M. P. Weitzman, The Syriac version of the Old Testament. An Introduction.
(University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 56; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) xv + 355. ISBN 0-521-63288-9. $80
Reviewed by Bruce Chilton
Bard College

This is no primer, but an introduction in the sense of biblical Einleitungen, aiming “to enter into detail and also to expound the author’s own view, whether widely accepted or not” (p. xiii). Weitzman is almost puckish in his characterization of this form, which in other hands often involves pretensions to scientific certainty. He stands well back from such claims as he develops a lucid analysis and an innovative thesis.

Robert Gordon explains in a foreword (p. x) that, as the influential Leiden Peshitta Edition progressed, Weitzman functioned as something of a silent partner whose editorial advice was valued highly. That enduring contact permitted him concurrently to undertake a comprehensive study of the Peshitta as a version of the Old Testament, in touch with specific studies of individual books but transcending those necessarily atomistic interests.

For such a perspective to gain consideration, Weitzman evidently must show that the Peshitta is a coherent version to begin with. He accomplishes that task initially by means of an overview of research, albeit with less reference to the Diatessaron than would be appropriate in a discussion of the Peshitta New Testament (see p. 3). Indeed, the Diatessaron is a key feature in the analysis of Jan Joosten, who argues that the Diatessaron availed itself of the Peshitta in citing the Old Testament. Weitzman refers to this connection later in his discussion (p. 253), but does not frame the question that way in the introduction. In any case, the analytic strength of this monograph resides less in its reference to the carefully noted secondary literature than in its attendance to the translation of the Hebrew text in the Peshitta (p. 12), undertaken on a “comprehensive” basis. By the use of that term, Weitzman intends to take account both of the stages of development within textual traditions and of the range of the biblical documents. His distinction of such an undertaking from an “exhaustive” study is well worth reflecting upon.

Students of all ancient versions as well as translators will greatly enjoy chapter 2, which compares the extant Hebrew and Syriac texts. Weitzman demonstrates a sensitivity to Hebrew lexical and grammatical forms in the Peshitta, while showing that the rendering is not formally correspondent in a literal sense. The translation technique involves an approach “phrase-by-phrase” rather than “word-by-word” (p. 22), and that results in some theologically motivated paraphrase and a smoothing out of difficult passages from time to time. The insertion of an echo of a Qaddish at the end of David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 29:19 is especially striking (p. 43), and Weitzman calls attention to the importance of the passage.

By contrast to this programmatic recourse to the Hebrew text within the Peshitta at all levels and across the documents, Weitzman speaks of the Septuagint as of “some influence upon copyists of P” (p. 86), and to his mind agreement with the extant Targumim has to do with a “common dependence on traditions attached to individual passages” (p. 104) rather than with direct dependence of one version on another. (Further consideration of the dating of the Targumim would in my opinion substantiate this observation.) Proverbs poses the great exception to this rule, where he agrees that the Targum is predicated on the Peshitta (pp. 109–110). The lengthy comparison with the Targumim is rewarding not only for its historical considerations, but also for the contrast between the liturgical function of the Targumim and the Peshitta’s aim: “to bring the text to those without independent access to the original (p. 128).

This finding is strengthened by chapter four, “Unity and diversity in the Peshitta,” where Weitzman shows that that there is much more consistency among the fifteen or so colleagues (as he estimates their number) who composed this version than is often asserted. The basis of this correction is that he is able to show that recent studies of dialectology demonstrate that innovations of usage make their way gradually through communities and should not be expected to be represented evenly (p. 180). It is very helpful to have such a well considered defense of the common sense proposition that differences of usage need not reflect different “authors.” This is signaled early in Weitzman’s book, when he points out that in Genesis the archaic yat is employed as the accusative particle at the outset, only to be replaced by l- (31). These translators could learn, adapt, and improvise, all the while reminding their readers of what the underlying task was. Multiplying redactors on the alleged evidence of dictional variation is therefore, Weitzman shows, a parlous business.

“The background of the Peshitta,” chapter 5, provides the capstone of the book. Weitzman argues that the version’s reliance on the Hebrew text militates in favor of a Jewish rather than Christian origin, although he is careful to observe that there is no “litmus test between the two possibilities called ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity’ ”(p. 208). Of greater importance, the Peshitta identifies with Israel in the exile in its innovative renderings, although there is also an “indifference to halachah” (p. 211) in regard to calendrical and other matters. Prayer seems to have superseded sacrifice here, and the third, sixth, and ninth hours are appointed for that purpose: these are established from the time of Clement of Alexandria, but “alien to rabbinic Judaism” (p. 213).

These and like considerations cause Weitzman to place the Peshitta in Edessa during the second century. He explains the transmission within the eastern churches on the basis of the conversion of a Jewish community to Christianity. Indeed, Weitzman deploys bold skill in delineating this movement (p. 261):

The special position of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles may illuminate the course of the community’s conversion to Christianity. It was suggested above that most of the biblical books in P are to be dated to c. 150 ce, but the books Ezra-Chronicles to c. 200 ce. It will follow that, before the last books had even been translated, the earlier books were already being used in the church. The Jewish community responsible for the translation was haemorrhaging.

Of course, once that assessment is pursued (and the task of social history will demand its place here) discussion is bound to continue in regard to the Christian tendencies of the version. When David says his young men have abstained from sacrifice rather than women (1 Samuel 21:5, p. 20, without a citation of Matthew 9:13; 12:7), when the male readership is told “you are the temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4–5, p. 218, without a citation of 1 Corinthians 6:19) and to keep its hair short (Leviticus 19:27, 220, without a citation of 1 Corinthians 11:14), when the language of election is employed (229–231), all that may be as resonant within a Christian as within a Judaic background. The Rabbinic and Qumranic analogies Weitzman cites are without question pertinent, but his thoroughness in that regard is bound to invite more careful scrutiny of Christian analogies. (Selfishly, I might have hoped for some discussion of the influence of Luke 4:18–19 on the text of Isaiah 61 in the Peshitta; cf. God in Strength. Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom [Studien zum Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt, 1; Freistadt: Pl–chl, 1979, reprinted in “The Biblical Seminar” Sheffield: JSOT, 1987], 155–177). But a comprehensive discussion of a difficult version is bound to leave loose ends, and Weitzman’s analysis provides some excellent counsel for tying them off.

The last chapter deals with the issue of establishing the text, deploying both the principles developed in the monograph and an analysis of the distribution of variants. The placement of this discussion at the end of the study is characteristic of two features of the work. First, the author manifests a deceptively revolutionary mind, willing to subvert expectations to make a point. Second, that point is that the assessment of variant readings and translational technique must always be a matter of a comparative analysis of units of sense (lexical, grammatical, documentary, and versional) rather than artificially isolated atoms. To see such a bracing intelligence at work is as invigorating as it is instructive; this is a work of classic importance within the field.