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Syriac Bible

Signed and dated 463-4 by its scribe, a bishop called John, this important early copy of the first five books of the Bible is in Syriac, a dialect of Eastern Aramaic (Aramaic being the language spoken by Jesus). It comes from an area now in Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

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Syriac Bible

The Bible in Syriac, Amid, Turkey, 463/4. Genesis 29:25-30:2
BL Add. MS 14425, f. 31
Copyright © The British Library Board

What was Syriac and why is it important?

Syriac is the dialect of Eastern Aramaic that was spoken in the early Christian period in the principality of Edessa, which corresponds to present day northern Syria and Iraq, and southern Turkey. It was a major literary language, written in the same alphabet of 22 consonants as Hebrew, but also with characters of its own.

Aramaic is the original language of large sections of the books of Daniel and Ezra, and is the main language of the Talmud. It is believed to have been the native language of Jesus. Modern Aramaic is spoken today as a first language by numerous, scattered communities, most significantly by Assyrians; it is an official language of Iraq.

Like other Semitic languages, Aramaic and Syriac form words from a root meaning of three consonants. Vowel sounds and other consonants are added to make related words. The process is similar to that in Arabic, where s-l-m has a root meaning along the lines of 'peace, submission', and yields the words Islam ('submission [to God's will]') and Muslim ('one who has submitted').

The earliest Syriac books were biblical translations, and it has been debated whether one or more of the Four Gospels was originally composed in Syriac. The Peshitta or 'simple' version became the official translation used by Syriac Churches in the fifth century.

What were the main languages of early Bibles?

The New Testament canon comprises the writings recognised by the early Christian church as divinely inspired. No Christian texts are known to have been written during Jesus's lifetime. The first were probably not the Four Gospels, but the Letters of Paul and other Apostles. Within a hundred years of Jesus's birth, all of the New Testament books had been written, as well as other texts including more Gospels. These reflected the variety of spoken traditions and recollections of Jesus which circulated after his death. By the fourth century the process of canonisation was more or less complete. Some books, including many Gospels, were excluded.

It is thought that all of these texts were originally written in Greek. As the Christian world expanded, translations of the New Testament into various regional languages were sanctioned. The most important of these included Syriac, the first translations to be made; Coptic, dating from the second century; and Latin, most famously in the Vulgate version of St Jerome.

Who made this book and why is it significant?

This important copy of the first five books of the Bible is in 'simple' version, and was signed and dated by its scribe John the deacon writing at Amid, the seat of a bishop (now Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey). It is the oldest known copy of part of the Bible dated by its scribe.

This passage concerns Leah and Rachel, Jacob's wives, at the point where Leah is having her three children, to the envy of the childless Rachel.