Peshitta Bible in the Theological Tradition of St Thomas Christians

Peshitta Bible in the Theological Tradition of

St Thomas Christians


Dr Andrews Mekkattukunnel



We do not have any original manuscript of the books of the Bible. What we have are the copies of copies. Most of the original manuscripts of the OT were written in Hebrew, the rest being in Aramaic (The Book of Daniel) or in Greek (the Deutero-canonical books). All the books of the NT were written in Greek[1]. The first translation of the Bible ever made was the one from Hebrew to Greek (Septuagint, c.3rd century BC). Two other early translations were the Peshitta (meaning ‘simple’) in Syriac and the Vulgate in Latin. These three translations, the Septuagint, Peshitta and Vulgate became the official translations of the Bible for the Greek, Syriac and Latin speaking Churches respectively. They became the basis for further translations and interpretations of the Bible. In fact, different versions only reveal the richness of the Word of God and thereby add to its beauty. St Ephrem writes: “The facets of His words are more numerous than the faces of those who learn from them. God depicted His words with many beauties, so that each of those who learn from them can examine that aspect of them which he likes. And God has hidden within His words all sorts of treasures, so that each of us can be enriched by them from whatever aspect we meditate on. For God’s Word is the Tree of Life which proffers blessed fruits to you on all sides; it is the Rock which was struck in the Wilderness, which became a spiritual drink for everyone on all sides”[2]. Different versions of the Bible could be compared to the four Gospels of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As the Christian world expanded, translations of the New Testament into various regional languages became a must. Syriac[3] speaking Christians have produced the highest number of translations of the Scriptures. The German New Testament scholar Eberhard Nestle rightly observes: “No branch of the Early Church has done more for the translation of the Bible into their vernacular than the Syriac-speaking Christians. In our European libraries we have Syriac Bible manuscripts from Lebanon, Egypt, Sinai, Mesopotamia, Armenia, India (Malabar), even from China”[4]. Of the seven Syriac manuscripts of he Bible preserved in the Mannanam Library, Kottayam is the best surviving proof for the presence of the Peshitta Bible among the St Thomas Christians of India[5].   They include copies of the books of Tobit to Qohelet in one manuscript, and of Judith to Maccabees and of Ezra to Esther in another manuscript. Other manuscripts include the Epistles of James, John, Paul, the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse. Notes of explanation in (karshon) on some readings from Matthew and Apocalypse also are found in some manuscripts.

From time immemorial Syriac was the liturgical language of the St Thomas Christians. Since the readings from the sacred Scripture form an integral part of any liturgical celebration, together with the East Syriac liturgical texts, manuscripts of the Old and the New Testaments in the Syriac language, especially in Lectionary form, were available in the Indian Church of St Thomas. Peshitta, the official Syriac translation of the Bible read in all other Syriac Churches was used in India as well. The Vatican Syriac 22, an epistle lectionary copied in the Church of Mar Kuriakose at Shengala (Kodungalloor?) in Malabar in 1301 by the 14 year old decon Scaria, is the best proof[6]. In fact, it was mainly in the Liturgy that the sacred Scripture was read. Since Syriac was the liturgical language, the Bible also continued to be read in Syriac. The need for translating the Bible was not felt at all. Moreover, during the homily, the read text was explained in the mother tongue[7]. Many manuscripts have not survived the climatic conditions of our country. We should not also forget the fact that a large number of Syriac manuscripts were burnt at the Synod of Diamper.

1. Old Testament in Syriac

imagesVA3LBW3VThe oldest Syriac version of the OT which was most influential in the Syriac Churches was the one made directly from the Hebrew original in the second century AD[8], though there was an earlier version of the third or second century BC, made from the Septuagint. In the sixth century AD, Philoxenos (d.523) bishop of Mabbug, commissioned a translation of which only a fragmentary manuscript of Isaiah is extant. Afterwards, Paul of Tella made a Syriac translation from Origen’s Hexapla which later came to be known as “Syrohexapla” or “Seventy”. Jacob of Edessa undertook a partial revision of the Peshitta based on some Greek manuscripts of the Septuagint in the eighth century. These Syriac versions were presumably used in India. The European missionaries were suspicious of these Syriac versions and therefore effected new Syriac translations from the Latin Vulgate in the seventeenth century[9].    

2. New Testament in Syriac

There are five Syriac translations of the NT. They are Old Syriac, Peshitta, Philoxenian, Harklean and Syro-Palestinian.

2.1. Old Syriac Versions

Among the Old Syriac Versions of the New Testament, the manuscripts of The Gospel of the Separated ones and TheimagesHV53045M Gospel of the Mixed ones have come down to us. The former one contains four Gospels separately[10]. The latter one, the harmony of four Gospels made by Tatian in the second century AD, kown as Diatessaron (“one [Gospel] through four [Gospel]”) was most influential in the Syriac speaking world. The detailed commentary of St Ephrem on Diatessaron is ample proof for this fact. Realizing the importance of four individual Gospels, Diatessaron was gradually discarded.

A revision of this Old Syriac version made in the fourth century became the official translation for all the Syriac Churches. Together with the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline Epistles, James, 1 Peter and 1 John also were translated[11]. It was only in the sixth century that the rest of the NT books were translated into Syriac. Several apocryphal books also formed part of the Syriac canon of the sacred Scripture.

The Old Syriac Gospels preserve certain very archaic readings, which have been lost in the Greek manuscript tradition. Thus, for example, we see in Mt 27,16-17 Pilate offering to release a prisoner gives the crowd a choice between Barabbas and Jesus. The majority of the Greek manuscripts read, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?”. Instead of “Barabbas”, the Old Syriac reads, “Jesus Bar Abba”. The choice is between two men with the same name: Jesus. “Bar-Abba” is a typically messianic appellation. The prisoner in question has taken part in an uprising (Mk 15,7) and was thus a messianic figure. Pope Benedict XVI takes up this ambiguity of the name and comments: “Barabbas figures here as a sort of alter ego of Jesus, who makes the same claim but understands it in a completely different way. So the choice is between a Messiah who leads an armed struggle, promises freedom and a kingdom of one’s own, and this mysterious Jesus who proclaims that losing oneself is the way of life”[12]. The Pope concludes: “Again and again, mankind will be faced with this same choice: to say yes to the God who works only through the power of truth and love, or to build on something tangible and concrete – on violence”[13].

2.2. The Peshitta Version of the NT

This version of the NT which is the revision of the Old Syriac, arose in Antioch. It underwent several revisions with the purpose of conforming it to the Koine type of Greek original[14]. More than 60 Peshitta NT manuscripts from the fifth and sixth century survive. Separate Lectionary manuscripts are found from ninth century onwards.  

2.3. Philoxenian Version

In the beginning of the sixth century AD, at the peak of the Christological controversies, Philoxenos, Bishop of Mabbug, felt the need for a new translation, closer to the original Greek in order to help Syriac theologians to argue their Christological position. He commissioned Chorepiscopos Polycarp for this task. The new version was named the Philoxenian, but its usage was limited amongst the scholars and theologians of the time. This version did not become popular and as a result not a single manuscript survives[15].

2.4. Harklean Version

At the beginning of the seventh century AD Thomas of Harqel felt that a new literal translation of the NT was needed. He aimed at a word-for-word translation of the Greek into Syriac. This Harklean version was a revision of the lost Philoxenian version. It was widely used and many manuscripts of it survive.

2.5. Syro Palestinian Version

Manuscripts of Syro Palestinian version survive mainly in Lectionary forms patterned upon the Greek Lectionary of the Byzentine Church. Two are the primary witnesses: a Vatican manuscript and two manuscripts from the monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai. The text manifests a considerable degree of Diatessaric influence.

It is interesting to note that the Syrians had a NT canon of twenty two books only. Besides the four Gospels, there are the Acts, fourteen Pauline Epistles (Heb inclusive), James, 1 Peter and 1 John. Ephrem wrote a commentary on the Acts which survives in the Armenian version.

3. Significance of the Syriac Version

For any student of the Bible, Syriac translations are important on many grounds:

a)      Since the translation of the Bible into Syriac started as early as the first century, Syriac has a large number of very old manuscripts.

b)       Syriac versions are early versions of the Gospel in the Semitic language. Though the Gospels were written in Greek, it was first proclaimed by Jesus and then by the Apostles in Palestinian Aramaic, of which Syriac is a dialect. The Syriac translation will certainly take us back to the original expressions used by Jesus. The words of Christ were first transmitted in his native language, either orally or in a written form such as small collections of sayings, parables, miracles etc.. It is from these Aramaic traditions that the Greek Gospels were derived. The Syriac New Testament as we know it today is an early translation of the Greek text back into Syriac.

c)        Being the earliest witnesses to the standardized Hebrew text, Syriac translations play an important role in the history of the biblical text. The Peshitta NT translators, in their effort to bring the original to their readers, adapted the OT quotations in the Greek Gospels to the wording of the Syriac OT, familiar to the readers. That is why the wording of certain OT quotations in the Old Syriac Gospels is different from the Greek original. For example, in Lk 3,6 at the end of the quotation from Isaiah 40,3-5 in the Greek text of the Gospel is “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”, whereas in the Old Syriac manuscripts, we find “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken”. This wording taken from the Peshitta OT (Isaiah 40,5) is much closer to the Hebrew text in contrast to the Septuagint wording followed by Luke.

d)      In many instances, the Syriac language offers interesting interpretations of biblical verses. An understanding of Syriac words will help us in clarifying the meaning of certain readings. For example, in Matthew 19:25 (also Mark 10:25 and Luke 128:25), when Jesus tells us how much easier it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, the Syriac word corresponding to camel is gamlo which means ‘camel.’ However, gamlo has another meaning as well: “a thick rope which is used to bind ships.” Considering that Jesus was speaking to fishermen, this meaning of gamlo seems more appropriate.

e)        The Syriac writers of all periods have been brought up on the Peshitta Bible as is clear from their language and style. The best examples are the writings of St Ephrem and Aphrahat. To fully appreciate their writings, one needs to have some familiarity with the Syriac Bible. To understand the language and terminology of the early liturgical texts and monastic writings one needs to know the Syriac biblical world. Only in the Syriac Bible will one find phrases such as “Pure Prayer” (1 Chronicles 16:42), or “New World, New Age” (Mathew 18:28, translating “rebirth” in the Greek text), or “New Life” (Rom 6:4), rendering “newness of life” in Greek.

4. Syriac Version Reflected in The Varthamanapusthakam

untitledThe Varthamanapusthakam, the first overseas travelogue by an Indian, is the masterpiece of its kind in the Indian literature.[16] Cathanar Thomman Paremmakkal describes the details of the journey he undertook together with Malpan Mar Joseph Cariattil to the King of Portugal and to the Pope in Rome from 1778 to 1786. The Church of St Thomas Christians sent this delegation mainly for the reunion of the separated brethren after the St Thomas Christian Revolt of 1653 (Koonan Cross Oath). In describing the situation of this apostolic Church and experiences they had during their journey, Paremmakkal makes abundant use of scriptural references and allusions. Not only the author but also the entire community to which it was addressed was profoundly familiar with the Old and New Testaments. The names of the books of the Bible (such as Thenyan Namosa – Deuteronomy, Masmora – Psalms, Evangelion – Gospel, Praksenna – Acts), of places (Mezren – Egypt, Apasthos – Ephesus) and of persons (Iso Mishiha – Jesus Christ, Ouraham – Abraham, Ousep – Joseph, Peraon – Pharaoh, Chavol – Saul, Mariam – Mary, Sliha – Apostle, Patros – Peter, Mar Paulose – St Paul) employed in The Varthamanapusthakam alone suffice to prove that the version referred to is Syriac.[17] These Syriac names still common among all Christians of India attest to the lasting influence of the Syriac Bible on the Indian soil.

5. Malayalam Translations of Syriac Bible

It was the Protestant missionaries who initiated the translation of Bible into Malayalam[18]. The British missionary Claudius Buchanan published the Gospels in Malayalam in 1811[19] . His translation was highly influenced by the Syriac version he found in Kerala. He writes about this manuscript of high antiquity in India, “containing the Old and the New Testaments, engrossed on strong Vellum in large folio, having three columns in the page, written with beautiful accuracy, in the Estrangela Syriac”[20]. Translation was done by two of the Syriac scholars, Kayamkulam Philipose Ramban and Pulikottil Ramban of Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, assisted by Subbayya Pillay [21].

The Malayalam translation of the NT published by the Latin Carmelite missionaries in 1905 was based on the Vulgate, the official version of the Latin Church[22].   Andumalil Mani Cathanar of the Carmelite monastery at Mannanam translated from the Peshitta the Pentateuch in 1924 and the Gospels in 1935. The complete NT in Malayalam came to light in 1940. Meanwhile, the translation of the book of Psalms from the Peshitta version was published in 1931. Thomas Kayyalaparampil of St Thomas Apostolic Seminary, Vadavathoor, made a Malayalam translation of the Peshitta NT in 1987. Fr Matthew Uppani CMI published a new translation of the complete Peshitta in 1997 from Kottayam. The complete Malayalam translation now popular among the Catholics of Kerala, published by POC in 1981, follows the Hebrew and the Greek texts.


One of the distinguishing marks of any Individual Church is its own version of the sacred Scripture and lectionary system as part of the liturgical tradition. Peshitta is the official version of the Syriac Churches. Renewal and restoration in the field of liturgy already half way will be complete when the translation of the Peshitta Bible is made available for use. Basing on the critical edition of Peshitta that is being published by the Peshitta Institute of Leiden a new translation could be made. Such a translation could function as a catalyst for the ecumenical endeavours among Churches of the St Thomas Christian tradition.


1      Though there is a strong tradition that St Matthew composed “the Sayings of Jesus” (ta logia) in Aramaic no manuscript or copy of it has ever been discovered. It is also believed that St Thomas brought the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew to India.

2      Ephrem, Commenrary on the Diatessaron, I, 18.

3      Syriac is the dialect of Eastern Aramaic, the native language of Jesus. Syriac was spoken in the early Christian period in Edessa (modern northern Syria, Iraq and southern Turkey). Modern Aramaic/Syriac is spoken today by various, scattered communities in Iraq.

4     Eberhard Nestle, “Syriac Versions,’ in Hastings (ed.), Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4, Edinburgh, 1902, 645.

5      See, W.F. Macomber, “Chaldean Lectionary System of the Cathedral Church of Kokhe”, Orientalia Christiana Periodica 38, 1967, 483- 516.

6      See, Emmanuel Thelly, “Syriac Manuscripts in the Mannanam Library”, The Journal of Eastern Studies 56, 2004, 257-270. See for a survery of the syriac manuscripts in South India, J.P.M. van der Ploeg, The Christians of St Thomas in South India and their Syriac Manuscripts, Bangalore 1983, 46-61.

7              P. Francesco Dionisio attests to the expertise of Thomas Christians in sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church: “Fra di loro vi sono alcuni catenari che sanno qualcosa, e il loro sapere e la conoscenza della lingua caldea e di quella siriaca, come pure il Vecchio e il Nuovo Testamento: vi sono molti Dottori che spiegano la Scrittura: stimano molto san Crisostomo, e fanno molti test apocrifi…”, P. Francesco Dionisio, Informazione sulla cristianità di san Tomaso che si trova nel Malabar (Cochin, 4 Gennaio 1578) translated from Portuguese in Mathew Alapattumedayil, “Un’amtica chiesa dal volto indiano. I cristiani di San Tomaso”, in Luis Martinez Ferrer – Pier Luigi Guiducci, Fontes. Documenti fondamentali di Storia della Chiesa Milano 2005, 387.

8      S.P. Brock, “Syriac Versions”, Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York 1992, 6, 794-799. See also, K. Luke, “The Old Syriac Version of the Bible”, Bible Bhashyam 18, 2, 1992, 105-113.

9      Sebastian Brock, The Bible in the Syriac Tradition, New Jersey 2006, 106.

10    K. Luke, “The Old Syriac Version of the Bible”, Bible Bhashyam, 18, 2, 1992, 114-123. The Gospel of the Separated survives in two fragmentary manuscripts of the fouth/fifth century AD. The first one was discovered from the Syrian monastery in Egypt (Add.14451) containing the four Gospels in the order Matthew, Mark, John and Luke. Since it was published by William Cureton in 1858, it came to be known as Syrus Curetonianus. The second one known as Syrus Sinaiticus (Sinai Syr. 30) was found in the Library of St Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai.

11    The Letters of James, 1 Peter and 1 John come between the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles in the Peshitta.

12    Joseph Ratzinger – Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part I, New York 2007, 41.

13    Jesus of Nazareth, Part II, Bangalore 2011, 197.

14    For the history of Peshitta version, see, K. Luke “The Syriac Version of the New Testament”, Bible Bhashyam 19, 1993, 301-314.

15    See K. Luke, “The Syriac Version of the New Testament”, Bible Bhashyam 20, 1994, 124-138.

16    There are four editions of The Varthamana- pusthakam, three in Malayalam and one in English by Placid J Podipara (OCA 190, Roma 1971). See Xavier Koodapuzha, “The Law of Thomas: Its Biblical Background”, Bible Bhashyam 10,1, 1984, 12-24 and George Kudilil, “Varthamanapusthakavum Marthoma Kristyanikalude Adhyathmika Nilavaravum”, Paurastya Vidyapitham 1984 (Souvenir), Vadavathoor, Kottayam.

17    For more details, see A. Mekkattukunnel – J. Puthukulangara, Vedapusthakam Varthamana-pusthakathil, Kottayam 2011.

18    Benjamin Bailey, a protestant missionary, printed and published from Kottayam the NT in 1829 and the OT in 1835. Another protestant missionary Herman Guntert published different books of the Bible from Tellicherry during the period 1842-1868. The Satya Vedapusthakam, used by the non-Catholics of Kerala, grew out of these two Malayalam versions.

19    A copy of the Syriac Bible given to Buchanan by a Jacobite Metropolitan is preserved in Cambridge Library; cf. ss{IkvX-h-hn-Úm-\-tem-Iw, Be-¸pg 1975, 422.

20    Claudius Buchanan, “The Star of The East”, 1809, 76.

21    N.M.Mathew, Malankara Mar Thoma Sabha Charitram, Vol.I, Thiruvalla 2006, 216-226. After returning to England in 1809 he had mentioned about the Bible in Syriac in India: “Another monument of the Christian religion in the east is the state of the Syrian Christians, subsisting for many ages a separate and distinct people, in the midst of the corruption and idolatry of the heathen world. They exist in the very midst of India, like the bush of Moses burning and not consumed; surrounded by the enemies of their faith, and subject to their power, and yet not destroyed. There they exist, having the pure word of God in their hands, and speaking in the churches that same language which our saviour himself spake in the streets of Jerusalem”, Buchanan, “The Star of The East”. 1809, 12.

22    The complete Bible published by Vadakkel Mathai Cathanar from the Puthenpally Seminary (1924-1948) also was from the Vulgate. There were also other attempts at partial translation of the Bible such as of Antony Puthusserry (1927), L M Thomas (1948), Mayyanat A John (1948), Jacob Naduvathusserry (1962), Fr Abel (1971). Msgr Thomas Moothedan’s (1963) complete translation also was from the Vulgate. See for details, George Kudilil, Bible: Oru Amukha Patanam (Mal.), Kunnoth, 2007, 74-76.

(Article published in Marthoma Margam, OIRSI, Vadavathoor)

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