Brian Simmons and his ‘Passion Translation’: what text is Victor Alexander translating from? (part 2)

Having discovered that the source of many of the strange perversions of holy scripture in the so-called ‘Passion Translation’ is Victor Alexander’s so-called ‘Aramaic Bible’, I am trying to find out what text Alexander is translating from. In my last post, I recapped on his unwillingness to be specific on this point, and then highlighted his claim that he is translating from ‘the manuscripts of the Ancient Church of the East’. I explained that he is referring to the Church of the East, whose first organisational centre was Seleucia-Ctesiphon, on the banks of the Tigris, just East of the Eastern border of the Roman Empire.  It became known as ‘Nestorian’ from an early date, although that may be something of a misnomer. This church expanded greatly into India, China and Japan, and then went into a rapid decline at the end of the fourteenth century, being reduced, outside of India, to a regional church in Kurdistan.

Alexander goes on to say that:

The Church of the East survived and maintained the Scriptures in the original language all through the conquests of the Mongolians (Genghis Khan) 12th Century, and the Tartars (Tamerlane) 15th Century.

He sometimes gives the impression that he is translating from a unique manuscript not known to others:

I don’t need to prove that the manuscript I’m translating from is the oldest found; archeology is not the issue.

and so on, as I quoted at greater length in my last post. But it may be that the reality of the situation is much more prosaic.

An earlier account

In a much earlier account of his translation work (dated 10 May 1998), Alexander recounts that he began to translate from ‘the modern Syriac translation of the Pshitta’:

After translating Mark and Matthew first, he met an old Church of the East priest and told him what he was doing:

But in a further conversation the priest told him:

“The Syriac is all wrong!”

Alexander asked him whether his Modern Syriac version had been translated from the ‘ancient tongue’, and the priest answered that it had not, and that it had been translated by ‘Protestants and Catholics from the Greek versions’. Moreover, he says that he was told that the ‘ancient tongue original’ had not been translated at all. Then Alexander bought a copy of the ‘official Ancient Church of the East New Testament’ from the priest:

Alexander had thought that his Modern Syriac version was a ‘transcription’ from the Ancient Aramaic. Now he ‘found out’ that his version was a ‘translation of what I finally determined was really a Syriac translation of mostly an English version.’ He then identifies it as being published in 1897 and having been translated in ‘Urmi, Iran’ by American and English missionaries with the help of ‘proselytised Ashurai Christians’. Since he had started translating from the Gospels, and since he replaced it with a New Testament, it could well have also been a New Testament rather than a complete bible. He says he studied the activities of the missionaries in Urmi from about 1839 to 1914.


There were American missionaries in Urmiyah from 1835, and an Anglican mission (headed by the Scotsman Arthur Maclean) from 1886. While Maclean wrote both a grammar and a dictionary of modern Syriac after his return, I have found no indication that English missionaries were engaged in translation work.

A more important correction to be made to this account by Alexander is that the American missionaries did not translate into Modern Syriac from English at all. After much discussion with their Board, they translated the New Testament into Modern Syriac from the ancient Syriac Peshitta (published 1846), and the Old Testament from the Hebrew original (published 1852). Later, they translated the New Testament into Modern Syriac from Greek (published 1893), at least according to one source. They were scholars of Hebrew, Greek and Syriac, as I will show, and would not have considered translating from English. Local believers participated in the translation work from the beginning, and taking an even more prominent role at the end than at the beginning.

In this post, I look at the Modern Syriac versions, and try to identify as nearly as possible which edition Alexander had a copy of. In my next post, I plan to examine the Ancient Syriac versions, to gain some idea of the kind of edition that Alexander would have purchased from the priest. Alexander makes it clear in the same article, as I will show, that he considers this printed edition to be an authentic text. I will attempt to show also that it would have been the New Testament Peshitta, in one form or another, little different from any other edition.

Justin Perkins’ knowledge of Ancient Syriac

In my last post, I made some mention of Urmiyah in North-West Persia/Iran as a centre for the Church of the East. ‘Urmi’, as Alexander calls it above, is the form of the name of the town that is used by Assyrian Christians 1. In November 1835 an American missionary, Justin Perkins, accompanied by his wife, together with Asahel Grant, a medical doctor, and his wife, both sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), arrived in Urmiyah (Perkins calls it Oróomiah in his first account of his labours, ‘A Residence of Eight Years in Persia among the Nestorian Christians, with Notices of the Mohammedans’ (Andover: 1843)) to establish a gospel mission to the Christian community there. More missionaries arrived in the same decade and, then in November 1840, a printing press, and a printer, Edward Breath. 2

Perkins had graduated with honours from Amherst College in 1829, taught there for a year, and then spent two years as a student at Andover Theological Seminary, where Moses Stuart was Associate Professor of Sacred Literature. The third edition of Stuart’s ‘Grammar of the Hebrew Language’ was published in 1828. In 1829, Stuart wrote to the Quarterly Register and Journal of the American Education Society (Vol. I, Andover, 1829, pp. 193-205, link), to explain why the Seminary was henceforth requiring candidates for admission to pass an examination in biblical Hebrew:

Then in a May 1829 review of Stuart’s Hebrew Grammar, the reviewer remarked in a footnote that the entire senior class in Amherst College had lately engaged in the study of Hebrew 3:

which seems to fit exactly with Perkins’ final year at Amherst. Hebrew was taught (p. 764) at Amherst by Solomon Peck. It seems highly probably that Perkins would have studied the language there under Peck, and under Stuart at Andover. Stuart pointed out in the same letter to the Quarterly Register (p. 195) that one of the benefits of study of the language was that it served as an introduction to Chaldee and Syriac:

Before starting the mission at Urmiyah, Perkins spent a year at Tabreez learning both Ancient and Modern Syriac from Mar Yohannan, a bishop of the Church of the East, and a ‘priest’ of that church by name Abraham, while at the same time teaching them English. He describes the acquisition of the ancient Syriac ‘an easy and delightful task’ because of its resemblance to Hebrew. He already knew ‘much more of the forms of the language’ than his teachers, presumably through prior study of Hebrew grammar (14 May 1835, ‘8 Years’, 211):

Translation of the bible into Modern Syriac

At the time of the commencement of the American Mission to Urmiyah, the written language of the Nestorians, including epistolary correspondence as well as the scriptures and other literature, was ancient Syriac. It was ‘entirely unintelligible’ to the people, according to Perkins (‘8 Years’, 13), unless studied as an ancient tongue. Only the clergy could read at all, and of these only a few could understand what they were reading:

When a school was started in January 1836, the scholars learnt to read largely from the Scriptures in the ancient Syriac, which they could not understand (‘8 Years’, 250):

reduction of the vernacular to written form

At the same time, Perkins and his two co-workers from the Church of the East (Mar Yohannan, a bishop, and Abraham, a ‘priest’), had begun to reduce the spoken vernacular to written form. The previous month, they had translated the Lord’s prayer into Modern Syriac, and Abraham had written it onto cards (‘8 Years’, p. 243):

Perkins may not be quite correct in saying that it was the first time that the Nestorian vernacular had been written down, but it has been described as the ‘first serious and scientific attempt’ to do so. 4 It may also have been the first attempt to write down the Urmiyah dialect in particular. At any rate, the Nestorians were amazed to hear reading in their vernacular language (same journal entry):

The Lord’s prayer in the vernacular was used for teaching boys to read on the very first day of the school. Their ‘delight and satisfaction’ no doubt stemmed from the fact that they could understand what they were reading (18 January 1836, ‘8 Years’, 250):

The following specimen (Proceedings of the ABCFM for 1844, p. 170) of a Nestorian type face, prepared under the direction of Perkins and Mar Yohannan when they were in the United States in 1842-3, happens to be of the Lord’s Prayer, so may give some indication of what the hand-written card could have looked like:

translation begins

In February 1836, just three months after arrival, Perkins and his co-workers began translating the Holy Bible into Modern Syriac. In addition, they planned to produce a printed version of the Bible in Old Syriac in Nestorian East Syrian script, rather than the Serto West Syrian Jacobite script, which was disliked by the ministers of the Church of the East, as well as being harder for them to read:

Perkins referred to bishop Yohannan and priest Abraham as ‘translators’ (5 April 1836, ‘8 Years’, p. 266):

and as assisting him in the translation work (27 May 1836, ‘8 Years’, p. 277):

source language

I have not found a definitive statement by Perkins in his published memoirs as to the language he was translating from. Given the similarities between Old Syriac and Modern Syriac it would probably be easier to translate from one to the other, than from Greek or Hebrew. Also, the references to Yohannan and Abraham as ‘translators’ would tend to indicate that they knew the source language as well as the target language. They knew Old Syriac, but there is no evidence that they knew Greek or Hebrew at that early stage.

His son and biographer states clearly that the Old Testament was translated from the Hebrew, but the New Testament from the Peshitta, with variant readings from the Greek Received Text noted in the margin (these Greek variants being translated into Syriac as I show in the next sub-section) 5:

This could have been the end of the matter were it not that the historian of the ABCFM Oriental Missions, Rufus Anderson, who was also in a position to know, states equally clearly that Perkins translated the New Testament from the Greek 6:

The essential facts of the matter have been established by Piet Dirksen, who served (p. 8) as Director of the  Peshitta Institute at the University of Leiden from 1982 to 1993.  His 1995 paper ‘The Urmia Edition of the Peshitta: The Story Behind the Text’ drew on material from the archives of the ABCFM. 7  According to Dirksen (p. 160), Perkins stated in a letter to the Prudential Committee of the ABCFM, dated 12 February 1845, that he ‘had translated from the Peshitta text without adaptations to the Greek’:

Two years before, there had been a debate both within the Mission in Urmia, and between the Mission and its Board, over whether the translation source text should be the Peshitta or the original Greek and Hebrew. In a letter of 7 March 1843 to the Prudential Committee, the Mission’s printer Edward Breath had put both sides of the argument. One of the reasons for translating from the ancient Syriac was (p. 161) that it would save much time:

One factor which must have weighed heavily on the missionaries, but not explored by Dirksen, is that it would seem that Perkins and his co-workers had already finished translating the New Testament from the Peshitta before or at about the same time as Breath’s letter. In his conclusion to ‘8 Years’, Perkins remarked (p. 497) that it was then ‘a little more than two years since the arrival of our press’, and then that he had been ‘enabled to complete a version of the New Testament’:

As mentioned above, the press had arrived in November 1840, which would place his time of writing at late 1842 or early 1843. It must surely then have come as quite a blow to Perkins when the Prudential Committee resolved as their opinion that the translation should be made from the original languages (Dirksen, p. 161):

The decision was apparently acquiesced in by the Mission but after a strongly adverse reaction from the Nestorian clergy, an appeal was made by the Mission to its Board in January 1845, with regard especially to the New Testament, where, it was argued, the Syriac agreed more nearly with the Greek than was the case with the Syriac Old Testament and its agreement with the Hebrew (Dirksen, p. 161):

Perkins added his own plea the next month claiming that (Dirksen, 162) the Mission had never been so sure about anything as they were about this:

The Prudential Committee considered the missionaries’ representations in April 1845 and again in June. While the American Bible Society had refused to fund a translation from the ancient Syriac version, the Committee consented to have such a translation funded by the Board, provided that variations from the Greek would be placed in the margin (Dirksen, 162):

Accordingly, the Mission resolved on 14 October 1845 to note significant variations from the Greek text in the margin of the New Testament translation from the Ancient Syriac that had now been authorized by its Board (Dirksen, 162):

With this evidence from the archives, it must be considered certain that the New Testament was translated from the Syriac Peshitta, despite the contrary statement by Anderson. Sebastian Brock, for example, states this as fact without qualfication, citing Dirksen’s paper: 8

publication of the new testament

The New Testament was published in Urmiyah in 1846 as:

The long description for the copy held at the British Library (and online here) is informative:

It was presented to the British Museum in 1854 by the British Consul in Tabriz, a Mr Stevens. It is in two columns with the old Syriac on the right, and the new on the left. Here for example are the first two lines of Matthew, with the first verse ending at the large circular point:

The first four words (right to left) are identical, but the fifth is different. For comparison, here is Matthew 1.1 as given by the Peshitta tool in East Syriac Adiabene script:

The only differences between this and Perkins’ Old Syriac are in the accentuation.

The one variant reading from the Greek shown on the first page comes in verse 6. Where the Greek Received Text identifies David as king twice, the Peshitta does so only once:

 Ἰεσσαὶ δὲ ἐγέννησε τὸν Δαβὶδ τὸν βασιλέα. Δαβὶδ δὲ ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐγέννησε τὸν Σολομῶντα ἐκ τῆς τοῦ Οὐρίου· [Scrivener, Received Text, 1894]

ܐܝܼܫܲܝ ܐܲܘܠܸܕ݂ ܠܕ݂ܲܘܝܼܕ݂ ܡܲܠܟ݁ܵܐ ܕ݁ܲܘܝܼܕ݂ ܐܲܘܠܸܕ݂ ܠܲܫܠܹܝܡܘܿܢ ܡܼܢ ܐܲܢ݈ܬ݁ܬ݂ܹܗ ܕ݁ܐܘܿܪܝܼܵܐ

There is a small cross after ܕ݁ܲܘܝܼܕ݂ (David) in the Ancient Syriac right hand column of Matthew 1.6 (near middle of second line) in the 1846 New Testament to signify where there is a variation with the Greek:

and then in the bottom margin, the word ܡܠܟܐ (malk’a), for βασιλεύς, king, is given as a translation of what Perkins’ Greek text reads at this place in verse 6:

In passing, the Peshitta here agrees with some of the ancient witnesses against the Received Text (and Majority/Byzantine Text). Thus Nestle-Aland, 28th edition, does not have ὁ βασιλεύς after Δαυὶδ δὲ:

Ἰεσσαὶ δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Δαυὶδ τὸν βασιλέα. Δαυὶδ δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Σολομῶνα ἐκ τῆς τοῦ Οὐρίου,

translating the old testament from hebrew

In his first year of translating the New Testament, Perkins was joined by a third translator, a Priest Dunka from the mountains. On 11 December 1836, Perkins records that he had begun to teach Dunka Hebrew (‘8 Years’, 297):

Perkins thinks it will not be hard for him since ‘the Hebrew much resembles the Syriac’ and since he is a fine scholar. Perkins realises that acquisition of the language may prove invaluable in qualifying Dunka for translation work (same journal entry, 298):

The next day, Priest Yohannan, the teacher of their seminary, joined the Hebrew class (p. 298):

Three and a half years later, in June 1840, a visiting minister found a Hebrew class with seven ministers from the Church of the East (‘8 Years’, 433):

In January 1846, while the printing of the New Testament was underway, the Mission applied for permission to produce a translation of the Old Testament into Syriac, but this time from the original language, rather than from the Peshitta (Dirksen, 163). The request, naturally, was granted and the translation from Hebrew was completed three years later, in January 1849 (Dirksen, 165). As before, it was to be published in two columns, with the Ancient Syriac beside the Modern. The edition of the ancient version was completed by the end of 1850, by Dirksen’s estimate (Dirksen, 165), and the Old Testament in Ancient and Modern Syriac was published in Urmiyah in 1852.

Further editions of the New Testament in Modern Syriac

[UPDATE 10 APRIL 2017.

In 1854, the Urmiyah Press published an edition of the New Testament in Modern Syriac without the Ancient Syriac in a parallel column. According to Heleen Murre-van der Berg, the spelling was updated to bring it into line with the 1852 Old Testament. 9

A further edition was published in 1860 with the same Modern Syriac text as the 1854 edition, but with references and chronology added in the margins. 10  I have found no indication that either the 1854 or the 1860 edition were reprinted.


In 1864, the American Bible Society published in New York an edition of the New Testament and Psalms in Modern Syriac:

According to Rufus Anderson (p. 287), the historian of the ABCFM Oriental Missions, Austin Wright, a medical doctor, laboured in Urmiyah for twenty years beginning in 1840, and mastered Syriac along with Turkish and Persian. Then, during a four year stay in the United States, he worked on the revision of the New Testament: 11

As Darlow and Moule’s notes (‘D. & M.’ in COPAC entry above) explain, the Syriac equivalents of the variant readings of the Greek Received Text were taken from the margins and incorporated into the text. Perkins’ son and biographer, Henry Perkins, greatly regretted the step, taken before Tischendorf had published his edition of the Greek New Testament. In Henry Perkins’ view the ‘impurities of the common text’ were thus brought into the revised version: 12

Sebastian Brock also expressed strong regret that the readings of the Greek Received Text were incorporated into the Modern Syriac New Testament, thus ‘effectively obliterating all distinctive Peshitta readings’. His concern seems to have been not so much for the accuracy of the text, but for the continuity of the traditions of the Syriac Churches 13.

According to Brock, ‘all subsequent reprints’ have been from the 1864 edition. In footnote 22, however, he cites Heleen Murre-van der Berg as maintaining that it was the 1893 edition that was the source of later reprints:

Brock says that the UBS 1967 Beirut edition is identical with the 1864 edition, but this does not of course prove that all reprints were made from that edition. We will therefore examine briefly the two other editions of the New Testament in Modern Syriac that were produced prior to 1897, the date given by Alexander for his copy, before discussing what edition he is most likely to have started translating from.

Lazarist edition,

In the early 1850s, after an earlier attempt, a Roman Catholic French Lazarist work was established in Urmiyah. 14  A printing press was installed in 1861, and then replaced with a larger one, which began operation in 1876. The next year, 1877, saw the publication of an edition of the New Testament:

According to Heleen Murre-van der Berg, it contained the Peshitta along with a translation into the vernacular in smaller type at the bottom of the page. She seems to imply that the Modern Syriac text was translated from the Peshitta (CS stands for Classical Syriac, LUA for Literary Urmia Aramaic):

as is also stated by Brock: 15

Since the edition contained both the ancient and a modern Syriac text, it cannot have been the one that Alexander was in possession of.

1893 revision

In the early 1880s at the American Mission in Urmia and under the direction of Benjamin Labaree, work began on a revised edition of the Holy Bible in modern Syriac. 16  The other five members of the revision committee, besides Labaree, were all Assyrians. 17  A primary purpose of the revision was to make the text more comprehensible to Assyrians from the mountains who had dialects different to the Urmian of the earlier editions. 18  It was published in New York in 1893 as a complete bible. An interesting account of its production and publication formed the leading article of the Christian Herald and Signs of the Times, 2 August 1893, (Vol. 16, 497). According to Heleen Murre-van den Berg, the New Testament was translated from Greek 19:

and use was made of nineteenth-century textual criticism:

It is this edition of the complete Bible which she said was reprinted to the time of her writing (1999):

It seems possible therefore that it is the 1864 New Testament which is generally reprinted, as Brock contends, and the 1893 version of the complete Bible. It should be added, however, that according to David Malick, citing Darlow and Moule to this effect, there was also a separate issue of the New Testament in the 1893 version. He says that a reprint was made in 1952, and probably at least one before that, but even here it does not seem quite clear that he is referring to reprints of the New Testament, rather than reprints of the complete Bible. One definite case of a New Testament and Psalms in the 1893 version was printing in Iran in the 1980s, but the pocket editions of the New Testament and Psalms that are ‘often reprinted’ are of the 1864 version, not that of 1893: 20


It seems probable that Victor Alexander began to translate from a reprint of the 1864 New Testament and Psalms. Alternatively, it could possibly have been a reprint of the 1893 Bible or a separate issue of the New Testament in its 1893 version. It had not been translated from English, and the translation was not done by American missionaries only, but by Americans and Assyrian Christians labouring together.

When Alexander bought a copy of the New Testament in ancient Syriac, he found it ‘different’. The first reason would have been that the language was different. In addition, it would have had some readings from the Greek text. If it was the 1864 edition, it would have incorporated all the readings found in the Received Text. If it was the 1893 edition, the text would probably have been brought into line with modern critical editions of the Greek text. There would still have been textual differences between this edition and the ancient Syriac edition that he purchased from the elderly priest.

In my next post I will attempt to shed some light on the form that printed editions of the New Testament in ancient Syriac began to take in the nineteenth century, and how they compared to the manuscripts that had been faithfully preserved by the Church of the East through long centuries. In so doing I hope to demonstrate that Alexander’s source text is the Peshitta.




  1. Geoffrey Khan, ‘The Neo-Aramaic Dialect of the Assyrian Christians of Urmi’ (Brill, 2016), p. 1. Link.
  2. Justin Perkins, ‘Missionary Life in Persia’ (Boston: American Tract Society, 1861) p. 75; R. Waterfield, ‘Christians in Persia’ (London: Allen & Unwin, 1973) p. 104.
  3. ‘The Spirit of the Pilgrims for the Year 1829’, Vol. II, (Boston: Pierce and Williams), p. 269. Link.
  4. A. J. Maclean, ‘Grammar of the Dialects of the Vernacular Syriac, as spoken by the Eastern Syrians of Kurdistan, North-West Persia, and the Plain of Mosul’ (Cambridge: University Press, 1895) p. x. Link.
  5. Henry Perkins, ‘Life of Rev. Justin Perkins, D.D.’ (New York: Revell, 1887) p. 53. Link.
  6. Rufus Anderson, ‘History of the Missions of the [ABCFM] to the Oriental Churches’, Vol. I (Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1872) p. 333
  7. Piet Dirksen, “The Urmia Edition of the Peshitta: The Story behind the Text”, in Alexander Rofe (ed.), Textus, Studies of the Hebrew University Bible Project, vol. XVIII, Jerusalem 1995, 158-167.
  8. Sebastian P. Brock, ‘Translating the New Testament into Syriac (Classical and Modern),’ in Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Joze Krasovec; JSOTSup 289; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) p. 378.
  9. Heleen Murre-van den Berg,  ‘From a Spoken to a Written Language: The Introduction and Development of Literary Urmia Aramaic in the Nineteenth Century’ (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut Het Nabije Oosten, 1999) p. 101. Link.
  10. David G. Malick, ‘The American Mission Press: A Preliminary Bibliography’, (ATOUR Publications, 2008), 65. Link.
  11. Rufus Anderson, ‘History of the Missions of the [ABCFM] to the Oriental Churches’, Vol. 2 (Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1872) p. 287
  12. Henry Perkins, ‘Life of Rev. Justin Perkins, D.D.’ (New York: Revell, 1887) p. 54.
  13. Sebastian P. Brock, ‘Translating the New Testament into Syriac (Classical and Modern),’ in Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Joze Krasovec; JSOTSup 289; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) p. 379. Online.
  14. den Berg,  ‘From Spoken’, p. 57.
  15. Brock, ‘Translating’, 379.
  16. Malick, ‘Bibliography’, 86.
  17. den Berg, ‘From Spoken’, 108.
  18. den Berg, ‘From Spoken’, 108-9.
  19. den Berg, ‘From Spoken’, 109
  20. Malick, ‘Bibliography’, 87.

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Andrew Chapman

I live for Jesus. He is my life, my hope, my Saviour and Redeemer and Lord. Hallelujah! God has blessed me with a wonderful wife called Alison, and we serve the Lord together with gladness and joy. Pray for us that we may fulfill our calling and persevere to the end on the narrow path that leads to life.

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