Galatians 3.15 reads:
Ἀδελφοί, κατὰ ἄνθρωπον λέγω· ὅμως ἀνθρώπου κεκυρωμένην διαθήκην οὐδεὶς ἀθετεῖ ἢ ἐπιδιατάσσεται. [NA 28]
A typical translation is:
‘To give a human example, brothers:even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.’ [ESV]
Looking it up just now in BDAG, there seems to be a strong case for taking διαθήκη to mean ‘last will and testament’ as in the RSV:
‘To give a human example, brethren: no one annuls even a man’s will, or adds to it, once it has been ratified.’ [RSV]
In the Passion Translation (so-called) Brian Simmons has it as:
‘Beloved friends, let me use an illustration that we can all understand. Technically, when a contract is signed, it can’t be changed after it has been put into effect; it’s too late to alter the agreement.’
He misses out the idea of cancelling the contract, as opposed to changing it, but apart from that, his rendering keeps the basic thought tolerably well.
In the footnote, however, he claims that the text of the ‘most ancient Aramaic manuscript’ carries a very different meaning:
‘The most ancient Aramaic manuscript has a different meaning for this verse. It could also be translated, “The covenant of the Son of Man that I reference should never be denigrated or changed in any way by men.”’
Simmons claims that the verse could be translated in this alternative way, which would lose the thread of the apostle’s argument. Paul says first that even human covenants (or wills) are not abrogated or altered after they have been ratified (by man). Then in verse 17 he says that the law cannot nullify the covenant that had been ratified by God (and not man). The unchangeability of human covenants highlights the even more certain unchangeability of the divine covenant with Abraham and with his seed (who is Christ). The argument is thus lost if verse 15 also concerns a divine covenant.
If this ‘most ancient Aramaic manuscript’ really existed, different to the Peshitta, with this different meaning, then this would raise the question as to whether this represents an ancient Greek text, also with this meaning, which could then possibly be Paul’s actual words.
Galatians 3.15 in the Peshitta
So what is this ‘most ancient Aramaic manuscript’? The real answer, as I will demonstrate in the section below entitled ‘Pre-Peshitta versions…’, is that the oldest Aramaic manuscript for Galatians is the Peshitta.
The Peshitta text of Galatians 3.15, from the recent scholarly edition by Kiraz and Walters is:
and Walter’s translation is:
while Etheridge (green), Murdock (navy), and Lamsa (purple) have it even closer to the Greek text, with ‘change’ rather than Walter’s ‘replace’:
‘Change’ seems to be most accurate, so far as I can see, as it is generally given in the lexicons as the meaning of ܚܠܦ in its Shaphel form as here (see ܡܫܰܚܠܶܦ݂ above, where it has the ܡ (Mim) prefix, signifying (I believe 1) that it is a participle, followed by the ܫ (Shin) prefix, for the Shaphel form.) Here it is in J. Payne Smith (Mrs Margoliouth), for example:
The Peshitta text seems thus to be about as close to the Greek original as it could possibly be.
So where does Simmons’ alternative rendering come from, with ‘Son of Man’ in place of ‘man’, ‘denigrated’ in place of ‘abrogated’, and so on? The answer, as so often in the Passion Translation (so-called) is that it comes from the pen of Victor Alexander.
Galatians 3.15 in Alexander’s ‘Aramaic Bible’
In the online version of Victor Alexander’s so-called ‘Aramaic Bible’, Galatians 3.15 reads:
‘Brethren, I speak as a human being, the Covenant of the Son of Man that I testify to, let no human being denigrate it or change anything in it.*’
with the note claiming:
‘Only the Ancient Aramaic retains the correct meaning of this passage.’
Remember that in his footnote Simmons gave the meaning of the ‘most ancient Aramaic manuscript’ as:
‘The covenant of the Son of Man that I reference should never be denigrated or changed in any way by men.’
The similarities between the Simmons’ and Alexander’s texts are obvious. Theoretically, they could conceivably be translating from the same source. If so, let one or both of them tell us what that source is.
If, as seems to be me almost certain, Simmons is taking his text from Alexander here, it is noteworthy that he feels at liberty to change ‘testify to’ to ‘reference’, and to embellish ‘ancient Aramaic’ to the ‘most ancient Aramaic manuscript’.
Pre-Peshitta versions of New Testament scriptures
The question therefore arises: Is there an Aramaic version of Galatians earlier than the Peshitta? The answer is no. There are earlier versions of the gospels, but not of the epistles.
The earliest Aramaic versions are in Syriac, which is ‘the name given to the dialect of Eastern Aramaic that was the native language of ancient Edessa and its surrounding area.’ 2
Two excellent scholarly accounts of the Syriac versions of the New Testament are to be found in:
Sebastian P. Brock, The Bible in the Syriac Tradition, (Kerala: St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, 1989) This first edition is online. A revised and expanded edition was published by Gorgias Press in 2006. Brock is ‘generally acknowledged as the foremost academic in the field of Syriac studies today’.
Peter J. Williams, The Syriac Versions of the New Testament, in ‘The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research’, edited by Ehrman and Holmes (Leiden: Brill, 2013). Some or all of the chapter may be found on Google Books. Williams is the Principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge.
A section from Brock’s contents page gives the basic outline of the Syriac versions of the Old and New Testaments:
It may be helpful at this point to observe that there is an important distinction to be made between ‘versions’ and ‘manuscripts’. The Peshitta, for example, is a version of the Holy Bible. The Peshitta translation of the New Testament is ‘commonly dated to the late fourth or early fifth century’ (Williams, p. 150). We do not have the original manuscript of the translator or translators. Copies were made of that manuscript (by hand, of course), copies were made of the copies, and so on in a line of transmission. For the Peshitta, about sixty manuscripts have survived from the fifth and sixth centuries (Williams, p. 151). For the Peshitta (Williams, p. 151-2):
the gap between the earliest manuscripts and the time of translation is less than for almost any other ancient translation, and the degree to which its early text can be known may therefore be proportionally higher.
The Diatessaron of Tatian was a harmony of the four gospels, which is to say that the four gospels were collated together into a single narrative. Tatian was ‘an important Syrian theologian who wrote in Greek just after the middle of the second century’ (Brock, p. 25). It is not known whether it was originally written in Greek or in Syriac (Williams, p. 144), but it is certain that it circulated widely in a Syriac form (Brock, p. 25). Despite this wide circulation, no Syriac copies survive today. What does survive is a Commentary on the Diatessaron by Ephrem (c. 306 – 373 AD), and this is our most important witness to the text of the Diatessaron itself (Brock, p. 25, Williams, p. 145).
What matters for my purpose today is that the Diatessaron was a harmony of the Gospels only, and did not contain any early Syriac version of any of Paul’s letters.
What is known to scholars as the Old Syriac Version of the Gospels is known from two manuscripts, the Curetonian Syriac, and the Codex Sinaiticus. The latter was discovered by Agnes Smith Lewis in 1892 in St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai (Williams, p. 145). These two manuscripts represent a version that is clearly earlier than the Peshitta, and which is often dated to the third century (Williams, p. 146).
The important thing for my purpose now is that neither manuscript contains any part of Paul’s epistles. There is evidence from patristic citations in Syriac and Armenian that the version did extend to include Paul’s epistles (Williams, p. 146), but if it did, then this part of it has been lost, and its text is unknown to us.
The earliest version of Galatians in Aramaic is that of the Peshitta. There are dozens of manuscripts from the fifth and sixth centuries attesting to its text.
There is patristic evidence that an Old Syriac version of Paul’s epistles did once exist, but no copies have survived, and we do not have its text.
My provisional conclusion is that Victor Alexander is not in fact translating from an ‘ancient Aramaic’ source, older than the Peshitta. Likewise, I do not think that the ‘most ancient Aramaic manuscript’ that Simmons refers to actually exists. It follows that the alternative form of Galatians 3.15, which he presents in his footnote, has no valid basis.