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#23 - Evaluating the Lamsa Bible
by Robert Nguyen Cramer (version 188.8.131.52)
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Question/insight #23: "Some of you are interested in various Bible translations. The Lamsa Bible - Aramaic translation, the earliest known aramaic version, is available..."
[Note: This "question/insight" was a comment emailed by a participant in a worldwide biblical email forum in which I participate with clergy of a number of denominations. My response was intended to correct the implication that the Lamsa Bible is a valid representation of the early texts of the Bible. In fact, the Lamsa Bible contains many of the same erroneous additions and modifications to the original texts that did not otherwise begin appearing anywhere in the world until the 16th century. This completely disproves the claim that the Lamsa Bible was translated from early documents -- Aramaic or otherwise. The Lamsa Bible is really of little -- if any -- value to serious biblical study. This conclusion is further attested by noted New-Testament-documents authority Bruce Metzger, whose words describing the Lamsa Bible as "absolute fraud," are found below, at the end of this webpage.]
Response #23: While the Lamsa Bible is said to be a translation of the Aramaic, it is important to remember that all of the books of the New Testament originally were written in Greek. The Lamsa Bible was translated from the Peshitta, and the Peshitta itself was translated into Syriac* in the fifth century from the Hebrew Old Testament and from 22 of the 27 Greek New Testament writings. The earliest texts of the New Testament that have been found were written in Greek at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century, which is more than three centuries earlier than the Syria Peshitta.
The earliest known edition of New Testament writings that included Syriac texts was the Diatessaron (around 170 A.D) by Tatian (120-173 A.D.), a Syrian convert to Christianity. Though no Syriac manuscripts of it have ever been found, some of the Syriac text of the Diatessaron survived in a commentary by Ephraem (310-373 A.D.). In order to create the Diatessaron, Tatian combined the four canonical Greek gospels to form one interwoven continuous narrative translated into Syriac. (It is uncertain whether Tatian originally compiled it in Greek and then translated it into Syriac, or whether he translated it directly, bit-by-bit, from the Greek gospels into Syriac.) With the popularity of Ephraem's commentary and the general absence of other Syriac New Testament texts, the Diatessaron in its many revised editions became the standard text for Syriac speaking countries until the creation of the Peshitta in the fifth century. It was also translated into Latin, Old German, Old Dutch, Persian, Arabic, Old Italian, Middle English, and other languages.
Around 300 A.D. the four gospels, Acts, and fourteen letters attributed to Paul were translated from Greek into Old Syriac, most notably the Syriac Sinaiticus and the Syriac Curetonianus, which may have been a revision of the Sinaiticus. Both of these Old Syriac editions reflect the translation influence of the Diatessaron as well as the textual basis of the Greek Western texts.
The original Peshitta did not include the Old Testament Apocrypha writings that were in the Greek Septuagint, nor did it include 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. All of these books were added to later revisions of the Peshita.
* Note: Syriac is a branch of Aramaic that anciently was spoken in and around the ancient city of Edessa, which at that time was the capital of the independent kingdom of Osroene. Edessa was on the site of what is now modern Urfa, Turkey, and was about 275 kilometers (or 170) miles northeast of ancient Antioch and 725 kilometers or (450 miles) north of Jerusalem. Within the first 200 years of Christianity, Osroene's King Abgar IX (179-214 A.D.) converted to Christianity along with the rest of his kingdom. Edessa later became a center for Nestorian Christianity.
The Peshitta's Syriac text of the New Testament is generally an accurate representation in Syriac of the original Greek text, but it could never be as reliable as the original Greek text. The Lamsa translation does reveal a few of the same textual errors in the Syriac text that are found in the King James Version; thus, the Syriac texts from which Lamsa did his translation unfortunately coincide with some of the mistakes in the Greek texts produced by Erasmus, whose New Testament Greek text was the basis for the KJV's New Testament. The Syriac Peshitta that Lamsa translated into English therefore shared some of the same corrupting textual-transmission traditions as Erasmus' Greek sources that resulted in errors in the KJV. The following are a few examples of verses that have the same textual errors in both the KJV and Lamsa's Bible:
If one were going to read the Lamsa Bible, it would be well to read it along with a reliable modern translation, such as the English Standard Version, the New American Bible, New Revised Standard Version, or the Revised English Bible. It would also be well to constantly consult the Greek New Testament, 4th Revised Edition (New York, United Bible Societies, 1983) and/or Bruce Metzger's A Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Edition (New York, United Bible Societies, 1994).
Kubo and Specht's So Many Versions? Twentieth Century English Versions of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan) comments:
George M. Lamsa's translation purports to be produced "from original Aramaic sources." Lamsa's original claims for his work are generally questioned. The Peshitta is not be be identified with the "original Aramaic." Lamsa also adapted some questionable renderings such as "rope" for "camel" in Matt. 19:24, et al.
To read a Web-based article on "The King James Version and its dependence on the Textus Receptus," you can browse the following webpage:
For more information on early Syriac editions of the New Testament and their influence, see:
Additional authoritative testimony regarding the worthlessness of the Lamsa Bible
by Bruce Metzger
The words below were spoken by Bruce Metzger, who is the world's leading authority on New Testament manuscripts and on the Greek text of the New Testament. He made these comments during a question and answer period at the conclusion of a full-day lecture on "Highlights from the Sermon on the Mount," which he delivered in 1992 at The Foundation for Biblical Research, in Charlestown, New Hampshire, USA. The Foundation has been renamed the "Center for Scriptural Studies" and is now located at 2595 Depot Street Manchester Center, VT 05255-9541, 802-362-2432. The Center for Scriptural Studies webpage may be browsed at http://scripturalstudies.org. The following words were transcribed by Robert Nguyen Cramer, by permission of The Foundation. It is worthwhile noting that Dr. Metzger is a genuinely gentle and mild-mannered individual, but here he spoke with unequivocally strong words when he addressed the issue of the Lamsa Bible.
QUESTION FROM SEMINAR ATTENDEE: Are there not Aramaic documents and manuscripts which would shed authentic light on the career of Jesus? And how does the Aramaic relate to the Greek and to the Hebrew?"
DR. METZGER'S ANSWER: The answer briefly is yes and no. But, of course, I want to expand on that.
The common language of people in Palestine in the first century was the Semitic language related to Hebrew, much as Spanish is related to Portuguese -- Aramaic. The word "king" in Hebrew is melek. The word "king" in Aramaic is malkawh. Melek, malkawh -- same consonants.
Now Jesus undoubtedly did commonly speak to common people in Aramaic. I think that also on occasion he'd use Greek.
He grew up in Galilee. In the north, Galilee was called, "Galilee of the Gentiles." Many gentiles living in Galilee -- many more in proportion to Jewish people than in Jerusalem. Naturally Jewish people living in Galilee would be bilingual. For business reasons. And I think that Jesus was bilingual, and on some occasions would speak in Greek.
When the Syrophenician woman came to him from outside of Palestine, she would use Greek. He conversed with her in Greek, I'm sure. When in John's Gospel, Philip comes and says to Jesus, "There are some Greeks who would like to speak with you." I think that then Jesus would have spoken in Greek. But normally I believe that he would have given much of his teachings in the Aramaic language.
There are four fossils of Aramaic left in the Gospel of Mark. Four remnants in Aramaic. To the little girl, "Talitha cumi" [Mar 5:41] -- "Girl, I say to you, get up." To the blind man, "ephphatha" [Mar 7:34] -- "be opened." In his prayer in Gethsemene, "Abba, Father" [Mar 14:36]. Abba is still today the common usage in Palestine, meaning, "Father," "Daddy." And on the cross, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani" [Mar 15:34] -- "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." Those four remnants are still preserved in Mark's Gospel -- of Aramaic, from the lips of Jesus.
Yes, there are Aramaic documents, especially now that the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls have come to light -- that were written about the time of Jesus -- documents in Hebrew and Aramaic that are non-religious documents. Some of them are religious documents. They help us to understand the ambiance of society at that time. So that's the "yes" part of my answer.
But the "no" part to your question is this: We have no records in manuscript form of the gospels in Aramaic. There are no Aramaic documents of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John left. All we have are Greek documents of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So -- except for these four fossils that are left embedded in the text of Mark, the four brief statements or words in Aramaic from Jesus -- no! And people today that sell books and say, "Oh, here, I have translated the Aramaic documents of the gospels" -- they are frauds. They're out for our money. Don't be taken in by such works.
George Lamsa, L-A-M-S-A, who in the 1940s persuaded a reputable publisher of the Bible in Philadelphia, the Winston Publishing Company, to issue his absolute fraud, of 'the Bible translated from the original Aramaic.' Absolutely a money getter, and nothing else.
He said that 'the whole of the New Testament was written in Aramaic,' and he 'translates it from the Aramaic,' but he never would show anybody the manuscripts that he translated from. Secondly, why would Paul write in Aramaic, let us say, to the people of Galatia? They didn't know any more Aramaic than people in Charlestown or Princeton know Aramaic. Why would Paul write to the Romans in Aramaic? They didn't know Aramaic. So, even from a logical point of view, it's silly to say that 'the whole of the New Testament was written in Aramaic.'
Jesus orally communicated some of these teachings in Aramaic. We have a record of that today in Greek manuscripts.
So, yes and no. Chiefly no.
Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer