What is Classical Syriac?

What is Classical Syriac?Note: This post will form part of chapter 1 of a free online Syriac Grammar that I will be writing and posting in stages on Between the Perfect and the Doomed.  Check out https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/ for practice sheets and chapters of the grammar as they become available.

What is Classical Syriac?

There are a number of different answers that can be given to the question, “What is Classical Syriac?” depending on the perspective of the person who is either asking or answering the question.

  • For the person interested in ancient Semitic languages, Classical Syriac is a late dialect of Aramaic that was widely used in what is now Southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran from the beginning of the common era all of the way into the medieval period and beyond.
  • For the person interested in church history, especially in the patristic period, Classical Syriac is a welcome and, in some cases, even a surprising addition to the better known languages of the early church (i.e. Greek and Latin) that were used to produce material that was formative for the life and faith of the Christian church.
  • For the person interested in the rise and spread of Islam or in the history of the Crusades, Classical Syriac is a language that opens up lesser-known resources that are of incredible value for understanding the people, beliefs, and events of these time periods.
  • For members of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church and others, Classical Syriac is the language used in their Bibles and in the liturgy of their church.[1]
  • For modern-day Assyrians in the Middle East and spread throughout the world through immigration and, in far too many cases, because of war, systematic persecution, and even genocide, Classical Syriac is the ancestral language of their people that, even though not always understood, helps to define them as a people.

Syriac is all of these things and more. But, for this chapter, our focus needs to be on Syriac as a language. What can be said about Syriac from a linguistic perspective?

Classical Syriac as a Language

As was mentioned earlier, Classical Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. This means that Classical Syriac, along with Hebrew, Phoenician, and other Canaanite dialects, belongs to the northwest Semitic family of languages.[2] This means that Syriac, like other dialects of Aramaic, shares a great deal in common with Hebrew, including cognate vocabulary, a similar manner of forming verbs, and other grammatical features. As part of the wider family of Semitic languages, Syriac also shares a great deal in common with Arabic and Akkadian (i.e. the various dialects of Assyrian and Babylonian). This means that Syriac is much easier to learn for someone who already knows the grammar of one of these other languages.

(For speakers of modern dialects of Syriac, it should be kept in mind that words in modern Syriac might not always have the same meaning as the same words in Classical Syriac. For those who know one of these other Semitic languages, it should be kept in mind that cognate words in these other languages do not always have the same meaning in Classical Syriac.)

As a dialect of Aramaic, Classical Syriac is quite similar to Imperial Aramaic (e.g. the Aramaic of Ezra, Daniel, and the Jewish papyri from the Egyptian fortress at Elephantine), both in its vocabulary and structure as a language. Students with a background in Classical Syriac will have a distinct advantage when learning Imperial Aramaic and vice versa. That being said, there was a significant amount of development between Imperial Aramaic and Classical Syriac so the differences between the two phases need to be studied carefully. The closest dialects to Classical Syriac in the Aramaic branch of the Northwest Semitic family are Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Mandaic.[3]

One of the most fascinating things about Syriac as a language is the influence that Greek has had on the language. The traditional areas where Syriac was spoken were taken over by the Macedonian and Greek armies of Alexander the Great and were ruled for centuries by the Greek-speaking Seleucid Empire and the Greek-speaking portion of the Roman Empire.[4] While the dominance of Greek on an everyday level was largely isolated to the Greek-speaking cities of these empires,[5] the Greek language left an incredible mark on the development of Syriac as a language. This can be seen especially in the vocabulary of Syriac, which has many words that are simply taken over directly from Greek (e.g. ܦܪܘܿܠܘܿܓܼܝܲܐ [prōlōgyā] = προλογία [prologia] = prologue; ܐܲܩܘܼܠܘܼܬܼܝܲܐ [’aqūlūtiyā] = ἀκολουθία [akolouthia] = order, sequence).

Thus, in many ways, Syriac is a fusion of several different worlds: the ancient with the classical; the near eastern with the Mediterranean; the Christian with the pre-Christian (both Jewish and pagan); and the Christian with the Islamic. The traces of this fusion have left an unmistakable and indelible mark on both the language and literature of Classical Syriac, which is part of the excitement of studying this language.

Mark Francois, Ph.D. Graduand, The University of St. Michael’s College

[1] For a concise description of the various churches from the Syriac tradition see Sebastian Brock, An Introduction to Syriac Studies (Gorgias Handbooks 4; 2nd ed.; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006), 67-78.

[2] Note that Steven C. Hallam, in a recent grammar of classical Syriac, confusedly classifies Classical Syriac as an East Semitic Language (Basics of Classical Syriac [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016],13). While Classical Syriac certainly was used in the eastern part of what is now known as the Middle East and falls under the category of Eastern Aramaic, as a dialect of Aramaic it clearly belongs to the northwest Semitic family of languages. At present there are only two languages that are classified as East Semitic: Akkadian and Eblaite.  For a discussion of Aramaic in the context of Northwest Semitic languages, see Joseph Fitzmyer, The Semitic Background of the New Testament, Volume 2: A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 63-74.

[3] See Takamitsu Muraoka, Classical Syriac: A Basic Grammar with a Chrestomathy (2nd ed.; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005), §1.

[4] It should be kept in mind that Greek was the common language for culture and administration in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Even in the western part of the Empire, where Latin predominated, Greek was still used by a sizeable portion of the population and even came to have an impact on the development of Latin itself. See Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers (2nd ed.; Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 125-6.

[5] J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 2.

The Translation of οὐρανός (ouranos) in the Phrase “New Heavens and New Earth”: An Appeal for Consistency

1. New Heavens Article

Where will believers be spending eternity? Will it be in heaven? Or will it be in a new creation – on a new or renewed earth? One of the key phrases in the New Testament that describe where believers will be spending eternity is the phrase “new heavens and new earth” – or some variation of that phrase.

But what does the phrase “new heavens and new earth” actually mean? While it is difficult to imagine that there would be any difficulty with understanding the second part of the phrase (i.e. “new earth”), there is quite a bit of confusion – at least on a popular level – about what the first part of the phrase means (i.e. “new heavens”).

Some of this is due, no doubt, to an inherited tradition that says that believers will be spending eternity in heaven. But part of the blame, no doubt, has to do with how this phrase is translated in most English translations of the New Testament. In most English translations of the New Testament, this phrase is translated as “a new heaven and a new earth” – or something along those lines.

The key issue here is how the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) should be translated. Should it be translated as “heaven” or should it be translated as “heavens”? While the difference in English, at least from the point of view of spelling, is only an s, the presence or absence of that s makes a tremendous amount of difference in terms of how this phrase is understood – or at least in terms of how this phrase should be understood.

The focus of this post will be on how the NIV, both in the 1984 edition and the 2011 edition, translates the phrase “new heavens and new earth”.[1] The same post could have been written about any number of English translations of the New Testament, but the NIV is a useful version to work with because it is so widely used and because the phrase “new heavens and new earth” is translated quite well when it appears in the Old Testament (Isa. 65:17; 66:2). However, in my opinion, it is translated incorrectly in the two places it appears in the New Testament. This article, in many ways, is an appeal for consistency: the translators of the New Testament should follow the example of the translators of the Old Testament in how they translate the phrase “new heavens and new earth”.

1.  Heaven vs. Heavens in English: What’s the Difference?

We can begin by asking the question – what difference does it make if the word heaven has an s at the end of it or not? In other words, what is the difference between the words heaven and heavens in English?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word heaven without an s refers to “a place regarded in various religions as the abode of God (or the gods) and the angels, and of the good after death, often traditionally depicted as being above the sky.”[2] The word heavens, on the other hand, refers to “the sky, especially perceived as a vault in which the sun, moon, stars, and planets are situated.”[3]

The Cambridge English Dictionary has similar definitions. Heaven without an s is “the place, sometimes imagined to be in the sky, where God or the gods live and where good people are believed to go after they die, so that they can enjoy perfect happiness.”[4] For the word heavens or the heavens, they simply put “sky” as the definition.

It seems clear then, in English, that the word heaven without an s refers to the place where God lives while the word heavens refers to the sky or, more specifically, anything that human beings can see when they look up into the sky.

This leads us, then, to the problem that we’re dealing with in this article, namely, how the NIV translates the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) in the phrase “new heavens and new earth” when it appears in the New Testament. The phrase “new heavens and new earth,” or some variation of that phrase, appears in two passages that are key (or, at least, should be key) for understanding what the New Testament has to say about the final state of believers: 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1. The two passages read as follows:

2 Peter 3:13 – But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (NIV)

Revelation 21:1 – Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. (NIV)

Notice that in both passages, the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) is translated as heaven without an s, which would indicate that the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) refers to the place where God lives. So, according to the NIV (whether intended or not), not only will God create a new earth in the final state, he will also create a new heaven. But is this really what the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) refers to in these passages?

2. Does οὐρανς (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) Refer to the Place Where God Lives in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1?

Despite the NIV’s translation of οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) as heaven in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1, there can be little doubt that the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) actually refers to the skies or anything that human beings can see when they look up at the skies in these passages. This can be seen for at least three reasons:

(a) First, it can be seen from the origins of the phrase “new heavens and new earth”. While the phrase “new heavens and new earth” was clearly borrowed from Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22, which will be discussed under the next point, the ultimate origin for the phrase “new heavens and new earth” is Genesis 1:1.

In Genesis 1:1, it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (NIV) The word heavens in this case, as the Old Testament translators of the NIV recognized, refers to the skies or, more specifically, anything that can be seen by human beings when they look up into the skies. Genesis 1:1-2:3 (or thereabouts) is the account of how God made the skies and the earth and then filled them. This is the first creation, the creation that was corrupted by sin in Genesis 3. In Revelation 21:1, God is making a new creation: he is taking the old creation – what the NIV (wrongly) calls the first heaven and the first earth – and he is making something new, reversing the devastating effects that sin had on the old creation.

In this context, it is understandable why God would have to make new heavens: the old heavens and the old earth (i.e. the original creation) had been corrupted by the effects of sin (Rom. 8:22) and needed to be made new. But why on earth (pun intended) would God need to make a new heaven (i.e. the place where he lives)? Was that place corrupted by sin? Was that place in need of restoration for the final state?

The origin of the phrase “new heavens and new earth” in Genesis 1:1 shows quite strongly that the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) in 2 Peter 3:13 and both occurrences of the word in Revelation 21:1 should be translated heavens.

b) Second, it can be seen by how the phrase “new heavens and new earth” is translated by the NIV in Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22. Notice how the word שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim, “heaven, heavens”) is translated in these passages:

Isaiah 65:17 – “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” (NIV)

Isaiah 66:22 – “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure.” (NIV)

Why does the NIV translate the word שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim, “heaven, heavens”) as heavens in both of these passages? It is not because the word שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim) is not in the singular: the word שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim) is virtually always found in this form, regardless of whether or not it refers to heaven or the heavens. The reason שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim) is translated as heavens in these passages is likely due to the fact that the Old Testament translators of the NIV recognized the connection with Genesis 1:1 and simply have a good understanding of Hebrew idiom. In Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22 it is clear that God is making new heavens and a new earth, a new creation to replace the old one.

In this regard, it is interesting that the NIV puts quotation marks around the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth,” in Revelation 21:1, indicating that it is a quotation or an allusion to Isaiah 65:17. If the phrase is translated new heavens and new earth in Isaiah 65:17, wouldn’t consistency demand that it be translated the same way in Revelation 21:1? The only reason for translating it differently would be if Greek idiom required that οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) be translated as heaven in Revelation 21:1 rather than heavens (see discussion below).

c) Third, the context of 2 Peter 3:13 should make it clear that οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) should be translated as heavens rather than heaven. The word οὐρανός (ouranos) occurs a total of five times in 2 Peter 3 (vv. 5, 7, 10, 12, 13). In every instance except for 3:13, the NIV translates οὐρανός (ouranos) as heavens. Why? Because the context demands it:

2 Peter 3:5 – But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. (NIV)

2 Peter 3:7 – By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (NIV)

2 Peter 3:10 – But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. (NIV)

2 Peter 3:12b – That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. (NIV)

But after translating the word οὐρανός (ouranos) so consistently as heavens throughout the entire passage, the translators shift inexplicably to the word heaven in verse 13. The context, however, as the NIV itself makes perfectly clear, demands that the word οὐρανός (ouranos) be translated as heavens.

It should be clear, then, that the word οὐρανός (ouranos) in both 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 should be translated as heavens (i.e. the sky) rather than heaven (i.e. the place where God lives).

3. Does Greek Idiom Require that οὐρανς (ouranos) be Translated as Heaven in 2 Peter 3:13 or Revelation 21:1?

But before we can come to a final conclusion, we need to ask whether or not there is anything in the Greek text of 2 Peter 3:13 or Revelation 21:1 that would demand that the word οὐρανός (ouranos) be translated as heaven rather than heavens.

The Greek texts of these two passages read as follows:

2 Peter 3:13 – καινοὺς δὲ οὐρανοὺς καὶ γῆν καινὴν κατὰ τὸ ἐπάγγελμα αὐτοῦ προσδοκῶμεν ἐν οἷς δικαιοσύνη κατοικεῖ.

Revelation 21:1 – Καὶ εἶδον οὐρανὸν καινὸν καὶ γῆν καινήν. ὁ γὰρ πρῶτος οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ πρώτη γῆ ἀπῆλθαν καὶ ἡ θάλασσα οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι

The most significant thing to point out on a grammatical level is that the word οὐρανός (ouranos) appears in the plural in 2 Peter 3:13 while in in Revelation 21:1 it appears in the singular.

It should be noted, however, that the issue of whether or not the word οὐρανός (ouranos) is in the singular or in the plural has no bearing on how these words should be understood in 2 Peter 3:13 or Revelation 21:1. There is no one-to-one correspondence between οὐρανός (ouranos) in the plural and heavens with an s in English or οὐρανός (ouranos) in the singular and heaven without the s in English. In other words, the fact that οὐρανός (ouranos) appears in the plural in 2 Peter 3:13 and in the singular in Revelation 21:1 has no bearing on how the word is translated into English.

The word οὐρανός (ouranos) in the singular can refer both to the place where God lives (e.g. Mark 13:32) or the skies (e.g. Heb. 11:12). Similarly, the word οὐρανός (ouranos) in the plural can refer both to the place where God lives (e.g. Mark 11:25) or the skies (e.g. Heb. 1:10).[5] How these forms are translated into English depends on the context where the words are used. As we have already seen, the contexts of 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 demand that οὐρανός (ouranos) be translated as heavens rather than heaven.

Conclusion

Based on these observations it should be clear that the word οὐρανός (ouranos) in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 should be translated as heavens rather than heaven. This is based on the distinction between heaven and heavens in English, the fact that οὐρανός (ouranos) clearly refers to the skies in both 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1, and the fact that if the NIV were consistent in its translation (i.e. if οὐρανός [ouranos] in 2 Peter 3:13 were translated in the same way as the other five uses in the same chapter and if Revelation 21:21 were translated in line with Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22), it would translate οὐρανός (ouranos) as heavens in both passages. The passages would then read as follows:

2 Peter 3:13 – But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Revelation 21:1 – Then I saw “new heavens and a new earth,” for the first heavens and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.

Where, then, will believers be spending eternity? On a new earth. The word heavens in the phrase “new heavens and new earth” simply refers to what believers will see when they look into the sky. When John saw news heavens and a new earth he was saying that he saw a new creation, one that would supersede the one that was made in Genesis 1:1, which, though good, was damaged by sin.

So, for those responsible for translating the NIV (or other versions that have the same or similar issues), it is well worth taking another look at 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 to see if the current translation communicates what was intended by the authors of these verses.

Mark Steven Francois (Ph.D. Graduand, University of St. Michael’s College)

[1] Note that the same problems occur in the 1984 version of the NIV.

[2] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/heaven

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/heaven

[5] The use of singular vs. plural seems, in many cases, to be purely stylistic. Matthew and Hebrews, for example, prefer plurals whereas Mark and Luke/Acts prefer the singular.

Thesis Abstract

Website Picture - Thesis

For those of you who are interested in knowing a little bit more about what my dissertation was about (you might regret it!), I’ve posted the abstract for the dissertation below.  The full dissertation will be available on T-Space (University of Toronto) by December.  My plan is to revise it and then publish it in the next year or two.

Abstract:

This study concludes that only three passages from Deuteronomy 28 have a close historical relationship with curses from the Succession Treaty or Loyalty Oath of Esarhaddon (EST): Deuteronomy 28:23-24 (EST 528-533), Deuteronomy 28:53-57 (EST 448-451), and, more tentatively, Deuteronomy 28:25a,26-33 (EST 419-430). A comparison of curses in multilingual texts shows that while some change can occur when curses are translated from one linguistic, cultural, or religious context to another, curses with a close historical relationship to each other are connected through clusters of concrete anchor points including cognate vocabulary, lexical equivalents, similar modes of expression, similar imagery, and shared subject matter. Based on the absence of clusters of concrete anchor points, significant differences in both content and subject matter, and the fact that these differences cannot be adequately explained by normal changes that occur when curses are translated from one linguistic, cultural, or religious context to another, EST 472-493 (=§56) and Deuteronomy 28:20-44, EST 418a-c and Deuteronomy 28:34-35, as well as most of the freestanding parallels between EST and Deuteronomy 28 cannot be said to have a close historical relationship with each other. Based on the fact that Deuteronomy 28:23-24 preserves an earlier form of the curses in EST 528-533 as well as on signs of interference from one or more mediating sources in Deuteronomy 28:27-29, the most likely explanations for the remaining parallels are a mediated non-vertical genetic relationship or a close common tradition. Based on evidence that Deuteronomy 28:25a,26 and 28:30-33 might not, in fact, have a close historical relationship with EST, the best explanation for the parallels between EST and Deuteronomy 28 is a close common tradition. Based on either possibility, attempts to interpret Deuteronomy 28 or the wider context of Urdeuteronomium on the basis of EST are generally misguided.

(c) Copyright by Mark Steven Francois 2017

Ecclesiastical Latin Practice Sheets

Latin Practice Sheets

I have just posted practice sheets for the first, second, and third (“ō” type and “-iō” type), and fourth conjugation verbs in Latin (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/language-resources/).  The reason I use these practice sheets rather than simply writing my paradigms on a blank piece of paper is that it’s very easy to forget which words I normally use for my paradigm words.  These sheets provide a convenient template for reviewing these verbs.  Answers for the practice sheets can be found in John F. Collins, A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1985), 377-88.  Enjoy!

 

New Testament Greek Review Template: Noun Declensions

greek-practice-sheets

I have just posted noun declension practice sheets for New Testament Greek (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/language-resources/).  The practice sheets provide a template for reviewing first, second, and third declension nouns.  Years ago when I was reviewing Ecclesiastical Latin, one of the main problems I had was that I would always forget which words were used in the textbook for practising paradigms, which made it very difficult to practise paradigms when I didn’t have my textbook handy.  This practice sheet provides the paradigm words used in David Alan Black, Learn to Read New Testament Greek (3rd ed.; Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2009), 28, 35-36, 117-18, at the top of each chart and provides space to fill in the entire paradigm.  Answers for the practice sheets can be found on the pages listed above.

New Testament Greek Review Template: The Indicative Mood (Regular)

greek-practice-sheets

I have just posted practice sheets for the indicative mood of the regular verb for New Testament Greek (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/language-resources/).  The practice sheets provide a template for reviewing the verb λύω according to the six principle parts.  In my opinion, this is the easiest way to review the indicative mood.  Answers for the practice sheets can be found in David Alan Black, Learn to Read New Testament Greek (3rd ed.; Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2009), 112-13.

Practice Sheets for the Syriac Alphabet

syriac-practice-sheets

I have just posted practice sheets for the Syriac alphabet on the Syriac Grammar page on Between the Perfect and the Doomed (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/).  These letters are in the Estrangela script and show how letters are written when they are not attached to other letters.

There are three main scripts that are used to write Syriac: the Estrangela script, the Serto script (also referred to as the Jacobite script), and the Nestorian script.  The Estrangela script is the oldest script and is the script used in most scholarly editions of Syriac texts, including the Leiden Syriac Peshitta (the standard critical edition of the Syriac Old Testament) and the various writings in the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium series (e.g. works of Ephrem the Syrian, Syriac historical chronicles, etc.).  It is also the script used in Sokoloff’s A Syriac Lexicon (i.e. the updated version of Brockelmann’s Lexicon Syriacum).

The Estrangela script is a semi-cursive script, meaning that many of the letters are joined together to allow for continuous writing.  However, in certain situations the various letters of the Estrangela script will appear unattached and sometimes have a form that looks different from the form they would normally take when attached to other letters.  If you are learning Syriac, it is important to master these unattached forms.

While the Estrangela script can be written with a normal pen or pencil, you may want to purchase a calligraphy pen/marker in order to make the lines thinner or thicker when needed.  I use a Tombow calligraphy pen.

For those of you who know Hebrew, the fonts used for the Estrangela script are basically identical with how they look in manuscripts.  This is quite different from Hebrew where handwritten letters often look somewhat different from how they appear in printed editions of the Hebrew Bible.  This means that you will have little difficulty reading actual Syriac manuscripts if you master this script.  It also means that your own writing has the potential to look like Syriac writing as it appears in manuscripts.

Just a quick note.  Not everyone forms letters in the Estrangela script in the same sequence that I do for every letter of the alphabet, though most will be the same.  I have chosen this particular order because it allows my letters to be neater and, in the forms that are identical to how they look when they are attached to other letters, they allow the letters to be connected to the next letters more easily.

Enjoy!