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PESHITTO SYRIAC NEW TESTAMENT.
BY H. L. HASTINGS.
In offering to the Christian public the New Testament translated from the ancient Syriac Version, it is eminently proper that some statement should be made exhibiting the grounds on which this book claims the attention of Christian students. To his son Timothy, the great apostle said, “The things that thou hast heard of me, among many witnesses, the same commit to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.”. The records of those sublime truths and wondrous facts which are the foundation of Christian faith and hope, are charged with such tremendous import that they challenge the most searching investigation and the most careful scrutiny. The apostolic writings were therefore from the first most carefully preserved. They were authenticated by the autographs of their authors; they were transmitted by faithful messengers to the churches to whom they were addressed; they were publicly read in the assemblies of Christians; they were carefully copied, jealously guarded, preserved even at the peril of life itself, and so handed down from generation to generation, as the only light that could dispel the darkness of those ages, and guide the feet of wandering humanity in paths of peace and truth.
From the earliest times the church has thus depended for guidance upon written documents divinely given. Our Saviour's constant appeal was, “ Thus it is written ;” and He rebuked the unwisdom of those who were “slow of heart to believe ” the prophetic word. The holy writings were studied from childhood, and the apostle informs us that they were able to make one “wise unto salvation;" and that through them the man of God might be perfect,
throughly furnished unto all good works.” In parting from his
to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up, and give to you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.”
The truths which were thus handed down to the church were on record. Oral tradition was too uncertain to be trusted, for the memory often fails to retain the treasures committed to its care; but that which is written, and widely diffused, is secure.
The church of Christ has long been familiar with the Holy Scriptures in Hebrew and in Greek. The Latin 'vulgate,' or common version, made at an early date for the use of the people who did not understand the original tongues, is well known both in the original and by an English translation; but for many centuries the Syriac version was almost unknown to European scholars. Yet though unknown it was well known; it existed, was read, studied, expounded, quoted, loved, and cherished; and as it is now brought more prominently to public notice, it seems proper to make mention of the story of its preservation, the channels through which it has come, and the providential circumstances by which it has been brought into notice.
I. THE MARONITES OF LEBANON. Upon the terraces of Lebanon, from Tripoli on the north to Tyre and the Lake of Gennesaret on the south, especially in the districts near Beyrout and Tripoli, there dwells a peculiar half-independent sect or community known as the Maronites, numbering perhaps between two and three hundred thousand. Members of this fraternity are also scattered throughout Syria, and they have congregations of worshipers in Damascus, Aleppo, and elsewhere.
Though the Maronites have for centuries spoken Arabic, the language of their conquerors and oppressors, yet they are themselves of Syrian descent, and the liturgy employed in their worship is in the Syriac tongue; though it is to many of them a dead language. Governed by their ecclesiastics and sheikhs, they maintain a measure of independence, paying an uncertain tribute to the Ottoman Sultan. Their name is said to be derived from the Monastery of St. Marûn, on the Orontes, their first Patriarch having been Yohannes Marûn. Persecuted by the Emperors of Constantinople, they retired to the fastnesses of Lebanon, where they bade defiance to their foes, and have continued to this day, a brave, industrious and devout people.
In 1182, through the influence of the Crusaders, they entered into certain relations with the Church of Rome,-not without considerable opposition and consequent trouble,—but in 1596 a national Council was held which resulted in a qualified submission to the Roman See, and a substantial agreement with respect to doctrines; though the Maronites retained the celebration of the Lord's Supper in both kinds, the Syriac Liturgy, the marriage of the priests, their own Fast Days, and other peculiarities.
During the session of the Fifth Lateran Council, A, D. 1513–1515, three Maronite ecclesiastics were sent to the Council to represent their Patriarch. One of them, named Acurius Josephus, desired permission to celebrate the Eucharist in a Roman church in the Syriac tongue, according to the Syrian Liturgy. To one Teseo Ambrogio,
or Theseus Ambrose,-a pious and gifted Canon of the Lateran Church, born at Pavia in 1469, who had formerly been a lawyer, and who knew something of the Semitic languages, Cardinal Santa Croce assigned the work of instructing the Syrian priest in the Latin tongue, and examining into the orthodoxy of his Liturgy.
It was a difficult task. Teseo knew little of Syriac, and the Syrian knew nothing of Latin. But, a learned Jew, being called to their aid, one of the Syrians named Elias, a sub-deacon, translated the Syriac into Arabic for the Jew, and the Jew translated the Arabic into Latin to Teseo, and thus knowledge of the ancient Syriac tongue came from the East to the West.
Teseo and the Syrians became great friends. They taught him Syriac, in which he made such rapid progress, that when Leo X. was dead, and Teseo left Rome in 1521 for his native Pavia, he had already provided copper matrices, cast types, engaged a printer, and was ready to publish the Psalms in Syriac. But in 1527, when he was at Ravenna attending a chapter of his Order, Pavia was stormed and sacked by the army of Francis I. of France, and Teseo's types and manuscripts were pillaged or destroyed. Two years after this he is found retired to the monastery of Reggio, in Modena.
In the autumn of 1529, when the Emperor Charles V. was on his way from Genoa to Bologna, where he was to be crowned by Pope Clement VII., he rested in Reggio. Among his attendants was a young German named John Albert Widmanstadt, who was born about 1506 in the village of Nallingen, near Ulm, and was now some twenty-two years of age,—who like Teseo had been bred a lawyer, but had from childhood eagerly desired to study the Oriental Tongues. In his boyhood his proficiency in Greek had attracted the notice of Reuchlin; his early preceptor, Justus Jonas, had laid the foundation for his knowledge in Hebrew; and now he wished to extend his studies, and acquaint himself with other Eastern languages.
Widmanstadt having heard of Teseo's oriental learning, sought him out in his monastery, and as the youthful student eagerly examined the contents of the monastic library, the aged scholar was impressed with the thought that here was the man to take up the study of the Syriac tongue, and carry it forward to results which he himself in his old age could hardly expect to attain.
Drawing the student aside into his private chamber, and taking from his book-case a copy of the Gospels in Syriac, obtained probably from his Maronite teachers, and which apparently had been carried with him as a choice treasure to Ravenna, and had thus escaped the fate which befell the books and types left behind at Pavia, Ambrogio said:
“For fifteen years I have given myself to the study of the Syriac tongue, and have had no rival in my devotion to it. My desire is now to find some one to whom I may hand over this book in my old age, one who will undertake the acquisition of the language hallowed by the blessed lips of Christ himself."
Widmanstadt willingly offered to accept the sacred trust, received the precious manuscript, and at once became the pupil of Ambrogio, who proceeded then and there to instruct him in the rudiments of the Syriac, and finally dismissed him with written memoranda to aid him in following up the study, and with the parting charge, “Give to the Church what I have given to you."
Thus Teseo, the Italian ecclesiastic, passed his only known copy of the Gospels in the Peshitto Syriac version, into the guardianship of a German Emperor's chancellor, in the hope that he might be enabled to give to the church, in due time, the precious treasure which he had found so valuable.
Teseo removed later from Reggio to Ferrara, and secure in that strong city, renewed his types, and began in July, 1537, to print his “ Introduction to the Chaldaic, Syriac, Armenian, and ten other languages; containing also alphabets in forty different languages;” from which work many of the facts here recited have been derived.
In this book are contained the Lord's Prayer, the Parable of the Marriage Feast (Matthew xxii.), and a few other brief extracts from the Peshitto, this being the first specimen of that version which was ever printed. Curiously, in 1534, before leaving Ferrara, Ambrogio accidentally lighted on his lost copy of the Syriac Psalter, which