Review of: Julius A. Bewer, The History of the NT Canon in the Syrian Church ,
The American Journal of Theology, Vol. 4, No.1-No.2 (Jan., 1900)
Last Updated: Feb 15, 2009
Bewer gives us a very informative and readable walk-through of the history of the early Syrian Church. We first supplement this however, with a bit of background from the Anchor Bible Dictionary on the Syriac versions and manuscripts:
Anchor Bible Dictionary: Entry on Syriac Version
"The Syriac versions of the Bible have posed many scholarly problems. These concern the relationships between the various translations, their places of origin, and their exegesis. The primary efforts at biblical translations include the Peshitta of the Old Testament, the Diatessaron, the Old Syriac (Vetus Syra), the Peshitta translation of the NT, the Philoxenian and/or Harklean version, and the Palestinian version. A discussion of the NT versions can be found in Metzger (1977).
1. The Peshitta of the OT. The origin of this translation is unknown. Its connections to Jewish targumic literature suggest that it evolved in a Jewish milieu. Kahle (1959) argued that it was made in Adiabene as an effort to adapt the Palestinian targum for new converts. This theory has been accepted by Murray (1975: 10), inter alia. The problem is that there are also readings shared with the Targum Onkelos of Babylon. The Adiabene theory is plausible, but with no philological or historical evidence. In addition to the problem of provenance, there is no possibility of dating the translation with any precision. The earliest citations are from 4th-century texts.
The text is remarkably consistent throughout its transmission history as has been demonstrated by Koster (1977) and Dirksen (1972). A definitive critical edition, Vetus Testamentum Syriace (1972–), is being published by the Peshitta Institute of Leiden. Later commentators would indicate variant readings with the LXX traditions and occasionally the Hebrew text, but it appears that little emmendation was attempted.
2. The Diatessaron. This harmony of the gospel composed by Tatian has been mentioned above. The original language (Greek, Syriac, or Latin), theological tendencies, and function in the churches has been extensively discussed. For a summary of the various points of view, see Metzger (1977). There are witnesses to the text in Old Dutch, Old Italian, medieval German, Persian, and Arabic.
In Greek there is only the fragment found at Dura Europas (see above). In Syriac and Armenian, the most extensive witness is the Commentary on the Diatessaron attributed to Ephrem of Syria (306–73). Lyonnet (1950) has demonstrated that the earliest translations of the Gospels into Armenian owed much to the Syriac Diatessaron. Extensive quotations are found in such writers as Aphraates, Ephrem, Eznik, Marutha Maipherkatensis, Agathangelos, Rabbula, and the author of the Liber Graduum. See also DIATESSARON.
3. The Old Syriac (Vetus Syra). This version is known primarily from two manuscripts. Both contain only the four canonical Gospels. No Old Syriac of the Pauline or general epistles has been found, although citations of those texts in Armenian translations of Syriac literature suggest these may have existed.
The first is in the British Library (B.L. 14451). Discovered by William Cureton, it was definitively edited by F. C. Burkitt (1904) with additional pages of the same manuscript found in the Royal Library of Berlin.
The second manuscript was discovered by Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson at St. Catharine Monastery on Mt. Sinai. The manuscript had been reused, as a manuscript for lives of women saints, by imperfectly cleaning off the biblical text. After two less than adequate efforts by scholars to decipher the manuscript, A. S. Lewis made several trips to Sinai and was able to publish what remains the best edition (1910).
The text of the Curetonian (Syrc, or Sc) and Sinaitic (Syrs, or Ss) manuscripts do not agree at all points, although they clearly stand alone and close together in the larger world of Syriac NT translations. Scholars have generally assumed either that the two are revisions of a common source or that they are independent translations made during the same period.
Linguistic peculiarities shared by the two manuscripts suggest that they may be the effort of individuals to gain access to the Greek tradition which lay behind the Syriac Diatessaron. Matthew Black (1972) argues for dating these efforts to the 4th century. For a detailed survey of the discussion of scholarly work on the Old Syriac, see Black (1972) and Metzger (1977). The effort of Vööbus (1951b; 1951c) to marshal evidence from the Letter of Aithallah in support of his theory of early 4th-century prominence of the Vetus Syra at Edessa has been demonstrated to be incorrect (Bundy 1987).
4. The Syriac Peshitta. The word “peshitta” has generally been understood as “simple” or “clear,” not unlike the term “vulgate” applied to the received Latin translation.
This version of the New Testament is used by both East Syrians (Nestorians) and West Syrians (Jacobites) and therefore certainly predates the division of the Syriac church along political, geographical, and theological lines during the mid-5th century.
More precise dating of the translation has provoked controversy. Some have dated it as early as the late 1st or early 2d century. Burkitt (1901) argued that it was from the early 5th century and later suggested that it was translated by Rabbula of Edessa (Burkitt 1904). This conclusion has been contested by Vööbus (1951b), who argued that it was much older although slow to achieve dominance in the Syriac-speaking church.
The manuscript tradition is quite uniform. There are remarkably few variants in the Peshitta as compared to the Old Syriac or Greek versions. Its textual tradition is well documented by the hundreds of manuscripts preserved, the earliest manuscript (ca. 460–464) probably being Paris Syriac 296.1 in the Bibliotheque Nationale which contains Luke 6:49–21:37. No adequate critical edition of the entire NT in the Peshitta version has been published despite the fact that the first printed edition was done at Venice as early as 1555.
The best text available, based on earlier editions which were themselves only partial collations of the manuscript evidence, is published by the (United) Bible Society as The New Testament in Syriac. This printing has no critical apparatus. It also contains the Apocalypse and General Epistles, which were not part of the Peshitta translation, but based on the Philoxenian version.
5. Later Syriac Translations. The Philoxenian (Syrph) version was prepared at the direction of Philoxenos of Mabbug (Hierapolis) by a certain Polycarp in 507–8 c.e. An effort to bring the Syriac more in line with the Greek, it also provided, probably for the first time in Syriac, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the Apocalypse.
A century later (616 c.e.) the version of Thomas of Harkel, assistant to the famous translator of the OT Paul of Tella, was produced. The Harklean (Syrh) version has been variously considered either a revision of the Philoxenian or a new translation. For a history of this debate, see Metzger (1977).
The Palestinian Syriac version is actually a different version of Aramaic. It is closer to Jewish Palestinian Aramaic than to the Syriac of Edessa and northern Mesopotamia.
6. The Early Versions. Apart from the Diatessaron, the early Syriac biblical texts are difficult to date. There is no concrete evidence of their existence before the 4th century, although it is probable that at least the OT was available in Syriac early in the Christian period. The Diatessaron exerted a strong influence on the development of early Syriac theology and praxis. The Peshitta displaced the Diatessaron slowly at first because of pressure from the Greek church and the problems posed by Manicheans finding readings that lent support to their understanding. The major blow came in the late 4th century when Theodoret of Cyrus, because of Tatian’s reputation as a heretic in the Western church, gathered and destroyed over 200 copies after replacing them with copies of the individual Gospels.
- the Anchor Bible Dictionary
The Value of the Peshitta for Textual Criticism
From this it is clear that everything about the Syriac versions earlier than about 450 A.D. is mostly conjecture.
One very important point is that the Peshitta version also did not include 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. These books were not included in any Syriac version until the 6th century!
Are we to conclude from that that these letters (including Revelation!) did not exist, or were not accepted as canonical by most Christians until the 6th century A.D.?
Of course not.
The Syriac Peshitta is a very deficient collection of translations of various books of the NT. It is NOT a 'New Testament', and cannot simply be construed as a statement about what the Syrian Church regarded as 'canonical', or authoratitive.
The Peshitta and John 8:1-11
The omission by the Peshitta of John 8:1-11 falls under the same category as these other extensive and significant omissions. They are not the result of early textual criticism by the Syrians, nor are they motivated by opinions regarding the canonicity of various books and passages.
These omissions are based upon something much simpler. The Peshitta, like other early translations into Syriac, was based on whatever church lectionaries and documents that they could get their hands on.
The Syrian missionaries simply translated whatever came to hand, and this became an 'official' liturgical work used in church services. From there the text was entrenched for centuries by habit and tradition. The simple fact is, the Syrians didn't have copies of John's and Jude's letters, or the book of Revelation.
Likewise, the Pericope de Adultera (John 8:1-11) was left out of the Lectionary copy of the Gospels prepared for public reading throughout the year, because that passage was not read during Pentecost.
The first half of Part II of Bewer's article is concerned with technical details regarding the exact quotations in Syriac of various passages made mostly in two early Syrian works: These require expertise in the Syriac language for reliable evaluation. We jump ahead to Bewer's conclusions, as they are certainly conservative and reliable. He ably sums up the new state of knowledge regarding the early history of the Syrian Church and the copies of the Holy Scriptures they used.
RECONSTRUCTION OF THE HISTORY OF
THE NT CANON IN THE SYRIAN CHURCH.
The earliest phases in the history of the NT canon in Syria are still veiled in darkness. However, the discovery of the Sinaiticus makes it plain that there was a great deal of activity displayed in the early Syrian church in regard to the text of the NT, or, better, of the gospels.
It is probable that the two texts, Ss [The Sinai Syriac MS.] and Sc [The Curetonian MS.], are only specimens or representatives of other texts. The relative independence of these two texts leads one to think that there must have been made many translations of the gospels, which were more or less independent of each other.
As more churches were built in the different towns and villages, the desire, the necessity, was felt to have a copy of the gospels, at first not for private use, but for the common worship in the church. They could not use the Greek originals; they needed a Syriac translation. How many texts there were we shall probably never know. I do not think that there is one type of the Old Syriac text ; there must have been many.
The task, therefore, will be to determine which of them is the oldest text. But we must not think that that oldest text was in general use in the entire church. Other texts slightly younger were probably used by others as the church grew. They were, then, not copies from the Old Syriac, but different translations.
But all this must, in the nature of the case, be a matter of conjecture. It is founded only on the relative independence of the two texts represented by Ss and Sc, and also of P [The Peshitta text]. Again, we can say with no great amount of certainty, but with a good deal of plausibility, that at first not all the four gospels had been translated, but probably only one, then two, then three, then four. They were current in this single form. This is indicated by the different order in which the gospels stand in Ss and Sc.
It is also very likely, as Professor J. Rendel Harris has shown, that an account of the passion was in existence in harmonistic form. This would be very natural, considering how great an emphasis the early Christians laid on the death of Jesus Christ, almost to the exclusion of the life which he lived in Palestine. But we are on the ground of mere conjecture, however plausible and natural it be, until we come to the Sinaiticus [The Sinai Syriac MS.]. That is, as we have seen, the oldest form of the gospels of the Syrian church which we have in our possession. The Greek text which underlies it belongs evidently to the first half of the second century; of it the remark of Credner about Codex Bezae, to which, as we have seen, this text is closely related, holds good :
"Veranderungen wie diese konnten in der katholischen Kirche nur bis um die Mitte des zweiten Jahrhunderts mit dem Text der Evangelien vorgenommen werden, denn nach dieser Zeit hat die Behauptung eines gottlichen Ursprungs der neutestamentlichen Schriften in derselben allgemeine Anerkennung gefunden. Dieses Dogma lasst keine solche Behandlungsweise des Textes mehr zu, wie dieselbe mit dem Texte unserer Handschrift vorgenommen ist. Dann wurde unserer Handschrift ein Text aus dem zweiten Jahrhundert zu Grunde liegen."
"Changes like this could be carried out in the Catholic church only to the mid 2nd century with the text of the Gospels, because after this time the assertion of divine origin of these same NT writings has found general recognition. This dogma allows no such handling of the text anymore, as the way the text of our manuscript [Bezae] is treated. So our manuscript shows reason for it to be a text from the 2nd century. " ( - translation: Nazaroo)
The same holds also good of Sc; but we shall speak of that later.
The translator of Ss was faithful to his original ; but his aim was to give a good, forcible, and popular translation ; he did not want to sacrifice the good Syriac to a very literal translation of the Greek. There are, then, in his translation certain minor points where he translates freely, just as we should expect from him. For him the substance was the main thing, and deep reverence for the letter is not one of his characteristics, which does by no means reflect on the faithfulness of his translation, but is nevertheless a sign that the books as such were not yet regarded as canonical.
Now, a few years later, about 172-5 A. D., Tatian made his Diatessaron, and it took possession of the field at once. It can easily be understood that it should be used more than the separate gospels. It was much more convenient for the common people, and also for the reading in the church services, than the separate gospels. Moreover, it will be remembered that Christianity was at first only the religion of a minority; but with Abgar III., 176-213 A. D., it became the national religion. This great change coincided, then, with the origin of the Diatessaron. And it is due to this fact, in addition to its convenience, that it became the gospel book of the Syrian church, and that the separate gospels had to give way. This was, however, possible only on two conditions : (I) that the four separate gospels were not yet established by long use, which is quite in harmony with the result of our investigation ; it was made about 160-70 A. D., perhaps between 150- 70 A. D. ; (2) that there was not yet a conception of the canonicity of the books as such. If that idea had already been present, such a substitution would have been impossible.
There can, however, be no doubt that even after the introduction of the Diatessaron the four separate gospels were used alongside of the harmony, especially by the educated classes, though probably not in the church services. That the separate gospels had adherents is seen by the fact that after the introduction of the harmony the Curetonian gospels mere translated. They are later than the Diatessaron, but they cannot be much younger ; that the underlying Greek text shows. The origin of this text was due to the desire to have the separate gospels in a text which corresponded more closely with the Diatessaron. It can hardly be much later than 200 A. D. And then, about one hundred years later, there is another text current in the Syrian church, as we see from Aphraates . The separate gospels had enough adherents during all this time.
But still the main text was the Diatessaron. And now it may be laid down as a fact that at the end of the second century the Syrian church used as a church only the Diatessaron of Tatian, and this was, I have no doubt, already regarded as canonical about the year zoo A. D. And that for the following considerations : It is natural to assume that the development of the idea of the canon in the Syrian church should follow on the whole the line which is followed in the Graeco-Roman church. Now, there the first thing that was regarded as authoritative or canonical was the words of Jesus Christ, no matter whether they were handed down in oral or in written form. When the gospels had been written, they were not regarded as authoritative, but simply the words of Christ which they contained ; not the books, but the words of Christ, were canonical.
As time passed on, and there was no longer an oral tradition on which the church could rely, it was quite natural that the written gospels should increase in dignity. Now not only the words, but also the deeds of Jesus Christ are regarded with interest, from which it was only one step to regard the whole contents, or the gospels themselves, as authoritative. Of course, the ground of the authority of the books lay ultimately in the fact that they contained the words of Christ. But there were quite a number of gospels; how to distinguish those which were more authoritative from the others was the great question. All reported the words of Christ, however they might differ in other respects. It took quite a long time till our four gospels were regarded as exclusively canonical. And what was the test applied ? Why were they regarded as canonical and others not? Because they were written by apostles and apostolic men. Apostolicity became the principle of canonicity.
It is significant for the history of the canon of the NT in the Syrian church that it started at once with our four gospels ; it had not to pass through that long process through which the Graeco-Roman church had to go, and which ended by limiting the number of the gospels which should be used in the churches to our four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Thus the unknown translator of the Sinaiticus translated these four; Tatian compiled these four, and no others; Sc and P are translations of these only. No matter how often the gospels may have been translated into Syriac, no matter how many copies there may have been of single gospels in the Syrian church, there is absolutely no evidence that the Syrians have ever had in these early times apocryphal gospels. They did not need to separate other gospels from these four canonical gospels. That had been done already for them by the Graeco-Roman church. They inherit at once the result of a long struggle.
This explains why the Syrian church has the much more primitive and natural principle of canonicity, and is at variance with the entire Graco-Roman church in this point. It regards these writings as authoritative because they contain the words and deeds of Jesus. It does not attach any importance whatever to the persons of the writers of the gospels. Aphraates , as late as 340 A. D., does not even once mention the name of one of them. The words and life of Jesus are their basis of authority; no matter who has written the reports of them. That they are a reliable source their universal acceptance by the Graco-Roman church had shown.
Bearing this in mind, we do not expect a long development. The gospel canon must soon become fixed. At about 200 A. D. they would say, "As it stands written in the gospel," meaning by "gospel" the book.
We see, then, that at the end of the second or at the beginning of the third century the Syrian church had a very peculiar canon, such as no other church, so far as we know, had, viz., a gospel harmony, the Diatessaron of Tatian. To the truth of this statement the Doctrina Addai witnesses when it says that after Addai had for some time successfully labored in Edessa, "a large multitude of people assembled day by day and came to the prayer of the service, and to the reading of the Old and NT, of the Diatessaron" (p. 34). This shows that the Diatessaron mas their first gospel canon.
The next step in the development is indicated by the Doctrina Addai, when it says (p. 44) :
" But the law and the prophets and the gospel, which ye read every day before the people, and the epistles of Paul , which Simon Peter sent us from the city of Rome, and the Acts of the twelve apostles, which John, the son of Zebedee, sent us from Ephesus, these books read ye in the churches of Christ, and with these read not any others, as there is not any other in which the truth that ye hold is written, except these books which retain you in the faith to which ye have been called."
There is evidently a distinction made between the law and the prophets and the gospel on the one side, and the epistles of Paul and the Acts on the other side. The gospel and the Old Testament are read daily. But the epistles and Acts have come later, which is indicated here by the sentences, "which Simon Peter sent us from the city of Rome," "which John, the son of Zebedee, sent us from Ephesus." They are directed to read these books also in addition to the gospel and the Old Testament, which they are accustomed to read every day in the service. The Diatessaron is plainly put on the same plane with the law and the prophets. The epistles of Paul and the Acts, though also authoritative, are not yet on the same level.
This is the first notice which we have about the epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles in the Syrian church.
When they were first translated we do not know. Zahn suggests, on the basis of a remark of Eusebius, that Tatian had translated them and given them to the church:
"But they say that he [Tatian] ventured to paraphrase certain words of the apostle [ Paul ] in order to improve their style."
- Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., IV, 29
But if nothing else could be said against this suggestion, one passage would seem to be conclusive, viz., the rendering of Rom. I : 3, which we find in Aphraates ,
"The apostle [by which always Paul is meant] witnesses : 'Jesus Christ was from Mary, from the seed of the house of David,through the Spirit of holiness.'"
This passage, which makes that doctrine, which was so obnoxious to Tatian, so clear, and develops it more strongly than the Greek, seems hardly to have been written by Tatian. Tatian, who did not shrink from omitting the genealogies and every passage which pointed to Jesus' Davidic descent, would certainly in his μεταφρασαι of the epistles omit this reference, or, at least, would not make the doctrine much clearer than it is in the original Greek. I recognize, of course, that Zahn suggests that this passage is taken from the apocryphal letter of Paul to the Corinthians, on which Ephraim commented.
But that cannot be proved. That Ephraim commented upon this 3rd letter of Paul to the Corinthians is no reason to think that it was in his canon. There is no evidence that it ever formed a part of the canon of the Syrian church. Besides this, Zahn himself puts this suggestion under the head of "Problematisches." But the reference is plainly to Rom. 1:3.
However, even if Tatian did not translate the letters of Paul , it must certainly have been done not very long after the translation of the gospels. It may have been fifty years, perhaps more. Just when it took place we cannot tell. The Doctrina Addai , however, which describes, as is commonly believed, the condition of the church as it existed in the period from about 200-250 A. D., would favor our presupposition that it was done about 230-50 A. D. Now, the question is : Can we rely absolutely on the statements of that document ? As regards the statement that the Old Testament and the gospel and the Acts and the epistles of Paul were read in the churches, there can be little doubt that this is correct. But can we rely on the statement that the epistles of Paul were sent by Peter from Rome ?
Of course, Peter had nothing to do with it. He is introduced in accordance with the design of the writer to push the beginning of Christianity in Edessa back to the time of Jesus and his apostles. But can we infer from that statement that the epistles of Paul were imported from Rome? I do not think that the question can be absolutely answered in the present state of our knowledge about the Syrian church. All that can be said is that it is highly probable, if we take into account the fact that the Syriac text is very closely related to the so-called "Western" text, agreeing with it in many points where all the other texts differ. Moreover, the frequent intercourse between the two cities explains much.
Now, if that be so, that the epistles of Paul were brought into the Syrian church from Rome, then we must conclude that the epistle to the Hebrews, which all Syrians regard as Paul ine, was not in that collection. For at that time it was not regarded as Paul ine in Rome.
This is confirmed by the fact that the text of the Peshitta shows, as is generally accepted, marks which indicate that it was made by a different translator. Then the epistle to the Hebrews must have come in later. When that took place we again do not know. But about eighty or a hundred years later we find Aphraates using it as Paul ine. He quotes it in the same way as the other letters of Paul , and thereis no trace that he knew that it was doubted elsewhere. The certainty with which he uses it as Paul ine indicates that it must have been added to the Paul ine collection not so very much later. Perhaps it came very soon afterward, perhaps twenty or more years later than the other letters. All this is based on the assumption that the epistles of Paul were brought from Rome to Edessa.
As soon as it can be shown, however, that the Syrian church received its Paul ine collection, not from Rome, but from Alexandria, the argument falls to the ground, and we need not assume that the epistle to the Hebrews was ever wanting in the Syrian collection of Paul ine letters. But that is not proved yet, though it must be said that Aphraates ' use of it would favor this theory; the tradition in the Doctrina Addai , the close relation between the Syrian and the Western text, and the difference of the translators point the other way.
Did, then, the Syrian church in that time, 200-250 A. D., receive all the letters of Paul except Hebrews, and was none missing ? The homilies of Aphraates would seem to indicate that not all the epistles were in his canon. He omits to cite Philemon and 2 Thessalonians. Now, Philemon is so small and of such a character that we are not surprised that he does not quote it. But why does he not quote 2 Thessalonians ? We have to remember that he does not quote so very many passages from the epistles altogether, and his method of quotation does not warrant us in making the assertion that it was not in his canon, in the face of the fact that it was universally accepted in the Graeco-Roman church. We must, therefore, conclude that his failure to quote 2 Thessalonians was due to accident, and that the Syrian church received, indeed, all the Pauline letters at that time.
When these epistles of Paul had been introduced they would undergo recensions, or there originated different translations of the epistles. Both these are seen in Aphraates and Ephraim . Certain passages show that the text, especially of Aphraates , was a more popular and free translation, so that this would be an earlier stage of the Peshitta text. Other passages show that there was a different translation from that of the Peshitta , because they are translations of different Greek readings. But since the bulk of the texts is the same, and the passages of this latter kind become much rarer in Ephraim , there is good reason to believe that both the Aphraates text and the Ephraim text mark simply two stages in the development of the Peshitta text.
'The Doctrina Addai speaks also about the Acts of the twelve apostles, which they are directed to read in the churches. Whence it came is not known ; for nobody regards Addai's statement, that John sent it from Ephesus, as historic. When it came can only be guessed at. It seems to have come about the same time as Paul's epistles. How it came nobody can tell. But I point to the fact that it came quite as suddenly and quite as mysteriously into the canon of the Graeco- Roman church.
The Canon: 150-250 A.D.
To sum up, then, the development of the canon until 250 A. D. :
There were originally the four separate gospels in use about 160-75 A. D. These were supplanted by the more convenient translation of the Diatessaron when Christianity became the national religion. About 200 A. D. the gospel canon is fixed ; it is the Diatessaron.
In the time 200-250 A. D. the epistles of Paul , except Hebrews, and the Acts of the Apostles came in. Soon afterward the epistle to the Hebrews was introduced and added to the Pauline collection.
At 338 A. D. we have the canon of the church comprising the Diatessaron of Tatian, the epistles of Paul , including Hebrews, and the Acts of the Apostles. Now, the whole method of Aphraates ' quotation points to the fact that this canon was already for some time in existence. We should say, therefore, with a good deal of plausibility, that the Syrian church had a fixed NT canon already about 300 A.D., if not earlier. Of the catholic epistles and the Revelation there is no trace.
Meanwhile there was another movement active in the church, dating back as far as the beginning of Christianity in Edessa, insignificant and small at first, but its victory was inevitable. It was stated above that when the Diatessaron took the place of the separate gospels there were still a good number of adherents of the old version. They translated the Greek gospels again and again. On the church at large this had no influence at first; it used the Diatessaron. But the fact milst be recognized that these men had on their side the unanimous consent of the Graeco-Roman church ; for nowhere else was a harmony used.
I do not mean to say that they knew this, and that they endeavored to substitute the four separate gospels for the Diatessaron. But it had naturally to lead to such a step.
The movement was well under way at the time of Aphraates . He quotes from the Diatessaron, but also very often, perhaps mostly, from the separate gospels. We can no more say, in his case, that the Diatessaron was his only gospel canon, because of his frequent quotations from the other gospels. The separate gospels were equally canonical for him, and, since he is a true representative of the church at large, also for the church. It could be only a question of time which form should ultimately prevail; for that they would retain two different forms in their canon would be impossible as time went on.
Ephraim still uses the Diatessaron, writing a commentary on it, but his quotations are mostly from the Peshitta . He seems to have used the Diatessaron more for his private use and for the arrangement of his lectures on the exposition of the gospels, though very probably it was also still used in the churches alongside of the four separate gospels. It was very natural that some would substitute the separate gospels in the form of the Peshitta about Ephraim 's time; others would still use the Diatessaron. As always, so also here, there were two parties, the conservatives and the progressive liberals. Public opinion, however, strengthened by the unanimous action of the Gr~co-Roman church, must have been in favor of the Peshitta . 'This is expressed in the order of Rabbula, bishop of Edessa, 412-35 A. D., who says : Let all the presbyters and deacons have a care that in all the churches there be provided and read a copy of the Astinct gospels.
And soon the final step is seen in the destruction of the remaining copies of the Diatessaron by Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrus, 423-57 A. D., who tells about it as follows:
"Tatian also composed the gospel which is called Diatessaron, cutting out the genealogies and whatever other passages show that the Lord was born of the seed of David according to the flesh. And not only did the members of his sect make use of this work, but even those that follow the apostolic doctrine, not perceiving the mischief of the composition, but using the book too simply as an abridgment. And I myself found more than two hundred such books held in respect in the churches of our parts ; and I collected and put them all away and put the gospels of the four evangelists in their place."
With this we have reached the end of the development of the gospel canon in the Syrian church. The Peshitta held from now on the field; it has never been supplanted.
While this struggle of the gospels was going on, there was simultaneously with it the development of the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles. When the epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles had come into the Syrian church, they would soon be bound together with the gospels. Now, since there were two parties, the one would have in its volume the Diatessaron and the Acts and epistles of Paul , the other, the separate gospels and the Acts and epistles of Paul .
It is very probable that their texts were different, the one set based on this MS. authority, the other on that. That would account for the differences in the quotations of Aphraates and Ephraim . Now, we have seen that Aphraates ' canon did not contain more than the gospels, the Acts of the Apostles , and Paul 's epistles, and we concluded that this was the church's canon, so that then the Peshitta was not yet complete.
It must, however, be admitted that the fact that Aphraates did not quote from any of the other books contained in the Peshitta might be explained by saying that he relied for his citations on the official canon of the church, and did not want to cite as authoritative letters which were not familiar to all and not contained in the people's Bible; so that this fact does not argue for the non-existence of these epistles in Syriac form at his time. It is very well possible that they existed already in Syriac translations, but were not yet canonized.
But did we not say that Aphraates ' principle of canonicity for the epistles was apostolicity : the inspired apostle speaks in them, therefore are they authoritative ? Why did he, then, not accept these epistles of James, Peter (the first epistle), and John (the first epistle)? Now, while this is perfectly true, we must not deny the influence of the general opinion on any man. He would certainly have no objection on the ground of his principle to accept these books into his Bible. But it would, perhaps, take some time for him, as well as for the whole church, to do so. They were so accustomed to regard Paul as the apostle par excellence, so used to regard his word, besides Christ's, as alone authoritative, that such a change in this opinion could not be effected in a short time.
We have seen that the principle of canonicity of the Syrian church voices itself in Aphraates . Paul 's epistles were accepted because they were apostolic. Now, should it sooner or later be said that also other books were written by other apostles, who were just as eminent as Paul , the church would be inclined to accept them. There would be no reason, based on her principle, why she should not, and the fact is that she did, though not at once. The express prohibition in the Doctrina Addai , which was written about Aphraates ' time, throws some light on this problem. " With these [the Old Testament, the gospels, the Acts of the Apostles , and the epistles of Paul ] read not any others, as there is not any other in which the truth that ye hold is written, except these books, which retain you in the faith to which ye have been called." This remark points evidently to a time when the attempt was made to introduce other books into the canon of the church. What these books were we do not know. But it seems a safe conclusion that they were these three catholic epistles, I Peter , I John , and James. These had been translated and should be put into the canon. But as is always the case, there were men who were opposed to this, and to one of these opponents we owe that prohibition in the Doctrina Addai .
The time referred to may be adequately fixed. The Diatessaron was at that time the authoritative version for church use. This was before the time of Aphraates ; the epistles of Paul and the Acts were regarded as authoritative, which was also the case in Aphraates ' time and earlier. Later than Aphraates it can hardly have been, because Ephraim already calls the Peshitta " our version," and quotes from these epistles. It cannot be much earlier than Aphraates , for in his writings there is no trace of the catholic epistles, and no word is said about any attempt to introduce them into the canon. It may be that in his time, or, at the latest, very few years later (345-50 A. D.), the epistles were introduced into the canon.
So much is certain : Ephraim knew them and quoted from them. But besides, Ephraim quotes also from 2 and 3 John , 2 Peter , Jude, and Revelation ; he knew, therefore, all the books of our NT. In this he went farther than the Syrian church as a whole did. The Peshitta , which marks the final step of the church's canon, receives only James, I Peter , I John ; the epistles of those three apostles could be classed with those of the great Paul ; it admitted no others. It is important to recognize that Ephraim is here out of line with the church at large. This finds its explanation in the fact that he traveled much and came in contact with the canon of the Constantinople church. Besides, it is an open question whether he quoted these books from the Greek or from already existing Syriac translations. At any rate, the church did not follow him.
Perhaps a word should be said about his co~nmentary on the apocryphal correspondence of Paul and the Corinthians. In the first place it should be noticed that it is not yet proved that this commentary mas written by Ephraim . It may be an altogether later work. In the second place, even if Ephraim wrote this commentary, that does not prove that this apocryphal letter of Paul was in the canon of the Syrian church. There is no trace of it. And, then, Ephraim went, as we saw, farther than the church at large did. I am quite certain that it was not in the canon of the church.
But the Peshitta with James, I John , and I Peter was rapidly growing in the favor of the people. Ephraim differs very seldom from it ; it is called by him " our version." After him it must have been used almost exclusively, and when the Diatessaron was removed, the Peshitta was supreme. From the first half of the fifth century it reigns alone. Subsequent attempts to supplant it have failed. It is the version of the Syrian church. With this the history of the NT canon is completed in the Syrian church. Its development has taken a long time and is absolutely unique in the history of the NT.