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M. P. Weitzman. The Syriac Version of the Old Testament: An Introduction. University of Cambridge Oriental Publications, 56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xv + 355. ISBN: 0-521-63288-9 (cloth). US $79.95.

1. This volume stands as a lasting memorial to the erudition of its author, the late M. P. Weitzman, who was reader in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. Weitzman writes clearly, expressing mature ideas on a level understandable by nonspecialists. From the personal perspective of this reviewer, the author will be remembered as a gentleman in scholarly disagreement. His premature death is a great loss to the scholarly community.

2. By "the Syriac version," the author means the Peshitta. It alone deserves this appellation, since it remained the Bible of the Eastern church even after the production of other versions in Syriac: that of Paul of Tella in 615-617 based on the LXX (the so-called Syro-Hexapla) and that of Jacob of Edessa about 705. He uses the term "the Old Testament" because the version has been preserved exclusively by the Eastern church, even though it may have had Jewish origins and did in the opinion of Weitzman.

3. This volume has a well-articulated major thesis and a number of minor ones -- how refreshing! The presentation of the facts has a point to prove, so it engages the reader's mind and constantly challenges one's own ideas. Weitzman argues that the Peshitta was a product of a small Jewish community estranged from the Rabbinic majority, which over time became converted to Christianity. It was produced in the late second century CE, between 150 and 200, probably at Edessa. Weitzman believes that the various books of the Peshitta reflect stages in this reconstructed history.

4. Weitzman's volume has five chapters in addition to the Introduction (= chapter 1). Chapter 2 treats the relationship between the Peshitta and the Hebrew; chapter 3 the Peshitta and other versions; chapter 4 unity and diversity in the Peshitta; chapter 5 the background of the Peshitta; and chapter 6 the establishment of the text of the Old Testament Peshitta.

5. In chapter 2, the author demonstrates that the Hebrew Vorlage of the Peshitta stood close to the Hebrew MT; in fact, they have a common origin. The Peshitta is an idiomatic translation, concerned about conveying the proper sense of the Hebrew without slavish adherence. It is characterized by quantitative literalism and fidelity to the plain sense of the Hebrew. Weitzman believes that the translators of the Peshitta added clarifying glosses not found in their Hebrew Vorlage when the Hebrew seemed too brief or elliptical. For example, the Peshitta reads "and Pharaoh said to them" (Exodus 5:17) where the MT has merely "and he said" (p. 25). While this assumption may be correct, such glosses could just as easily have entered a Hebrew text that was slightly expansive.

6. In chapter 3, the author treats the relationship of the Peshitta to the LXX and to the Jewish targums. Even though the LXX was regarded as Christian by the time of the translation of the Peshitta, Weitzman believes that it was used by the Jewish translators of the Peshitta. In his opinion, some books (Ezekiel, The Twelve, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Qohelet) show wide usage of the LXX, others less (Genesis, Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Psalms and Esther) and some none at all (Samuel, Kings, Job, Lamentations and Chronicles). He accounts for this use by explaining that this Jewish community was non-Rabbinic and even estranged from the Rabbinic mainstream. The direct literary use of the LXX was not systematic and only sporadic in his view.

7. Of his nine parade examples, called "critical passages," only one comes from the corpus where he claims widespread direct literary dependence of the translators on the LXX, which fact weakens his argument in the opinion of this reviewer. Weitzman has two lines of argument: (1) cases where the Peshitta purportedly misunderstood the LXX and (2) cases where the Peshitta supposedly blends elements of the Hebrew and the LXX. He hypothesizes that the translators worked primarily from the Hebrew, but consulted the LXX at points of difficulty. Moreover, copyists may account for a few cases of LXX influence, especially where there are variant readings, one of which agrees with the LXX.

8. Weitzman rejects any notion of the Peshitta being a Jewish targum in its origin. Further, he rejects the idea of its direct literary dependence on any targum. In his opinion, the cases of close similarity between Targum Onqelos and the Peshitta can be explained by common Jewish lexical, exegetical and translational traditions. Weitzman has incorporated much material from the excellent monograph of Yeshayahu Maori, The Peshitta Version of the Pentateuch and Early Jewish Exegesis (Maori 1995), only available in Hebrew. The reader should be aware of a collection of essays published after Weitzman's death which confirm his views of the relationship between the targums and the Peshitta: Targum Studies, Vol. 2: Targum and Peshitta (Flesher, ed., 1998).

9. In chapter 4, Weitzman demonstrates that the Peshitta was the work of different translators who were working in the same school. By using "conservative" and "modern" words with the same meaning as discriminators, Weitzman classifies the different books of the Peshitta into different translation units. Weitzman finds a correlation between books using "modern" words and the direct literary dependence on the LXX. By comparing and contrasting duplicate passages, Weitzman argues for the chronological priority of Peshitta Samuel to Peshitta Psalms, Peshitta Kings to Peshitta Isaiah and Peshitta Kings to Peshitta Jeremiah.

10. Weitzman suggests that Peshitta Chronicles substitutes the Hebrew of 1 Kings 12-14 for a lengthy section because his Vorlage was illegible. When the translator of Peshitta Chronicles looked to an earlier book, he always consulted the Hebrew, never the Syriac translation. Apparently Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles were translated by the Jewish faithful after the rest of the books and after the previous books had been accepted as canonical by the converted Christian community. Only later did some of the Christians accept them into the canon. This, according to Weitzman, accounts for their exclusion by the Nestorian church.

11. In chapter 5, Weitzman finds the key to the background of the entire Peshitta to be the Book of Chronicles. He brings evidence for a Jewish community which neglects Rabbinic halakah. For instance, the Peshitta of 2 Chron 8:13 renders the Hebrew "feast of tabernacles" (tw(bu#$h gx) as "the feast of the fast" ()Mwcd )d)(), thus neglecting Rabbinic teaching which forbade fasting on the feast of tabernacles. Moreover, this community had three fixed hours of prayer like the church instead of the two prayer times in Rabbinic tradition (cf. 1 Chron 15:21).

12. In chapter 6, the author gives his view of the earliest text of the Peshitta. He views mss 5b1 in Genesis and Exodus, 9a1 in all books where the first hand survives (Leviticus - Hosea, Psalms, Lamentations and Chronicles), 8h5 in Ezra - Nehemiah and 10f1 in Esther as preserving the best text. These mss stand slightly closer to the MT than do the other early mss.

13. The volume has a useful index of references and a general index. I noticed a few typographical errors, none of which is critical to the argument of the book: read )NQdBM instead of )BQdBM (p. 203); read "sorrow" for "sorrrow" (p. 209); read "atone" for ".atone" (p. 213).

14. In sum, this is a volume of immense learning and careful argument. Future dissertations and monographs on the Old Testament Peshitta will need to assess the broad ideas contained herein critically, here verifying the matter, there refuting or modifying it. All future studies will need to consider it. The volume is a valuable resource to nonspecialists as well. Students of the ancient versions, the history of exegesis, textual criticism, Judaism, and Christianity will find it of use.

© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 1999.


Flesher, Paul V. M. 1998. Targum Studies. Vol. 2: Targum and Peshitta. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Maori, Yeshayahu 1995. The Peshitta Version of the Pentateuch and Early Jewish Exegesis. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.

Jerome A. Lund
Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon
Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion