not insert this addition to the text (which is also absent from a strong majority of Greek manuscripts)
Acts 9:5b-6a--does not have this insertion made by Erasmus against all Greek manuscript evidence
Romans 1:16--does not insert the words “of Christ” after the word “Gospel”
Romans 8:1--does not insert the phrase ”but after the spirit”
Colossians 1:14--does not insert “through his blood” (absent also from nearly all Greek manuscripts)
I Timothy 3:16--has a relative pronoun (vs. “God” in TR)
I John 3:2--retains phrase “and we are” omitted by TR
I John 5:7--does not insert this comma (which is not found in the precise TR form in any known Greek manuscript)
(Revelation 22:19 the Syriac version--here the Harclean/Philoxenian, there being no Peshitta version of this book--reads “tree of life” (vs. “book’), along with all known Greek manuscripts
I could GREATLY expand this list. If all the differences between the TR and the Peshitta NT were catalogued, I suspect the list would run to many hundreds, perhaps a couple of thousand differences, perhaps more. There are of course many differences between the Peshitta Syriac and the Masoretic Hebrew text in the OT as well. Therefore let all KJVO advocates cease and desist in their false--demonstrably false--claims that the Peshitta NT dates to the 2nd century and is therefore earlier in attestation that the Alexandrian text; and the equally erroneous claim that the Peshitta regularly sides with the TR / KJV against the Alexandrian text from.
[Let me say a word about the Peshitta Syriac OT. It is widely held by those who have studied the evidence 1) that the Pentateuch of the Syriac OT version in its oldest form dates from the mid-1st century A. D.; 2) that it, like the rest of the Peshitta OT, was made directly from the Hebrew text but is strongly influenced by targumic traditions (the targums, or targumim, are Aramaic translations/interpretations and in some cases expansive paraphrases); 3) that this translation of the Pentateuch was in the century or so that followed supplemented so as to include the whole OT; and 4) that the whole was revised under the influence of the Septuagint Greek version. And let it be noted that the vowel points which the Hebrew Masoretic scribes added to their consonantal text during the Middles Ages were “inspired” by the prior example of Syrian Christian scribes who employed sub- and supra-linear forms of borrowed Greek vowels to indicate the pronunciation of their previously all-consonant Syriac text].