Ancient Versions of the Scripture

Concise Bible Dictionary:

It is very gratifying to find in history how in many places, as the gospel was disseminated and souls were saved, they naturally felt a need for the scriptures, and how that need was by the providence of God supplied. This blessing would doubtless have been vouchsafed everywhere, and continually without a break, had not apostate Rome extended its influence and wickedly suppressed the knowledge of the scriptures in order that its own assumption might have full sway.
Though Christianity entered into the British Isles at a very early date, it was not till the year 1380 that the English New Testament was issued, in spite of Rome, only however to be collected and burnt by the clergy so far as they could.
Under the article VARIOUS READINGS it is shown that early translations of the New Testament are used as evidence of what was in the primitive Greek text, and we now proceed to name the principal of these versions. They are important, as some of them are of an earlier date than any existing Greek Manuscript.
1. THE ÆTHIOPIC VERSION. The date of this is not known: some place it in the fourth century, but it was probably later. The introduction of Christianity into that part of Africa is remarkable. Meropius, a philosopher of Tyre, determined to visit that region, which ecclesiastical historians termed “India.” On landing at a port, the whole party was attacked, peace having been broken previously between these “Indians” and Rome: all were massacred except two young relatives of Meropius, named Frumentius and Aedesius, who were carried to the king. He set them at liberty and employed them, and on his death, they were appointed ministers of the young king. They began to teach the Christian religion to the Abyssinians, and a place was set apart for the worship of the true God. Frumentius was afterward appointed Bishop of that district by Athanasius. It has been judged that the version was made from the Greek, but by one who did not well understand that language.
The Æthiopic New Testament was printed at Rome in the years 1548-9, but it was incorrect, the printers being altogether ignorant of the language. It was reprinted in Walton’s Polyglott, with (says Ludolf) the same and additional errors; but it had now a Latin translation, which enabled the Editors of the Greek Testament to quote the Æthiopic as an evidence for or against certain readings. The value of its testimony was enhanced by C. A. Bode, who furnished a more correct text and a better Latin translation. (Brunswick, 1753.) The fact of the MSS being of different recensions lessens their critical value.
2. ARABIC VERSIONS. There have been five printed Editions of the Arabic New Testament. The Gospels issued at Rome in 1590-1591; one at Leyden in 1616, called the Erpenian Arabic; the Arabic in the Paris Polyglott in 1645; the same in Walton’s Polyglott in 1657; and one at Rome in 1703, called the Carshuni. It is known that in the eighth century John, Bishop of Seville, translated the holy scriptures into Arabic but it is not known whether he translated from the Greek or the Latin, nor what other translations were made. The Arabic is seldom quoted by the Editors, as it is judged to be of little value as evidence.
3. ARMENIAN VERSION. In the fifth century arose a desire to have an Armenian alphabet, the Syrian having been previously used. Miesrob invented an alphabet for his nation, and appears to have regarded it as a gift from heaven. He labored to instruct the Armenians, being warmly aided by Isaac the patriarch. They then became eager to have the scriptures in their own tongue, and an effort was made to translate from the Syriac. This was, however, abandoned, and Miesrob, with two or three others, resorted to Alexandria to learn more perfectly the Greek language. The Old Testament was translated from the LXX, and the New Testament from the Greek.
In the seventeenth century MS copies of the Armenian Bible being very scarce, a bishop named Oscan or Uscan was sent to Europe to get it printed. After vainly trying to get it done at Rome, he proceeded to Amsterdam and there it was printed in 1666. Not having, however, any Latin interpretation, it was not readily available to Editors of the Greek Testament, though some of its readings were furnished to Mill, Griesbach, and Scholz. Dr. Tregelles at length succeeded, by the aid of Dr. C. Rieu, in ascertaining its readings more generally.
4. EGYPTIAN VERSIONS. Of these there are two, probably being both dialects of the Ancient Egyptian language. When only one was known it was called the Coptic, but another recension being discovered, the first-named is now called the MEMPHITIC or BOHAIRIC. The translation is assigned to the second century: though there are no MSS of so early a date.
The first printed edition appeared, in 1716, at Oxford, but badly collated from various MSS by Wilkins, with a Latin interpretation. A better edition of the four Gospels was edited by Schwartze in 1846-1848. And the Acts and Epistles were issued by Boetticher of Halle later. Thus the Memphitic Version became available to the Editors of the Greek Testament, and is often quoted by them.
2. THE THEBAIC VERSION. This has been also called the Sahidic. It is assigned to the second century, some MSS being judged to be of the fifth century and others of the sixth century. Fragments of this recension were issued from time to time, and Ford attempted to gather up the fragments in one edition as an Appendix to the Codex Alexandrinus in 1799. Griesbach and succeeding Editors quoted this version.
There are now accounted to be three other dialects of ancient Egyptian, of which fragments of the New Testament have been found. They are called,
1. The Fayoumic or Bashmuric.
2. Middle Egyptian or Coptic, or Lower Sahidic.
3. Akhmimic.
5. GOTHIC VERSION. This was made by Ulphilas, about A.D. 348. The Goths from Scandinavia had invaded the Roman territory, and carried away a number of captives. These by their intercourse with the barbarians brought a number of them to embrace the true faith, at least nominally. Theophilus was their first bishop: he was present at the Council of Nice and subscribed the Nicene creed. Ulphilas, a Cappadocian, a descendant of some of the captives, became his successor, but the Arian error was at that time dominant in the empire and he subscribed the Arian creed, and this the Goths then generally held. Except in one passage (Phil. 2:66Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: (Philippians 2:6)) it is not apparent that the Arian heresy influenced Ulphilas in his translation: the Arians maintained their creed more by interpretation. It was made in the fourth century. The Old Testament was also translated, but curiously enough the four books of Kings were omitted, being “prudently suppressed,” says Gibbon, “as they might tend to irritate the fierce and sanguinary spirit of the barbarians.”
1. A remarkably beautiful copy of the Gothic Gospels is called the CODEX ARGENTEUS, being written in silver, with the initial words in gold. It is assigned to the fifth or early in the sixth century. Queen Christina gave it her librarian, Isaac Vossius, and from him it was purchased about 1662 by the Swedish nation, and deposited at Upsal. The Gospels are in the Western or Latin order, Matthew, John, Luke and Mark. There are 187 leaves (out of 330) of purple vellum, 4to.
2. CODICES AMBROSIANI, being five manuscripts, now in the Ambrosian Library of Milan. They contain the Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, and to Timothy almost entire, and fragments of Philippians, Colossians, Titus, and Philemon. They were discovered and rescued from palimpsests. These are not unlike the Codex Carolinus.
3. CODEX CAROLINUS. This contains about forty verses of the Epistle to the Romans. It is also a palimpsest, and is accompanied by a Latin version. It has been traced to Mayence and Prague, and was purchased by a duke of Brunswick in 1689.
6. LATIN VERSIONS. For these see VULGATE.
7. SLAVONIC VERSION. A portion of the Slavonic race had settled in a district bounded by the Danube and in Great Moravia. The production of the version bearing this name is interesting. A missionary from Thessalonica, named Cyril, visited these tribes, learned their language, and then invented an alphabet that he might translate into their vernacular tongue the word of God. He commenced his labors there, with his brother Methodius, A.D. 862. The version is assigned to the ninth century, though the oldest known MS belongs to the year 1056. The four Gospels were published in 1512, and in 1581 the whole Bible. It has been quoted by Wetstein, Griesbach, and so forth.
8. SYRIAC VERSIONS. It is generally admitted that as early as the second century a Syriac New Testament was in existence. Eusebius speaks of quotations being made from the Syriac, but the origin of the version is not known. It is clear that as far back as the fifth century the scriptures were in use among the Syrian Christians. Unhappily there was an early division among them, that has never been healed; but the Nestorians, Monophysites (those who believed there was but one nature in Christ, the Word), and those claiming to be orthodox, all use the same recension of the scriptures.
This version became known by being brought into Europe in 1552 for the purpose of being printed. It was finished in 1555. It did not include the Catholic Epistles nor the Revelation. John 8:1-111Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. 2And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. 3And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, 4They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? 6This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? 11She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. (John 8:1‑11) was also wanting. (These portions have been found in other Syriac translations.) It found a place in the various Polyglots, and has been highly valued as a faithful record of the Greek text. It is commonly called the Peshito, or “Simple.”
2. THE CURETONIAN SYRIAC. This takes its name from Dr. Wm. Cureton, who observed, bound up with other Syriac MSS in the British Museum, some leaves containing a large part of the four Gospels in a recension different from the Peshito. Its early date is undoubted, and it is highly valued. It has been published with an English translation.
3. THE PHILOXENIAN SYRIAC. This embraces the whole New Testament except the Revelation. It was professedly made by Polycarp, “Rural-bishop,” about A.D. 508, for Xenaias of Mabug, who is also called Philoxenus (whence the name of the version) in 616. It having been revised and modified by one called Thomas of Harkel, very little of the original translation is left, except in one copy at Rome uncollated. Still the translation from the Greek is so literal that it leaves no doubt as to what the Greek copy contained. It is also called the HARKLEIAN from Thomas of Harkel.
4. THE PALESTINIAN or JERUSALEM SYRIAC consisting of fragments; and
5. THE KARKAPHENSIAN SYRIAC, being of much later date, do not need to be referred to here.
All these versions, as they became available, were consulted by the various Editors of the Greek New Testament: some Editors attaching more importance to certain of them than was done by others.
Some of the versions included the Old Testament or portions of it.
All these various translations into different languages are a marked contrast to the policy of Rome with regard to the scriptures. The Dark Ages followed, especially where Rome had its sway, and light and learning diminished. God’s set time however arrived: the darkness and ignorance were deplored, and one here and there was empowered by God to seek to spread the light of the holy scriptures among those professing Christianity, and more modern versions of the word of God were gradually made and printed, being hailed with delight by all who wished to know what God Himself had revealed as the only way of salvation, and to know His will concerning themselves.
From that time, translations have rapidly increased: missionaries all over the world have no sooner obtained a footing and learned the language, than they have constructed a grammar, and proceeded to translate portions of scripture for those whose salvation they seek. “The word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:99Wherein I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound. (2 Timothy 2:9)).’