Monday, September 5, 2011

Is the Aramaic Term 'Peshitta' a Reflection of the Widespread Use of a 'Mystic' Gospel in the East?

Many people just take for granted that the Peshitta is the name given to the official set of writings for the Syriac Church. Yet the name might well have derived from an attempt to 'straighten' or demystify an original collection used by heretics. While it is often said that "it is evident from this collection of "peculiarities" that the motive of the Peshitta translator was religious rather than scholarly, and that he desired to make a readable rather than an exact translation" very few of these commentator have considered the implications of the Letter to Theodore, which among other things, makes reference to a 'mystic gospel' (= 'Secret Mark'). The letter twice makes reference to the existence of a mustikon euaggelion which Scott Brown has noted could be translated 'mystic gospel' rather than the terminology preferred by the discoverer Morton Smith (= 'secret gospel'). Brown's translation opens the door potentially to the text or some other 'mystic gospel' lurking in the background of the establishment of the Peshitta. Indeed I am particularly intrigued by the possibility that the Diatessaron itself may have been identified as such.

Let's take a closer look at the meaning of the Aramaic terminology. I think most people reading this site are aware of the Peshitta (ܦܫܝܛܬܐ) which is usually translated as "simple, common, straight, vulgate" gospels. It is now the standard version of the gospel in the Syriac Church but we also know that in the earliest period of Christianity in Syria they used a single, long text up until the fifth century which was associated with Tatian called 'the Diatessaron' by Catholics, the Gospel of Concord by Ephrem and the Gospel of the Mixed (ܐܘܢܓܠܝܘܢ ܕܡܚܠܛܐ Ewangeliyôn Damhalltê) by others. It is curious to me at least that when we look at the related terminology in Jewish Aramaic - peshat (פְּשָׁט) - we see the word could have originally denoted the plain, literal meaning of a text, as opposed mainly to derash, the homiletical interpretation, but also to any other method than the literal at least according to Rashi's system of thought.

The basic meaning of the root of the word peshat in biblical Hebrew is "to flatten out," with the secondary meaning "to extend" or "to stretch out" (hence the meaning "to make a raid" – Job. 1:17), and from this was derived the talmudic meaning of "to expatiate upon," or "to propound." In context, peshat in talmudic literature seems to mean not the plain meaning but "the teaching recognized by the public as obviously authoritative, since familiar and traditional" (Loewe) or "the usual accepted traditional meaning as it was generally taught" (Rabinowitz).

According to W. Bacher (Die exegetische Terminologie der juedischen Traditionsliteratur, 2 (1905), 112ff.) it was *Abbaye, in the first half of the fourth century, who first made a distinction between peshat and derash as separate methods of exegesis, while Dobschuetz regards the word as the innovation of the academy of Pumbedita as a whole, including Abbaye, Joseph, and Rava. An examination of the one clear instance in which Abbaye advances two interpretations, one of peshat and one of derash (Sanh. 100b), however, does not bear out the assumption that the word indicates the literal meaning (cf. Loewe in bibliography, p. 163–4). Similarly, the frequently quoted statement, ein mikra yoẓe middei peshuto, "a text cannot be taken from the meaning of its peshat" – Shab. 63a; Yev. 11b, 24a – does not necessarily imply that peshat means the literal exegesis.

In point of fact in parallel passages where one uses the verbal form peshat, the others use darash, or shanah, or matne (Heb. and Aramaic respectively for "studied," or "repeated"; Num. R. 18:22; Gen. R. 10:7 ed. Theodor Albeck p. 81, and notes), while in two interpretations given by R. Dimi to a biblical passage (Gen. 49:11–12) that which is called "the peshat of the verse" (peshta de-kera) is much further removed from the literal meaning than the other interpretation given (Ket. 111b; cf. also Kid. 80b; Er. 23b; Ar. 8b). Actually the rabbis had only two major methods of biblical exegesis, that of halakhah and that of aggadah, neither of which depended upon literal exegesis and in most instances deviated from it.

Nevertheless one can see that the surviving Peshitta gospels could well have had the specific connotation of texts with 'plain,' 'apparent,' 'distinct,' 'evident,' 'manifest,' 'plain,' 'visible' or 'what you see is what you get' meaning. In other words, the un-mystical version of the gospels especially when juxtaposed against the existence of a mystical text like that of 'Secret Mark.'

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