Interview About the Discovery of a Curse Tablet from Mount Ebal

For anyone who is interested, here is an interview that I did with Wesley Huff (Ph.D. candidate, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto) on a recent archaeological find from Mount Ebal. According to the press conference that announced the discovery, the recent find is a small object made of lead that has a curse text written on the inside. If their interpretation of the evidence is correct, this would be the oldest Israelite inscription that we currently have and this would also be the oldest reference to the name YHWH, the personal name of Israel’s God. Also feel free to check out his other videos.

Vowel Names in West Syriac and East Syriac

A PDF version of this post with proper Syriac fonts can be found here: Vowel Names in West Syriac and East Syriac.

When learning Classical Syriac, it can sometimes be difficult to make sense of the names that are used for vowels in Classical Syriac. Part of the reason has to do with the fact that the names of vowels are pronounced somewhat differently in West Syriac compared to East Syriac. Another reason has to do with the fact that the names of some vowels in West Syriac are different from their names in East Syriac. But the primary reason has to do with the fact that some vowels in East Syriac have more than one name.

The purpose of this post is to compare the names of the vowels that are used in West Syriac and East Syriac and to clear up some of the confusion that can come because of the differing names that are used.

We can begin with the names of the vowels that are identical in West Syriac and East Syriac:[1]

West Syriac East Syriac 
ptōḥō’ (ܰ)aptāḥā’ (ܲ)a
zqōpō’ (ܳ)ōzqāpā’ (ܵ)ā
ḥbōṣō’ (ܺ)īḥbāṣā’ (ܼ)ī

As we can see in the chart, there are only three vowels in West Syriac and East Syriac that have identical names for the same vowels. The differences in the names of these vowels as well as the difference in pronunciation between the zqōpō’ () and the zqāpā’ () can be explained by the fact that the long a (ā) in Classical Syriac shifted to a long o (ō) in West Syriac (cf. Nöldeke §44). Once this shift in pronunciation is recognized, it is easy to recognize that the names of these vowels correspond with each other perfectly.

In some cases, however, the names of the vowels in West Syriac are simply different from the names that are used in East Syriac:[2]

West Syriac East Syriac 
rbōṣō’ (ܶ)ezlāmā’ pšîqā’ (ܸ)e
rbōṣō’ (ܶ)ezlāmā’ qašyā’ (ܹ)ē
‘ṣōṣō’ (ܽ)urwāḥā’ (ܘܿ)ō
‘ṣōṣō’ (ܽ)urbāṣā’ (ܘܼ)ū

Several points should be noted here. First, the rbōṣō’ in West Syriac corresponds to two separate vowels in East Syriac: the zlāmā’ pšîqā’ and the zlāmā’ qašyā’. Second, the ‘ṣōṣō’ in West Syriac corresponds to two separate vowels in East Syriac: the rwāḥā’ and the rbāṣā’. Third, the rbōṣō’ in West Syriac has the same name as the rbāṣā’ in West Syriac but represent different vowel sounds (e vs. ū). Finally, as was noted earlier, the names of the corresponding vowels are simply different from each other.

It should also be noted that some vowels used in East Syriac have more than one name. These alternative names correspond more closely with their equivalents in West Syriac:[3]

West Syriac East Syriac 
rbōṣō’ (ܶ)ezlāmā’ pšîqā’ (ܸ) = rbāṣā’ ’arrīkā’ (ܸ)e
rbōṣō’ (ܶ)ezlāmā’ qašyā’ (ܹ) = rbāṣā’ qašya’ (ܹ) = rbāṣā’ karyā’ (ܹ)ē
‘ṣōṣō’ (ܽ)urwāḥā’ (ܘܿ) = ‘ṣāṣā’ rwīḥā’ (ܘܿ)ō
‘ṣōṣō’ (ܽ)urbāṣā’ (ܘܼ) = ‘ṣāṣā’ ’āllīṣā’ (ܘܼ)ū

Note that the word ’arrīkā’ means “short,” the word qašyā’ means “hard,” the word karyā’ means “short,” the word rwīḥā’ means “wide,” and the word ’āllīṣā’ means “narrow” or “short in pronunciation”.[4] The reason why the East Syriac vowels have alternative names is because these vowel points were also sometimes used by West Syriac writers (e.g. Bar Hebraeus).[5] The transliterations for the alternative names have ā instead of ō simply for the sake of convention (i.e. when using the Estrangela script or the East Syriac script, the transliterations for East Syriac are used). However, these names would have been pronounced using the long ō. This explains why the alternative names correspond more closely with the names that are used in West Syriac.

So what names should you memorize when you are learning Classical Syriac? In an ideal world, it would be best to memorize all of the names. However, as you begin to study Classical Syriac, it is best to keep things as simple as possible. My recommendation is that if you are learning Classical Syriac using the West Syriac script, you should use the names that are used in West Syriac. However, if you are learning Classical Syriac using either the East Syriac script or the Estrangela script, you should use the names of the vowels that are used in East Syriac.

Mark Steven Francois


[1] Cf. Nöldeke §§ 8-9; Muraoka §4; Mingana §§14-33; Sokoloff (under each name); Payne Smith (under each name).

[2] Cf. Nöldeke §§ 8-9; Muraoka §4; Mingana §§14-33; Sokoloff (under each name); Payne Smith (under each name).

[3] Cf. Nöldeke §§ 8-9; Muraoka §4; Mingana §§14-33; Sokoloff (under each name); Payne Smith (under each name).

[4] Note that Muraoka has a typo and spells it ‘āllīṣā’. In Syriac it is spelled ܐܲܠܝܼܨܵܐ.

[5] See especially Mingana §24.

Does Josephus Support the Wording of the Vulgate Version of Genesis 3:15?

It is sometimes said that the Jewish historian Josephus (35 – c. 100 CE) supports the wording that is found in the Vulgate’s version of Genesis 3:15 as opposed to the wording that is found in Masoretic manuscripts.[1]  In the Vulgate’s version of Genesis 3:15 it says:

Genesis 3:15 (Vulgate) – 15 inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem et semen tuum et semen illius ipsa conteret caput tuum et tu insidiaberis calcaneo eius

Genesis 3:15 (Vulgate) – 15 I will put hostility between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed.  She herself will crush your head and you will lie in wait for her heel. (Translation mine)

But in Masoretic manuscripts, as seen in Firkovich B19a, otherwise known as Codex Leningradensis, it says:

15וְאֵיבָ֣ה׀ אָשִׁ֗ית בֵּֽינְךָ֙ וּבֵ֣ין הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וּבֵ֥ין זַרְעֲךָ֖ וּבֵ֣ין זַרְעָ֑הּ ה֚וּא יְשׁוּפְךָ֣ רֹ֔אשׁ וְאַתָּ֖ה תְּשׁוּפֶ֥נּוּ עָקֵֽב׃

15 And I will put hostility between you and between the woman, and between your seed and between her seed.  He/They will crush you on the head and you will crush him/them on the heel. (Translation mine)

So in the Vulgate’s version of Genesis 3:15 it says that the head of the serpent would end up being crushed by a “she”.  But in Masoretic manuscripts it says that the head of the serpent would end up being crushed by a “he” or a “they” –depending on whether or not the word (זֶ֫רַע) is understood as a collective noun.[2] 

Now it is sometimes, though rarely, said that the wording in the Vulgate’s version of Genesis 3:15 should be preferred over the wording in Masoretic manuscripts.[3]  One piece of evidence that is sometimes offered in support of this position is how Genesis 3:15 was understood by Josephus.[4]  In this post, we will take a look at whether or not Josephus does, in fact, support the wording that’s found in the Vulgate’s version of Genesis 3:15.   

Josephus and Genesis 3:15

Josephus discusses Genesis 3:15 in book one, chapter one, of the Antiquities of the Jews.[5]  In section fifty he says:

Ant. 1.1.50 – ἀφείλετο δὲ καὶ τὸν ὄφιν τὴν φωνὴν ὀργισθεὶς ἐπὶ τῇ κακοηθείᾳ τῇ πρὸς τὸν Ἄδαμον καὶ ἰὸν ἐντίθησιν ὑπὸ τὴν γλῶτταν αὐτῷ πολέμιον ἀποδείξας ἀνθρώποις καὶ ὑποθέμενος κατὰ τῆς κεφαλῆς φέρειν τὰς πληγάς, ὡς ἐν ἐκείνῃ τοῦ τε κακοῦ τοῦ πρὸς ἀνθρώπους κειμένου καὶ τῆς τελευτῆς ῥᾴστης τοῖς ἀμυνομένοις ἐσομένης

Ant. 1.1.50 – And he [i.e. God] deprived the serpent of its voice because he was angry at his malicious behavior towards Adam.  And he inserted poison under his tongue – the tongue that had made him an enemy to human beings.  And he [i.e. God] suggested that they should bring their blows to his head since it was in that place that his evil towards human beings was located and it is the easiest place to kill him for those who want to get revenge.  (Translation mine)

From a grammatical perspective, there is some ambiguity in the part where it says that blows should be directed against the head of the serpent.  In Greek, it doesn’t explicitly say who the suggestion was being made to.  When translated literally it simply says, “suggesting to bring the blows against the head” (ὑποθέμενος κατὰ τῆς κεφαλῆς φέρειν τὰς πληγάς).

However, when the surrounding context is taken into account, it is clear that this suggestion is being made to human beings in general.  Immediately before the suggestion is made it says, “And he inserted poison under his tongue – the tongue that had made him an enemy to human beings (ἀνθρώποις).”  When read in context, it seems clear that the suggestion that comes immediately after this is directed towards the human beings that this passage was just talking about.

But this can be seen in an even clearer way in the part that comes right after this.  So right after the suggestion is made that blows should be directed against the head of the serpent it says, “since it was in that place that his evil [i.e. the serpent] towards human beings (πρὸς ἀνθρώπους) was located and it is the easiest place to kill him for those who want to get revenge (τοῖς ἀμυνομένοις).”  This makes it clear that the suggestion was being made to human beings in general and, more specifically, to “those who want to get revenge.”

So based on Josephus’s discussion of Genesis 3:15, it seems clear that he understood the word seed as a collective noun and understood it as a reference to human beings in general.  This means that instead of supporting the wording in the Vulgate’s version of Genesis 3:15, Josephus actually supports the wording that is found in Masoretic manuscripts (i.e. the third masculine singular pronoun הוּא).

Where Did The Idea Come From?

So if that’s the case, where did the idea come from that Josephus supports the wording that is found in the Vulgate?  It is difficult to know for certain since Josephus is normally cited without noting where he discusses this passage and without noting which translation, if any, the writer/speaker is using.  But one possibility is that the idea can ultimately be traced back to a translation of the Antiquities of the Jews that was made by Ebenezer Thompson and William Charles Price back in 1777.[6]  In their translation it says:

Ant. 1.1.50 (Thompson and Price) – And, as the just punishment of the malice and wiles of the serpent, God deprived him of the gift of speech, put poison under his tongue, condemned him to the loss of his feet, and to crawl upon his belly in future; and branded him as the avowed enemy of mankind; further commanding Eve to tread upon his head, as being the source of all our miseries, and that part in which he is most susceptible of a mortal wound.[7]

So in this translation, it says that Eve was commanded to tread upon the head of the serpent, which would seem to support the reading that is found in the Vulgate.  However, the word Eve is not found in the Greek text of this passage.  This was added by the translators.  As we saw earlier, the passage does not explicitly say who was given the suggestion to crush the head of the serpent.  However, when the context is taken into account, it is clear that the suggestion was being made to humanity in general and, more specifically, “those who want to get revenge.”

Conclusion

So what did Genesis 3:15 say in the version that Josephus was using back in the first century?  Based on his discussion in the Antiquities of the Jews as well as other evidence from Old Testament textual criticism,[8] it is clear that Josephus supports the wording that is found in Masoretic manuscripts. 

Mark Steven Francois, Ph.D.


[1] Taylor Marshall, “Who Crushes Satan’s Head in Genesis 3:15? (Mary or Jesus?)”  https://taylormarshall.com/2010/12/who-crushes-satans-head-in-genesis-315.html (accessed February 10, 2021); Wikipedia contributors, “Seed of the woman,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Seed_of_the_woman&oldid=1002329204 (accessed February 10, 2021).

[2] The relevant pronoun in Hebrew is a third masculine singular pronoun (הוּא), which refers back to the word seed (זֶ֫רַע), which is a masculine singular noun.  In Hebrew, the word seed (זֶ֫רַע) can either refer to an individual or it can be used as a collective noun and refer to a group of people.  If it refers to an individual, the pronoun הוּא would be translated as he.  But if it refers to a group of people, it would be translated as they.

[3] It should be noted that this claim is essentially made on theological grounds, though it has the veneer of being made on text-critical grounds.  From a text-critical perspective, it is indisputable that the reading in Masoretic manuscripts should be preferred.  The evidence will be laid out in other posts.

[4] Other arguments that are sometimes used to support this position are that: (a) the reading found in the Vulgate is supported by Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – c.50 CE); (b) the reading found in the Vulgate is supported by Maimonides (1138-1204 CE); (c) the third feminine singular pronoun הִיא is found in two Masoretic manuscripts, Kennicott 227 and 239 (for a response see https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/2021/02/05/kennicot-227-and-239-%d7%94%d7%99%d7%90-vs-%d7%94%d7%95%d7%90-in-genesis-315/); and (d) the third feminine singular pronoun in the Pentateuch is normally spelled with the same consonants as third masculine singular pronouns, which means that either one is a possibility.

[5] For the Greek text of this section in B. Niese, Flavius Josephus. Flavii Iosephi opera (Berlin: Weidmann, 1892) see http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0526.tlg001.perseus-grc1:1.1.4.  For the translation of this section by William Whiston, Flavius Josephus.  The Works of Flavius Josephus (Auburn and Buffalo, NY: John E. Beardsley, 1895) see http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0526.tlg001.perseus-eng1:1.1.4.

[6] This was suggested by a user called “Patron of Heaven” in the comment section of Taylor Marshall’s article cited above.  The text can be found here https://archive.org/details/worksflaviusjose01jose or https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t8v98df53&view=1up&seq=7.

[7] Note that the translators do not seem to working from a different Greek text.  The passage has simply been reworded and rearranged to make the translation smooth in English.

[8] This reading is supported by the LXX, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Peshitta, and the Targumim.  It is also supported by some manuscripts of the Vulgate and St. Jerome’s Hebrew Questions on Genesis.  See Patrologia Latina XXIII (Paris, 1883) cols. 983-1062 (specifically, c. 994).  For an English translation see St. Jerome’s Hebrew Questions on Genesis, translated with an introduction and commentary by C. T. R. Hayward (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 33. 

Kennicott 227 and 239 – היא vs. הוא in Genesis 3:15

In my spare time I am doing research for a video on a text-critical problem in Genesis 3:15. In the Vulgate, Genesis 3:15 says:

Genesis 3:15 (Vulgate) – 15 inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem et semen tuum et semen illius ipsa conteret caput tuum et tu insidiaberis calcaneo eius

Genesis 3:15 (Vulgate) – 15 I will put hostility between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed.  She herself will crush your head and you will lie in wait for her heel. (Translation mine)

This reading is quite different from the reading that is found in Masoretic manuscripts from the medieval period. These manuscripts form the starting point for modern translations of the Old Testament from Hebrew into English. In Firkovich B19a (i.e. Codex Leningradensis), Genesis 3:15 reads as follows:

וְאֵיבָ֣ה׀ אָשִׁ֗ית בֵּֽינְךָ֙ וּבֵ֣ין הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וּבֵ֥ין זַרְעֲךָ֖ וּבֵ֣ין זַרְעָ֑הּ ה֚וּא יְשׁוּפְךָ֣ רֹ֔אשׁ וְאַתָּ֖ה תְּשׁוּפֶ֥נּוּ עָקֵֽב׃

Genesis 3:15 – 15 And I will put hostility between you and between the woman, and between your seed and between her seed.  He [or they] will crush you on the head and you will crush him [or them] on the heel. (Translation mine)

The most striking difference between these two readings is that in the Vulgate, the person who will crush the head of the serpent is a she (ipsa) while in Masoretic manuscripts the person who will crush the head of the serpent is a he (הוּא) or a they (referring back to the seed).

Like I mentioned earlier, I will be doing a video that deals with this issue in more detail from a text-critical perspective and will also likely do a blog post to accompany it. But at this point I would like to discuss an argument that is sometimes used to justify the reading that is found in the Vulgate.

It is sometimes said that the reading found in the Vulgate (ipsa) is supported by two Hebrew manuscripts: Kennicott 227 and Kennicott 239. The word Kennicott refers to a publication from the 18th century by Benjamin Kennicott (1718-1783) called Vetus Testamentum hebraicum cum variis lectionibus. This publication, which is still in use today, lists variants to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament based on 615 medieval Hebrew manuscripts and 52 print editions of the Hebrew text. The variants are recorded in the footnotes of the text.

On page 5 of volume one, which covers Genesis 3:15, the note says that the pronoun היא is found in two manuscripts: #227 and #239. Here is a picture of the entry:

Out of curiosity I decided to look for images of these manuscripts to see whether or not these manuscripts actually had the pronoun היא. After all, as Ernst Würthwein (The Text of the Old Testament 2nd ed., 40) notes, the individuals who consulted these manuscripts for Kennicott were not always competent.

In order to find these manuscripts I consulted Hebrew Manuscripts in the Vatican Library Catalogue (ed. Benjamin Richler; Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticano, 2008). This book includes detailed descriptions of the Hebrew manuscripts in the Vatican Library. Quite usefully, these descriptions provide the corresponding number in Kennicott for each manuscript at the end of the entry.

Kennicott 227 is listed as Vat. ebr. 9 in the Vatican Library. Vat. ebr. 9 is a Hebrew manuscript that was copied in Rome in 1287 CE. Kennicott 239 is listed as Vat. ebr. 447. Vat. ebr. 447 is a Hebrew manuscript that was copied in Spain in the 14th century. Both manuscripts can be viewed on the Vatican Library’s website (Vat. ebr. 9 – https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.ebr.9; Vat. ebr. 447 – https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.ebr.447). A useful list of digitized Hebrew manuscripts can be found on the website of the Bodleian Library (http://bav.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/digitized-items-hebrew-manuscripts).

After examining both of these manuscripts, it seems clear that the note in Kennicott is mistaken. Kennicott 227 and 239 do not have the pronoun היא; both have the pronoun הוא, just like Firkovich B19a. Here is a sketch I made of the pronoun that is used in Kennicott 227 (I do not own the rights to the original image of the manuscript but it can be verified using the link above):

It is easy to see how the person who consulted this manuscript could have mistaken the letter ו for the letter י. However, it is quite clear that the middle letter is ו. This can be seen for four reasons. First, the following word has both a ו and a י. This letter clearly matches up with the ו in the following word. Second, the ו in the word הוא has a dot to the left of it, indicating that this letter represents a long u sound. If it were a י, the dot would have been written below the ה. Third, third feminine singular pronouns are normally not written as היא in the Pentateuch. They are normally written as הוא (the third masculine singular personal pronoun) with the vowel that you would expect to see with היא. Finally, the pronoun היא doesn’t match up grammatically with the third masculine singular verb that follows.

Here is a sketch I did of the pronoun in Kennicott 239 (I do not own the rights to the original image of the manuscript but it can be verified using the link above):

In this case it is clear that the pronoun is הוּא.

Needless to say, this does not answer the question of why the Vulgate says that the person who would crush the head of the serpent is a she. But it clearly does show that Kennicott 227 and 239 should not be used to support the reading found in the Vulgate.

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

Verbal Patterns in Classical Syriac (Part 1)

I’ve added a video to the Syriac Grammar page that introduces verbal patterns in Classical Syriac. The explanation in the video (like I mentioned way too many times!) is overly simple but it’s a good starting point to think about what we mean when we talk about verbal patterns. I will be adding another video shortly that goes into more detail about how the different verbal patterns actually function in Classical Syriac. I will also likely add a video about how to recognize verbal patterns when translating and how to look up the meanings in a dictionary. I hope it’s helpful!