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Syriac language formerly flourished in the immense empire of the Assyrians and that of the Chaldees, and was brought to the greatest degree of amplitude and elegance; that it was afterwards consecrated by the mouth of Deity incarnate and talking with men; that it was known familiarly by the apostles; that it was used in sacred worship every where in the East; and was made famous by being used by eminent writers of the greatest excellence. It was in this language that the gospel was diffused from Edessa and other places throughout the East, as from Antioch in Syria it was diffused by Paul in Asia Minor and in Europe. Dr. J. S. Asseman, also said in his Prologue, p. 1, “To begin from those things which were first written in Syriac, it is a tradition certain and uniform, which the marvellous agreement of all the castern nations confirms, and which both Eusebius of Cæsarea, and Jerome, deemed to be established, that Thaddæus, or as the Syrians prefer to call him, Adæus, either an apostle or a disciple of Christ, immediately after His ascension into heaven, went to Abgar, the Toparch of Edessa, and instructed the people of Mesopotamia in the Christian faith; and that king Abgar himself received sacred baptism. The gospel was next openly proclaimed in those places, churches were built, ......and the sacred books translated out of Hebrew into Syriac...... Very many learned men began by their word, and by their writings, to deliver the divine teaching to the people, and to confute ancient, and more recent errors by their published yolumes......Frequent incursions of the Persians, Arabs, and Tartars into Mesopotamia, and the adjoining provinces of the Syrians, followed; by which, cities were overthrown to their foundations, monasteries levelled with the ground, churches consumed by fire, and volumes of the most surpassing worth taken away. If any escaped the hands of the barbarians (as it is certain that very many did) they either feed the book-worms of the desert, or are torn, cut up, and devoted to profane uses by their ignorant possessors. Ho afterwards refers to later times, to 1555, when the N. C. Peshito was first printed, and to the efforts which have been made to discover, and to make use of, such ancient Syriac copies, both of the Scriptures and of other works, as may still exist.
JOSEPHUS is a very important witness in proof of the extent to which Syriac was known and used in the first century. He took part in the war against the Romans which led to the destruction of Jerusalem, A.D. 70. He was taken captive by them, and was well acquainted with all the events connected with the war. He wrote a history of it in Syriac; and states how great a multitude of people, living in different nations, from near the Caspian Sea to the bounds of Arabia, could read and understand what be had written in Syriac. He afterwards wrote the same history in
Greek, that those who spoke Greek, and those of the Romans, and of any other nation who knew Greek, but did not know Syriac, might read it also. He says, that in order to write the Greek history, he used at Rome the aid of persons who knew Greek ; that Greek was to him a “foreign language;" (Jewish Antiquities, Book I.); and that very few of his countrymen knew it well. (Jewish Antiq. Bk. XX., chap. ix.) He says in his two books against Apion, that Apion and others had undertaken to make false charges against his history.” In a long defence of it, he said of the Greeks, (Bk. I, chap. 8,) "They see that some Greeks of the present time dare to write about these things, who neither were present at them, nor have taken care to get information from those who know about them.” “But I have written a true history of the whole war, and of the particular events which occurred in it; for I was the general of those whom we call Galileans, so long as it was possible to resist; and I was taken and made captive by the Romans. Vespasian and Titus then kept me in custody, and compelled me to attend them.” During the siege of Jerusalem, “Nothing was done which escaped my knowledge; for while I was observing whatever was done by the encamped army of the Romans, I carefully wrote it down; and I was the only person who understood what was told by those who delivered themselves up. Afterwards, having obtained leisure at Rome, the whole of my work being in a state of readiness, I made use of some to work with me in respect of the Greek tongue; and in this way I completed my account of those transactions. I had so strong a conviction of the truth of that account, that the first persons whom I selected to bear witness to it, were the chief commanders of the war, Vespasian and Titus. To them first, I gave my books;
I and I gave them afterwards to many of the Romans who had fought together in the war. It is evident from this account, that Vespasian and Titus knew Greek, and that if any of the Jews who delivered themselves up to the Romans during the siege, could have spoken Greek, Josephus would not have been the only person who understood them.
Josephus, in the Prologue to his Greek translation of the history of the war, says, “I have proposed to translate into the Greek tongue, and to relate for those who live under the rule of the Romans, what I before composed in the language of my own country, and sent to the upper barbarians.” A. M. Ceriani, of Milan, speaks of a part of this history as still existing in the Ambrosian Library of Milan, in Syriac. There is other proof that Syriac must be the language which Josephus calls that of his own country. Josephus says, "I thought it would be unbecoming to overlook the perversion of the truth with respect to events so important, and that Parthians, and Babylonians, and the remotest Arabians, and those of our own race beyond the Euphrates, and
those of Adiabene"--a part of Assyria —“should know correctly, by means of my diligence, whence the war began, and amid what great sufferings it proceeded, and how it ended ; and that the Greeks, and those of the Romans who were not in the war, should be ignorant of these things, and should be deceived by flatteries or fictions." If we compare the countries mentioned in this passage of Josephus with those named in Acts ii., as countries from which devout Jews had come who were then “dwelling at Jerusalem,” we find in both accounts Parthians, Arabians, and dwellers in Mesopotamia. The words of Josephus prove that Syriac was well understood in these countries as well as in Palestine; and that the tongues spoken by the apostles, which excited the surprise of those who came from these countries, must have been other tongues than Syriac, which was spoken or read both in Palestine and in these countries. Peter, after the miraculous gift of tongues, addressed “all”, these persons then dwelling at Jerusalem, (Acts ii. 5, 14,) and must have spoken in a language which “all” could understand ; for he intreated all to “hearken to his words.” (Acts ii. 14.). This is proof that there must have been some language which all understood, and as Josephus states that Syriac was so generally known throughout the East, and there is no proof that any other language was so generally known there, it seems that the language to which Peter intreated all to hearken must have been Syriac. So that the events of that Pentecost concur with the testimony of Josephus to show how widely the Syriac language was understood.
FEW ISRAELITES IN THE
CHRIST UNDERSTOOD GREEK. Some have supposed that the language of Palestine in the time of Christ was either wholly, or in part, Greek. Professor A. Neubauer, Reader in Rabbinical Hebrew in Oxford University, published in “Studia Biblica, 1885," an essay “On the Dialects spoken in Palestine in the time of Christ.” He says that Isaac Voss, who died in 1689, was the first who supposed that “ Greek was the only language spoken in Palestine after Alexander,” the Great; that Diodati in 1767, closely followed Voss, and sought to prove that “Greek was the mother language of the Jews in the time of Jesus ;” that Professor Paulus, of Jena, in 1803, held that an Aramaic dialect was then the current language of the Jews in Palestine, but that Jesus and his disciples had no difficulty in using Greek in their public speeches when they found it convenient to do so; that Dr. Alexander Roberts, Professor of Humanity in St. Andrew's University, and a Member of the Company of Revisers of the N.C. Scriptures, published in 1881, contends that “ Christ spoke for the most part in Greek, and only now and then in Aramaic,” (pp. 39-- 41). "Dr. Roberts published in 1859 a work
in which he discussed the question relating to “The language of Palestine in the time of Christ.” At p. 62, he said that he thought he had “proved that Greek, and not Hebrew, was the common language of religious address in Palestine in the days of Christ and his apostles.”. He said, at p. 63, “ Christ spoke in Greek, and his disciples did the same, when they reported what he said. Their inspiration consisted, not, as some have deemed, in being enabled to give perfect translations, either of discourses delivered, or of documents written in the Aramaic language, but in being led, under infallible guidance, to transfer to paper, for the benefit of all coming ages, those words of the Great Teacher which they had heard from his lips in the Greek tongue.” Few at present are of Dr. Roberts' opinion. The question does not affect the inspiration of the Greek text, but it has a very important bearing on the value of the Peshito-Syriac books of the New Covenant.
Professor Neubauer's familiarity with the Jewish writings of that time, enables him to discuss the subject with much fulness and force. He gives the following probabilities as the result of his own examination of the subject :- That in the time of Christ, the Galileans understood their own Syriac dialect only, together with a few current expressions in ancient Hebrew; that in Jerusalem a modernised Hebrew, and a purer Syriac dialect than that of Galilee, were in use among the majority of the Jews; and that the small Jewish-Greek colony there, and a few privileged persons, spoke a Judeo-Greek jargon, (p. 50.) He says that the Syriac dialect of Galilee was “the popular language;" and that it is the language which is called in the New Covenant, Hebrew, (John v. 2); and is called by Josephus, and in the Apocrypha, the language of the country; that“ it was in this dialect that Josephus at first wrote his historical work” on the war; that the Syriac words which are recorded in the Greek N. C. Scriptures, prove that this was a distinct dialect in some respects” from the Syriac of the Syrians, and yet was so like it, that “ Josephus says the Jews could understand the Syrians,” (p. 53.)
Prof. Neubauer has no doubt that the language used by Jesus was the popular Galilean Syriac dialect, and that in the Greek text we have only a Greek translation of the words which he uttered. He says, "Jesus, as is now generally admitted, addressed bimself to his disciples and to his audience in the popular dialect. This appears, not only from the Aramaic words left in the gospels by the Greek translators, but more especially from his last words on the cross, which were spoken under circumstances of exhaustion and pain, when a person would naturally make use of his mother tongue; and from the fact that it is mentioned that he spoke to Paul in Hebrew, Acts xxvi. 14," (pp. 53, 54.) “The Jews so little knew Greek and so much less cared to know it, that Paul, in order to gain a hearing, was obliged to speak to them in their
Aramaic dialects." “ How would the Medes, Elamites, and
Prof. Neubauer gives many reasons for his “belief that few Jews in Palestine had a substantial knowledge of Greek.” One of them is, that no events had occurred which could have made “Greek prominent in Palestine,” (p. 62); that no nation over makes so great a change in its language as to adopt " a totally different” one, unless the conqueror transports the greater part of the inhabitants, and introduces foreign colonists who are far more numerous than the remaining inhabitants, and that the Greeks had never this superiority of numbers in Palestine, (p. 64.), He says that few Greek words occur in the Jewish writings such as the Mishnah, the Targums, and the Talmud of Jerusalem; that “ no apocryphal book, as far as our knowledge goes, was composed in Greek by a Palestinian Jew,” (p. 65); that " so far as he can judge, all that the Jews in Palestine learned of Greek was at most a few sentences, sufficient to enable them to carry on trade, and to bold intercourse with the lower officials ; and that even this minimum certainly ceased after the Maccabean victory over Antiochus Epiphanes ; because it was the interest of the Asmonean Princes to keep the Jews aloof from the influence of the neighbouring dialects,” (p. 66.)
Professor Neubauer thinks that those Hebrews who lived in cities occupied chiefly by Greeks, "may have acquired a fair knowledge of conversational Greek, but not to such an extent as to enable them to speak it in public,” (p. 67.) He says that even those Jews of Egypt and Asia Minor who spoke Greek, maintained a connection with the mother-land by going to Jerusalem for feast-days; and that “
we may infer that they all still spoke, more or less, their native Hebrew dialect, because no mention is made of interpreters being required for them either in the temple or outside of it," (pp. 62, 63.)
The Greek translation of the Old-Covenant Hebrew Scriptures, called the Septuagint, which was made in Egypt, existed in the time of Christ; but Prof. Neubauer says, we may boldly state that this Greek translation of the Bible was unknown in Palestine, except to men of the schools, and perhaps a few of the Hellenistic Jews. It is said in the Talmud that when the Greek translation of the Seventy appeared, there came darkness upon the earth, and that the day was as unfortunate for Israel, as that on which the golden calf was made,” (p. 67.)
The fact that the Jews at Jerusalem who spoke Greek are called HELLENISTS, that is, GRECIANS, in Acts vi. 1, and ix. 29, shows that their Greek speech made them a peculiar class quite distinct from the rest of the people.