Sunday, December 27, 2015
The New Testament from the Syriac 1852
NEW TESTAMENT FROM THE SYRIAC, article in the NY Courier 1852
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In a country like ours, where few men of learning are men of independent wealth; where there are few positions of learned leisure to which men of humble means may rise, and where nearly all are obliged to devote their energies to the active business of life, it is hardly to be expected that many works should be produced in the more abstruse branches of human research, or in elucidation of those remote corners of the wide field of literature, which few have the hardihood or the opportunity to explore. When, therefore, not very many years ago, the first Grammar of the old Icelandic Tongue that had ever been published in the English language, made its appearance from the press of a country village in America, the surprise was naturally great; and when it was ascertained that the author (now our minister resident at Constantinople) was a practising lawyer and politician, (callings not generally favorable to the energetic pursuits of literature,) and had no leisure but what he made from amidst his more pressing daily avocations, the wonder was naturally still greater. Dr. Murdock's translation of the Peshito Version of the New Testament from the ancient Syriac into English, is a similar unexpected triumph of American literary enterprise. Although for some hundreds of years the Peshito has been acknowledged by the learned to be the most ancient, the most correct, and, critically, the most valuable version of the New Testament ever made; yet it has never been translated into English, and thus placed somewhat within the reach of ordinary scholars and readers, previous to the publication of this translation by Dr. Murdock. True, Dr. Murdock is a D. D., and a Professor of Ecclesiastical History, and, therefore, there has been a closer relation between this labor and his ordinary professional routine, than there was in the case of Mr. Marsh, between law or politics and the old Norse language. But this is more than counter-balanced by the fact that, when this extraordinary work was begun, Dr. Murdock had already reached the ordinary limit of human life, and yet, at the age of three-score years and ten, he began, and in ten months and a half completed, what no English scholar had ever done before him. In the preparation and prosecution of his work he has freely and fully made use of the extensive apparatus which German learning had prepared for him, and it must not be supposed that either the rapidity of the work, or the age of the workman, have rendered the result slovenly or feeble, for we should have been able to detect neither the one nor the other, had not the veteran author confessed both.
It could not be expected, however, that a work like this could be executed to the satisfaction of all persons alike. Its style is marred by a painful precision of verbal accuracy, which doubtless gives the work the higher critical value, as conveying, so far as English words can convey it, the full peculiarity of the phraseology of the original. The ordinary reader, whose taste has been formed on our standard English version, is disagreeably struck by what seems to him wanton and useless departures from the solemn beauty and simple dignity that he has been accustomed to. But he is richly repaid, from time to time, by the additional and independent light these variations throw upon the meaning of the sacred books; and the critical student of the Scriptures will prize the work only the more highly for that which strikes the common reader as unnecessarily uncouth. The ancient Syriac is a language whose words seem to have far more of vigorous life and energy than our tame English. Words which with us seem to be the lifeless monuments of thoughts, in Syriac seem to be the immediate living product of the thoughts themselves. Thus, Saviour is rendered in Syriac the "Life-giver," or "Vivifier;" Satan (the Accuser of the Brethren) is the "Feeder on detraction;" hypocrites are "Assumers of faces;" to he patient is "to hold one's breath;" the grave is "the home of the dead." But we humbly think that this rendering of Syriac idioms into English is almost caricatured when Apostle is translated "Legate." "Legate" dues not signify "One sent" any whit more perfectly than "Apostle," and besides, to the ordinary reader, it suggests papal associations, from which the word Apostle is free. "The Holy Gospel, the Announcement of Matthew, the Legate," will never look right, or sound pleasantly to our eyes or ears. The church "built upon the foundation of the legates and the prophets" does not look natural to those who have been trained under the old church creeds. The same theory, we suppose, would lead men to change the Apostolic Church and the Apostolic Ministry into a Legatine Church and a Legatine Ministry. But though disagreeably striking, these blemishes do not intefere with the substantial excellence and critical value of the book. Already, as we perceive from the religious papers, this version is furnishing new and strong authority for the church views of Baptismal Regeneration, and various other doctrines—authority all the more indisputable from the fact that Dr. Murdock is himself not an Episcopalian. There is hardly an obscure or controverted text upon which his translation does not throw fresh light.
The interest of the volume is still further enhanced by two appendices. The former of these contains the distribution of the Syriac New Testament into lessons, as read in the public worship; and it will certainly please churchmen to find that, in the Syriac Church, not only are all the great festivals and fasts the same as among us, and called by the same names, but that also, from the earliest times to the present day, in very many cases, the same identical passages of Scripture are set apart for them by the old Syriac calendar as are, among us, read in the Epistle or Gospel or Lesson for the day; and with us, too, as among the ancient Syrians, in a language "understanded of the people." The second appendix gives a historical and critical account of the Peshito Version, its value, and the state of its text, and a full enumeration of the editions of it; and notices also of the Philoxenian (a subsequent Syrian) version of the New Testament, and other Syriac versions, of the Peshito Old Testament, the Syriac Hexapla, &c. We earnestly hope that this work, so creditable to American theology and scholarship, will not be suffered to the gathering dust on the shelves of the publishers, and to be finally returned to the indefatigable author as "unsalable." The public are already indebted to Dr. Murdock for Ihe only correct or reliable version of Mosheim's Church History; and he has added to this a translation of Mosheim's larger work on the same subject, which has never before been presented in an English dress. To these great labors, we should not wonder to find Mr. Murdock adding still more hereafter; for, to judge from his portrait and autograph, he is yet, though seventy-six years old, hale and vigorous, with a clear head, eye not dim, and hand still firm enough to add volumes to those it has already written.
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