Most people are familiar with Aramaic as the “language of Jesus,” a view popularized by blockbuster films such as Stigmata and the Passion of the Christ. Some people believe that portions of the Bible, or perhaps even the whole Bible, were originally composed in Aramaic before being translated into Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and other languages. This course aims to introduce students to the history of the Aramaic language and literature through the point of reference through which most people are familiar with it: the Bible.
The Syriac Bible offers one of the earliest witnesses to the Judeo-Christian literature of the Middle East. Translated from Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament from the beginning of the second century, it went through a number of revisions for the next seven centuries. At least three Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) revisions are known, and five New Testament ones. These revisions shed light on the literature of neighboring languages including Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic, and are helpful to understand the translation techniques of that time period.
The Hebrew Bible was translated into Syriac probably around the second century, and may have originally served as a Targum for the Jews of Edessa. It was later adopted by the Christian community. In the sixth century, a new translation from the Greek Septuagint was made. The earliest witness to the New Testament is the Diatessaron, a harmony of the four Gospels, which is lost in Syriac but is preserved in Arabic and other languages. This was followed by an early translation of the Gospels (and probably Acts and may be the Pauline Epistles) that we now call the Old Syriac Version. This is a free translation that, for the case of the Gospels, replaced the Diatessaron. The Old Syriac version was then revised to become more literal, but still idiomatic, until it culminated in the Peshitta Version (the standard version). During the sixth-seventh centuries, literal non-idiomatic translations from the Greek also took place.
The course aims at introducing the students to these various versions, in English translation, to illustrate the various translation techniques and the literary history of the Middle East from the second century onwards. The course will also cover the use of the Syriac Bible by religious communities and commentaries on these texts up to the thirteenth century. During this, the student will be introduced to the religious developments of Judaism and Christianity as well as their interactions with Islam.