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But besides the great leading languages we have mentioned, there was the Syrian dialect of the Hebrew, the language of the market, the fishing-boat, the home, the fireside, the farm, and the common people; and however learned the dwellers in Palestine might be in Greek, or however reverential they might be toward the Hebrew, yet in their familiar conversation they would naturally use the Syrian speech. As we are expressly told that “the common people heard Him gladly," it is believed by many that a considerable portion of the language spoken by our Saviour was Syriac. Doubtless He also spoke in Greek, and the Gospels probably sometimes record what He said in one language, translating it into another for the benefit of readers familiar with the Grecian tongue. The accurate statements of the apostolic eye-witnesses, who were careful to note the gesture, the look, or the emphasis used by the Saviour, telling us how He “looked round” upon the people; how He “stretched forth His hand,” how he “cried with a loud voice,” how He “sat' on the mountain when he taught, or in the fishing boat, or by Jacob's well,—in certain cases give us the exact words He used in the Syrian tongue, following them with a translation into the Greek. Hence we find that in our Saviour's teaching and wonder-working He used the Syrian language as if He were perfectly familiar with it. He opened the lips of the dumb with a Syrian word, “ Ephphatha." He waked the ruler's daughter from her death sleep with the Syriac call, “ Talitha cumi.” He gave to one of His disciples the Syriac name “ Cepbas." He taught His followers that they could not serve God and “Mammon,” which was the Syrian word for wealth. He rebuked the Jews for accepting the service which children owed to their parents, and thus robbing them of their rights, by the use of the Syriac word “corban.” He warned His disciples against applying to a brother the contemptuous Syrian word “raca.” In the garden he addressed his Father by the Syrian word “ Abba.” When in his last agony on the cross, He spoke the Syrian words, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani." His early church had as their watch-word the Syrian words “ Maran atha,” “the Lord cometh ;” and Luke tells us of an early disciple raised from the dead whose Syrian name was “Tabitha.” All such facts as these indicate that a very considerable portion of our Saviour's words were probably uttered in the Syrian tongue. If this be so, much which is recorded as having been spoken by our Saviour, must have been a translation into one language, of what was spoken in another. Hence the Syrian gospels have a special value; for whether they are to be regarded as the record of the thoughts which the Saviour spoke in the very language in which He uttered them, or whether they a re to be regarded as an early translation from Greek originals back into the speech and idiom in which they were originally expressed, we may quite agree with Dr. Malan in saying, “ We must look for the real spirit of our Saviour's teaching in the venerable idiom of the Peshitto."
As the church of Christ had its origin in Syria, and as its earliest members were mostly Syrians,—the Jews themselves springing from
a Syrian ready to perish ” (Deut. xxvi. 5), and the inhabitants of Palestine being largely of the same race and tongue; therefore in view of these facts, and in view of the literary standing of the Syrian people in the Augustan Age of Rome, and with the knowledge that it was the will of God that men should hear in their own tongue the story of His wonderful works, even though miracles were requisite to accomplish it, it can hardly be believed that for any great length of time this people would be left destit ute of those written records of the New Covenant which form the sure basis of the faith of the church of the living God.
The Hebrew, the Syriac and the Arabic have been called the three great literary alphabets of the East, and through this Syriac alphabet and tongue were poured the living tides of divine thought which quickened the nations for generations; until in the seventh century, the invasion of the False Prophet, A. D. 630, and the conquest of
? Syria by Abu Obediah and Khaled A. D. 622–638, almost blotted out the Syrian tongue and the Syrian civilization, and made the land and the cities of Syria a desolation which remains to this time.
Travelers in the East meet to-day with city after city whose buildings date from the first to the seventh century, standing apparently as they were when abandoned twelve hundred years ago, affording us a view of their splendid houses with galleries and balconies, beautiful gardens, magnificent churches, adorned with columns, flanked with towers, and surrounded with splendid tombs; cities which are thus described in a single sentence of a Traveller's Hand-Book: “ Selucia is deserted, Apamea is deserted, Arethusa is deserted, Larissa is deserted, Laodicea ad Libanum is deserted, and Antioch has dwindled down to a town of six thousand inhabitants.” one of these cities was represented by a Bishop in the Nicene Council, and the list of their names still exists in the Syrian language.
We know that large and influential churches arose in Syria under. the labors of the apostles and their associates and successors; we know that “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch ” in
Syria; and as the language which the Syrians used was much the same as that used by our Saviour; it would be exceedingly reasonable to suppose
that those early churches would have some record of the “gracious words that proceeded out of His mouth." A curious fact which has come down to us, indicates the widespread knowledge and early use of the sacred writings among the Syrians.
About the year A. D. 175 an Assyrian philosopher named Tatian, having embraced Christianity, came into Syria, and there having accepted certain opinions of the Gnostics, became in some sense a leader in one of the ancient sects which arose. He prepared, in the Syrian language, a work called Diatessaron, or “ through four,” 'which was a sort of digest or Harmony of the four Gospels in one continuous narrative. It is not probable that he translated the work from the Greek; if he did not, then it would appear that the four Gospels were already extant in the Syrian tongue. From this Harmony Tatian omitted certain portions which did not agree with his peculiar views, and possibly altered certain passages for the
The book, often mentioned by early writers, has been lost; though fragments are preserved in a Commentary thereon by Ephrem the Syrian still extant in an Armenian version, which has been lately translated into Latin; also in citations by Bar-Hebraeus, and other Syrian writers. An alleged Arabic translation of the Diatessaron, published in Rome by Ciasca, has recently been translated into English ; and though the integrity of the text is questioned, it may yet give us a fair idea of a work which was once widely circulated through the regions where the Syriac tongue was spoken, and the Syriac scriptures were read, Theodoret, who became bishop of Cyrrhus, capital of the Syrian province, Cyrrhestica, about A. D. 420, dying there about A. D. 457; -a prolific commentator, historian, and controversalist, four folio volumes of whose writings have come down to us ;-when visiting the numerous churches under his care, found more than two hundred copies of Tatian's Diatessaron in the Syriac speaking churches in his own diocese. In his “ Epitome of Heretical Evil- Fabling,” I. 20, printed in the fourth volume of his Works, p. 312, Theodoret says of Tatian, “ This one composed the so called Diatessaron Gospel, cutting out the genealogies, and whatever other matters show that the Lord was sprung from the seed of David according to the flesh. And this not only of his own party used, but also those who follow the teachings of the apostles, not knowing the perniciousness of the compilation, but using it quite simply, as a compendious book. And I too found more than two
hundred such books held in esteem in the churches near us, and I gathered and put them all away, and introduced in their stead those of the four evangelists."*
This fact gives us some idea of the wide circulation of the Scriptures in the Syrian tongue, and indicates how indispensable an early. Syrian version must have been. Of course the nuclei of the first churches were usually Jews, for the Gospel came “to the Jew first." Wherever the apostles went they preached the Gospel in the Jewish synagogues, and wherever Jews accepted it, Christian worship would naturally succeed the observances of the Jewish religion in which they had been trained. But in the synagogue worship the public reading of the Scriptures was indispensable; and as the Hebrew Scriptures formed the foundation of the Christian faith, nothing would be more natural than that the worship of the new converts should begin with the reading of the writings of the prophets and the apostles, with exhortation, and instruction; as was actually the case; the apostle Paul writing to Timothy, “Till I come, give heed to reading, to exhortation, to teaching." 1 Tim. iv. 13. And while the Hebrew Old Testament and the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew would be available for reading to those who knew that language, and the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, and the Greek Gospels and epistles, would meet the wants of the Greek-speaking people; it would then be most natural for the Gospels and epistles to be translated one by one into the different languages of the people who required them. Parts of the work would thus be very likely to be done by different persons, and a final revision of the whole by competent hands, might in after years result in a version like the Peshitto, which contained all the earlier New Testament writings, those only being omitted which in the earliest ages had not been fully authenticated and universally accepted. This fact does not argue against their authority, but only indicates their later origin, and the extreme caution with which the early Christians scrutinized every work which was presented to them, carefully weeding out the fictitious and spurious, and only accepting, after sufficient investigation, those which came to them with the most undoubted credentials as the work of apostles and apostolic men.
We must recollect the fact reported by Papias, Irenæus, Pantænus, Origen, Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasaius and Epiphanius,—the general tradition, that the first Gospel, by Matthew, was written in Hebrew, or as we may reasonably suppose, that dialect of Hebrew, or Aramaic, which was the language of the
* Westcott's Canon of the New Testament, p. 323. Fifth Edition.
Syrian people at that time; Pantænus, Origen, Epiphanius, and Jerome, expressly declaring that Matthew's Gospel was “written in Hebrew letters.” * And if this Gospel by Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, there would be one portion of the New Testament that would hardly require a translation for the use of the Syrians. With some slight changes it might be well accepted as their own book in their own tongue. The other Gospels were written in the Greek language, and it is concluded that Matthew's Gospel was probably translated into Greek. This might have been done soon after it was written in Hebrew, and it might have been done by Matthew himself, or under his immediate direction and supervision; so that the book might have been equally his, whether in Hebrew or in Greek.
Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, (iv. 22), declares that Hegesippus, who lived about A. D. 100—175 and traveled and wrote in the interests of Christianity, states some particulars from the Gospel of the Hebrews, and from the Syriac, and particularly from the Hebrew language, showing that he himself was a convert from the Hebrews."
Epiphanius informs us that in the time of Constantine a copy of Matthew in Hebrew was found in a cell at Tiberias; and Jerome having mentioned Matthew's Gospel in Hebrew, says, “ It still exists in the library of Pamphilus at Cæsarea;” the first Christian library ever established, and from which Eusebius gathered much of the learned lore exhibited in his erudite and voluminous works.
The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew is lost, so far as we know; but it is probable that the substance of it may be embodied or represented in the earliest Syrian version of that Gospel. It is hardly possible that this book had utterly perished at the time when the Peshitto translation was made; and if not, then it would be most natural for those who were undertaking to furnish the Syrian churches with copies of the New Testament writings, to make use of the gospel by Matthew, which was in substance already done to their hand. Some scholars have noted in the different Syriac versions of portions of the New Testament, the age of which is fully determined, indications of an attempt to conform the later versions more exactly to the Greek copies, which were doubtless looked upon as the standard authority. If the substance of Matthew's Hebrew Gospel is embodied in the Syriac version, this would account for the apparent disappearance of that Gospel in Hebrew. * Jerome Script. Eccl. 86. Eusebius Eccl. Hist. vi. 26. Epiphanius 1, 2, 1. Jerome De
Viris Illus. 3.