Syriac-English New Testament
George Kiraz, Syriac-English New Testament. The Traditional Syriac Peshitta Text and the
Antioch Bible English Translation (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2020. $63.95. pp. xvi + 79 +
1015. ISBN: 978-1-4632-4191-9.
Syriac is the dialect of Aramaic used in Edessa and became an important literary language
around the 2 nd and 3 rd centuries. The use of Syriac increased following the extension of
Christianity in the Semitic speaking world. It also spread along the Silk Road so that there is
a famous Chinese & Syriac inscription in Xian (781 AD) and still today several million Indian
Christians use a Syriac liturgy.
The flourishing of Syriac studies today may be attributed to two figures: Sebastian Brock and
George Anton Kiraz. Sebastian Brock is acknowledged as the greatest living Syriac scholar,
and has inspired countless students not only with his learning but with his gentle, wise and
unstintingly generous spirit. George Kiraz was born into a Syrian Orthodox family in
Bethlehem in 1965 and emigrated to Los Angeles in 1983. Highly qualified linguistically and
in language processing, in 1986 he produced the first Syriac computer fonts (I was one of his
first customers). His Syriac fonts are now used worldwide. In 2001, with his wife Christine,
George Kiraz founded the Gorgias Press in Piscataway, New Jersey. Their visionary efforts
have taken Syriac studies into the digital and online world, retrieving and editing primary
sources, lexica, journals and teaching material with quite extraordinary energy. Texts and
editions which could only be inherited or found after years of patient searching when I was
a student in the 1970s have again been made accessible in what is a technological
renaissance for Syriac studies.
Among its flagship publications, in 2012 Gorgias Press began publishing a multi-volume
edition of the Peshitta Bible (The Antioch Bible), providing a fully pointed and vocalised text
with an idiomatic English translation on the facing pages. This was beautifully produced but
quite a daunting investment with over 35 volumes. At the end of 2020, following the
success of the Antioch Bible, Gorgias Press published in a single volume a historic new Syriac
and English New Testament. This is a fully pointed and vocalised text in the Jacobite script
with a facing translation by an international team of scholars. The entire translation was
reviewed by Sebastian Brock.
It is an elegant edition. The font and vocalisation are very legible and it is durably bound in
leather and a pleasure to handle. It is dedicated to the memory of George Kiraz’ parents and
it is the Syriac New Testament I had longed to have for more than 45 years. There are
different editions with gilded or non-gilded pages.
It is not only an elegant text but comes with an informative and readable 76 page
introduction. This summarises the history of the Syriac gospels through the ‘Gospel of the
Mixed’ (the Diatessaron), the ‘Gospel of the Separated’ (the two Old Syriac manuscripts),
the formation of the Peshitta and post-Peshitta revisions (Philoxenus of Mabbug and
Thomas of Harqel). There is a short history of the manuscript and lectionary tradition and
then a fascinating account of the momentous transition from manuscript to print in the sixteenth century. The Syriac New Testament was printed for the first time in Vienna in 1555 in a collaboration between a learned monk Mushe (Moses) and the German orientalist and humanist Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter (1506-1557). Mushe, son of Isaac, was a Syrian Orthodox monk from near Mardin who was sent to Europe with two manuscripts of the Syriac New Testament and letters of recommendation from the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch ‘Abdullah I bar Stephanos (Patriarch 1520-1557). ‘Abdullah I had heard of printing
in Europe and decided to print the Syriac New Testament for the benefit of his people. Mushe arrived in Europe sometime before September 1549. He travelled first to Rome and then to Venice (the contemporary capital of typography and printing) where he met Guillaume Postel (1510-81), a French linguist who had learned Syriac. However, they were
unable either to find funding or a Venetian printer willing to take on the task.
Postel probably advised Mushe to travel to Germany in search of Widmannstetter who had already purchased two gospel manuscripts and was known to have earlier tried unsuccessfully to find a Syriac printer in Venice. In those dangerous times, Mushe travelled in the company of Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500-1558), the cousin of Mary Tudor, Queen of England (‘Bloody Mary’), who was then returning to England from Lake Garda. Mushe and Widmannstetter met near Augsburg and went together to Vienna where Widmannstetter
introduced him and the project to King Ferdinand. With the financial support of Ferdinand I (King of Hungary and Bohemia and Archduke of Austria, who became Holy Roman Emperor on the death of his brother Charles V in August 1556) a special print type (font) was
designed, modelled on the handwriting of Mushe. The project then progressed rapidly and the Peshitta New Testament was published before the end of 1555.
It is impossible not to reflect on how this courageous and tenacious tradition was taken to its next monumental stage in 1986 when the young George Kiraz designed the first DOS-based Estrangela computer font and later founded his own publishing house. This is a remarkable story as well as a truly beautiful Syriac New Testament.
From: Iain | Date: 8/11/2021 8:29 AM
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