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The publication of the present work, from its unusual character, may seem to demand a few words of explanation and apology. The idea of translating the Syriac Psalter, and adding such notes as my limited information and the slender resources at my command might enable me to append, was suggested while casually inspecting a copy which had been placed in my hands, and observing its general fidelity to the original, and at the same time certain curious discrepancies which seemed to me to be full of interest to the critical student of the Sacred text.
The Syriac version of the Old Testament is of great antiquity, though the precise date to which it may be referred has never been satisfactorily determined. The Syrian writers themselves are extravagant in their assertions upon this point, — some going so far as to say that portions of it were made by the command of Solomon, for the use of Hiram king of Tyre, and other portions by the command of Abgarus, king of Edessa in the time of our Lord. It is referred by others to the hand of Asa, a priest of the Samaritans, of St. Thaddæus the Apostle, and of St. Mark the Evangelist. It is claimed that it must be as old as the Apostolic era, because St. Paul, in quoting from the Psalms, (Ephes. iv. 8,) differs both from the Hebrew and the Septuagint, and agrees with the Syriac in an important peculiarity; to this, however, it has been replied, that the Syriac version of this passage may have been subsequently formed according to St. Paul's quotation. The latest date assigned is the second or third century after Christ. The general opinion, however, seems to be in favor of an earlier date; and, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the concurrent testimony of the Syrians themselves, for whose use it was designed, and none of whom refer it to a later period than the close of the first, or the beginning of the second, century, would seem to be entitled to great respect. Of modern critics, Bishop Walton, Carpzov, Leusden, Bishop Lowth, and Dr. Kennicott, refer it to the first century; Michaelis to the close of the first, or to the earlier part of the second, century, at which time the Syrian Church was in its most flourishing condition. Dathe inclines to the latter opinion, and regards the Syriac version as a certain standard by which to judge of the state of the Hebrew text in the second century. It is held in the utmost esteem by Aramæan Christians of every sect, is quoted by St. Ephraem Syrus in the fourth century, as generally known, and is commended by him and other Syriac writers for its fidelity to the original. Two facts may be considered as settled beyond any dispute by internal evidence: the translation was made before the vowel points were added to the Hebrew text; and, as respects the Psalms, the translator was a convert to Christianity. In proof of this I should not adduce the titles to the Psalms, which may have been subsequently added by another hand ; but it will be observed that in Psalm cx. the original is made to contain a reference to the eternal generation of the Son of God.
Another source of interest which this version possesses above all others is the fact that the Syriac language is so closely related to the Hebrew as to illustrate its meaning in obscure and difficult passages. There is little doubt that the pure Hebrew as a spoken tongue had passed out of use before the period of our Lord, and had been succeeded by the various dialects which are known as the Chaldee, Syriac, and Aramæan. The vernacular of the Jews is called Hebrew, indeed, in the New Testament, because it was the native language of the people, though in the lapse of time it had undergone many modifications, and especially in consequence of the captivity, and the more widely extended intercourse of the people with the surrounding nations. In the opinion of Bishop Walton, there were three dialects of the Chaldee or Syriac tongue. First, the Babylonian, the purest of all, in which Daniel and Ezra wrote. Secondly, the dialect of Jerusalem, used by the Jews after their return from the captivity. Of this there were probably subordinate dialects, as that, for example, which St. Peter used, and which betrayed his Galilean origin. Thirdly, the dialect of Antioch, or the Maronitic. This is the dialect of the Syriac version. These three languages, however, or rather dialects of the same language, are closely allied to each other, and have a common basis in the Hebrew. What is therefore called Hebrew by the writers of the New Testament doubtless closely resembled it in its grammatical structure, and in many of its verbal forms, but was probably substantially the same that we call Syriac. Our Lord's exclamation on the cross, in the opening words of Psalm xxII., is a mixture of Hebrew and Syriac. In other instances in which the original words of the vernacular are preserved by the Evangelists and Apostles, they are found to be Syriac rather than Hebrew, at least in a majority of cases, and never, that I am aware, except perhaps in one or two instances, do they correspond to the pure Hebrew forms of the Old Testament. The words Talitha cumi, for example, (Mark v. 41,) are a pure Syriac form.