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tardy labors of the investigator, the student, and the translator.
The great library of Alexandria, with its hundreds of thousands of volumes, was utterly destroyed long ago by fanatical conquerors, but away in the Nitrian desert, too poor and too obscure to attract much attention, these lonely ascetics guarded their treasured manuscripts; and though in faith and practice they had gone far from the purity of the Gospel of Christ, and under oppression had become ignorant and were unable to read many of the writings which they possessed, yet they preserved them through the ages, until in later days others were found better able to appreciate their value, and place them in a position where they would be more secure and more useful to mankind.
Thus besides various fragmentary ancient versions of portions of the New Testament in Syriac, we have received through many different and independent channels, one distinct and very ancient Syriac version of the Scriptures, the Peshitto, which is universally accepted and authenticated, as coming down from the earliest ages of the church ; which has been equally dear to sects which have been separated, since A. D. 425, or over 1400 years, not only by distance but by doctrinal diversities, and which have had almost nothing in common, , except this common beritage, this living Word of God. Thus Maronites and Melkites, Jacobites and Nestorians; Chaldean Christians in Mesopotamia, and monks in the Nitrian desert; Syrian Catholics, and churches of St. Thomas in Malabar; in whatever respects they may differ, have united in accepting, preserving, and transmitting the Peshitto Syriac version of the Apostolic Records of the life and ministry of Him who was the true Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. Whether upon the plains of Syria, in the wild mountains of Kurdistan, along the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates, upon the mountain terraces of Lebanon, on the coast of Malabar, among the lofty fastnesses of Travancore, amid the cloisters and tombs of the Nitrian desert, or among the churches of the Melkites in Egypt and Arabia; through all these regions, and among all these people of varying beliefs, this one version of the sacred Scriptures has been universally received and accepted, and handed down from age to age. And its possession by us to-day shows how easy it has been for the hand of Providence to preserve those sacred records to the church, notwithstanding all the corruptions which might invade any one age or land; and shows furthermore how vain and empty is the boast or the claim of any sect or community, to have been the exclusive custodians of the sacred Scriptures. And as an illustration of the way in which God causes the wrath of man to praise Him, we may see in the presence of these differing and contending sects and parties, an additional safeguard, which has rendered the corruption and alteration of these records an impossibility, and inspires the utmost confidence in their substantial accuracy.
THE AGE OF THIS VERSION. The exact age of the Peshitto Syriac version is unknown. It is so old that no one knows how old it is; the churches that use it do not know when they began to use it ; the only tradition they have concerning it is, that it dates back to the beginnings of the Syrian Churches. Others dispute this claim to high antiquity, and it seems proper to present such facts and considerations as may shed light upon the subject.
Undoubtedly it was the divine purpose to bring the Oracles of God within the reach of the common people, so that from childhood, like Timothy, they might know the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make us wise unto salvation.
In accordance with this purpose the sacred books were written in the simplest language that the world knew. Not in the Egyptian hieroglyphics, which have stood on tombs and temples unread from age to age,—no living man for centuries having been able to decipher them until modern research has unravelled their mysteries; not in the seven or eight hundred different cuneiform characters, in which the literature of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, has been locked and buried and forgotten for many centuries; not in the 537 letters of the Hindoo alphabet, or in the 247 characters of the Tamil tongue; not in the 208 letters of the Abyssinian language; not in the 43,960 different characters which have sealed up the thoughts of the Chinese sages, rendering it impossible for ordinary persons to have a competent acquaintance with the literature of that land; but in the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which a child might learn in an hour, and some of which, in their ancient forms, as inscribed upon the Moabite stone, would be recognized to-day by any school child as identical with letters of our own alphabet; and which in their simplicity have held their place uninterruptedly in the minds and memories of successive generations, never having been lost or forgotten for a day, though the more complicated alphabets and hieroglyphics of other tongues have been buried for ages in oblivion.
The Mosaic law required that each Israelite should wear upon his person and inscribe upon the posts of his dwelling certain portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. The tendency of this requirement was to banish illiteracy from the Israelitish nation, and to make them a reading people; and the simplicity of their alphabet and their language has made them a reading people, and fitted them to take rank among the foremost of the nations in their qualifications for the pursuit of knowledge.
When in the long captivity in Babylon the Hebrew tongue had been in part forgotten, and the Chaldean language had partially sup. planted it in the minds of the common people, Ezra, “a scribe well instructed in the law,” with his associates, were accustomed to read in the book of the law, and give the sense distinctly, so that the people could understand the message which was given to them of God. The Jewish historian, Josephus, informs us that when the books of the Mosaic law were desired for the use of the great Alexandrian library, they were promptly translated into the Greek tongue;* and the entire Jewish Scriptures were subsequently translated into that language, for the use of such Jews as were more familiar with the Greek tongue than with the language of their forefathers.
The superstition which makes the devout Mohammedan unwilling to translate the Koran into any other tongue, or which leads men to utter their prayers and teachings in a language not comprehended by the people, had no place in the early church of the Lord Jesus Christ. At the first dawning of the Gospel day, the Holy Spirit took care that the devout men from every nation, dwelling at Jerusalem should each hear in their own tongue wherein they were born, the wonderful works of God; and the gift of tongues bestowed for this purpose was a most serviceable instrumentality of the early church. But as in the primitive church he who spake with tongues was required to keep silence unless there was present someone who could interpret; and as the apostle declared that he would rather speak five words with the understanding than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue, we may naturally conclude that early provision would be made for the translation of the apostolic records into the tongues of the different nations, who, though sometime afar off, had now been brought nigh by the blood of Christ.
A spectacular religion, consisting largely of forms and ceremonies, robes and rituals, signs and symbols, might be modified, corrupted, suppressed by persecution, and speedily forgotten; for the passing of a single generation might efface the memory of its forms and symbols: *Jewish Antiquities, Preface g IV.
but a religion of established facts, of written documents, verified testimonies, and authentic manuscripts; a religion resting upon divine ideas and inspired records, cannot be easily extirpated or corrupted. So long as a single copy of the record remains hidden in some cave or cell, so long there is a possibility of investigating and restoring the forgotten faith by reference to these original documents. Hence while the religions and superstitions which were embedded in symbols and ceremonies, recorded in cumbrous characters and obscure hieroglyphics, or handed down by oral tradition, have perished and been forgotten, the religion of the Bible, the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, based upon authentic and unimpeachable records and documents, has held its onward course from age to age, and still maintains its existence, firmly rooted in the records, the literature, the experience, and the recollections of the followers of the Lord Jesus.
The propriety and importance of giving the Scriptures to the common people in their own vernacular need not be argued. The Hebrews from the beginning had their Scriptures in the Hebrew tongue, which was afterwards interpreted and paraphrased when they had partly lost the knowledge of their native language. When the Hebrew and Chaldee language became mingled in the seventy years' captivity, Daniel wrote his book in both Hebrew and Chaldee. When in later years the Greek tongue predominated as a universal language, the Hebrew records were translated into that tongue, and used by the Jews, the apostles, and the Saviour himself. When the Syrian churches were established, the Scriptures were given to them in their own vernacular; and where at an early date the Latin element in the church became specially strong, the same books were translated into the Latin tongue for the benefit of people who understood that language. And from that day to this, the work of translating has gone on. Alphabets have been invented, languages have been learned and written down, and literature has been created, that the Word of God might reach the eyes and ears of waiting nations.
We know that in the time of our Saviour the Hebrew Scriptures were read in the countless synagogues of the Jews every sabbath day. Luke iv. 16–20; Acts xv. 21. We also know that before the year a. D. 65, when Paul died, he wrote many letters, which the apostle Peter ranks among "the other scriptures” (2 Peter iii. 16), and some of which Paul solemnly charged them were to “be read to all the holy brethren ;” and he also directed different churches to exchange with each other the epistles they had received from him.
1 Thess. v. 27; Col. iv. 16. We know from Justin Martyr's first Apology, addressed to the Roman Emperor (c. lxvii.), that it was customary among the primitive Christians in their public assemblies, about A. D. 140, to publicly read from the Jewish and Christian scriptures; for Justin says, “The memorabilia of the apostles, or the writings of the prophets, are read as long as time permits.” From Tertullian, in his Prescription Against Heresies (c. xxxvi.), we learn that about A. D. 200, the “ authentic letters ” of the apostles still existed, and were recited in the different churches to which they were addressed; and to the examination of those writings Tertullian directs the attention of honest enquirers, mentioning the different cities where they could be found, namely, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, and Rome.
Syria was a land of many peoples and many tongues. The seven nations, the original inhabitants, were never entirely expelled; some of the Hittites, Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites, lingered upon their borders; the Assyrian conquerors had removed the ten tribes and replanted the territory with people of other nationalities brought from distant regions; the Jews had been carried to Babylon, remaining there till they had lost the purity of their native speech; the Greek and Roman conquests had left their mark upon the land; the “twelve tribes of Israel scattered abroad,” some of whom had been dispersed since the days of Shalmaneser, would naturally learn the language of the nations where they dwelt; and the proselytes who came from all lands to worship in that temple which was “a house of prayer for all nations,” would use the various tongues with which they were acquainted.
The polyglot character of the population of Palestine may be inferred from the inscription on the Saviour's cross, which was in Hebrew, in Greek and in Latin ; Latin being the tongue of the conquerors, and rulers, the official tongue of the Roman empire; Greek, the literary language of the world, with which multitudes of the Jews in Egypt and elsewhere had become familiar, and which had special interest for them from the fact that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was in common use and was frequently quoted; Hebrew, the sacred language of the Jews, in which their Scriptures were read in the synagogues every sabbath day; the language in which the Jewish rabbis were instructed, and of which every Israelite must have some knowledge:—these and various other tongues were spoken in Syria by those who were born upon the soil, or whom the love of travel, the fortunes of war, or the pursuits of commerce brought thither.