I have shown in previous posts (here and here) Brian Simmons’ heavy dependence on Victor Alexander’s ‘Aramaic Bible’. When Simmons claims to be translating from the Aramaic text of the Peshitta, it turns out that most often he is taking his text from Alexander, at least in Galatians, which is the first and only book I have researched in detail so far. 1
Alexander’s ‘Sacred Scribal Language of the Scriptures’
I have also pointed out Alexander’s eccentric claim to be translating from what he calls the ‘Leeshana Supprayah’, or the ‘Sacred Scribal Language of the Scriptures’:
However, Leeshana Ateeqah became the Leeshana Supprayah (Scribal Language). This is the Sacred Scribal Language of the Scriptures, which the Hebrew Prophets used and the Apostles of Eashoa Msheekha used. In fact, it is the language Eashoa Msheekha read the Scriptures from in all the synagogues and temples that He visited when He came to the world. This translation has been made from the Leeshana Supprayah, the Sacred Scribal Language of the Scriptures. This is the only Bible that has been translated from scratch using this language as the source material.
In the same post I cited Alexander’s unwillingness , expressed in a short blog post dated 15 February 2014 (part way down the page), to reveal what are the source documents for his so-called translation:
Many people who have asked me to defend the authenticity of my translation’s source documents, want to see proof. However, I know that even if I were to show them a 2000 year old manuscript in my hand and do a Carbon-14 test in front of everyone’s eyes, none of them would believe it still. The truth has been denied for so long that it would literally take me forever.
On occasion, he seems to imply that he may have an ancient manuscript he is translating from, but here again, in a blog post dated a few weeks earlier (30 December 2013, part way down the page) and entitled ‘Proving the authenticity of the Scriptures’, he appears unwilling to specify what it is:
I don’t need to prove that the manuscript I’m translating from is the oldest found; archeology is not the issue. I don’t need to prove that the manuscript I’m translating from has been sanctioned by any church; doctrine is not the issue. I don’t need to prove that the manuscript I’m translating from is in the proper dialect; nationalism is not the issue. The only thing I need to prove is whether or not the manuscript I’m translating from contains the fundamental belief system of the Apostles of Eashoa, the belief system which Eashoa taught. This I’ve done, even if you take just two words: Maryah and Milta. I have a lot more and they’ll be revealed in subsequent commentaries, as I said. If I were to present archeological proof, doctrinal ideas or a chain of authority, it would take me a thousand years and more books than the whole universe could hold.
Alexander is a film-maker and promotes ‘a style of filmmaking where dreams and reality are perceived as one experience.’ It seems possible that he has a similar approach to his translation work, with his ‘Sacred Scribal Language of the Scriptures’ being a product of his imagination.
‘manuscripts of the Ancient Church of the East’
In some ‘Translator Notes’, dated 12 January 2014, for his so-called ‘Aramaic Bible’, Alexander claimed that his translation:
is made from the original Ancient Aramaic Scriptures directly into English. It is translated from the manuscripts of the Ancient Church of the East, which survived the persecutions by the Roman and Greek pagans of the early centuries of Christianity.
The ‘Ancient Church of the East’, as a denomination by that specific name, appears to have existed only since 1964 (see below and also Wikipedia). But it seems clear that Alexander is here referring to what is more normally called the ‘Apostolic Church of the East’, or simply the ‘Church of the East’. A recent scholarly study by Professors Baum and Winkler of the history of the Church of the East has been translated into English and is available online. 2
A little history of the Church of the East
The ‘Church of the East’ refers, first of all, to that part of the church of Jesus Christ which lay outside and East of the Roman Empire. A centre developed at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, on the banks of the Tigris just south-east of present day Baghdad, and only twenty or thirty miles East of the Euphrates, which for much of the time was the Eastern border of the Roman Empire. An episcopate is visible towards the end of the third century, with a conflict over a claim to primacy by ‘Papa’ the Bishop of Seleucid-Ctesiphon, the imperial capital (Baum and Winkler, 9). The church was persecuted in the fourth century (339-379 AD) under Shapur II (309-379), the Sassanian King. 3 In 410 AD a synod was convoked by the Sassanian King Yazdgird I (399-420), and the church was on its way to becoming centrally organised (Baum and Winkler, 15), with primacy given to the Bishop of Seleucid-Ctesiphon, purely on political grounds (Baum and Winkler, 17). From that same ‘Synod of Isaac’ also, the Church of the East ‘can be considered to have been autocephalous’ (Baum and Winkler, 19), which is to say that its head (Greek κεφαλή, kephalē) bishop was not subject to the authority of any other bishop.
At the Council of Ephesus (AD 431), Nestorius (386-450) was deposed from his position as Bishop of Constantinople by Cyril (375-444), Bishop of Alexandria, and condemned as a heretic on questionable grounds. 4 Nestorius had been a student of Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) (B & W, 23), and since about 430 AD the school of the Persians in Edessa had also stood under Theodore’s influence (B & W, 22). By stages, a separation occurred which resulted in the Church of the East being regarded as ‘Nestorian’ by the Western church.
This designation is almost certainly inaccurate, but persists to this day. Baum and Winkler write (p. 30 ff) that:
the authority of Theodore of Mopsuestia is emphasized in the synods [of the Church of the East] of the fifth and sixth centuries, while Nestorius is never mentioned. This patriarch of Constantinople, deposed at Ephesus, appears for the first time in the religious disputation of 612 and only in 680 in the acts of an official East Syriac synod. The teachings of Nestorius seem to have had no significance for the official Church. … However the teachings of Nestorius might be judged, the term “Nestorian” in a heretical sense is inaccurate for the Church of the East. Christianity in the Persian empire of the Parthians and Sassanians did not begin with Nestorius nor was there a dogmatic split from the Church of the Roman Empire in the fifth century named after him.
Through a great missionary enterprise from the sixth century onwards, the Church of the East expanded into China, India and Japan. According to John Stewart, author of ‘Nestorian Missionary Enterprise‘, it was a ‘Church on Fire’. It went into rapid decline at the end of the fourteenth century, and by the beginning of the modern period ‘had been reduced, outside of India, to a regional church in Kurdistan’ (B & W, 112). In 1898, an Austrian historian estimated the number of ‘Nestorians’ as about 25,000 in the district of Urmiyah in North-West Persia, and 125,000 in the Ottoman Empire (B & W, 134).
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Anglican missionaries introduced for the members of the Church of the East the term ‘Assyrian’, and this they eventually adopted for themselves (B & W, 135). In 1915, 50,000 ‘Mountain Nestorians’ fled from the Turks and left the Hakkari mountains where they dwelt (in modern day Turkey, near the border with Iraq) for Urmiyah (B & W, 137). In June 1918, again fleeing from the Turks, the Assyrians and their supporters, together numbering 70,000, left Urmiyah and travelled south-east to Hamedan, also in Persia, where they found the British, who provided emergency care (B & W, 139). From there they went to a refugee camp in Bakuba in Mesopotamia, just north-east of Iraq. Through slaughter, fighting, famine and disease, their numbers had been reduced from 150,000 to 50,000 (B & W, 139). Further massacres followed in the years to come, which resulted (directly and indirectly) in a further reduction of the Assyrian population in Iraq to 20-30,000 in 1933 (B & W, 144).
In 1936, 9,000 of the Assyrians in Iraq were settled in North-East Syria, along the Khabur river (see B & W, 145). By 1940, there were 30,000 Assyrians in Chicago, the centre of the American diaspora (B & W, 144). About 7,000 Assyrians returned to Urmiyah from 1922 onwards, and by 1965 their population in Iran had reached 40,000, with Urmiyah still their centre (B & W, 145-6).
The Church of the East split into two in 1964 after a dispute. The ‘Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East’ was said to have 385,000 members at the start of the 21st century, with 100,000 in the United States, 95,000 in Iraq, 50,000 in Russia and Armenia, 30,000 in Europe, 25,000 in Syria, in Australia and New Zealand combined, and in India, 20,000 in Iran and in Canada, and 5,000 in Lebanon. The ‘Ancient Church of the East’ had around 50-70,000 members, in Iraq, Syria and the United States (B & W, 154-157).
In my next post…
In my next post, I will examine an earlier account by Alexander of his translation work (if such it can be called), in which the impression is given that he is translating not from manuscripts at all but from printed editions of the Bible in Old Syriac. I will describe the activities of American Presbyterian missionaries in Urmiyah from the 1830s, especially in printing the Bible in Old and New Syriac. Putting the evidence together, I will suggest that Alexander is working from a copy of the Peshitta in Old Syriac, just as all the other translators from the Aramaic are doing. If he is, then the differences between his ‘Aramaic Bible’ and normal scholarly translations of the Peshitta cannot be accounted for by some differences in the source text, and some other explanation would be needed.
- From a preliminary examination of Ephesians, it looks like the same is true there also. ↩
- W. Baum and D. Winkler, ‘The Church of the East: a concise history’, (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003) ↩
- It was not persecuted by ‘the Roman Church under Constantine and the early Emperors of Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries’, as Alexander claims. In 337 AD Constantine wrote to Shapur II that the Christians ought to be protected. (B & W, 10-11) It was not within the power of either the Roman emperor or the Church of Rome to persecute the church in Persia. ↩
- Justin Perkins, missionary to the ‘Nestorians’ in Urmiyah from 1835 (see next post), suggests that it may have been Nestorius’s ‘comparative purity’ in doctrine which led to his dismissal. ‘Eight Years in Persia’, p. 3. ↩