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Article: Trade, Translation, and the Holy Scripture

יהודים, נוצרים והתרגום הסורי למקרא

Trade, Translation, and the Holy Scripture

Milka Levy-Rubin

The Peshitta, which means “simple” or “common,” is the standard version of the Bible in the eastern Aramaic dialect, which was used by Syriac-speaking churches in the East. The specific Peshitta featured here – dating back to the ninth century – is an early version of the Latter Prophets. Like the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was later adopted by the Christian Church, the Peshitta, too, originated in Jewish circles. 

This translation was made between the second and third centuries in the city of Edessa (present-day Urfa in Turkey), an important Silk Road trading hub on the Euphrates in Upper Mesopotamia, whose dominant language was an eastern dialect of Aramaic known as Syriac. Edessa was populated by a vibrant community comprising pagans, Jews, and new converts to Christianity, many of whom were of Jewish origin. The ruling dynasty was connected to the house of Adiabene, which was famous for having converted to Judaism in the first century. Edessa, however, would become the cradle of Syriac Christendom, and the synagogue located in the town center would be transformed into a church by the fifth century.

The city’s growing Christian community was in need of a vernacular version of the Scriptures, and this, scholars now agree, was provided by Jews or, more precisely, new Christian converts of Jewish origin. This is evident from later Midrashic traditions and from phraseology found in the Peshitta that derives from Jewish Targum traditions. 

Thus, while Greek Christianity was undoubtedly greatly influenced by pagan culture, the Peshitta is a testament to the central role played by Jews in the development of Christianity in the Syriac-speaking East.